Forty years ago on 28th January 1962, Sri Lanka awoke to the
startling news that a coup d’etat by key police and military officers
had been foiled. In retrospect the Sixty Two Coup was a crucial
turning point in Sri Lanka’s contemporary history.
Sri Lanka experienced one of the longest unbroken periods of colonial
rule. When dominion status was granted in 1948 the maritime areas had
seen 450 years of European rule and influence. One consequence was an
anglicized, English-speaking non-sectarian elite – largely low-
country Sinhalese, peninsular Tamil and Dutch Burgher. They were
welded into a cohesive group through education and socialization in
public schools and shared a secular liberal western outlook,
regardless of religious background.
“A select English educated elitist group…conceives of national
integration in terms of a political ideal of constitutional
government and a unity in diversity…But it has failed to penetrate
the layers beneath – the fragmented competitive sub-societies of the
real Sri Lanka in the country-side, with its rural elites and peasant
economy,” wrote Prof Jeyaratnam Wilson in Politics of Sri Lanka. “The
other type is…associated with mass mobilization of pre-commercial,
pre-industrial peasant people…they emphasize the crucial and critical
stigmata of nationalism – the language, culture, traditions and
heroes of the dominant nationality – the Sinhala Buddhists.”
To the liberal Ceylonese establishment practically every step post-56
seemed to undermine the stability of the world they knew; and this
process seemed to accentuate with Mrs. Bandaranaike&# 39;s election in
July 1960. Growing Sinhala-Buddhist militancy and the political role
of monks seemed to threaten the very foundations of society. They
feared the eclipse of a plural mulit-racial society and the emergence
of a Buddhist theocracy in its place.
Against this background, three critical events pushed a section of
the elite and their representatives in the military, to attempt to
overthrow the government. First, anti-Tamil violence. Bandaranaike&# 39;s
attempt to accommodate Tamil concerns through an agreement with the
Federal Party was thwarted by the hard right which made him
unilaterally tear up the pact. This was followed in May 1958 by
Tamils residing outside the Northern and Eastern Province becoming
the object of well organized government mobs.
Howard Wriggins recorded the events in “Ceylon: Dilemmas of a New Nation.”
“The outbreak of violence began when a train, presumably carrying Tamil
delegates (to the Federal Party Convention in Vavuniya) was derailed
and its passengers beaten up by ruffians…Arson and beatings spread to
Colombo… Tamils were attacked, humiliated and beaten. Many were
subjected to torture and some killed outright.”
The government did nothing. Finally the Governor General Sir Oliver
Goonetilleke declared a State of Emergency and called out the armed
Tarzie Vittachi records in “Emergency Fifty Eight” how Maj F C
de Saram had to deal with CTB gangs in Ratmalana while Maj M O
Gooneratne had to fight off Irrigation Dept employees and colonists
at Padaviya. One of the coup participants arrived fifteen minutes too
late to prevent the burning alive of two Hindu priests at Panadura.
The incident convinced him that “sooner or later something would have
to be done…” Another officer recalled how they had been cautioned
about handling Buddhist monks leading such mobs. His conclusion was
that: we should have separation of church and state!
The anti-Tamil riots were the first indication of the gap that had
emerged between a secular military and a partisan regime.
Bandaranaike himself acknowledged this when he turned to Senior DIG C
C Dissanayake and said: Oh Jungle Jungle, if only you were a
Buddhist, then I could make you IGP.
The people want a Sinhalese Goyigama Buddhist for IGP.
The second trigger was the growing confrontation between the regime
and the Christian community, particularly the Roman Catholic Church.
The take-over of denominational schools was bitterly opposed by the
Church. Parents occupied the schools and a siege mentality developed.
Indian Prime Minster Nehru who requested Cardinal Garcia of Bombay to
go to Sri Lanka and mediate between the Church and the Government
finally defused the standoff.
And finally in 1961 there was the protest launched in Jaffna by the
Federal Party against the implementation of the Official Language
Act. One of the coup participants who had been assigned to Jaffna
found the Satyagraha peaceful and advised against the use of force.
But when he sat in on a Cabinet discussion he found that the
Government wanted to use the Army in the North to “teach the Tamils a
lesson.” It therefore ordered the 3rd Field Artillery Regiment to
Jaffna. But when it was time to entrain the commanding officer Col
Willie Abrahams and his second in command Maj Basil Loyala who were
Tamils were debarred from accompanying the Regiment. Instead Col
Richard Udugama, an infantry officer who was a kinsman of Mrs.
Bandaranaike and known to be a militant Sinhala Buddhist was placed
in command. At the Fort Station the troops protested, refusing to
leave, until Col Abrahams prevailed upon them to proceed without him.
By now military commanders were convinced that their authority was
eroding and being replaced by an insidious dictatorship. They
realized that Udugama was being groomed to take over command of the
Army. He had organized a Buddhist Association within the Army, and
officers including Buddhists who refused to be drawn into his
Association regarded him with distain.
For those who launched the coup the personification of the growing
authoritarian- theocratic trend was Felix Dias, Parliamentary
Secretary to the Minister of Defence. At their trial they asserted
that the coup was a pre-emptive move to thwart a dictatorship. Felix
Dias had publicly said that a little bit of totalitarianism would be
a good thing.
Donald Horowitz in “Coup theories and officers motives” says “the
officers reserved their bitterest resentment for Felix Dias
Bandaranaike. Their characterizations of him were unflattering in the
extreme: `the most arrogant b******* you ever met… pompous…revengeful…
a megalomaniac…ruthless…untruthful… a bit mad.” The Sixty Two Coup
began to take shape in the provinces where the Army had been deployed
to counter both illicit immigration from India and the Tamil
Satyagraha. Douglas Liyanage CCS was Government Agent in Mannar,
Batticaloa and Trincomalee, respectively. At these outposts he came
in contact with officers of the artillery and armoured corp.
In the Army the conspiracy originated in the artillery, with
leadership provided by Col Maurice de Mel, Chief of Staff, Col F C de
Saram, Deputy Commandant of the Ceylon Volunteer Force and Col Willie
Abraham. In the Police there were two chains of command. DIG Jungle
Dissanayake who directed metropolitan officers and former DIG Sydney
de Zoysa who directed provincial officers.
Derek de Saram personified the cosmopolitan elite; regarded as the
most respected officer in the Army he had been an Oxford cricketer
and lawyer and came from one of the best-known low country Sinhalese
families. In January 1961 he brought key officers into the coup.
Jungle Dissanayake the ranking career officer in the force was an
outstanding police officer. Through him senior officers in Colombo
were introduced to the coup. Beginning on the 13th he recruited
Superintendents W E C Jebanasam, M B Dedigama and C R Arndt and ASPs
Terry Wijesinghe, Colin Vandendriesen, Dumbo Jayatilleke and P R
Seneviratne. They were to detain politicians and secure key police
installations like the Radio Control Room.
On the 25th Sydney de Zoysa traveled south, meeting SP David Thambyah
at Matara and SP F H V Brohier and ASPs C S Orr and V K Arumugam at
Katukurunda. The next morning back at Police Headquarters the final
steps were being taken. Jungle Dissanayake summoned Stanley
Senanayake SP Colombo and said that orders had come through from the
top to arrest a number of politicians. That evening Maj Weerasena
Rajapakse Ceylon Armoured Corp, Maj Victor Joseph CAC, Maj Wilton
White Ceylon Artillery and Colin Vandendriesan had dinner with Derek
He told them that it was necessary to overthrow the
Government Of Ms Sirimavo Bandaranaike.
Meanwhile a co-ordinated
reconnaissance was carried out to prepare for the disruption of
Colombo’ s three telephone exchanges – the CTO, Maradana and Havelock
Town. It was led by Col Basil Jesudasan, Commander Ceylon Signal Corp
The final meeting was held at the Kinross Avenue beach in
Bambalapitiya. Rear Adm Royce de Mel, former Navy Commander, Col
Maurice de Mel, Col Willie Abrahams, Maj Basil Loyola, Lt Col Noel
Mathysz Commander Ceylon Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, Maj
Rajapakse, Maj White and Capt J A R Felix attended. The password was
to be `Yathura’ and the codename would be `Holdfast. ‘
The coup d’etat
would commence at one am Sunday 28th January.
Noel Mathysz would take the CTO
Rajapakse would send four armoured vehicles to guard Queens
House and another four to the Kirillapone Bridge. Capt Felix would
Guard The Lake House
However unknown to the other conspirators, Stanley Senanayake had got
in touch with his father-in-law P de S Kularatne MP. Kularatne met
the IGP Maurice Abeykoon at the Orient Club on Sunday evening and
notified him of the plot, he also informed Felix Dias. Meanwhile the
coup got underway in Galle where SP Elster Perera made the first
arrest, that of LSSP MP Neal de Alwis, Felix Dias’ uncle by marriage.
Felix Dias promptly initiated counter measures to thwart the coup:
the IGP who was summoned to Temple Trees sent a message out to all
Police Stations not to obey any unusual orders coming through; Col
Sepala Attygalle, commander CAC instructed Maj Rajapakse to send
armoured vehicles to guard Temple Trees. And at 1.30am 28th morning
300 troops supported by Bren gun carriers surrounded Jungle
Dissanayake&# 39;s Longdon Place residence.
Operation Holdfast had been
checkmated. Twenty-four defendants were put on trial before a special
court under new legislation. Ten were found guilty of waging war
against the Queen and sentenced to ten years in prison and the
confiscation of all property. Later, on appeal to the Privy Council
they were released on a point of law.
The coup was the final attempt by a unified non-sectarian leadership
to resist the advance of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism. Two outcomes
have become evident in the last forty years. First, the fragmentation
of non-sectarian opinion and activity. And second, the consequent
unimpeded growth of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism. Secular Ceylonese
opinion endured years of retreat in the expectation that when the UNP
returned to power the tide of sectarian nationalism would be stemmed.
But much to their disappointment, not only did the denominational
schools not revert to the status quo ante, but also Sundays ceased to
be the weekly holiday.
After 1965 there were differences in nuance
where policies of language, race and religion were concerned, but
there would be no reversion to the pre-56 era. In fact these policies
ceased to be areas of contention as they were written into the new
“Though the skeleton of a liberal democratic form of government
remained, the 1972 Republican Constitution was to articulate in clear
provisions the aspirations of cultural nationalism which had been a
political norm. These attributes were parts of the constitution which
were seen as `non-negotiable. ‘ Buddhism was given `the foremost
place’ and Sinhalese was made the official language,” writes Dr
Radhika Coomaraswamy in Sri Lanka: Crisis of the Anglo-American
Whereas the coup participants included Sinhalese, Tamils, Burghers
and Malays who were heirs to a common Ceylonese outlook; who believed
that together they could roll back the growing communal tide, this
cosmopolitan leadership and activism disappeared after 1962. The
Tamils, the largest minority, closed ranks along language and
race, `withdrawing&# 39; into the North and East, no longer banking on
reforms in Colombo or sharing power at the center. Instead they came
to the political conclusion that their only hope was to secure their
identity and rights in their area of domicile. Non-metropolitan
nationalists would replace cosmopolitan leaders with an outward
Among the Moors too there was the eclipse of the urban Colombo
leadership. In its place emerged the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress based
on the rural Moors of the Eastern Province. The Burghers were even
more fatalistic. Believing that the battle to preserve a cosmopolitan
Sri Lanka had been irretrievable lost, they abandoned the country en
masse, migrating to Australia and Canada. The Sinhala Christians who
had been the target of the post-56 nationalism, and who had given
leadership to the opposition to the take-over of schools and the 1962
coup, had been politically abandoned and ideologically isolated.
Cosmopolitanism had ended.
“Buddhism seems to have won the struggle
for symbolic status as the pre-eminent religion in Ceylon,” concludes
Prof Robert Kearney in “The Politics of Ceylon.”
In the post-coup period the armed forces and its leadership were
transformed. Old units – the 3rd Field Artillery and the Volunteer
Squadron of the Signals – were dismantled; new units like the Gemunu
Watch – appealing to Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism were created.
Regimental tunes, mottos and emblems were changed.
And most important
the composition of its officers was altered. By 1972 all cadets
entering the Diyatalawa Army Training Centre that year were
Sinhalese. And in turn officers like Brig Russell Heyn, Brig Roy
Jayatilleke, Col Lyn Wickremasuriya and DIG Rudra Rajasingham were
passed over for command and office. “One notable consequence was the
elimination of Christians from both the military and the police
thereby ensuring that the enforcement of law and the administration
of force would be in the hands of those who would be largely Sinhala-
Buddhists,” observed David Little in The Invention of Enmity.
As the composition of the police and armed forces changed, so did its
outlook and conduct. In 1958 it was the armed forces and police that
were regarded as impartial by the minorities and seen as their
security from politically instigated mobs.
But in August 1977 on the
eve of the anti-Tamil riots according to the Sansoni Commission,
“A False Radio Message From The Jaffna Police to the IGP stated:
Today four CTB busses set on fire, Naga Vihare is being attacked.”
Then came the tragedy of 1981 when the security forces ran riot in
the north and the Jaffna Library was burned down.
Finally there was the anti-Tamil rioting of 1983, which led to
hundreds of thousands of Tamils abandoning the country, the expulsion
of the Tamil leaders from Parliament and the induction of foreign
mediation – initially in the form of India and now in the person of
the Norwegians. “For days soldiers and policemen were not
overwhelmed: they were unengaged or in some cases apparently aiding
the attackers,” reported the London Economist. “Numerous eye
witnesses attest that soldiers and policemen stood by while Colombo
Sri Lanka is today in a state of civil war and social trauma because
of a half century of political events.
A ceasefire is now in place
and prospects for political negotiations are emerging. But the issues
are the same today as those that faced a generation of military
officers forty years ago.
Is Sri Lanka to be an inclusive secular
cosmopolitan society with a non-sectarian polity?
Or is it going to
be driven by partisan nationalism that will be exclusive and Divisive?