The Sunday TimesPlus

27th April 1997



That day in May

A president brutally assassinated, a nation in shock... Gunadasa Liyanage tracks the dramatic events of May 1, 1993.

May 1, 1993 was a fateful day for Sri Lanka. It was on this day that Pesident Ranasinghe Premadasa was killed as a result of a bomb explosion at Armour Street, Colombo and D.B. Wijetunga was sworn in as the acting President. It is also little known that President J.R. Jayewardene had a brush with death in New Delhi at the very moment Premadasa was killed here in Colombo. However, I am of the opinion that even after a lapse of four years there is no proper record of the historic incidents that took place on that day, especially, the smooth and peaceful transfer of power to a new President.

One version is that former President J.R. Jayewardene played an important role in transferring power to Wijetunga. It is said that JR who was on a visit to India at the time of the assassination of Premadasa, was in constant touch with Sri Lanka for a number of hours.

The other version is that it was K.H.J. Wijayadasa, Secretary to President Premadasa, who meticulously handled the situation without leaving any room for any untoward happenings.

Besides the above two, there are some other question marks in regard to some happenings on that day.

However, it must be clearly stated that in this article I do not attempt to give any verdicts on any of the issues. My only endeavour is to present different versions by a number of people who were closely connected to Premadasa, so that the readers may come to their own conclusions.

First, let me start with President J.R. Jayewardene. SLAS man Prematilake Mapitigama, who became the Secretary to former President Jayewardene in March 1990, remained in that position until the leader’s death on November 1, 1996. Soon after JR’s death I interviewed Mapitigama for a Sinhala monthly and this is what he told me:

JR had a close friendship with Rajiv Gandhi and even after the latter’s untimely death, his wife Sonia continued that friendship. On the first day of May, 1993, there was a Rajiv Gandhi memorial meeting in New Delhi and JR had been invited as the chief guest. Prime Minister Narasimha Rao too was scheduled to participate.

JR’s party, including Mrs. Jayewardene, Secretary plus the security officers flew to New Delhi on April 30. At the airport hefty Indian security men took over President Jayewardene and conducted him in a motorcade to Rastrapathi Bhavan, where the Sri Lankan leader was to stay.

Next day, at the Rajiv memorial meeting, there were two main speeches, one by Prime Minister Rao and the other by President Jayewerdene, JR started his speech from the prepared script and went on for a few minutes. Then he pushed the script aside and spoke freely. Applause from the thrilled audience interrupted his speech several times.

When the meeting was over, JR, Rao and Sonia started walking out of the hall followed by others. All of a sudden JR’s foot slipped and he seemed to be falling down like a tree. A number of people in the crowd screamed because it was obvious that he would have been mortally injured if his head had hit against the floor. (He was 87 then).

Believe it or not, three Indian security men jumped towards JR from three directions. One of them got hold of the ‘Old Man’ and held him up like a small baby - face upwards. The next moment the security man lowered him slowly and made him stand on his feet. Unperturbed JR had a pleasant smile and the crowd cheered and applauded continuously for about one minute. The time of the fall was exactly 12.43 p.m.

After that President Jayewardene went to Rashtrapathi Bhavan, had his lunch and went into his room for a little rest.

In the meantime what was happening here in Sri Lanka?

While the UNP May Day parade was winding its way to the Galle Face Green from the Sugathadasa Stadium, there was a huge bomb explosion at Armour Street, at the exact spot where President Premadasa was standing. The time was 12.43 p.m. A number of people, including some top-ranking security personnel were killed instantly. However, the first reports said that the unhurt Premadasa was taken to a safe place. Yet, no one was able to say here where that safer place was.

About 1.15 p.m. the BBC announced the bomb explosion in Colombo with a voice-cut from President’s Press Secretary Evans Cooray in Colombo, saying that the President had been taken to a safe place.

However, some security men on the spot later told Evans Cooray that President Premadasa too died as a result of the explosion. So he decided to go on a fact-finding mission.

Photographer S. Chitrananda, who was a very close associate of Premadasa, was the Picture Editor of the Lake House group of newspapers. It was Chitra who covered all the President’s activities. However on this particular day when the bomb exploded he was quite a distance away from the President. He was taking photographs of the parades, says Chitrananda:

"When Evans Cooray decided to go in search of the President’s body, Nihal and I too joined him. Nihal, was an assistant to Mohideen at Sucharitha. When we went to the police morgue at Gregory’s Road, we were told that dead bodies brought from Armour Street were lying at the morgue behind the Colombo Medical College. We rushed there and found SP Wanaguru of the Presidential Security in tears outside the morgue. Wanaguru confirmed that the President was dead and asked us to go in and have a look. It was a pathetic scene. Besides the burn marks, one eye was completely gone and one hand was warped and disfigured. The wrist watch too had ‘died’ at 12.43.

"I rushed back to Lake House and went straight into Chairman Sunil Rodrigo’s room. There were some other high- ranking officials of Lake House in conversation with the Chairman. The first question they asked me was: "Chitrananda, President is safe, no?" Then I gave an eye witness account of the dead body of the President and all remained flabbergasted for some time."

Enter K.H.J. Wijayadasa, the Secretary to the President. Wijayadasa is known as a very hard worker, who attended to office work even on public holidays. So, even on that particular May Day he was at his desk at the Presidential Secretariat. He received the news of the bomb blast within a few minutes. It said that the unhurt President was taken to a safe place in a jeep. While checking from various sources about the latest developments, Wijayadasa continued to monitor the BBC news too. Around 1.30 p.m. Wijayadasa knew beyond doubt that President Premadasa was dead and even the BBC too confirmed it.

But A. J. Ranasinghe, the very powerful state Minister of Information in the Premadasa regime, a Premadasa loyalist, claims that it was he who carried the news to the Presidential Secretariat first.


AJR told me: "I was seated in a quiet place by the side of the parade’s route. It was quite a distance away from Armour Street. Minister Sirisena Cooray and Minister Weerasinghe Mallimarachchi too were with me. They had brought some sandwiches from their homes which the three of us enjoyed. All of a sudden, someone came and whispered something to Sirisena Cooray, who got up at once and said: "Rane, let us go and find out how the parade is progressing".

Leaving Mallimarachchi behind, the two of us went towards Armour Street and reached the scene of the explosion. There, the IGP Ernest Perera and DIG A. S. Seneviratne said that President Premadasa too had been killed and his body taken to the hospital morgue.

"I went home immediately, and broke the news to my wife and children and the whole household began to weep. Without waiting for more than five minutes, I rushed to the Presidential Secretariat and stunned all those present there by breaking the news for the first time."

Once again, over to JR’s Secretary Mapitigama, who was in New Delhi:

"A few minutes after Lokka went to bed, there was a call from the Sri Lankan High Commission in New Delhi for President Jayewardene. When I said it was not possible to disturb the President, the caller said that it was very very urgent and disclosed the news to me. Promising to call back the High Commission, I went straight to Mrs. Jayewardene who was reading a newspaper in the sitting room and broke the news.

She at once rushed into the bedroom and awoke the President. On hearing the news President Jayewardene was so shocked that he remained speechless for a few seconds. Then he got activated.

"President Jayewardene summoned a High Commission’s official with a copy of Sri Lanka’s Constitution and had a discussion. In the meantime there were repeated calls from Sri Lanka, especially from Ranil Wickremesinghe and John Amaratunga. President Jayewadene’s advice was that the death of Premadasa and the appointment of Wijetunga should be announced together, and not as two separate items."

Again, here in Colombo, it was Secretary Wijayadasa’s duty to take immediate steps for the smooth transfer of power without leaving room for any untoward happening during the ‘leaderless’ period. He summoned Attorney-General Tilak Marapana and requested the Constitutional Affairs Minister K. N. Choksy to be present at the Presidential Secretariat.

Under the Constitution, it was Prime Minister D. B. Wijetunga who should have been sworn in as the Acting President. Wijayadasa managed to get not only Wijetunga but also Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to the Presidential Secretariat. Mrs. Hema Premadasa too, who had travelled all the way from Kandy, was present there just in time.

Says Wijayadasa: "Mr. Wijetunga was to take his oaths before Chief Justice G. P. S. de Silva. But I was confronted with another problem. Before transferring power to a new President I must have documentary evidence (a death certificate) to say that President Premadasa was dead. So, I got IGP Ernest Perera and DIG A. S. Seneviratne to go to the morgue, identify the body of President Premadasa and report back to me. When they acted accordingly, I asked them to give me a letter under their signatures certifying that President Ranasinghe Premadasa was killed as a result of a bomb explosion at Armour Street. It was only after obtaining that certificate I went ahead with the swearing in of Mr. D. B. Wijetunga as the acting President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka."

After the swearing in, the news was announced to the country over the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation.

"Didn’t President Jayewardene guide you from New Delhi in regard to the smooth transfer of power?" I asked Wijayadasa.

"No, not at all," was his reply.

Then I spoke to Tilak Marapana, the then Attorney-General. He said: "It is a fact that we were guided by the Constitution introduced by Mr. J. R. Jayewardene. But we never took any advice from him in transferring power to Mr. D. B. Wijetunga."

Before winding up this article I have to add something more. According to Mapitigama, there were repeated requests from Sri Lanka for President Jayewardene to return immediately. But he turned down the requests saying that he had gone to India for a ten day visit. However, when the requests were increasing JR decided to cancel the Indian visit and return home.

He asked Secretary Mapitigama to find a plane to get back to Sri Lanka immediately. Mapitigama made a frantic search for a plane but failed in his attempt.

Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, on hearing the problem, volunteered to give his private plane for President Jayewardene and the party to get back to Sri Lanka. They travelled to an insignificant military airport off New Delhi and boarded the plane. Prime Minister Rao’s plane was equipped with even a comfortable bed for a ‘flying sleep.’

On the following morning May 2 JR and the party landed at Katunayake. After refuelling, the plane took off and rushed back to New Delhi for Premier Rao was waiting to fly to some place in North India.

Continue to Plus page 3 - When the clock strikes, well, 12 midnight

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