P. K. Balachandran, in the Daily News, 1 June 2006
In the troubled post-independence history of Sri Lanka, the abortive military coup d’ etat of January 27, 1962 may end up being a footnote, given the fact that no shots were fired, no troops were moved, and the bid was nipped in the bud thanks to timely information. But there is much more to the attempted coup than meets the eye. The effort of the top brass of the army, navy and the police to seize power reflected emerging religious, socio-cultural and political fissures in post-independence Sri Lanka, fissures which torment the country to this day, 44 years down the line. And the way the investigations and the trial of the 24 high ranking officers were conducted, betrayed the deep set anxieties of the new post-independence elite.
Conflict of elites: The coup attempt brought out the brewing conflict between the entrenched elites and the newly emerging elites in post-independence Sri Lanka (or Ceylon as it was known before 1972).
The conflict was unleashed by independence from British rule and freedom from Western cultural domination in 1948, and the emergence of Left of Centre regimes led by SWRD Bandaranaike and his wife and successor, Sirimavo Bandaranaike in the latter half of the 1950s and early 1960s.
The entrenched elites had the following hallmarks: They were predominantly Christian (Catholic and Protestant); Westernised; urban and right wing. And the newly emerging elites, or more accurately, the newly emerging forces, were Sinhala-Buddhist, non-Westernised, rural and left wing.
The entrenched elite had a strong minority component, with an over-representation of Tamils and Burghers (the latter a minuscule community of mixed Sri Lankan, Dutch and Portuguese blood).
But the newly emerging elite was predominantly Sinhala-Buddhist, drawn from the majority community in the island. Therefore, it is not without significance, that the conspirators were entirely or almost entirely, Christian, upper class, Westernised and right wing. And not surprisingly, they were ardent supporters of the somewhat upper class, rightwing, and Westernised United National Party (UNP), though the UNP itself had nothing whatsoever to do with the coup or the conspiracy.
Bid to correct ethnic imbalances: In his paper entitled “The Armed Services in a Period of Change: 1949-66 written for the Clingendael Institute of the Netherlands in 2001, the well-known Sri Lankan historian Dr. K.M. de Silva says that till second half of the 1950s, the Sri Lankan army officer corps was three fifths Christian, Tamil and Burgher. Christians, both Sinhala and Tamil, who were one tenth of the country’s population, were over-represented by a factor of six, he says. But the Sinhala-Buddhists, who were 70% of the island’s population, constituted only two fifths of the officer corps.
But by 1960, following the Sinhala-Buddhist revolution triggered by SWRD Bandaranaike’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the coalition, Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP), the officer corps had undergone a radical change in its communal complexion. “In just over 10 years after the establishment of the army (1949), however, the Sinhalese began to be over-represented in the officer corps as well,” Dr. de Silva notes.
The police too were affected. This was the reason why quite a chunk of the conspirators belonged to the police. In 1958, SWRD Bandaranaike overlooked three senior Christian claimants to the post of Inspector General of Police (IGP) and appointed a Buddhist.
“The message was clear: religious affiliation was an important consideration in appointments to politically sensitive posts such as that of IGP.
The armed forces were spared such changes till the early 1960s ie: till after Bandaranaike’s assassination and the succession of his widow Sirimavo Bandaranaike as Prime Minister in July 1960,” Dr. de Silva points out.
“Major shifts in the ethnic and religious composition of the police and army officer corps became evident almost as soon as she came to power,” he adds.
Upper class-Christian revolt: No wonder then that, all the 24 charged with conspiring to overthrow the lawfully constituted government were Christians, either Sinhala, Tamil or Burgher. In terms of ethnicity, there were 12 Sinhalese, six Tamils and six Burghers among them.
Many of them were from the upper classes. Col. Fredrick C. de Saram, the Artillery officer who was the leader of the group and the 3rd defendent, was Oxford educated. In her fascinating book entitled To Wage War Against the Queen (personal publication dated 2002) Dorothy Ludowyk Joseph, wife of the 14th defendent Maj.Victor Joseph, says that Col. de Saram was “considered conceited” and “seemed somewhat of a snob”.
Rear Admiral Royce de Mel, the 6th defendent, was the country’s Naval chief, and his brother, Col. Maurice de Mel, the 2nd defendant, was the Chief of Staff of the Army, the second-in-command. Tony Anghie, 11th defendent, and Nimal Jayakody 10th defendent, were Sandhurst trained.
CC “Jungle” Dissanayake, the 4th defendent, was a top ranking police officer. Basil Jesudason, a Volunteer Corps officer, and the 15th defendent, was in a high position in the private sector. Rodney de Mel, the 24th defendent, was a planter.
All of them were Anglophiles, who were also deeply disturbed by the change in the culture of Ceylon after 1956, when the “Sinhalisation” of the island began, and when the hoi polloi from the rural backyard stormed into the bastions of power in Colombo.
In the first eight years of independence, life was cushy for the Westernised in Ceylon. “People accepted our Western culture and way of life, our class system that matched that of our Colonial masters, and the dynasties that stayed in power, ruling and guiding our destinies,” Dorothy Joseph writes.
But describing the scene in 1961, one year before the abortive coup, she says: “A pall of depression hung over the land, strikes had crippled Ceylon’s economy and people suffered for want of every description.All save a favoured few were anxious and harassed with the high cost of living, with ever increasing scarcity of employment, fear of the future and the threat of communism on the horizon.”
“The dockers had been on strike for months. The Army had been working at the port and the queue of ships outside the harbour had lengthened daily.Every boat leaving our shores carried those who sailed towards a better life across the water. Some went gladly, filled with a sense of adventure and hope. Some went reluctantly into exile because they would rather stay, but felt that they owed their children a better deal.”
“At every gathering, in every drawing room, the question was asked and hung unanswered in mid air: How long will this deterioration continue? Is there no way to stop it?”
The Army was being used to quell growing civil unrest triggered by the “Sinhala-Only” policy of SWRD Bandaranaike.
“When anti-Tamil riots erupted in Colombo and elsewhere in the wake of the changes in language policy introduced in May 1956, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike had to rely on the armed services to put them down,” writes Dr K.M. de Silva. “And during the Premiership of his wife Sirimavo in 1961, the armed forces were used for the first time in the Tamil areas of the North against a Civil Disobedience movement.”
“Strains between the armed services and the civilian authority appeared when she sought to increase the number of Sinhalese-Buddhists in the officer corps of the armed services and the police, and to give greater influence to them in the running of the armed services and the police,” he adds.
Pakistan dictator Ayub was model: As disillusionment about the state of affairs in Sri Lanka grew, there were certain developments in the South Asian region which offered the disgruntled military brass a ray of hope and a plan of action to remedy the situation.
The coup led by the Pakistan Army Chief, Gen Mohammad Ayub Khan, in October 1958, was an eye opener on what an efficient force like the armed services could do.
On this point, Dr de Silva says: ” 1960s were a time when military regimes still had the reputation of being more efficient and less corrupt than civilian authorities.”
“Pakistan under Ayub Khan seemed to be doing much better than that country’s civilian politicians in holding together and at stimulating economic growth; some of the leaders of the abortive coup of 1962 in Sri Lanka regarded him and his experiment in ‘indirect’ democracy as a model to be emulated in Sri Lanka then in the throes of its first phase of the Sinhala-Tamil conflict, and in the penultimate phase of the conflict between the Buddhists and Roman Catholics.”
“All the coup leaders blamed the governing party for the ill effects of their populist policies: turmoil in the form of ethnic riots; economic stagnation if not decline; and political instability.”
Rule by junta of ex-PMs planned: Interestingly, the plotters did not plan to rule Sri Lanka directly. They wanted to set up a junta of ex-Prime Ministers, who, they believed, shared their concerns and would toe their line. “They believed they had a remedy for all this, in the substitution of a Sri Lankan form of ‘indirect’ democracy under the rule of a junta of ex-Prime Ministers,” says Dr de Silva.
According to Dorothy Joseph, some of the State or Crown witnesses tried to link the then Governor General, Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, and former Prime Ministers, Dudley Senanayake and Sir John Kotelawala, with the conspiracy. Policeman Stanley Senanayake, the original informant, said to the trial court that his boss, CC Dissanayake, the 4th defendant and top police official, had told him that Sir Oliver was “in it” as were Dudley Senanayake and Sir John.
The luminaries were indeed right wing and very Westernised, viewing with alarm the left wing populism of the Bandaranaikes.
But the plotters’ hope was misplaced. They got no support from any of the personages mentioned because these men were truly wedded to constitutional methods. At any rate, as Dorothy Joseph herself says, the allegations against the luminaries were “never corroborated.”
Lack of expected support from Sir Oliver, especially, is cited as one of the reasons for the failure of the coup.
Desperate measures to secure conviction: The fact that “no overt act had been committed, no troops had been moved and no guns were fired,” made the task of proving the charge very difficult, notes Dorothy Joseph.
The fact that the accused had the best of lawyers led by G.G. Ponnambalam, H.W. Jayewardene and S.J. Kadirgamar to counter the “inquisitor” Felix Dias Bandaranaike, the Minister of Defence, added to the prosecution’s woes.
The trump card in the hands of Felix Dias Bandaranaike was the confession made by Col FC de Saram that he had “planned to take over the government and had ordered officers to attend meetings” in this connection.
The fact that Rear Adm. Royce de Mel (the Naval chief and the 6th.accused) was absconding for some time, added grist to the prosecution’s mill.
But given the problems in proving a coup plot, and afraid that the military could become too powerful if the case was not made an example of, the Mrs Bandaranaike government resorted to desperate measures to fix the accused.
The government put in place a new law called “Criminal Law Special Provision Act of 1962” under which hearsay could be admitted as evidence. And to bring the coup case under the draconian law, it was given retrospective effect from January 1, 1962.
“All rules of jurisprudence were transgressed,” comments Dorothy Joseph.
To break the will of the men and secure confessions, they were put in solitary confinement.
Legal infirmities: But the first Trial at Bar held in 1962, under the new law, ended in disaster for the government because the judges dissolved the court saying that they were appointed by the Executive, when the latter had no constitutional right to do so.
The Act was then amended to get the Supreme Court to appoint the judges. But the second court also dissolved itself because of one of the judges, in his earlier job as Attorney General, had assisted the investigation of the case.
A Third Court sat for 324 days from June 3, 1963, and convicted 11 of the 24 accused including Douglas Liyanage, Col. Maurice de Mel, Rear Admiral Royce de Mel, Col F.C. de Saram and C.C. Dissanayake.
The sentence was 10 years in jail and confiscation of property.
Privy Council slams law, acquits all: The convicted took their case to the Privy Council in London. In its ruling given in December 1965, it held the Special Act of 1962 ultra vires of the Ceylon constitution. It said that the Act had denied fair trial. The law had been specially enacted to convict the men. The men under trial did not have the protections that they would have had under general criminal law, the council said.
The law’s intentions were suspect. “Legislation directed against selected individuals or against the individual is not law,” it said, acquitting all the eleven.
Reconstitution of officer corps continues:
The failure of the coup of 1962 did not reduce the sense of insecurity in the government. The Sirimavo Bandaranaike government continued to purge the officer corps in the armed forces and the police on religious lines, says Dr. de Silva. “The guiding spirit in this drastic process of reconstitution of the officer corps of the armed services and the police was religion not ethnic identity, an important aspect of the long conflict between Buddhist and Christian in Sri Lankan society which was reaching its climax at this time,” he observes.
P. K. Balachandran is Special Correspondent of Hindustan Times