Coup Theories & Officers’ Motives

Coup Theories and Officers’ Motives – Sri Lanka in Comparative Perspective, by Donald L. Horowitz, Princeton University Press, 1980.

The proliferation of military coups in developing countries of South and East Asia and in Africa in the period since World War 2 when many of these gained independence from Western colonial rule has given rise to numerous books in America theorizing on the causes of military coups. One popular explanation considered was the dichotomy of chaotic and corrupt political and social systems within countries on the one hand and disciplined, centralised, hierarchical militaries led by officers with technical and managerial skills. In this situation, army officers felt compelled to intervene to establish orderly government. Other explanations were based on ethnic and class differences, the ambition of army officers for power and wealth or military interventions by aggrieved segments of the officer cadre to regain their positions of authority. In some cases the military considered that they were intervening for the national interest and in others it was a personal lust for power. In many cases internal conflicts resulting from long suppressed cleavages within societies during colonial rule created a threat to governments and gave the justification for military interventions, sometimes sponsored clandestinely by external great powers.

The author takes the attempted coup of 1962 in Sri Lanka as a case study as the details of this coup were recorded in detail by evidence in the Sri Lankan courts and by statements voluntarily made by the majority of the coup participants with regard to their motives.

The author, apart from being a distinguished professor with many books on foreign affairs, is also a member of the US state sponsored organisation, The National Endowment for Democracy, whose assistance to developing countries often preceded US master-minded military coups. Nevertheless, the book contains an insightful analysis of the mindset of sections of the urbanised Sri Lankan middle class that motivated the coup leaders even though the author’s conclusions in some areas could be disputed. The author draws on research on social and political features of post-independence Sri Lanka that had been done in the USA by academics, viz. Robert N. Kearney, W. Howard Wriggins, Donald E. Smith, Bryce Ryan, Marshall R. Singer and B.H. Farmer and Janice Jiggins of UK. Apart from these, works by notable Sri Lankan scholars on social structures and internal conflicts were also available to him, viz. Michael Roberts, A.H.E. Sanderatne, A.J. Wilson, G.C. Mendis, P.T. M. Fernando, Tarzie Vittachi, etc.

Sri   Lanka was a fragmented society, as is the case with many nations, with divisions based on caste, race, religion and social status, but the traditional Sri Lankan values held society together. With the Sinhala Buddhist nationalist movement that came to power after the 1956 election victory of the first Bandaranaike government, the populist effort to dramatically redress the grievances of the hitherto marginalised rural Sinhala Buddhist majority, led to strong opposition from minority Tamils and Christians. Furthermore, an effective government bureaucracy was compromised by the newly elected politicians at all levels who held that a “peoples’ government” meant they could dictate to public officials on appointments, promotions, transfers and work programs without reference to merit, the public good, government regulations or even established law. The unrealistic expectations that were aroused also gave opportunities for the largely leftwing trade unions to undertake prolonged strikes in key sectors of the economy, creating more problems for the rapidly declining economy.

The “Sinhala Only” official language issue, the reaction in the form of Tamil protests which were dealt with a heavy hand by the government, the anti-Tamil riots in 1956 and 1958, the successive public service strikes, political interference in many areas of the administration including the police, all made the urban middle class feel that the country was falling apart. The author succinctly explains the dilemma of the elite urban middle class in the following terms. “They pondered how the machinery of state could be run by rulers who seemed less and less sophisticated and worldly. They were neither wholly indifferent to the interests nor wholly unadmiring of the aptitudes of the average Sinhalese village man. But they deplored the crumbling of established standards and the infusion of a crude variety of political personal patronage into the bureaucracy and public projects. They were aghast at the indifference of the new men of power to merit in appointments and to prudence in decision making. ….”

The author grants that such social unrest was often a feature of developing countries where marginalised sections of society sought to gain their place. In many other countries this had provided the opportunity for military leaders to organise coups and establish dictatorial rule to preserve their class interests. However, the unrest in Ceylon resulted from a democratic process and the euphoria of the victors could be a passing phase. The author points out that the coup plotters’ model of UK as an orderly society which needed to be emulated was misplaced as the British had already dealt with these social changes in an earlier era. Democracies do not function always in an orderly manner.

As in the case of all such coups, the core group was small and only 31 officers and one senior public servant (Douglas Liyanage) were finally arrested and charged. It is contended that if it succeeded many others would have been willing join in while still others were silent participants. The two principal leaders were from the Army, Col. F.C. (Derek) De Saram, Deputy Commander of the Army Volunteer Force and Col. Maurice de Mel, Chief of Staff of the Army and Commander of the Volunteer Force. F.C. De Saram, the most high profile and charismatic senior officer in the army, was admired and respected by the majority of army officers. In a status conscious society, he came from a distinguished family, was a Cambridge educated lawyer, had captained the national cricket team and was the most senior Ceylonese officer in the Ceylon Defence Force (CDF) in the pre-Independence era during World War 2 as commander of the Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment, Ceylon Artillery. His two senior subordinates in the Artillery Regiment were Maurice de Mel and W.S. Abrahams, both key coup leaders. Of the 16 regular army officers charged, 8 were from the artillery regiments. At the formation of the Ceylon Army after Independence, the personnel in the CDF were invited to join and the Army Commander, Brig.-Gen. Gerard Wijeykoon, was among them. He was not invited to participate as he was considered “weak”. The Inspector General of Police (IGP), M.W.F. Abeykoon, a political appointee loyal to the governing party, was also excluded, as was the Navy Commander, Commodore Rajan Kadirgamar. The retired Commander of the Navy, Rear Admiral Royce De Mel, elder brother of Maurice De Mel, was however among the coup leaders. The miniscule Air Force was under the command of a Britisher and was excluded as well.

The other principal partners were from the police who were brought in after the plot was hatched because the police presence was nation-wide and was essential for success. This was led by C.C. (Jungle) Dissanayake and Sidney De Soyza, both Deputy IGPs who commanded a large following within the police force. The IGP, M.W.F. Abeykoon, an elevated political appointee brought in from outside the police service, was widely unpopular with senior police officers for being a pliant tool of his political masters in addition to being an incompetent misfit. Unlike in the Army, the police had to work with civil authorities and were irked by the unprecedented level of political influence brought into routine police work. The Army, due to the nature of its role in the country, was spared most of this at the time. Their grievance was that the army was constantly used to run public services that were hit by strikes and also to deal with civil unrest which was essentially a police function.

The 1962 coup is often described in the country as a plot by Christian and Tamil officers to frustrate the aspirations of the majority Sinhala Buddhist community. The writer finds no hard evidence to support this theory. On the contrary, it is pointed out that the acknowledged leader, F.C. De Saram was a Sinhala Buddhist as were several others. But what irked a disciplined organisation like the army was the ruling politicians’ consideration of race, caste and religion, apart from political loyalty, as factors in appointments to the top positions in the public services and the police. The author claims that the coup plotters freely expressed their reasons, barring eight, two declining and six being dead or out of the country. The seven principal reasons were: 1) unrest, strikes, no discipline; 2) ethno-religious discrimination; 3) power of Felix Dias Bandaranaike; 4) danger from Left parties; 5) general country situation; 6) political interference; 7) politicians pandering to the mob. Felix Dias Bandaranaike, then a young arrogant minister who was the prime minister’s principal adviser, was the bête noire of the coup plotters. The author grants that motives are hard to unravel as it involves both emotional and rational perceptions. In the case of some young officers, personal loyalty to the coup leaders was found to be a strong factor.

In all this, the author downplays the role of class conflict in the motivation, even though statements attributed to the coup officers and their contacts in the elite Colombo society contradicts this view. It is the members of the elite English educated westernised urban upper-middle class that the coup plotters empathise with when they socialise in exclusive Colombo clubs or the golf course to discuss politics, as described by the author. This class, which the author seeks to describe as “international” in outlook as opposed to the parochial forces they despised, felt threatened by the emerging power of the majority rural Sinhala Buddhist population and the left-wing urban working class. They believed that British colonial rule was better in comparison with democratic governments after independence. For these reasons the coup plotters were idolised by the Colombo business community that raised funds for their legal defence and offered them executive jobs in their businesses after their release.

It is acknowledged that unlike in many other coups in Third World countries, the principal coup leaders had no direct interest in political office or financial gain and were motivated more by a perceived altruistic sense of bringing order into the chaotic state of affairs in the country. They had nothing to gain personally and were officers and gentlemen in the best British military tradition. Maurice De Mel would have become the next Commander of the Army in the normal course of events and F.C. De Saram who had a successful law practice had no interest in further promotions in the Army or in holding political office. The stated objective of the coup officers was to detain the government leaders, dissolve parliament and establish an interim civilian government under the Governor-General, Sir Oliver Goonetilake. It is now known from subsequent interviews attributed to Sir John Kotelawela, ex-UNP prime minister, that Sir Oliver, previous UNP Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake and Kotelawela himself were apprised of the planned coup shortly in advance of events.

The story of how the coup plotters were betrayed at the last moment leading to its collapse is well known. In hindsight, it is clear that the coup would never have been successful. The coup plotters planned to use the Artillery regiments, the armoured regiment, the Signals regiments and the Colombo Depot Police for the initial takeover. The key Ceylon Light Infantry led by Col. Udugama, a government loyalist, was left out. Their plan for the creation of an interim government run by discredited former political leaders would have been rejected by the public. There is no doubt that there would have been sufficient pro-government forces within the army, navy and police, together with the mass of the public that had voted the government to office, to frustrate the objectives of the coup even if it was initially successful.

While the coup plotters sought to de-politicise the army, police and public administration, their failure had the reverse effect. Forever after, governments in Sri   Lanka would ensure that the armed forces, the police and key areas of the public administration (and even the judiciary) would be led by political loyalists without reference to established regulations or practices. Mrs. Bandaranaike herself went to extreme lengths to establish this after the coup was foiled by appointing her close relatives to key positions in the armed forces to ensure loyalty and weed out those suspected of disloyalty.

The author points to the effect of successful military coups in developing countries which leads to a recurring tradition of military interventions whenever military leaders felt they had to “rescue” nations from incompetent civilian rule. At least Sri Lanka was spared this tragedy.

Kenneth Abeywickrama

15 June 2014.


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