Prime Minister Solomon Bandaranaike Assassination Revisited after 50 Years
Part 3: Theatrics and Economics
by Sachi Sri Kantha, October 10, 2009
Considering the following facts that (1) the CIA links to Dalai Lama came into the open in the late 1990s (2) Solomon Bandaranaike’s politics and actions of the 1950s was decisively pro-Left, when such sentiments were allergic to American interests in Asia (3) the CIA involvement in the assassinations and assassination attempts on political leaders who were pro-Left (such as Patrice Lumumba, President Sukarno, Fidel Castro) during the period 1959 to 1962, have been no secret now, it may be of interest to delve into still ‘confidential’ records maintained elsewhere whether Mapitigama Buddarakkitha Thero had any direct or indirect contacts with international gumshoes.
It may not be incorrect to state that, for some Buddhist monks, a sedate life style and a saintly persona are anathema for their promotional activities that deviate from the guidelines set by the Enlightened One, Siddharta Gautama Buddha (563 BC – 483 BC), aka Shakya Muni. The yellow-tinged robe and shaved head provide them with easy access to corridors of power to indulge in politicking and backroom deals – in short, theatrics and economics, as I have sub-titled part 3 of this series.
How would one reconcile with a news that was released 11 years ago, that “Dalai Lama Group says it got money from CIA” (New York Times, Oct.2, 1998). Before I cover the theatrics and economics of two Sinhala Buddhist monks, Mapitigama Buddharakkhita Thero (1921-1967) and Talduwe Somarama Thero (1915-1962), I provide the complete text of this 1998 New York Times story for the benefit of those who had missed it, for its topical interest.
“The Dalai Lama’s administration acknowledged today that it had received $1.7 million a year in the 1960s from the Central Intelligence Agency, but denied reports that the Tibetan leader benefited personally from an annual subsidy of $180,000. The money allocated for the resistance movement was spent on training volunteers and paying for guerrilla operations against the Chinese, the Tibetan government-in-exile said in a statement. It added that the subsidy earmarked for the Dalai Lama was spent on setting up offices in Geneva and New York and on international lobbying. The Dalai Lama, 63, a revered spiritual leader both in his Himalayan homeland and in Western nations, fled Tibet in 1959 after a failed uprising against a Chinese military occupation, which began in 1950. The decade-long covert program to support the Tibetan independence movement was part of the CIA’s worldwide effort to undermine Communist governments, particularly in the Soviet Union and China.”
Now, here is a poser: it may not be inappropriate to postulate, considering the year (1959) and the then Solomon Bandaranaike’s pro-Left government in Ceylon installed in 1956, whether the Ceylonese equivalent of the Dalai Lama, Buddharakkhita Thero might also have benefited from the CIA’s interest in toppling a Left-leaning prime minister in the Indian Ocean. Has anyone taken the trouble to look seriously into this problem? In the 50 years that have lapsed, the SLFP founded by Solomon Bandaranaike was in power for 27 years (1960-65, 1970-77 and 1994-2009). Those who succeeded the assassinated prime minister (the widow, the daughter and the current incumbent) were least bothered to dig into this issue. I’m also of the opinion that the remaining 23 years, when the UNP had power (1965-70 and 1977-94), the top dogs of that party wouldn’t have cared a tuppence to find out what happened.
The Organization of the Sinhala Buddhist Sangha
For relevance on the number of Sinhala Buddhist monks and the caste-based division amongst them circa the 1950s-1960s, I provide below four chapters from a study by Yale University’s Hans-Dieter Evers that appeared in 1967.
“Although the Sangha is a very important institution in modern Sinhalese society and in Ceylonese politics, very little has been published about it so far. Even in recent sociological studies on Sinhalese religion the Buddhist monks have received only limited attention. There are, however, two studies on the modern Sangha written by Indologists (Bechart 1966 and Bareau 1957). Bechert’s recent publication is the most comprehensive study of modern Theravada Buddhism and its social and political role, and will most probably remain for a long period the basic handbook for field research on Buddhism in Ceylon.
The Sangha of Ceylon is divided into three ‘orders’ (nikaya): the Siam Nikaya, the Amarapura Nikaya and the Ramana Nikaya. Each of these orders has in the course of history been further subdivided into ‘chapters’, each of which is headed by a Mahanayaka Thero. The Siam Nikaya is divided into six chapters, the Amarapura Nikaya into at least 27 chapters, and the Ramana Nikaya into two chapters. Most of the chapters have established and maintain a separate tradition of higher ordination (upasampada).
The process of fission is still going on, officially because of doctrinal disputes, usually on minor vinaya rules. In fact, however, most of the subgroups have been formed either on caste lines, or on account of power struggles within the Nikayas. There is no central authority or head of the whole Sangha like the Sangharaja in Thailand. The situation is indeed far more complex than is usually assumed in the existing literature.
The total number of monks is difficult to ascertain, for the official register of bhikkus and samaneras in the Registrar General’s Office in Colombo is incomplete and not up to date. Bechert estimates a total of about 17,000 monks, out of which about 11,000 to 12,000 belong to the Siam Nikaya, about 3,000 belong to the Amarapura Nikaya, and about 2,000 to the Ramana Nikaya.”
On the ‘order’ affiliation of assassin Talduwe Somarama Thero, author Lucian Weeramantry had recorded, “Somarama belonged to the Malwatte chapter of the Siamese Sect. The Malwatte chapter itself consisted of monks from the Vidyodaya Pirivena and the Vidyalanka Pirivena. [A pirivena is a seminary of training school for monks.] Somarama was from the Vidyodaya Pirivena.” [page 49] No details were provided by Weeramantry on the ‘order’ affiliation of prime conspirator Mapitigama Buddharakkhita Thero.
Mapitigama Buddharakkhitha Thero and Talduwe Somarama Thero
One of Prime Minister Solomon Bandaranaike’s jokes on the character of Buddharakkhita Thero, the prime conspirator in the 1959 assassination, has appeared in print. Yasmine Gooneratne (a kin of Bandaranaike) recorded in 1986 that Bandaranaike had quipped to her father, on the temptations of the monk’s weakness for flesh as: “He fasts by day, and he feasts by night.”
A short biographical note on Buddharakkhita Thero appears in Volume 1 of J.R. Jayewardene’s biography, authored by K.M. de Silva and Howard Wriggins. To quote,
“Buddharakkhita, Bhikkhu Mapitigama, 1921-1967: head of Kelaniya vihara 1947-59; sentenced to death in 1961 for organizing murder of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike. The sentence was later changed to one of life imprisonment. He died in jail in 1967.”
A Time magazine (May 19, 1961) report provides a synopsis on the theatrics and economics of the Bhikku duo, who dictated final terms to Solomon Bandaranaike.
“Two years ago, Ceylon’s primeminister Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Badaranaike bowed respectfully before a Buddhist monk among the crowd of petitioners gathered on his veranda, in return got a blast of four bullets in his body. He clung to life long enough to utter a last request. ‘I appeal to all concerned to show compassion to this man and not to try and wreak vengeance on him’, he said, and died.
Disregarding ‘Banda’s dying wish, a Ceylon judge last week sentenced Talduwe Somarama, 45, to death. But the trial had proved that Somarama had been only the triggerman; the instigator and chief plotter had been Mapitigama Buddharakitha, 41, high priest of the Kelaniya temple outside Colombo.
High priest Buddharakitha was clearly a man who was more interested in power than religion. In 1956, when Bandaranaike was running for election, Buddharakitha organized the United Monks’ Front, which went scuttling off to the hustings to recommend Banda and his Freedom Party, on the grounds that Banda promised to give Buddhism its ‘rightful place’ in Ceylon and to make Sinhala, the tongue spoken by most Ceylonese Buddhists, the official language of the land.
Banda won the election and became primeminister. In token of his gratitude, he took his Cabinet to Buddharakitha’s temple for the customary post-inaugural rites. He also gave the post of Minister of Health to Buddharakitha’s intimate friend, the handsome widow Vimala Wijewardene, then 47. But when the high priest demanded a $6,000,000 government contract for the construction of a sugar factory and government concessions for a shipping company he planned to set up, Banda balked. Buddharakitha, who had reveled in his position as kingmaker, felt that he had been publicly humiliated. He decided to put Banda out of the way.
Casting about for a triggerman, he happened on Talduwe Somarama, who was both a monk and a practicing ophthalmologist. As a Buddhist, Somarama was exasperated at the primeminister’s delay in fulfilling his campaign promises to Buddhism. As an ophthalmologist, he was anxious to have his contract at the State Indigenous Hospital renewed, and therefore needed Buddharakitha’s good offices, for the widow Wijewardene had put the high priest on the hospital’s appointment board. Plainly, Somarama was Buddharakitha’s man.
In a confession that he later disavowed, assassin Somarama straightforwardly declared: ‘I have done this thing to a man who did me no wrong – for the sake of my religion, my language and my race.’ High Priest Buddharakitha truculently declared that he had been railroaded. The judge unhesitatingly sentenced both Somarama and Buddharakitha to hang.”
A short rejoinder in the Time magazine (July 13, 1962), noted: “In Colombo last week, a Buddhist monk and herbalist named Talduwe Somarama mounted a prison scaffold and was hanged. Somarama’s crime: the 1959 assassination of Ceylon’s primeminister Solomon W.R.D. Bandaranaike. In a confession he later retracted, Somarama said he committed the deed because the prime minister favored western medical techniques over Oriental herb medicine. Prison officials reported that 24 hours before he was hanged, Somarama had himself baptized a Christian so that he could ask God for the forgiveness of sin that cannot be found in the Buddhist religion.”
In sum, the following aspects can be identified as Buddharakkitha Thero’s penchant for theatrics. He,
(1) used disparaging epithets for prominent political figures of the day, referring to the primeminister as Sevela (slimy) Banda. He also used the term nondiya (cripple) to refer to Reginald Gotabhaya Senanayake, the minister and the then Member of Parliament for Kelaniya constituency, in which his temple was located.
(2) flaunted his paramour relationship with the woman politician and the then Minister of Health, Vimala Wijewardene.
(3) flouted an ostentious Buddhist clergy’s lifestyle by traveling by car and even visiting London for a medical check up.
(4) had in his services camp followers and acolytes, who called him ‘Our Emperor’.
Weeramantry’s book on the Bandaranaike assassination, provides the following details as well on the economics of the prime conspirator's deeds:
(1) In the 1952 general election, for the Kelaniya constitutency where his paramour Vimala Wijewardene contested on the SLFP ticket against the incumbent J.R. Jayewardene (UNP), Buddharakkitha Thero had spent “50,000 to 60,000 rupees on her election campaign” (page 33). J.R. Jayewardene won that election, by a majority of over 6,235 votes.
(2) Then, in the 1956 general election, Buddharakkitha Thero complained that “though he had spent over 100,000 rupees on the SLFP election campaign, he himself had derived no advantage from the victory of that party.” (page 33).
(3) Buddharakkitha Thero also felt that Solomon Bandaranaike was being misled by two of his Cabinet colleagues (namely the Leftist Philip Gunawardena and the then sitting MP for Kelaniya, R.G. Senanayake), and though he had spent about 100,000 rupees in floating a shipping company, he was not given a contract “to carry rice to Ceylon from Burma and Thailand” (page 34).
(4) Two days after the death of Bandaranaike, Buddharakkitha Thero was fuming at R.G. Senanayake, the then Kelaniya MP, to a witness: “Look here, I find that this nondiya is trying to implicate me (emphasis in the original) in the murder of the primeminister. I shall break his legs and fling him into the Kelani river.” (page 36).
For the record, mention should be made about the personality of R.G. Senanayake (1911-1970). A cousin of prime minister Dudley Senanayake, this R.G. Senanayake was one of the anti-Tamil politicians of his day. In the 1956 general election, he contested two constituencies (Kelaniya and Dambadeniya) and won in both. In Kelaniya, as an Independent, he defeated later President J.R. Jayewardene (UNP) convincingly with a majority of over 22, 836 votes. He holds the Sri Lankan record for representing two constituencies simultaneously. Later, before the 1970 general election, R.G. Senanayake formed his own racist Sinhala Mahajana Pakshaya (SMP) and contested two constituencies (Dambadeniya and Trincomalee) and lost in both. A recent account, published in Colombo Daily News (Sept.25, 2009) presents a positive spin on R.G. Senanayake’s career;
“RG was a gentleman to the core; he was never hard on his opponents, even in hotly contested issues and hotly debated matters. He never lost his composure. He treated his opponents with the contempt they deserved, but always with a smile. Arrogance and abhorrence were alien to him…He stands out as the one and only person who stood up to JR [ayawardene] and cut him to size in the political arena.”
From Tamil perspectives, I would infer that politicians R.G. Senanayake, J.R. Jayewardene, Philip Gunawardena and Buddharakkitha Thero promoted anti-Tamil racism for vote catching purposes. But hardly a significant difference could be noted in the grades of racism exhibited by all.
Assassin Somarama Thero’s statement from the Dock
I provide below, excerpts from chapter 32 of Weeramantry’s book (pages 196-199). I felt that his version on the assassination deserves some highlight.
“ ‘I was born in Talduwa,’ he began, ‘and received my early education at the Buddhist Mixed School, Dehiowita. At the Talduwa temple in the year 1929 I was ordained a Buddhist monk. I then entered the Vidyalanka Pirivena (seminary), where I continued my studies for five years. In 1935 I gained admission to the Vidyodaya Pirivena. In the following year I received my higher ordination at the Malwatte temple, but continued my studies at the Vidyodaya Pirivena till 1940. From 1940-43 I was a resident monk at the Ihala Talduwa (Upper Talduwa) temple. In 1943 I moved to another temple to study the treatment of eye diseases and was a student there for a period of five years. For some months in 1948 I treated free a number of eye patients at the Hendela Leper Asylum as a service to suffering humanity. Thereafter I returned to the temple at Ihala Talduwa. There I engaged myself so intensely in religious work that I was successful in securing sufficient lay support to have a new temple by the name of Somaramaya built near the Talduwa junction.
Like many other monks who were concerned with the country’s future, I now began to interest myself in politics. In 1952 I participated in a number of election meetings held in support of Mrs. Wimala Wijewardene, who was a contestant for the Kelaniya seat in the House of Representatives. On some days I presided at as many as seven or eight meetings which were held in different parts of the constitutency. Mr. Bandaranaike himself spoke at many of those meetings.
In 1953 I interested myself in building a home for the aged and had the first accused [Buddharakkhita Thero] elected patron of the society formed for the purpose. I did so as he was a person actively interested in public service. Mr. Bandaranaike himself was elected a lay patron of the society after he had sent me a letter consenting to his election. I eventually had a leaflet distributed giving the names of the office-bearers of the society and setting out its objectives.
Towards the end of 1957, I was appointed a lecturer and eye specialist at the College of Indigenous Medicine for the year 1958. The certificates given to me by the principal of Vidyalankara Pirivena and by my tutor in ophthalmology helped me to secure this appointment. A year after my appointment I was requested by my patients and some other physicians to seek reappointment for the following year. I agreed and was reappointed.
During the time I worked at the Ayurvedic College, I resided at Amara Vihare, which was close to the College. In 1959 Rev. Boose Amarasiri, the chief incumbent of that vihare, engaged himself in a fast as a protest against the erection of a meat stall near the temple. I too with some other monks made representations to the primeminister against the erection of that meat stall. During the days of Rev. Amarasiri’s fast, I remember Rev. Buddharakkitha to have visited Amara Vihare on two occasions in order to meet him.
Early in September 1959, some nurses at the Indigenous Hospital staged a fast by way of protest against certain injustices they complained of. They fasted for a whole day, but could not get their grievances redressed. I was in sympathy with their demands and went along with some of their relatives to meet the primeminister. With his help the nurses had their grievances redressed. I then became that a move was afoot to dispense with their services. Once again some other physicians and I made representations to the primeminister. The representations related not only to the moves against the nurses, but to several other problems and anomalies at the College of Indigenous Medicine as well as at the hospital.”
Somarama was speaking without reference to notes. For a man on trial for his life, he was, if not cool, certainly remarkably collected. At times he spoke slowly and with deliberation. But when describing the happenings of September 25th 1959, and the injustices to which he said he had been subjected by the police, he was visibly agitated. Still not once did he break down; not once did he falter.
“ ‘On the morning of September 25th 1959,’ he continued, ‘I went to meet the primeminister once again. I went to his residence in Rosmead Place and occupied a seat at the end of the verandah. Shortly afterwards the primeminister came out, spoke to a number of persons on the verandah and then came up to me and inquired why I had come. I told him that I had come to remind him of certain very important representations I had made relating to the affairs of the College of Indigenous Medicine and the hospital attached to it. The primeminister wanted me to set out the details in writing and hand them to the Hon. A.P. Jayasuriya to look into the matter. I thanked him and took my leave. I turned away to collect my handkerchief and my papers, which I had placed on the stool by the chair I had occupied. I was now with my back to the verandah and facing the garden. While collecting my papers, I heard two or three gunshots. Struck with terror, I stood motionless for a moment. I saw two persons in robes and some others rushing away towards the main gate. People were running wildly in all directions. It is indeed difficult to describe the confusion that reigned. I then turned around, but yet in great fright. I saw the primeminister hurry into the house through the main door. He was bleeding. The next thing I noticed was a pistol lying on the floor about three or four feet away from me. I picked it up and rushed inside the house to hand it over to some responsible person, carrying it in this fashion (He demonstrates).
As I rushed in, I exclaimed to the first person I encountered, ‘Someone has shot with this and run away’. Hardly had I completed saying that, than he pounced on me. I implored him to wait until I had related what had happened, but he paid no heed. He struggled with me and I fell down. As I lay fallen, I was shot. I then lost consciousness.
From the primeminister’s residence I was removed to the Harbour Police station where I partially regained consciousness and realized that I was badly injured. There I was detained for about 2 hours, during the course of which several persons came up and spoke to me. I remember telling them that I did not know who was responsible for the shooting. From there, I was removed to the General Hospital…”
The final comments made by Somarama Thero, as recorded by his counsel in the book was: “I did not shoot the primeminister. It is untrue that the 1st and 2nd accused or either of them requested me to do so. If I said so to the Magistrate, it is false. My statement to the Magistrate was not made of my own free will. I am not guilty.” (page 202).
As assassinated Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s regime was fond of proclaiming the ‘influence of foreign hands’ during 1966-77 and 1980-84, my interest in the assassination of Solomon Bandaranaike is piqued on the issue of whether any ‘foreign hand’ was involved or Buddharakkitha Thero and Somarama Thero acted on their own, basically prompted by their theatrical and economical interests.
Considering the following facts that (1) the CIA links to Dalai Lama came into the open in the late 1990s (2) Solomon Bandaranaike’s politics and actions of the 1950s was decisively pro-Left, when such sentiments were allergic to American interests in Asia (3) the CIA involvement in the assassinations and assassination attempts on political leaders who were pro-Left (such as Patrice Lumumba, President Sukarno, Fidel Castro) during the period 1959 to 1962, have been no secret now, it may be of interest to delve into still ‘confidential’ records maintained elsewhere whether Mapitigama Buddarakkitha Thero had any direct or indirect contacts with international gumshoes. That Buddarakkitha Thero also died in prison (at a relatively young age of 46), when the UNP (a decisively pro-West) government was in power, muddles this issue. Some deaths in prison or under detention (like that of Jack Ruby in President Kennedy's assassination, or that of Slobodan Milosevic) always elicit suspicious questions.
Cited References and other relevant sources on Bandaranaike
Anonymous: Banda avenged. Time, May 19, 1961, p. 30.
Anonymous: To find forgiveness. Time, July 13, 1962.
Anonymous: Dalai Lama group says it got money from CIA. New York Times, Oct.2, 1998.
Bartholomeusz, T: In defense of Dharma – Just-war ideology in Buddhist Sri Lanka. Journal of Buddhist Ethics, 1999; 6(1): 1-16.
Clarance, W: Woolf and Bandaranaike: The ironies of federalism in Sri Lanka. Political Quarterly, Oct. 2001; 72(4): 480-486.
De Silva K.M.: Sri Lanka – the Bandaranaikes in the island’s politics and public life. Round Table, 1999; no. 350; 241-280.
De Silva, K.M. and Wriggins, H: J.R. Jayewardene of Sri Lanka –a political biography, vol.1 (1906-1956), University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 1988.
Evers, H-D: Kinship and property rights in a Buddhist monastery in Central Ceylon. American Anthropologist, Dec. 1967; 69(6): 703-710.
Fernando, W.A.S: Sitting on two chairs with one umbrella in hand. Colombo Daily News, Sept.25, 2009.
Juergensmeyer, M: What the Bhikku said – Reflections on the rise of militant religious nationalism. Religion, 1990; 20: 53-75.
Gooneratne, Y: Relative Merits –a personal memoir of the Bandaranaike Family of Sri Lanka, C. Hurst & Co, London, 1986.
Kodikara, S.U: Major trends in Sri Lanka’s non-alignment policy after 1956. Asian Survey, Dec. 1973; 13(12): 1121-1136.
Seneviratne, H.L: Buddhist monks and ethnic politics. Anthropology Today, April 2001; 17(2): 15-21.
Weeramantry, L.G: Assassination of a Prime Minister – The Bandaranaike Murder Case, Geneva, 1969.