Newshub18 :How Gotabhaya Rajapaksa survived the Colombo suicide attack 15 years ago.
A suicide bomb attack was carried out in Colombo in 2006, targeting the outgoing president of Sri Lanka, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the defense minister of the country, came back alive from the brink of death. That attack changed the history of Sri LankaWho attacked him? Why was he the target of attackers?
In early December 2006, Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Pali Palihakkara was on his way to meet the President at his official residence, Temple Tree, in Colombo. Mahinda Rajapaksa was the president of the country at that time.
Mr. was going to have a de-briefing meeting with the president and other senior officials of the government. Palihakkara
They were waiting at a traffic signal just a few kilometers from the President’s office. A few cars ahead of him was Gotabhaya Rajapaksa in another car. He was also going to attend the meeting.
In an interview for the BBC’s History Witness programme, Mr. Palihakkara said that when the cars started moving after the traffic light turned green, he suddenly saw a three-wheeled tuk-tuk on the other side of the road. It suddenly turned towards them and immediately there was a huge explosion.
“Suddenly there was a thunderous sound. The driver and I were completely shocked inside the carI could not understand what was happening. Something happened less than twenty feet from our car. We are very shocked.
“Suddenly all the sounds stopped and there was a frozen silence. Then I smelled burning tires. Then I realized that the bomb had exploded. Luckily the hood of the car was open. Me and the driver got outA car was burning nearby,” said Mr. Palihakkara, who was on the spot that day.
Confused and bewildered, Pali Palihakkara was looking for a place of safety.
He said passers-by then came forward to help them. How they both got out without being seriously injured is still a great wonder to him.
“Soon after the blast, I heard that the defense minister’s car was also crossing that intersection and his car was badly damaged in the blast.”
A bloody civil war with the Tigers
A ceasefire agreement between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers was supposed to be in effect when the suicide attack targeting Defense Minister Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was carried out.
The Tigers felt that Tamil culture was being suppressed in Sri Lanka. They wanted to form an independent state in the north-east of Sri Lanka and to that end they had been waging a bloody civil war with the Sinhala-dominated government since 1983.
Reports of explosions, attacks and destruction often came from different parts of the country. There have been many suicide attacks on Colombo before. But the Tigers had not carried out such a destructive attack as the one in 2006.
The Tigers have already targeted several other government ministers, officials and even Army Chief General Sarath Fonseka.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa was one of their key targets. Because first of all he was the defense minister, at the same time he was the brother of the then president of the country, Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Colombo was in turmoil
Sri Lankan journalist Samantha Perera has spent most of her journalistic career reporting on the government’s conflict with the Tamil Tigers, which has claimed nearly a million lives in Sri Lanka.
He was telling the BBC that eight months before the attack on Gotabaya Rajapaksa in 2006, a similar attack had also been carried out inside army headquarters, targeting the country’s then army chief Sarath Fonseka. “He also survived,” said Mr. Perera.
The prevailing perception in Colombo and Sri Lanka at the time was that the government was unwilling to resume talks with the Tamil Tigers, or else they would give up.
As a result, the military conflict increased manifold and an extremely tense situation was created throughout Colombo.
Who is responsible?
Samantha Perera was one of the first reporters to arrive at the scene of the 2006 blast outside the presidential palace in Colombo.
To my left I saw a three-wheeler lying there – badly mangled. I immediately realized that this was the tuk tuk in which the bomb was carried. The arrows of doubt were on the Tigers from the start.”
Mr. Perera said police recovered the ID card of a man from the spot, who was found to have close links with the Tamil Tigers.
“So it was clear who was responsible for the attackOnly the Tigers in Sri Lanka at that time had the equipment and logistics required to carry out this scale of sabotage, but also the planning and military skills required.”
Who is the target of the attack?
Samantha Perero and other journalists are then running after news to see if Gotabaya Rajapaksa is alive. He says, finally came the email from the President’s office and the picture with him.
“Photographs sent to us from Temple Trees – showing Gotabaya Rajapaksa entering the Temple Tree after the bomb attack and being greeted by his brother.”
But was there any indication in the film that Gotabaya Rajapaksa was the target of the attack?
“I remember two pictures,” said Mr. Perera. “In one the president is hugging his younger brother by the neck. Another picture shows Gotabaya Rajapaksa pointing at his shirt sleeve with a few drops of blood on it. It was clear from that who was the target of the attack!”
He said, it was very rare at that time to take pictures of two brothers hugging each other like that.
After finishing his photo session, the President summoned his top ministers for a hasty meeting. Among them was Pali Palihakkarao. When all the ministers arrived, Mahinda Rajapaksa called Gotabhaya to speak.
Mr. Palihakkara remembers what Gotabaya Rajapaksa said in that meeting that day.
“What he basically said was that he expected it to happen. Because he is the defense minister. The message the Tigers wanted to send by targeting him in Colombo is that they can target anyone they want to attack – even top ministers.”
He said there was no emotion in Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s words that day. “Despite surviving such an attack, he showed no reaction.”
Desperate Rajpaksha brothers
Critics say the two Rajapaksa brothers used the attack to project their powerful image.
After the attack, the Rajapaksa brothers said they were ready to take all measures to crush the rebellion of the Tamil Tigers.
Samantha Perera said the Rajapaksa brothers then made it clear that “all opportunities for peace talks were over”. The Sri Lankan government was then determined to go to war against the Tigers on their terms.
“Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was the main link between the army and the government,” said Mr. Perera. “And the head of government was Mahinda Rajapaksa. Both took a hard line against the Tigers then.”
Mr. Perera said, the Rajapaksa government’s position against the Tigers was tough even before the Tigers targeted Gotabaya Rajapaksa. After this attack, they made that position more strict. A furious Gotabaya Rajapaksa became determined to crush the Tigers’ rebellion.
“Actually they took this fight to a personal level. It became a Rajpakshad fight against the Tigers. I spoke to the military and intelligence officers. They told me that Gotabaya Rajapaksa became so hardened after that attack that he was desperate to settle the fight very quickly.”
He became angry with the army officers who failed to meet his expectations and to prevent Tiger members from mixing with the public in Colombo, carrying out attacks, said Mr. Perera.
It’s time for revenge
For the next three years, the Sri Lankan civil war took a brutal turn. There were allegations of atrocities against both sides.
The Sri Lankan army, led by Defense Minister Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, defeated the Tigers in 2009 and killed their leader.
After winning the war, the Rajapaksa administration was accused of carrying out brutal reprisals against the Tamil population.
But to a large section of Sri Lanka’s majority Sinhala population, the Rajapaksa family became the heroes of the war.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected the eighth president of Sri Lanka in 2019, 13 years after surviving the suicide bombing.
The BBC’s Matt Pintas spoke to Pali Palihakkara and Samantha Perera.