An outspoken human rights lawyer and politician

Days after his murder I went to Batticaloa on a freelance assignment and I was not a bit surprised to see black flags hoisted along roads stretching from Kallady to the Town Centre in memory of Kumar Ponnambalam.

Commemorating Kumar Ponnambalam

by Pearl Thevanayagam

(August 15, London, Sri Lanka Guardian) As we commemorate Kumar Ponnambalam’s 73rd birth anniversary on August 12, it is worthwhile to ponder on this human rights lawyer and supporter of press freedom.

Kumar met his untimely death in the hands of government assassins in broad daylight in Wellawatte as he was beckoned to keep an appointment through a telephone call from a contact 10 years and seven months ago today. Not unlike the Sunday Leader editor Lasantha Wickrematunga’s chilling murder, Kumar too was shot at close range in his vehicle by unknown gunmen. Neither killers were apprehended and they are still roaming free or more than likely given government protection.

The only son of G.G. Ponnambalam of 50:50 parity for Tamils fame in post independent constitution who was an internationally recognised criminal lawyer, Kumar was a much misunderstood politician. One tends to categorise him as a playboy and his Tamil dialect was ridiculed by Jaffna Tamils as Colombo elitist.

His frugality is legendary despite the vast amount of wealth GG left him including plantations in Malaysia and he owned a fleet of Mercedes Benz cars and classic toy train sets. When Kumar contested the presidential seat in mid-nineties a businessman gave him Rs one lakh to buy posters for campaigning. He did not spend it on posters and of course he lost the election as was expected since he was not serious after all.

Then there was the time Kumar phoned me when I was news editor at Weekend Express. He said, “Pearl, I understand that the annual back-dated copy of Thinamurasu which publishes a serial called From Alfred to Gamini (which provided explicit details of their murders and other political developments) costs Rs 25,000. Could you bargain with the editor and get it cheaper for me?” I refused his request mumbling something about journalistic integrity. Yet, he appeared free for all the journalists in court including many Sinhalese. By the way he was a great friend of S.L. Gunasekera, also a criminal and human rights lawyer, albeit a staunch Sinhala nationalist and a vociferous opponent of admitting to grievances of Tamils because they are Tamils.

When my youngest brother who arrived from the US visited Jaffna he disappeared and my family was very worried. As luck would have it, the ICRC contacted me and told me he was taken in for questioning by the army because he had been to Jaffna and had been held hostage by the LTTE. Since he had not been back home for 13 years he felt nostalgic about visiting Jaffna, especially my father’s grave. The year was 1996 and as he strolled down to Mandaithivu from where loud blasts were heard where the LTTE was in pitched battle with the army he was captured by the LTTE and made to work in their kitchen peeling prawns and attend to other domestic chores. To this day I do not know whether it was the LTTE or the army which confiscated my brother’s passport and air ticket.

Anyhow, even after I had rescued him he was once more detained by Fort Police for insubordination to the then navy commander’s wife at a bank. The idiot had made lewd comments at her and I approached Kumar late in the evening who accompanied me immediately to the police station and got him released.

Incidentally my late father was a right hand man of GG and wisely or unwisely he retired from his plum post as Inspector of Art for North and East in 1964 on the language issue at his insistence. He sold his Morris 8 in defiance of changing the number plate to Sinhala Sri and bought himself a Raleigh bicycle; GGs symbol. Imagine my mother’s frustration and horror when he had seven children to look after and no job all because GG asked him to. Finally he sold some lands belonging to my mother and hot footed it to Italy where he undertook a degree course in Fine Arts and Sculpture at the famous Perugia University. And he proceeded to work in the Maldives as art and geography teacher until his death in 1981 all because he did not want to work for the government which was increasingly marginalising Tamils and making them compulsorily learn Sinhala should they wish to be promoted.

Any road up, this is not about my father. GG asked my father to give young Kumar art lessons and he instructed Kumar to draw a railway station. He simply drew two lines and perplexed my father asked him what these were. Kumar replied, “The train has just left”.

Coming back to Kumar, it was he called me in September 1996 at Weekend Express that the bodies of Krishanthy Kumaraswamy, her mother, brother and a neighbour who were murdered ( the two females also raped by no less than 11 soldiers before being murdered) as they went through a checkpoint in Jaffna in June 1996 and their bodies discovered in Chemmani Grave by a boy who saw a leg sticking out, were being brought to Colombo for post-mortem, and asked if I wished to go with him to Ratmalana Airport to witness the occasion. However, there was a last minute denial to allow the media but somehow we managed to go to the JMO’s office in Borella.

Days after his murder I went to Batticaloa on a freelance assignment and I was not a bit surprised to see black flags hoisted along roads stretching from Kallady to the Town Centre in memory of Kumar Ponnambalam.

I often wondered whether Kumar could have intermediated between the LTTE and the government and brought about an amicable solution to the Tamil issue where many elected Tamil leaders have failed so far either due to incompetency, buckling under LTTE supremacy or due to selfish motives in looking after their own interests over and above those of Tamils in general.

Tamils lost a most affable, endearing and upright politician and his loss is irreparable not only to Tamils but to journalists and many Sinhalese including Bhikkus who benefited from his benevolence.

(The writer is Asia Pacific Journalism Fellow at UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, California and a print journalist for 21 years. She can be reached at

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