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Background to the Coup d’état conspiracy of 1962

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Details of the planned coup had come to light a few hours before the coup was to be enacted. It was also revealed that seven Police and Army officers had been arrested in connection with the coup conspiracy and were being interrogated

A coup d’état generally referred to as a coup is usually undertaken by officer/s of armed forces against the established government

Though the coup codenamed “Operation Holdfast” was to be executed after midnight on January 27, 1962, it had been called off some hours earlier by those in charge of the exercise as it became known there was a leak and that it had been compromised

Nevertheless, the coup excited the nation at large in a big way. In later years Sri Lanka underwent two major insurgencies and a brutal civil war lasting decades

Today the phrases “Politicisation of the military” and “Militarization of Politics” are very much in vogue

In order to comprehend the Coup Conspiracy of 1962, it is very important to delve into history and understand the circumstances prevailing then

 

By
D. B. S. Jeyaraj

This January is the 60th anniversary of what has come to be known as the 1962 Coup or Coup d’état of Sri Lanka known formerly as Ceylon. News about the coup in Ceylon/Sri Lanka was first relayed over the state radio known then as “Radio Ceylon” on January 28, 1962.  It was a Sunday and therefore a holiday. The radio kept broadcasting several news bulletins about the coup intermittently. The news sent shock waves throughout the Country.


“Radio Ceylon” said that a group of senior Police and Armed services personnel had conspired and plotted to overthrow the democratically elected Government of  Prime Minister Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike on the previous Saturday, January 27, 1962. Details of the planned coup had come to light a few hours before the coup was to be enacted. It was also revealed that seven Police and Army officers had been arrested in connection with the coup conspiracy and were being interrogated. Thereafter the newspapers followed up with more sensational details about the coup or coup d’état conspiracy. There was no TV or Internet in those times.

 

Felix Dias Bandaranaike

Sirimavo Bandaranaike

Coup d’état meaning “stroke of state” in French is used to describe the overthrow or deposition of a government or head of state through illegal or unconstitutional means. A coup d’état generally referred to as a coup is usually undertaken by officer/s of armed forces against the established government.  I was seven-plus at that time. It was the first time I had heard or read the words coup or coup d’état. I remember my father explaining to me what a coup was and what had reportedly happened in the country then.


My father was quite concerned about the so-called coup. He was increasingly troubled as more and more persons were detained on suspicion for questioning. Several of those being arrested were acquaintances or friends. At least two were his schoolmates. Moreover, my father had served in the army (CRE) during world war two. He quit school and joined the army as a volunteer after the Japanese bombing of April 5, 1942. As such he always had a soft spot for the army. 


The 1962 coup and its aftermath upset my father very much. Years later he admitted to me that his sympathies were with the coup conspirators many of whom he liked and respected. Besides he used to opine then that the country would have prospered without ethnic problems if the coup had been successful. This viewpoint was shared by my Mother too and many of their friends. I think this state of mind prevailed among many members of the English speaking middle classes then.

 


“Operation Holdfast”
In actuality, the coup d’état never got off the ground. Though the coup codenamed “Operation Holdfast” was to be executed after midnight on January 27, 1962, it had been called off some hours earlier by those in charge of the exercise as it became known there was a leak and that it had been compromised. Except for the arrest of former Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) MP for Baddegama, Neale de Alwis in Galle, there was no other incident connected to the coup. The LSSP MP’s arrest was due to a communication lapse. The “abortive” coup, therefore, was essentially a conspiracy and nothing more.


Nevertheless, the coup excited the nation at large in a big way. In later years Sri Lanka underwent two major insurgencies and a brutal civil war lasting decades. The role, composition and conduct of the army has changed beyond recognition from what it was in 1962. Today the phrases “Politicisation of the military” and “Militarization of Politics” are very much in vogue.  They are indicative of the times we live in and the transformation of relations between the state, armed forces and society. It could be argued therefore that the 1962 coup was the catalyst that paved the way for such change. The coup was the watershed or turning point.

 


The Trial–at–bar
Legal proceedings regarding the coup d’état known as the 1962 coup case were widely reported in the newspapers and radio.  24 persons were indicted by the Attorney-General on three counts of alleged offences under Section 115 of the Penal Code; and in terms of Sections 440A and 440B of the Criminal Procedure Code as amended by the Criminal Law Act, No. 31 of 1962. The then Chief Justice Hema Basnayake appointed a   three-Judge bench for the Trial- at -bar hearing the case without a Jury. The three Judges were M.C. Sansoni, H.N.G. Fernando and L.B. de Silva.


The Twenty-four Defendants were -
1. Don John Francis Douglas Liyanage
2. Maurice Ann Gerard de Mel
3. Frederick Cecil de Saram
4. Cyril Cyrus Dissanayaka
5. Sidney Godfrey de Zoysa
6. Gerard Royce Maxwell de Mel
7. Wilmot Selvanayagam Abraham 
8. Bastiyampillai Ignatius Loyola
9. Wilton George White
10. Nimal Stanley Jayakody
11. Anthony John Bernard Anghte
12. Don Edmond Weerasinghe
13. Noel Vivian Matthysz
14. Victor Leslie Percival Joseph
15. Basil Rajandiram Jesudason
16. Victor Joseph Harold Gunasekera
17. John Anthony Rajaratnam Felix
18. William Ernest Chelliah Jebanesam
19. Terence Victor Wijesinha
20. Lionel Christopher Stanley Jirasinghe
21. Vithanage Elster Perera
22. David Senadirajah Tambyah
23. Samuel Gardner Jackson
24. Hubert Gerard Rodney de Mel


Thirteen of the twenty-four defendants were members of either the regular army or the volunteer force.  The rank breakdown was two Colonels, three Lt. Colonels, four Majors and Four Captains. Six were  Gazetted Police Officers. Of these one was a Deputy Inspector-General of Police, two were Superintendents of Police and three were Asst. Superintendents. One was a retired DIG of Police. One was the Navy Commander under suspension facing a disciplinary inquiry. One was a Senior Government Official from the prestigious Ceylon Civil Service. Two were planters.


The trial-at-bar commenced in June 1963. The Attorney-General entered a Nolle Prosequi in respect of the 22nd and 24th defendants on 17th June, 1963. The 23rd defendant was acquitted on 10th June 1964. The 7th defendant died on 6th August, 1964. The 11th, 16th, 17th and 18th defendants were acquitted on 1st October, 1964. The 10th and 12th defendants were acquitted on 12th March, 1965. The 8th, 9th and 14th defendants were acquitted on 26th March, 1965. Finally, the remaining eleven namely the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 13th, 15th, 19th, 20th and 21st defendants were convicted on all counts on April 6th 1965. 


However, the 11 convicted defendants appealed to the Privy Council (in December 1965 in Britain pleading that they had been convicted under a law passed retroactively to apply to the coup conspiracy [Criminal Law (Special Provisions) Act No.1 of 1962].  The Privy Council reversed their convictions on the basis that the ex-post-facto statute was unconstitutional. All the 24 Coup conspirators were therefore ultimately freed.

 


Interested since childhood
This then was what happened in the 1962 Coup case in a nutshell. The 1962 coup d’état is a topic in which I have been very much interested since childhood. Perhaps my Father’s feelings towards the coup inspired this keen interest. I have for a very long time read as much as I could on the 1962 coup. Books, articles, monographs, research papers etc. More importantly, I have been talking and corresponding with friends and family members of the coup conspirators over the years.  I gathered a lot about their experiences regarding the event. Two persons who spoke at length with me were T.D.S.A. Dissanayake, the son of DIG  “Jungle” Dissanayake and Ranjith De Mel the son of Col. Maurice De Mel.


I even managed to directly interact with some of the Coup trial-at-bar defendants while in Sri Lanka. A few were forthcoming and provided much insight into what had happened but most were reluctant (and understandably so) to talk about the past. One incident I remember with great embarrassment is my “encounter” with former State Ministry Secretary and first accused in the Coup case Douglas Liyanage. I came to know him well while I was covering the Ministry of State when I was a journalist at the “Virakesari”. But when I broached the subject of the Coup, Liyanage gave me a toothy grin devoid of mirth and simply walked away.


Ten years ago I wrote about the 1962 Coup in detail in the “Daily Mirror” denoting its 50th anniversary. I was quite unprepared for the response it evoked. I received a lot of e-mails from family members and relatives of those accused in the coup case. They shared some of their experiences with me. It was very personal and strictly off the record. I learnt a lot about what they had undergone or suffered and the toll it had taken on their lives. There was also an inexplicable and somewhat invisible bond that bound the children of those defendants together. I still correspond occasionally with a few. I continue to retain their trust because I respect their privacy by keeping what they say to myself.


Another response I keep getting from readers since 2012 is the request to write a more detailed article on the 1962 Coup. Since this is the 60th anniversary of the Coup d’état, I shall be writing on the subject again. Only this time I hope to write a series of related articles on the Coup Conspiracy of 1962.

 


Background to the Coup
In order to comprehend the Coup Conspiracy of 1962, it is very important to delve into history and understand the circumstances prevailing then. In fact the learned Judges who issued the verdict convicting 11 of the 24 defendants too emphasised this in their ruling. I shall therefore conclude this first article by quoting extensively from that Judgement about the background to the Coup. Here are the relevant passages -


“The evidence concerning the alleged conspiracy cannot be adequately understood except in the background of events which had occurred in the country during a period of about one year preceding 27th January, 1962. Some reference to those events is necessary at this stage.”


 “From about February 1961 there had been in the Northern and Eastern Provinces a movement styled “Satyagraha” designed to manifest the opposition by the Tamil-speaking people to the Government’s Language Policy. In consequence, it was necessary to station Army Units in areas where the movement was being pursued, and a particularly strong Army detachment was stationed in the Jaffna District. After some weeks a State of Emergency was declared, under the Public Security Act, and a number of Tamil leaders were detained in pursuance of the Emergency Regulations on the grounds of security. “


“The Satyagraha virtually ended soon after these detentions. But the leaders were kept in custody for some further time. Even after their release in the latter half of 1961, however, the declaration of Emergency was continued and was still in force in January 1962. It was the position for the defence at this Trial, that although Emergency Regulations were no longer necessary after the abatement of the Satyagraha situation, the declaration of Emergency was continued because the Government was under stress owing to difficult economic and labour conditions. One advantage which the Government enjoyed during a State of Emergency was that the Volunteer sections of the Armed Services could remain mobilised and thus expeditiously available for use in strike situations and in the event of civil disturbance. A special device utilised for the first time in 1961 was to place Volunteer Units on compulsory leave without pay. While expenditure was thus saved, the Units remained mobilised and -could be recalled to duty without the delays involved in a new mobilisation.”


 “In October 1961, Mr. Bandaranaike (Felix), the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of External Affairs, gave an order to the heads of the Armed Services and the Police to prepare an “appreciation “ as to the measures necessary to deal with a situation envisaged in data supplied by Mr. Bandaranaike. Among the matters contemplated in the data supplied, was the possibility of a series of strikes in essential undertakings and of Civil disturbance arising from incitement by Leftist and Trade Union Leaders. This order certainly shows that the Government contemplated the utilisation of the Armed Services during contemplated strikes and disturbances.”


 “There was at this stage much agitation for the implementation of two reports affecting wages and conditions of work. One was the P. O. Fernando Committee report concerning Port labour, and the other the Wilmot Perera Report concerning the Public Service. The Government’s position was that the financial conditions precluded the possibility of implementing these reports, and it was feared that the failure to implement them would give rise to discontent and possible disturbance.”


 “About the middle of November 1961 there was a Harbour strike which involved a very large number of Port workers in Colombo. In early December there was a strike of brief duration at some depots of the Ceylon Transport Board. On or about 15th December 1961 Port workers were once again called out on strike, and they continued to be out on strike until after the events of January 1962. In anticipation of this strike and perhaps of probable subsequent strikes, the compulsory leave of the Ceylon Volunteer Force was cancelled on 12th December, and the Volunteer Units quickly reassembled for active service. There were further in December a strike of cinema workers, of Gas Company employees and of Bank employees. There was also a strike of employees of the Standard Oil Company, and the threat of sympathy strikes in the other Oil Companies.” 


“On the 30th December Trade Union leaders announced an Island-wide token General Strike for the 5th January 1962 in support of demands inter alia for an immediate settlement of the Port Strike and for the implementation of the two reports earlier mentioned. On 4th January 1962, there was a suspicion of sabotage on the part of some Technicians of Radio Ceylon, eight of whom were taken into custody and detention. On 5th January there was a token General Strike affecting workers in the Public Service as well as the workers in the private and public sectors of transport, industry and commerce. In addition to the difficult if not chaotic conditions arising out of these strikes, information available through security channels to the Police and the Army was that an island-wide General Strike, accompanied probably by violence, could be expected towards the end of January 1962. The authorities responsible for security and for the maintenance of essential services in an Emergency were actively preparing to meet the thus contemplated situation. A number of what were termed Operational Orders were prepared to be carried out by different branches of the Armed Services and the Police for the maintenance of essential services and supplies.”


“That a critical state of affairs was imminent, if not already existing, is obvious. The Army had to be engaged in shifting food cargoes and on picket duties. A censorship was introduced on Press publications of information concerning the strike situation. The Shipping Conferences had imposed a surcharge on freight rates consequent on cargo vessels being inordinately delayed outside the port of Colombo. Trade Unions were restive at the failure of the Government to consider their demands and at the use of the Armed Services for work in 
the Port.”


“On 13th December 1961 Dr. N. M. Perera, a prominent Opposition and Trade Union leader, in a speech in Parliament accused Mr. Felix Dias Bandaranaike of making arrangements with the Army and Navy to rule the country and to arrest even members on the Government side. On 9th January 1962 Mr. Pieter Keuneman, a Communist leader, warned the country that a situation was developing to create the basis for permanent Military rule in the country. On 12th January 1962 another Opposition leader Dr. W. Dahanayake suggested in Parliament that somebody in the Government was preparing to set up a Military Dictatorship. Similar accusations were made in other public speeches. There was unfortunately a hook on which to hang these allegations. Mr. Felix Dias Bandaranaike had at a meeting some time earlier in reference to conditions in Russia, stated that a little bit of Totalitarianism might be of benefit to Ceylon.”


 “There is some evidence that in Army circles in Ceylon during this period suggestions were in fact being made that one solution of the current difficulties might be some form of arbitrary rule in which the Armed Services would be associated.”


“The defence position at this Trial had been that Mr. Bandaranaike did in fact intend to set up a Military dictatorship. We do not at this stage propose to consider whether this allegation is true. What is important in the present context is that conditions existing and contemplated in January 1962, including the imposition of censorship, the full mobilisation of the Services on security and civil duties, and the 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.” 


D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at dbsjeyaraj@yahoo.com

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