by D.B.S. Jeyaraj
Coup d’etat meaning “stroke of state” in French is used to describe the overthrow or deposition of a government or head of state through illegal or unconstitutional means. A coup d’etat generally referred to as a coup is usually undertaken by officer/s of armed forces against the established government.
Recent developments in Sri Lanka have drawn attention among other things to the real or imaginary fear of a military coup.It is becoming clear that a major factor contributing to deteriorating relations between the Rajapaksa regime and General (retd) Sarath Fonseka was suspicion about a possible coup.
Sarath Fonseka makes specific reference to this in the annexure to his resignation letter where he chides President Rajapaksa for being paranoid about a coup and doubting the loyalty of the army.
Whatever the merits or otherwise of Gen.Fonseka’s assertions there is no denying that successive Sri Lankan governments have often been worried about a military coup despite serving defence services commanders maintaining a distance from politics.That is until recently.
This prevailing fear or paranoia can be traced to the abortive coup d’etat in 1962 where a group of Army, Navy and Police officers together with a senior civil servant planned out an attempt to overthrow the democratically elected Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) government of Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike.
At a time when there are open references to a coup within the Country’s political discourse it may be both interesting and illuminating to revive memories briefly of the coup d’etat that never got off the ground in January 1962 and the consequences of a coup that was never enacted.
In a sense there was really no coup because it never got beyond the conspiracy stage to that of execution. Nevertheless 31 persons were arrested and interrogated and several others sent on compulsory leave/retirement.
24 persons were charged in courts and after protracted trial 11 were found guilty. However they were discharged later by appealing to the Privy council which ruled in their favour on issues of technicality
Several reasons could be attributed for this attempt but the premier cause was a state of mind which believed the politicians were ruining the country through maladministration. The world’s first woman prime minister Mrs. Bandaranaike was regarded by the coup conspirators as someone unfit to govern and therefore had to be replaced in the larger interests of the country.
The inspiration for the coup planners was Pakistan. Gen. Muhammed Ayub Khan had seized power on October 27th 1958 in Pakistan in what was described as a “bloodless” coup. Interestingly Ayb Khan deposed Pakistan’s president Iskandar Mirza, who had been Ayub Khan’s mentor and benefactor.
Mirza as Defence secretary was responsible for getting Ayub Khan appointed as Army commander on Jan 17th 1951. Mirza bent the rules to make Ayub Khan the first native Pakistany army chief by superseding two of his seniors Generals Akbar Khan and Raza.
Mirza went on to become governor-general and later President when Pakistan became a republic on March 23rd 1956.On October 7th 1958 Mirza declared martial law and appointed his protege’ Ayub Khan as chief martial law administrator. The army chief had only three months more before mandatory retirement.
Though trusted by Mirza, the Pakistani general staged a coup within three weeks of assuming tremendous power as martial law administrator.He sent three generals at midnight to arrest his patron Mirza and then “exiled” the deposed president to England. Ayub Khan became president.
Interestingly there were many who welcomed the coup in Pakistan then thinking a stable political climate would prevail. Ayub Khan entrenched himself in power by holding an unusual type of referendum in 1960.
Over 80,000 recently lected local authority members were asked to vote “yes” or “no” to the question “Have you confidence in the President, Field Marshall Ayub Khan”? With 95.6% voting yes the military dictator introduced a new Constitution for Pakistan.
Ayub Khan’s coup was the inspiration and model for the coup conspirators in Ceylon as the country was known then. It is noteworthy that none of the three defence service chiefs or Police chief were involved in the coup. Most of the officers involved were of senior rank.
The coup was described by the colourful ex-prime minister of Ceylon Sir John Kotelawela as a “Buddhist” coup. Sir John who had himself served in the Army during british rule called it Buddhist as the planners were obsessed by the idea that not a “drop of blood should be shed”.
Ironically most of those involved in the attempted coup were not Buddhists but Christians. Except for a few the overwhelming majority of those charged in courts were Christians both Protestant and Catholic drawn from Sinhala, Tamil and Burgher communities.
Due to this religious dimension many perceived the botched attempt as last ditch effort by the Christian elite to safeguard their eroding position in the Country. The issue was religion not race.The “Christian” coup was also called a “colonel’s coup because many of the conspirators were of “Col” or “Lt.Col” rank.
The coup itself was planned by a core group comprising senior Police, Army & Navy officials. However “Col” Frederick de Saram the deputy commandant of the volunteer force in a gallant gesture took all responsibility in a full confession made voluntarily and urged that others be absolved of guilt.
Despite this quaint, old-fashioned attempt by FC de Saram to appropriate all blame and help his colleagues in the finest traditions of “esprit de corps” the government of the day went ahead and charged 24 persons in court.
Queen vs Liyanage
Senior civil servant JFD Liyanage or Douglas Liyanage who was then the deputy director of Land development was charged as first accused. Thus the landmark trial conducted when Ceylon was not yet a republic came to be known as Queen vs Liyanage.
This creates an impression that the civilan civil servant Douglas Liyanage was the brains behind the coup. But in actuality it was not so. The real mastermind behind the coup was former Deputy Inspector-General of Police Sydney de Zoysa who had minutely planned the coup blueprint and co-ordinated preparatory moves.
If the coup had gone according to plan FC de Saram was to have come to the fore as the visible face of the coup . He was to be appointed “general officer commanding”,assume “major-General” status and be the lead actor in the coup drama. But Sydney playing a behind the scenes role was the actual playwright and director of the abortive drama.
It was therefore the controversial Sydney who should have been charged as first accused but the Bandaranaike government hated de Zoysa’s guts and did not want to bestow upon him the dubious distinction of engraving his name for posterity as Queen vs De Zoysa. It was this petty reason and the civilian status of Douglas Liyanage that led to him being named the first accused in a list of 24.
The Army officers charged in courts for the attempted coup were
1.Colonel.FC de Saram-deputy commandant ,Volunteer force and Commanding officer Ceylon Artillery.
2. Col. Maurice de Mel-Army chief of Staff.commandant Volunteer Force.
3.Lieutenant. Col Wilmot (Willie) S. Abraham, commanding officer, 3rd field artillery regiment, Ceylon Artillery.
4.Lt.Col JHV de Alwis-commanding officer,2nd Volunteer Engineers,Ceylon Engineers.
5.Lt.Col. Basil R.Jesudasan-Commanding officer,2nd Volunteer signals, Ceylon Signals corps.
6.Lt.Col. Noel Mathiesz-Commanding officer,Ceylon electrical and mechanical Engineers.
7. Major B.I. Loyola-3rd field artillery regiment,Ceylon Artillery.
8. Maj.W.G. White,3rd field artillery regiment, Ceylon Artillery.
9. Maj. Victor Joseph, Duty officer,Ceylon Armoured corps, headquarters.
10. Captain.JA.R. Felix-Staff Officer,Ceylon Volunteer Force, Headquarters.
11.Capt. Nimal Jayakkody-3rd field artillery regiment, Ceylon Artillery.
12.Capt.Tony Anghie,3rd Field Artillery regiment,Ceylon Artillery.
13. Capt. Don Weerasinghe , 3rd Field artillery regiment, Ceylon Artillery.
The Police officers charged in courts were:
1.C.C. Dissanayake (Jungle)-senior deputy-inspector of Police-Range One
2.Sydney de Zoysa-Senior DIG-Police (retd) He had been in charge of Police administration and co-ordination between Ranges until 1962.
3.V.E.Perera-Superintendent of Police (West)
4.W.E.C.Jebanesam-Sopdt of Police-Colombo.
5.Colin Vanden Driesen-Assistant Superintendent of Police, Officer-in-Charge Police depot, Thimbirigasaya (field force hdqrs)
6.J.F.Bede Johnpillai-Asst, Supdt of Police-Traffic.
7.Terry. V. Wjesinghe-Asst. Supdt of Police-Personal Assistant to senior DIG-Range 1.
8.Lionel.C.S.Jirasinghe-Asst supdt of Police
The solitary Naval officer charged in courts was Rear Admiral (retd)Royce de Mel.He had been “Captain” (as the naval commander was known then) of the Navy until recently. He was the brother of Maurice de Mel.
The two civilians were Douglas Liyanage of the Ceylon Civil service who was then deputy director of Land development. The other was Rodney de Mel a planter.
Ethnically twelve of the twenty-four were Sinhala, Six were Tamil and Six were Burghers. There were no muslim or Malay officers charged.
Twenty-one of the twenty-four charged were Christans. Three were Buddhists.Interestingly FC de Saram whose close relatives were all staunch Anglicans claimed to be a Buddhist himself
The conspiracy had been elaborately planned and as stated before was to be a “gentleman’s coup” without bloodshed. It was to be a swift, surgical strike ex and the mission was expected to be accomplished within a few hours from midnight on Saturday January 27th 1962.
The Army commander Maj-Gen Winston Gerard Wijeykoon, Acting Navy captain (commander) Commodore Rajan Kadirgamar, Air Force chief, Air commodore John F Barker and Inspector-General of Police MWF Abeykoon were entirely in the dark about this proposed coupd’etat.
The codename for the coup was “operation Holdfast”. The idea was to seize strategic positions and installations in a “blitzkrieg”, cordon off Colombo, prevent re-inforcements coming in from the Army cantonment at Panagoda, detain the prime minister, senior ministers, key officials, leftist leaders and get Mrs. Bandaranaike to announce a “voluntary” transfer of power.
Troops and officers from the 3rd Field Regiment, 2nd Volunteer Anti-aircraft Regiment of the Ceylon Artillery , 2nd (V) Field/Plant Regiment,Ceylon Engineers,2nd Volunteer Signals Regiment, Ceylon Signals corps and Armoured cars of the Sabre troop of the Ceylon Armoured Corps were to be utilised for the coup with elements from the Police.
The coup blueprint was roughly something like this. At 10.00 pm on Jan 27th senior DIG Police “Jungle” Dissanayake was to issue a “Take post” order to his men. Immediately ASP Johnpillai in charge of traffic was to clear all main roads and strategically important highways of traffic. This was to be accomplished in 30 minutes.
The clearing of traffic in roads was to facilitate the smooth, swift, unhindered progress of military convoys and columns along roads towards their target destinations. This deployment was to be under the personal supervision of FC de Saram and Maurice de Mel.It was to begin at 11.00 pm on Saturday (27th) and cease at 1.00 am on Sunday (28th).
According to “operation Holdfast” plans the Prime minister was to be placed under house arrest. Senior cabinet ministers including Finance minister Felix R Dias Bandaranaike and important government officials including Defence and External Affairs secretary NQ Dias were to be arrested and taken to Army headquarters.
Others to be taken to Army headquarters were the DIG-CID SA Dissanayake (jingle) who was a brother of CC Dissanayake (Jungle) and acting Navy chief Rajan Kadirgamar.The SP-CID John Attygalle was also to be taken to Army headquarters. Incidently both SA Dissanayake and Attygalle were to become future IGP’s.
Those taken to Army headquarters were to be detained in an underground bunker at the armoury. They were to be held incommunicado for a certain period of time.
Other cabinet ministers, and important officials were to be placed under virtual house arrest. These included the IGP, Air Force chief and Army commander. Their movement was to be restricted to their homes alone.
In another facet of “Operation Holdfast” all Government members of Parliament and leftist MP’s of the opposition were to be detained en masse at e the “Sravasti” MP’s hostel. These included all LSSP, MEP and CP members. Some were to be placed under house arrest in their own homes in Colombo.
Three non-Parliamentarian leftist personalities, all of them Tamils were also to be placed under arrest. They were CMU gen secretary Bala Tampoe, “Tribune” editor SP Amarasingham and veteran trade unionist N. Shanmugathasan.
A crucial part of “operation Holdfast” was the seizure of Colombo city and cordoning it off. This was deemed to be of vital importance as a potential counter-strike by officers and troops loyal to the government was feared. It was necessary therefore to prevent soldiers stationed at the Panagoda cantonment from entering Colombo until the transfer of power was completed.
Army personnel with armoured cars were to be stationed at the two Kelani river bridges, the Wellawatte-Dehiwela bridge and the Kirillapone bridge. In addition military personnel with radio equipment would be stationed at key locations in suburban Colombo.Soldiers with vehicles were to be positioned in strategic junctions within Colombo city also.
At midnight Police cars equipped with radio and loudspeakers were to go around Colombo and outskirts announcing a 24 hour curfew. People were to be warned to remain indoors and that anyone seen outside would be shot on sight.
While these announcements would be going on key installations would be taken over in a rapid “blitzkrieg” like manouevre. The Central Telephone and Telegraph exchanges would be taken over and all tele-communication suspended until further notice.
The Police headquarters and Criminal Investigations department (CID) offices in Fort were to be taken over shortly after midnight. The newspaper offices of Lake House and Times of Ceylon were also to be taken over and newspapers were to cease publication for a few days.
There was no Television in Sri Lanka those days and the most important communications institution was “Radio Ceylon”. Fully armed Signals corps despatch riders on motor cycles were to be positioned from 11 pm on Nov 27th at Torrington (Independence) square. At H-hour when the password “holdfast” is given these troopers were to storm “Radio Ceylon” and take it over.
In anticipation of the coup the conspirators in the Army sappers had on Thursday Jan 25th laid out a special telephone line from the Army headquarters at Lower lake rd to the Army barracks in Echelon square in Fort. This secure line was to be used for urgent intra-army communication.
“Col” Maurice de Mel was to be at Army headquarters co-ordinating matters. FC de Saram was to position himself at the Prime Minister’s official residence “Temple Trees” at the earliest and direct operations from there. The password there was to be “British Grenadier”. This was the title of the Artillery regiment’s marching tune.
CC “Jungle” Dissanayake was to be at “Queens House” (Presidents House) in Fort and direct operations from there until Police headquarters was taken over. Queens House was the official residence of then Governor-General Sir Oliver Goonetilleke who was later implicated in the abortive coup.
“Jungle” was to commence “coup” operations from 11.00 pm on Jan 27th. The password for “Queens House” operations was the name of an IGP during British times-“Dowbiggin”. Once the coup was accomplished the leaders were to meert at “Queens House” and request: Governor-General Sir Oliver Gonetilleke to dissolve Parliament and take direct authority.
A key element in the planned coup d’etat was the mode in which the Prime minister Mrs,Bandaranaike was to be handled. The plotters were aware that Mrs. Bandaranaike proposed travelling to Kataragama on Friday Jan 26th.She was to participate in some special poojas on Saturday Jan 27th and return to Colombo on Sunday Jan 28th
Mrs.Bandaranaike’s proposed itinerary to some extent helped finalise D-day and H-hour for the coup to unfold. According to the original plan Mrs. Bandaranaike was to be “arrested” on the 27th night at Hungama by a Police team led by Asst. Superintendent of Police David Thambaiyah. The Prime minister was to be detained at the Thanamalwila rest house until the coup was effected. Faced with a “fait accompli” she would be compelled to announce an “official” transfer of power.
The initial plan however went awry because of a sudden change in Mrs. Bandaranaike’s itinerary. This was due to a simple matter. The chief incumbent of the temple in Getambe, Peradeniya had invited the premier earlier for a ceremony to be held there on Jan 27th evening. Mrs. Bandaranaike had declined it saying she had to be in Colombo on that day.
The proposed pigrimage to Katragama had been planned and finalised on Jan 16th. Mrs. Bandaranaike had forgotten the Getambe priest’s prior invitation. It was on Jan 26th when she intended travelling to Kataragama in the evening that the PM’s secretary Bradman Weerakoon remembered the Getambe invitation. Weerakoon then informed the Prime minister that the Getambe priest would be offended if Mrs. Bandaranaike went to Kataragama on the 27th after declining his invitation.
Mrs. Bandaranaike agreed with Bradman and cancelled her envisaged Kataragama trip at the last minute. When the coup conspirators came to know of her cancellation they were rattled fearing that Mrs. Bandaranaike had come to know of the proposed coup.
A contingency plan was made where Lt. Col Willie Abraham was to move into “Temple Trees” and establish control. The police officer in charge of security at “Temple Trees” WT Dickman was suddenly removed and ASP Lionel Jirasinghe assigned.
Jirasinghe was instructed by DIG “Jungle” Dissanayake to cooperate with Abraham at “Temple Trees” and place the Premier and her three children under protective custody in the premises.
The eldest daughter Sunethra was then 18 and the second daughter Chandrika 16. The son Anura was 12.
Jirasinghe was given strict instructions by Dissanayake that the safety and security of the prime minister and her two beautiful daughters had to be ensured at all costs. They were to be supplied meals from Galle Face Hotel and prompt medical attention provided if and when necessary.
The coup conspirators intended treating the Bandaranaike family with great consideration. Once Mrs. Bandaranaike made the announcement transferring power and authorities to the perpetrators of the coup d’etat. The family was to be moved to “Tintagel” on Rosemead place and placed under protective custody.
Thereafter admission to Oxford University was to be obtained for Sunethra. Chandrika and Anura were to be admitted to schools in England. Mrs. Bandaranaike was to be sent off to England to be with her children She was to be endowed with a munificient pension.
The coup conspirators did not seem to have plans of retaining power for themselves after acquiring it. At least that is what it seemed at that time.The simplistic plan was to dissolve Parliament and establish direct rule under the Governor-General Sir Oliver.
He was to be assisted by a “Council” in which former Prime Ministers Dudley Senanayake and Sir John Kotelawela were to be members of. After a reasonable period of time fresh elections were to be called and an elected government installed.
It was stated later that thre phases were envisaged. The first phase after the coup would be a military dictatorship. The second phase would be “indirect democracy” where a council including ex-prime minsters would assist the Governor-General in ruling. The third phase was elections to Parliament after promulgating a new constitution ensuring justice and equality to all races and religions.
Whether this altruistic plan would have gone through as envisaged if the coup succeeded is a moot point. It is doubtful whether those who gained power through extra-Constitutional means would have relinquished it so easily. Since the coup never materialised as planned the matter is only of academic interest now.
As stated earlier coup d’etat in French means “stroke of State”. In this case however the envisaged stroke of state did not occur only because of a “stroke of fate”. This fatal stroke was inflicted on the proposed coup d’etat by a conscientious Police officer Stanley Senanayake.
Stanley Senanayake a Buddhist was Supdt of Police, Colombo. He had been an ASP under CC Dissanayake when the latter was SP, Ratnapura. For some reason Dissanayake had delayed bringing Senanayake into the picture until the penultimate stage.
It was on Saturday Jan 27th during their regular “morning walks” on Galle Face Green that Dissanayake revealed to his subordinate some details of the coup and invited him to join. Senanayake said he would think about it and let his superior know.
Senanayake came to Dissanayake’s official residence at C-73, Longden place, Colombo 7 around noon. The straight-forward SP told the DIG that he could not get involved in a coup attempt against the democratically elected government. If a change of government was to be brought about it could only be through elections, emphasised Senanayake. He then departed after saluting Dissanayake.
Realising that he had misjudged Senanayake, “Jungle” Dissanayake kept contemplating on what to do next. There were misgivings among the core group comprising De Saram, the De Mel Brothers, De Zoysa and Dissanayake about the feasibilty of going ahead as planned.
There was no change in the decision though much doubt had set in but a sudden development altered their plans drastically.
Mrs. Bandaranaike’s sudden cancellation of her Southern province trip had resulted in amendments to the original plan. There was however a communications breakdown in informing ASP David Thambaiah.
Acting according to his earlier instructions the ASP took into custody Neil de Alwis the Samasamaajist MP for Baddegama. When news of this arrest broke Dissanayake felt the coup had been compromised and called it off at 9.30 pm. The would be participants returned to their dwellings.
Pde S Kularatne
But events had overtaken. Stanley Senanayake after wrestling with his conscience for hours decided to blow the whistle. He first told his Father in law Pde S Kularatne the famous educationist. Kularatne a former Principal of Ananda College was now a Parliamentarian. Senanayake had married his daughter Maya.
A shocked Kularatne advised his son in law to inform his superiors in the Police. Stanley then informed the IGP and DIG Cid SA Dissanayake and SP CID John Attygalle. Pde S Kularatne informed Felix Dias Bandaranaike of the plot.
Felix and the senior Police officials then went to “Temple Trees” and informed Mrs. Bandaranaike. She was initially dazed but recovered soon and displayed tremendous courage in coping with this historic crisis. Felix a nephew of SWRD Bandaranaike was a tower of strenth to her and demonstrated that he was indeed the strong man of the cabinet.
Felix Dias stationed himself at “Temple Trees” and directed counter-operations. Unable to trust the Army or Police personnel from the Navy were deployed at “Temple Trees”. Seven persons including CC Dissanayake, Sydney de Zoysa and Maurice de Mel were arrested first and brought to “Temple Trees”.
Royce de Mel
An arrest warrant was issued for ex-Navy chief Royce de Mel. But he evaded arrest and went underground. Eventually he was produced in courts by his lawyer GG Ponnambalam QC when trial commenced. Some Navy personnel in civils assembled at court premises and cheered Royce saying “Well done Sir”.
FC de Saram drove alone to “Temple Trees” and gave himself up. Arrest warrants were issued for a further 22 persons including Douglas Liyanage . All were apprehended.
The Coup suspects were initially housed in a two-storey building within “Temple Trees” premises. It is said that Mrs. Bandaranaike took a personal interest in their detention ensuring that they had all proper facilities. She even checked on the toilets to see whether they were in working condition.
Felix Dias Bandaranaike began conducting an “inquisition” of sorts where he questioned each and every coup suspect and recorded their statements. Ultimately it was Felix Dias Badaranaike’s excessive zeal in playing the grand inquisitor that ultimately worked to the benefit of the coup suspects. TO BE CONTINUED NEXT WEEK
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at email@example.com