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My friend Kadirgamar, the visionary

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Last updated on: August 16, 2005 18:12 IST
For years, I feared it was more than a distinct possibility, perhaps only a matter of time, given the utter ruthlessness and singleminded discipline and determination of the LTTE, which had made him their prime target.

Yet the assassination of Sri Lanka's Jaffna-born, Tamil Christian, Oxford-educated Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar has left me numb, because besides the personal tragedy, this very well could also sound the death knell for the floundering Norway-backed Sri Lankan peace process.

LTTE: Back to terrorism   

To me, Kadirgamar was not just a brilliant and quintessential diplomat, a statesman par excellence without a single communal or racist bone in his body, but a dear friend with whom I would meet regularly for more than a decade each time he would visit Washington.

On many occasions, it was not even for an interview, but simply to chat and exchange notes on what was going on in Sri Lankan politics as well as in the American and the international scene.

We would spend a considerable amount of time simply talking about mundane things like like how our respective high schools -- St Thomas' (mine) and Trinity (his) -- were doing that particular year in rugby (since both of us were rugby players in a bygone era). And he would always inquire about my well-being and how my life was going and repeatedly request me to visit Sri Lanka more often.

Whenever he was scheduled to visit Washington, the Sri Lankan embassy officials would track me to slot a meeting, no matter how hectic or tight his schedule.

To me it was such a joy to know that I had this opportunity to spend quality time with someone who had become not just an assured great interview but a close friend at least every couple of years and sometimes even annually.

Over the past few years, ever so often I would ask him about the LTTE giving him top billing on their hit list and how he lived in the shadow of this threat. He would simply shrug it off, saying, "What do you do? You just go on. You can't shut yourself and become a hermit and live in fear of these terrorists."

He never shied away from taking the LTTE on. He refused to be cowed down, reacting furiously to charges that he was a traitor to the Tamil cause, an Uncle Tom, a Judas et al.

"It's not me, it is they (the LTTE) who are the traitors. They are the fascists who have terrorized and intimidated their own people, conscripted children (as soldiers) and forcibly taken them away from their parents," he would fume.

He refused to be apologetic for leading the charge several years ago to have the US designate the LTTE as a foreign terrorist organization, which put pressure on Canada and several other European countries to follow suit and put a crimp on the outfit's foreign fund-raising -- that for years had been the backbone of the movement -- and their acquisition of sophisticated arms.

It was vintage Kadirgamar who delivered an address to a standing-room-only audience at The Brookings Institution last year, as he refused to duck the curve balls thrown at him by the pro-LTTE sympathizers.

While freely admitting his own and the previous government's failures in addressing the legitimate grievances of the Tamil populace, he forcefully argued that any negotiations had to be undertaken under the democratic fabric of Sri Lanka and not militarily or by the force of terrorism.

I remember vividly the week he spent lobbying to have the American State Department list the LTTE as an FTO and the exclusive he granted me when then secretary of state Madeleine Albright made the announcement.

US slaps terrorist law on Harkat, LTTE   

At the time I was also filing stories for Sri Lanka's Daily News, besides India Abroad, the publication owned by, and the India Abroad News Service. The moment he returned to Colombo, he sent me a handwritten note, thanking me for the coverage.

He was that kind of guy.

But what I found animated him the most in recent years was the relationship between India and Sri Lanka, which has never been better.

Kadirgamar was always a votary for strong ties between Colombo and New Delhi, despite the Indian Peace Keeping Force's so-called humanitarian foray into Sri Lanka many moons ago and the sympathy and succor that Tamil Nadu offered to the LTTE, with politicians vying to prove who could be friendlier to Velupillai Prabhakaran's outfit.

When I spoke to Kadirgamar about Sri Lanka-India relations, his face would light up as he explained Colombo's friendship with Delhi, which he believed was irreversible.

SAARC To Keep Out of Indo-Pak Conflict: Kadirgamar

No wonder Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee -- who attended Kadirgamar's funeral with External Affairs Minister Natwar Singh and Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran -- declared in his tribute that 'Kadirgamar's contribution to India-Sri Lanka relations was immense. His initiatives and efforts helped bring bilateral relations to the level of what he aptly summed as irreversible excellence.'

When he was in Washington to meet with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to discuss tsunami relief among various other issues, a qustion about India-Sri Lanka relations sent Kadirgamar on a roll. Sri Lanka would forever be indebted to its huge neighbor for its spontaneous reaction to the devastation that wracked his country, he said.

He also went to great lengths to deny purported suggestions that there were elements within India now helping the LTTE.

"They are not getting any support from India. India is totally, 100 percent opposed to what the LTTE is doing, and all equipment and weapons they are acquiring, they are acquiring from the open market," he said.

Kadirgamar  meets Vajpayee   

There was no support of any significance for the LTTE in South India, he said. "Absolutely not.But there may be elements in the South which are politically sensitive to the LTTE. Fortunately, they are not important elements."

Both Sri Lanka and India were totally in sync in their intelligence cooperation and were concerned over the LTTE's air capability since the discovery of  the outfit's Czech-made trainer aircraft in the Wanni jungle. He had briefed Rice about it, and told her that the Indian government had also expressed serious concerns, he said.

Noting that it was the LTTE that had turned suicide-bombing into an art-form, Kadirgamar said such trainer aircraft on the face of it may not sound dangerous. "But put a suicide bomber in it and with it carrying a capacity of 240 kg, and you have one of the most lethal weapons in the world today."

But he was loath to discuss simply the LTTE. He would argue there was much more to Sri Lanka and to the country's interactions with India than simply the LTTE or the peace process and the floundering ceasefire.

"The ceasefire holds, but it has holes in it. But it is holding. There are over 2,000 violations committed by the LTTE, certified by the Norwegian monitors," he argued.

"They (the LTTE) are nothing but a fascist organization but when you are tackling this kind of a situation and with all their terrorist activities, any arrangement with them has to be on a democratic basis. It can't be on their basis. There can be no question of our abandoning our democracy despite their terrorism."

In what was perhaps one of his final interviews, he said those who were bullish on the peace process and optimistic that some kind of accommodation could be reached with the LTTE anytime soon "are being too optimistic and too idealistic."

Lanka seeks Gill's help in war against LTTE   

We also discussed the chances of former Sri Lankan Ambassador to the US, Jayantha Dhanapala, becoming the next United Nations secretary general when Kofi Annan's term expires next year.

Kadirgamar told me how he had been lobbying for Dhanapala -- ex-UN under secretary general for disarmament and the darling of the US for presiding over the permanent extension of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty 10 years ago -- in the SAARC capitals, and hinted that both New Delhi and Islamabad were in favor of Dhanapala as the South Asian candidate.

"All the countries are saying they will consider, (but) nobody is going to commit themselves now. India and Pakistan have assured us that they will give it very serious consideration, but you can't expect them to commit themselves so early," he said.

Ironically, he said this was an issue he hoped to bring up at the next SAARC foreign ministers meeting, which has been postponed because of his demise.

We also discussed the proliferation of political assassinations in Sri Lanka after one of Prabhakaran's henchmen Karuna defected and the LTTE alleged the Sri Lankan government was backing him to split the outfit. 

"The political killings are indeed worrisome," he said. "But this is part of the scene. There's nothing you can do about it. You can't wish it away, you can't solve it tomorrow. There are forces which are at work and you have to manage them, control them and work it out as best as we can. It's an ongoing thing."

After visionaries such as Amirthalingham, Sam Tambimuttu, Neelan Thiruchelvam, the LTTE has murdered Lakshman Kadirgamar. The outfit's brute force has extinguished yet another brilliant Tamil politicial luminary.

Images: SENA VIDANAGAMA/AFP/Getty Images

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Aziz Haniffa