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 assassinís 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
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
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
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
Memberís 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 presidentís 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
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
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 countryís president and prime minister. In an
irony of fate, he later fell out with the JVP and joined the UNP!