Living through the bombs

Print edition : December 25, 2000

President Chandrika Kumaratunga survives yet another terrorist bomb attack, and the people of Sri Lanka show their maturity by responding to the incident in a responsible manner.

SRI LANKA'S presidential election campaign ended on December 18 with two explosions, one in Colombo and the other in suburban Ja-Ela. The first one was targeted against President Chandrika Kumaratunga and the second against the former Chief of the Army Staff Maj. Gen. (retd) Lucky Alagama. Kumaratunga, who was campaigning for a second term as President, survived the attack, carried out by a suicide bomber. Alagama, who was campaigning for the Opposition United National Party (UNP) candidate, Ranil Wick remasinghe, died when what is presumed to be a hand-grenade exploded.

The two explosions have come as another grim reminder to the government and people of the island-nation that the deployment of terror continues to be a potent political strategy in the Sri Lankan context. It is clearly a strike by the Liberation Tigers o f Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The suicide bombing bears its signature. It was behind the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, and several incidents in the island involving suicide bombers have been attributed to it. Army officials are certain tha t the killing of Alagama was also an act of the Tigers.

Leaders of the UNP are noncommittal on the perpetrators of the Colombo blast: they said they would not blame anyone for the attempt on the President until "evidence was shown". However, they claimed that they had "evidence" that linked the ruling coaliti on, the People's Alliance (P.A.), to the attack on Alagama.

The attempt on Kumaratunga came as she finished addressing her final rally before the December 21 election. A stunned nation termed her escape a "miracle". It was a combination of planned and unplanned factors that helped save her life. A sterile zone wi th metal barricades between the audience and the speaker was the first line of protection. The suicide bomber, seated in one of the first two rows of the moderate-size audience, was stopped by the police while attempting to cross the barricade. At the sa me time, Kumaratunga's driver of over three decades had reversed the car to where the President paused to answer questions from an Indian television crew. When the bomb went off, the car stood between the assassin and the President.

Twenty-one persons were killed in the explosion, four of them police personnel, including Colombo's Deputy Inspector-General T.N. De Silva. Kumara-tunga's driver was also killed.

The police estimate that the distance between the bomber and the President was about five metres, but others present at the spot claim that it was more. The type of the bomb and the number of persons involved in the attack remained unknown. No arrests we re immediately made. The police denied reports that a person with a cyanide capsule had been apprehended at the site.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga greets the crowds at the Town Hall rally in Colombo just before the blast on December 18.-SRIYANTHA WALPOLA

AS a direct consequence of the bomb attacks, dealing with terrorism may once again appear on top of the island's political agenda. In view of the international reaction to the incidents, there has to be a reiteration of the posturing on containing terror ism. Nationally, condemnation came from all political parties including those representing minority Tamils and Muslims, the media, and society at large.

Significantly, for the first time, practically the entire P.A. coalition and the Tamil parties that endorsed the candidature of Kumaratunga "condemned the LTTE for carrying out terror". D. Sithadthan, president of the People's Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE); Sivathasan of the Eelam People's Democratic Party (EPDP); Batty Weerakoon, leader of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party; Raja Collure of the Communist Party; and Srimani Athulathmudali of the Democratic United National Lalith Front condemne d the attempt on the President. The secretary-general of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), R. Sampanthan, said that his party unreservedly condemned the "vicious and dastardly attempt". A TULF communique said: "The consistent resort to unbridled violence particularly against important political personalities as a means of determining the political destiny of a country needs to be strongly deplored."

Former Chief Minister of the Northeastern Province, A. Varadaraja-perumal, condemned the LTTE for the "assassination attempt made on the President" and expressed condolences to the families of those killed in the two blasts. He said: "Those who, directly or indirectly, support or advocate the monstrous LTTE must now know and understand that they dig graves not only for others, but also for themselves. It is apparent that it is dangerous for everyone if any political leader still tries to use the LTTE fo r his narrow political benefits."

International condemnation came in the form of messages from India, Pakistan, the United States, France, Nepal and Japan. The world media reported the assassination bid as the top news story.

At the blast site.-SRIYANTHA WALPOLA

India termed the blasts "acts of wanton terrorism" and offered the Sri Lankan Government any medical help which may be required for the President and for others who had been injured'. President K.R. Narayanan said that he was "disturbed to learn about th e bomb blast" and wished Kumaratunga and the other injured persons a "speedy recovery". Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee echoed similar sentiments, and the Minister of External Affairs Jaswant Singh offered any medical help.

SRI LANKA is relieved not only that the President survived the attack but also that the nation responded to the incident in a generally correct manner. If the perpetrators of the attempt had hoped to trigger reprisal attacks, they were disappointed. Soon after she was admitted to a private hospital, Kumaratunga told her media adviser that her main concern was the maintenance of peace and inter-ethnic harmony. Curfew was clamped on Colombo on the night of December 18. It was withdrawn the next morning. P olitical leaders remained calm and urged restraint on the part of the people.

The next day, in a radio-broadcast from her hospital bed, the President appealed to the nation to remain calm and said that it was the bounden duty of all citizens "to protect all Tamil citizens of this country". She said: "Let not the terrorists of the LTTE destroy the last chance we have in transforming this country of ours into one of decency, ethnic harmony and humanism and modernism."

Kumaratunga said: "I am pleased by the calm you have already shown after the injury that was caused to me and those who were with and around me last night. I am proud of all of you that you have had the responsibility and the intelligence not to play int o the hands of the terrorist few who had conspired to cause havoc in this country...I can assure you that I am not in any danger due to the injuries that I have received in this cowardly attack. The presidential election will be held as scheduled on the 21st of December...I make a very special appeal to you to remain calm and peaceful. I especially call upon you not to carry out any attacks or reprisals to any member of the Tamil community or to any political rivals. Let us all remain united as a nation in this grievous hour...I appeal to all fellow citizens, it is your bounden duty, as it is mine to protect all Tamil citizens of this country. I know that the vast majority of Tamils eschew the useless violence of the LTTE and eschew all terror politics ."

In one of its most challenging moments in two decades, the ethnically polarised nation responded positively to the appeal. Any reprisal attacks by the Sinhala majority had the potential to damage the pluralistic character of the nation. Through its react ion and its resilience, Sri Lanka has shown to the world that it has come a long way from July 1983, when the killing of 13 soldiers who were carrying out counter-insurgency operations sparked one of the worst ethnic riots in the island.

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