Posted on March 14th, 2021


The MEP government of 1956-1959 made many excellent, praiseworthy changes, some of which are well known and others which are not so well known. This essay and the one that follows it do not list all the improvements made by the 1956 Government.  They contain only the most visible and best known changes. Other changes made by Bandaranaike and also changes contemplated by Bandaranaike are given elsewhere.


The 1956 government is     mainly remembered today, for the elevation of Sinhala to the sole national language of the country. This was dubbed ‘Sinhala Only’ when it was nothing of the sort, observed critics. Sinhala Only continues to be bashed in the media today and the issue is kept fresh in the minds of the public.

Parliament passed the Official Language Act no 33 of 1956 on June 15.  1956, It was passed after a marathon debate, with 66 ‘for’ and 20 ‘against.’ The Act said that the Sinhala language ‘shall be the one official language of Ceylon.’ The Act came into effect on 1st January 1964.  All government transactions throughout the country had to be in Sinhala from 31.10 1964.  Therefore it was not ‘Sinhala in 24 hours’. That statement is incorrect.

‘Sinhala only’ was never ‘Sinhala only’. Critics observed that the Act had failed to limit the use of Tamil and English, ‘as it should have done’. Nor did it make Sinhala compulsory in schools. No subsidiary legislation was passed under the Act either. Implementation was based solely on administrative orders and Cabinet directions. As a result, state administration was conducted in English above a certain level.

There were many positive results from Sinhala Only.  It brought a hitherto submerged class onto center stage and upward mobility,   said Meegama. TIME said until now, citizens could not send telegrams, make long distance calls, make out a bill of lading or hold a government job unless they spoke English.  The law courts had worked in English until Sinhala only came along. This meant that the litigants had no idea what was going on. When Sinhala was used in courts they could understand what was said.    The declaration of Sinhala as the official language released the hitherto subdued creative genius of the people, added analysts.


Philip Gunawardena is best remembered for the Paddy Lands Act of 1958. The main objective of this Act was to provide security of tenure and regulate the rents paid by tenant farmers. However its implementation was flawed owing to administrative deficiencies. The Paddy Lands Bill is discussed at length   in my essay titled The general election of 1956 pt 4F” available on Lankaweb.


The naval port of Trincomalee, the Air base at Katunayake and military camps at Diyatalawa were retained by Britain, when Britain withdrew from Ceylon. DS Senanayake as Prime Minister readily agreed to this when the terms of independence were negotiated. SWRD Bandaranaike took back Trincomalee and Katunayake, when he became Prime Minister. Trincomalee was returned on October 15. 1957 and Katunayake on November 1 1957.

 Britain wanted the transfer subject to their terms and conditions. SWRD did not agree.  He said that the return of the bases was something that Ceylon had the right to demand without any qualifications. Britain accepted that Ceylon could give them notice to quit.  Britain had no grounds on which to refuse.   ‘In the last resort we have depend on the good will of Ceylon’, admitted Britain. However, Government of Ceylon was to pay 22 million rupees in five equal installments from 1957-1962, for the cost of transferring.

The negotiations for the closure of British naval and air force facilities in Ceylon were done very diplomatically. The transfer was affected without causing any strain in the relationship with UK due to the diplomatic skill of Bandaranaike.

Britain was given a period of five years to complete the act of handing over. During the rundown period, UK forces continued to enjoy all immunities and privileges enjoyed so far. Aircraft of UK armed forces could use Ceylon airspace till then. Britain retained some facilities.UK naval vessels would continue to refuel at Colombo. 


 The UNP under D.S.Senanayake and Kotelawala had signed trade treaties with China, (1952) Poland, (1955) Yugoslavia (1953) and Czechoslovakia. (1955) but they did not establish diplomatic relations.

Bandaranaike established diplomatic relations with six communist bloc countries, while maintaining cordial relation with the western bloc. The communist countries were China, Russia, Czechoslovakia, Rumania, Poland and Yugoslavia.  Viliam Široký Prime Minister of Czechoslovakia  and President Josip Broz Tito, President of Yugoslavia visited in 1958.

These links brought benefits. Before 1956, scholarships and experts came only from Colombo Plan countries.  From 1956 onwards Sri Lanka received experts and scholarships from communist bloc.

 Sri Lanka was one of the first countries to establish diplomatic relations with Cuba soon after Fidel Castro took power in 1959. ‘Che’ Guevara visited Ceylon as Castro’s special emissary in August 1959. Guevara visited Yahala Kele rubber estate in Horana and planted a Mahogany tree there.

In 1957, the MEP government established diplomatic relations with   Russia. Gunapala Malalasekera was the first ambassador to Russia.  In 1958, an agreement on cooperation in economic and technical spheres between the Soviet Union and Ceylon was signed. Sri Lanka was able to gain Russian assistance in many fields’, projects including Oruwala Steel Mill, Modera Flour Mill, Kelaniya Tyre Factory, Samanala Weva hydro-energy project, Russian aid and technology.

Sri Lanka also received heavy machinery such as tractors, tippers, cranes. Russia helped some housing projects, too.  Russia gave scholarships to Sri Lankan students, to study medicine and engineering at prestigious Russian universities. Sri Lanka exported tea, rubber, coconut oil and coir products to Russia. Tea was the major export item to Russia.

SWRD established diplomatic relations with China in 1957.  Prime Minister Chou en Lai visited in 1957 during his tour of Asian countries. He was invited to participate at the ninth celebrations of Sri Lanka’s Independence. He came with Vice Premier He Long.  Chou climbed Sigiriya and also visited a colonization scheme and met colonists. Sometime later, China sent the Beijing Opera to Sri Lanka.


Vidyodaya Pirivena, (Maligakanda), and Vidyalankara Pirivena (Kelaniya) were the leading pirivenas of the time. They had played a historical role during British rule in preserving Buddhist learning and in projecting the image of a strong Maha Sangha.  SWRD recognized this and took action to elevate these two Pirivenas to University status. This was sneered at. The western oriented University of Ceylon was quite sufficient said the opponents of SWRD.

Vidyodaya University and Vidyalankara University Act No 45 of 1958 converted these two pirivenas to universities. The two universities were duly established at Maligakanda and Kelaniya respectively. Ven. Welivitiye Soratha who was the Principal of the Vidyodaya Pirivena was appointed as the first Vice-Chancellor of the Vidyodaya University, and the university was ceremonially opened on 16th February 1959. Today, this has become University of Sri Jayawardenepura. Vidyalankara Pirivena became the Vidyalankara University in 1959. It is today University of Kelaniya. (continued)

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