The Assassination of Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike 55 Years Ago


The three –decade period of intense conflict from 1983 to 2009 has resulted in hundreds of political assassinations in Sri Lanka. Both Tamil and Sinhala armed groups have been responsible for these killings at different times and diverse locations. The killings of those who held or were holding high political office were so numerous during those times that most people lost count of such assassinations.

Among those assassinated were an executive President, a leader and former leader of the opposition, cabinet ministers and ex-cabinet ministers, Parliamentarians and former Parliamentarians, provincial council ministers, ex-heads of district councils and local authority heads ha. A head of state survived an assassination attempt but lost an eye.

Though political assassinations became a regular feature when the armed secessionist conflict in the North –East or the attempted insurrection in the South were in progress, the first ever assassination of a major political personality experienced by the Island nation was much before those violent phases occurred.


pic courtesy of: Bandaranaike Museum

Fifty-five years ago on September 25th 1959 the Prime Minister Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike (SWRDB) of Sri Lanka known as Ceylon then was shot and seriously wounded by a Buddhist monk. Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike succumbed to his injuries and passed away the following day. Therefore September 26th 1959 got etched as an important date in the post-independence history annals of Sri Lanka

Against the backdrop of myriad assassinations during the conflict the solitary assassination that occurred 55 years ago may seem insignificant to some. What has to be remembered is that the incident was the first of its type in independent Sri Lanka. The impact of that single assassination was tremendous at that time.Besides the political background to that assassination is of relevance in the current context too. It is pertinent therefore to delve into that assassination and its aftermath fifty –five years later.

ඉන්දීය අගමැති ජවහර්ලාල් නේරුතුමා සමග With Indian Prime Minister Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru இந்தியப் பிரதமர் பண்டிட் ஐவஹர்லால் நேருவுடன்

ඉන්දීය අගමැති ජවහර්ලාල් නේරුතුමා සමග
With Indian Prime Minister Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru
இந்தியப் பிரதமர் பண்டிட் ஐவஹர்லால் நேருவுடன்

SWRD Bandaranaike as Premier was officially ensconced in the Prime minister’s official residence “Temple Trees” at Galle Road, Kollupitiya. Bandaranaike also divided his time between the ancestral manor at Horagolla Walauwe and his private residence “Tintagel” on 65 Rosemead place, Colombo 7. SWRDB was at “Tintagel” on the fateful Friday he was shot.

Somarama Thero

A Buddhist monk named Ven. Talduwe Somarama Thero was among those who came to meet Bandaranaike on the morning of September 25th 1959.It was a Friday. The monk was a lecturer at the Govt college of Ayurveda or indigenous medicine in Borella. Somarama Thero who was attached to the Amaravihare.He also had an Ayurvedic eye clinic in Borella.The ostensible reason for the monk wanting to meet the PM was to appraise him of requirements for the Ayurveda college.

Talduwe Somarama’s name at Birth was Talduwe Ratugama Rallage Weris Singho. He was born on August 27th 1915 to Ratugama Rallage Dieris Appuhamy and Iso Hamy. Weris Singho was educated at the Talduwe Ihala school and in Dehiowita. He donned the yellow robes on Jan 20th 1929 at the age of fourteen. Somarama was ordained in Kandy on June 25th 1936 at the age of twenty-one.

චීන අගමැති චූ-එන්-ලායි මහතා සමග With Chinese Prime Minister Chou-En-Lai சீனப்பிரதமர் சூ என் லாய் அவர்களுடன்

චීන අගමැති චූ-එන්-ලායි මහතා සමග
With Chinese Prime Minister Chou-En-Lai
சீனப்பிரதமர் சூ என் லாய் அவர்களுடன்

The premier of the nation was in the front verandah of his house meeting people who had come to see him. One batch of people was accommodated inside while others stood in line outside awaiting their turn to go in. Talduwe Somarama also waited patiently in the queue for his turn and then was admitted in.There was a group of about 20 persons inside and a queue of around 40 outside.

SWRD Bandaranaike was proud of having ushered in the age of the common man. His Govt was regarded by the masses as “Apey aanduwe” or our Government. One manifestation of this was the easy access the people had to their prime minister.

Somarama Thero sat on a chair at one corner of the Verandah.He had placed a file and a handkerchief on a low stool by his side on his left. Seated on his right was another Buddhist monk from Polonnaruwa named Ananda Thero. The Polonnaruwa monk accompanied by some farmers had come to see the prime minister on a matter concerning the appointment of a cooperative society manager.Ananda Thero was later to prove to be a key witness at the trial.

As each person’s name was announced he or she walked up to the Prime minister , paid obeisance and articulated their woes and views.However when Somarama Thero stood up as his name was announced , Prime minister Bandaranaike himself got up respectfully, walked up to him and bowed reverentially as was the custom in greeting a Buddhist monk. He then asked the monk what he could do for him. Somarama – who seemed tensed up according to Ananda Thero – told the PM that certain improvements were needed at the Ayurveda College. Bandaranaike then replied that he could get the Health minister AP Jayasuriya to attend to it if the venerable monk stated the requirements in writing and submitted it to him.

The time then was 9.45 am. Somarama Thero sat down and fumbled with the file on the stool by his side as if he was going to pull out a memorandum to be given to the Prime minister. As the prime minister was getting ready to receive what he may have thought were some papers, the Buddhist monk took out a pistol concealed in his robes and fired twice at point blank range hitting Bandaranaike in the chest and abdomen.The Prime minister made a loud sound like a gasp or moan and went down.He then got up slowly and with great difficulty tried to stagger back inside the house.

The revolver used in the shooting

The revolver used in the shooting

Ananda Thero

When a shocked Ananda Thero got up from his chair ,a thoroughly excited Somarama then stood up and pointed his gun at the priest from Polonnaruwa. An agitated Ananda Thero shouted “Ammo”(mother). Somarama then turned around and followed Bandaranaike, shooting at him wildly. He fired four more shots thus emptying the magazine. One bullet injured the Prime minister’s hand.Another hit a school teacher named Gunaratne who had also come to see the Prime minister on that morning. A third shot smashed the glass pane on a door.The fourth struck a flower pot breaking it. Somarama Thero had used a .45 Webly Mark VI revolver to fire the six shots including the fatal ones.

Meanwhile there was pandemonium as the people on the verandah started scattering here and there in fear. Ananda Thero ran out and shouted to the Policeman on duty at the gate that a monk was shooting at the prime minister. The Policeman who had already started running towards the house upon hearing the shots came inside and fired at Somarama Thero injuring him in the thigh.

Realising what had happened ,enraged people now surrounded Somarama who was shouting excitedly that he had done so for the “country, race and religion”. After a scuffle in which Somarama was manhandled by the people , the monk was formally arrested. The furious crowd may have mauled the monk but for the merciful intervention of Bandaranaike.The bleeding Bandaranaike lying on the floor had urged the people not to harm the monk in any way.The apprehended monk was taken away by the Police to the Harbour Police station amidst tight security. SWRD Bandaranaike was rushed to the General Hospital at Borella and taken to the operating theatre .

Tragically, Bandaranaike never suspected any threat to his person and was unbelievably unconcerned about security. Given the levels of security available to VVIP’s today it is mind boggling to know that only a Police sergeant was in charge of the Prime Minister’s security 55 years ago.Even the sergeant in charge was not on duty that morning.Only a constable had been at the gates.

When attempts were made by concerned Police officials to provide Bandaranaike with a personal bodyguard, Bandaranaike had reluctantly agreed. A Police sub-inspector was assigned. However Bandaranaike asked him to go back after a few days saying that a Sub-inspector should attend to more important duties and requested the IGP to assign a few Police constables instead.

Unlike some Politicians of the present era who regard the deployment of a large contingent of bodyguards as a symbol of their important status, Bandaranaike who thought of himself as a “popular peoples prime minister” felt a sense of embarrassment at being protected by many Policemen.

Parliament was in session at Galle Face when news of the assassination attempt reached the house.Education minister Dr. W.Dahanayake who was to later succeed Bandaranaike as Prime minister later wanted Parliament to be adjourned but the majority of the honourable members disagreed.Opposition leader Dr. N.M. Perera stated “there was no need to panic”.Several Ministers and MP’s from both the Govt and opposition left the house and made a beeline to Borella to see how the Premier was faring.

Blood Stained Cloth

Blood Stained Cloth

Sir Oliver Goonetilleka

The Governor-general of the time was Sir Oliver Goonetilleke. When news reached him of the shooting incident Sir Oliver was at “Queens House” swearing in the new Italian Ambassador Count Paolo di Michelis di Sloughhello. Sir Oliver stopped the ceremony and rushed to Rosmead place.Thereafter he sent a message to Parliament that it continue to function in a “business as usual”manner.

The Governor-General known and respected for his political wisdom and statesmanship took the initiative of declaring a state of emergency as a precautionary measure. It may be recalled that it was Sir Oliver who acted decisively and declared emergency in May 1958 when anti –Tamil violence erupted in a situation where Prime minister Bandaranaike vacillated.

A state of Emergency was declared at 11 am on Sep 25th by Governor –General Sir Oliver Goonetilleka and the Army, Navy and Air Force units including volunteers were mobilized and placed in readiness throughout the island throughout the island. Later events demonstrated that Sir Oliver’s anticipation of trouble and resultant declaration of emergency was indeed commendable.

What happened was that Bandaranaike after surgery was admitted to the Merchants ward. He issued a message to the nation from his hospital bed in the Merchants ward.In the message the Prime minister was extremely magnanimous towards the man who had shot him.Instead of referring to him directly as a Buddhist priest, SWRDB described him “as a foolish man dressed in the robes of a monk”. The premier also called upon the government and authorities to “show compassion to this man and not try to wreak vengeance on him”.

This well-intentioned magnanimity may have had unintended, dangerous consequences but for the prompt action of Sir Oliver Goonetilleke who had declared emergency before the statement was issued.Anticipating another round of 1958 type of violence the Governor –General issued strict instructions to the Police to be vigilant against any sign of violence erupting.

පවුලේ සමූහ ඡායාරූපයක් Family photograph குடும்ப புகைப்படமொன்று

පවුලේ සමූහ ඡායාරූපයක්
Family photograph
குடும்ப புகைப்படமொன்று

Anti-Tamil Feelings

Given the prevailing political atmosphere of the time where anti-Tamil feelings were running high the immediate suspicion was that the assassin was a Tamil. News began spreading that the name of the man who shot the premier was “Somaraman”. A Tamilised version of Somarama.So when Bandaranaike spoke of a “man dressed in the robes of a monk” rumours started to circulate that that a Tamil had dressed up as a Buddhist priest and shot the Prime minister.

Tamils in Colombo were very nervous then but thanks to the Police being vigilant nothing untoward happened.Thanks to Sir Oliver the media was “advised” to reveal very clearly without delay that the assassin was not a Tamil. The anti-Tamil feelings began subsiding. A replay of the 1958 violence was averted at that point of time.

Some of the top doctors in Colombo performed surgery on Bandaranaike for more than five long hours. Dr. M. V. P. Peries, Dr. P. R. Anthonis , Dr. L. O. Silva and Dr. Noel Bartholomeusz were the doctors in the operating theatre. Dr. L.O. Silva was quoted by the media later as observing that “the first 24 hours after the operation was very crucial.”

Early signs after the surgery seemed rosy.The Prime minister had recovered consciousness a few hours after the operation and was cheerful.He had joked with the doctors and nurses around his bedside. He had asked one of the Nurses “How am I doing?” She replied “You are doing fine, Sir”. “Yes I am an old man and have undergone a five hour stomach operation but I still have guts,” the PM had declared. He had also dictated a message to the nation from the hospital.

Things however took a turn for the worse in the early hours of the morning. Three senior doctors – Dr. P. R. Anthonis, Dr. T. D. H. Perera and Dr. M. J. A. Sandrasagara were on hand doing their best but there was no improvement. The fourth Prime minister of Independent Ceylon passed away on September 26th 1959 exactly twenty-two hours after he had been shot.

The official Bulletin issued after his death stated as follows “The condition of the Prime Minister suddenly took a turn for the worse about 7 a.m. There was a sudden alteration of the action of the heart and his condition deteriorated very rapidly. He passed off peacefully about 8 ‘O’ clock.”It was signed by Dr. P. R. Anthonis, Dr. T. D. H. Perera and Dr. M. J. A. Sandrasagara.

Subsequently a verdict of homicide was recorded by the City Coroner J. N. C. Tiruchelvam, J. P. U. M. at the inquest. He said “death was due to shock and haemorrhage resulting from multiple injuries to the thoracic and abdominal organs.”


Conspiracy Theories

As news of the investigation into the killing was published in the newspapers a wide range of conspiracy theories started floating. They gathered momentum with suspects being arrested and charged. The accusing finger was pointing inwards to prominent Sinhala personalities.

The important question however was the reason for the assassination. Why did Talduwe Somarama assassinate the Prime Minister? Who were the people who conspired to kill Bandaranaike ? In order to obtain a proper understanding it is necessary to briefly examine some of the events prior to the assassination.

The Parliamentary elections of 1956 was a watershed in the political history of this Island nation. The United National Party (UNP) that was inpower from 1947 was defeated .The Sri Lanka Freedom Party led by SWRD Bandaranaike swept the polls as part of a coalition known as the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP). Bandaranaike became the Prime Minister of Ceylon.

The MEP coalition was an assorted mix of different political persuasion. There was also in broader terms a division along the traditional right-wing and left wing politics. The “Boralugoda Sinhaya” Philip Gunewardena commanded the leftists while the duo comprising “Minneriya Deiyo” CP de Silva and “Banis Maamaa” Wijayananda Dahanayake led the rightists.The right-wingers in the party were worried about the ascendancy of the left in government and party and began plotting a reactionary counter-strike. The aim was to drive out or undermine the leftist tendency within MEP folds.

The dynamo behind right-wing machinations was a charismatic Buddhist prelate , the venerable Mapitigama Buddharakkita Thero who was the Viharadhipathy or chief incumbent of the historic Kelaniya Raja maha vihara.The priest’s influence was mainly due to his politics. He was the founder and secretary of the Eksath Bhikku Peramuna (United Bhikku Front) representing politicized sections of the Buddhist clergy. The Bhikku Front played a crucial role in mobilizing support for the MEP during the 1956 elections.

Contrary to tenets of “Vinaya” Buddharakkita Thero had also discreetly dabbled in commerce and had large sums of money at his disposal. The powerful priest had spent lakhs of rupees for the MEP election campaign.His clout therefore was massive with the government and was in a sense the Rasputin or Richelieu of Sri Lanka. He was also a hawkish communalist and spearheaded the campaign against the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam pact. Hundreds of Buddhist priests demonstrated against it thereby compelling Bandaranaike to abrogate it unilaterally. Mapitigama was the mastermind behind the protest.

Buddharakkitha Thero

Despite Buddharakkitha Thero’s influence ,SWRD Bandaranaike was not prepared to bow down to the powerful monk’s diktat.Irritated by this the “kingmaker” priest now decided to remove Bandaranaike altogether.The flashpoint causing this change of mind was not race,class or ideology.It was sordid commerce.

Two issues rankled.One was the Prime minister’s refusal to hand over a lucrative Shipping contract to a company named Colombo Shipping Lines that was co-founded by Buddharakkita in the name of his associate HP Jayawardena to import rice from Burma (Myanmar) and Thailand. The second was a license to start a sugar factory costing many crores of rupees. SWRD acting on the advice of Philip Gunewardena and RG Senanayake had refused to give the contract to the company resulting in great financial loss to Buddharakita and his front man Jayawardena.He had also denied a sugar manufacturing license.

Thus Buddharakkita along with Jayawardana conspired to assassinate Bandaranaike. Their unwitting instrument was Talduwe Somarama Thero who was an ardent Sinhala Buddhist nationalist. Being highly emotional Somarama was easily manipulated by Buddharakkita who convinced him into believing that the prime minister was a traitor to the country,race and religion and therefore should be eliminated. Somarama was a mere cat’s paw.

The tripartite forces who campaigned effectively for Bandaranaike in 1956 were Buddhist priests, Ayurvedic medical practitioners and teachers. It was said that “Sanga, Veda and Gura” were responsible for installing Bandaranaike as Prime minister.The bitter irony was that Bandaranaike’s assassin was a “three-in-one” personality representing all three. Somarama was a Bhikku , an Ayurvedic doctor and a lecturer in the Ayurvedic college. The tripartite forces who brought SWRDB to power were now personified in the man who killed him.

After Bandaranaike’s death, the Education Minister Wijayananda Dahanayake was sworn in as Prime Minister. The new prime minister committed a grave blunder without realizing its implications.Since Buddharakkita Thero was a powerful force behind the throne and an influential figure in the Country , Dahanayake tried in his own way to ingratiate himself with the Bhikku.Little realizing that Buddharakkita was the evil genius behind the assassination, the new premier got the priest down to Temple Trees and arranged for an address to the nation over “Radio Ceylon” on Bandaranaike.

Notwithstanding a metaphorical mix-up one could say that the heights of hypocrisy and depths of duplicity were reached when Buddharakkita waxed eloquent about the murder of Bandaranaike. An unsuspecting Dahanayake sullied his reputation by being party to such a deceitful act. Later when Buddharakkita was arrested the rumour mills started grinding and Dahanayake too was a target of suspicion.

Ossie Corea

The notorious underworld figure Ossie Corea was also arrested. Ossie Corea who had at one time been working as an excise inspector was later an arrack renter and Kasippu merchant .Interestingly it transpired during trial that the gun used by Somarama was from Ossie Corea’s personal arsenal of six firearms. Also Ossie had shaved his head bald at the time of the assassination. This fuelled the rumour that it was Ossie Corea disguised as a Buddhist monk who had killed Bandaranaike.But subsequently Ossie Corea was also discharged.

The finance minister of the time Stanley de Zoysa was also a casualty. His brother FR de Zoysa a businessman was also one of the suspects. When FR de Zoysa was arrested on November21st his brother Stanley resigned his portfolio on Nov 23rd.Another brother Sydney de Zoysa who was senior DIG of Police was sent on compulsory leave. But FR de Zoysa though arrested was cleared of suspicion and released. Sydney was re-instated by Dahanayake as secretary of a newly set up internal security ministry.

In a sensational development Mapitigama Buddharakkita Thero was arrested on October 20th. This immediately caused pressure to be mounted on former Health and current Local government minister Vimala Wijewardene to resign. Mapitigama Buddharakkita was regarded as being very close to Vimala and had supported her politically in her polls campaign.Though a kinswoman of JR Jayewardena, ms. Wijewardene had contested against her nephew by marriage in the Kelaniya electorate in 1952. Buddharakkita had spent 60,000 rupees (a princely sum those days) for the campaign though she lost. In 1956 Buddharakkita had spent more than a lakh for her successful campaign in the Mirigama constituency.

The relationship between Vimala and Buddharakkita was the subject of several scurrilous pamphlets and sensational tabloids. Both had allegedly complained to Bandaranaike urging that action be taken to stop them. But SWRDB refused to do so and this fuelled resentment against the prime minister.So when Buddharakkita was arrested there was suspicion that Vimala too was involved in the conspiracy and should resign. But when Dahanayake asked her to resign the lady refused saying she was innocent. Finally when she was arrested on November 21st , Dahanayake had no choice other than to dismiss her from cabinet.In fairness to Vimala it must be noted that her innocence was subsequently proved and cleared of complicity in the crime.

Scotland Yard

Detectives from Scotland Yard in Britain were brought down to assist the Ceylon Police in the investigations.The then DIG-CID, D.C.T. Pate, SP Rajasooriya, SSIK Iyer ASP,,IP Abeywardena, IP AM Seneviratne and IP Tyrell Goonetilleke were responsible for the intensive Police investigation.

November 26th 1959 saw seven persons being charged in the chief magistrate’s court of Colombo on a charge of conspiring to murder SWRD Bandaranaike. They were

1. Mapitigama Buddharakkitha Thero
2. Hemachandra Piyasena Jayawardena
3. Pallihakarage Anura de Silva
4. Talduwe Somarama Thero
5. Weerasooriya Arachchige Newton Perera
6. Vimala Wijewardene
7. Amerasinghe Arachchige Carolis Amerasinghe

In addition to this Somarama Thero the fourth accused was also charged with commitment of murder. Incidently Somarama Thero had confessed to committing the murder in his statements to the Police and to the chief magistrate. However he changed his position at the Supreme court trial. “I did not shoot the primeminister. It is untrue that the 1st and 2nd accused or either of them requested me to do so. If I said so to the Magistrate, it is false. My statement to the Magistrate was not made of my own free will. I am not guilty.”stated Somarama in the Supreme court later.

Within a short time the seventh accused AAC Amerasinghe(Kolonnawa urban councillor)received a conditional pardon in terms of section 283 of the Criminal procedure code and thereafter became a witness for the prosecution.Non-summary proceedings began and after a long magisterial inquiry , the sixth accused Vimala Wijewardene was cleared of all charges of conspiracy and deemed innocent of any complicity. She was discharged on July 15th 1960. Her political career had effectively ended and in later years became religiously inclined and was a regular participant of Christian revival meetings.

The Magisterial Inquiry under Colombo Chief Magistrate N.A. de S. Wijesekara went on for 124 days with 193 witnesses testifying.The Chief Magistrate committed the first five accused to stand trial before Supreme Court on charges of conspiracy and murder.

T.S. Fernando

The Supreme court trial began against the five accused on 22nd February 1961 before Justice TS Fernando QC OBE . The foreman of the seven member Eglish speaking jury was DWL Lieversz snr. Ninety-seven witnesses testified and were cross examined. The Solicitor-General AC Alles along with deputy solicitor –general ACM Ameer conducted the case on behalf of the prosecution with senior crown counsels R.S.Wanasundara and R.I. Obeyesekera assisting.

The first accused Buddharakitha Thero and second accused Jayawrdena were able to retain a reputed British Queens counsel, Phineas Quass to defend them.The third accused Anura de Silva’s lawyer was Kenneth Shinya who was assisted by K.Ratnesar.The fourth accused Somarama Thero was defended by Lucian G.Weeramantry who appeared free of charge for the Bhikku. N. Satyendra son of eminent Queens counsel S. Nadesan appeared for the fifth accused Newton Perera. Satyendra was assisted by A. Mahesan.

The third accused Anura de Silva was acquitted with the jury voting unanimously in his favour. The fifth accused Newton Perera was acquitted on a divided verdict with five voting in favour of the accused and two against.The trial concluded on May 12th 1961 after fifty-five days of hearing. The proceedings were well publicized and extensively reported in the media. Within five days the Jury returned its verdict.

The Jury found the first accused Buddharakkitha Thero, second accused HP Jayewardena and fourth accused Somarama Thero guilty by a unanimous verdict.Death sentence was pronounced on all three of them. All three faced death by hanging. During the trial Somarama had stopped wearing the yellow robes when appearing in Courts.This led to Justice Fernando observing that Somarama “had a streak of conscience as he did not attend court in his saffron robes.”

It may be recalled that a dying Bandaranaike had urged compassion be shown to his killer. Contrary to his wishes the SLFP regimes in power under both Dahanayake (1959-60 March ) and Sirima Bandaranaike (1960 July – 1965)displayed a terrible vindictiveness rather than bestowing clemency upon the condemned.

Capital Punishment

When SWRD Bandaranaike was Prime minister his government had passed the suspension of Capital punishment act no 20 of 1958.This led to the death penalty being suspended from May 9th 1958.In the aftermath of Bandaranaike’s assassination the Dahanayake government revised its stance hastily.Within a week a gazette extraordinary proclamation dated October 2nd 1959 re-introduced the death penalty. This was to impose maximum penalty on those responsible for the assassination.

Thereafter new legislation was introduced. The Capital punishment (Repeal) Act was passed after speedy debate in Parliament.It became law on December 7th 1959. An obnoxious feature was the new law’s retrospective effect. It was crystal clear that the intention was to inflict the death penalty on those responsible for the earlier assassination of September 26th.

However even the best laid plans of men and mice turn awry.Though all three convicted persons would have had to face the death penalty there was a legal loophole that helped Buddharakkita and Jayewardena.

Before the suspension of capital punishment act was passed even those guilty of murder and a murder conspiracy had to face death as punishment. But section 2 of the suspension act ensured that capital punishment not be imposed for the murder offence and conspiracy for the commission of murder.The punishment was reduced to a maximum of life imprisonment.

In its haste to repeal the suspension act and re-impose the death penalty with retrospective effect the Dahanayake regime had made a slip. While the repeal act specifically provided for sentence of death for a person convicted for murder committed prior to December 2nd 1959 there was no similar provision made specifically for the offence of conspiracy to commit murder.

The funeral

The funeral

Court of Criminal Appeal

All three convicted persons appealed against their death sentence to the then Court of Criminal Appeal. The five Judge bench presided over by Chief Justice Hema H. Basnayake comprised – Justices MC Sansoni, HNG Fernando, N. Sinnetamby and LB de Silva.

The prosecution team was led by a lawyer from the unofficial bar, George E. Chitty, QC, who was specially retained by the Attorney General. This arrangement was opposed by deputy solicitor –general Ameer who resigned in protest. (Ameer was later appointed Attorney General by the Dudley Senanayake Government of 1965-70).George Chitty was assisted by LBT Premaratne QC and Crown Counsel Ananda Pereira.

It was argued on behalf of Buddharakkitha and Jayewardena that the maximum punishment for the offence of conspiring to commit murder was rigorous imprisonment for life. E.G.Wickremanayake, QC, submitted that the Act which re-introduced the death penalty for murder did not in specific terms re-introduce such penalty for conspiracy to commit murder.

The Criminal Appeal court concurred with the submission.The appeal of all three were dismissed but courts amended the sentences imposed on Buddharakkitha and Jayewardena from death to rigorous life imprisonment. Thus both of them were saved from the gallows due to this legal loophole.

An SLFP government led by Bandaranaike’s widow was now in office. The most powerful minister in her cabinet was a nephew Felix Dias Bandaranaike. Despite SWRD’s plea for clemency the SLFP government was unforgivingly ruthless. Angered by the Appeal court decision the government decided to go ahead and enact special legislation.

On January 18th 1962 the Parliament’s order paper carried notice of presentation of the capital punishment (Special provisions) bill. It was presented by CP de Silva the leader of the House.The bill dealt specifically with the Bandaranaike assassination and made express provision for execution of those convicted for murder and conspiracy to murder the former premier. Clause 3 of the bill rendered null and void the Appeal courts decision to alter death sentence to life imprisonment for those guilty of conspiracy.

The malevolent nature of the bill evoked loud protests and outcry. It was obvious that a vengeful government was planning to condemn to the gallows persons who benefited from a legal loophole. LSSP leader and eminent lawyer Dr. Colvin R de Silva summed up the bill pithily by observing that the “barbarous bill amounted to murder by statute”.

ලක්ෂ සංඛ්‍යාත ජනතාවගේ අවසන් බුහුමන්   Crowds paying last homage   இலட்சக்கணக்கான மக்களின் இறுதி மரியாதை

ලක්ෂ සංඛ්‍යාත ජනතාවගේ අවසන් බුහුමන්
Crowds paying last homage
இலட்சக்கணக்கான மக்களின் இறுதி மரியாதை

Privy Council

Meanwhile all three convicted persons resorted to have their verdicts reversed by the Judicial committee of the Privy council in the UK. Applications for special leave to appeal to Her Majesty in Privy Council by all three convicted persons were refused by an order of the Privy Council in May 1962. Sir Dingle Foot QC, appeared on an honorary basis for Ven. Somarama, at the final appeal before the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council.

Appalled by the adverse reaction and widespread opposition the government simply withdrew the bill on January 25th on the pretext that an appeal to the Privy council was in progress. On January 27th 1962 the Country was shocked by news of an abortive coup d’etat. With that the focus on the Bandaranaike assassination shifted.

Talduwe Somarama Thero prepared himself to face death.He thanked in open court his counsel Weeramanthri who appeared free for him “I thank my counsel who defended me at this trial like a true lion.”Weeks before his execution Somarama was converted to Christianity and was baptised in his cell by an Anglican Priest.He was hanged in the Welikade gallows on July 6th 1962 at the age of 48. The hanging was undertaken by State executioner Lewis Singho and his assistant Subatheris Appu.

The Dudley Senanayake Government of 1965 -70 on May 7, 1966 commuted the life imprisonment sentences of the 1st and 2nd accused to 20-years.However the 1st accused Mapitigama Buddharakkitha Thero died in 1967 of a heart ailment aged 46-years after having served time at Welikada prison for 71/2-years of his sentence.The 2nd accused Hemachandra Piyasena Jayawardena served 171/2-years of his sentence and was released on August 4, 1977.

In 1963 the Sirima Bandaranaike government appointed a commission of inquiry under the provisions of the Commissions of Enquiry Act to probe on the political aspects of the SWRD Bandaranaike assassination. Justice TS Fernando,Justice Abdel Younis from Egypt (UAR) and Justice GC Mills-Odich from Ghana were the commissioners. After perusing earlier material and questioning more witnesses the commission released a report as sessional paper III of 1964.The only adverse finding in the report was against Vimala Wijewardena who had been discharged in 1960.

DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at