Assassination of a Prime Minister
Posted on September 25th, 2014

Janaka Perera

 Friday, September 26th marks the 55th year since post-independence Sri Lanka experienced its first political assassination – the killing of Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike on September 26, 1959, three years after he came to power. To date it has been the island’s only major political assassination where the culprits were arrested and duly punished after being convicted following a much publicised trial.

 SWRDB’s assassination came as a rude shock to the nation and the world. It was an expression of dissent by a group of his supporters who cared little for his vision and intentions.

 In the words of Ramachandra Sunderalingam, former DIG (Crimes) Colombo:

 The SWRD I knew was a man of great integrity, principle and humanity. Though he came to power on the crest of a Sinhala Buddhist wave, his sense of reason, his sense of judgement and his sense of equity could not be stripped off a man with a capacity for magnanimity, ingenuity and management. Oratory was his forte and his mesmeric use of language made him a lion of a politician in a land which was the ideal ‘crown colony’. I was a personal witness to his persuasive powers and indefatigable skills when as the Superintendent of Police, Ratnapura District, I had occasion to provide security and accompany him whenever he visited the area.

In less than two years after the MEP (the SLFP-led alliance) electoral victory of 1956 a series of labour strikes and a bloody communal riot (in 1958) almost paralysed the country.    The conflict between the MEP’s Left and Right-wings aggravated over policy issues.  These included the epoch-making Paddy Lands Act fathered by Philip Gunawardena.   Premier Bandaranaike had to walk a political tight rope as his government’s radical measures clashed with vested interests.  Vehement opposition to these policies was growing among some of his former leading supporters.   

Among them was Mapitigama Buddharakkita, Chief Incumbent of the Raja Maha Vihara, Kelaniya and the leading light of the Eksath Bhikshu Peramuna (EBP or the United Bhikku Front) that spearheaded Bandaranaike’s election campaign.   During the first two years of the MEP Government, many sought Buddharakkita’s political favours.  Foreign media personnel interviewed him and photographed him at the Kelaniya temple, where he led a life of luxury and travelled about in an Opel Kapitan.

Veteran Journalist Mervyn de Silva however called Buddharakkita the ‘Buddy Racketeer.’ He was a mini-version of the notorious Rasputin, the Christian monk who held sway over the Czarist Court in pre-revolutionary Russia. Buddharakkita’s intimate relationship with the then Health Minister – the attractive Vimala Wijerwardena – was no secret to political circles. Through her Buddharakkita assumed an unofficial Cabinet Minister’s role.   He compelled Bandaranaike to remove Left-wingers Philip Gunawardena and William Silva from the Cabinet.

Though the government’s swing towards to the Left was thus checked legal restrictions dealt a heavy blow to Buddharakkita’s business empire.   He who funded the MEP election campaign was now losing money by the million under the Bandaranaike Government.  Buddharakkita felt betrayed.

Bandaranaike was to leave for New York on Saturday, September 26, to attend the United Nations General Assembly.   According to the Constitution, an acting Head of State had to be appointed until the PM’s return. His second in command was the Leader of the House and Lands Minister C.P. de Silva.   But at that moment he was seriously ill and was undergoing treatment in London.  The story was that the illness was the result of an attempt to poison him.

So Bandaranaike decided to appoint Wijeyananda Dahanayake Acting Head of State.   However, the PM had not signed the papers for the acting appointment even by the afternoon of September 24.  His Secretary Bradman Weerakoon prepared the necessary papers for Dahanayake’s acting appointment and handed them over to Bandaranaike (along with the relevant section of the Constitution) during the tea interval in Parliament.

That particular section of the Constitution stated that an acting Head of State had to be appointed only if the PM was ‘incapacitated.’     Bandaranaike had a hearty laugh at this and asked his secretary sarcastically, “So Bandaranaike is incapacitated, ah!”  And then he signed the papers.   He did not know how ominously correct he was when he uttered those words.

The following day (September 25) happened to be a Friday.  As usual people – party supporters and others – were waiting to meet the Prime Minister at his Rosmead Place Residence ‘Tintagel.’   Those were halcyon days when voters had easy access to their elected leaders. There were neither terrorist threats nor high security zones that widened the gap between the rulers and the ruled.   The people’s leaders had freedom to be with the people.

Among those who called over at Rosmead Place on that fateful morning was Donald Mendis Gunaratne, an SLFP founder-member and a close associate of the PM. Gunaratne saw among the visitors two bhikkus who were seated in the verandah. Gunaratne sat near them and waited for Bandaranaike to come.

Shortly afterwards the American Ambassador arrived there in his official car. The Prime Minister who was expecting him, stepped down the stairs and escorted the diplomat to the hall, where they had a brief discussion on the PM’s planned trip to New York, the following day.

After the U.S. envoy left, Bandaranaike walked towards the other visitors.   Some of them had accompanied the Venerable Niwanthidiye Ananda, who was one of the two monks seated in the verandah. After attending to the Venerable Ananda, the PM turned to the other bhikku, Thalduwe Somarama of Amara Viharaya, Rajagiriya.

On that day the writer, then a teenager, was absent from school due to illness but was listening to a Radio Ceylon (now SLBC) Sinhala Service program at home. Suddenly around 11 a.m. the program was interrupted and an announcer said that the Prime Minister was injured in a shooting incident at his residence in the morning. No details were given.   

As Bandaranaike bent down in customary fashion to pay his respects to  Somarama, he had promptly stood up and pulled out a revolver.  His first shot hit the premier’s right hand. Holding the heavy weapon with both hands, Somarama fired again, striking Bandaranaike in the abdomen.   A horrified Donald Gunaratne tried to knock the gun out of Somarama’s hand but failed. During the scuffle however a third bullet went astray.

The next moment Somarama fired at Gunaratne who received an injury on his shoulder below the neck, paralysing his arm. As the injured Bandaranaike tried to shield himself Somarama repeated firing – critically injuring the PM.

At the same time, Gunaratne, with blood pouring down his shoulder, ran towards one of the two gates to see that there was no guard there.   Then he rushed towards the other gate, shouting that the Prime Minister had been shot. A policeman on duty there ran into the house and fired at Somarama, who fell down with gun-shot injuries on his genitals.   Enraged crowds at the scene of the shooting wanted to kill Somarama on the spot, but were restrained by Bandaranaike’s brother-in-law Mackie Ratwatte.

All three injured – Bandaranaike, Somarama and Gunaratne – were taken to the National (then General) Hospital, Colombo.   The Prime Minister underwent immediate surgery performed by Dr. P.R. Anthonis and a team of doctors.

Governor-General Sir Oliver Goonetilleke promptly summoned Dahanayake to Queen’s (later President’s) House where he was sworn in as acting Head of State since the papers had already been signed by Bandaranaike.   The Governor-General declared a State of Emergency, but as usual, the BBC gave the full details to the world before the government gave Radio Ceylon the OK to go on the air.

Bandaranaike issued a statement from the hospital bed saying that a man in yellow robes shot him and requested the people to remain calm. However as the news spread that a bhikku was allegedly responsible for the crime, many an innocent member of the Buddhist clergy had to undergo humiliation and harassment from the public. Bus conductors refused to take on board monks and others refused give alms to bhikkus.

Prime Minister Bandaranaike passed away on Saturday September 26 at 7.45 a.m. despite the best efforts of doctors to save his life. That evening his body was brought to his Rosmead Place residence, where people called over to pay their last respects to the departed leader.   Among them were two prominent Buddhist monks – the Venerable Thalpawila Seelawansa and Mapitigama Buddharakkita.

Media personnel in the vicinity noticed that while Thalpawila Seelawansa was deeply shocked and saddened Buddharakkita appeared very much alarmed and agitated.   He looked at Bandaranaike’s body only once and looked around with fear-ridden eyes.

On the day of the Prime Minister’s funeral however he was among those who delivered orations and recalled how great a leader was S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike.  

A widely-believed story but never proved to date was that it was not Somarama but Ossie Corea – wearing yellow robes – who fired the fatal shots (Ossie Corea was a shady character closely associated with certain UNP politicians).  

Somarama was indicted along with four others involved in the conspiracy. It was a hopeless case, and in spite of a resourceful defense the jury unanimously found him guilty of the capital offense.

The Chief Conspirator, Buddharakkita and H. P. Jayawardena, a businessman closely associated with him, were found guilty of conspiracy to murder.

Bandaranaike had suspended Capital punishment but after his death the Government had it restored. In an apparent blunder by the draftsman, the law re-establishing the death penalty had failed to include Conspiracy to Murder. As a consequence while Somarama would face the hangman’s noose, the two chief conspirators would get away with a life sentence.  

When Buddharakkita – disrobed and reviled – died in prison, not even his relatives were willing to accept the body and had to be buried at State expense.  

An ironic twist to this series of events was that ‘Reverend’ Mathew Peiris who baptized Somarama as a Christian before he was hanged in 1962, was himself convicted of the murder of his wife almost two decades later.  Both he and Buddharakkita were birds of a feather though they supposedly followed two different religions.

15 Responses to “Assassination of a Prime Minister”

  1. Lorenzo Says:

    SWRDB won thanks to SINHALA ONLY but he forgot about his voters after coming to power.

    He entered into a SECRET PACT with ILLEGAL IMMIGRANT (from Malaysia) Chelva. He should not have.

    SWRDB failed to punish Tamil racists who put tar on Sinhala letters.

    We need another SWRDB of 1956 today who UPHOLDS PRE ELECTION promises.

  2. Christie Says:

    After 55 years we can look back and see why he was killed and what happened to islands politics since 1951. “Buddharakkita’s business empire” the writer says, it was hardly anything compared to Colombo merchants who financed these MEP mob with the help of Indian interests. Even his Tintagle was mortgaged to one of them. Banda’s politics was the start of third party financing of politics in the island nations. Theses politicians are the people who had two separate areas in the home to entertain the voters and supporters and their personal financiers. Tintagle and Burutha Walavwe of Phillip are examples. Buddharakkita and associates tender for the shipping of rice from Burma was rejected by the SWRD mob. I am sure due to the pressure applied by Indian financiers of SWRD and the mob. While SWRD and the mob nationalized the emerging Sinhalese businesses that were threatening the Indian imperialists and their parasites in the island nation. Things have not changed much in the 55 years. Even today the “Danapathiyas” are Sinhalese or Muslims who try to make a living from business not the billionaire Indians who syphon all the wealth to India and overseas. SWRD was a cunning man who used Sinhalese to satisfy his ego and finances.

  3. aloy Says:

    Someone close to SLFP hierarchy many years ago told me that SWRD was to make an about turn in the UN by becoming an ally of the west. If American ambassador was in his residence the day before his departure to US would mean something. If that was true it must have been a game changer for SL’s fateful journey; the details of it written in blood and tears.

  4. Mr. Bernard Wijeyasingha Says:

    Assassination of a Prime Minister which is the title of this article deals with the assassination of Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike on September 26, 1959. In that light I would like to address another assassination and that of the Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi by the Tamil Tigers.

    India’s policy changed with his assassination from an unfailing support of the Tamil Tigers to grudgingly working with Colombo to end the “Frankenstein’s monster” she so eagerly helped create.

    Now the question arises if Rajiv Gandhi was not assassinated would India have continued her relentless proxy war against Colombo using the Tamil Tigers to ultimately divide Sri Lanka through the use of sheer brute force? my answer to my question is yes she would have with absolutely no mercy.

    In that context it is equally important that after the Scottish referendum those who read my comment should support the new invigorated independence movement of Kashmir. Even a comment of support would do.

    Keep in mind even today New Delhi not only refuses to ban the pro LTTE NGO’s in Tamil Nadu such as TESO, TELO or PLOT but Modi has gone out of his way to push amendment 13 on Colombo while trying to negate article 370 on Kashmir. Both the amendment and the article state the same. they give more autonomy to a region of each nation. Modi wants to the integrity of India by doing away with article 370 while wanting more autonomy for the same lands the LTTE fought for under amendment 13. Now the independence of kashmir is as valid as Modi’s determination to see a defunct amendment rammed by India to Colombo.

  5. Nalliah Thayabharan Says:

    Even though Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike became a Buddhist to please the masses, Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike was a christian till the day he died.
    Dr. P.R. Anthonis testified that Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike was wearing a cross when he died.

  6. Nalliah Thayabharan Says:

  7. Nanda Says:

    I believe it is not important that he was wearing a cross. We should not get crossed on this minor issue.
    How many Buddhists truly have faith ? man without that faith will naturally take all precautions to be safe after death. Bandaranayake was not exception in that regard.

    You have be a stream winner ( 1st stage of enlightenment) to poses unshakable 100% faith.

    I also believe had he not been assassinated Sri Lanka would not have reached the current political AND ADMINSTRATIVE HELL.
    I also believe it is not Buddharakkhita but a foreign power that killed him. It should be Endia, our eternal enemy.
    I also don’t believe Christie’s Indian Colonial Parasite mantra.

  8. Ratanapala Says:

    It was not SWRD who proposed Sinhala to be made the official language of Sri Lanka – Ceylon at that time. It was J R Jayawardene. Whereas JR called for Sinhala to be made the official language over a period of time, Bandaranike to steal a march over JR said he will make Sinhala the official language in 24 hours. That was the only difference. In actual fact it took many years for Sinhala language even to get a semblance of an official language. SWRD and JR were only pandering to the Sinhala sentiments; it was not in their blood – just political jilmarts to come to power!

    Bandaranaike and later Sirimavo were responsible for destroying the burgeoning Sinhala enterprises by nationalising them. While Bandaranaike cut the ground under the transport and insurance businesses, where the Sinhalese dominated, his wife Sirimavo under the influence of pseudo socialists nationalised the estate sector. The budding Sinhala capitalist was decapitated while Non Sinhala businesses were allowed to flourish with abandon. The wholesale markets – the Pettah and gold market – the Sea Street and a multiplicity of Non Sinhala businesses were not even touched by these pseudo socialist measures. Sinhalese as a community still suffer from these unpatriotic actions.

    Sri Lanka has to be contrasted with another country that went through far dire circumstances than Sri Lanka but managed to reach the status of a developed country in record time. A country that in 1960 was synonymous for slums was converted to an industrial giant that hosted the Olympics in 1988! This country encouraged local businesses called Chaebols (– Korean name for Family Business) to prosper. These are today International Business giants. Just to name a few they are Samsung, Hyundae, Daewoo, LG and the list goes on. South Korea looked after these companies in their infancy and through their adolescence. Now they are on their own and stand taller than their peers in the rest of the world.

    This is not to say that everything in South Korea is perfect, but today they stand on their own two feet – they are innovators and developers of cutting edge technology, business leaders and a force to reckon with in the world!

  9. Lorenzo Says:

    Excellent news. Ven. Ashin Virathu has gracefully landed in SL. Saathu! Saathu!

    I hope he will open the eyes of MODAYA leaders to the danger facing SLs. There is NO need for violence whatsoever. NO ONE should be allowed to create violence.

    He will be delivering the keynote address at tomorrow’s BBS conference.

    GOSL MUST provide him security from JIHAD terrorists breeding like amoeba in SL.

    An innocent man has been BEHEADED in USA by a Koran carrying Muslim. These BARBARIC attacks should not be allowed in SL.

  10. Nanda Says:

    DO not know how true is Ratnapala’s claim of nationalization.

    CTB was created by nationalising some unscrupulous bus mudalalis ( one in my area) which was a good one.
    Janawasama was created but it was Sudda’s company headed by a Malaysian Tamil idiot.
    What else ?

    Certain essential services should run by the government or regulated well.
    Problem is not the nationalisation but how to run a business well.

  11. aloy Says:

    SWRD had a vision. He wanted to encourage the teaching of science in central schools located in rural areas. He knew English language was important for that and instructed the education department to take action and that helped local students to enter universities under science, engineering and medicine that were confined to Colombo and Jaffna schools until then. He wanted our own oil refinary but oil companies were not interested. Probably that is how he became anti-west when he nationalised them.
    As for Ratnapla’s praising of S.Korea, does he know that it as a Buddhist country now converted to be a Christian one?. More over US had to transfer the Technology to them to make it a viable economy to counter N.Korea. How many millions died there to contain the communism?.
    However we need to take examples from elsewhere to chart our path. LKY, Mahathir Mohammed and Thai King laid foundation for the development of their countries. We only need a good leader, an honest one. But we must keep in mind that our eternal enemy Endia will try to scuttle any moves for proper development plan.

  12. douglas Says:

    SWRD was the Minister of Local Govt. in the UNP Cabinet. This Portfolio gave him an edge over others in the party to a claim to be the next PM. But S/L well known for “Heredity” style of management, with the demise of Late DSS decided to appoint Dudley Senanayake who was a much “Junior” in the Government. This irritated both JRJ and SWRD and that is how SWRD left the UNP and formed a new political party called SLFP. JRJ being a “Fox” by character remained to see his destiny at a future date in the UNP. The first election SWRD faced ended up with dismal failure and the entry of Sir John Kotalawela – an outspoken, militant type in many way of governing gave SWRD the much desired opportunity and he was even prepared to embrace even the “devil” to achieve his end. The environment created by that time in the Governance of the country was very opportune, in that, the Sinhala educated had no option but to be succumbed to a position of a “Teacher” in a village school or become a “Ayurveda Vedamahathya”. If anyone had an opportunity of be in a position to get some education in English he could be a “Clerk”. This “endemic” situation that prevailed gave him (SWRD) the key to the entry door of the position of Prime Minister that he lost under UNP regime. In that pursuit, he joined all the “Nationalists” ,”Patriots”, “Buddhist Clergy”, “Sinhala Educated”and came up with the unique “Pancha Maha Balavegaya” – Sanga, Weda, Guru, Govi, Kamkarau. So a political leader who had only five or six seats in the Parliament on the SLFP ticket “SWEPT” into power under the banner of MEP and no body could have stopped that.

    But surprisingly, he did not realize the MASSIVE task of managing his own associates who came into his camp with ulterior crafty motives and that included the very vociferous and militant type “Buddhist Clergy”. If one were to look at the records one would see that number of strikes exceeded the number of days in a year. That “All Powerful” Buddhist clergy- Rev. Buddharakkita of Kelaniya temple with his “intimacy” of another powerful Minister in the Cabinet viz. Mrs. Wimala Wijewardane who even made a failed attempt to “poison” SWRD at a morning meeting and unfortunately another Cabinet Minister, Late Silva fell a victim, wanted to establish a “Shipping Co.” and wanted SWRD to approve it. In this instant, another Minister in the Cabinet viz. Late Mr. Phillip Gunawardane objected vehemently and even threatened to resign and that prompted SWRD to immediately “Nationalize” the “Shipping Cos” and formed the Ceylon Shipping Corporation. Rev. Buddarakkita from there onwards hatched the plot and executed it with precision and made an end to his “rival” who was an “stumbling block” in building his “empire”.

    This “HISTORY” is noteworthy and hope we will learn lessons and take precautionary steps to prevent any repetition. How to prevent it and there is only one way and no lessor person than Gauthama Buddha taught everyone in saying: “ASEWANACHA BALANANG, PANDITHANANCHA SEVANA”.

  13. douglas Says:

    A PS to my comment and these few words would be quite OMINOUS in the present day context too:-

    On hearing that SWRD was shot and passed away; Late Sri John Kotalawela made a public utterance as follows:

    “Mama banda ballo, Banda lihala damma. Meka thamai prathipala”. ( The dogs that I chained, Banda unchained all of them. This is the result)

  14. Nanda Says:

    “If anyone had an opportunity of be in a position to get some education in English he could be a “Clerk”. ”

    – This exactly what my mother told me when I asked her what she wanted me to become.

    By Sinhala business means Buddharakkhitha’s proposed Shipping co ( and other peoples existing ones), I too agree with Bandaranakike that formation of “Ceylon Shipping Corporation” was an excellent move, even though there is no need to acquire existing businesses for that ( unless it is crucial and tactical to Sri Lankan – not to self). I trust if Bandaranaike hated Sinhala Buddhists the last thing he would do is to teach in Sinhala in school.

    I am sure Ratnapala should agree that leaders should do “what is best for the country”. Sometimes individuals, even very close ones , get hurt in the process and that is the sign of a great leader. For example if a Sinhala Buddhist business is importing Bajaajs to Sri Lanka, I will not hesitate to limit that business to villages only in any case , because it is a curse to the country. Economic( that includes lives of people) price you pay to let these stupid businesses flourish is not worth. I am not sure what businesses were affected those days , so cannot comment.

    “The dogs that I chained, Banda unchained all of them. This is the result” – Very true and applicable nowadays. MR has unchained Tigers and Wild Pigs, not dogs.

  15. Lorenzo Says:

    SWORD B did a good thing. SINHALA ONLY in 24 hours.

    We should all support him for that no matter what ethnic group we belong to.

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