This is the second article in a three-part series which is currently being run in the Colombo Telegraph.
On a quiet September morning in 1959, two men were waiting for an audience with an important man. Seated on the verandah of the Prime Minister’s house, Asoka Christopher Seneviratne and his uncle Stephen had come to ask for a certificate of character.
A mundane request for an insignificant piece of paper; the sort of thing used to support an application for a job or bank loan.
The man they had come to see was S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, who had swept to victory three years earlier. Yet despite his electoral success, Mr Bandaranaike’s short incumbency had not been a peaceful one.
In previous months the country had been brought to a standstill by strikes and pushed to the brink of civil war by violent ethnic riots.
Yet, by 1959 peace appeared to have been restored.
Neither of the two men seated outside the Prime Minister’s home could have anticipated the momentous event that they were about to witness.
Having waited patiently for twenty minutes, they were joined by another supplicant: a Buddhist monk who seemed impatient to catch a glimpse of the Prime Minister.
Before seating himself next to the two men, the monk wandered up to the house and peered through the drawing-room window. He then settled next to Asoka and began chatting, mentioning that he worked at the Ayurvedic Hospital.
The men continued to wait. Mr Bandaranaike was late, delayed by visitors inside the house who included the American ambassador.
At last, he stepped onto the verandah where he dealt first with Asoka, directing him into the house, to his office, to write down some personal details. Asoka did not witness what happened next, although he heard it.
After sending Asoka into the house, Mr Bandaranaike greeted the monk, bowing his head in the customary salutation. The Prime Minister then began to question the monk. What had brought him to the surgery?
As the Prime Minister spoke, the monk pulled a gun from his robes and shot Mr Bandaranaike in the hand and chest. The Prime Minister cried in pain and ran into the house, followed by his attacker who fired two more shots at his victim.
Pandemonium broke out. Mrs Bandaranaike ran in from the garden and, holding her husband’s hand, tried to pull the monk away by his robes. The monk tried to escape but was tackled and brought to the ground by several men who had run to the scene, alerted by the shots.
The gun fell to the floor and a furious tussle ensued; the monk scrabbling to retrieve his weapon. Eventually, he was subdued: shot by a policeman and, apparently, sustaining a wound to the genitals – a detail which would later become the subject of a ribald song.
Although he did not die immediately, Mr Bandaranaike was mortally wounded, succumbing to gunshots to the stomach on the following day.
The murderer – Talduwe Somarama Thera – would be one of seven people charged with the Prime Minister’s assassination. It was one of the most extraordinary conspiracies of the 20th century in which the plot to assassinate a leading politician was master-minded and executed by Buddhist monks.
This plot, worthy of the Borgias in its complexity and intrigue, came from an entirely unexpected quarter: the Prime Minister’s own supporters.
Yet, although he was the assassin, Somarama Thera was merely a pawn in a much more intricate game. The real mastermind was a charismatic Buddhist monk – Mapitigama Buddharakkita Thera – whose extraordinary career reflects the bond between religion and nationalist politics in Sri Lanka. Yet it is an example that many would prefer to forget.
In Part 3: A profile of Buddharakkita Thera, his rise to power and the relationship that began with patronage and ended with murder.
My first novel The Devil Dancers is set in 1950s Ceylon. Writing and researching material for the book was a lengthy project which took nine years. More information can be found on my website at: www.thedevildancers.com.