I was itching to say what I wanted to say about the much discussed Premakumar Gunaratnam case for the past three weeks but there were other issues that cropped up. First came the New Year holidays. Then came the Stephen Rapp report followed by a serious crisis in the economically as well as politically vital tea industry. This week, despite the very interesting May Day that’s coming up, I am going to say what I have to say about the Gunaratnam case. By December this year, it will be 30 years since I first started off as a journalist. Never in all these years have I seen or heard anything as bizarre as the events that we witnessed with regard to Gunaratnam in the days prior to the Sinhala and Hindu New Year. I can’t say that I was roaring with laughter, but suffice it to say, that I was I was almost as amused as I was over the "K.C.Senanayake-Lalith Athulathmudali Pact" of 1988.
In 1988, Radhika Coomaraswamy of the International Centre for Ethnic Studies had commissioned me to write a paper on the entrepreneurial tradition of the deep south which I later expanded into a book. One day I was seated at the ICES office chatting to Jeevan Thyagarajah when in walks Radhika Coomaraswamy and she says chirpily "We will now be able to keep the door open. The fighting is going to stop." That was at the height of the JVP’s second insurrection and the JVP was killing people all over the country and forcing the closure of shops, hospitals, schools and the like with the government seemingly unable to reign in the violence. Radhika explained that one of her students in the English medium law faculty batch acting on behalf of the JVP had signed a peace pact with the then National Security Minister Lalith Athulathmudali.
From the moment she said that I knew something was wrong. There were no high ranking JVPers in the English medium law faculty batch in the Colombo University, certainly no one who could sign a peace pact on behalf of the terrorist organisation. When I pressed Radhika to tell me the name of her student she hesitatingly said that it was one Senanayake. "I asked her incredulously, K.C.Senanayke?" Radhika nodded. As I sat in front of Jeevan shaking with laughter, he asked me "Is it a hoax?" I could only nod. An hour later, I was still laughing, and Radhika said "You’re jealous because one of your former batch mates is going places." I could only tell her to wait and see. One of the girls at ICES wanted to give me Vallium (a sedative) to stop me from laughing. I can’t remember whether I took the Vallium or not, but I laughed uncontrollably for three days. I have never laughed like that before or since. And it was not just me, students of the Law faculty came to Colombo, to meet and laugh their heads off. KC was the campus nitwit. To think that that the Oxford educated Athulathmudali, had been taken in by KC, was just too much for all of us. I have no idea where KC is today. The last time I heard from him was when he wrote a letter to me from some Navy camp where he was being held. When I wrote about the ‘Great Hoax’ of 1988 in my series to the Island his captors had apparently shown him my article and told him that he is in the news again!
A genuine abduction
I believe that the most hilarious episode in the politics of Sri Lanka after the K.C.Senanayke affair is the Premakumar Gunaratnam case. When news of his ‘abduction’ first came out, the first thing that came to my mind is that this was a publicity gimmick to popularise their political party which they were to launch in a couple of days. We had seen this group doing something of the sort when they caused a gridlock in Colombo some months ago, by marching all the way to Colombo from Sri Jayewardenapura University and tried to storm Temple Trees all because of damage amounting to less than Rs 2,000 to an obscure concrete memorial in the university premises. With such a predilection for theatrics, it was only inevitable that unsympathetic people like myself would think the whole episode was stage managed.
But given the damage this fiasco has done to this fledgling organisation, I am now inclined to think that the government was behind the abduction. No organisation would have done such damage to themselves deliberately. There are of course certain questions that had been asked from within the JVP breakaway group itself. Foremost among these questions is the fact that Gunaratnam had a tight security ring around him and there was no way that he could have been arrested alone. There should have been others who were arrested with him. Whatever happened to him, the organisation would have got to know almost immediately. After returning to Australia, Gunaratnam had said that when he woke up, he had found five or six people standing around his bed. This too is apparently being questioned by those within the party who know that nobody can come just like that into his bedroom.
It should be borne in mind that this was a man who had been in hiding for nearly a quarter of a century. People within the party know that he does not fall so fast asleep that he never heard intruders coming into his house. Besides, our security forces have never been known to operate like cat burglars, to appear Ninja-like around the bed of a sleeping suspect. Even though those within the group have begun questioning the authenticity of the abduction story, I am still inclined to think that it was indeed the government because of the damage this whole fiasco has done to this fledgling organisation.
First and foremost is the damage this has done to Gunaratnam himself. For a quarter of a century he remained in hiding, having adopted several false identities and carefully cultivated the image of a revolutionary committed to building an underground movement. Even Wijeweera and Prabhakaran had not been in hiding for so long. A quarter of a century of underground work was ruined in a matter of 24 hours. After a quarter of a century in hiding, Gunaratnam emerges into the limelight to tell everybody in his first public appearance that he had been sexually tortured. Even if this charge was true, nobody who wanted to have a political future in this country would ever say that so. The people in this country want politicians who can protect them, not those who can’t protect even themselves.
I have covered the JVP insurrection and now the war against the LTTE as well, but I have never heard of our armed forces or police engaging in sexual torture except maybe stripping suspects naked. I’ve seen reports of sexual torture of suspects in Syria. All of them seemed suspiciously like stories meant to elicit a good response from Western countries to asylum applications. Once Gunaratnam’s cover was blown and he was exposed as a man who had entered Australia under a false identity and obtained citizenship under a false name, there would be questions that the Australian government will be compelled to ask him and even his wife could be charged with aiding abetting in hiding Gunaratnam’s true identity. The sexual torture story was probably meant to ensure that the Australian government does not deport him even if they impose some sort of a penalty on him. Even though he claimed to have been tortured, a medical report however would not be able to confirm anything, hence the claim of having been sexually tortured or abused – to pull at the heartstrings of the Australian government. Gunaratnam has been in politics for far too long not to know the implications of spinning such yarns. That statement clearly shows that after the abduction drama, he was thinking not so much about politics in Sri Lanka but his continued stay in Australia.
Another disaster for the poor gullible fools in the JVP breakaway group were the images of Gunaratnam’s family in Australia which were published during the abduction drama. Australian newspaper culture is such that if for example, a 62 year old man is suing a 63 year old man saying that when they were 12 and 13 respectively, the latter sodomised the former in the school yard (an actual case) the victim would be shown in media images looking forlorn and dejected as if he had been sodomised only moments ago. True to form, when news of Gunaratnam’s abduction hit the fan, the Australian media released typical photos of a dejected looking family holding a family photo taken in happier times. Then 48 hours later, when Gunaratnam reappeared, the same family appears all smiles in a stage managed photo in very un-Sri Lankan poses. No political figure in this country – not even the most snobbish, upper crust, Westernised Kollupitiya type politicians have ever published photos of their families in such poses.
Those were probably the most un-revolutionary photos ever taken of a so called revolutionary’s family. Whenever we see a photo of a UNP meeting these days the first image that strikes the eye is comrade Siritunga Jayasuriya’s pate. Likewise, in those family photos, the first thing that is noticed is the costume of the revolutionary daughter. For a revolutionary’s daughter to appear in the public photograph in such an inappropriate dress is unprecedented. This and the fact that this revolutionary’s son would be saying "Howyergoingmateallright?" to his Australian friends and that his daughter will be indicating the negative with something that sounds like a cross between a ‘no’ and a short meow is just too hilarious for words. Just having seen those photos, the youthful fools from the Sri Jayawardenapura university who tried to storm Temple Trees over damage amounting to less than Rs 2,000, would by now realise how right I was to recommend that they be mercilessly flogged with bulls’ pizzels to keep them off the public highways. Those who were trying to egg on students in this country to storm Temple Trees and possibly provoke a police shooting and deaths, had sent their own children overseas to pursue their studies without any violent student protests. Gunaratnam did not want the parents of this country to enjoy the same peace of mind that he had when it came to his own offspring.
The reason why Prabhakaran kept his children in Sri Lanka despite his wife wanting to send them overseas for their education is because he knew the impact it would have on his credibility if he sent his offspring off to the West while asking ordinary Tamil youth of the same age to fight and die for the cause. Besides, Gunaratnam led the JVP’s rebel group which had reportedly requested of the few remaining JVP parliamentarians that they take their own lunch parcels to parliament without partaking of the subsidised bourgeois food in the parliament restaurant. The JVP rebels thereby wanted to keep up the revolutionary fervour of the JVP without allowing it to slip into a petit-bourgeois comfort zone.
Lenin’s wearing boot polish
It has to be said that Gunaratnam is not the only expatriate revolutionary that this country has had. I remember going to a seminar at the Government Clerical Services Union (GCSU) in the mid-1980s with Daya Pathirana the leader of the ISU. If I remember correctly, Dr Nalin de Silva then of the University of Colombo Science Faculty was also in the audience. I don’t remember anything of that seminar except for the fact that a Trotskyite revolutionary by the name of Upali Cooray addressed the audience in English. He had lived so long overseas that he spoke with a rich foreign accent. One phrase I remember uttering is about foreigners possessing "beautiful hausas" (meaning houses). Everybody in the room were exchanging amused glances at Cooray’s accent. The speaker himself was a sight to behold. It was like looking at an old communist-era Russian picture postcard. Cooray was the splitting image of V.I.Lenin complete with bald head and goatee. In fact, if someone had applied brown boot polish on the real Lenin from head to foot, that would be Upali Cooray! Even Gunaratnam seems to be heading that way. He too is now an expatriate revolutionary with the Lenin-wearing-boot-polish look, bald pate, goatee and all.
It would be pertinent to say a few words about the things that has been written about Gunaratnam. My personal experiences lead me to be very sceptical about acts of heroism or daring that a person is being credited with ten, fifteen or even twenty years after the events. Since the Gunaratnam fiasco, we have been hearing many stories about him, all of them designed to portray him as a colourful military leader. These fairy tales are being written by those who knew neither Premakumar nor his brother Ranjitham.
Premakumar Gunaratnam was certainly a very senior member of the JVP. Somawansa Amarasinghe was in the politburo during the late eighties while Ranjitham Gunaratnam was in the central committee. Premakumara Gunaratnam was not in the central committee but he was the district secretary for Trincomalee. Usually, district secretaries were members of the central committee. The purpose in appointing Premakumar Gunaratnam to Trincomalee was to facilitate contacts with the Tamil terrorist groups. Premakumar Gunaratnam was next to Somawansa Amarasinghe, the senior-most JVPer to survive the second insurrection which is obviously why he had a significant following in that party. Here is what I said on page 14 of my book, Sri Lanka the Years of Terror: The JVP Insurrection 1987-1989 about Premakumar Gunaratnam’s brother Ranjitham who was a central committee member of the JVP.
"Ranjitham Gunaratnam – a native of Kegalle aged 30. Undergraduate of the Engineering Faculty, University of Peradeniya. President of the IUSF in 1985. A good orator and organiser. Valued by the JVP because of his ethnic origins. He however appears to be a Tamil assimilated into Sinhala culture. He spoke Sinhala without any Tamilian accent and preferred to go under the slightly altered ‘Sinhalized’ name of ‘Ranjith Gunaratne’. He was instrumental in maintaining links between the JVP and the Tamil terrorist movements in the north and east. His brother Premakumar, though not a member of the central committee, was appointed the district secretary for Trincomalee in order to facilitate these contacts."
What the JVP did with their contacts with the LTTE in the east facilitated by Premakumar is written in my book on the JVP in chapter 29 titled "The Eastern Province Imbroglio". Some writers think he was carrying out attacks on the Indian army in Trincomalee which is imaginative thinking. The JVP did not put Premakumar in Trincomalee to attack the Indian army. He was put there to facilitate contacts between the Tamil terrorists and the JVP which task he fulfilled very successfully. In October 1987, events in Trincomalee had a crucial impact on both the Sri Lankan and Indian governments. The LTTE went on the rampage killing 200-300 Sinhala civilians in the Trincomalee district and this was one of the incidents that forced the Indian government to commence a military offensive to rein in the LTTE. The JVP for its part, made immense political capital of the same incidents by building antipathy in the rest of the country towards the Indian army. The buses and lorries that the displaced Sinhala people were fleeing the Trincomalee district were festooned with banners screaming "Another load of refugees from Trincomalee!" by JVP activists so as to ensure that the people in the rest of the country don’t mistake the IDPs for pilgrims on a trip. No member of the JVP was ever harmed when the LTTE went on the rampage against Sinhala civilians. Moreover, despite the fact that the JVP was armed by this time and present in the Trincomalee district, they never tried to defend the Sinhala civilians from the LTTE.
A fixer, not a military leader
Some writers say that Premakumar even attacked the Indian army in Trincomalee. If they had that kind of capability, the question is why was that not used to defend Sinhala villagers against the LTTE death squads? Quite on the contrary, as I have pointed out in my book, there are people who say that the JVP was actively collaborating with the LTTE in chasing the Sinhala peasants out so as to make political capital of the refugees in other parts of the country. Another fact that confirms this is that the Kallar army camp on the border of the Trincomalee district was attacked by the JVP and an unspecified number of weapons stolen at the height of the LTTE’s massacres of Sinhala civilians in October 1987. If they could attack an army camp, the question again arises why they could not defend the Sinhala villages. The fact is that the JVP was not interested in winning kudos for defending Sinhala villages or attacking the Indian army. All they were interested in doing was whatever it would take to make the government fall as quickly as possible.
Some writers have said that Premakumar Gunaratnam led attacks on the IPKF but that details of these attacks were suppressed by the Indian and Sri Lankan governments because they did not want the JVP to get any credit. This latter argument does not hold any water. If the JVP carried out any attacks on the IPKF, they would be publicising the matter themselves without waiting for the Indian and Sri Lankan governments to break the news. There is no evidence anywhere to show that the JVP was behind any attack on the IPKF. If the JVP had carried out even one attack on the IPKF, they would have been shouting about it from the rooftops they same way they did when they carried out a successful attack on a security forces patrol or an army camp.
The JVP even crowed about the Kallar army camp attack even though that was carried out at the height of the LTTE’s massacre of Sinhalese in the east. Any attack on the Indian army would have bolstered their image in the rest of the country. Given the level of cooperation between the LTTE and the JVP, the former may have helped the JVP to carry out the Kallar army attack. Attacks on the IPKF however, were the exclusive preserve of the LTTE. There is nothing to show that Premakumar Gunaratnam was a military leader. All indications point to the fact that he would have been a go-between, a facilitator and a fixer. He could have been a hit man too but we will never know for sure.
There is also the view being propagated that the JVP hierarchy never wanted the IPKF attacked but Premakumar Gunaratnam was on his own initiative attacking the IPKF. It was even said that after one of Gunaratnam’s attacks, a JVP big wig had phoned the Deputy Indian High Commissioner and profusely apologised promising never to do such a thing again! Anybody with even a nodding acquaintance with the way the JVP worked knows that the district secretaries like Gunaratnam only carried out the decisions coming down from the hierarchy. The district secretaries never had the freedom to do as they pleased, and attack even those whom the party did not want attacked.
When I tried to ask a member of Gunaratnam’s stillborn party why his leader remained in hiding for nearly a quarter of a century, the answer I got was that he had threats to his life. This too is nonsense because the JVP was out in the open since 1994 and at one point they had 39 MPs in parliament and was dictating terms to the government. If Somawansa Amarasinghe was out in the open, there was no reason why Premakumar Gunaratnam could not. Whatever he may have done during the JVP insurrection can’t really be proved in a court of law even if he has cases pending against him. By remaining in hiding, he was certainly able to build up an aura of mystique around him. His abduction blew all that sky high. Now he’s been exposed, buggered, deported and the Australian lifestyle of his family laid bare and that has ended his career as a revolutionary. He made use of the obscurity that he lived under to establish his family in comfort overseas while he practiced his revolutionary hobby here using gullible youth as willing cannon fodder. Those who followed him out of the JVP are still reeling from the shock. They have been left looking like idiots. All attempts made by me to talk to a senior member of his organisation on Friday and Saturday failed.