The day I lost him | Daily News

The day I lost him

President Premadasa at a function held at Sucharitha Hall to felicitate Sirisena Cooray prior to his departure as the High Commissioner to Malaysia.
President Premadasa at a function held at Sucharitha Hall to felicitate Sirisena Cooray prior to his departure as the High Commissioner to Malaysia.

Mr Premadasa used to call me every morning like a prayer. He knew I got up early. His first call was always to me and it would come between 4.30 and 5 in the morning. It was not always about work. Sometimes he would joke, play the fool.

He called me as usual on May 1, 1993, and asked me what time he should come for the procession. I told him. He was a little worried about the success of our May Day activities. He wanted to know whether we will be able to get a good crowd. I reassured him. Then he told me that in his speech he is planning to deal Gamini Dissanayake a blow that will finish him off politically. I do not know what he was planning to say. He did not tell me. But he was very angry about the unfair accusations being levelled at him by the DUNF-led Opposition that he was behind Lalith’s assassination.

I was organising the UNP May Day procession near the Sugathadasa Stadium from a trailer when Mr Premadasa came. AJ Ranasinghe and Weerasinghe Mallimarachchi were also with me. Mr Premadasa was early. He talked to us, went off and then came back. That was rather unusual. He was happy about the large turnout. I could see that from his face. Then he went away. That was the last time I saw him alive.

I was still near the stadium when the blast took place. We all heard it but we did not take it seriously. Then one of my security people, Abeynayake, came up to me and said: “Sir there had been a bomb blast in Armour Street and the President had been there.”

At first, I did not believe it because I was under the impression that Mr Premadasa had gone ahead in his vehicle. I did not think that he would stop at Armour Street to direct the procession because there was no need to do so. Still, I was worried. Mallimarachchi and A J Ranasinghe started asking me whether something was wrong. I said no, that everything was all right.

The procession kept on coming. But I could not be easy. Finally, I decided to go and investigate. I did not want to make a fuss about anything, so I did not tell anyone. I just went to Armour Street. It was then I saw the carnage. There was total confusion there. Even the police did not know what had happened. But everyone was confident that the President’s Security would have taken him to a place of safety even though no one has heard from him or from his security personnel since the blast.

It was at this point I began to lose hope. I knew that if he was conscious if he was able to talk, he would have somehow contacted me. I know the man. I started thinking that he may be seriously injured and thus unable to contact me. I then tried to reassure myself with the thought that perhaps he left Armour Street before the blast took place.

I was confused. I did not know what to think, what to do. Finally, I decided that the best thing would be to do my job and wait for him to contact me. After all, his first question would have been about how things are, whether the procession was successful. So I did not want to leave my work unattended. (I must emphasise that I did not order the location of the blast to be washed. I merely asked the police to re-direct the procession because I did not want any more violence.)

I went back to my post near the stadium and attended to my task hiding my unease. Once the entirety of the procession left the stadium I went back to Armour Street. This time Mr Premadasa’s bodyguard DIG Gunatillaka was there. I asked him what happened; he did not know what happened to the President, but he was definite that the President was present when the blast took place.

As I was trying to figure out what happened I got a message asking me to come to the President’s office. When I went there I was told that the President was dead. Until then I didn’t believe the worst, did not want to believe the worst, did not even want to consider it. I can’t quite remember the details of what happened next. You are confused in a situation like that. At that moment you don’t feel much; there is just a feeling of numbness. The emotions, the sense of loss comes later.

I started crying.

As soon as I controlled myself I realised the important thing now was to prevent a clash from taking place between our people and the Opposition supporters. Our people were arriving at Galle Face. I was concerned about what was going to happen once they found out the President has been killed. There would be anger and that could lead to clashes since the SLFP was having its meeting at the Campbell Park. I thought the best thing would be to cancel all meetings and declare the curfew. I proposed this and it was agreed upon. After that, I went to Galle Face. Several ministers who were present asked me what was happening. I told them that I was not sure and that the President was injured in the blast. I did not tell them that he was dead. The procession was still coming in. A little while later the curfew announcement was made.

The constitutional provisions concerning the interim period were very sound indeed. They worked very well and helped to restore stability.

I was present in the Secretariat when the Prime Minister took oaths as the President. I was standing there and I started crying. I went away immediately because it may have been considered unlucky. I went to a corner where I could not be seen and wept.

All the reports we got indicated that there was going to be a mammoth crowd for the funeral. Of course, that did not happen. The reason was the steps taken by some of the political and security authorities to prevent a large gathering.

The police were worried about a large crowd turning up in Colombo for the funeral. They thought they would not be capable of controlling the situation. As a result, the National Security Council decided to declare a curfew. I did not know about it and I was not consulted or even informed.

 I heard about it on the radio, when I was organising the funeral. I was furious. I went and yelled at those people. I said: “you fellows have done a terrible thing; now it is better not to have the funeral.” That decision was wrong and it sabotaged the funeral. That was not the only thing. Throughout the morning Police turned back buses full of mourners coming for the funeral at the Kelani bridge. I know about this because these were party people and they told me about it. So the leaders who were in charge of the security arrangements actually killed the funeral. And that did immeasurable political damage to the Party.

At the funeral, a foreign correspondent asked me what happened to the crowds. I told him the funeral was sabotaged.

The parliamentary condolence vote on Mr Pramadasa was a very emotional occasion for me. That was the first time I spoke about him in public after his death and it was difficult to control my tears.

“Hon. Speaker,

On this emotional and sad occasion, on behalf of the UNP and of myself I want to pay tribute to a good friend with whom I spent almost the entirety of my political life.

Moments before his tragic death

All the members of this August Assembly know of the long and close association between the late Mr Ranasinghe Premadasa and myself. Therefore there is no need to elaborate on our friendship based on mutual understanding and trust. Our relationship began as a personal friendship. With time it grew into a close political relationship. We walked together along a rough and difficult political path, with innumerable ups and downs. We were together in both victory and defeat. We shared joy and sorrow alike. But today he has left me alone to face the sorrow of his death. But this sorrow is shared by the poor and downtrodden masses of this country. They grieve for the loss of a great and exemplary leader who dedicated his life to the betterment of the society.

This is not a traditional speech of condolence on the death of His Excellency the President. This is a speech made with great sorrow. His death is an incomparable loss to my family and myself. It is a similar loss to the people of Colombo Central which was our political university where we learnt the ABC of politics, gained political experience and constructed the development strategies necessary for the solving of day to day problems of the people…….”

I later heard that Babu, the suicide killer even went to Premadasa’s estate in Ambanpola. Premadasa did not know anything about it. It was Premadasa’s valet, Mohideen, who took him.

When Babu came to Colombo Central he became friendly with Mohideen. He had a lot of money and he obviously spent lavishly. The first security lapse was not investigating the background of this fellow when he started throwing money around. Later, when I asked his security people why they did not do so, they said they did not want to ask permission from the President because he may have been angry. I told them that there was no need to ask the President and that they should have carried out their own investigation. By then it was too late.

Mr Premadasa’s family wanted to put up the main statue of President Premadasa at Torrington Square. I opposed it. I felt that the best place to have the statue was where he lived and died in Colombo Central. He would have wanted it that way.

A friend who is also a famous sculptor, currently in England, recommended the sculptor who built that statue to me. I went to his house with Harold. When I made the request he promptly agreed. The statue was unveiled one year later, on May 1, 1994. On that day, at the request of President Wijethunga, I resigned from the post of Party General Secretary.

After Premadasa’s funeral ceremony was over and the body had been cremated I sat alone by the pyre. Everyone had left (the only other person there was Dulanjalee; I remember talking to her.) I knew even then that my world had collapsed. I also knew that the Party and the country were lost, that we would not be able to do anything, to continue on our journey without him.

The day I lost him was the end of the story.

-Extracted from President Premadasa and I - Our story by B Sirisena Cooray

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