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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2040

Assassination of a Prime Minister - S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike

By Janaka Perera

Friday, September 26th marks the 55th year since post-independence Sri Lanka experienced its first political assassination - the killing of Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike on September 26, 1959, three years after he came to power. To date it has been the island's only major political assassination where the culprits were arrested and duly punished after being convicted following a much publicized trial.

SWRDB's assassination came as a rude shock to the nation and the world. It was an expression of dissent by a group of his supporters who cared little for his vision and intentions.

In the words of Ramachandra Sunderalingam, former DIG (Crimes) Colombo:

“The SWRD I knew was a man of great integrity, principle and humanity. Though he came to power on the crest of a Sinhala Buddhist wave, his sense of reason, his sense of judgement and his sense of equity could not be stripped off a man with a capacity for magnanimity, ingenuity and management. Oratory was his forte and his mesmeric use of language made him a lion of a politician in a land which was the ideal 'crown colony'. I was a personal witness to his persuasive powers and indefatigable skills when as the Superintendent of Police, Ratnapura District, I had occasion to provide security and accompany him whenever he visited the area.”

In less than two years after the MEP (the SLFP-led alliance) electoral victory of 1956 a series of labour strikes and a bloody communal riot (in 1958) almost paralysed the country. The conflict between the MEP's Left and Right-wings aggravated over policy issues. These included the epoch-making Paddy Lands Act fathered by Philip Gunawardena. Premier Bandaranaike had to walk a political tight rope as his government's radical measures clashed with vested interests. Vehement opposition to these policies was growing among some of his former leading supporters.

Among them was Mapitigama Buddharakkita, Chief Incumbent of the Raja Maha Vihara, Kelaniya and the leading light of the Eksath Bhikshu Peramuna (EBP or the United Bhikku Front) that spearheaded Bandaranaike's election campaign. During the first two years of the MEP Government, many sought Buddharakkita's political favours. Foreign media personnel interviewed him and photographed him at the Kelaniya temple, where he led a life of luxury and travelled about in an Opel Kapitan.

Veteran Journalist Mervyn de Silva however called Buddharakkita the 'Buddy Racketeer.' He was a mini-version of the notorious Rasputin, the 'Christian ' monk who held sway over the Czarist Court in pre-revolutionary Russia. Buddharakkita's intimate relationship with the then Health Minister - the attractive Vimala Wijerwardena – was no secret to political circles. Through her Buddharakkita assumed an unofficial Cabinet Minister's role. He compelled Bandaranaike to remove Left-wingers Philip Gunawardena and William Silva from the Cabinet.

Though the government's swing towards to the Left was thus checked legal restrictions dealt a heavy blow to Buddharakkita's business empire. He who funded the MEP election campaign was now losing money by the million under the Bandaranaike Government. Buddharakkita felt betrayed.

Bandaranaike was to leave for New York on Saturday, September 26, to attend the United Nations General Assembly. According to the Constitution, an acting Head of State had to be appointed until the PM's return. His second in command was the Leader of the House and Lands Minister C.P. de Silva. But at that moment he was seriously ill and was undergoing treatment in London. The story was that the illness was the result of an attempt to poison him.

So Bandaranaike decided to appoint Wijeyananda Dahanayake Acting Head of State. However, the PM had not signed the papers for the acting appointment even by the afternoon of September 24. His Secretary Bradman Weerakoon prepared the necessary papers for Dahanayake's acting appointment and handed them over to Bandaranaike (along with the relevant section of the Constitution) during the tea interval in Parliament.

That particular section of the Constitution stated that an acting Head of State had to be appointed only if the PM was 'incapacitated.' Bandaranaike had a hearty laugh at this and asked his secretary sarcastically, "So Bandaranaike is incapacitated, ah!" And then he signed the papers. He did not know how ominously correct he was when he uttered those words.

The following day (September 25) happened to be a Friday. As usual people – party supporters and others – were waiting to meet the Prime Minister at his Rosmead Place Residence 'Tintagel.' Those were halcyon days when voters had easy access to their elected leaders. There were neither terrorist threats nor high security zones that widened the gap between the rulers and the ruled. The people's leaders had freedom to be with the people.

Among those who called over at Rosmead Place on that fateful morning was Donald Mendis Gunaratne, an SLFP founder-member and a close associate of the PM. Gunaratne saw among the visitors two bhikkus who were seated in the verandah. Gunaratne sat near them and waited for Bandaranaike to come.

Shortly afterwards the American Ambassador arrived there in his official car. The Prime Minister who was expecting him, stepped down the stairs and escorted the diplomat to the hall, where they had a brief discussion on the PM's planned trip to New York, the following day.

After the U.S. envoy left, Bandaranaike walked towards the other visitors. Some of them had accompanied the Venerable Niwanthidiye Ananda, who was one of the two monks seated in the verandah. After attending to the Venerable Ananda, the PM turned to the other bhikku, Thalduwe Somarama of Amara Viharaya, Rajagiriya.

On that day the writer, then a teenager, was absent from school due to illness but was listening to a Radio Ceylon (now SLBC) Sinhala Service program at home. Suddenly around 11 a.m. the program was interrupted and an announcer said that the Prime Minister was injured in a shooting incident at his residence in the morning. No details were given.

As Bandaranaike bent down in customary fashion to pay his respects to Somarama, he had promptly stood up and pulled out a revolver. His first shot hit the premier's right hand. Holding the heavy weapon with both hands, Somarama fired again, striking Bandaranaike in the abdomen. A horrified Donald Gunaratne tried to knock the gun out of Somarama's hand but failed. During the scuffle however a third bullet went astray.

The next moment Somarama fired at Gunaratne who received an injury on his shoulder below the neck, paralysing his arm. As the injured Bandaranaike tried to shield himself Somarama repeated firing – critically injuring the PM.

At the same time, Gunaratne, with blood pouring down his shoulder, ran towards one of the two gates to see that there was no guard there. Then he rushed towards the other gate, shouting that the Prime Minister had been shot. A policeman on duty there ran into the house and fired at Somarama, who fell down with gun-shot injuries on his genitals. Enraged crowds at the scene of the shooting wanted to kill Somarama on the spot, but were restrained by Bandaranaike's brother-in-law Mackie Ratwatte.

All three injured – Bandaranaike, Somarama and Gunaratne – were taken to the National (then General) Hospital, Colombo. The Prime Minister underwent immediate surgery performed by Dr. P.R. Anthonis and a team of doctors.

Governor-General Sir Oliver Goonetilleke promptly summoned Dahanayake to Queen's (later President's) House where he was sworn in as acting Head of State since the papers had already been signed by Bandaranaike.

The Governor-General declared a State of Emergency, but as usual, the BBC gave the full details to the world before the government gave Radio Ceylon the OK to go on the air.

Bandaranaike issued a statement from the hospital bed saying that a man in yellow robes shot him and requested the people to remain calm. However as the news spread that a bhikku was allegedly responsible for the crime, many an innocent member of the Buddhist clergy had to undergo humiliation and harassment from the public. Bus conductors refused to take on board monks and others refused give alms to bhikkus.

Prime Minister Bandaranaike passed away on Saturday September 26 at 7.45 a.m. despite the best efforts of doctors to save his life. That evening his body was brought to his Rosmead Place residence, where people called over to pay their last respects to the departed leader. Among them were two prominent Buddhist monks – the Venerable Thalpawila Seelawansa and Mapitigama Buddharakkita.

Media personnel in the vicinity noticed that while Thalpawila Seelawansa was deeply shocked and saddened Buddharakkita appeared very much alarmed and agitated. He looked at Bandaranaike's body only once and looked around with fear-ridden eyes.

On the day of the Prime Minister's funeral however he was among those who delivered orations and recalled how great a leader was S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike.

A widely-believed story but never proved to date was that it was not Somarama but Ossie Corea – wearing yellow robes – who fired the fatal shots (Ossie Corea was a shady character closely associated with certain UNP politicians).

Somarama was indicted along with four others involved in the conspiracy. It was a hopeless case, and in spite of a resourceful defense the jury unanimously found him guilty of the capital offense.

The Chief Conspirator, Buddharakkita and H. P. Jayawardena, a businessman closely associated with him, were found guilty of conspiracy to murder.

Bandaranaike had suspended Capital punishment but after his death the Government had it restored. In an apparent blunder by the draftsman, the law re-establishing the death penalty had failed to include Conspiracy to Murder. As a consequence while Somarama would face the hangman's noose, the two chief conspirators would get away with a life sentence.

When Buddharakkita - disrobed and reviled – died in prison, not even his relatives were willing to accept the body and had to be buried at State expense.

An ironic twist to this series of events was that ‘Reverend’ Mathew Peiris who baptized Somarama as a Christian before he was hanged in 1962, was himself convicted of the murder of his wife almost two decades later. Both he and Buddharakkita were birds of a feather though they supposedly followed two different religions.

- Asian Tribune -

Assassination of a Prime Minister - S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike
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