The 1962 Ceylonese coup d'état attempt was a failed military coup planned in Sri Lanka (Ceylon). Several Christian senior military and policy officers planned to topple the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike in the night of 27 January 1962, however, key leaders were arrested before the coup was carried out.
Ceylon gained independence from Britain in 1948, as the Dominion of Ceylon. This marked the beginning of self rule for the local population. However much of the political and government leadership of the country was passed down from the British to the Ceylonese Christian elite, who had served the British before 1948. 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 Sinhalese people majority of the countr, 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 Sinhala Only Act. 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 Chistian, one fifth Tamil, and one fifth Burgher. Bandaranaike moved to balance this by increasing the number of Sinhalese officers. He was noted for having the post of Inspector General of Policy filled by a Buddhist officer over three other more senior Christian officers.
By 1961 resentment was building up among the Christians, who felt that they were systematically being eliminated. The country's economy worsened, resulting in increasing cost of living and rising unemployment. The military coup by Gen. Ayub Khan in Pakistan inspired a group of disenchanted officers to take action.
The Prime Minister was due to leave Colombo to Kataragama on the evening of Friday 26 January 1962, however she didn't 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 were to be restrained and prevented from leaving their houses that night after a certain hour.
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 11 p.m. 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 Goonatilleke to dissolve parliament and take direct control of the state.
As the coup leaders met to finalize plans, the prime minister didn't leave and that night 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 the his father-in-law, SLFP MP and party secretary P. de S. 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 lead 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 lead by SDIG 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 relieved captain 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.
The first of the arrest of the coup was to be effected at 9.30 p.m 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 of 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.
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 the 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 Col 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, C.C. Dissanayake and Douglas Liyanage. The sentence was 10 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.
It was claimed that they had hoped to replace the government with a junta of ex-Prime Ministers. Therefor 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 never proven 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.
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, over looking 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 Dutch Burgher, not Sinhalese. Funding for the services were cut drastically greatly effecting 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.