In the first volume of his autobiography titled ‘The Kandy Man’, veteran civil servant and politician Sarath Amunugama gives an eyewitness account to history in the making. As the octogenarian narrates significant events of the first five decades of his life in this work, we publish an extract from the book published by Vijitha Yapa [...]

Sunday Times 2

April Fifth 1971: High drama in Temple Trees


In the first volume of his autobiography titled ‘The Kandy Man’, veteran civil servant and politician Sarath Amunugama gives an eyewitness account to history in the making. As the octogenarian narrates significant events of the first five decades of his life in this work, we publish an extract from the book published by Vijitha Yapa Publications

I am one of the few survivors among the eyewitnesses to what exactly happened in government circles on the early days of the JVP uprising. The only other person alive I can think of is Dharmasiri Peiris who was Secretary to the PM at that time.

On the afternoon of the fourth of April, the Secretary of Information and I were summoned urgently to Rosmead Place where the PM was residing. We were asked to bring all the news coverages of that day referring to violence in all parts of the country. We arrived at the PM’s residence to find the Army Commander Sepala Attygalla, senior police officers, Dharmasiri Pieris and the deputy Minister of defence Lakshman Jayakody all awaiting the PM’s descent from her living room upstairs to brief her on the intelligence received about JVP activities which were to begin that night.

Till she arrived, the top security brass were discussing the serious situation that had arisen. After quite some time the PM came down after a bath. I still remember that she had not tied her hair in a knot but was hanging loose because of the hurry. Sepala briefed her and said that Rudra Rajasingham the IGP had gone in a helicopter to Moneragala where the Police Station had been attacked and was now flying back. He would arrive in Colombo shortly with the latest news.

The PM was very calm and said that we had better wait till Rudra returned.

A few minutes later the telephone, which was fixed to the wall near the sitting room, started ringing. It was Rudra calling and the PM answered, after listening to the report, that the security officials were with her and that Rudra should join them as soon as possible. The PM then described what the IGP had told her. Sepala then disclosed that the intelligence sources had an informant who had tipped them about an attack to be launched that night and an attempt would be made on the PM’s life at Rosmead Place. He recommended that she should forthwith be removed to Temple Trees where her security could be guaranteed.

By this time Rudra had arrived and he briefed those present about Moneragala where the local insurgents had jumped the gun and attacked the Police station with handmade bombs before the actual date of the offensive which was the fifth of April. He said that the attempt was serious and a quick response was necessary. There was a discussion about how the JVP’s islandwide message was communicated. Many were of the view that SLBC had been used to send coded messages because the SLBC board were all “China wingers” who were initially suspected of being supporters of the Wijeweera line.

The North Korean Embassy in Colombo which had run pages of advertisements about revolution at about this time was also suspect and Mohideen, an SLBC Board director, was identified as being in the pay of the North Korean Embassy. Susil Moonesinghe was sent for and asked to cancel some musical programmes which were suspected of sending messages through well known lyrics including one asking winged creatures to rise together and show their strength. In none of the later interrogations was bird life identified as a code for JVP communications though the pro-China SLBC Directors were held in protective custody for a long time. They had sullied the reputation of their mentor RS Perera.

RS, in the meanwhile, was up to his habitual fingerpointing that he developed during the Bandaranaike assassination investigations. He began to accuse Illangaratne, who was hated by the Mudalalis, of being a supporter of the uprising which led to the senior minister being kept in virtual house arrest for some time.

At this stage Mrs. B created a drama by refusing to leave Rosmead Place for Temple Trees. It must have been a trying time for her with her children out of the country and having to depend on her brothers for any emotional support. All her trusted servants were in Rosmead Place and Temple Trees had been used only for official work.

Sepala and Lakshman Jayakody did their best to change her mind but she was adamant.

Time was ticking by and the security big wigs were getting nervous. Then somebody had a brilliant idea to telephone Felix about their predicament. He came over and went upstairs for a chat with the PM and managed to get her to change her mind. She was hastily bundled into a car and driven to TT. Before she left, she had the presence of mind to instruct Somasara and me to get SLBC to broadcast an all night Pirith chanting. This proved to be a masterstroke since all the police stations were up and on the alert right through the night. Thereby the youthful JVP attackers were deprived the element of surprise that they were banking on.

By now it was about seven o’clock in the evening and we reassembled at TT. We arrange for the Outside Broadcasting [OB] Van of the SLBC to be parked inside the heavily guarded TT premises. If by any chance the SLBC was attacked or disrupted, the PM could address the nation from TT. That was the high level of professionalism of the SLBC engineers then.

By about ten we were crowded in a room near the entrance at TT when reports of sporadic attacks from all parts of the country started coming in. The PM remained absolutely calm and made arrangements regarding the security of Cabinet ministers and Parliamentarians of all parties. The IGP stated that a tip off had been given by a young UNPer from Colombo. He was later recruited to the Police and rose to a senior rank.

JVP cadres connected with the 1971 insurgency undergoing rehabilitation

After some time the Police brought in about eight young men who were supposed to attack the PM in her house in Rosmead Place, kill her and take her body, for some inexplicable reason to Matale. Most of them were in shorts and some were crying quietly. Felix had brought a small household tape recorder and he began crossexamining the boys in a forensic manner while recording the proceedings. It were these recordings that were later played during the trials and also in Parliament. I do not know whether Somawansa Amerasinghe was among this group but we later found that he had been assigned to lead this assault.

The JVP cadres who were brought in to TT were so puny and miserable that it was difficult to take them seriously. Their answers to Felix’s questions were so naïve and even stupid. Often the PM was amused and did not harbor any strong revulsion towards them. At one stage she made everyone laugh by saying ‘I should take a group photograph with them’. After some time, she left and the JVPers were taken away. In later times, they would have been killed forthwith but the then Government did not want to step outside the law.

It was only on the following morning that the Government woke up to the realities of the JVP attack. A large number of police stations had been attacked at night and their armouries taken over. In many places, the Police had fled in panic. There was heavy fighting in Kegalle, Elpitiya and Kurunegala police areas where the insurgents had shown great courage in taking the fight to the armed policemen. In many areas, normal administration was paralyzed. In TT Ministers and party stalwarts were crowding in mainly asking for police protection.

The PM patiently listened to their requests while Felix became the “take charge guy” as he was earlier during the Coup investigation. The leftists in the Government were indignant because they were in an embarrassing position having failed to organize an uprising of these proportions for over thirty years. I remember NM, Leslie, Pieter, TB Subasinghe and George Rajapakse loitering in the veranda of TT waiting to see the PM and getting a briefing from her. We in the Information Ministry had a big job on our hands as by now both the local and international press were clamouring for news about the uprising.

Many senior journalists were flying in from New Delhi and Hong Kong sensing a big story and were being taken around by their local ‘stringers’. After discussion with the PM, it was decided to set up an Information Committee of the ministers mentioned above together with TB Illangaratne and Colvin.

Colvin at that time was out of the country having left for Rome to attend a FAO meeting. He was asked by NM to return immediately. We met twice a day at TT. Somasara and I were appointed as Secretaries of the Information Committee and we liaised with the security chiefs regarding the events of the previous day. I dictated a press communiqué based on this information which we released to the media. I also held a daily press conference for the media and also took questions regarding the police reports.

After some time the Committee members lost interest and Somasara and I carried out our duties with occasional queries from them especially when some of their own party members were either assassinated by the JVP or arrested by the police. Vasudeva Nanayakkara, was a charismatic youth leader of the party. He was arrested on false charges and held in Welikada for a long time together with the JVP suspects.

To the best of my knowledge, LSSP leaders made no attempt to get him out. Our department procedures helped the media, who were appreciative of our attempts, to keep their readers informed at a time when their usual sources in the forces had dried up. The doyen of our journalist, Mervyn de Silva writing under his pen name of Scribe complimented me and the Information Department. So did Gunadasa Liyanage in his “Riviresa” newspaper.

The Information Committee decided to impose a censorship of the news to be published in newspapers. Since all other media outlets were owned by the State, censorship was confined to local and foreign news stories. This meant different deadlines and we had to work round the clock. There were a large number of foreign correspondents in Colombo covering the story for their news outlets and we made sure that they were treated politely. They were a testy lot who were naturally critical of officialdom.

I remember in particular Oriana Fellachi, whose specialty was providing hard interview with prominent world leaders, demanding an interview with the PM Mrs. B. We arranged that interview and Oriana, who had crossed swords with leaders like Kissinger, emerged charmed by the graciousness of our leader. While mainstream media played by the rules, the “Aththa” paper under the editorship of BA Siriwardene, found all sorts of ingenious ways of beating the censor. Knowing that this newspaper had a limited circulation and that a section of the CP were spoiling for a fight, we handled them with sensitivity.

But Pieter Keuneman had a hard time at Cabinet meetings where his colleagues were very critical of the party newspaper. It was the LSSP which was most critical of the JVP. They said that objective conditions for a revolutionary uprising were not present in the country. The JVP effort was an ‘Infantile disorder’ which was aimed at turning back the electoral gains of 1970 which had brought in Marxists to share power on an agreed socialist programme with the “petite bourgeoisie” represented by the SLFP. Not being content with this analysis they approved the attempt, which was mere eyewash, of Anil Moonesinghe to set up a workers army, a la Trostsky, to defend the Government. A raggle taggle bunch of superannuated workers, who were refused guns by the army which in any case was also desperately short of firearms, were marched up and down by’ General’ Anil Moonesinghe who was happily living through his Marxist fantasies that he had acquired in London amidst some armchair revolutionaries.

This LSSP detachment, which was called the “Hansa regiment”, was so ridiculous that even their leaders like NM and Colvin gave it a wide berth. These two leaders, in the meanwhile, were spending time in the sitting room of TT so that they could quickly intervene with the PM if there were attempts to remove them and reconstitute the Government. That type of rumour was swirling around political circles as well as the talk that JRJ, who was being humiliated by the Dudley wing of the UNP, was about to join the SLFP.

I got an inkling of the anti-LSSP venom when I overheard Susil Moonesinghe telling some SLBC confidantes to give NM a hard time when he came to Broadcasting House to record a speech against the JVP. To stop this rot I got the PM’s permission to accompany NM to the SLBC studios for the recording.

We left TT in NM’s Pergeot 203 with NM in the front seat next to the driver. I and NM’s security officer, an Inspector of Police, sat behind. NM was in a pensive mood. To lighten the mood, I asked him what he was going to say and suggested that he broadcast in Sinhala in order to reach the target audience. He agreed and said that it was a pity that these young people did not know what damage they were inflicting on the country. We negotiated the entrance which was heavily guarded by the Navy and I accompanied NM to the recording studio where he spoke without notes in Sinhala and criticized the JVP calling them CIA agents.

Some of his supporters, particularly Leslie and T B Subasinghe, were not happy with this onslaught saying that he should have been more sympathetic to the underdogs. This was probably also because representatives of the Fourth International were in Colombo and were pressing their main contact Leslie to be more accommodating towards the revolutionary youth. Tamara Deutscher, who was greatly admired by the Trotskyists, was in town and she sent several pro-JVP despatches to the New Left Review. This was followed by a long essay by Fred Halliday in the NLR which whitewashed the JVP and strongly criticized the coalition politics of the LSSP represented in the leadership by NM.

These criticisms were accepted by the international left movement which we later discovered were being manipulated by pro-JVP elements among the leftist cadres in London. All this led to a breakaway of young LSSPers like Vasudeva and Wickramabahu Karunaratne who set up the NLSSP with encouragement and financial support from the Trotskyist Healyites in the UK. They financed the purchase of a printing machine by the NLSSP. However, due to bad management they ran into heavy losses and had to sell the printing machine.

An Army “Coup”

At this stage the left leaders, who in any case were highly suspicious at the turn of events, were further disoriented by the talk of an Army coup which also drew in their ‘Bete Noir’ Felix. This was in keeping with their theory that this uprising was being stage managed by reactionary forces. They were so suspicious that NM, Colvin and Leslie spent most of the day in the veranda of TT to eavesdrop on any attempt to get the support of the PM to reconstitute the Government.

To the best of my knowledge this “attempted Coup” was the figment of someone’s imagination. One day when I walked into TT, I saw an unbelievable charade. On either side of the entrance to TT were two gun emplacements. Spread-eagled on either side beside the guns were my two Trinity classmates Denzil Kobbekaduwa and Anuruddha Ratwatte who were both at that time Captains in the SL army. They were keeping guard. This, however, told me that someone had taken the coup talk to the PM and she had got the army to place two of her trusted relatives to be part of her security at TT. In addition her brother-in-law Divitotawela, who also was an army volunteer officer, was moved to TT and was frequently seen in his army uniform. Her two relatives Felix and Lakshman Jayakody were responsible for liaising with the army.

In this context I became a crucial witness to an episode which could have had serious repercussions.

After about a week, Army Commander Sepala Attygala presided at a press conference arranged by the Army and held at the Galle Face Hotel. This was a briefing to the international and local press about the state of security in the country. I attended this meeting as the Director of Information. Sepala may have exaggerated the role of the security forces in putting down the rebellion, especially because they were so ill equipped at the beginning of the conflict and had to face difficulties. Arms and ammunition had to be airlifted and even our commercial airline Air Ceylon had to fly nonstop to Cairo and back to bring much needed weapons for the Army.

Indian army helicopters brought troops from South India to secure the periphery of Katunayake in order to facilitate the full use of the airport for security purposes. No sooner had this press conference been concluded when someone had misinformed the PM that the Army Commander was planning to take over. Fortunately, the PM, who had been told that I was present at the press conference, asked me to come over and she questioned me about what had transpired at this meeting. I assured her that no such threat was made by the Army Commander. On the contrary he had said that the army will safeguard her even at the cost of their lives. The PM was much relieved by my eyewitness account and a possible fatal misunderstanding was averted. This was only one incident at a time when much gossip and speculation was rife among the politicians.

No wonder then that the Left leaders were in a state of apprehension about the role of the army and Felix who was the dominant figure. There may have been many more such episodes which I was not aware of.

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