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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2558

Mayor's murder at Vishnu temple

By Janaka Perera

As expected 'Black July' 1983 was the focus of several newspaper articles last week.

This month however also recalls another dark event which does not seem to have received that much attention - the political murder 33 years ago that sparked off a chain of events culminating in our current crisis. It is the assassination of Jaffna's SLFP Mayor Alfred Duraiappah on July 27, 1975 - a seminal event marking the onset the Northern insurgency.

It was also the first assassination of a Sri Lankan Tamil political figure.

On July 22, of that year Senior Superintendent of Police (Crimes) Ramachandra Sunderalingam left Colombo for Jaffna to attend a District Court case where a police inspector had been charged with accepting bribes from a textile smuggler (Sunderaligam was earlier Chief SP Northern Province for six years - 1966-72).

Until hearing of the DC case concluded Sunderaligam stayed at the residence of his sister-in-law in Temple Road, Nallur. On the morning of Saturday July 26, he received a call from Mayor Duraiappah saying that he had just returned from Brunei, where his wife Parameswary was the Chief Medical Officer at Brunei. The Mayor promised to visit Sunderalingam on the following day after visiting the Vishnu temple (Varatharajah Perumal Temple) located at Ponnali. It was customary for Duraiappah to visit this temple every Sunday in his white Peugeot. This was obviously known to the assassins who had arrived at the scene on bicycles.

On that fateful day, SSP Sunderalingam - after meeting the Commanding Officer of the Karaianagar Naval Base to discuss the latest Indo-Lanka smuggling trends – returned to Jaffna for lunch when he heard the tragic news. Mayor Duraiappah had alighted from his car and was about to enter the Vishnu temple when he was shot at point blank range. Death was instantaneous with a single revolver bullet piecing his heart.

Velupillai Prabhakaran thus claimed his first political victim. Two years earlier in 1972 he had founded the Tamil New Tigers (TNT) – later renamed Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

The following day, Monday, July 28, after reporting for duty at the Ceylon Observer news desk I joined a team of Lake House journalists rushing to Jaffna in a company vehicle. Others in the group were Stanley Premaratne (Janatha), Patrick Cruez (Daily News), P. Balasunderam (Thinakaran ) and Vernon Fonseka (photographer). We reached Jaffna late evening and booked a room at the Subash Hotel.

On Tuesday, visiting the scene of the killing we saw bullet marks on the temple wall. . At the Mayor's residence in Chundikuli preparations were being made for the funeral. A large crowd had gathered to view the body which had been bought from the morgue. Duraiapph's driver - the supposedly most important witness to the murder - seemed very reluctant to directly answer the questions of neither the police nor the journalists. He was either shocked or terrified of the killers who he had obviously seen. Suspicions were that some of those involved in the assassination were mingling with the crowd to watch the reactions of others.

Hardly anyone attributed the killing to a terrorist organization. I recall very well a Lake House Tamil journalist saying that there was no proof of the existence of a Tiger movement and expressed the possibility that the murder could be the handiwork of the ruling party or someone linked to it

In fact Sunderalingam who was at the Mayor Duraiappah's residence - the day before we visited there - found that the mayor's 14-year-old daughter Esha and her grandmother (the late Mayor's mother-in-law) Mrs.Coomaraswamy too had been made to believe that the mayor's political rivals - the then Posts and Telecommunications Minister Chelliah Kumarasuriar and his group - were behind the assassination. Kumarasuriar and Duraiappah were at logger heads although members of the same party – the ruling SLFP. Both were fighting for supremacy in SLFP Tamil politics.

While Sunderaligam was at the funeral house, Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike rang to inquire about the incident. He then spoke to the PM and gave her the facts he knew. Even she and other government ministers suspected that Kumarasuriar was behind the killing. This kind of misguided thinking always serves the interests of terrorist groups anywhere. It has been clearly proved both in the North and the South (during the second JVP insurgency of 1988-89).

In July 1972 - exactly three years before Duraiapph was assassinated - a youth by the name of Sivakumaran of Urumpirai placed a bomb under the wheel of the mayor Duraiappah's car – a Truimph Herald - parked outside a concert hall in Jaffna town. The bomb was a crude device - a combination of arsenic sulfide and potassium chlorate wrapped in Betel Leaf to set off with a Match stick. The resulting explosion set fire to the car and caused serious damage. Sunderalingam later ordered the Chunnakam Police to arrest Sivakumaran who subsequently confessed to committing the offence.

Duraiappah's funeral was one of the largest attended in Jaffna. He was a benevolent and popular mayor. His tenure saw Jaffna endowed with government funds. Roads were paved, stadiums built and youth found employment. His term of office also saw the general prosperity of Jaffna farmers as the prices of onions, chilies and other local produce sky rocketed due to the SLFP regime's closed economic policy that prevented the import of these items.

It later turned out that the gang involved in the assassination was among the crowd at the funeral. The entire Cabinet, Prime Minister Bandaranaike and Ministers Maithripala Senanayake, Felix Dias Bandaranaike, T.B.Ilangaratne and P.B.G.Kalugalle were among the mourners. It was a virtual State funeral at the Jaffna Town Hall. Federal Party MPs however told Sunderalingam that they were scared to attend the funeral. Only one Parliamentarian C.X. Martin attended the event accompanied by SSP Sunderalingam.

During the funeral Sunderalingam explained to the Prime Minister that it was not Kumarasuriar who was behind the killing but a Tamil militant gang. (The JVP insurgency of 1971 and the detention of Rohana Wijeweera in the Jaffna Prison left a big impression on young Tamils. Their popular slogan in 1971 was "If Sinhala youth can revolt against their own government what are we doing?")

The conspirators behind Duraiappah's murder however spread scandals about the late mayor, calling him a Tamil traitor to convince the Jaffna public that he deserved the death penalty. This is the same LTTE strategy that continues to this day in the North and among the Tamil Diaspora. The JVP-led 'Patriotic People's Movement' used the very same tactics during the second Southern insurgency (1988-89) to justify the murder of political opponents and innocent civilians who disobeyed orders.

But no one can beat the Tigers in this game.

- Asian Tribune -

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