SLAF feared missile attack on plane carrying wounded minister

A tough 30-year-long political journey


A soldier takes cover as suicide bomber triggers blast in Jaffna

By Shamindra Ferdinando

The then Housing Construction and Public Utilities Minister, Nimal Siripala de Silva, was on his 12th visit to Jaffna, since the liberation of the Jaffna peninsula, when an LTTE suicide cadre made an attempt on his life on the afternoon of July 4, 1996. Minister de Silva was targeted outside the Stanley Road depot of the Building Materials Corporation (BMC) branch in Jaffna.

The blast claimed the lives of several persons, including the then Jaffna town Commandant, Brig. Ananda Hamangoda, who was seated in the driving seat of a ‘soft skinned’ vehicle which was targeted by a woman suicide cadre. Hamangoda was promoted to the rank of Maj. Gen. posthumously. Minister de Silva, who had been seated in the front seat, was pierced by three pieces of metal. Doctors were able to remove only two pieces. One remains embedded in the Minister’s head - a grim reminder of a brutal past.

Among the victims of the Stanley Road blast were army motorcycle outriders, who had blocked the path of the suicide cadre as she slowly approached the targeted vehicle. The assassin had disguised herself as a pregnant woman.

Had the LTTE succeeded in its attempt, Minister de Silva would have joined a long list of politicians assassinated by the LTTE many years ago.

Today, Minister de Silva celebrates three decades in politics, of which genuine peace was available only since May 19, 2009, when a soldier shot LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, through his head in the Nanthikadal lagoon.

Minister de Silva earned the wrath of the LTTE for making an effort to restore normalcy in Jaffna. The late Anuruddha Ratwatte regularly visited Jaffna, in his capacity as the de facto Defence Minister and Minister de Silva spearheaded efforts to restore civil administration in accordance with the then President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s directive.

Having served the SLFP for over two decades de Silva, a lawyer by profession, received the appointment as the party’s organizer for the Borella electorate in 1983. In the same year, the then SLFP leader, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, nominated de Silva the party’s mayoral candidate at the elections for the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC). The UNP retained the CMC. De Silva ended up as the Opposition Leader of the CMC, where he excelled as a fiery speaker.

Many wouldn’t know that de Silva still carries a piece of metal inside his head as it couldn’t be removed without risking his life. The Minister recently recalled the Stanley Road blast, which he said was the first of three assassination bids made by the LTTE. Having visited the BMC stores, the Minister got into the front seat of Brig. Hamangoda’s Pajero. The Jaffna Commander took the driver’s seat. The Minister said: "We were about to leave for lunch when the suicide cadre blew herself up. Hamangoda was killed on the spot. Army motorcycle outriders, who blocked her path as she crossed the road, were charred beyond recognition. I was dragged out of the vehicle, and taken to the basement of the BMC building. Somebody used a sarong to bandage my bleeding head before the army rushed me to the Palaly Military Hospital, where medical staff removed one metal piece from my head, though the second piece, embedded in the head, couldn’t be removed. However, a third metal piece had pierced through flesh in the chest. It had existed without causing any serious injury."

There had been only 873 men, women and children in the Jaffna town when Minister de Silva visited the place soon after troops of Operation Riviresa brought the town under government control in the first week of Dec. 1995. The capture of Jaffna had been, undoubtedly, the biggest achievement of the then SLFP-led PA administration, hence the LTTE made a determined bid to thwart attempts to restore civil administration.

Having undergone surgery at the Palaly military hospital, Minister de Silva was flown to Ratmalana in an SLAF aircraft. Many thought he wouldn’t survive his injuries. The then Minister’s press officer, Viraj Abeysinghe, who had been in the vehicle next to the targeted Pajero, had to hold the bottle of saline throughout the flight from Palaly to Ratmalana. The Minister recollected how he was brought to Colombo in an aircraft, which also carried several bodies. It had been an unnerving experience, he said. Perhaps, there couldn’t be any other politician, who had survived a suicide attack with a head injury sustained in a suicide blast, undergone surgery at a military facility in an operational area, before being flown to Colombo in a plane carrying bodies. Having consulted SLAF headquarters, the SLAF delayed the departure of the aircraft carrying Minister de Silva from Palaly until 7. 30 p.m due to the threat posed by LTTE anti-aircraft units. As the LTTE was known to possess surface-to-air-missiles, the military didn’t want to present an easy target by flying out in daylight. The aircraft took off with lights switched off. It was the first flight out of Palaly after the bomb blast. The writer had an experience in flying out of Palaly in the night once in a C-130 transporter carrying bodies of soldiers and on another occasion held the bandaged head of a young soldier sniped in Kilinochchi, with an army medic holding a bottle of saline.

Having consulted medical experts in Colombo and the UK, as regards the remaining piece of metal embedded in his head, Minister de Silva, about four years after the Stanley Road blast, decided to live with it for the rest of his life. A smiling Minister quoted a British medical expert, who had examined him periodically as having said: "The gods have saved you once. Why should I meddle with it?" The expert was referring to the piece of metal in the Minister’s head. Declaring that he could live with it, though he could never undergo an MRI scan as the object could move causing irreparable damage, the Minister said: "I was issued a special certificate to facilitate my movements through international airports. The piece of metal in my head used to trigger security scanners at airports."

Minister de Silva had an opportunity to meet those who had ordered his assassination, face to face in Feb. 2006 when President Mahinda Rajapaksa appointed him the leader of the government delegation for talks with the LTTE in Geneva held under the auspices of the Norwegian government. The LTTE delegation was led by one-time British High Commission employee, Anton Balasingham.

Minister de Silva, in his inaugural statement, alleged that the Norwegian-arranged Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) was ‘contrary to Sri Lanka’s Constitution and law’ and ‘prejudicial to the sovereignty and the territorial integrity of the Republic of Sri Lanka.’ The Minister charged that the ‘LTTE had taken undue and unfair advantage of the ceasefire to strengthen its military capability’ due to ‘inherent weaknesses in the existing ceasefire agreement as well as the lacuna in setting out norms for its effective implementation’. The expectation, therefore, was to "rectify certain grave anomalies arising from the agreement," the Minister declared.

Some felt that Minister de Silva couldn’t match Balasingham’s negotiating skills. The Minister asserted that his experience at the World Health Organization (WHO) prepared him for the meeting with the LTTE. During subsequent talks in Geneva, Minister de Silva faced S.P. Thamilselvam as his counterpart. During President Rajapaksa’s first term, the LTTE made two attempts to assassinate Minister de Silva. One attempt was made with the support of a police officer known to the Minister.

Nimal Siripala de Silva had to serve the SLFP for over two decades before he was given an opportunity to organize an electorate. His first assignment was nursing the Borella electorate, a UNP stronghold at that time. His oratorical skills, particularly during the SLFP campaigns against the then President JRJ’s move to deprive Mrs. Bandaranaike of her civic rights, 1982 referendum to extend the life of parliament, Hector Kobbekaduwa’s presidential election bid and by-elections for Mahara, Mulkirigala, Beliatta, Akmeemana and Hakmana electorates, strengthened his standing within the party.

The 1989 general election gave de Silva the much awaited opportunity to launch his parliamentary career. The SLFP fielded de Silva in the Colombo District, where he polled 38,648 preferential votes to enter Parliament, though the then President Ranasinghe Premadasa led the UNP to victory. Young de Silva made a name for himself as a firebrand speaker during his first term in parliament. The writer had the opportunity to cover MP de Silva on a few occasions during his early parliamentary career.

De Silva quickly earned the wrath of the UNP leadership. Goons threw coconuts and cucumber at the SLFPer during a political rally at Layards broadway (Kosgashandiya). Subsequently, at the behest of the UNP administration, newspapers published by Lake House accused de Silva’s wife of importing laminating paper through fraudulent means. An irate de Silva moved court against Lake House for defamation. The court ruled in favour of de Silva. Lake House agreed to pay Rs. 1 million compensation to de Silva to be spent for development activities in the Colombo District.

MP de Silva played a pivotal role in Mrs. Bandaranaike’s presidential election campaign in 1989. Subsequently, he was involved in her election petition against Premadasa’s election as the President. De Silva was one of the few Opposition members involved in a spate of protests during Premadasa’s regime, a time of political turmoil and uncertainty. President Premadasa’s abortive attempts to bring the JVP and the LTTE to the negotiating table plunged the country into an unprecedented crisis. Political uncertainty gripped it when an influential section, within the party initiated a move to impeach President Premadasa. The then leading Opposition lawmaker, de Silva, played an important role in the impeachment move.

The outspoken politician earned the respect of many SLFP supporters during his tenure as an Opposition member in parliament. Minister de Silva comfortably retained his parliamentary seat at the 1994 parliamentary polls, by polling 111,130 preferential votes. The then President Kumaratunga rewarded him with Housing, Construction and Public Utilities portfolios. In spite of various constraints, the Minister implemented a project of his own for the benefit of those struggling to make ends meet. The liberation of the entire Jaffna peninsula, in early 1996, increased his workload as President Kumaratunga entrusted him with the task of streamlining education, health and agriculture sectors.

A Cabinet reshuffle in 1996 resulted in de Silva receiving the Health portfolio. The new portfolio helped him to make a name for himself at the World Health Organization (WHO). Back at home, the new portfolio paved the way for him to strengthen his political base.

The Minister never shunned a political challenge. At parliamentary polls in 2000, the Minister contested from the Badulla District, paving the way for a colleague to join the fray in Colombo. Although he had launched his political career, by entering the Colombo Municipal Council in 1983, before successfully contesting the general election in 1989, and then retaining his Colombo district seat at the 1994 parliamentary polls, he shifted to Badulla at the following election. Much to the surprise of his colleagues, he comfortably re-entered parliament for the third successive time, polling 98,917 preferential votes. De Silva was given the Posts and Telecommunication portfolios. Subsequently, he held the Health and Social Services portfolios.

Although the PA lost the Dec. 2001 parliamentary polls following the crossover of some key members of the ruling coalition to the UNP, de Silva polled 85,275 preferential votes to retain his Badulla seat. He re-entered parliament as a member of the winning team in April, 2004, having contested from the Badulla district again, when President Kumaratunga called for fresh elections after having dissolved parliament. At the April 2004 polls, de Silva obtained 96,799 preferential votes, having played an important role in the run-up to the dissolution of parliament on the grounds that the UNP’s rule posed a threat to national security. De Silva was one of those tasked with attacking the Norwegian-led peace process and the Ceasefire Agreement and created conditions for a political onslaught on the UNP.

In 2005, de Silva received portfolios of health, indigenous medicine as well as Uva Wellassa development.

In August 2005, de Silva, a senior Vice-President of the SLFP, was appointed the Leader of the House of Parliament.

De Silva won his sixth consecutive victory at parliamentary polls in April, 2010.

De Silva has remained faithful to the SLFP throughout his political career, though many of his colleagues switched allegiance to different political parties for their personal benefit during that period.

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