Significance of the abortive 1962 military coup
MILITARY COUP: In the troubled post-independence history of Sri
Lanka, the abortive military coup d' etat of January 27, 1962 may end up
being a footnote, given the fact that no shots were fired, no troops
were moved, and the bid was nipped in the bud thanks to timely
But there is much more to the attempted coup than meets the eye.
The effort of the top brass of the army, navy and the police to seize
power reflected emerging religious, socio-cultural and political
fissures in post-independence Sri Lanka, fissures which torment the
country to this day, 44 years down the line.
And the way the investigations and the trial of the 24 high ranking
officers were conducted, betrayed the deep set anxieties of the new
Conflict of elites
The coup attempt brought out the brewing conflict between the
entrenched elites and the newly emerging elites in post-independence Sri
Lanka (or Ceylon as it was known before 1972).
The conflict was unleashed by independence from British rule and
freedom from Western cultural domination in 1948, and the emergence of
Left of Centre regimes led by SWRD Bandaranaike and his wife and
successor, Sirimavo Bandaranaike in the latter half of the 1950s and
The entrenched elites had the following hallmarks: They were
predominantly Christian (Catholic and Protestant); Westernised; urban
and right wing. And the newly emerging elites, or more accurately, the
newly emerging forces, were Sinhala-Buddhist, non-Westernised, rural and
The entrenched elite had a strong minority component, with an
over-representation of Tamils and Burghers (the latter a minuscule
community of mixed Sri Lankan, Dutch and Portuguese blood).
But the newly emerging elite was predominantly Sinhala-Buddhist,
drawn from the majority community in the island.
Therefore, it is not without significance, that the conspirators were
entirely or almost entirely, Christian, upper class, Westernised and
right wing. And not surprisingly, they were ardent supporters of the
somewhat upper class, rightwing, and Westernised United National Party (UNP),
though the UNP itself had nothing whatsoever to do with the coup or the
Bid to correct ethnic imbalances
In his paper entitled The Armed Services in a Period of Change:
1949-66 written for the Clingendael Institute of the Netherlands in
2001, the well-known Sri Lankan historian Dr. K.M. de Silva says that
till second half of the 1950s, the Sri Lankan army officer corps was
three fifths Christian, Tamil and Burgher.
Christians, both Sinhala and Tamil, who were one tenth of the
country's population, were over-represented by a factor of six, he says.
But the Sinhala-Buddhists, who were 70% of the island's population,
constituted only two fifths of the officer corps.
But by 1960, following the Sinhala-Buddhist revolution triggered by
SWRD Bandaranaike's Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the coalition,
Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP), the officer corps had undergone a
radical change in its communal complexion.
"In just over 10 years after the establishment of the army (1949),
however, the Sinhalese began to be over-represented in the officer corps
as well," Dr. de Silva notes.
The police too were affected. This was the reason why quite a chunk
of the conspirators belonged to the police. In 1958, SWRD Bandaranaike
overlooked three senior Christian claimants to the post of Inspector
General of Police (IGP) and appointed a Buddhist.
"The message was clear: religious affiliation was an important
consideration in appointments to politically sensitive posts such as
that of IGP.
The armed forces were spared such changes till the early 1960s ie:
till after Bandaranaike's assassination and the succession of his widow
Sirimavo Bandaranaike as Prime Minister in July 1960," Dr. de Silva
"Major shifts in the ethnic and religious composition of the police
and army officer corps became evident almost as soon as she came to
power," he adds.
Upper class-Christian revolt
No wonder then that, all the 24 charged with conspiring to overthrow
the lawfully constituted government were Christians, either Sinhala,
Tamil or Burgher. In terms of ethnicity, there were 12 Sinhalese, six
Tamils and six Burghers among them.
Many of them were from the upper classes. Col. Fredrick C. de Saram,
the Artillery officer who was the leader of the group and the 3rd
defendent, was Oxford educated.
In her fascinating book entitled To Wage War Against the Queen
(personal publication dated 2002) Dorothy Ludowyk Joseph, wife of the
14th defendent Maj.Victor Joseph, says that Col. de Saram was
"considered conceited" and "seemed somewhat of a snob".
Rear Admiral Royce de Mel, the 6th defendent, was the country's Naval
chief, and his brother, Col. Maurice de Mel, the 2nd defendant, was the
Chief of Staff of the Army, the second-in-command. Tony Anghie, 11th
defendent, and Nimal Jayakody 10th defendent, were Sandhurst trained.
CC "Jungle" Dissanayake, the 4th defendent, was a top ranking police
officer. Basil Jesudason, a Volunteer Corps officer, and the 15th
defendent, was in a high position in the private sector. Rodney de Mel,
the 24th defendent, was a planter.
All of them were Anglophiles, who were also deeply disturbed by the
change in the culture of Ceylon after 1956, when the "Sinhalisation" of
the island began, and when the hoi polloi from the rural backyard
stormed into the bastions of power in Colombo.
In the first eight years of independence, life was cushy for the
Westernised in Ceylon. "People accepted our Western culture and way of
life, our class system that matched that of our Colonial masters, and
the dynasties that stayed in power, ruling and guiding our destinies,"
Dorothy Joseph writes.
But describing the scene in 1961, one year before the abortive coup,
she says: "A pall of depression hung over the land, strikes had crippled
Ceylon's economy and people suffered for want of every description."
"All save a favoured few were anxious and harassed with the high cost
of living, with ever increasing scarcity of employment, fear of the
future and the threat of communism on the horizon."
"The dockers had been on strike for months. The Army had been working
at the port and the queue of ships outside the harbour had lengthened
"Every boat leaving our shores carried those who sailed towards a
better life across the water. Some went gladly, filled with a sense of
adventure and hope. Some went reluctantly into exile because they would
rather stay, but felt that they owed their children a better deal."
"At every gathering, in every drawing room, the question was asked
and hung unanswered in mid air: How long will this deterioration
continue? Is there no way to stop it?"
The Army was being used to quell growing civil unrest triggered by
the "Sinhala-Only" policy of SWRD Bandaranaike.
"When anti-Tamil riots erupted in Colombo and elsewhere in the wake
of the changes in language policy introduced in May 1956, S.W.R.D.
Bandaranaike had to rely on the armed services to put them down," writes
Dr K.M. de Silva.
"And during the Premiership of his wife Sirimavo in 1961, the armed
forces were used for the first time in the Tamil areas of the North
against a Civil Disobedience movement."
"Strains between the armed services and the civilian authority
appeared when she sought to increase the number of Sinhalese-Buddhists
in the officer corps of the armed services and the police, and to give
greater influence to them in the running of the armed services and the
police," he adds.
Pakistan dictator Ayub was model
As disillusionment about the state of affairs in Sri Lanka grew,
there were certain developments in the South Asian region which offered
the disgruntled military brass a ray of hope and a plan of action to
remedy the situation.
The coup led by the Pakistan Army Chief, Gen Mohammad Ayub Khan, in
October 1958, was an eye opener on what an efficient force like the
armed services could do.
On this point, Dr de Silva says: " 1960s were a time when military
regimes still had the reputation of being more efficient and less
corrupt than civilian authorities."
"Pakistan under Ayub Khan seemed to be doing much better than that
country's civilian politicians in holding together and at stimulating
economic growth; some of the leaders of the abortive coup of 1962 in Sri
Lanka regarded him and his experiment in 'indirect' democracy as a model
to be emulated in Sri Lanka then in the throes of its first phase of the
Sinhala-Tamil conflict, and in the penultimate phase of the conflict
between the Buddhists and Roman Catholics."
"All the coup leaders blamed the governing party for the ill effects
of their populist policies: turmoil in the form of ethnic riots;
economic stagnation if not decline; and political instability."
Rule by junta of ex-PMs planned
Interestingly, the plotters did not plan to rule Sri Lanka directly.
They wanted to set up a junta of ex-Prime Ministers, who, they believed,
shared their concerns and would toe their line.
"They believed they had a remedy for all this, in the substitution of
a Sri Lankan form of 'indirect' democracy under the rule of a junta of
ex-Prime Ministers," says Dr de Silva.
According to Dorothy Joseph, some of the State or Crown witnesses
tried to link the then Governor General, Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, and
former Prime Ministers, Dudley Senanayake and Sir John Kotelawala, with
Policeman Stanley Senanayake, the original informant, said to the
trial court that his boss, CC Dissanayake, the 4th defendant and top
police official, had told him that Sir Oliver was "in it" as were Dudley
Senanayake and Sir John.
The luminaries were indeed right wing and very Westernised, viewing
with alarm the left wing populism of the Bandaranaikes.
But the plotters' hope was misplaced.
They got no support from any of the personages mentioned because
these men were truly wedded to constitutional methods.
At any rate, as Dorothy Joseph herself says, the allegations against
the luminaries were "never corroborated."
Lack of expected support from Sir Oliver, especially, is cited as one
of the reasons for the failure of the coup.
Desperate measures to secure conviction
The fact that "no overt act had been committed, no troops had been
moved and no guns were fired," made the task of proving the charge very
difficult, notes Dorothy Joseph.
The fact that the accused had the best of lawyers led by G.G.
Ponnambalam, H.W. Jayewardene and S.J. Kadirgamar to counter the
"inquisitor" Felix Dias Bandaranaike, the Minister of Defence, added to
the prosecution's woes.
The trump card in the hands of Felix Dias Bandaranaike was the
confession made by Col FC de Saram that he had "planned to take over the
government and had ordered officers to attend meetings" in this
The fact that Rear Adm. Royce de Mel (the Naval chief and the
6th.accused) was absconding for some time, added grist to the
But given the problems in proving a coup plot, and afraid that the
military could become too powerful if the case was not made an example
of, the Mrs Bandaranaike government resorted to desperate measures to
fix the accused.
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.
"All rules of jurisprudence were transgressed," comments Dorothy
To break the will of the men and secure confessions, they were put in
But the first Trial at Bar held in 1962, under the new law, ended in
disaster for the government because 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
But the second court also dissolved itself because of one of the
judges, in his earlier job 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 Douglas Liyanage, Col. Maurice de Mel, Rear
Admiral Royce de Mel, Col F.C. de Saram and C.C. Dissanayake.
The sentence was 10 years in jail and confiscation of property.
Privy Council slams law, acquits all. The convicted took their case
to the Privy Council in London. In its ruling given in December 1965, it
held the Special Act of 1962 ultra vires of the Ceylon constitution.
It said that the Act had denied fair trial. The law had been
specially enacted to convict the men. The men under trial did not have
the protections that they would have had under general criminal law, the
The law's intentions were suspect. "Legislation directed against
selected individuals or against the individual is not law," it said,
acquitting all the eleven.
Reconstitution of officer corps continues
The failure of the coup of 1962 did not reduce the sense of
insecurity in the government. The Sirimavo Bandaranaike government
continued to purge the officer corps in the armed forces and the police
on religious lines, says Dr. de Silva.
"The guiding spirit in this drastic process of reconstitution of the
officer corps of the armed services and the police was religion not
ethnic identity, an important aspect of the long conflict between
Buddhist and Christian in Sri Lankan society which was reaching its
climax at this time," he observes.