How JRJ and the UNP top rung escaped death
The day Parliament was bombed
Investigations suggested that a former JVP activist Ajith Kumara, working for a private catering service, had been able to smuggle the grenades in. He fled the scene immediately after the explosions and successfully evaded arrest for several months. He was eventually arrested but was discharged as there was no conclusive evidence to prove that he was responsible for the attempt on the lives of both the country’s president and prime minister. In an irony of fate, he later fell out with the JVP and joined the UNP!
@ SI / 24SEP2006
In what could be described as a horrific incident which took place a little over nineteen years ago - August 18, 1987 to be exact - bombs exploded inside the Parliament of Sri Lanka rocking the nation causing great panic and tension in the country.
The incident which nearly killed the then Executive President J. R. Jayewardene and Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa along with a few ministers and MPs in a single attack, took place at the Government Parliamentary Group Meeting held that day in Committee Room A of the Parliament Complex. If the assassin’s attempt has succeeded, it would have plunged the country into one of the greatest catastrophes ever. It came at a time when Sri Lanka was gripped by fear and tension caused by a Southern rebellion engineered by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna and the counter terrorist actions of the security forces.
It was a time when sudden declaration of unofficial curfews by terror groups and the circulation of threatening letters and notes causing a fear psychosis among people were the order of the day. A boy on a bicycle delivering a scribbled threat could (and did) close big offices and companies. When buses were warned not to ply, drivers who defied such bans were shot in cold blood. News agents selling "prohibited" papers were murdered and their stalls set ablaze. The JVPs second adventure was well into its stride.
I was in the thick of the grenade explosion being inside the spacious parliamentary committee room when the Government Parliamentary Group met on August 18, 1987 at its usual fortnightly meeting . My job was to report the proceedings and prepare the press release issued later that day. It was a task I had performed for nearly eight years up to that time. When I joined the Information Department from the old Daily Mirror newspaper in 1979, I was assigned as press officer to the Ministry of Local Government Housing and Construction where Mr. Premadasa was minister. He also wore the hats of Prime Minister and Leader of the House. The office of the Leader of the House got my services to prepare the press releases of government parliamentary group meetings on a regular basis .
I was breaking new ground in this area, expanding the previous releases that were confined to a couple of paragraphs to a fuller report in the style of a news report. I had no guidelines or directions on how I should do this and what should be and should not be included. I used my previous newspaper background to prepare these press releases without official jargon. Newsworthiness of the matters discussed, of course avoiding those of a highly confidential nature, was the criterion applied. I was instructed to get the draft directly approved by President Jayawardene to cut down delays in issuing the release and was soon able to gain his confidence. So much so, I found JRJ awaiting the draft and even inquiring about it if there was a delay on my part.
I usually took the papers to Ward Place for approval after lunchtime. Dressed casually, the president would invite me to his study and read the draft carefully. The way he did it reminded me of a skilled and experienced sub editor in my newspaper days. He would make the necessary corrections and sometimes add a few words of his own to emphasize a point or delete something controversial. He would sometimes correct typing mistakes I had made and return the draft to me asking whether I could read his changes and corrections.
It is in this context that I had taken my seat at the desk at the centre of the Committee Room A on that fateful day along with the official stenographers who would prepare the minutes of the meeting. The head table where the president, prime minister and Chief Government Whip Vincent Perera sat was about ten feet away from the table where we sat. The MPs sat on either side of the head table.
Incidentally, it was only the day before that eventful group meeting that almost all government MPs had been present at the funeral of the Secretary to the Leader of the House, the affable and amiable workhorse, Christie Cooray. A career public servant who rose to the position he held at his death by dint of hard work, Christie, whose duty it was to arrange the group meetings and co-ordinate all connected matters , had told me of this meeting only the day before he died of a heart attack. Had he been living, he would have sat at the head table and would have been exposed to either death or serious injury. As it was, Chief Clerk N. Senadheera who deputized for him died of a shrapnel wound on the head.
The fateful meeting started around 8.40 a.m.. The president accompanied by the prime minister and Minister Lalith Athulathmudali entered the room and took their seats. As was customary, the first item on the agenda was the MPs rising from their seats for a moment of prayer or religious reflection. Thereafter it was down to business.
Chief Whip Vincent Perera moving that the group observe two minutes silence in memory of the late Mr. Jinadasa Weerasinghe, MP. for Tangalle who was assassinated a few days earlier by the Southern rebels and Mr. Christie Cooray.
Prime Minister Premadasa then explained the items that would be taken up in Parliament that week and explained several Bills that would come up for debate.
The mood in the country and the fear psyschosis gripping the people was reflected at the meeting where several MPs spoke of the grim country situation.
The first to speak was Dr. P. M. B. Cyril, MP for Tissamaharama and District Minister for Hambantota who spoke about the tense situation in his district and the security situation there. He spoke with a great deal of feeling and pain of mind over the loss of lives and property as a result of the then raging rebellion. He and his family, he said, had lost all they had earned from hard work of over 20 years. He called for tight security measures to be enforced in the Hambantota district.
Mr. G. D. Mahindasoma, MP for Kekirawa and District Minister for Vavuniya, who followed graphically described his harrowing experience crossing the Kelani bridge on his way to Parliament when a mob had set upon him.
Medirigiriya MP A. D. B. Ekanayake was relating his experience of violence in his electorate when I heard something like a report of a gun.. I was taking notes and as I looked up, there was a deafening explosion on left of the head table close to where Minister Lalith Athulathmudali and Matara District Minister Keerthi Abeywickrama were seated.
At the sound of the first explosion most of us leapt to our feet. Moments later there was another thud and a second explosion in the same side of the room which filled with dark smoke. Pandemonium reigned supreme with MPs running helter skelter unable to figure out what had happened. Some thought it was machine gunfire. Others thought Parliament was surrounded and attacked.
Unable to think what to do, I resigned myself to my fate. "This is it," I thought to myself. Some were afraid to exit via the corridors outside thinking there may be gunmen there. We soon realized that that the explosions were caused by hand grenades thrown from an open door of an adjoining room close to the head table. The two bombs landed on the table where the president and PM were seated, very close to both of them, and rolled away to the left where Messers Athulathmudali and Keerthi Abeywickrama sat and then exploded.
I looked in the direction of the head table and found no one there. Through the haze of smoke I saw someone fallen near the table It was Senadheera who died later.
In panic I followed the MPs who were looking for a safe way out. They preferred to avoid the main entrance sensing more danger there. Many of the doors were locked and no exit through them was possible. Then somebody thought of breaking the thick plate glass pane overlooking the lawn from the room where we had sat. MPs battered it with wooden chairs and scampered through the jagged edges to the safety of the lawn outside. I did likewise.
From the lawn I saw some MPs leaving through the Member’s entrance through which they usually come into parliament complex. It was then that I saw MP Keerthi Abeywickrama, his face blown off, being carried out and gently laid on an easy chair while a vehicle was rushed to take him to hospital. He did not survive that journey, dying on the way.
Soon afterwards I saw a blood-covered Lalith Athulathmudali being carried out as was Minister Montague Jayawickrema. Minister E. L. B. Hurulle, splattered with blood from shrapnel wounds, was barely conscious. .Several other MPs including the premier were also hurt by the flying shrapnel but not seriously injured.
I heard several MPs saying that the president and prime minister were safe. The MPs cars were hurriedly summoned and they were driven away with their bemused chauffeurs clueless about exactly what had happened. Anxious to get out, I rushed to the vehicle of Mr. John Amaratunga who gladly gave me a ride away from the scene which I thought was still fraught with danger. We drove direct to the president’s Ward Place residence to check on his safety.
Those few nightmarish moments remained vivid in my memory for months to come. Even a pen dropping at a meeting would startle me. All of us who were there were fearful about a repetition
It was a miraculous escape for President Jayawardene, Prime Minister Premadasa and everybody else who were there. Had the two grenades exploded on the table on which they bounced, Sri Lanka would have lost its top leaders in that brazen attack. Fortuitously, they did not cause the damage they might have. While two persons were killed and several injured, the damage was not as severe as it might have been. The many holes the shrapnel punctured on the walls of the committee room stood mute testimony to what had happened.
Although widely speculated at the time, no gunshots preceded the hurling of the grenades. What I first heard and thought might have been the report of a gun was the thud of the first grenade bouncing on the table where the president sat.
Investigations suggested that a former JVP activist Ajith Kumara, working for a private catering service, had been able to smuggle the grenades in. He was friendly with most of those working in the complex and had access to the room from where the bombs were flung.
He fled the scene immediately after the explosions and successfully evaded arrest for several months. He was eventually arrested managing a farm in the outback, but was discharged in the ensuing prosecution as there was no conclusive evidence to prove that he was responsible for the attempt on the lives of both the country’s president and prime minister. In an irony of fate, he later fell out with the JVP and joined the UNP!