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The Sri Lankan dissident who helped oust a president

Activist Premakumar Gunaratnam says he was marked for death by Sri Lanka’s security boss a decade ago. The architect of his abduction went on to become president, but now the dissident has played a key role in the leader’s downfall. Now 56, Gunaratnam was snatched by armed gunmen from his home near Colombo, bundled into a white van, and driven away to a secret location where he was restrained, stripped and tortured. Plainclothes men operating in…



Premakumar Gunaratnam, a Sri Lankan human rights activist, claims he was a target of the country’s security chief a decade ago. A dissident’s role in bringing down his captor — who went on to become president — cannot be underestimated.

armed gunmen kidnapped Gunaratnam, 56, and drove him to a secret location where he was restrained, stripped, and tortured for several days.

In 2012, unmarked vehicles driven by plainclothes men detained dozens of other political dissidents, journalists, and journalists, as well as opposition politicians. Many of the victims were never found.

As a result of international pressure, Gunaratnam, a radical leftist who was about to launch a new political party, was released four days later.


Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who later became president, oversaw the country’s worst economic crisis, and fled the island last week before resigning after his home was stormed by protesters that Gunaratnam helped organize.

According to him, “He kidnapped me and wanted to assassinate me.” “But,” he added with a wry smile, “this is not personal.”

As a “key mover” in building an ostensibly leaderless protest movement that channeled frustrations over the economic crisis into a political revolution, the activist has been referred to by local media outlets.

Even though government troops committed atrocities during the final weeks of fighting, many people still praised them for helping to bring an end to the country’s decades-long civil war.


Protesters’ goal will not be complete until Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa is brought to justice in a Sri Lankan courtroom, according to Gunaratnam, who called Rajapaksa’s removal a “win for democracy.”

For the abduction and disappearances, and for war crimes, he said: “He is one of the key people who are responsible for these crimes.”

“White vans” became a synonym for kidnapping during and after Sri Lanka’s ethnic war because security forces allegedly kidnapped opponents so frequently.

In an interview with a local reporter in 2019, Rajapaksa acknowledged the practice of white-van abductions, but he added that it predated his time as Sri Lanka’s defense secretary and that it was unfair to “pinpoint” him for blame.


Although two of Gunaratnam’s closest friends had vanished without a trace months before his ordeal in 2012, he looks back on the ordeal with a remarkable sense of levity.

Because he had fled the country for fear of retaliation for his political activities, he was granted Australian citizenship, and he attributes his release to the ambassador of Canberra’s efforts on his behalf.

Despite his long career in revolutionary politics, this was not Gunaratnam’s first brush with death in a country rife with civil war and human rights abuses.

The journalist Victor Ivan claims that in the 1980s while still in high school, the young man joined a leftist political insurrection and led a group of university students dressed as soldiers on a raid on an army camp in Kandy in search of weapons.


Sarath Fonseka, the army commander Gunaratnam accuses of presiding over hundreds of extrajudicial killings in Trincomalee during the conflict, allegedly set a trap to capture him.

In an interview with AFP, he said, “I was counting down the days until the end of my life.”

He claims he was only freed because the government was under fire for the murders of other cadres and needed to show that some of the unaccounted-for were still alive to placate critics.

As of now, Fonseka is a possible candidate to replace Sri Lanka’s president in the upcoming parliamentary vote.


A testament to Sri Lankan politics’ secrecy is that one of the candidates is Sajith Premadasa, son of the president Gunaratnam battled to overthrow in the 1980s.

Ranil Wickremesinghe, the current acting president and frontrunner to succeed Mahinda Rajapaksa, was a minister in that government.

There is a strong anti-presidential sentiment among protesters in Sri Lanka, and they are calling for an end to broad executive powers that they say have allowed corruption and political violence to thrive in the island nation.

One of the most prominent proponents of nonviolent resistance, Gunaratnam, has long since given up armed struggle.


He went on to say, “We don’t expect democracy from the rulers. As a result, “democracy” was demonstrated in the streets.