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Forces to the Fore in Emergency under Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka?


31 May 2017 01:17 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


Lessons from History – 1961/62 Saga where; Deployment of military to constraint a looming general strike motivated sections in Forces to attempt a forced take-over. Sir Winston Churchill said in 1919, “To use soldiers and sailors, kept up at the expense of the taxpayer, to take sides with the employer in an ordinary trade dispute…..would be a monstrous invasion of the liberty of the subject.” “But” he added, “the case is different where vital services affecting the health, life or safety of large cities or great concentrations of people are concerned.”

The proposal to grant Field Marshal, Minister Sarath Fonseka a special post in the forces has led to much controversy among the Governing circles. Minister of Social Empowerment S.B. Dissanayake said there was no need for such an engagement. 

He said “these were tales spread by various persons”, adding that the President jokingly asked Minister Sarath Fonseka if he would like to accept the post of Army Commander once again.

61/62 General Strike 

Following the Styagraha in the north the then Government facing threats from labour sectors and working class and from weakening economic situation, preferred to have the services of volunteer forces for mobilisation in the event of a major outbreak of strikes, and a possible civil disobedience campaign.

In November 1961, a large work force of the harbor went on strike for a short period followed by employees of some Ceylon Transport Board (CTB) depots. The Port labour commenced their campaign agitating for enhanced remuneration and walked out in December for the second occasion within two months. 
The strike lasted up to end January 1962, coinciding with the scheduled take-over by coup conspirators.

General Strike Threat

Minister Felix Dias Bandaranaike in November 1961, called for a report from the military and Police heads data regarding anticipated trouble in the industrial sector. This was in response to powerful left-party trade union’s planned series of trade union actions. He wanted them to prepare a set of proposals or ‘an action plan’, on how to deal with such a disturbing situation, and sought it in the form of a contingency plan. 

The government’s intended move in mobilising the armed services during a calamity became obvious.

The situation worsened by December 1961, with workers of both the blue and white collar categories attached to Cinemas, Gas Company, Banks, and Standard Oil Company staging walk-outs backed by trade unions affiliated to Marxist led political parties. 
A token general strike in sympathy with the strikers was called for on an island-wide basis, which was scheduled for 5th of January. 

Police intelligence reports confirmed an attempt by certain quarters to launch a general strike demanding implementation of the two wage increase reports of the two Commissions appointed by the Government a few years ago. 

The intelligence machinery of State further revealed about a violent civil disturbance campaign in line with the triumphant 1953 hartal, and was planned to launch in parallel with the work stoppages. 

January 1962 

The Government took precautionary measures by working on a number of operational orders to be carried out by military and Police in maintaining essential work, especially food supplies in the event of an anticipated massive industrial action.

A Competent Authority was appointed to constrain publication of news on strikes as well. 
Such preparations aroused the opposition leaders like Dr. N. M. Perera and Peter Keuneman, the two heads of main leftist parties, which had under its umbrella, a large number of worker organizations that covered a good 75 percent of trade unions in the island. 

Former Prime Minister W. Dahanayake, speaking in Parliament accused Felix Dias of attempting to establish a dictatorship with the help of military and Police. 

He alleged that attempts were being planned to arrest and take in to custody not only the Opposition members but even some of the Senior Ministers as well. 

They repeatedly quote Felix’s, statement, “a Little bit of Totalitarianism might be of benefit to Ceylon”, in a talk he delivered at a function held at the Russian Cultural Centre a few months before.
The tense situation, with looming general strike and chaotic circumstances; deployment of military in essential civilian work motivated disgruntled sections in Forces and Police to attempt at undemocratic ways.

It was exactly 55 years ago. A coup d’etat by military and Police high-ups with a senior civil servant was planned to take place on the night of January 27, 1962. The conspirators believed the politicians were ruining the country through maladministration. The coup was expected to be accomplished within a few hours. The world’s first woman Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, who continued her husband’s language and socialist policies was considered by them as someone weak, inexperienced and unfit to govern, and therefore to be replaced in the larger interest. According to plans, the PM was to be arrested on her way to Kataragama. 

Many perceived the botched effort as a last ditch attempt by the military’s privileged class to safeguard their eroding standings. They were driven by an overriding feeling of loss of power and the position that they enjoyed.

Abortive Coup de tat -1962

They planned assuming that Sirimavo would be travelling that night; if she had the coup may well have been successful. 

At 10 p.m. senior DIG C.C. Dissanayake was to issue a “Take Post” orders. Col. Maurice de Mel was to be at Army headquarters; Col. F.C. de Saram, the Oxford Blue and former Ceylon cricket captain was to position himself at “Temple Trees” with Dissanayake at “Queen’s House” and ex- DIG, Sydney de Zoysa co-ordinating Army and Police operations. ASP Johnpillai was to clear all main roads and strategically important accesses, while Douglas Liyanage, CCS, played a silent role. Seizure of Colombo city and cordoning it off was considered important to defy a potential counter-strike. The Central Telephone and Exchange was to be shut down; Police headquarters, Times of Ceylon, Lake House and the only electronic communication institute, “Radio Ceylon” were to be taken over by 11 p.m. Ministers including Felix Dias Bandaranaike, officials, N.Q. Dias, DIG-CID S.A. Dissanayake (Jingle) who was twin brother of C.C. Dissanayake (Jungle), acting Navy chief and the SP-CID John Attygalle were to be detained in an underground bunker at the armory.

Army Commander Maj. Gen. Gerard Wijeykoon, Acting Navy Commander Rajan Kadirgamar, Air Force chief John F. Barker and IGP M.W.F. Abeykoon were entirely in the dark about the conspiracy. On accomplishment the leaders would meet at the “Queen’s House” and request the Governor-General to dissolve Parliament, defer the Constitution and take direct authority.

It was on January 27 that Dissanayake revealed to his subordinate, Stanley Senanayake SP Colombo some details of the coup, inviting him to join. 

Senanayake was not in favour. Realising that he had misapprehended Senanayake, Dissanayake kept contemplating. This led to misgivings among the core group comprising De Saram, the De Mel brothers, Royce and Morris, De Zoysa and Dissanayake about the feasibility of going ahead as planned. 

Stanley wrestling with his conscience for hours told his wife Maya, daughter of P. de S. Kularatne, a former Principal of Ananda College now a Parliamentarian, about the conspiracy. 

She conveyed the message to her father and Kularatne informed the IGP and Felix Dias Bandaranaike of the plot. 


They repeatedly quote Felix’s, statement, “a Little bit of Totalitarianism might be of benefit to Ceylon”, in a talk he delivered at a function held at the Russian Cultural Centre a few months before.



Trial at Bar

After a protracted trial, 11 out of 24 were found guilty, but they were discharged by the Privy Council in UK, which ruled in their favour on an issue of technicality.

The evidence at the trial revealed that discussions among Army circles on the possibility of setting up an army rule, as a solution to the difficulties that the country experienced during this period.
Delivering the judgment, the learned judges of the Trial-at-Bar, stated,

‘…the conditions existing and contemplated in January 1962, including the imposition of censorship, the full mobilisation of the services on civil and security duties and public concern were such as in other countries had in fact given rise to attempts, whether successful or not to overthrow democratically elected Governments and to establish some form of unconstitutional rule.’

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