First post-independence assassination of a premier political leader

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S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike


The tripartite forces who campaigned effectively for Bandaranaike in 1956 were Buddhist priests, Ayurvedic medical practitioners and teachers. It was said that “Sanga, Veda and Gura” were responsible for installing Bandaranaike as Prime Minister. The bitter irony was that Bandaranaike’s assassin was a “three-in-one” personality representing all three. Somarama was a Bhikku, an Ayurvedic doctor and a lecturer in the Ayurvedic College. The tripartite forces who brought S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike to power were personified in the man who killed him


Sixty-three years ago on 25 September 1959 the Prime Minister Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike (SWRDB) of Sri Lanka known as Ceylon then was shot and seriously wounded by a Buddhist monk. Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike succumbed to his injuries and passed away the following day. Thereafter 26 September 1959 got etched as an important date in the post-independence history annals of Sri Lanka. It was the first ever assassination of a major political personality experienced by the island nation. The impact of that single assassination was tremendous at that time. It is pertinent therefore to re-visit that assassination 63 years later.

The parliamentary elections of 1956 was a watershed in the political history of Sri Lanka. The United National Party (UNP) that was in power from 1947 was defeated. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party led by S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike swept the polls as part of a coalition known as the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP). Bandaranaike became the fourth Prime Minister of Ceylon.

S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike as Premier was officially ensconced in the Prime Minister’s official residence “Temple Trees” at Galle Road, Kollupitiya. Bandaranaike also divided his time between the ancestral manor at Horagolla Walauwa and his private residence “Tintagel” on 65 Rosemead Place, Colombo 7. SWRDB was at “Tintagel” on the fateful Friday he was shot.


Ven. Talduwe Somarama Thero

A Buddhist monk named Ven. Talduwe Somarama Thero was among those who came to meet Bandaranaike on the morning of 25 September 1959. It was a Friday. The monk was a lecturer at the Government College of Ayurveda or Indigenous Medicine in Borella. Somarama Thero was attached to the Amaravihare. He also had an Ayurvedic eye clinic in Borella. The ostensible reason for the monk wanting to meet the PM was to appraise him of requirements for the Ayurveda College.

Talduwe Somarama’s name at birth was Talduwe Ratugama Rallage Weris Singho. He was born on 27 August 1915 to Ratugama Rallage Dieris Appuhamy and Iso Hamy. Weris Singho was educated at the Talduwe Ihala School and in Dehiowita. He donned the yellow robes on 20 January 1929 at the age of 14. Somarama was ordained in Kandy on 25 June 1936 at the age of 21.

The Premier of the nation was in the front verandah of his house meeting people who had come to see him. One batch of people was accommodated inside while others stood in line outside awaiting their turn to go in. Talduwe Somarama also waited patiently in the queue for his turn and then was admitted in. There was a group of about 20 persons inside and a queue of around 40 outside.

S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was proud of having ushered in the age of the common man. His Government was regarded by the masses as “Apey aanduwe” or our Government. One manifestation of this was the easy access the people had to their prime minister.

Somarama Thero sat on a chair at one corner of the verandah. He had placed a file and a handkerchief on a low stool by his side on his left. Seated on his right was another Buddhist monk from Polonnaruwa named Ananda Thero. The Polonnaruwa monk accompanied by some farmers had come to see the prime minister on a matter concerning the appointment of a cooperative society manager. Ananda Thero was later to prove to be a key witness at the murder trial.

As each person’s name was announced he or she walked up to the Prime Minister, paid obeisance and articulated their woes and views. However when Somarama Thero stood up as his name was announced, Prime Minister Bandaranaike himself got up respectfully, walked up to him and bowed reverentially as was the custom in greeting a Buddhist monk. 

He then asked the monk what he could do for him. Somarama – who seemed tensed up according to Ananda Thero – told the PM that certain improvements were needed at the Ayurveda College. Bandaranaike then replied that he could get the Health Minister A.P. Jayasuriya to attend to it if the venerable monk stated the requirements in writing and submitted it to him.


Fired pistol at point blank range

The time then was 9:45 a.m. Somarama Thero sat down and fumbled with the file on the stool by his side as if he was going to pull out a memorandum to be given to the Prime Minister. As the Prime Minister was getting ready to receive what he may have thought were some papers, the Buddhist monk took out a pistol concealed in his robes and fired twice at point blank range hitting Bandaranaike in the chest and abdomen. The Prime Minister made a loud sound like a gasp or moan and went down. He then got up slowly and with great difficulty, tried to stagger back inside the house.

When a shocked Ananda Thero got up from his chair, a thoroughly excited Somarama stood up and pointed his gun at the priest from Polonnaruwa. An agitated Ananda Thero shouted “Ammo” (mother). Somarama then turned around and followed Bandaranaike, shooting at him wildly. He fired four more shots thus emptying the magazine. One bullet injured the Prime Minister’s hand. Another hit a school teacher named Gunaratne who had also come to see the Prime Minister on that morning. A third shot smashed the glass pane on a door. The fourth struck a flower pot breaking it. Somarama Thero had used a .45 Webley Mark VI revolver to fire the six shots including the fatal ones.

Meanwhile there was pandemonium as the people on the verandah started scattering here and there in fear. Ananda Thero ran out and shouted to the policeman on duty at the gate that a monk was shooting at the Prime Minister. The policeman who had already started running towards the house upon hearing the shots came inside and fired at Somarama Thero injuring him in the thigh. 

Realising what had happened, enraged people now surrounded Somarama who was shouting excitedly that he had targeted Bandaranaike for the “country, race and religion”. After a scuffle in which Somarama was manhandled by the people, the monk was formally arrested by a team of cops who had been hastily summoned. The furious crowd may have mauled the monk but for the merciful intervention of Bandaranaike.

The bleeding Bandaranaike lying on the floor had urged the people not to harm the monk in any way. The apprehended monk was taken away to the Harbour Police station amidst tight security. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was rushed to the General Hospital at Borella and taken to the operating theatre.


Unbelievably unconcerned about security

Tragically, Bandaranaike never suspected any threat to his person and was unbelievably unconcerned about security. Given the levels of security available to VVIPs today, it is mind boggling to know that only a police sergeant was in charge of the Prime Minister’s security 63 years ago. Even the sergeant in charge was not on duty that morning. Only a constable had been at the gates.

When attempts were made by concerned police officials to provide Bandaranaike with a personal bodyguard, Bandaranaike had reluctantly agreed. A police sub-inspector was assigned. However Bandaranaike asked him to go back after a few days saying that a sub-inspector should attend to more important duties and requested the IGP to assign a few police constables instead.

Unlike some politicians of the present era who regard the deployment of a large contingent of bodyguards as a symbol of their important status, Bandaranaike who thought of himself as a “popular people’s prime minister” felt a sense of embarrassment at being protected by many policemen.

Parliament was in session at Galle Face when news of the assassination attempt reached the house. Education Minister Dr. W. Dahanayake who was to later succeed Bandaranaike as Prime Minister later wanted Parliament to be adjourned but the majority of the honourable members disagreed. The then Opposition leader Dr. N.M. Perera stated, “There was no need to panic.” Several ministers and MPs from both the Government and opposition left the house and made a beeline to Borella to see how the Premier was faring.


Unlike some politicians of the present era who regard the deployment of a large contingent of bodyguards as a symbol of their important status, Bandaranaike who thought of himself as a “popular people’s prime minister” felt a sense of embarrassment at being protected by many policemen


Governor-General Sir Oliver Goonetilleke

The Governor-General of the time was Sir Oliver Goonetilleke. When news reached him of the shooting incident Sir Oliver was at “Queens House” swearing in the new Italian Ambassador Count Paolo di Michelis di Sloughhello. Sir Oliver stopped the ceremony and rushed to Rosmead Place. Thereafter he sent a message to Parliament that it should continue to function in a “business as usual” manner.

The Governor-General known and respected for his political wisdom and statesmanship took the initiative of declaring a State of Emergency as a precautionary measure. It may be recalled that it was Sir Oliver who acted decisively and declared emergency in May 1958 when anti-Tamil violence erupted in a situation where Prime Minister Bandaranaike was vacillating.

A State of Emergency was declared at 11 a.m. on 25 September by Governor-General Sir Oliver Goonetilleka and the Army, Navy and Air Force units including volunteers were mobilised and placed in readiness throughout the island. Subsequent events demonstrated that Sir Oliver’s anticipation of trouble and resultant declaration of emergency was indeed commendable.

What happened next was that Bandaranaike after surgery was admitted to the General Hospital Merchants ward. He issued a message to the nation from his hospital bed in the Merchants ward. In the message the Prime Minister was extremely magnanimous towards the man who had shot him. Instead of referring to him directly as a Buddhist monk, SWRDB described him as “a foolish man dressed in the robes of a monk”. The premier also called upon the government and authorities to “show compassion to this man and not try to wreak vengeance on him”.

This well-intentioned magnanimity may have had unintended, dangerous consequences but for the prompt action of Sir Oliver Goonetilleke who had declared emergency before the statement was issued. Anticipating another round of 1958 type of anti-Tamil violence the Governor-General issued strict instructions to the Police to be vigilant against any sign of violence erupting.


“Somaraman” a Tamilised version of Somarama

Given the prevailing political atmosphere of the time where anti-Tamil feelings were running high the immediate suspicion was that the assassin was a Tamil. News began spreading that the name of the man who shot the premier was “Somaraman”. A Tamilised version of Somarama. So when Bandaranaike spoke of a “man dressed in the robes of a monk” rumours started to circulate that a Tamil had dressed up as a Buddhist priest and shot the Prime Minister.

Tamils in Colombo were very nervous then but thanks to the Police being vigilant nothing untoward happened. Sir Oliver “advised” the media to reveal very clearly without delay that the assassin was not a Tamil. The anti-Tamil feelings began subsiding. A replay of the 1958 violence was averted at that point of time.


Surgery for five hours

Some of the top doctors in Colombo performed surgery on Bandaranaike for more than five long hours. Dr. M.V.P. Peries, Dr. P.R. Anthonis, Dr. L.O. Silva and Dr. Noel Bartholomeusz were the doctors in the operating theatre. Dr. L.O. Silva was quoted by the media later as observing that “the first 24 hours after the operation was very crucial.”

Early signs after the surgery seemed rosy. The Prime Minister had recovered consciousness a few hours after the operation and was cheerful. He had joked with the doctors and nurses around his bedside. He had asked one of the nurses, “How am I doing?” She replied, “You are doing fine, Sir”. “Yes I am an old man and have undergone a five-hour stomach operation but I still have guts,” the PM had declared. He had also dictated a message to the nation from the hospital.

Things however took a turn for the worse in the early hours of the morning. Three senior doctors – Dr. P.R. Anthonis, Dr. T.D.H. Perera and Dr. M.J.A. Sandrasagara were on hand doing their best but there was no improvement. The fourth Prime Minister of Independent Ceylon passed away on 26 September 1959 exactly 22 hours after he had been shot at.


Took a turn for the worse

The official bulletin issued after his death stated as follows: “The condition of the Prime Minister suddenly took a turn for the worse about 7 a.m. There was a sudden alteration of the action of the heart and his condition deteriorated very rapidly. He passed off peacefully about 8 ‘O’ clock.” It was signed by Dr. P.R. Anthonis, Dr. T.D.H. Perera and Dr. M.J.A. Sandrasagara.

Subsequently a verdict of homicide was recorded by the City Coroner J.N.C. Tiruchelvam, J.P.U.M. at the inquest. He said: “Death was due to shock and haemorrhage resulting from multiple injuries to the thoracic and abdominal organs.”

Detectives from Scotland Yard in Britain were brought down to assist the Ceylon Police in the investigations. The then DIG-CID, D.C.T. Pate, SP Rajasooriya, SSIK Iyer ASP, IP Abeywardena, IP AM Seneviratne and IP Tyrell Goonetilleke were responsible for the intensive Police investigation.


Seven persons charged

26 November 1959 saw seven persons being charged in the Chief Magistrate’s Court of Colombo on a charge of conspiring to murder S.W.RD. Bandaranaike. They were:

1. Mapitigama Buddharakkitha Thero

2. Hemachandra Piyasena Jayawardena

3. Pallihakarage Anura de Silva

4. Talduwe Somarama Thero

5. Weerasooriya Arachchige Newton Perera

6. Vimala Wijewardene

7. Amerasinghe Arachchige Carolis Amerasinghe

In addition, Somarama Thero the fourth accused was also charged with commitment of murder. 

Within a short time the seventh accused A.A.C. Amerasinghe (Kolonnawa Urban Councillor) received a conditional pardon in terms of Section 283 of the Criminal Procedure Code and thereafter became a witness for the prosecution. Non-summary proceedings began and after a long magisterial inquiry, the sixth accused Vimala Wijewardene (a cabinet minister in SWRD Govt.) was cleared of all charges of conspiracy and deemed innocent of any complicity. She was discharged on 15 July 1960.

The Magisterial Inquiry under Colombo Chief Magistrate N.A. de S. Wijesekara went on for 124 days with 193 witnesses testifying. The Chief Magistrate committed the first five accused to stand trial before the Supreme Court on charges of conspiracy and murder.

The Supreme Court trial began against the five accused on 22 February 1961 before Justice T.S. Fernando QC OBE. The foreman of the seven member English speaking jury was D.W.L. Lieversz Snr. 97 witnesses testified and were cross-examined. 

The third accused Anura de Silva was acquitted with the jury voting unanimously in his favour. The fifth accused Newton Perera was acquitted on a divided verdict with five voting in favour of the accused and two against. The trial concluded on 12 May 1961 after 55 days of hearing. Within five days the Jury returned its verdict.


Death sentence pronounced 

The Jury found the first accused Buddharakkitha Thero, second accused H.P. Jayewardena and fourth accused Somarama Thero guilty by a unanimous verdict. Death sentence was pronounced on all three of them. All three faced death by hanging. During the trial Somarama had stopped wearing the yellow robes when appearing in Courts. This led to Justice Fernando observing that Somarama “had a streak of conscience as he did not attend court in his saffron robes.”

All three convicted persons appealed against their death sentence to the then Court of Criminal Appeal. The five-Judge bench presided over by Chief Justice Hema H. Basnayake comprised – Justices M.C. Sansoni, H.N.G. Fernando, N. Sinnetamby and L.B. de Silva.

The Criminal Appeal court dismissed the appeal of all three but courts amended the sentences imposed on Buddharakkitha and Jayewardena from death to rigorous life imprisonment. 

All three convicted persons resorted to have their verdicts reversed by the judicial committee of the Privy Council in the UK. Applications for special leave to appeal to Her Majesty in Privy Council by all three convicted persons were refused by an order of the Privy Council in May 1962. Sir Dingle Foot QC, appeared on an honorary basis for Somarama, at the final appeal before the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council.


Somarama hanged on 6 July 1962

Talduwe Somarama Thero prepared himself to face death. He thanked in open court his counsel Weeramanthri who appeared for him without charging fees. “I thank my counsel who defended me at this trial like a true lion.” Weeks before his execution Somarama was converted to Christianity and was baptised in his cell by an Anglican Priest. He was hanged in the Welikada gallows on 6 July 1962 at the age of 48. The hanging was undertaken by State executioner Lewis Singho and his assistant Subatheris Appu.

The Dudley Senanayake Government of 1965-70 on 7 May 1966 commuted the life imprisonment sentences of the 1st and 2nd accused to 20 years. However the 1st accused Mapitigama Buddharakkitha Thero died in 1967 of a heart ailment aged 46 years after having served time at Welikada prison for 7 1/2 years of his sentence. The 2nd accused Hemachandra Piyasena Jayawardena served 17 1/2 years of his sentence and was released on 4 August 1977.


“Three-in-one – Sanga, Veda and Gura”

The tripartite forces who campaigned effectively for Bandaranaike in 1956 were Buddhist priests, Ayurvedic medical practitioners and teachers. It was said that “Sanga, Veda and Gura” were responsible for installing Bandaranaike as Prime Minister. The bitter irony was that Bandaranaike’s assassin was a “three-in-one” personality representing all three. Somarama was a Bhikku, an Ayurvedic doctor and a lecturer in the Ayurvedic College. The tripartite forces who brought S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike to power were personified in the man who killed him.

(This article is a modified version of an earlier one by this writer.)

 (The writer can be reached at [email protected].)


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