Posted on April 26th, 2021


The possibility of a coup d’etat had been known from 1958.  In Parliament in November 1958 NM Perera had dropped hints of a plan for a coup d’etat. He referred to Sidney de Zoysa, not by name, but as a person who was gathering power by placing his men in key positions in the police force.

Philip Gunawardene picked this up and expanded on the subject in Parliament in 1958. Sydney de Zoysa was a trouble maker, he said. During the emergency of 1958 where ever Sydney went, there was trouble. People were thrashed, Buddhist monks were turned out of their temples and   there would be an attack by the police after Sydney   left. Sydney has gone to Gal Oya, where the 1958 race riots had started, and given ‘political lectures’.

 Philip accused Sidney de Zoysa of leading a conspiracy to wreck the MEP government.  Sidney was brewing discontent in the higher ranks of the police. Good men in the police service were removed from their positions and replaced by Sydney’s men, Philip said.  The chief of CID had been removed and Sidney’s stooge put there. Sidney was regularly meeting naval officers and army officers to bring about a coup. He was at Diyatalawa, recently, canvassing   army officers to support him in overthrowing this government, Philip said.     

On May Day 1959, speaking at a public gathering Philip made open accusation against Sydney de Zoysa.  He appealed to Prime Minister to get rid of Sydney. Instead SWRD gave permission to Sydney to sue Philip for defamation. The defamation case was heard in 1960.

Judge agreed that the statements made were defamatory, but   the Penal Code made an exception for statements made in good faith in the public interest.   Philip’s May Day speech was made in that spirit.   Also, Philip’s unflattering observations about Sydney, that Sydney molested and ill treated people, was correct. Philip’s prediction of a junta was also correct. A junta led by Dahanayake, came to power after the death of Bandaranaike said the Judge. The judge acquitted Philip. He said that Philip had created a very favorable impression, specially compared to Sydney. Philip was candid and truthful.

Sidney de Zoysa   had links to the right wing of the MEP. Sydney de Zoysa’s brother Dickie was one of the persons behind the company set up by Buddharakkita, Ceylon Shipping Lines.   When Dahanayake became Prime Minister he appointed Sidney as Permanent Secretary to a newly created Ministry of Internal security.

In his 1958 speech in Parliament, Philip had also pointed out that there was foreign involvement in the matter. Powerful forces are at work, Philip told Parliament. The people of this country must be warned. There are vested interests, foreign as well as local that would like to see the MEP government    go. They wish to set up a government under them rather than permit the MEP government to carry on, continued Philip. They wish to set up a reactionary junta.

 Philip also drew attention to the close connection between foreign embassies and senior officers in the armed services. He specifically mentioned the US embassy. He said that the US embassy invited military officers to parties and got them drunk. Philip said that some control should be exerted. Hereafter military officers should get state permission to attend these functions.

America did not like the 1956 MEP government.  TIME said the government was seen as a high risk regime.  It was swinging sharply to the Left. US Assistant Secretary of state William Rouwntree visited Ceylon in 1958 to check on this.

Philip’s 1958 speech was the first time that the country became aware that a conspiracy was brewing, said Ananda Meegama. Philip’s allegations of 1958 were political dynamite, for they indicated that there was a group working overtime to over throw the government and also perhaps replace Parliamentary democracy with a military dictatorship.

Meegama says that Philip’s announcement of an impending coup triggered the events that led to his and William Silva’s eviction from government.  It was necessary to remove Philip from the scene, before Bandaranaike was killed, because otherwise he may have replaced SWRD.

Philip had pointed out the danger of keeping on the old gang” in army and police. He said the

High officers of the army and navy, particularly navy, do not look with friendly eyes towards the people of Ceylon and our independence in the control of our affairs. The higher echelons of the police and armed service were also unhappy about the progressive measures of the MEP.  The dangers of a coup were ever present.

  Philip had informed SWRD, directly that several leading officers in police and army were plotting to overthrow the government. But the MEP government   failed to make the much needed reforms in police and armed services. SWRD was getting ready to do something about this when he was killed.

Instead of the expected coup there was an assassination. Bandaranaike was killed on September 26.1959. At that time it was thought that the monk Buddharakkita had done it, because he did not get a sugar tender. It is now suggested that USA was behind the assassination. Bandaranaike was assassinated by a Buddhist monk at a time when the CIA was weaponising Buddhism, to contain the spread of Communism from the USSR and China, said Darini Rajasingham Senanayake .

This was a time when US, UK and retreating European empires were instigating assassinations, coups and regime-change in third world countries, from Patrice Lumumba in Congo to Mossadegh in Iran, to Suharto in Indonesia, she added.

But the MEP government did not fade away after the assassination of Bandaranaike. Sirimavo who took over was much firmer than SWRD and more decisive.The sudden departure of Electric Eel did not diminish his influence on the island. It seems to be even more powerful now that when he was alive, complained Flybynight in his Island inthe Sun series.  

 So Sirimavo also had to go. It was best to do so through a coup.  Philip had warned Sirimavo in 1960 that there could be a coup very soon.. Sri John has met some of his old war comrades in the Volunteer force, said Philip.  Also, there was a conference of the Ceylon Cadre battalions which was attended by the former commander, who had come from Pakistan to attend it, this would have been Major general Anton Muttukumaru who was then ambassador to Pakistan.

The commanding officer of the army was present, at this conference, continued Philip. Rear Admiral of the navy was  also present [possibly Royce de Mel]. The only outsider invited to this conference was Fr. Peter Pillai.  Next they are going to have another conference called nuclear conference in Diyatalawa, continued Philip. All important officers have been asked to attend this conference. I think that beneath the nuclear conference there must be   another conference, concluded Philip.

The coup  plans went through smoothly. The coup was planned for January 1962. A group of  senior officers in the military and police planned to topple the government during the night of 27 January 1962. Those involved were Colonel F. C. de Saram (Deputy Commandant, Ceylon Volunteer Force), Colonel Maurice De Mel, (Commandant, Ceylon Volunteer Force), Rear Admiral Royce de Mel (former Captain of the Royal Ceylon Navy), C.C. Dissanayake (DIG, Range I), Sydney de Zoysa (retired DIG) and Douglas Liyanage (Deputy Director of Land Development),

The plan was for troops to seize strategic positions and installations, cordon off Colombo preventing troops from the Panagoda Cantonment reaching Colombo and   arrest all ministers. Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, Governor General  would be asked to dissolve Parliament and take direct control of the state. He would be assisted by a Governing Council of Dudley Senanayake and Sir John Kotelawala, with Wijayananda Dahanayake also invited to join.

Wikipedia said that the coup leaders had intended to send Sirimavo to the United Kingdom by plane with her family to join her daughter who was studying at Oxford at the time.  This is unlikely. She would have been a threat to them wherever she was.    They would have had to kill her.

The coup was aborted at the last minute after an informant revealed the plans to the Prime Minister. The coup leaders were arrested and put into prison. The press focused on the discomfort and harassment these poor arrested leaders were facing in jail.

Since no shots were fired and no troops deployed, the Penal Code could not be used against the coup leaders. . Therefore the  government passed a new law called Criminal Law (Special Provisions) Act, No. 1 of 1962.  Supreme Court convicted 11 of the 24 accused including Col F.C. de Saram, Col. Maurice de Mel, Rear Admiral Royce de Mel, Douglas Liyanage, and Sidney de Zoysa. They appealed to Privy  Council. Privy Council held the Special Act of 1962   violated the  Ceylon constitution and had denied fair trial.  The coup leaders were acquitted on this technical point.

For decades the intelligentsia had suspected that the UNP leaders had a hand in the coup. The names of Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, and former Prime Ministers Dudley Senanayake and Sir John Kotelawala had come up in the investigation and at the  trial. Sir Oliver was removed from the position of Governor General.

 Wikipedia said that years later  J. R. Jayewardene had stated that at a meeting on 13 April 1966  he was told by  Sir John Kotelawala that he and Dudley Senanayake had been aware of the coup. JR’s biographers, K.M. de Silva and H Wriggins, 1988, recorded advice that JR had given to the key conspirator, Sydney de Soyza. Sirimavo  when she found out  had decided to keep the matter a secret.

If the 1962 coup had succeeded, there would have been civil war, with the 3rd field regiment of the Ceylon Artillery taking on the Ceylon Light Infantry possibly at the Kirulapona Bridge as the regiment came in from Panagoda. The government later disbanded the 3rd regiment and raised another infantry regiment, the Gemunu Watch.

Of the 24  arrested 12 were Sinhalese, 6 were  Tamils and 6 Burghers. All were from the westernized upper class, property owning, well-educated and with right-wing ideologies. It showed the public that an antinational minority still wielded power in the country.

All 24 conspirators  were Christians. The percentage of Christian and Catholic in the armed force during the time of the coup was well above the national average for these two groups. Higher officers of the navy were Catholics. Recruitment to the army and navy are done by  boards which are all Catholic said Philip.    And the  Catholic Church  in Sri Lanka is against progressive movements, he added.

Today’s thinking is that most of the regime changes of the Third World or newly independent countries were engineered by the USA. USA was considered responsible for the1958 and 1977 coups in Pakistan and 1960 and 1980 coups in Turkey. Britain and the United States were active in 1965 coup by Suharto against President Sukarno in Indonesia, said analysts.

CIA played a crucial role in the Ba’ath coup d’état in November 1963 against PM Qassim in Iraq, against Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana and against Patrice Lumumba in Congo. CIA had a hand in coups in Ecuador in 1950and early 1960s. There was direct U.S .involvement in1949 and 1951 coups in Syria, analysts said. (continued)

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