January 8, 1966 Strike – Part II

Part I

Published: January 8, 2024
January 8, 1966

Coalition perspectives

The opposition presented its own version of events in late January. Dambadeniya MP R. G. Senanayake, claimed that the three hundred monks leading the protests on January 8 had gone to speak to the prime minister, his cousin, after earlier attempts to meet with him failed. He tacitly admitted that the monks had no permit to march, but asked whether shooting them was truly the correct response to the march regardless of whether it was permitted or not. After this, he remarked on the Apiyi Sinhala movement, alleging that the government had permitted this movement to convene even when blocking opposition meetings. He recounted sending a letter to van Twest about this inconsistency. van Twest brought the letter to the government’s attention, and both meetings were rejected, though the Apiyi Sinhala movement had already distributed pamphlets publicising its meeting. He made a countercharge against the government: that the government was trying to foment trouble by allowing this group to mobilize.1

On the day of the strike, he averred, the monks had marched in peace towards parliament, believing that they could continue up to the Galle Face Hotel. However, they found themselves blocked by police. Nevertheless, they complied with the officers and sat down, asking for a dialogue with the prime minister. A car had then driven into the crowd, causing injury to the sitting monks. He also suggested that the stone throwing had been done by government agents provocateurs to justify police shootings, but the demonstrators had not partaken in such activity. He also claimed that the stone-throwing at the Kollupitiya railway station was committed by passengers, whom he alleged to be Apiyi Sinhala operatives, unto demonstrators fleeing police violence. Stone throwing at shops too, he claimed, was done by the police.2

He discredited coverage of the strike by the Ceylon Daily News and asserted that foreigners with no inherent motive to defend the demonstrators would concur that the latter were wholly peaceful. After this, he complained about the government’s handling of Ratnasara’s funeral, more specifically about the barring of Buddhist monks from accessing the young monk’s cadaver. And now, the government was stopping the monks from coming to Colombo, citing several cases of Buddhist monks being turned back upon attempted entry.3

Pieter Keuneman, MP for Colombo Central, completely opposed the government’s narration of events. He disputed an allegation that the strikers had some kind of secret code by which they let Coalitionist cars proceed and waylaid others, pointing out that several government politicians had been permitted to pass through the crowds. While he acknowledged that there were incidents of violence, he argued that the government had either exaggerated them or had misstated the exact sequence of events in such a way that he made the strikers appear guilty when they were not. In an exchange with E. M. V. Naganathan, he expressed that the opposition had every right to peacefully oppose the regulations. He claimed that only two of the injured were Tamils, and, in fact, several Tamils had joined the strike. After this, he recounted a version of events like that of R. G. Senanayake.4

N. M. Perera stated that when he went to Galle Face Green with Bernard Soysa, he found armed service personnel, police, and demonstrators. The latter informed him that the police had given them ten minutes to leave. Perera had asked the crowd to disperse, and they complied. The crowd then moved towards Slave Island; however, police insisted that they go along Galle Road. At this point, police fired tear gas at the protesters. He produced several photographs which he claimed vindicated the procession. One showed the police and seated demonstrators talking peacefully. The peace, he claimed, was broken when a car had run over people, and this is why it was attacked. He accused three MPs, Herath Ekanayake (Mawatagama), Chandra Karunaratne (Nawalapitiya), and M. A. Daniel Appuhamy (Hewaheta), of being in the car. After this, police threw tear gas to disperse the people. He said that that the police then went to a shop and wantonly opened fire at the people.5

Disciplinary action

As warned earlier, disciplinary action was taken by state departments against officers accused of “unauthorized absence” on January 8, the first instance of disciplinary action taken against strikers in over a decade.6 Over a week after the strike, 3,200 Ceylon Transport Board employees were interdicted or accused of unauthorized absence. Leaders of the GCSU and Postmasters Union were interdicted as well.7 However, by 1967, about three quarters had been reinstated, albeit in lower positions.8 104 GCSU officers and five hundred CGR employees were subject to similar fates. In the former’s case, numerous officers, “principally… of the union’s branches,” were transferred to other locations. In the latter’s, another two hundred workers, who argued that they abstained from work due to directives from above, were given fines but nevertheless allowed to keep working.9 The Public Service Workers’ Trade Union Federation (PSWTUF) too found six hundred members of its various unions suspended.10

Senator Doric de Souza criticized the CTB interdictions, arguing that they violated the CTB’s rules for disciplining misconduct. He alleged that disciplined workers were being encourage to apply for re-employment through UNP unions.11 Other trade union leaders accused the government of trying to replace the dismissed workers with its supporters.12 Echoing de Souza’s comments, the president of the Uva Trade Unions United Front complained that the interdictions violated the rights of the workers who struck.13 The GCSU accused the government of weakening the GCSU and other pro-Coalitionist unions. Even the CMU’s president, Bala Tampoe, who had opposed the strike, condemned these measures, arguing that workers had the “right to strike in protest on any matter that they judge, even wrongly, to be adverse to their interests.”14

However, in parliament, Jayawardene was adamant that the government had taken the correct approach in disciplining absentee workers.15 On January 26, the government had made further moves to discipline those responsible for inciting crowds, with punishments ranging from withholding increments, to fines, to punitive transfers.16 Ultimately, up to forty thousand strikers were fined.17

Media suppression

Two left-wing Sinhala newspapers, staunchly against the regulations, were censored by the government: Aththa and Janadina. The proprietor of Aththa wrote a letter to the justice ministry complaining of the dismantling of printing machines and sealing of the printing establishment at Lanka Press the day after emergency was declared. He claimed that such action was done despite the fact that he only published material approved by the Competent Authority.18 In parliament, Jayawardene accused Aththa of publishing racially incitive material and being a partisan newspaper, and Ponnambalam even accused it and Janadina of publishing “half-truths.” Defending the newspapers, Nikaweratiya MP Mudiyanse Tennekoon asserted that the other newspapers did not publish the truth. N. M. Perera further pointed out that in 1958, the UNP’s journal, Siyarata, had published statements calling for the killings of Tamils, yet it was not banned. He accused other publications such as Dinamina, the ­Daily Mirror, and Thinakaran of publishing similarly incitive material, yet they were not banned.19

Improper handling

A commission of inquiry was held into the strike, specifically investigating how it was allowed to deteriorate to the point that a state of emergency had to be declared. It found that several senior officers, including Dissanayake and van Twest, had not predicted the severity of the situation despite all the forewarnings. One officer even admitted that he did not read the news about the strike plans, leading the commission report to describe him as “totally insensitive to political tends and tensions in the country.” As such, they did not initially deploy adequately resources to areas known to be focal points of the demonstrators. Even on the day itself, the commission criticized decisions of officers at various levels taken throughout the day, from allowing crowds to gather, to failing to stop processions, to personally leaving key locations.20

Consequently, on January 25, Dissanayake was sent on compulsory leave and van Twest was interdicted. A government communique explained that the punitive action was for “failing to carry out the instructions of the government in regard to the maintenance of law and order and public security of that day.”21 The commission of inquiry too concluded that “the failure to prevent crowds and processions at Galle Road, Kollupitya… was not due to the inadequacy of instructions but to the failure to implement directions which were clearly given.”22  


Two figures who would soon become famous in Ceylon took an interest the strike. The calls for a hartal in early January caught the attention of a small trader from Ratnapura named L. V. P. Podiappuhamy, more famously known as “Dodampe Mudalali.” In April, he was detained at the CID’s infamous “fourth floor” under suspicion that he was a co-conspirator of a coup plot, and later died in police custody. Another alleged co-conspirator, Henpitigedara Gnanaseeha Thero, in his evidence, stated that Podiappuhamy had prepared time bombs for the strike, but he dissuaded the trader. Gnanaseeha Thero went on to testify that he had been informed by Corporal Amaratunga, another accused, that Jayawardene was planning to use the state of emergency to assume power in a dictatorship.23

The other figure was a young activist of the Communist Party’s Peking wing, Rohana Wijeweera. Wijeweera and the party’s leader, N. Shanmugathasan, disagreed bitterly on the language question. The party itself had initially supported the strike but later withdrew after objections from Tamil followers. Wijeweera was alleged to have participated in the strike, though he maintained that he was not a participant per se, but rather, he happened to be near the petrol shed at Kollupitiya as strikers marched on Galle Road. Nevertheless, Shanmugathasan, already suspecting that Wijeweera was trying to overthrow him, saw him as opposing the regulations and decided to expel him.24


Ratnasara would later be used by the SLFP during the 1970 parliamentary election campaign as an example of the UNP government’s brutality. He was likened to Kudapola Thero, a Buddhist monk shot dead by British forces in 1848. Party posters would depict the shooting of Ratnasara alongside that of Kudapola, with statements to the effect of the UNP having killed the Sinhala language and Buddhist religion.25 The SLFP-LSSP-Communist manifesto itself referenced Ratnasara when commenting on the irony that the UNP’s 1965 pledges to Buddhism were followed by the injuring and killing of monks during the strike.26

Trade unions, which had already seen cleavages grow due to the proposal strike, now faced another defection crisis. The GCSU, following the strikes, saw a breakaway group form and this new group considered creating an apolitical federation of workers. The postal service unions saw similar divisions and also experienced a splitting of Sinhalese and Tamil workers. Wilfrid Perera, the president of the Union of Post and Telecommunications Officers, acknowledged that unions had suffered serious politicization. However, PSWTUF president Piyadasa Adipola argued that the UNP’s repressive actions since its election in March 1965 had forced the trade unions to become political.27 In 1967, the GCSU considered the defections to be a contributor to financial issues experienced by the union that year. The defections also marked a failure in its attempts to eschew communal politics to ensure solidarity between Sinhalese and Tamils in the union.28

The disciplinary action against the strikers, something that had not been done in over a decade, was a sore point to the trade unions. Following this, pro-Coalition unions were less bellicose, and it was only in November 1968 that they launched another massive strike. Prior to that strike, a committee of unions, led by the GCSU, called for the withdrawal of punishments. This demand, along with another, was the basis of the strike, which had been joined by three pro-Coalition union federations. However, the strike was ultimately a failure.29 In its election manifesto for the 1970 parliamentary election, the SLFP-LSSP-Communist coalition, the United Front, promised to undo any work-related or financial punishments suffered by the January 8 strikers.30 After the United Front’s victory in the election, one of its earliest actions was to issue instructions to department and corporate heads to reinstate interdicted or dismissed strikers and to revoke any financial penalties accorded to them.31

Though a complete appraisal of the regulations, the center of the entire January 1966 controversy, and its implementation is beyond the scope of this article, they immediately ushered in a positive response from Tamils. On Independence Day, for the first time since 1955, Tamil-majority towns raised the national flag instead of black flags. Jaffna saw the national flag unfurled at a parade attended by Tamil MPs and thousands of students.32 The Tamil public in the Northern and Eastern Provinces was now more willing to accept Sinhala as the official language, with Tamil public servants learning Sinhala and Sinhalese teachers being invited to Tamil schools.33

The next month, the act received an endorsement from the mahanayake thero of the Malwatte chapter who, in a radio broadcast to the nation, stated that “these Tamil regulations do not cause any harm to the Sinhala Only Act which has proclaimed the Sinhala Language as the one official language of the country.”34 In mid-1966, Senanayake made appearances in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. In June, he became the first Ceylonese prime minister to address the annual convention of the Federal Party, at Kalmunai. He promised the audience that he would not allow Tamil language or heritage to suffer and that racial harmony must be permanent if full freedom of Ceylon was to be attained.35 Then in August, Senanayake toured Jaffna where he spoke in front of a “sea of people.”36

The strike of 1966 was rooted in and effected both unity and division. Unity was present among the UNP and the Federal Party, which cooperated on this issue out of mutual political necessity. It was also seen in the Coalition. The leftist parties, once supporters of parity of status between Sinhala and Tamil, were now united with the SLFP and its pro-Sinhalese posture. The strike was also rooted in division, not only in the conspicuous political divisions between the government and opposition, but also in the more general divisions between Sinhalese and Tamils on the language issue. There had been a brief moment of reconciliation between Sinhalese and Tamils, as the latter were appreciative of the government’s moves in their favour. But there were also divisions — felt by disaffected Sinhalese and punished strikers — that were cemented by the strike. Only history can tell which of the two outcomes, unity or division, more generally prevailed.


Abeynaike, H. B. W., and H. P. Ameratunga. Parliament of Ceylon, 1970. Colombo: Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd., 1970.

Alles, A. C. Insurgency, 1971. Colombo: Trade Exchange (Ceylon) Ltd., 1976.

Jeyasingham, Shakuntala. “Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna.” South Asian Studies 9, nos. 1-2 (January – July, 1974): 1-16.

Kearney, Robert N. Trade Unions and Politics in Ceylon. London: University of California, 1971.

Manogaran, Chelvadurai. Ethnic Conflict and Reconciliation in Sri Lanka. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1987.

Rajendra, M., Gunawardena, D. J. R., and S. J. Walpita. “Report of the Special Committee Appointed to Inquire into and Report on the Police Arrangements on the 8th January, 1966, in Connection with the Motion in the House of Representatives on the Regulations under the Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act.” Ceylon Sessional Papers, V (1966).

Wilson, A. J. Electoral Politics in an Emergent State: The Ceylon General Election of 1970. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1975.


  1. “The Emergency Stays – By 90 Votes to 50,” CDN, January 27, 1966.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Kearney, Trade Unions and Politics in Ceylon, 37.
  7. “3200 Absentees Interdicted in the C.T.B.,” CDN, January 18, 1966.
  8. Kearney, Trade Unions and Politics in Ceylon, 147.
  9. Ibid., 104; “Treasury to Move Out Strikers,” CDN, January 22, 1966.
  10. Kearney, Trade Unions and Politics in Ceylon, 107
  11. “Crisis in P.S. Trade Unions,” CDN, January 23, 1966.
  12. Kearney, Trade Unions and Politics in Ceylon, 147.
  13. “‘Interdictions Violate Rights of Workers’,” CDN, January 23, 1966.
  14. Kearney, Trade Unions and Politics in Ceylon, 103, 118.
  15. “More Drastic Laws for Rabble Rousers,” CDN, January 24, 1966.
  16. “Jan. 8 Strike Inciters – No Quarter,” CDN, January 27, 1966.
  17. Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, vol. 65, col. 589 cited in Kearney, Trade Union and Politics in Ceylon, 147.
  18. M. L. Arnolis Appuhamy to the Chairman of the Advisory Committee, Control of Publications, January 16, 1966. TNA: DO 225/16.
  19. “‘Attempts by Opposition to Rouse Communal Feelings’,” CDN, January 27, 1966. See Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, vol. 31, col. 941 for the Siyarata poem that called for the killings of Tamils, published about a week before the communal riots began.
  20. Rajendra, Gunawardena, and Walpita, Sessional Paper V, 1966, 16-27.
  21. “Compulsory Leave for the I.G.P.: SP (Colombo) Interdicted,” CDN, January 26, 1966.
  22. Rajendra, Gunawardena, and Walpita, Sessional Paper V, 1966, 13.
  23. Parliamentary Debates, Senate, vol. 30, col. 735-736.
  24. Shakuntala Jean Jeyasingham, “Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna.” South Asian Studies 9, nos. 1-2 (January – July, 1974): 3; A. C. Alles, Insurgency, 1971 (Colombo: Trade Exchange (Ceylon) Ltd., 1976), 17-18.
  25. A. J. Wilson, Electoral Politics in an Emergent State: The Ceylon General Election of May 1970 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1975), 131.
  26. H. B. W. Abeynaike and H. P. Ameratunga. Parliament of Ceylon, 1970 (Colombo: Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd., 1970), 172.
  27. Kearney, Trade Unions and Politics in Ceylon, 107; “Crisis in P.S. Trade Unions: Mass Defections and Defiance of Decisions of Parent Bodies,” CDN, January 23, 1966.
  28. Kearney, Trade Unions and Politics in Ceylon, 103.
  29. Ibid., 143-147.
  30. Abeynaike and Ameratunge, Parliament of Ceylon, 1970, 178.
  31. “Political Dismissals Revoked,” CDN, June 16, 1970.
  32. “The North Celebrates After Nine Years,” CDN, February 5, 1966; “Tamiḻppakutikaḷil Sutantiratiṉaviḻā: Kaṟuppukkoṭikaḷ Illai; Aṇivakuppu, Kalaiṉikaḻccikaḷuṭaṉ Uṟcākamāṉa Koṇṭāṭṭam,” [“Independence Day Celebrations in Tamil Areas: Instead of Black Flags, Parades and Entertaining Celebrations”] Eela Nadu, February 5, 1966; “‘Tamils Have Faith in P.M.’,” CDN, February 5, 1966.
  33. Chelvadurai Manogaran, Ethnic Conflict and Reconciliation in Sri Lanka (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1987), 54.
  34. “‘Tamil Regulations Cause No Harm to Sinhala Only Act’,” CDN, March 7, 1966.
  35. “Racial Amity Essential – PM: Address to Federal Party Convention,” CDN, June 26, 1966.
  36. “‘Cutantirattaippēṇa Aikkiyam Avaciyam’,” [Unity is Needed for Freedom], Eela Nadu, August 9, 1966; “Makāvali Gaṅgai Iṅgu Tirumpum,” [The Mahaweli River Returns Here], Eela Nadu, August 10, 1966.