It is sixty years since a coup d’état by senior officers of the military and police, planned for midnight 27th January 1962, was aborted. This event was a critical moment in the country’s history. And it had an impact that reverberates down to the present.
With the end of direct British rule in 1948, a movement to replace English with Sinhala as the official language and to gain state patronage for Buddhism gathered momentum. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike led the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) to an election victory in 1956 by committing to such reform. But to the westernised Ceylonese establishment, these reforms which brought with them Sinhala-Buddhist militancy and a political role for Buddhist monks, undermined the stability of the world they knew. It threatened their professional positions and social privileges as well. With the election of Mrs. Bandaranaike as Prime Minister in July 1960 this process seemed to accelerate and the westernised middle class feared the eclipse of a secular plural state and its replacement with a Buddhist theocracy.
On the motive for the Coup, one of its key leaders Sydney de Zoysa, former Deputy Inspector General of Police (DIG) said “the great issue then was the schools take-over. N.Q. Dias was a Buddhist chauvinist, and determined to take everything over into a Buddhist state.” (K.M. de Silva & Howard Wriggins: J. R. Jayewardene of Sri Lanka)
Because a Christian education for their children is imperative, the take-over of Catholic schools was bitterly opposed by the Church and the Catholic community. Parents occupied the schools and a tense standoff prevailed. In November 1960 the Army was brought in for internal security duties relating to the schools takeover and “there were demands in the Cabinet to…move forcefully against Christians protesting the takeover of the denominational schools.” (Donald Horowitz: Coup Theories and Officers’ Motives)
The government meanwhile went ahead with its language policy and in January 1961 Sinhala became the country’s official language. “Army officers who were Sinhala Christians retired under the language act because they thought their careers had no future. The police had been about three-fourths Christian. In 1962 police and military officers staged a coup attempt, led not by Tamils but by Sinhala Christians.” (Patrick Peebles: The History of Sri Lanka)
In the Army the conspiracy originated in the artillery, with leadership provided by Colonel Maurice de Mel, former Chief of Staff, Colonel F.C. ‘Derek’ de Saram, OBE ED Deputy Commandant of the Ceylon Volunteer Force and Lt Col Willie Abrahams MBE. In the Police there were two chains of command: DIG C.C. ‘Jungle’ Dissanayake who directed metropolitan officers and former DIG Sidney de Zoysa who directed provincial officers.
The plan was that at ten pm on the night of Saturday 27th, Jungle Dissanayake would order the Police to seal off the city of Colombo, secure its approaches and announce a curfew for midnight. Willie Abrahams would take over Temple Trees and arrest Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike. And at midnight Derek de Saram would go to Queen’s House (the Governor-General’s residence) and inform Sir Oliver Goonetilleke GCMG KCVO KBE KStJ, that officers of the Army and Police had taken over the government.
However, unknown to the other conspirators, Superintendent of Police Colombo, Stanley Senanayake, one of Jungle Dissanayake’s key lieutenants, had got in touch with his father-in-law Patrick de S Kularatne MP a founder member of the SLFP and informed him about the Coup. Kularatne immediately went to the Orient Club where the Inspector General of Police (IGP) was playing bridge, and appraised him of the plot; he also informed Felix Dias, Parliamentary Secretary (Deputy) to the Minister of Defence and External Affairs. The Coup was aborted, the participants arrested, tried and convicted. On appeal to the Privy Council however they were freed on a point of law.
After the Coup
Over the last sixty years precisely what the Coup participants feared, and what the Coup tried to counter, would come to pass. Namely, the unimpeded growth of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism and its increasing control of the state.
Secular Ceylonese opinion endured years of retreat in the expectation that when the United National Party (UNP) returned to power, the tide of sectarian nationalism would be stemmed. But to their bitter disappointment, not only were the denominational schools not returned to the Churches, but Sundays ceased to be the weekly holiday when the UNP returned to office in 1965.
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 constitutions. “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 aftermath of the Coup the 2nd (Volunteer) Squadron, Ceylon Signal Corps was disbanded. As were the 1st Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment, 2nd (Volunteer) Light Anti Aircraft Regiment and the 3rd Field Artillery Regiment of the Ceylon Artillery. The 1st HAA Reg was amalgamated with the 3 Field Artillery Reg to become the 4th Reg CA in April 1962. Troops from the disbanded artillery and signals unit formed the nucleus of the 1st and 2nd Volunteer Battalions the Ceylon National Guard. The 2nd Volunteer Field & Plant Regiment Ceylon Engineers along with troops from the disbanded Signal Corps (V) were reconstituted as the 4th (Volunteer) Development and Construction Regiment, Ceylon Engineers.
A new infantry regiment was also raised in 1962, the 1st Battalion the Gemunu Watch under Lt Col John Halangoda. “The names of the new military units formed after 1956 – Sinha Regiment and Gemunu Watch had clear Sinhala nationalist flavor,” notes Channa Wickremesekera in A Tough Apprenticeship: Sri Lanka’s Military against Tamil Militants 1979-1987. “The mascot of the Ceylon Light Infantry was the elephant Kandula named after the war elephant of King Dutugemunu who defeated the Tamil King Elara.”
“The Police and the Army were purged after the Plot by N.Q. Dias, Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Defence,” explains Donald Horowitz. In the wake of the Coup Felix Dias stated that “the opportunity must not be lost to complete and make radical reforms in the Police Service, in the Armed Services…deterrent punishment of a severe character must be imposed upon all those who are guilty of this…pursuit of reactionary aims and objectives.” (Sri Lanka Army 50 Years on)
And most important the composition of its officer corps was reconstituted. “Sinhalese Buddhists two thirds of the population accounted for only two fifth of the officer corps in the pre-1956 period,” notes Horowitz. During 1956-60 there was an “increase in the number of Buddhist officers and the decrease in the number of Christian officers… After Mrs. Bandaranaike took office in July 1960, every single cadet sent from Ceylon to Sandhurst was a Sinhalese… after 1962 there was a dramatic shift toward recruitment of the Sinhalese, as against all other ethnic groups, and towards Buddhists as against Christians…When these shifts did occur, they occurred with a vengeance…These changes which began under Mrs. Bandaranaike’s first government (1960-65) , continued under Dudley Senanayake’s UNP government (1965-70) and under Mrs. Bandaranaike’s successor government (1970-77).”
The Military consequences
Officers from the minority community like Brig Russell Heyn, Brig Roy Jayatilleke MBE, 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 Government-appointed 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.
Finally there was the anti-Tamil rioting of 1983, which led to hundreds of thousands of Tamils abandoning the country and the expulsion of the Tamil political leadership from Parliament via the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution. “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 burned.”
So it was not without reason that in his pre-riot speech in Aluthgama on 15 June 2014 Secretary General of Bodu Bala Sena, Ven Galagoda Atte Gnanasara warned that “This country still has a Sinhala police, a Sinhala army. If after today a single Muslim or some other alien lays a hand on a single Sinhalese, let alone a robe, it will be the end of all these creatures”
“’All I can say’ concluded one Police Officer who had been involved with the coup, ’is that if it had succeeded, Ceylon would have been a better place to live in today,’” (Horowitz)