Tuesday, February 15, 2022


By Sanjiva Senanayake (Email; skgsenanayake@gmail.com)

Many people ‘know’ the conventional tale about the assassination of the Prime Minister of Ceylon, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, 62 years ago. However, they each have a slightly different take and theory about the facts, the reasons, the conspiracy theories, and who ‘actually’ did it. Those then-unborn or too young to have been aware of it at the time, have heard about it from older people. We have to assume that the intrinsic Lankan sense of rumor would have spiced up the details as time went by. There is a common belief that the standards of general governance, integrity, and legal processes were much higher back then, in Ceylon than now. Bolstering this justifiable belief, adjudication was done by the Supreme Court (SC), the verdict was confirmed in the Court of Criminal Appeal and accepted by the Privy Council in London. Therefore, the predominant view continues to be that justice was served objectively and impartially. 

However, there were many controversial interpretations and theories that circulated before, during, and after the Bandaranaike trials. There were several aspects of the conduct of the trial and the actual evidence presented that raised questions about the guilt of the alleged assassin and, as a consequence, the guilt of the others. Articles about those traumatic events of long ago have been published periodically, but they have progressively reverted to recounting and sometimes sensationalizing the standard version, and have not adequately addressed the many controversial questions. This article focuses specifically on the alleged murderer and the most critical of the controversies, based on the ‘eye-witness’ evidence led at the SC trial - was Somarama proved to be the assassin beyond a reasonable doubt? If there is any doubt, it opens up the possibility of a different, politically motivated conspiracy, especially since Bandaranaike was the Prime Minister during turbulent times. 


The PM was shot several times with a revolver at his residence ‘Tintagel’ - 65, Rosmead Place - at around 10 am on September 25, 1959. Despite appearing to recover somewhat by evening following surgery, and even dictating a message to the nation from the hospital, he died the next morning. The only thing Bandaranaike said about the identity of the gunman was that he was “a foolish man dressed in the robes of a monk”. This was the first major targeted political assassination in post-independence Ceylon, one that changed the future course of the country. A Buddhist monk, Talduwe Somarama, was immediately arrested in the house, with a gun in hand, on suspicion of being the assailant. He was a hitherto low-profile Buddhist monk who was an eye specialist at the College of Indigenous Medicine in Rajagiriya. After several days another monk, the politically powerful Mapitigama Buddharakkitha, was arrested in addition to several other individuals alleged to have assisted Buddharakkitha as part of a year-long conspiracy to kill Bandaranaike using Somarama as the assassin. Buddharakkitha, although only thirty-eight years old, was the chief monk of the important Kelaniya Temple and, as the head of the Eksath Bhikkhu Peramuna (EBP), the most politically powerful monk in the country at the time. He was also headstrong, impulsive, and confrontational - certainly not a pious monk. 

Although the EBP was instrumental in bringing Bandaranaike to power in 1956, by 1959 Buddharakkitha was antagonistic toward the PM for being too ‘soft’ in pushing a more aggressive Sinhala Buddhist agenda. Buddharakkitha was aligned with the right-wing of the government and his antagonism toward the leftists (and vice versa) in the government was public knowledge. After exhaustive investigations and a long trial in the SC, a special jury found both monks and H.P. Jayawardena, a close associate of Buddharakkitha, guilty of the conspiracy, and Somarama guilty of committing the murder, and all three were sentenced to death. The convictions were upheld in the Court of Criminal Appeal, but due to an inadvertent omission in intervening legislative change, Buddharakkitha and Jayawardena were sentenced to life in prison for conspiring to commit murder. An appeal to the Privy Council in London failed, and Somarama was subsequently executed. There the matter rested and most people forgot about the details of the case with the passage of time. Other dramatic political events followed thereafter leading to an attempted coup d’etat on January 27, 1962, to overthrow the government of Bandaranaike’s widow. 

Resort to violence for political purposes became more prevalent from the 1970s, and targeted assassinations of political leaders more frequent. Only two books have been written in English about the assassination; one by the late Justice A.C. Alles and the other by the late Lucian Weeramantry, who was Somarama’s counsel in the trial. It is surprising that more books and academic studies do not seem to have been published specifically about the assassination, an important event in our post-Independence history. Justice Alles’ book provides a lot of relevant background material but, judging by assertions made and conclusions drawn, it appears to have been written on the assumption that the conspiracy allegedly planned by Buddharakkitha was true and the verdicts just, although he does refer to some questionable issues. Weeramantry restricts himself to the procedures followed, the evidence led and the submissions made in the SC, to demonstrate that there was more than ‘reasonable doubt’ about the convictions. He argues that the prosecution of the case was politically influenced and not neutral. It is a fascinating case with many twists and turns as well as contradictions. A critical reading of the above books is recommended to anyone who is interested in digging further into the unusual events specifically pertinent to the murder and trial. A deeper understanding of contemporary political and social developments also helps.


Bandaranaike left the United National Party (UNP) in 1951 and formed the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). His party lost badly at the next general election in March 1952 and it appeared that his political career was doomed. In the meantime, political pressures by Sinhalese and Buddhist groups for affirmative action had been intensifying since Independence to redress what was perceived as historical discrimination against them from colonial times. The UNP was rather indifferent to these forces but Bandaranaike decided to channel them and was supported strongly by the pancha maha balavegaya consisting of Buddhist monks, Ayurveda practitioners, vernacular teachers, peasants and workers. The SLFP then formed a coalition called the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) with a leftist party headed by Philip Gunawardena and a small party led by W. Dahanayake, to contest the general election of April 1956. A key election slogan was ‘Sinhala-Only in 24 hours’, a potent rallying cry that meant different things to different people. The UNP too adopted the slogan prior to the election when it realized its electoral potential, but its late volte-face lacked credibility and the MEP won by a landslide. 

However, the very next year, Bandaranaike initiated discussions with Tamil political leaders to provide devolution of some powers through the establishment of Regional Councils and the so-called BandaranaikeChelvanayakam Pact was signed in July 1957. It was a compromise on both sides, which the PM likened to the Buddha’s Middle Way, but most of the politicians of the time were focused on short-term gains and not inclined to compromise for stability and longer-term progress. There were opposition and agitation from both sides and some avoidable incidents occurred in the process. Eventually, the pact was abrogated under severe pressure in April 1958, with the EBP too playing a major role. The antagonistic posturing did not cease and this led to one week of intense conflict at the end of May, the so-called Sinhala-Tamil riots that left long-lasting social scars. The PM’s rule was seen as weak and indecisive in bringing the riots under control and the Governor-General, Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, played a major role in quelling it. Despite all this, Bandaranaike introduced the Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act No. 28 of 1958 less than 3 months later in August 1958 as a compromise measure to accommodate Tamil demands regarding matters such as education, public service entrance examinations and the administration of the north and east. 

This too was criticized by extremists on both sides. Ceylon in 1959, a decade after Independence but still looking for direction, was a hotbed of political turmoil. Agitations and strikes were rampant, with the constant interplay of all the emotion-rousing political forces of the time – urban vs. rural; westernized vs. nationalist; capitalist vs. socialist; Buddhist vs. Catholic; Sinhala vs. Tamil; rich vs. poor - trying to quickly carve pieces out of the emerging national pie. The old order was dying and a new one was being born. In April 1959, Bandaranaike had a difference of opinion with the Inspector General of Police, Osmund de Silva and decided to replace him. The PM had been previously warned by various Buddhist leaders and MEP coalition partners in Parliament about a right-wing conspiracy to topple his administration with the involvement of the police and armed forces. Although Osmund de Silva was a Buddhist, all the senior Police officers next in line were not and, despite protests from within the Police, Bandaranaike decided to appoint M.W.F Abeykoon, an administrative officer from outside the Police service, angering several senior officers. That was not all. The urban elites, more inclined to western lifestyles, accustomed to calling the shots politically and economically, and linguistically quite alienated from the masses, were becoming increasingly alarmed at the turn of events since the debacle in 1956 of their preferred political party, the UNP. 

The growing influence of more aggressive Sinhalese and Buddhist groups was causing concern among the established organizations and social groups. There was an international dimension too. Despite the intense Cold War then raging, the Bandaranaike government had established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union in December 1956 and signed an economic and technical cooperation agreement in 1958. The previous UNP government had recognized the People’s Republic of China in January 1950, supported China’s entry to the United Nations and entered into the historic Rubber-Rice barter agreement in 1952. The Bandaranaike government established full diplomatic relations with China in 1957. The government’s plans to nationalize State-assisted private schools and foreign businesses such as the oil companies, and its decision in October 1957 to abrogate the Defence Pact with Britain and take back control of Trincomalee harbor and the RAF airbase at Katunayake, were all loud alarm bells. By the latter half of 1959 the PM was into the fourth year of his five-year term, and already the coalition was fraying. The leftist faction, led by Philip Gunawardena, resigned from the government in April 1959 due to pressure from the coalition’s right-wing regarding socialist measures such as the Paddy Lands Act, which included land reform. Strikes became more frequent and intense. In this milieu, there were many disparate groups that could have had reasons to eliminate Bandaranaike, and perhaps get a bonus by pinning the blame on Buddharakkitha to neutralize a powerful, antagonistic group such as the EBP and the growing direct involvement of Buddhist monks in politics. 


Unlike today, firearms were not easily available and targeted political killings were extremely rare. The level of security considered necessary was quite basic and Bandaranaike himself was not keen on too many guards. Access to his residence was freely available during the morning to all and sundry. The shooting at close quarters happened on the verandah of the PM’s private residence with at least 30 people in the immediate vicinity. Somarama was seated at one end of the outside verandah. There was another monk (Niwanthidiye Ananda) seated about 10 feet away from Somarama and more to the centre of the verandah, near the entrance to the corridor that led from the front porch into the interior of the house. Several others were standing around including a teacher named Gunaratne who was opposite Ananda. The PM first spoke with Ananda and gave him some instructions. He then moved along the verandah toward Somarama and, as he bent and worshipped him in greeting, a gunshot was heard. Bandaranaike cried out in pain, turned and tried to run back into the house. Further shots were heard, and the PM was hit in the chest and abdomen. Altogether he was hit by four bullets, the first one glancing his left wrist and three entering his torso as he staggered into the house. Gunaratne, who should have had a clear view of the shooting, was also shot in the neck area by a fifth bullet as Bandaranaike stumbled past him to escape into the house along the central corridor. In the utter confusion that followed, Somarama followed the PM into the house carrying a revolver and was then assaulted by several people who came from other parts of the house before he could say anything. In the melee the revolver went off once, the last bullet, but no one was hurt. The World War I vintage revolver, in rather poor condition, that had been used was recovered by the police. Somarama’s version was that someone dressed in robes shot repeatedly at the PM from the garden just below the verandah, threw the revolver on to the verandah and then ran off toward the road. He then involuntarily picked up the gun and followed the PM into the house to hand it over to someone responsible. In the meantime, PC Samarakoon, who was the sentry at the main gate, rushed to the house and shot at Somarama, injuring him in the thigh and groin area. The PM was sent to hospital by car and, soon after that, DIG Sidney de Zoysa, who had a prior appointment to meet the PM, arrived and took control of the chaotic situation. In fact, de Zoysa passed the PM’s car going toward the hospital on his way to the house, but didn’t realise the injured PM was in it. Some time after de Zoysa’s arrival, a bleeding Somarama in obvious pain was, for some inexplicable reason, despatched to the Harbour Police station on the other side of the city and detained there for around two hours before being taken to hospital where he underwent an operation to remove one of his testicles. The firing of the first five bullets was rapid and probably took less than 10 seconds, since the PM was also moving away. The despatch of the PM by car and the arrival of Sidney de Zoysa would probably have happened within 10-15 minutes thereafter. It seems, at first glance, to be a straightforward case. The alleged assailant, the weapon, the victim and witnesses were all readily available, and it happened in the heart of Colombo, in a narrow space, in broad daylight.  


As stated earlier, the jury operated in a politically charged, pressure-cooker atmosphere, with limited technical facilities and under tremendous time pressure. On top of that, there was quite a lot of evidence presented that appeared to have little relevance to the assassination per se, which they still had to take note of and assess. The judge’s summing up alone was spread over six days. They didn’t have the luxury, that we now do, of being able to refer to documents and contemplate at leisure. In the end, the members of the Special Jury were convinced that the prosecution’s case was proved beyond reasonable doubt, and that is what finally mattered. 

As Justice Fernando mentioned in his charge to the Jury, they were the sole judges of fact and therefore the real judges in the case. Besides, their opinion was in consonance with that of the experienced judges of the Court of Criminal Appeal. In that Court, the focus was mainly on legalistic aspects, such as whether the Judge misinterpreted or misguided the jury in matters of law. It was not a full re-assessment of the evidence, but specific submissions made by the defence counsel were considered and addressed. 

Deliberations were concluded on January 15, 1962. The main focus of this article is on the testimony in the SC of the witnesses, especially the ‘eye-witnesses’, and the forensic evidence as they relate very specifically to the case against Somarama. His culpability is at the core of the case. Obviously, there are many other aspects of the alleged conspiracy - in and out of court, legal and political - that could not be covered in an article of this length. There were also many colourful characters who played their parts in this long drama that held the entire nation spellbound all those years ago. Adding even some of them on, would have diverted attention from the main actor – Talduwe Somarama. It all boils down to a key question. Can we be reasonably sure of anything beyond the fact that the assassin was a man - foolish or fiendish - “dressed in the robes of a monk”? That is all we know for certain from the only 100% reliable eye-witness .... the late S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike himself. And, if the murderer was not Somarama, who was it, and why did he come dressed as a Buddhist monk?

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