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Not nine, but twelve lives

Douglas Devananda in Colombo on December 12, 2018.

Douglas Devananda in Colombo on December 12, 2018.   | Photo Credit: AFP

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Reporting on Douglas Devananda, who has faced a dozen assassination attempts

A cat is said to have nine lives, but Douglas Devananda, Sri Lanka’s newly sworn-in Minister for Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, seems to have 12. A one-time militant leader, Devananda, 62, has survived at least a dozen attempts on his life by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) — from commando-style attacks to suicide bombings. With his return to power, my mind wandered back to nearly 25 years ago when I reported for this newspaper one of the attempts by the LTTE to assassinate him.

Late in the evening of October 9, 1995, the sound of blasts and gunfire carried to our Queens Terrace flat in Colombo. I set off in my Maruti 800 car towards the direction of the gunfire, which turned out to be the area around Havelock Road. The area was in total darkness. A group of armed men stopped our vehicle and checked our identities — they could have been LTTE attackers or from Devananda’s outfit, Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP). We will never know.

Going ahead, it became evident that Devananda’s home off Havelock Road had been attacked with rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons. A small crowd of reporters and policemen gathered outside as it became evident that four EPDP guards had been killed by the Tigers.

One of the four EPDP men killed was a “mobile sentry”, who patrolled the area around the house in an auto rickshaw. The LTTE men killed him first, then blasted the heavy metal grills outside the house with rocket-propelled grenades, shot the other three EPDP cadres outside and went looking for Devananda inside. But there was no sign of him. My page one report of October 10 was headlined: “4 killed in LTTE attack: EPDP chief missing”. Turned out, much to my relief, that the headline and report had been appropriate for the level of information available at that late hour.

There was a twist in the story the next day. Devananda, hearing gunfire, had jumped from the second floor window, along with some of his guards, and hidden in a park the whole night. He feared that the LTTE would be coming back for him. The EPDP chief only called President Chandrika Kumaratunga in the early hours to confirm that he was, indeed, alive.

“I am the only one who has lived to tell the tale,” he told me the next day at his Park Road office, adding that the Tigers could not gun him down like other Tamil leaders. “They will have to resort to a suicide killing,” he added.

In November 2007, the Tigers used a female suicide bomber to target Devananda, who was then Minister of Social Services and Welfare, at his southern Colombo office. Three people, including the bomber, died, but Devananda survived the suicide attack. Earlier, in June 1998, Devananda lost an eye when attacked by detainees inside the Kalutara prison.

From my time in Colombo, only Devananda and Kumaratunga survived the LTTE’s attacks and lived to tell their stories. Tall Tamil leaders and intellectuals like A. Amirthalingam, Uma Maheswaran, Neelan Tiruchelvam, Lakshman Kadirgamar and A. Thangathurai didn’t.

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Printable version | Dec 7, 2019 1:26:53 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/not-nine-but-twelve-lives/article30109096.ece

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