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                    Remembering people’s president                    

It was exactly 15 years ago on May 1, 1993 that President Ranasinghe Premadasa was assassinated by a suicide bomber while participating at the National May Day rally. His Press Secretary and Media Consultant for several decades who was present at the site where the bomb exploded at Armour Street, Maradana on that fateful day, recalls that dreadful event

By Evans Cooray
I recall the terrible event as if it happened only yesterday. Around 4:30 in the morning of May Day 1993 my telephone rang. Having worked for Mr. Premadasa for over 25 years, even as I tumbled out of bed I had no doubt in my mind who could be calling me at that time.

The President was brief and crisp. He instructed me to meet him at Sucharitha, his private residence at 7:00 a.m. I reminded him that he has assigned me with the special task of seeing to the last minute arrangements at the main stage at Galle Face Green, the venue of that afternoon’s mammoth meeting where he wanted special facilities for the media. He said that nevertheless he wished to see me at 7:00 a.m.

At Sucharitha, his private residence, there were gathered at that time along with myself, several of his staffers including his valet M.P.M. Mohideen. President Premadasa was an absolute stickler for time. Never one minute late for an appointment or a minute early. Sharp at 7:00, he called all of us to his room upstairs, adjacent to his bedroom. His instructions to us were short and precise, giving the impression of a military field commander who knew what he was about and as always, though cordial, his voice rang with authority and power, commanding compliance.

He assigned various tasks for each of us and my task was to gather some statistical data, which he needed for his May Day speech later that day. Having gathered the data, around 12:00 noon, from the Presidential Secretariat I rushed off to the Sugathadasa Stadium where I expected to find the President. However, upon hearing that he had already joined the procession, which was wending its way towards Armour Street, I sped in that direction and found the President already at the Armour Street Junction. Ignoring the insistent advice of his personal security staff he had dismounted from his Range Rover and was directing the flow of the procession.

That fateful second

As I walked up to him, he saw me from a distance and called me to him. The time was 12:32 p.m., to be precise. Pointing to his wristwatch he said that it was time to convey to the SLBC the progress of the rally for 12:45 news broadcast. I carried out the instructions by using the mobile phone which was in my hand. When I reported back to him that I have phoned the SLBC and given the news to the News Editor he asked me to stand by for further instructions and along with the President’s valet Mohideen and many others including his security staff, who were helping the President direct the procession, I stood by. I watched the main body of the procession pass by, led by Ministers Ranil Wickremesinghe, Festus Perera and Gamini Lokuge and many others whom the President greeted and instructed to proceed.

At that moment another stream of the procession emerged from Messenger Street, led by the supporters of his own electorate, Colombo Central and the President waded into the crowd and started organising them to march four abreast. Right at that moment my mobile phone rang. It was my daughter wanting to speak to me. Because I could not hear her voice clearly, above the din of the slogan shouting procession, I had to move some distance from where the President was standing, towards the Sulaiman’s Hospital. It was at that precise moment that tragedy struck.

There was an almighty explosion and in a second the scene was transformed into a battlefield. Shattered body parts were hurled into the air. The road around was splattered with blood and parts of flesh, broken limbs and decapitated heads. There was screaming and shouting everywhere and where moments earlier there was an orderly procession, now there was chaos and mayhem. The transformation had taken place in a matter of a second.

I ran forward not knowing what to do. I reached the residence of a Colombo Municipal Councillor in the nearby De Mel Housing Scheme where a large crowd had gathered. I telephoned K.H.J. Wijayadasa, Secretary to the President and he too said that the news of a bomb explosion had reached him and asked me to come back to the Secretariat.

Where is the President?

K.D. Ranjith, a staffer at the Presidential Press Secretariat, who was all along behind me went back to the scene and called my official car. We went back to the scene, terrified and confused, and looked for the President. It was like a battlefield with Police cars and ambulances running round. I could not find him, or his bodyguards. Knowing the drill that the bodyguards had practised so many times, which is to bundle the President away immediately, when there is a hint of danger to his life, I assumed that he had been hustled away to some place. Our car sped along the opposite direction via Kosgashandhiya to Sucharitha, where several thousands of agitated supporters had gathered inquiring after his safety. Then I hurried back to the Presidential Secretariat and to my surprise, found a large group of media men both foreign and local gathered outside the office. As there was still no official confirmation as to what had happened to the President, I, accompanied by late Anthony Fernando, my long time friend and Senior Assistant Secretary (Information) in my office went back to Sucharitha and we found that the May Day procession was still proceeding towards the Galle Face Green.

It was at that point that we learnt the grim truth, officially for the first time. President Premadasa and all those who were around him at that moment, had perished in the explosion. Had my daughter not telephoned me at that very moment, making it necessary for me to leave the spot in order that I may hear her above the din, I would not be writing this article today.

As I walked down from the upper floor where D.B. Wijetunga was sworn in as the Acting President before the Chief Justice, the telephone on my table rang and it was from the News Desk of the BBC, which wanted to speak to me. I said that I was not in a mood to talk and asked them to ring me later. After few minutes, the telephone rang again and I overheard the announcer in the midst of reading news and saying that they are now switching over to Sri Lanka and asked ‘Mr. Cooray can you confirm the story about the bomb explosion?’

Not realising that my answers were being relayed all over the world live, I gave a brief description of what really took place and about the death of the President. Thereafter, I summoned both the local and foreign media men and held a brief press conference. The whole world learnt about the death of the President through the BBC news broadcast at intervals while the SLBC announced his death officially only in the afternoon.

Personality

Ranasinghe Premadasa was the greatest personality and political leader I have had the privilege to meet in my life. As a media person working in the national press and later as Press Secretary to late President Premadasa from the time he was a Junior Minister in the Dudley Senanayake Government in 1965, and also serving many governments, I have had the opportunity to meet and closely follow the styles of administration of almost all the leaders and politicians who dominated public life between 1957 and 1991. Without wanting to diminish the noteworthy services rendered by other leaders, I could categorically state that the dynamism, dedication and the passion, to achieve results, the genuine desire to serve the people, patriotism and the managerial ability of Mr. Premadasa surpasses all.

No one had the vision, the dynamism, the passion, the patriotism and the managerial ability of Mr. Premadasa. He was perhaps the least educated amongst them but the most knowledgeable in all aspects of administration, development needs of the people and the country, which he had acquired through practical experiences. He had gained this knowledge through holding a multitude of public and political offices, first as a Colombo Municipal Councillor, Deputy Mayor, Member of Parliament, Junior Minister, Minister, Prime Minister and finally as the Executive President.

Premadasa was a human dynamo. As long as he was President, the Public Services hummed with energy and activity. Not only public servants but cabinet ministers as well, were constantly on their toes and under pressure to perform. There was no room for bystanders or idlers. Every cabinet minister, every permanent secretary and every head of department was accountable and had to show results. Every minute of every day was precious in his sight and punctuality and discipline were almost articles of religious importance for him.

Commitment to poor

Above all, what most distinguished President Premadasa from every leader before him or since, was his total and unequivocal commitment to the poor. Everything he did was directed at that one objective – the upliftment of the poor. For him, alleviating poverty was not just a matter of ideology and bias for the poor was not just a populist slogan as it generally is with politicians, but was for him his life’s passion.

He was also perhaps the most intelligent amongst them all, acquiring knowledge through a process of self education, economic, technical and legal matters, listening to expert discourses and reading, so much so that he was in a position to hold his forte among the professionals and evolve his own home spun remedies to social and economic problems the nation was facing. Many of these pro-people programmes and schemes he has evolved have stood the test of time, providing relief to people even to this day. The massive housing development programmes which reawakened hundreds of backward villages, the Janasaviya Poverty Alleviation Programme, the Pradeshiya Sabha System, decentralisation of administration by setting up of District Secretariats, 200 Garment Factories Programme, urban development programmes, mobile office programmes were just a few of them.

He may not have had the social class or elitist status of his political peers, but none of them measured up to his class in ability and commitment. He became so conversant in all aspects of activity that soon many professionals found that some of the innovations and methods he suggested to adapt to their programmes and schemes, to suit local needs were sound and produced better results. Early to rise, a brief siesta in the afternoon and late to bed was the daily routine in the life of Premadasa.

President Premadasa had, in fact, been assassinated long before that fateful day 15 years ago. Some of his political enemies had character assassinated him many times over spreading all types of falsehood against him. He was born to an ordinary family and lived most of his life despised by some who were rich and powerful. However, much as all that pained him grievously, he journeyed on, content that he was loved and venerated by those whom he was born to serve, the poor and the downtrodden. Getting to the top of the country’s political ladder was worse than merely climbing up the greasy pole, for he was always being pushed down from above.

It is noteworthy that history and sanity have slowly but steadily begun the process of clearing his name of various canards that were deliberately and systematically concocted and spread around the world.

****