Memories of a Horrific Day in Parliament

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Sri Lanka over the past few months experienced a public uprising against the government, especially lead by the youth seeking a system change. Politicians and their properties came under attack with the vibrant ‘aragalaya’ taking a violent twist. At least one MP paid with his life and all powerful Rajapaksa family having to take a backseat with both President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa resigning from their respective posts.

Mobs stormed and laid siege to four main State buildings the Presidents House, Presidential Secretariat, the Temple Trees and the Prime Minister’s Office. All set to take Parliament building also under their control but the attempts were however, thwarted.

Thirty five years ago, in a similar situation where public dissent against the prevailing government was rising, the country was slowly plunging into violence. Some groups, especially southern youth were mobilising against then United National Party Government led by President J.R. Jayewardene after signing Indo-Lanka Accord 29 July 1987.  Curfew was declared as riots broke out in various places in the country. UNP MP Jinadasa Weerasinghe was shot dead by the mobs.

It was in such context that Parliament sittings on 18 August 1987 were to be held. It was a Tuesday that appeared just like any other first Parliament day of the week and the ruling party Parliament Group Meeting was all set to be held at Committee Room A. the meeting began after President Jayewardene and Prime Minister R. Premadasa arrived. Parliament sittings were to commence at 9.30 am.

Lobby Correspondent of ‘Dawasa’, the sister newspaper of the ‘Sun’ published by Independent Newspapers Limited a part of M. D. Gunasena & Company, J.T. de Silva (JT) had just entered the Parliament building to after security clearance, when he sensed a commotion.

“I entered Parliament complex from the public entrance as usual around 7.50 a.m. and was thinking it was less crowded than usual. This, I realised was due to public gallery being closed and parliament complex being out of bound for the public due to the prevailing situation in the country. As I was approaching the elevator I saw number of members in the Parliament staff gathered on the corridors. As I came out of the elevator on the third floor, I heard someone screaming that Prime Minister had been shot at. I quickly came back to the Ground Floor and proceeded to the area where Committee Rooms are with others who were running same way.

He had later gathered that two grenades were hurled at the Committee Room 1 where the group meeting was held.

“President Jayewardene was seated at the head table with PM Premadasa on his right and Chief Government Whip on his left. As I came closer to the room I saw National Security Minister Lalith Athulathmudali who was covered in blood being rushed away followed by Public Administration and Plantation Industries Minister Senpathi Montegu Jayawickrama. Amongst others who were seriously injured were Deputy Minister Percy Samaraweera, District Ministers U. B. Wijekoon and Keerthi Abeywickrema.

President Jayewardene’s left ear was wounded and there were blood strains on his shirt while, Prime Minister Premadasa sustained knee injury, he recalled.

“When we went to the scene none of the MSD personnel who were on the corridor were to be seen. A group led by Searjant- at- Arms Ronnie Abeysinghe were seen rushing to the MPs’ entrance carrying Minister Lalith Athulathmudali. He was rushed to the hospital immediately. Another group was carrying District Minister Keerthi Abeywickrema on a chair, who at the time was unconscious due to attack while few others took Minister Jayawickrema to hospital,”JT recalled.

He said clothes of Searjant- at- Arms Abeysinghe and his deputies were covered in blood and the Parliament staff, despite being shocked by the explosion, was efficiently and tirelessly worked to rush all injured MPs to hospital.

“The entire area was covered with blood stains. Even though, only Parliamentarians are allowed to use MPs’ entrance everyone was seen rushing in and out from the complex using same entrance. Once the injured MPs were taken out a large number of police personnel came in and stood guarding the committee room and all were prohibited from entering the site,” he said.

JT was the only journalist who was in the Parliament premises to witness the developments taking place after the attack. He had attempted to speak to few MPs and ministers coming out of the committee room but they, who were visibly shaken by the incident simply waved at him and left without stopping for a chat like any other day.

“They were visibly in shock as they realised they have just escaped the death by a whisker. For a moment I thought the President has lost his way as he who normally uses the front entrance was walking towards MPs’ entrance to leave Parliament. There had been gunshots fired and the victim happened to be an officer at the office of the Leader of the House named Senadheera. He had sustained head injuries.”

Following the explosion all telephone connections in Parliament went out of service. 

“I came to the lobby correspondents’ room on the third floor. At that time only Lake House had direct dialling facility in addition to the telephones provided by the Parliament. We had a separate telephone line which could get connected to the telephone exchange at ‘Dawasa’ office. I quickly called office and informed Editor Cyril A. Seelawimala and Editor of Sun Newspaper Rex de Silva about the bomb blast. After that I thought of going back to the scene to get more details,”he said.

JT thought Searjant- at- Arms Abeysinghe would be the best person to get details about the incident and was on his way to the office of the latter when he met Yatiyantota MP Winson Perera (WP).

JT: Were you in the Committee Room when the explosion took place?

WP: Yes I was. Suddenly something like black ball came towards the head table where the President was seated and rolled on to the floor after hitting the edge of the table and bounced. Next second, the room filled in smoke as it exploded with thundering noise. We also heard gunshot. MPs started screaming ‘it’s a bomb…it’s a bomb’. We got scared that there might be more bombs so we lied on the floor. Room was in dark as power went off. Ministers Athulathmudali, Montegu and Keerthi were heard screaming in pain. We could not leave the room and everyone started to panic. Even though we called for help nobody heard us. I was in the back and glass wall was shattered. I took a chair and broke the glass, got out of the room and walked to the MPs’ entrance. After informing the Police I walked back to committee room with them and Searjeant –at- Arms and another employee named Herath also joined us.

When I returned to the room I saw President Jayewardene staring blankly in shock, Prime Minister Premadasa was keeping his head on the table. He was both in shock and extremely hurt as the officer who came to ask something from him had fallen on the ground with injuries. Women MPs who were in the room Renuka Herath and Amara Piyaseeli were too shocked even to talk.  Had the grenade fell on the head table as planned we would have lost both our President and the Prime Minister today. Who brought bombs to parliament? We must investigate.

JT: Are you also injured? There’s blood on your shirt.

WP: No. only those in the front row was injured. I was far behind. This is MP Abeywickrema’s blood because I was carrying him out to be taken to hospital.

After speaking to the Yatoyantota MP Perera, JT had approached Searjeant –at- Arms (SA).

JT: I want to go to the place where incident took place.

SA: I just returned and changed my clothes. There won’t be lunch today so have a cup of tea and let’s go to the Committee Room. You can observe and take notes but make sure you do not touch anything.

After entering the Committee Room JT had witnessed there were two holes created on the floor due to the explosion indicating two grenades had exploded.

“Slippers and shoes were everywhere on the floor. Chairs were fallen and the room was in complete disarray. Clock on the wall had stopped at 8.05 am. There were diaries, files and documents on the floor. The carpet where Mr. Senadheera had fallen after being injured was covered in blood. After witnessing the scenario we returned to SA’s room where he got a call from the Deputy Speaker. Since it was a parliament day and proceedings should be held he was told to bring the Mace and place it,” JT recalled while noting that probably made it another historical day.  

He said the usual quorum bell was not rung at calling MPs to be present and the Deputy Speaker came to the Chair. “It probably was the shortest Parliament sittings in the whole world as it did not last even two minutes. There was no quorum not a single MP was present in the Chamber. Deputy Speaker Norman Waidyarathne at 10.00 am announced that Parliament will be adjourned due to the emergency situation and not having a quorum.”

JT recalled how in the afternoon CID teams were called in and started collecting fingerprints of everyone who reported to work and present in parliament.

“The officer in charge of the door keys was arrested. After taking all finger prints of those who had reported to work it was realised that one staffer named Ajith Kumara had not given his finger prints. Then it dawned that he was missing. He was last seen going out from MPs’ entrance when the injured persons were taken out. Later he was declared as an employee who vacated post. Kumara was taken into custody after few months. A case was filed before the courts but he was acquitted later due to lack of evidence and was reinstated. Senadheera succumbed to his injuries later in hospital.” he said.   

After 35 years to the incident all MPs and Ministers who sustained major or minor injuries, the President and the Prime Minister, the Deputy Speaker and the Searjent-at-Arms who were present on that day are not amongst the living. What is noteworthy is that up to date no one was found guilty of carrying out the attack.

By Gagani Weerakoon