1958 Coup Scare

September 1958 – February 1959

Published: December 23, 2023

Portrait of S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike.

A coup plot

In late September 1958, Prime Minister S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike revealed to the House of Representatives that high-ranking police officials informed him that they and high-ranking military personnel had been approached by someone suggesting a coup.1 He followed this with accusations against the opposition.

He claimed that the UNP would have staged a march to the Queen’s House,2 had the march to Kandy been successful, to call for the government to step down. Furthermore, he accused the UNP of calling for “direct steps” when it realized that the government, contrary to expectations, was stable for over six months after it was elected. At the beginning of 1958, he continued, an important official informed him that there was a coup looming, implicating another official in the conspiracy. However, when Bandaranaike confronted the implicated official, the latter denied there being such a plot. When the May riots took place, some people asked for the government to resign, seemingly believing that the governor-general, Oliver Goonetilleke, would take over. Bandaranaike alleged that there was a plan to launch a mass strike at the end of the year to bring down the government.3

He then turned his attention to the Tamils. The Federal Party leader, S. J. V. Chelvanayakam, had stated that he would step down from the Federal Party leadership if there was violence, and Bandaranaike wondered aloud if that implied that there were violent Tamil elements around. He accused the Federal Party of still considering a satyagraha and that there were some small incidents in the Eastern Province after detainees were released. He also alleged that there was “evidence that an attempt was made to bring in South India.”4

The allegations were castigated by opposition politicians. The leader of the LSSP and opposition, N. M. Perera, warned that the invocation of possible coups could be used as a pretext to maintain undemocratic and authoritarian policies. Tamil Congress leader G. G. Ponnambalam accused Bandaranaike of believing even the most spurious of allegations, and Pieter Keuneman, leader of the Communist Party, felt that Bandaranaike had very thin evidence on which he was making aggrandized claims. The latter denied that there were secret plans to launch a mass strike. Federal Party MP Appapillai Amirthalingam clarified that Chelvanayakam’s remark was cautionary, not suggesting that there was going to be violence.5 Despite the consternation, talk of the plot did not last long after the parliamentary session.

Conspirators named

The topic resurfaced on November 21, this time with more details. Bandaranaike alleged that DIG Sydney de Zoysa was the officer who was behind the plot. He also alleged that Senator Edmund Cooray, a UNP senator, had invited the IGP to his dinner and told him that “the time is ripe to stage a coup.” Minister of Agriculture Philip Gunawardena, accusing the DIG of “preparing to become Ceylon’s Ayub Khan” and intimidating even ministers, called for his removal. N. M. Perera joined in the accusations and said that de Zoysa’s relatives had approached servicemen with talks of a coup. de Zoysa’s brother, Finance Minister Stanley de Zoysa, denied the allegations and claimed that there was a “mischievous and diabolical campaign” to damage trust in the police.6

Meanwhile, on November 26, Kotagala MP J. D. Weerasekara asked Bandaranaike to interdict the officers associated with the coup plot.7. A day later, the Ceylon Federation of Labour, an LSSP trade union federation, called for the working class to fight against any attempt to “usurp power and institute a ruthless military-police dictatorship.”8

On November 28, the Daily News reported that Lieutenant Colonel H. W. G. Wijeykoon, who was present at the dinner, claimed that it was Cooray’s son who had alluded to a coup. He mentioned that there were several coups in other Asian countries and asked “what the chaps in Ceylon were doing about it.”9 The IGP, Osmund de Silva, apparently made a statement to the Sunday Times too where he brought up what Cooray’s son said to Bandaranaike, though his intention was to dismiss any fears of army disloyalty and to highlight the jocularity of statements of that nature.10

Gampaha MP S. D. Bandaranayake sent an angry letter to the prime minister, his cousin, in which he claimed that a coup had occurred on May 27, the day the government declared emergency, and such a coup was used as a pretext to suppress Sinhalese. He urged the government to “immediately appoint… the public commission of inquiry which I have called for,” with the end goal being that “those who are in the network of this conspiracy must be found out, tried, and punished.”11

Then, on December 2, certain opposition politicians and Gunawardena received reports of a coup plot in which several prominent politicians were to be assassinated. The hit list included Gunawardena, Oliver Goonetilleke, N. M. Perera, and the UNP president and former prime minister, Dudley Senanayake.12 In parliament, Perera had raised the issue of the coup allegations, and in a subsequent interview with the Daily News, he claimed he did so to disincline the plotters from proceeding. He furthermore warned that his party would struggle against anyone who tried to usurp power.13

Bandaranaike announced to the government parliamentary group that he would appoint a commission to inquire into the allegations of a coup plot and the officer behind it. Gunawardene asked for Sydney de Zoysa to be interdicted before an inquiry took place. He also asked that the government investigate the transfer of a police horse to Badulla for de Zoysa to have a parade. However, the defence ministry denied that there would be any interdiction of de Zoysa. de Zoysa himself requested leave, and the ministry replied that it would decide within a day or two. Eventually, they accepted the request.14

The dinner conversation

Cooray defended himself in the senate. He complained that Bandaranaike’s disclosure of his name constituted a breach of his immunity. He denied ever having said or even having suggested that “the time was ripe to stage a coup.” He furthermore explained that the officers told the prime minister that even if there was talk of a coup, it was frivolous banter more than a serious threat. He argued that the statement made by his son had in fact demonstrated that the coup talk was just a joke, and concluded his speech by declaring that no mainstream party or faction – not the UNP, LSSP, army, or police – had any intention of violently seizing power from the government.15

Duties resumed

Perturbation about the alleged coup plot remained in early 1959 such that Bandaranaike told a crowd of ten thousand on Independence Day that the government would prevent any sort of subversive behaviour.16 However, fears did not materialize. By mid-February, Sydney de Zoysa had his duties as DIG reinstated, with no evidence having been found to substantiate the claims against him.17

May Day rally

On May Day, Gunawardena made yet another jab at de Zoysa. He accused de Zoysa of being an anti-government conspirator and of “[oppressing] the people and [not being] loyal to the government.” de Zoysa subsequently filed a defamation lawsuit against Gunawardena, but the court dismissed the case, affirming that Gunawardena had the authority to warn Bandaranaike of what he thought was a genuine danger.18

Bandaranaike assassination

The de Zoysas returned to political scrutiny after the Bandaranaike assassination case. Their brother, F. R. de Zoysa, was arrested due to his connection with Ossie Corea, an underworld kingpin who was alleged to have formerly owned the gun that killed Bandaranaike. Stanley de Zoysa resigned from his ministerial position over this issue. Meanwhile, Sydney de Zoysa received flak for his method of handling the assassination. He had been a first responder after the shooting, and it was alleged that he dispersed witnesses at the scene and took Somarama to the harbour police station so as to make him look like a leftist harbour worker.19

In parliament, Gunawardena recounted his November 1958 warning. He claimed that Bandaranaike had tried to institute a commission of inquiry into the matter but found himself obstructed by right-wing ministers, particularly Wijayananda Dahanayake (now prime minister), Stanley de Zoysa, and R. G. Senanayake. In January 1959, Bandaranaike tried to appoint Claude Corea to investigate, but once again, his efforts were thwarted. The late premier had then allowed suspected police officers, especially Sydney de Zoysa, to become his security aides, and this resulted in his assassination. Gunawardena’s brother, Robert, questioned how Sydney de Zoysa was able to make his way to the scene so quickly after the shooting. He also questioned the veracity of the investigation given that the lead investigators were close with the DIG.20

Soon after, de Zoysa wrote a letter entitled “The Assassination of the Late Prime Minister: A Few Facts that the Public Should Know,” where he rebutted certain rumours about the assassination, subsequent action by officials, his conduct, and the police force more generally. He admitted that doing so was a departure from the standard official non-disclosure to the public, but nevertheless felt that “the public should know if they are to have faith in the competence and integrity of the department and its officers.” He denied that he was Bandaranaike’s chief security officer, though he was nevertheless close to him, claiming that Bandaranaike had personally given him permission to sue Gunawardena. The letter was lambasted by opposition politicians who declared it unconstitutional and an attack on the opposition and its criticisms.21

During his cross-examination at the assassination trial in December, he maintained that he and his family had no grievance against Bandaranaike. He recalled the allegations Gunawardena levelled against him within the last year.22

1962 coup

Sydney de Zoysa would later be fifth accused in a more serious coup plot in 1962 to topple the government. This plot was a conspiracy by several high-ranking officers, largely ethnic and religious minorities, who were dissatisfied with the development in the country. It was discovered and thwarted only on the eve of execution.

During a subsequent parliamentary debate, Senator C. D. S. Siriwardene lamented that the warnings from 1958 had been dismissed as jokes and even claimed that in late 1959, an army officer recounted being approached by another officer early that year who asked him to join in a plot to overthrow the government. Some days later, a third officer had intimated a coup to Siriwardene, and that third officer was one of the arrestees in 1962.23 In the House of Representatives, Gunawardena reminded the members of his allegations in 1958, arguing that de Zoysa got away with what he did because of his influence over both Bandaranaike premiers. Minister of Transport and Works P. B. G. Kalugalle credited S. A. Dissanayake, the IGP, of having halted the 1958 coup plot and accused Dahanayake of not having acted against de Zoysa appropriately when he had the chance.24

Was there any truth to the allegations of 1958? Bandaranaike’s biographer, James Manor, alleges that there was “some substance” to the accusations against de Zoysa.25 On the other hand, Donald Horowitz, citing a witness statement from the 1962 coup trial, described the allegations as “an unsubstantiated, apparently baseless rumor of suspicious activity.”26 The truth of the allegations may never be known, but given the lack of evidence even by early 1959, it is unlikely that anything serious had been planned. As Horowitz himself writes, “it is one thing to believe that the personnel and policies of a regime are fundamentally misguided. It is another to move to displace that regime by force.”27

What can be stated more definitively is that the S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike tenure was the beginning of the aspirations for an alternative government by the likes of de Zoysa and others. In Horowitz’ interviews with the eventual coup plotters and sympathizers, many revealed that they had considered a revolt following the 1958 racial riots, which they saw as a sign of deterioration and a result of the communalism of the government. In some cases, policemen refrained from direct action to suppress rioters, fearing that they would face political repercussions. This disaffection was compounded by a perception of Bandaranaike as being too lenient and tolerant of indiscipline, both of officers and civilians. Bandaranaike himself was disliked by some of the plotters, who predicted or even relished in his assassination. Communalism, favouritism of Sinhala-Buddhists, politicization of authorities, and the further incorporation of masses – masses deemed to be inadequate to spearhead the trajectory of the country – into mainstream politics were profound sources of discontent.28 The tinderbox may have exploded (or would have exploded) in 1962, but the fuse was lit much earlier.


Horowitz, Donald. Coup Theories and Officers’ Motives: Sri Lanka in Comparative Perspective. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1980.

Manor, James. The Expedient Utopian: Bandaranaike and Ceylon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.


  1. “P.M’s Allegations: ‘Talk of Coups’,” Ceylon Daily News, September 24, 1958.
  2. The name was changed to “President’s House” in 1972.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid. In parliament, Bandaranaike claimed that there had been an attempt to import explosives into Valaichchenai on June 24. Six days later, the army fired upon a boat that was later discovered to be an Indian boat near Kalkudah. Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, vol. 33, col. 873-874.
  5. “Not Advisable to End Emergency as Yet – PM,” Ceylon Daily News, September 24, 1958. Hereafter, “Ceylon Daily News” will be abbreviated as “CDN.”
  6. “House Talks of Coups,” CDN, November 22, 1958.
  7. “M. P. Calls For ‘Coup’ Inquiry,” CDN, November 27, 1958.
  8. “C. F. L. Plans an Anti-Coup Drive Among Masses,” CDN, November 28, 1958.
  9. “‘Coup’ Report Corroborated,” CDN, November 28, 1958.
  10. Sunday Times of Ceylon, November 23, 1958, quoted in Parliamentary Debates, Senate, vol. 12, col. 1127. See also “Armchair Coup,” Sunday Times of Ceylon, November 23, 1958, for an opinion editorial that expresses the same opinion.
  11. “Gampaha M. P. Wants Inquiry,” CDN, November 28, 1958.
  12. “Coup: More Details,” Ceylon Daily News, December 2, 1958.
  13. “Coup: More Details,” Ceylon Daily News, December 2, 1958.
  14. “P. M. Orders Full Inquiry into ‘Coup’,” Ceylon Daily News, December 3, 1958.
  15. Parliamentary Debates, Senate, vol. 12, col. 1123-1135.
  16. “Premier Assures Peace For All,” CDN, February 5, 1959.
  17. “Ceylon Police Aide Cleared,” The New York Times, February 12, 1959.
  18. “Colombo Went Red and Gay on May Day,” Ceylon Daily News, May 2, 1959; “Father of Left Movement and Statesman,” Daily News, January 11, 2019. https://archives1.dailynews.lk/2019/01/11/features/173957/father-left-movement-and-statesman
  19. “‘I Saw the Shooting’,” CDN, September 26, 1959; “Dr. Perera Opens Debate on No-Confidence Motion,” CDN, October 31, 1959; “Opposition Furore Over Statement by Sidney,” CDN, November 3, 1959.
  20. “Dr. Perera Opens Debate on No-Confidence Motion,” CDN, October 31, 1959.
  21. “Opposition Furore Over Statement by Sidney,” CDN, November 3, 1959.
  22. “Sidney: My Actions ‘Correct’,” CDN, December 29, 1959.
  23. Parliamentary Debates, Senate, vol. 17, col. 2247-2249.
  24. “Kalugalla: ‘G. G. and Dudley are Presumed Innocent’,” CDN, February 15, 1962.
  25. James Manor, The Expedient Utopian: Bandaranaike and Ceylon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 301.
  26. Donald Horowitz, Coup Theories and Officers’ Motives: Sri Lanka in Comparative Perspective. (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1980), 204.
  27. Ibid., 171.
  28. Ibid., 112-117; 122; 151-156; 164-165.