Sixty years ago on September 25, 1959, Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike (SWRDB) the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka then known as Ceylon was shot and seriously wounded by a Buddhist monk named Ven.Talduwe Somarama Thera. Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike succumbed to his injuries the following day. The fourth Prime Minister of Independent Ceylon/Sri Lanka passed away on September 26, 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 at about 7.00 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 at the inquest, a verdict of homicide was recorded by City Coroner J.N.C. Tiruchelvam, J.P.U.M. He said, “death was due to shock and haemorrhage resulting from multiple injuries to the thoracic and abdominal organs”.
Events relating to the shooting of SWRD Bandaranaike and his demise were re-visited in detail in these columns last week. This article therefore will follow up with details of the probes, arrests, trial, acquittals and convictions pertaining to SWRD Bandaranaike’s assassination six decades ago.
The Inspector General of Police at the time of Bandaranaike’s assassination was the respected civil servant Walter F. Abeykoon who was SWRDB’s personal friend and partner at bridge. He had been appointed IGP on May 1, 1959 by Bandaranaike amid controversial circumstances. It is a tale worth recounting today at a time when the country’s Police force particularly senior Police officers are accused of being minions of their political masters.
Osmund de Silva had been serving as the IGP since 1955. There was a wave of strikes in 1959 that plagued the Bandaranaike-led Government. The situation was particularly acute in the Colombo Port sector where leftist-led Trade Unions dominated. An exasperated SWRD Bandaranaike summoned IGP Osmund de Silva and asked him to break up the strike, arrest the trouble-making trade unionists and lock them up. Osmund de Silva refused point blank saying there were no grounds to arrest them unless the Police “cooked up” something and that doing so would be unlawful. The Premier then said he expected extra loyalty from the IGP to which Osmund de Silva replied that his loyalty was first and foremost to the law of the land. An angered Bandaranaike sent Osmund de Silva on compulsory retirement on April 24, 1959. Osmund de Silva convened a hasty conference of senior Police officials and related details of the incident with the Prime Minister and departed proudly after re-iterating to his fellow police officers to always uphold the law and not adopt extra-legal measures at the behest of politicians
Osmund de Silva was very popular within the force. His ‘ouster’ therefore was strongly resented. Moreover Osmund was the first Buddhist IGP in Sri Lanka. The Sinhala Buddhist forces unleashed by Bandaranaike in 1956 also objected to his removal. The next in line to be IGP in terms of seniority was Senior DIG C.C. “Jungle” Dissanayake, who was a Christian. Next to Dissanayake in seniority was DIG Sydney de Zoysa, who was also a Christian. Solomon Bandaranaike who was born and baptized as an Anglican did not want to appoint either of the Christians as IGP. So he brought in an outsider -- his friend and civil servant Walter Abeykoon. The overlooked C.C. Dissanayake immediately tendered his resignation but later withdrew it.
In its haste to repeal the suspension Act and re-impose the death penalty with retrospective effect the Dahanayake regime had made a slip
Intensive Police Investigation
Against this backdrop, IGP Abeykoon took a very personal interest in probing Bandaranaike’s assassination. The then DIG-CID, David C.T. Pate was in charge of the intensive police investigation. Other senior officials involved were Superintendent of Police, Rajasooriya, Assistant Superintendent of Police, S.S.I.K. Iyer and Police Inspectors S. Abeywardena, A.M. Seneviratne and Tyrell Goonetilleke. Detectives from Scotland Yard in Britain were brought down to assist the Ceylon Police in their investigations.
As news of the investigation into the killing was published in the newspapers a wide range of conspiracy theories started floating around. They gathered momentum with suspects being arrested and detained. The accusing finger was pointing towards some prominent Sinhala personalities.
There was much interest focused on the sole assassin, the Ven. Talduwe Somarama Thera. Somarama’s name at Birth was Talduwe Ratugama Rallage Weris Singho. He was born on August 27, 1915 to Ratugama Rallage Dieris Appuhamy and Iso Hamy. Weris Singho was educated at the TalduweIhala school and in Dehiowita. He donned the yellow robes on January 20, 1929 at the age of fourteen. Somarama was ordained in Kandy on June 25, 1936 at the age of twenty-one. In later years he qualified as an Ayurvedic physician specializing in eye ailments. He was a visiting lecturer at the College of Indigenous Medicine in Borella while residing at the Amara Vihare in Kotte.
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.
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?
Mapitigama Buddharakkita Thera
As investigations progressed, the finger of guilt also began pointing towards the charismatic Buddhist prelate Ven. Mapitigama Buddharakkita Thera who was the Viharadhipathi 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 Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (Peoples United Front)during the 1956 elections.
Contrary to tenets of the “Vinaya”, Buddharakkita Thera dabbled discreetly in commerce and had large sums of money at his disposal. The powerful priest had spent more than150,000 rupees personally for the MEP election campaign. His clout therefore was massive with the government and the monk was in a sense the Rasputin or Richelieu of Sri Lanka
Buddharakita Thera made strong attempts to control SWRD Bandaranaike and transform him into a puppet but the aristocratic Oxonian though beleaguered would not give in totally to Buddharakkita’s diktat. Irritated by this the “kingmaker” priest now decided to remove Bandaranaike altogether. The flash-point causing this change of mind was not race, class or ideology. It was sordid commerce and a sense of personal affront.
Three Issues Rankled
Three 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 Hemachandra Piyasena Jayawardena to import rice on behalf of the Government Food Department from Burma (Myanmar) and Thailand. The company had been floated under the guidance of a former director of Ceylon Shipping Lines Ltd., Major R. Baptist.
The second was over a sugar manufacturing licence to start a sugar factory costing many crores of rupees. SWRD acting on the advice of the then Agriculture and Food minister Philip Gunewardena and the Trade and Commerce minister R.G. Senanayake had refused to give the shipping contract to the company resulting in great financial loss to Buddharakita and his front-man Jayawardena. The Sugar manufacturing license was also denied by the PM on the advice of the two ministers.
The third was an issue of a personal nature.Vimala Wijewardene was the only woman minister in the Bandaranaike Cabinet. She was earlier the Health Minister and later Minister of Local Government and Housing. A vicious gossip campaign was underway maligning Vimala Wijewardene together with Buddharakita Thera. Scurrilous leaflets were printed and distributed widely. When Vimala complained to Bandaranaike the Prime Minister refused to take any action.
According to a speech made in Parliament on October 30, 1959 by the then Matale MP Nimal Karunatillake, Vimala Wijewardene and Buddharakita Thera had approached Bandaranaike and demanded that the PM should take action against the suspected pamphleteers. SWRD had treated the demand lightly and dismissed it with the response ‘Vimala after all aren’t some of these things true?’ Buddharakita was furious.
Thus Buddharakita Thera along with a clique conspired to assassinate Bandaranaike. Their unwitting instrument was Talduwe Somarama Thera, who was an ardent Sinhala Buddhist nationalist. Being highly emotional Somarama was easily manipulated by Buddharakkita who convinced him into believing that the PM was a traitor to the country, race and religion and therefore should be eliminated. Somarama was a mere cat’s paw.
Country, Race and Religion
According to a confession made by Somarama Thera, Buddharakikita Thera accompanied by H.P. Jayawardena had visited him at the Kotte Amara Vihare in August 1959. He had been critical of SWRD Bandaranaike who was allegedly betraying the Country, the race and the Religion. If this situation was not corrected “there would be no place for us in this land, nor would there be a place for the Sinhala people, their religion or their language,” Buddharakitta told Somarama.
Buddharakkitta said that Bandaranaike had to be killed in order to save the country, race and religion. “If you do this we shall ensure that you will not be in custody for more than two or three weeks,” Somarama was told. When the Bhikku agreed to kill Bandaranaike, both departed and later gave him a pistol belonging to the infamous Ossie Corea. Thereafter W. A. Newton Perera Police inspector attached to the Kollupitiya Police took Somarama to Muthurajawela a few times and taught him how to shoot.Somarama Thera’s incriminating confession (which he retracted later) enabled the Police to make some important arrests.
In a sensational development the all-powerful Mapitigama Buddharakkita Thera was arrested on October 20, 1959. This immediately caused pressure to be mounted on the then 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, Mrs. 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.
As stated earlier the relationship between Vimala and Buddharakkita was the subject of several scurrilous pamphlets and sensational tabloids. Both had complained to Bandaranaike urging that action be taken to stop them. But SWRDB had 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. When the new Prime Minister Dahanayake asked her to resign the lady refused saying she was innocent. Premier Dahanayake had no choice other than to dismiss her from Cabinet. Finally Vimala was arrested on November 21. In fairness to Vimala Wijewardena it must be noted that her innocence was ultimately proved and she was cleared by courts of complicity in the crime.
Prime Minister Dahanayake
Buddharakkita Thera’s arrest placed premier Dahanayake also in an embarrassing position. Education Minister Wijayananda Dahanayake had been sworn in as Prime Minister after Bandaranaike’s death. In a bid to consolidate himself politically, the new Prime Minister committed a grave blunder without realizing its implications. Since Buddharakkita Thera 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. In a duplicitous address Buddharakkita waxed eloquent about the murder of Bandaranaike and condemned those responsible. An unsuspecting Dahanayake sullied his reputation by being party to such a deceitful act. Later when Buddharakkita was arrested the rumour mills began grinding overtime. Dahanayake too became a target of suspicion.
Another person whose name featured in conspiracy theory rumours was the UNP stalwart Junius Richard Jayewardena. This was due to rumours about Buddharakkita’s accomplice the businessman H.P. Jayawardena being implicated in the conspiracy. The similarity in names led to the confusion that JR was involved. But these rumours about JR Jayewardene ceased when the real McCoy HP Jayawardena was arrested.
The arrest of notorious underworld figure Ossie Corea fueled more rumours that Ossie was acting on behalf of some UNP politicians. Also Ossie had shaved his head bald at the time of the assassination. This reinforced the rumour that it was Ossie Corea disguised as a Buddhist monk who had killed Bandaranaike. Ossie Corea had at one time been working as an excise inspector. He later became an arrack renter and Kasippu merchant at Dagonna in Negombo. He had also worked for a while as the personal security officer of the then finance minister Stanley de Zoysa. Interestingly it transpired during trial that the .455 Mark Webly VI revolver used by Somarama thera was from Ossie Corea’s personal arsenal of six firearms. 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 November 21, 1959, his brother Stanley resigned his portfolio on November 23. 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.
Seven Persons Indicted
After several weeks of intensive investigation the Police were ready to go to courts. On November 26, 1959 -- exactly two months after Bandaranaike’s death -- seven suspects were indicted in the Colombo Chief Magistrate’s Court on a charge of conspiring to murder SWRD Bandaranaike.
Those indicted were:
1.Mapitigama Buddharakkitha Thera
2. Hemachandra Piyasena Jayawardena
3. Pallihakarage Anura de Silva
4. Talduwe Somarama Thera
5. Weerasooriya Arachchige Newton Perera
6. Vimala Wijewardene
7. Amerasinghe Arachchige Carolis Amerasinghe
In addition to the conspiracy charge, Somarama Thera the fourth accused was also charged with commitment of murder. Incidently Somarama Thera had confessed to committing the murder in his statements to the Police and also to the chief magistrate. However he changed his position later at the Supreme court trial. “I did not shoot the prime minister. 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, A.A.C. 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 15, 1960. Her political career had effectively ended and in later years she 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.
Supreme Court Trial
The Supreme court trial began against the five accused on February 22, 1961 before Justice TS Fernando QC OBE . The foreman of the seven-member English-speaking jury was D.W.L. Lieversz snr. The others were J.A. Bocks, D.J.C. Fernando, G.B.L. Jayaratne, S. Ratnam, T. E. Jansz and L.D G. de Silva. Ninety-seven witnesses testified and were cross examined. The Solicitor-General A.C. Alles along with deputy solicitor general A.C.M. Ameer conducted the case on behalf of the prosecution with senior crown counsel R.S. Wanasundara and R.I. Obeyesekera assisting.
The first accused Buddharakitha Thera 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. Ratnaesar.The fourth accused Somarama Thera was defended by Lucian G. Weeramantry who appeared free of charge for the Bhikku. N. Satyendra son of eminent Queen’s Counsel S. Nadesan appeared for the fifth accused Newton Perera. Satyendra was assisted by A. Mahesan.
After the legal eagles concluded their submissions, the judge began his charge to the jury on May 5, 1961. The lengthy summing-up went to 458 pages of typescript.Within five days the Jury returned its verdict.The trial concluded on May 12th 1961 after fifty-five days of hearing. The proceedings were well publicized and extensively reported in the media.
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 Jury found the first accused Buddharakkitha Thera, second accused HP Jayewardena and fourth accused SomaramaThera guilty by a unanimous verdict.
The death sentence was pronounced on all three of them. All three faced death by hanging. During the trial Somarama had stopped wearing the yellow robe when appearing in Court. 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.
Death Penalty Re-introduced
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 9, 1958. In the aftermath of the Bandaranaike’s assassination, the Dahanayake government revised its stance hastily. Within a week a gazette extraordinary proclamation dated October 2, 1959 re-introduced the death penalty. This was to impose the 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 7, 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 26. 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 to escape.
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 maximum 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 of murder committed prior to December 2, 1959 there was no similar provision made specifically for the offence of conspiracy to commit murder.
The three convicted suspects -- Buddharakitta Thera, Somarama Thera and H.P. Jayawardena 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 M.C. Sansoni, H.N.G. 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 L.B.T. Premaratne QC and Crown Counsel Ananda Pereira.
Rigorous Life Imprisonment
It was argued on behalf of Buddharakkitha and Jayawardena 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 a penalty for conspiracy to commit murder. The Criminal Appeal court concurred with the submission. The appeal of all three were dismissed but Court 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 18, 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 court’s decision to alter the 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”.
Appeal To Privy Council
Appalled by the adverse reaction and widespread opposition the government simply withdrew the bill on January 25 on the pretext that an appeal to the Privy council was in progress. On January 27, 1962 the Country was shocked by news of an abortive coup d’etat. With that the focus on the Bandaranaike assassination shifted.
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.
Talduwe Somarama Thera 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,” said Somarama. 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 6, 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 Thera died in 1967 of a heart ailment aged 46 after having served time at Welikada prison for 7 and 1/2 years of his sentence. The then Deputy Commissioner of Prisons R.J.N. Jordan told the media that Buddharakkitha Thera ruined his health by constant over-eating.
The 2nd accused Hemachandra Piyasena Jayawardena served 17 and 1/2-years of his sentence. On April 6th 1972 the Justiceministry under the Sirimavo Bandaranaike Govt issued a directive under emergency regulations that prisoners who were given sentences of over ten years and had served five years could be released. This was to mark Ceylon becoming the republic Sri Lanka on May 22nd 1972. However HP Jayawardena was among the “unlucky” few denied freedom by the SLFP dominated Government. Ultimately HP Jayawardena was released on August 4, 1977 a fortnight after the UNP led by JR Jayewardene swept the polls on July 21, 1977.
Commission Of Inquiry
On June 7, 1963 the Sirima Bandaranaike government appointed a Commission of Inquiry under the provisions of the Commissions of Enquiry Act to probe 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. Services of Crown lawyers -- AC Alles, Solicitor-General and Crown counsel, RS Wanasundera and RI Obeysekera were sought in aiding the Commission
Notices were issued by the Commission on the following persons: (1) W. Dahanayake, Prime Minister of Ceylon from September 26, 1959 to March 19, 1960. (2) Lionel Goonetilleke, former assistant superintendent of Police, CID. (3) Ossie Corea, businessman.(4) FR (Dickie) de Zoysa, landed proprietor and businessman. (5) Mrs. Vimala Wijewardene, former Cabinet Minister and (6) Sidney de Zoysa, former deputy Inspector-General of Police. 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.
D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at email@example.com