May Day rally which defied J.R.’s ban in ’87’ Today marks the 130th anniversary of International Workers Day
Posted on April 29th, 2016

By Dharman Wickremaratne

The place was SLFP Headquarters, Colombo. The date was April 21, 1987.  The time was around 4.30 p.m. I had come to SLFP Headquarters to do a report on the coming May Day. SLFP Trade Union Leader Alavi Moulana was standing in front of me. 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, Pettah. The injured were screaming in pain. The bodies of the dead were scattered all over. This is a car bomb” said Essential Services Commissioner Lionel Fernando who had arrived there. The blast claimed 122 lives and injured over 200 persons.

Dharman WickremaratneWriten by Dharman Wickremaretne

The following day people staged demonstrations calling for protection.  Thousands surrounded the Ward Place residence of President J.R. Jayewardene after marching from the direction of the Colombo Town Hall.   The participants included were Ven. Maduluwawe Sobhitha, Ven. Muruththettuwe Ananda, MP Leader Dinesh Gunawardana, Gamini Wijegunasekera of the JVP. It was organized by the Anthare (Inter University Students Council). The Government declared a curfew and banned May Day rallies and meetings scheduled for May 1, ordering the events to be postponed for May 22.

May Day celebrated worldwide has a proud history behind it.  May 3, 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 November 11, 1887 four of the labour leaders were hanged.

dharman29041602May Day commemoration event

Sri Lanka’s first May Day rally was held in 1927.  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 JVP, Revolutionary LSSP and Ilancheliyan’s Young Socialist Front held their first joint May Day rally in 1970.  The JVP organized 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 rallies and processions were however banned. But the ‘Maubima Surakeemay Vyaparaya’ (Movement to Defend the Motherland) had decided to defy the ban and hold a rally and a procession at the Abhayaramaya in Narahenpita.  Its leaders were the Ven.Muruththettuwe Ananda, President of the United Government Services Nurses Union, Ven. Hedigalle Pannatissa of the Agrasharavaka Dharma Faculty and the Ven. Maduluwawe Sobhitha, Chief Incumbent of the Naga Viharaya, Kotte.  But the hidden hand behind the event was the JVP.  The propaganda and publicity work was done by the ‘Anthare’ (Inter University Students Council).

dharman29041603.The leaders of the Maubima Surakeemay May Day commemoration May Day1987: (From left) Ven.Muruththettuwe Ananda, President of the United Government Services Nurses Union, Ven. Maduluwawe Sobhitha of Sri Naga Viharaya, MEP Leader Dinesh Gunawardene, Gamini Gunasekara of JVP Trade union Leader, Ven. Dr. Wilegoda Ariyadewa of the Manawa Hithawadi Bhikku Organisation, Ven. Balaharuwe Soma Convener of the Inter University Bhikku Federation, JVP Trade union Leader Gamini Jayalath, P Tangaraja.

A number of discussions were held daily from April 22 at the Abhayaramaya on defying May Day ban.  The participants included Ven. Dr. Wilegoda Ariyadewa of the Manawa Hithawadi Bhikku Organisation, Ven. Balaharuwe Soma Convener of the Inter University Bhikku Council, Anthare Convener B. Senaratne, MEP Leader Dinesh Gunawardana, All Ceylon Trade Union Federation President Gamini Gunasekera, Gamini Jayalath 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 April 27 at 2 p.m.

The unseen leader who directed the‘Mawbima Surakeemay’ 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 his studentship in 1983 while studying in the Engineering Faculty of the Peradeniya University he became a full-time JVP activist.

dharman29041604Senior SP, Colombo South, Abdul Gafoor giving orders to attack the Maubima Surakeemay May Day procession (top photo) and after the police opened fire (bottom picture)

During the May Day discussions Ananda Idamegama was at the Abhayaramaya day and night. I recall visiting his home passig 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 trator.

Around this time the JVP took another step forward in its armed activity. It was the seizure of arms from the Army Camp at Pallekele, Kandy on April 15, 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 May 1 at 2.05 p.m.

dharman29041605Leslie Anandalal Kiribathgoda (left) Ven. Muruththettuwe Ananda and Dinesh Gunawardene paying their last respects to his body kept at his home in Bendiyawatte, Wellampitiya

Ven. Hedigalle Pannatissa of the Agrasharavaka Dharma Faculty administered ‘pan sil’ after which the Ven. Ven. Muruththettuwe Ananda explained the objective of the meeting. The Ven. Balaharuwe Soma of the Inter University Bhikku Council spoke on behalf of the students. Thereafter, the Ven. Maduluwawe Sobhitha and Opposition MP Dinesh Gunawardana addressed the meeting.  A 10-point May Day resolution was adopted at the meeting after which the organizing committee appealed to the participants to peacefully disperse.

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 gassing and rubber bullets. Finally it was live bullets.  News cameramen covering the incident were Chandraguptha of the Dinakara, Gamini Akmeemana of the Island, and Priyantha Kolambage of Rawaya.

dharman29041606University Student Kithsiri Mewan Ranawaka (left) and university students carrying his body. Standing nearby is ASP Bandula Wickremasinghe.  Among those carrying the body is Moratuwa University Engineering Student Nimal Balasuriya.

I reported everything which 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.

dharman29041607Ranawaka’s funeral procession heading towards Minuwanpitiya cemetery from Kuruppumulla, Panadura.

Dinesh Gunawardana 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. Viridu Singer Warana Ananda Jayakody and I 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. Kithsiri Ranawaka who succumbed to his injuries at the National Hospital, Colombo, was a third year student of the Sri Jayewardenepura University.  Both victims were party members.

Leslie Ananda’s funeral took place Kohilawatte cemetery on May 3 at 6.30 p.m.  His mother Kalyani Perera and elder sister Kumari gave me all details of 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 ago.  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.

dharman29041608Two officers of the Government Analyst’s Department examining the spot at the Devalaya (shrine) of the Abhayaramaya where bullets had struck during the police shooting.

University Student Kithsiri Ranawaka’s funeral was held on May 4.  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.

As a result of the strong efforts MEP Leader Dinesh Gunawardena MP made the UNP Government was compelled to hold an inquiry into the May Day double murders.  The inquiry commenced at the Colombo High Court on May 14, 1987.  The Commission of Inquiry met for 30 days to hear the evidence.  The examination of evidence concluded on March 28, 1988.  The evidence record ran into 1800 pages.  The inquiry based on the evidence ended on August 2, 1988.  The inquiry report 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 to convince opponents of the regime that the Government’s actions can be stopped not by non-violent methods but only by the power of the gun. (The writer is a senior journalist who could be reached at OR 011-5234384)



7 Responses to “May Day rally which defied J.R.’s ban in ’87’ Today marks the 130th anniversary of International Workers Day”

  1. Susantha Wijesinghe Says:

    I knew ” SHOW” very well, and also his wife’s family, the Gamages. Gafoor was a terror when he was at the Welikade Police. All illicit Hooch dens were wiped out. ‘ Show ‘ was also at Welikade Police, sometime. Brings back old memories.

  2. Dilrook Says:

    The May Day of 1987 cannot be projected as a heroic action. Public gatherings were banned for a very good reason following the worst Tamil terror attack in history on civilians just a few weeks earlier. Operation Liberation was on and Tamils threatened more attacks. Interestingly Premadasa was killed exactly 6 years later at a May Day rally.

    JR regime’s oppression of the working class is a separate issue.

    Hopefully the Kirulapone rally will proceed without incident. It is in everyone’s interest if the UNP and President Sirisena honor the right of others to engage in peaceful politics without using violence to disrupt them. Sirisena has already ruined the SLFP. He should respectfully resign from the party.

  3. Ananda-USA Says:


    Acting on a case filed by a CTB manager, a Court has ruled to DENY the Kirilapone site for use by the Joint Opposition for their May Day rally, or any other meeting, for14 days!!!

    I think the PRETEXT behind the ruling was a ludicrous excuse based on public/traffic safety!!!

    QUITE SIMPLY, the Yahapalana Government is trying to OBSTRUCT & SUPPRESS the JO May Day rally by fair or foul means.

    These guys who pretended to the PARAGONS of DEMOCRATIC VIRTUE are now SUPPRESSING the BASIC FREEDOMS of the citizens to voice their POLITICAL DISSENT!!

    Now, watch CAREFULLY as the Western Powers championing Human Rights and Democracy STUDIOUSLY IGNORE this SUPPRESSION of DEMOCRATIC RIGHTS in Sri Lanka!


  4. Ananda-USA Says:

    JO condemns govt. bid to control media
    April 29, 2016, 9:36 pm

    By Shamindra Ferdinando

    Former External Affairs Minister Prof. G. L. Peiris yesterday said that a controversial missive issued by newly appointed Parliamentary Reforms and Mass Media Secretary Nimal Bopage advising the media not to use the term ‘Joint Opposition’ to denote the dissident group of the UPFA should be examined against the backdrop of the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) recognising the group loyal to former President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

    Claiming that the continuous use of the term Joint Opposition was illegal, immoral and unethical and breach of media freedom, attorney-at-law Bopage warned individual journalists as well as television and radio presenters of legal action unless they discontinued the practice.

    Now that Media Minister Gayantha Karunatilleke has disowned the statement issued by the Secretary to his Ministry, the latter could no longer remain in that post. Responding to a query by The Island, Prof. Peiris said either Bopage should resign on his own or Minister Karunatilleke should sack him.

    Prof. Peiris expressed the belief the IPU would inquire into the latest developments.

    The former law Prof said that though Minister Karunatillke had publicly repudiated the statement the truth was Bopage wouldn’t have issued it without receiving specific instructions from his minister. Prof. Peiris said that the government had been compelled to suspend an obvious attempt to suppress the media due to strong protests by the Joint Opposition as well as the media.

    Prof. Peiris alleged that an SLFP faction in the government had been making a desperate bid to counter the growing popularity of the faction led by those loyal to former President Rajapaksa.

    The government would certainly step up pressure after May Day, Prof. Peiris said, adding that the incumbent rulers couldn’t stomach the rapid emergence of a powerful political force capable of meeting the challenge.

    The directive issued by the government through Bopage reflected its growing apprehension of political developments, Prof. Peiris said, explaining various attempts made by the UNP and those SLFPers in the government to undermine the Joint Opposition. The former FM pointed out that the government had continuously refused to recognise the Joint Opposition in parliament because the ruling coalition feared the grouping’s popularity

    The SLFP has repeatedly rejected the Joint Opposition requests for permission to function independently in Parliament.

    Prof. Peiris said the UNP-SLFP coalition was engaged in a desperate struggle. He challenged those who had been critical of the previous government’s handling of the media to speak out at the attempt to control the media for political expediency.

    Prof. Peiris said that former President Rajapaksa had refrained from imposing any censorship even during the war though some in his government pushed for it. The media reported LTTE statements and carried various other communiques issued on behalf of the group without hindrance, Prof. Peiris said. “Today, the media is told how to identify a particular group. This is a bizarre and ridiculous situation,” he said.

  5. Dilrook Says:


    This is the most dictatorial government ever. It has stooped to levels previous governments avoided. Arresting wives and children to punish their husbands or fathers politically is a new low for Sri Lanka as never seen before. It is the fear that is driving these people to paranoia. They even fear elections.

    Banning Shalika grounds is interesting. Wimal’s group planned to start their march there. This shows their worst fear, Wimal. What ‘Sorrysena’ (a term now synonymous with Sirisena) fails to realise is people flock around the JO the more the government blocks them.

    IMF has approved the $1.5 billion loan which will be used to help India take back its loan than build the economy. New taxes coming into force on May 2. Funnily enough the government blames Mahinda for it. Mahinda (and Basil) did run down the economy and borrowed close to $35 billion. However, if the reason for tax increases is Mahinda, the tax increase should have happened since January 2015. After one and a half years later they can’t blame Mahinda.

    What I find most amusing is some seniors within the JO want to join with Sirisena by replacing the UNP.

  6. Susantha Wijesinghe Says:


  7. Fran Diaz Says:

    What a sorry state of affairs in Sri Lanka, particularly for the Sinhala people – ‘divided & ruled’ unto death & despair, or so it seems.

    May Day rallies must be allowed. It is a healthy outlet for labor unrest.

    Re May Day disharmony in any year – why aren’t discussons held with the GoSL of any time ?

    We think that the some 80,000 young people would not have perished in JVP uprisings (1970s & late 1980s) if the Govts of those times held talks with them.

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