Sri Lanka’s May Day ’87 claimed two lives

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    The place was the SLFP Headquarters, Colombo; the date was 21 April, 1987; the time was around 5:30 p.m. I had come to the SLFP Headquarters to do a report on the coming May Day. SLFP Trade Union Leader Alavi Moulana was standing in front of me and SLFP Administrative Secretary Anuruddha Ratwatte too was nearby. Suddenly there was a sound like a thunderclap. Immediately I jumped into Ratwatte’s jeep and rushed to the scene of the explosion near the Bo-tree in Pettah. The injured were screaming in pain. The bodies of the dead were scattered all over. “This is a car bomb,” said the Secretary of National Security, Lionel Fernando and Commissioner General of Essential Services Austin Fernando who had arrived there. The blast claimed 122 lives and injured over 200 persons. The following day, people staged demonstrations calling for protection. Thousands surrounded the Colombo 7 Ward Place residence of President J.R. Jayewardene after marching from the Colombo Town Hall. The participants included Ven. Maduluwawe Sobhitha, Ven. Muruththettuwe Ananda, Ven. Balaharuwe Soma and Gamini Gunasekera of the JVP. It was organised by the Anthare (Inter University Students Federation). The Government declared a curfew and banned May Day rallies and meetings scheduled for 1 May, ordering the events to be postponed for 22 May. May Day, celebrated worldwide, has a proud history behind it. 3 May, 1886 was the third day of the American workers’ struggle demanding an eight-hour work day. Nine persons including Albert Parsons were jailed on suspicion of throwing a hand-bomb at the police at Haymarket Square, Illinois, Chicago. They were sentenced to death on the verdict of the jury. The day before the execution, Lewis Lingg committed suicide. On 11 November, 1887 four of the labour leaders were hanged.   Sri Lanka’s first May Day rally Sri Lanka’s first May Day rally was held in 1933.The LSSP held its first May Day rally in 1936. It was only after the MEP (SLFP-led coalition) came to power in 1956 that May Day became a public holiday in Sri Lanka. The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), Revolutionary LSSP and Ilancheliyan’s Young Socialist Front, held their first joint May Day rally in 1970. The JVP organised a very colourful and disciplined May Day rally in 1983. The working class prepared to celebrate May Day in 1987 for the 101st time. All May Day rallies and processions were however banned but the ‘Maubima Surakeemay Vyaparaya’ (Movement to Defend the Motherland) decided to defy the ban and hold a rally and a procession at the Abhayaramaya in Narahenpita. Its leaders were the President of the United Government Services Nurses Union Ven. Muruththettuwe Ananda, Ven. Hedigalle Pannatissa of the Agrasharavaka Dharma Faculty and the Chief Incumbent of the Naga Viharaya, Kotte Ven. Maduluwawe Sobhitha. But the hidden hand behind the event was the JVP while the propaganda and publicity work was done by the ‘Anthare’ (Inter University Students Federation). A number of discussions were held daily from 22 April 1987 at the Abhayaramaya on defying the May Day ban. The participants included Ven. Dr. Wilegoda Ariyadewa of the Manawa Hithawadi Bhikku Organisation, Convener of the Inter University Bhikku Council Ven. Balaharuwe Soma, Anthare Convener B. Senaratne, MEP Leader Dinesh Gunawardena, All Ceylon Trade Union Federation President Gamini Wijegunasekera and P. Thangaraja of the Militant People’s Front. I was the coordinator. There were five rounds of talks, the last of which was held on 27 April at 2 p.m. Deshavimukti Janatha Party Leader Nihal Perera and D.I.G. Dharmasekara, both of whom attended the first discussion, did not participate thereafter. The unseen leader who directed the ‘Mawbima Surakeemee’ May Day Rally in 1987 was JVP Central Committee Member Ananda Idamegama alias Dhammika alias Kamal. Born at Kandegedera, Badulla, he was a man of many skills and leadership qualities. After the Udalagama Commission nullified his studentship in 1983 while studying in the Engineering Faculty of the Peradeniya University, he became a full-time JVP activist. During the May Day discussions Ananda Idamegama was at the Abhayaramaya day and night. I recall visiting his home passing the Kandegedera Maha Vidyalaya. Unlike some JVP leaders he was not the kind of person who branded everyone who disagreed with the party opinion a traitor. Around this time the JVP took another step forward in its armed activity seizing arms from the Army camp at Pallekele, Kandy on 15 April, 1987. The attack was a show of strength. The seized weapons were 12 T-56 automatic firearms, seven sub-machine guns and ammunition. A trained ex-Army man, Mahinda led the operation which was directed by Shantha Bandara. The LSSP, CP, Mahajana Party and NSSP too had planned to hold a joint May Day rally opposite the LSSP Headquarters, defying the May Day ban. Some other groups too had decided on the same course of action. The most militant of these rallies was the one that was to be held at Abhayaramaya. Nearly 2000 people attended the event which began on 1 May at 2.05 p.m. Ven. Hedigalle Pannatissa of the Agrasharavaka Dharma Faculty administered ‘pan sil’ after which the Ven. Muruththettuwe Ananda explained the objective of the meeting. The Ven. Balaharuwe Soma of the Inter University Bhikku Federation spoke on behalf of the students. Thereafter, the Ven. Maduluwawe Sobhitha and Opposition MP Dinesh Gunawardena addressed the meeting. A 10-point May Day resolution was adopted at the meeting after which the organising committee appealed to the participants to peacefully disperse.   A violent response They expressed opposition to the May Day ban and walked out of the Abhayaramaya premises towards the main road, carrying placards with slogans. The Government’s response was a baton charge followed by tear gas and rubber bullets; finally it was live bullets. I reported everything that happened there. The police officer who gave the order to fire was Colombo South Senior Superintendent Abdul Cader Gafoor. He told me that President Jayewardene had personally instructed him not to allow any May Day rally. Gafoor was ideally suited to serve the Jayewardene Government. He was also the officer subsequently responsible for the incidents at the general cemetery, Borella, leading to the riots of Black July 1983. At the time of the May Day incident he was administering seven police stations including those of Borella and Narahenpita. The officer who gave the order to fire was riot squad leader Sub Inspector Welegedera Premadasa. ASP Bandula ‘Show’ Wickremasinghe was Gafoor’s second-in-command. Nearly 300 policemen had been called in to suppress the May Day procession. Dinesh Gunawardena and Ven. Muruththetuwe Ananda appealed to the police on loudspeakers to stop the firing but shooting continued for a number of minutes causing the deaths of two people. The fatally-injured Kithsiri Mewan Ranawaka was carried by a group that included Moratuwa University engineering student Nimal Balasuriya, who later became the Convenor of the Anthare. Some youths carried the body of the other victim Leslie Ananda to the hospital. Samantha Ratnayake of Narahenpita, R. Premasiri of Ratnapura and Mahinda Ranatunga of Kandy were hospitalised with injuries. Leslie Anandalal Kiribathgoda was an employee of the Petroleum Corporation’s oil refinery at Sapugaskanda. Leslie was a JVP party member. Kithsiri Ranawaka who succumbed to his injuries at the National Hospital, Colombo, was a third year student of the Sri Jayewardenepura University. Leslie Ananda’s funeral took place at the Kohilawatte cemetery on 3 May, 1987 at 6.30 p.m. His mother Kalyani Perera and elder sister Kumari gave me all the details about him when I visited their home at Bendiyawatte, Wellampitiya. Ananda was the sixth in a family of seven, whose father had passed away 20 years before. No decorations or flags of mourning were allowed at Ananda’s funeral although a large crowd had gathered to pay their last respects to him. Two years after his death, his mother too passed away. When I visited their home at Bendiyawatte again in 2011, his family members said that they had still not received his death certificate. University Student Kithsiri Ranawaka’s funeral was held on 4 May, 1987. His father, a lawyer, was a Vice President of the MEP. Kithsiri’s funeral looked a militant demonstration. A large crowd including university students had gathered at his home in Kuruppumulla, Panadura from where the body was taken in procession to the Minuwanpitiya cemetery. After the funeral, over 2000 students, bhikkus and workers staged demonstrations throughout the Panadura town and dispersed after holding a meeting opposite the Buddha statue.   Inquiry into May Day double murders As a result of the strong efforts MEP Leader MP Dinesh Gunawardena compelled the UNP Government to hold an inquiry into the May Day double murders. The inquiry commenced at the Colombo High Court on 14 May, 1987. The Commission of Inquiry met for 30 days to hear the evidence. The examination of evidence concluded on 28 March, 1988. The evidence record ran into 1800 pages. The inquiry based on the evidence ended on 2 August, 1988. The inquiry report along with the conclusions was given to the Attorney General under Section 55 of the Emergency Regulations. High Court Judge Silva said that the evidence of the 10 witnesses who testified on behalf of the police was unacceptable. The reason was that the Assistant Government Analyst’s report proved that shooting took place from a distance of 10 feet thus contradicting the claim that the police did not enter Abhayaramaya at any time during the incident. Demonstrations were held in many schools in the island against the police action. It was probably President Jayewardene’s idea to show India that he was ready to suppress Sinhala nationalist forces. What happened instead was that it helped convince opponents of the regime that the Government’s actions could not be stopped by non-violent methods but only by the power of the gun. (The writer is a senior journalist who could be reached at [email protected])

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