1962 Ceylonese coup d'état attempt

The 1962 Ceylonese coup d'état attempt (also known as the Colonels' coup ) was a failed military coup planned in Sri Lanka (Ceylon). Several Christian elite senior military and policy officers planned to topple the government of Prime Minister Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike[1] during the night of 27 January 1962. However, key leaders were arrested before the coup was carried out.[2] The coup attempt which had the backing of several former statesmen,[3][4] brought out the brewing conflict between the entrenched elites and the newly emerging elites in post-independence Sri Lanka.[5]


Ceylon gained independence from Britain in 1948 and was called the Dominion of Ceylon. This marked the beginning of self-rule for the local population. However much of the political, governmental and military leadership of the country was passed down from the British to the Ceylonese Christian elite, who had risen to positions of power largely owing to their education and religion. As a result, all of the high offices of state were held by these elite.

In 1956 S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, an Anglican who converted to Buddhism, was elected after a nationalistic movement in which he gathered the support of the Buddhist Sinhalese people majority of the country, who were considered underprivileged compared to the Christian minority. As promised during the election Bandaranaike began a rapid Sinhalisation of all parts of the government, which culminated in the passage of the isolationist Sinhala Only Act.[6] At the same time, he had the last of the British military bases in Ceylon removed and led a move towards a Socialist form of economy.

Prior to these changes, the officer corps of the army were composed of three-fifths Christian, one-fifth Tamil, and one-fifth Burgher. Bandaranaike moved to balance this by increasing the number of Buddhist Sinhalese officers. He was noted for having the post of Inspector General of Police filled by a Buddhist civil servant, M. Walter F. Abeykoon, over three other senior Christian police officers.[6]

By 1961 resentment was building up among the Christians, who felt that they were systematically being eliminated. The regime appear to have targeted minority communities by taking over and renaming Catholic schools, whilst at the same time some of the elite Anglican schools were not targeted.[7][8][9][10] Already by this point many Christians were leaving Ceylon mainly to the UK. The country's economy worsened, resulting in increasing cost of living and rising unemployment. The military coup by General Ayub Khan in Pakistan inspired a group of disenchanted officers to take action.[11]

The planned coup

The Prime Minister was due to leave Colombo to Kataragama on the evening of Friday 26 January 1962, but did not do so. The Air Force which was under the command of seconded RAF officers were not connected to the coup; nor were the Army Commander Major General H. Winston G. Wijeyekoon, the Inspector General of Police M.W.F. Abeykoon or the Captain of the Navy Commodore Rajan Kadiragamar. The coup was planned mostly by reserve and retired military and police officers.

The plan was code-named Operation Holdfast. The Prime Minister, Ministers, the Parliamentary Secretary for Defence and External affairs (Felix Dias Bandaranaike), permanent secretary of the ministry of Defence and External affairs (N. Q. Dias), the Army Commander, the acting Captain of the Navy, the Inspector General of Police, DIG (CID) (S A. Dissanayake) and SP (CID) (John Attygalle) were among those to be arrested and taken to the Army Headquarters, where they would be held in the ammunition magazine, which was an underground bunker and hold the prisoners there until further instructions. Other service commanders including the Army Commander and Brigadier B. R. Heyn, were to be restrained and prevented from leaving their houses that night after a certain hour However, the planners were obsessed by the idea that not a “drop of blood should be shed”.[12]q

Soon after midnight police cars equipped with loud hailers were to be sent out to announce an immediate curfew in Colombo city limits. The Central Telegraph Office, Colombo and other city telephone exchanges were to be put out of operation. Newspaper office buildings, Police Headquarters, the CID office and other key points were to be taken over. Armoured cars were to be stationed at certain points to ensure the success of the operation. Troops from the Panagoda Cantonment were to be prevented from reaching Colombo that night at any cost. Armoured cars and army vehicles fitted with radio equipment, were to be stationed at the two Kelani bridges, the Kirillapone Bridge and other places. Signals Corps Despatch riders, fully armed on motorcycles, were standing by from about 11pm at Torrington (Independence) Square to storm Radio Ceylon once the password 'Holdfast' was given. A special direct telephone line had been laid the previous day, from Army Headquarters at Lower Lake Road to the Echelon Barracks, for use by army personnel. Once the corp was complete the leaders would meet at the Queen's House where they would get the Governor General Sir Oliver Goonetilleke to dissolve parliament and take direct control of the state.

Stopping the coup

As the coup leaders met to finalize plans, the prime minister was visited by her nephew Felix Dias Bandaranaike and two senior police officers of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), which included its Director DIG S.A. Dissanayake and SP John Attygalle (both would later become IGPs) who informed the PM about an attempt to take over the Government by a coup by certain army, navy and police personnel according to information received. They had earlier informed IGP M.F.W. Abeykoon about the possible coup, who due to the seriousness on the situation notified Felix Dias Bandaranaike, the Minister of Finance and Parliamentary Secretary for Defence and External affairs. A meeting was held at the minister's residence at 7.00pm where the police officers gave the minister all known information. The minister wanted to act fast to stop the coup and left for the Prime Minister's residence, Temple Trees with the two CID officers.

The information came from SP (Colombo) Stanley Senanayake (would later become IGP), head of Police in Colombo, who after being taken into the confidence of the coup leaders had informed his father-in-law, SLFP MP and party secretary Patrick de Silva Kularatne, who in turn notified the CID.

The information took the PM by shock, however under the directions of Felix Dias Bandaranaike, all service commanders, Major General Gerard Wijekoon, Commodore Rajan Kadiragamar, Air Commodore John Barker and the IGP M.F.W. Abeykoon were called to Temple Trees for an emergency meeting. After the meeting in which Stanley Senanayake revealed everything he knew, Felix Dias Bandaranaike ordered to summon to Temple Trees the junior police and army officers who were known to be acting under the orders of the coup leaders, where they were questioned by Felix Dias Bandaranaike personally and the CID. It was revealed that the coup's military element was led by Colonel Fredrick C. de Saram of the Ceylon Artillery (he was a cousin of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike) and Colonel Maurice de Mel the Commandant of the Volunteer Force (second-in-command of the Army); the police element was led by DIG C.C. "Jungle" Dissanayake the Senior Deputy Inspector General of Police in change of Range I (brother of DIG S.A. Dissanayake, Director of the CID) and DIG Sydney de Zoysa responsible of coordination between the services; it was planned by Deputy Director of Land Development, Douglas Liyanage of the Ceylon Civil Service and supported by Rear Admiral Royce de Mel, recently retired Commander of the Navy and brother of Colonel Maurice de Mel. The coup was to be carried out by troops from the 3rd Field Regiment, 2nd Volunteer Antiaircraft Regiment of the Ceylon Artillery (almost the entire officer corps of these regiment were involved), 2nd (V) Field/Plant Regiment, Ceylon Engineers; 2nd Volunteer Signals Regiment, Ceylon Signals Corps and Armoured cars of the Sabre troop of the Ceylon Armoured Corps. Captain Nimal Jayakody and Captain Tony Anghie of 3rd Field Artillery Regiment, Ceylon Artillery were members of the first batch of officer cadets of the Ceylon Army and had been trained at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.[13]

The first of the arrest of the coup was to be effected at 9.30pm when Neal de Alwis, MP for Baddegama was arrested from his residence. At this point C.C. "Jungle" Dissanayake received a call at his residence that the plan had been compromised and the leaders decided to call off the coup. At Temple Trees it was informed that the duty officer for the night at Police headquarters ASP V.T. Dickman had been replaced by a known conspirator. By this time navy's internal security personnel were detailed to guard Temple Trees, since no one was sure how deep the conspiracy had penetrated the ranks of the army and police. The PM ordered the arrest of Dissanayake and J.F. Bede Johnpillai (ASP Traffic). They were arrested that night and the following day Colonel F.C. de Saram, Colonel Maurice de Mel and Rear Admiral Royce de Mel were arrested along with many others. In all 31 conspirators, Commissioned Officers from the Army and the Navy, Gazetted Officers from the Police and one civil servant were arrested.

The aftermath

Since no shots were fired and no troops deployed, the conspirators couldn't be charged. So they were remanded, pending trial, in a special section of the Welikada Prison called the Magazine Section. A special security detachment was selected called the composite guard to guard these officers from the Ceylon Light Infantry with Major A Hulangamuwa in Charge. They were held in solitary confinement in hope of getting a confession.

All the 26 charged with conspiring to overthrow an elected government were Christians, in terms of ethnicity, there were 12 Sinhalese, six Tamils and six Burghers among them. The remaining five were not prosecuted due to lack of evidence.

The accused were defended by some of the best lawyers led by G.G. Ponnambalam, H.W. Jayewardene and S.J. Kadirgamar to counter the "inquisitor" Felix Dias Bandaranaike. However Colonel F.C. de Saram had made a confession assuming full responsibility was used by the prosecution. The government put in place a new law called "Criminal Law Special Provision Act of 1962" under which hearsay could be admitted as evidence. And to bring the coup case under the draconian law, it was given retrospective effect from January 1, 1962.

But the first Trial at Bar held in 1962, under the new law, however the judges dissolved the court saying that they were appointed by the Executive, when the latter had no constitutional right to do so. the Act was then amended to get the Supreme Court to appoint the judges. The second court also dissolved itself because of one of the judges, Hon. Justice A.W.H. Abeyesundere, QC, in his earlier post as Attorney General, had assisted the investigation of the case.

A Third Court sat for 324 days from June 3, 1963, and convicted 11 of the 24 accused including Col F.C. de Saram, Col. Maurice de Mel, Rear Admiral Royce de Mel, Douglas Liyanage, Sidney de Zoysa, Wilmot Abraham (later died in prison in 1964), B. I. Loyola, Wilton White, Nimal Jayakody, Noel Matthysz, Victor Joseph, Basil Jesudason, John Felix, David Tambyah, Samuel Jackson and Rodney de Mel. The sentence was ten years in jail and confiscation of property. However the condemned took their case to the Privy Council, In its ruling given in December 1965, it held the Special Act of 1962 ultra vires of the Ceylon constitution and said that the Act had denied fair trial. According to the Privy Council the law had been specially enacted to convict the men, under trial they did not have the protections that they would have had under general criminal law. It acquitted all the eleven.

Of the accused Col. De Saram returned to his family law firm, Douglas Liyanage was appointed Secretary to the Ministry of State in the early 1980s, Capt. John A.R. Felix went on to become the Commissioner-General of Inland Revenue and Lt. Col. Basil Jesudasan became the Chairman of Carsons Cumberbatch PLC.

It was claimed that they had hoped to replace the government with a junta of ex-Prime Ministers. Therefore, some of the Crown witnesses tried to link the then Governor-General, Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, and former Prime Ministers, Dudley Senanayake and Colonel Sir John Kotelawala, with the conspiracy. Although this was not proven at the time, Sir Oliver Goonetilleke resigned as Governor-General and went into self-imposed exile in Britain, he was replaced by Sirimavo Bandaranaike's uncle William Gopallawa who was at the time serving as Ceylon's Ambassador to the US. Evidence is now available of the involvement of these statesmen.[3][4]

Result of the coup attempt

The primary result of the coup attempt was that it led to Sirimavo Bandaranaike's distrust of the military. Even though the Army Commander Winston Wijekoon and the IGP M.W.F. Abeykoon were not aware of the coup, the former was replaced in 1963 by Major General A.R. Udugam, the first Sinhala-Buddhist Army Commander, overlooking the more senior Brigadier (later Major General) B. R. Heyn who was made commander after him. This was entirely racially motivated, because Heyn was a Christian and a Burgher, not Sinhalese, and knew nothing about the attempted coup. Indeed, one of Brigadier Heyn's regiments, the 1st Batallion, Ceylon Light Infantry, based in Panagoda, was the unit the plotters had wanted to prevent coming to the aid of the Government. Funding for the services were cut drastically greatly affecting its growth and disabling its ability of defending Ceylon in the long term. The 1st Heavy Antiaircraft Regiment was amalgamated with 3rd Field Regiment to form 4th Regiment of the Ceylon Artillery, the 2nd (V) Antiaircraft Regiment of the Ceylon Artillery and the 2nd (V) Field/Plant Regiment of the Ceylon Engineers were disbanded and the 2nd (V) Signal Regiment of the Ceylon Signals Corps was brought to form the National Service Regiment. Military hardware procurements limited. The Navy was also hard hit, many of its ships were sold and its blue water capability lost, it would not regain it former ability until the 1980s and 1990s. Inter service cooperation in the form of joint operations were suspended. As a result, the military was under strength and ill-equipped to deal with the 1971 JVP Insurrection, during another government of Sirimavo Bandaranaike. To overcome the situation Sri Lanka had to rely on help from other countries. Following the Bandaranaike government's electoral defeat in 1965, Dudley Senanayake became Prime Minister. To prevent a future coup he created the Special Branch of the Ceylon Police Force charged with national security. This was however disbanded when Sirimavo Bandaranaike was again elected in 1970 which resulted in her government being caught off guard, with no early warning when the 1971 JVP Insurrection started.

Accused conspirators of the coup attempt


Others arrested as conspirators

See also


  1. "How the British press saw Mrs Bandaranaike". The Sunday Times. October 22, 2000.
  2. "The Kataragama factor and the 1962 coup". The Sunday Times. August 13, 2000.
  3. 1 2 Perera, K.K.S. (January 29, 2012). "Two Prime Ministers and the Governor General – did they have a role?". The Sunday Times. Retrieved 5 September 2015.
  4. 1 2 J R Jayawardene of Sri Lanka. A Political Biography Volume II: From 1956 to His Retirement by de Silva, K M; Wriggins, Howard, pp.114-116 (Leo Cooper) ISBN 9780850524307
  5. Balachandran, P. K. (1 June 2006). "Significance of the abortive 1962 military coup". The Daily News (Sri Lanka). Retrieved 17 November 2015.
  6. 1 2 "Bandaranaikes: the bane of Lanka". The Sunday Leader. November 9, 2003.
  7. Catholics Protest Ceylon Plan To Take Over Church Schools, The Blade (Toledo Blade), Accessed 05-09-2015
  8. Coup Theories and Officers' Motives: Sri Lanka in Comparative Perspective, Donald L. Horowitz, p.133 (Princeton Legacy Library) ISBN 9780691615608
  9. When the 'nobodies' made their mark Sunday Times Retrieved 05 October 2015
  10. Amerasekera, Dr. Nihal D. (4 January 2014). "Cedric James Oorloff - A tribute to a great educationist of the 20th Century". The Island. Retrieved 3 December 2014.
  11. "Delayed Revolt". Time. March 3, 1961.
  12. “Operation holdfast”: The attempted coup d’etat of Jan 1962 by D.B.S. Jeyaraj, Accessed 05-09-2015
  13. Another reunion
  14. "Court Jester: Lakshman Kadirgamar". Jestforkicks.blogspot.com. 2008-02-19. Retrieved 2010-09-20.

External links

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