By T. Thurai –
Nine years of researching the background to my novel The Devil Dancers introduced me to some fascinating historical characters. One of the most remarkable was Sir Oliver Goonetilleke,(1892 –1978), one of the key architects of Ceylon’s Independence and the first Ceylonese to hold the post of Governor-General. This is the second of three articles on one of the most brilliant statesman of his generation.
The road to Independence
On 26 September 1947, Ceylon’s first Cabinet was sworn in. Led by Prime Minister D.S. Senanayake, the list of 14 Ministers included figures that were to play a leading role in shaping the new nation.
For instance, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was both Minister for Health and Local Government as well as leader of the House of Representatives. Sir Oliver and John Kotelawala also held Cabinet positions: Sir Oliver as Minister for Home affairs and Kotelawala heading the Ministry for Transport and Works.
The Times provides an interesting breakdown of the constituent parts of that Cabinet. After coyly noting that “Mr Bandaranaike … is the son of the late Sir Solomon Dias Bandaranaike and was educated at Christ Church, Oxford”, it cited four “other university men” (that is, those who had attended British universities).
Further analysis of the Cabinet revealed nine lawyers, nine low-country Sinhalese (including Sir Oliver), two Kandyan Sinhalese, two Tamils and one Muslim. Ten of the ministers were Buddhist, two were Hindus, one was a Muslim and another – Sir Oliver – was a Christian.
Prior to this appointment, Sir Oliver had been Financial Secretary and, being the first native Ceylonese to assume this post, he again made history by becoming one of the ‘Officers of State’. In this role in 1946, he became unusually outspoken.
Taking a tough stance on trade, he hinted at a heavy duty to be levied on exports of tea, warning planters that they should not expect all of the increased profit to go into their pockets. He proposed a similarly strong line against UK and US with regard to duty on rubber exports.
Referring to a recent visit to the United Kingdom, he declared: “For the first time in history the Ceylon Board of Ministers stood up against Imperialism and vested interests.”
This may, of course, be regarded as part of the general manoeuvring prior to Independence – Sir Oliver’s moves were usually part of a broader strategy – but it is an interesting departure from the usual statesmanlike neutrality which usually marked his relationships with both foreign powers and those within his own country.
Back from the abyss
In 1954, Sir Oliver enjoyed another triumph, succeeding Lord Soulbury as the first Ceylonese to exercise vice-regal power as the country’s Governor-General. In this role, he provided invaluable support to four Prime Ministers, the first of which was his old friend, Sir John Kotelawala.
However, Sir Oliver rendered his greatest service during the civil riots of 1958. An already dangerous situation had been fatally mishandled by Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike who, in an address to the nation, had misrepresented both the manner in which the riots had started and the persons responsible. The result was a conflagration that threatened to engulf the whole country.
Tarzie Vittachi’s account of this episode “Emergency ‘58” portrays a Prime Minister virtually paralysed by his own inadequacy. It also describes how the Governor-General broke with tradition to visit the Prime Minister in his home to impress on him the need for a State of Emergency.
In fact, it was Sir Oliver who declared the State of Emergency and martialled the armed services to quell the rioting while the Prime Minister merged into the shadows. “The Prime Minister, for reasons never openly stated by him anywhere, took the unprecedented step of passing the buck back to the Governor-General—thus making Sir Oliver Goonetilleke virtual ruler of Ceylon.”
Although critical of Sir Oliver’s showmanship and theatricality – and his attempts to silence the press – Vittachi praised qualities that made the “old fox” a perfect choice for the job: “his razor-sharp mind, his adeptness at bluffing his way through the stickiest mess, his ability to visualize the opponent’s manoeuvres three moves ahead, his sweeping cynicism, his blasé attitude to scruples which would baulk another man over weighted with conscience.”
He also recounts an extraordinary episode which, if it had become public, could easily have tipped the balance, plunging the country into civil war.
A gang of goondas attacked the iconic Buddhist temple of Nagadipa on the island of Nainativu, causing extensive damage to the temple buildings and destroying a statue of Buddha that had been donated by the Burmese government to commemorate the recent Buddha Jayanti celebrations.
In an extraordinary operation led by the Governor-General, the disaster was kept secret, the temple was rebuilt and the statue restored in a period of just eight weeks: a remarkable achievement that doubtless saved many lives.
The bloodless coup
While Sir Oliver was largely responsible for restoring calm after the 1958 riots, further political trauma was to take place the following year. On 25 September 1959, Mr Bandaranaike was fatally shot in his home, the victim of a plot masterminded by his erstwhile supporter Mapitigama Buddharakkita Thera.
Eight months later, Mr Bandaranaike’s wife Sirimavo was elected Prime Minister. Her incumbency marked a substantial shift from the more relaxed and liberal forms of government that preceded her premiership.
In the speech that opened the new Parliament, the Government announced its intention of taking over the newspapers. A few months later, the armed forces were sent into the Northern and Eastern provinces, the whole island was placed under a State of Emergency, press censorship and a curfew were imposed, the Federal Party was proscribed and 45 people, including MPs, were arrested.
In 1962, an article in The Times noted two more measures that had stirred up further opposition to the Government. These were: the taking over of private schools, many of them Roman Catholic which “was handled intemperately”; and a Bill which retrospectively imposed the death sentence for conspiracy and which “has brought the Ceylon Bar out in almost unanimous condemnation.”
A picture emerges of a Government that was beset with problems to which it responded with increasingly draconian solutions. Another brief item in The Times reported that “the Governor-General of Ceylon has extended the state of emergency, proclaimed last April, for another period.” It also noted the mutterings of Opposition MPs “alleging that the stage was being set for permanent military rule.”
Shortly afterwards, plans for a coup were discovered. The conspirators were a group of high-ranking police and army officers many of whom appear to have been Christian and were, possibly, motivated by the Government’s appropriation of faith schools.
While details of the conspiracy were vague, one of the leaders Colonel F.C. de Saram was reported to have said that, once the coup had taken place, the plotters had intended to force Sir Oliver to take over the Government. It was also claimed that both Sir John Kotelawala (at that time residing in England) and Dudley Senanayake had prior knowledge of the plot.
All of this was reported to the House of Representatives by Felix Dias Bandaranaike, Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Defence and External affairs and close relative of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike. While no evidence was adduced to substantiate these claims – and Felix Bandaranaike was careful to state that the Government had not made any allegations against the Governor-General – the damage was done. What is clear from newspaper reports is that Mr Bandaranaike never lost an opportunity to link Sir Oliver’s name with the attempted coup.
Sir Oliver offered to submit himself to investigation. However, his offer was not taken up and, without any reference to the Governor-General, the Prime Minister requested that the Queen replace him with a prominent Kandyan lawyer M.W. Gopallawa who had been Ceylonese ambassador to both Washington and Peking.
Viewed in retrospect, it looks as if the Government took advantage of the plot to mount its own counter-coup and rid itself of some ‘old-school’ politicians who it may have regarded as a threat to its own power due to their continuing influence within Ceylon and close ties with Britain.
Back in 1960, The Times had described Sir Oliver as standing “all-seeing, all-knowing” behind the interim Prime Minister Mr Dahanayake. It also made a prophetic comment: “These men have been accused of separately wishing to secure all power in their hands, but on the face of it this does not seem to be the case. At present no dictator, military or civilian, is in sight.”
Events two years later show that these fears had not been laid to rest, however groundless they may have been. With his wealth of experience, Sir Oliver was probably regarded by the executive as a potential threat to its own power, whatever his intentions.
Whatever the truth, it is clear that in his role as Governor-General, Sir Oliver had been living on borrowed time. Already by 1959, his customary 5-year period of tenure had been extended by two years and, beyond the end of that term, he had continued in office indefinitely pending the appointment of a successor.
Nonetheless, the circumstances which obliged him to leave office must have left a bad taste. It was a bitter irony that a man who had done everything to ensure his country’s stability should have been linked – however tenuously – to a coup.
Yet, despite the injustice of his treatment, he never made any public complaint or levelled any criticism at those who had sought his dismissal. According to his biographer Sir Charles Jeffries, Sir Oliver’s personal motto was ‘Service with humility’. This may well account for the dignity with which he faced the attack on his reputation.
A week after vacating the post of Governor-General, Sir Oliver quietly left Ceylon for an undisclosed destination. He was in his seventieth year and had completed 40 years of public service.
Next: Part 3 – Life in Exile