Thu, 27 Jan 2022 Today's Paper

Luck or Destiny; Sirimavo Escapes: Prime Minister and 1962 Coup d’é Tat

22 November 2021 01:12 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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“There will be need for a new word; presumably we have to call her Stateswoman”- was the striking headline the ‘Evening News’, London tabloid used in reporting the election of the world’s first woman Prime Minister in Ceylon on July 21, 1960.   While she made headlines in the international press, her husband’s relative and best-man at their wedding, P E P Deraniyagala commenting to a national newspaper said:
“She knows nothing fiercer than the kitchen fire, and that she will ruin the Bandaranaike name and also spoil her reputation.”


 However, within twelve months of her taking oaths, she put all her critiques to shame. She had the bravery and wit to face severe threats and warnings by the United States, in nationalizing the petroleum industry [pros & cons of the move, in the current context is controversial though] Thereon continued her fearless journey, amidst local and international pressures and bullying. In twenty years, Sirimavo Bandaranaike was elected three times as Prime Minister and thus established herself as one of the leading political figures in the region.
“If Mr. Bandaranaike’s stature as a politician and leader was built up over decades of campaigning, Sirimavo donned hers like a cloak that had been lying in her wardrobe for years; unworn but which had been pressed and kept ready for wearing at any given moment.”

"Young Felix’s haughty approach as Deputy Minister of Defence and his interference in administrative matters of the military establishment also disturbed them. It was seen as a smart move to take control of the state administration for their own benefit. This was a view shared by the entire opposition, including the Marxist leadership in parliament at the time"


--Maureen Seneviratne, [her biographer]
The IGP, MF Abeykoon, was playing Bridge at the Orient Club on January 27, 1962. It was around 6.30 pm when P de S Kularatne, MP and father-in-law of Stanley Senanayake, SP Colombo, contacted him to convey a rather distressing message. Some high ranking Police and Military conspirators planned a ‘takeover’ of government on the same night. They were to have the Prime Minister arrested in the surroundings of Hungama by a team led by Superintendent of Police, Southern Province (East), David Thambiah, and detained at the Hungama police station awaiting orders from the coup leaders.  It had transpired, in the course of investigations that they intended convincing the lady now under their custody; to make an official declaration in transferring of Prime Ministerial, Cabinet and Parliamentary powers to the proposed ‘junta’. 


 DIG, CC Dissanayake’s instructions at his residence, to his subordinate ASP Jirasinhe, in the afternoon of the 27th, as narrated by his son TDSA Dissanayake, an eye-witness. ‘My father said…, “Jirasinhe, …I am putting you in charge of police operations at ‘Temple Trees’ from 1.00 hours tonight…our headache is Sirimavo, …she can go to England with the children… Col F C de Saram, who is an Oxford blue will arrange for Sunethra to enter Oxford…, Sirimavo can run a home there,…we can pay her a very handsome pension in sterling... .She is very good at running a home, hopeless at running a government”.  “Sir, what exactly have I to do at Temple Trees?”
“When troops surround it around 2359 hrs, Col FC de Saram will speak to the PM and ask for her to surrender. After the coup is over Maj. Gen. Saram, the General Officer Commanding Ceylon will handle all details at Temple Trees… do please help Army in whatever way…”  –‘Politics of Sri Lanka’: Vol III--pp 313/314

"One major drawback in the whole affair was the fact that 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.  Such a feat or action by a section of military would have led to a vicious situation"


  The suspicion and anger of the coup leaders over certain reforms and policies implemented by Sirimavo had affected the super-class military elite. They presumed it was on the advice of the two ‘Diases’- Felix and NQ that she had acted thus. The two of them held the top-most positions in the Defence Ministry; especially the latter, as the Permanent Secretary to the Ministry. The young Felix’s haughty approach as Deputy Minister of Defence and his interference in administrative matters of the military establishment also disturbed them. It was seen as a smart move to take control of the state administration for their own benefit. This was a view shared by the entire opposition, including the Marxist leadership in parliament at the time.

From Temple Trees to London via Rosemead Place?

As per the blueprint, Lt Col. Willie Abraham from the army was to take over at ‘Temple Trees’ assisted by ASP Lionel Jirasinhe, while the officer who had been handling security there, W T Dickman was to be withdrawn. Sirimavo Rattwatte Dias Bandaranaike, who took oaths as the Prime Minister of Ceylon just 19 months ago, setting a world record, was under duress, to officially declare the transfer of authority to the coup d’état conspirators and renounce her position as the democratically elected head of state. She was to be moved out of Temple Trees, and taken to her private residence ‘Tintagel’ at Rosemead Place along with her three children, Sunethra, Chandrika and Anura aged  18, 16 and 12, respectively. The family was to be kept ‘in transit’ and also under house arrest until such time arrangements were made for them to be flown to London.  


The temple situated at Getambe, Peradeniya, in a narrow strip bordering Mahaveli River and the Colombo-Kandy Road; was famous for its location. Sirimavo received an invitation from the chief incumbent of the temple to attend a special religious ceremony on January 27th, which was declined by the PM due to her busy schedule on the day. She instructed her official secretary, Bradman Weerakoon to appease the Nayake (chief) priest accordingly.  Subsequently, she had planned a trip to Kataragama on the same day, for a Pirith ceremony, a private affair, without Weerakoon’s knowledge; with her private secretary Amarasinghe making the arrangements.

"The suspicion and anger of the coup leaders over certain reforms and policies implemented by Sirimavo had affected the super-class military elite. They presumed it was on the advice of the two ‘Diases’- Felix and NQ that she had acted thus"


Weerakoon came to know about the trip to Kataragama planned for the 25th evening and to return on the night of the 27th. He immediately cautioned the PM that it would not be proper for her to be seen in Kataragama on the same weekend, 26-27th, for she had already committed that she would remain in Colombo.  He further advised her that when the priest comes to know about her visit to Kataragama, it would reflect badly on her credibility. She appreciated his advice and cancelled the Kataragama programme. Bradman Weerakoon, who served nine heads of state as Secretary, believes if Sirimavo had in fact gone to Kataragama the previous night and returned on the 27th, the Coup may well have succeeded. Thus he became the first person, wittingly or unwittingly, to obstruct the path of the plotters. [–Ref Rendering Unto Ceasar: B. Weerakoon—pp -109]
The three hours from 6.30 to 9.30 was history’s most critical hour that determined the nation’s destiny.  While conspirators were putting final touches, the other, the state authorities, sensing a calamity were designing and planning a defence. 


One major drawback in the whole affair was the fact that 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.  Such a feat or action by a section of military would have led to a vicious situation; an armed clash of sort, ending up in the blood-splattered corridors of ‘Temple Trees’, similar to what happened 28 months before, on the veranda of ‘Tintagel’ at Rosemead Place, when her husband prime minister SWRD Bandaranaike was assassinated.

[Above is an excerpt from writer’s manuscript, “Bloodshed ’62: Aborted or abandoned”]
 Contact writer at-  kksperera1@gmail.com

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