Three times Prime Minister U Nu’s democratic Union Parliament was overthrown by General Ne Win on March 2, 1962. [32 days after Ceylon’s failed coup d’état]. The former military commander became its military dictator. Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) founded by him ruled marking the end of democratic governance and the beginning of military rule which lasted till 2011 and resumed in 2021. In 2011, the military junta was dissolved, following a general election in 2010, and a civilian government until it was captured by military two weeks ago.
The oldest recorded coup against a ruler was in 876 BC in Israel, when King Elah was assassinated by a military commander named Zimri.
A spate of coups occurred in African states in the 1960s and 70s: they were sporadic in Asia, with Afghanistan, Burma, Pakistan and Bangladesh suffering under military rule following interventions by armed forces, and Thailand recording 18. The first ever major coup in world history, Known as ‘18 Brumaire’ was recorded in France in the year 1799. Sri Lanka, one of the few surviving democracies in the third world, successfully thwarted a coup attempt by a group of high ranking military and police officers, planned to take place on the night of Saturday January 27, 1962. [Much has been written on it by the writer and others] Eleven accused were sentenced by Supreme Court, but freed later by the Privy Council of UK, on a technical point.
"In 1962, Opposition parties, the Leftists and the UNP were accusing Minister Felix Dias Bandaranaike of conspiring with his defence secretary N Q Dias to establish a military dictatorship"
Long before this, a Coup Trial was held in Kandy, in 1834, revealing the flimsy nature of the superficial appearance of British justice when Mahawellatenne Disava made a bogus complaint against Molligoda, the first Adigar: a repetition of which was staged during Dudley Senanayake’s UNP rule in 1965-70, which the press coined as “Bathroom Coup”; a wretched attempt by JR Jayewardene to block the rapid transformation of religious power within the Army and also due to the suspicion that was growing over the politically backed recruitments and promotions initiated by Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s 1960-65 government through the Army Commander, Richard Udugama, [a relative of the Bandaranaikes] who was appointed to the post disregarding the seniority. The Trial-at-Bar, presided by Chief Justice Victor Tennekoon, commenced on January 16, 1968. The suspects included Udugama; the Ven. Henpitagedara Gnanaseeha Thera, and a few petty army officers, [the highest ranker being a Captain] were indicted for attempting to topple the government in February 1966. Quite a number of officers, including Denzil Kobbekaduwa, also a relative of Bandaranikes were sent on compulsory leave. JR Jayewardene made a statement on the floor of the House; opposition members wanted to ask questions but were prevented by the chair.
Pieter Kuenaman - 3rd MP Colombo - “Can we have an opportunity of debating the statement?”
J R Jayewardene - “What is there to debate? Unless you know more than I”–
-Hansard- 9/3/1966: col. 321/322
Similar to 1834, the whole episode; “Coup ’66”, was proven to be a faux pas; all accused were acquitted by the Trial-at-Bar, as the jury unanimously declaring them not guilty.
Military Dictatorship by Felix Dias?
In 1962, Opposition parties, the Leftists and the UNP were accusing Minister Felix Dias Bandaranaike of conspiring with his defence secretary N Q Dias to establish a military dictatorship. Communist party leader Pieter Keuneman’s speech in Parliament stated that their requesting a special meeting of the House three weeks prior to the coup attempt provided ample evidence in support of this fact.
Pieter Keuneman-- “A most sinister attempt is being made to lay the stage for military rule in the country. This is the only chance we have to say that here and the House must know what is happening, do you want to hand over the Radio Ceylon to the military?”
Hansard –January 9, 1962: folio- 33.
Conspiring and Countering Continued on the Night of January 27, 1962
On January 27 evening, Stanley Senanayake, SP Colombo, conveyed the distressing news, through his Father-in-Law to IGP. It was tense all around. No one knew whether the coup was still on. Felix Dias lost no time in getting cracking. It was around 9.00 pm, when all met at Temple Trees [TT] just three hours from H-hour. Investigations led by young Felix Dias proved that none from the Air Force was involved in the plot. They decided to engage troops from Air Force to quench the immediate security concerns.
Being ignorant of the fact that they had been exposed, the conspirators, were staging a kind of secret ‘dress rehearsal’ about the same time at Eli Bank Road. A final briefing was held till around 9.00 pm, and was addressed by CC Dissanayake DIG, on the vital task of arresting the government leaders and service chiefs following the ‘take post’ order around mid-night.
Col. F. C. de Saram made an informal address, himself. He requested them to meet at Kinross Avenue at 8.45 pm, to avoid the risk of being spotted. CC had been troubled and was apprehensive about the dissentient attitude of Stanley Senanayake SP, and started pondering on alternative strategies. He met the other four colleagues, Royce de Mel, FC de Saram, Sydney de Zoysa and Maurice de Mel, who were already gathered at Rodney de Mel’s residence, close to Marine Drive. They had engaged in a crucial round of talks centered on the risk factors involved in the light of unexpected developments that may arise. They had a long debate on going ahead with the plans: analysts believe the ‘top five’, after much deliberation, had finally made up their minds to ‘call it off’.
“…whether a criminal act is done or not, the agreement, and not the act, is what is penalized. ‘The conspirators may repent and stop or they may either have no opportunity or may be prevented, or may even fail. Nevertheless, the crime is complete and was complete when they agreed.” -Exerpt from judgment. -Queen vs Liyanage- 67-NLR:203/ 204
The Trial-at-Bar found 11 suspects guilty. Privy Council’s verdict of December 5, 1965, stated that “The Ceylon Government has no powers to pass the new law styled ‘The Criminal Law (Special Provisions) Act No. 1 of 1962, which is utlra-vires, bad in law and had denied a fair trial.” This determination led to the Constitutional reforms by Sirimavo’s second government in 1972, which provided a break from the British Monarchy and the establishment of the Sovereign state of Sri Lanka. The Coup attempt helped in strengthening the democratic mechanism against possible future moves by any political or dissenting groups in the armed forces. The non-military involvement that prevailed over the past six decades is ample proof of this fact.
There wasn’t a proper contingency plan or a ‘plan- B’ by the plotters for successfully thwarting a retaliatory action by the pro-government forces. If the news of the counter preparations at TT had reached them, and if they decided to change strategy and order their men in to the venue to arrest all top government leaders and the three commanders plus IGP and hold them all in one location ‘things would have made easier’?
A vicious situation: An armed clash of that sort? With the Army led by plotters overpowering a comparatively weak Air Force cordon. Blood-splattered corridors of Temple Trees. Ceylon, too under military rule! Who prevented the disaster? Surely, we are not destined to undergo such atrocities!