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by Alfred Mccoy, Tom Dispatch
As an eyewitness, I can recall the events of January 6th in Washington as if they were yesterday. The crowds of angry loyalists storming the building while overwhelmed security guards gave way. The slavishly loyal vice-president who would, the president hoped, restore him to power. The crush of media that seemed confused, almost overwhelmed, by the crowd’s fury. The waiter who announced that the bar had run out of drinks and would soon be closing…
Hold it! My old memory’s playing tricks on me again. That wasn’t the U.S. Capitol in January 2021. That was the Manila Hotel in the Philippines in July 1986. Still, the two events had enough similarities that perhaps I could be forgiven for mixing them up.
I’ve studied quite a number of coups in my day, yet the one I actually witnessed at the Manila Hotel remains my favorite, not just because the drinks kept coming, but for all it taught me about the damage a coup d’état, particularly a political coup, can do to any democracy. In February 1986, a million Filipinos thronged the streets of Manila to force dictator Ferdinand Marcos into exile. After long years of his corruption and callous indifference to the nation’s suffering, the crowds cheered their approval when Marcos finally flew off to Hawaii and his opponent in the recent presidential election restored democracy.
But Marcos had his hard-core loyalists. One Sunday afternoon, four months after his flight, they massed in a Manila park to call for the restoration of their beloved president. After speakers had whipped the crowd of 5,000 into a frenzy with — and yes, this should indeed sound familiar in 2021 — claims about a stolen election, thousands of ordinary Filipinos pushed past security guards and stormed into the nearby Manila Hotel, a storied symbol of their country’s history. Tipped off by one of the Filipino colonels plotting that coup, I was standing in the hotel’s entryway at 5:00 p.m. as the mob, fury written on their faces, surged past me.
For the next 24 hours, that hotel’s marbled lobby became the stage for an instructive political drama. From my table at the adjoining bar, I watched as armed warlords, ousted Marcos cronies, and several hundred disgruntled soldiers paraded through the lobby on their way to the luxury suites where the coup commanders had checked themselves in. Following in their wake were spies from every nation — Australian secret intelligence, American defense intelligence, and their Asian and European counterparts — themselves huddled in groups, whispering mysteriously, trying (just like me) to make sense of the bizarre spectacle unfolding around them.
Later that same evening, Marcos’s former vice-president, the ever-loyal Arturo Tolentino, appeared at the head of the stairs flanked by a security detail to announce the formation of a “legitimate” new government authorized by Marcos who had reportedly called long-distance from Honolulu. As the vice president proclaimed himself acting president and read off the names of those to be in his cabinet, Filipino journalists huddling nearby scribbled notes. They were furiously trying to figure out whether there was a real coalition forming that could topple the country’s democracy. It was, however, just the usual suspects — Marcos cronies, leaders largely without followers.
By midnight, the party was pretty much over. Our waiter, after struggling for hours to maintain that famed hotel’s standard of five-star service, apologized to our table of foreign correspondents because the bar had been drunk dry and was closing. Sometime before dawn, the hotel turned off the air conditioning, transforming those executive suites into saunas and, in the process, flushing out the coup plotters, their hangers-on, and most of the soldiers.
All day long, on the city’s brassy talk-radio stations and in the coffee shops where insiders gathered to swap scuttlebutt, Marcos’s loyalists were roasted, even mocked. The troops that had rallied to his side were sentenced to 30 push-ups on the parade ground — a source of more mirth. For spies and correspondents alike, the whole thing seemed like a one-day wonder, barely worth writing home about.
But it wasn’t. Not by a long shot. A coterie of colonels deep inside the Defense Ministry, my source among them, had observed that comedic coup attempt all too carefully and concluded that it had actually been a near-miss.
A year later, I found myself standing in the middle of an eight-lane highway outside the city’s main military cantonment, Camp Aguinaldo, ducking bullets from rebel soldiers who had seized the base and watching as government Marines and dive bombers attacked. This time, however, those colonels had launched a genuine coup attempt. No drinks. No waiters. No wisecracks. Just a day of bombs and bullets that crushed the plotters, leaving the country’s military headquarters a smoking ruin.
Two years later, the same coup colonels were back again for another attempt, leading 3,000 rebel troops in a multipronged attack on a capital that trembled on the brink of surrender. As a cavalcade of rebel armor drove relentlessly toward the presidential palace with nothing in their way, American President George H.W. Bush took a call aboard Air Force One over the Atlantic about a desperate request from his Philippine counterpart and ordered a pair of U.S. Air Force jet fighters to make a low pass over the rebel tanks and trucks. They got the message: turn back or be bombed into extinction. And so Philippine democracy was allowed to survive for another 30 years.
Message from the Manila Hotel
The message for democracy offered from the Manila Hotel was clear — so clear, in fact, that it helps explain the meaning of tangled events in Washington more than 30 years later. Whether it’s a poor country like the Philippines or a superpower like the United States, democracy is a surprisingly fragile construct. Its worst enemy is often an ousted ex-president, angry over his humiliation and perfectly willing to destroy the constitutional order to regain power.
No matter how angry such an ex-president might be, however, his urge for a political coup can’t succeed without the help of raw force, whether from a mob, a disgruntled military, or some combination of the two. The Manila Hotel coup teaches us one other fundamental thing: that coups need not be carefully planned. Most start with a handful of conspirators plotting some symbolic attack meant to shake the constitutional order, while hoping to somehow stall the security services for a few critical hours — just long enough for events to cascade spontaneously into a desired government collapse.
Whether in Manila or Washington, coup plotting usually starts right at the top. Just after the news networks announced that he had lost the election last November, Donald Trump launched a media blitz with spurious claims of “fraud on the American public,” firing off 300 tweets in the next two weeks loaded with false charges of irregularities and sparking loud, long protests by his loyalists at vote-counting centers in Michigan and Arizona.
When that response got little traction and Biden’s majority kept climbing, Trump began exploring three alternate routes, any of which might have led to a constitutional coup — manipulating the Justice Department to delegitimize the election, rigging the ratification of electoral votes in Congress, and the paramilitary (or military) option. At a White House meeting on December 18th, Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security advisor, urged the president to “invoke martial law as part of his efforts to overturn the election” and accused his staff of “abandoning the president,” sparking “screaming matches” in the Oval Office.
By January 3, rumors and reports of Trump’s military option were circulating so credibly around Washington that all 10 living former defense secretaries — Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Mark Esper, among them — published a joint appeal to the armed forces to remain neutral in the ongoing dispute over the election’s integrity. Reminding the troops that “peaceful transfers of power… are hallmarks of our democracy,” they added that “efforts to involve the U.S. armed forces in resolving election disputes” would be “dangerous, unlawful, and unconstitutional.” They warned the troops that any “military officials who direct or carry out such measures would be… potentially facing criminal penalties.” In conclusion, they suggested to Trump’s secretary of defense and senior staff “in the strongest terms” that “they must…refrain from any political actions that undermine the results of the election.”
To legitimate his claims of fraud, according to the New York Times, the president also tried — on nine separate occasions in December and January — to force the Justice Department to take actions that would “undermine an election result.” In response, a mid-ranking Trump loyalist at Justice, a nonentity named Jeffrey Clark, began pressuring his boss, the attorney-general, to write Georgia officials claiming they had found “significant concerns that may have impacted the outcome of the election.” But at a three-hour White House meeting on January 3rd, Acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen balked at this evidence-free accusation. Trump promptly suggested that he could be replaced by that mid-ranking loyalist who could then send the fraud letter to Georgia. The president’s own top appointees at Justice, along with the White House counsel, immediately threatened to resign en masse, forcing Trump to give up on such an intervention at the state level.
Next, he shifted his constitutional maneuvering to Congress where, on January 6th, his doggedly loyal vice president, Mike Pence, would be presiding over the ratification of results from the Electoral College. In this dubious gambit, Trump was inspired by a bizarre constitutional theory advanced by former Chapman University law professor John Eastman — that the “Constitution assigns the power to the Vice President as the ultimate arbiter.”
In this scenario, Pence would unilaterally set aside electoral votes from seven states with “ongoing disputes” and announce that Trump had won a majority of the remaining electors — making him once again president. But the maneuver had no basis in law, so Pence, after scrambling desperately and unsuccessfully for a legal justification of some sort, eventually refused to play along.
A Political Coup
With the constitutional option closed, Trump opted for a political coup, rolling the dice with raw physical force, much as Marcos had done at the Manila Hotel. The first step was to form a crowd with some paramilitary muscle to stiffen the assault to come. On December 19th, Trump called on his hard-core followers to assemble in Washington, ready for violence, tweeting: “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!”
Almost immediately, the Internet’s right-wing chat boards lit up and indeed their paramilitaries, the Proud Boys and Three Percenters militia, turned up in Washington on the appointed day, ready to rumble. After President Trump roused the crowd at a rally near the White House with rhetoric about a stolen election, a mob of some 10,000 marched on the Capitol Building.
Starting at about 1:00 p.m., the sheer size of the crowd and strategic moves by the paramilitaries in their ranks broke through the undermanned lines of the Capitol Police, breaching the building’s first-floor windows at about 2:10 p.m. and allowing protesters to start pouring in. Once the rioters had accomplished the unimaginable and seized the Capitol, they were fresh out of plans, reduced to marching through the corridors hunting legislators and trashing offices.
At 2:24 p.m., President Trump tweeted: “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country.” On the far-right social media site Parler, his supporters began messaging the crowd to get the vice president and force him to stop the election results. The mob rampaged through the marbled halls shouting “Hang Mike Pence.” Hunkered down inside the Capitol, Representative Adam Kinzinger (R-Illinois) tweeted: “This is a coup attempt.”
At 2:52 p.m., Representative Abigail Spanberger (D-Virginia), a former CIA agent, tweeted from inside the barricaded House chamber: “This is what we see in failing countries. This is what leads to the death of democracy.”
At 3:30 p.m., a small squad of military police arrived at the Capitol, woefully inadequate reinforcements for the overwhelmed Capitol Police. Ten minutes later, the D.C. Council announced that the Defense Department had denied the mayor’s request to mobilize the local National Guard. While the crowd fumbled and fulminated, some serious people were evidently slowing the military’s response for just the few critical hours needed for events to cascade into something, anything, that could shake the constitutional order and slow the ratification of Joe Biden’s election.
In nearby Maryland, Republican Governor Larry Hogan had immediately mobilized his state’s National Guard for the short drive to the Capitol while frantically phoning Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller, who repeatedly refused him permission to send in the troops. Inside the Pentagon, Lieutenant General Charles Flynn, the brother of the same Michael Flynn who had been pushing Trump to declare martial law, was participating in what CNN called those “key January 6th phone calls” that refused permission for the Guard’s mobilization.
Following a phone call from the mayor of Washington and its police chief pleading for help, Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy “ran down the hall” of the Pentagon to get authorization for the Guard’s mobilization. After a crucial delay of 90 minutes, he finally called the Maryland governor, outside the regular chain of command, to authorize the Maryland Guard’s dispatch. Those would indeed be the first troops to arrive at the Capitol and would play a critical role in restoring order.
At about 4:30 p.m., Trump finally tweeted: “These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously and viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long. Go home in love & peace.”
Ten minutes later, at 4:40 p.m., hundreds of riot personnel from the D.C. police, the FBI, and the Department of Homeland Security arrived, along with the Maryland Guard, to reinforce the Capitol Police. Within an hour, the protesters had been pushed out of the building and the Capitol was declared secure.
Just five days later, Dr. Fiona Hill, a senior Russia expert on the National Security Council under Trump, reviewed these events and concluded that President Trump had staged a coup “in slow motion… to keep himself in power.”
Beyond all the critical details of who did what and when, there were deeper historical forces at play, suggesting that Donald Trump’s urge for a political coup that would return him to power may be far from over. For the past 100 years, empires in decline have been roiled by coup attempts that sometimes have overturned constitutional orders. As their military reverses accumulate, their privileged economic position erodes, and social tensions mount, a succession of societies in the grip of a traumatic loss of global power have suffered coups, successful or not, including Great Britain, France, Portugal, Spain, the Soviet Union, and now the United States.
Britain’s plot was a bit fantastical. Amid the painful, protracted dissolution of their empire, Conservative leaders plotted with top generals in 1968 to oust leftist Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson by capturing Heathrow airport, seizing the BBC and Buckingham Palace, and putting Lord Mountbatten in power as acting prime minister. Britain’s parliamentary tradition simply proved too strong, however, and key principals in the plot quickly backed out.
In April 1974, while Portugal was fighting and losing three bitter anticolonial wars in Africa, a Lisbon radio station played the country’s entry in that year’s Eurovision Song Contest (“After the Farewell”) just minutes before midnight on an evening that had been agreed upon. It was the signal to the military and their supporters to overthrow the entrenched conservative government of that moment, a success which became known as the “Carnation Revolution.”
However, the parallels between January 6th and the fall of France’s Fourth Republic in the late 1950s are perhaps the most telling. After liberating Paris from Nazi occupation in August 1944, General Charles de Gaulle headed an interim government for 18 months. He then quit in a dispute with the left, launching him into a decade of political intrigue against the new Fourth Republic, whose liberal constitution he despised.
By the mid-1950s, France was reeling from its recent defeat in Indochina, while the struggle against Muslim revolutionaries in its Algerian colony in North Africa turned ever more brutal, marked as it was by scandals over the widespread French use of torture. Amid that crisis of empire, an anti-elite, anti-intellectual, antisemitic politician named Pierre Poujade launched a populist movement that sent 56 members to parliament in 1956, including Jean-Marie Le Pen, later founder of the far-right National Front.
Meanwhile, a cabal of politicians and military commanders plotted a coup to return General de Gaulle to power, thinking he alone could save Algeria for France. After an army junta seized control of Algiers, the capital of that colony, in May 1958, paratroopers stationed there were sent to capture the French island of Corsica and to prepare to seize Paris should the legislature fail to install de Gaulle as prime minister.
As the country trembled on the brink of a coup, de Gaulle made his dramatic entry into Paris where he accepted the National Assembly’s offer to form a government, conditional upon the approval of a presidential-style constitution for a Fifth Republic. But when de Gaulle subsequently accepted the inevitability of Algeria’s independence, four top generals launched an abortive coup against him and then formed what they called the Secret Army Organization, or OAS. It would carry out terror attacks over the next four years, with 12,000 victims, while staging three unsuccessful assassination attempts against de Gaulle before its militants were killed or captured.
The Coup of 2024?
Just as the Filipino colonels spent five years launching a succession of escalating coups and those French generals spent four years trying to overthrow their government, so Trump’s Republicans are working with ferocious determination in the run-up to the 2022 and 2024 elections to ensure that their next constitutional coup succeeds. Indeed, if you look back on events over the past year through the prism of such historical precedents, you can see all the components for a future political coup falling into place.
No matter how improbable, discredited, or bizarre those election fraud claims are, Republican loyalists persist in endless ballot audits in Arizona, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Texas. Their purpose is not really to find more votes for Trump in the 2020 election, but to maintain at least the present level of rage among the one-third of all Americans and more than half of all Republicans who believe that Joe Biden’s presidency is fraudulent.
Since the 2020 election coincided with the new census, Republicans have been working, reports Vox news, to “gerrymander themselves into control of the House of Representatives.” Simultaneously, Republican legislators in 19 states have passed 33 laws making it more difficult for certain of their residents to vote. Driven by the white nationalist “replacement theory” that immigrants and people of color are diluting the pool of “real American” voters, Trump and his Republican loyalists are fighting for “ballot integrity” on the principle that all non-white votes are inherently illegitimate. As Trump put it on the stump in 2016:
“I think this will be the last election that the Republicans have a chance of winning because you’re going to have people flowing across the border, you’re going to have illegal immigrants coming in… and they’re going to be able to vote and once that all happens you can forget it. You’re not going to have one Republican vote.”
In case all that electoral manipulation fails and Trump needs more muscle for a future political coup, right-wing fighters like the Proud Boys are still rumbling away at rallies in Oregon, California, and elsewhere across America. Just as the Philippine government made military rebels do a risible 30 push-ups for the capital crime of armed rebellion, so federal courts have generally been handing out the most modest of penalties to rioters who attempted nothing less than the overthrow of U.S. constitutional democracy last January 6th.
Among the 600 rioters arrested as of August, dozens have been allowed to plead guilty to misdemeanors and only three had been sentenced to jail time, leaving most cases languishing in pretrial motions. Already Republicans like Senator Ted Cruz have rallied to their defense, writing the U.S. attorney general to complain about an “unequal administration of justice” with “harsher treatment” for Capitol defendants than those arrested in Black Lives Matter protests.
So, in 2024, as the continuing erosion of America’s global power creates a crisis of confidence among ordinary Americans, expect Donald Trump to be back, not as the slightly outrageous candidate of 2016 or even as the former president eager to occupy the White House again, but as a militant demagogue with thundering racialist rhetoric, backed by a revanchist Republican Party ready, with absolute moral certainty, to bar voters from the polls, toss ballots out, and litigate any loss until hell freezes over.
And if all that fails, the muscle will be ready for another violent march on Washington. Be prepared, the America we know is worsening by the month.
Wang Huning: A Communist Mandarin
Jayam Wijayaratnam Cancer Care Centre
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by Lyn de Alwis
And at last we arrived at Rugamtota! We were on the threshold of Yala’s wonderland beyond the Menik Ganga, with its vast plains from which rose the rock massifs of Banawelkema, Mayagala and Muduntalawa. There had been many a time when I sat on a fallen kumbuk log in front of our Kosgasmankada camp and gazed at the thick jungle across the river, roadless, impenetrable except on foot and with only rock caves to shelter in. I would go there one day! I thought.
Here I was, with the cream of Yala’s fearless men: K. David, W.L.A. Piyadasa and Kirineris led by the most senior Game Ranger and tough leader, G.N.Q. de Silva. We forded the river with much difficulty, our groaning jeep protesting loudly as we revved up the steep bank of Menik Ganga, there being no easy bridges in those days.
Strict Natural Reserve
We had spent many exciting days planning our route march, in collecting our meagre provisions and cutting out any item we thought was a luxury. Yet when the desiderata were assembled at Banawelkema, where the jeeps deposited us, each of us had loads which caused much pain to arms and backs, and tended to fix our necks immovably in one direction.
From Rugantota to Banawelkema is eight and a half miles, with the Strict Natural Reserve on the right and Yala Block 3 on the left. This boundary also separates the Uva and Southern Provinces. At 2.00 pm we began walking, or wading would be a better word, for almost immediately we struck a matted growth of nelu which we had to overcome by doing what in swimming is called the breast-stroke. We could not possibly see through this eight-foot tangle, and lest we patted an elephant on the back, we spoke loudly to each other now and again.
At the first glade, Kottapudaina, we saw our first animals, which were two sambhurs, mother and son. They stopped in their tracks and looked at us unconcerned, or perhaps terribly confused, for clumsily harnessed as we were, we must have looked bizarre. Five adjutant storks took themselves heavily into the air and a lone, aging wild boar with twisted tusks, sauntered across our path. There was something very elemental about this scene, for we felt accepted.
We trundled on through more nelu, now laced with karamba and kukurumang whose vicious thorns tore into our clothes or deftly picked off our hats. I remember turning left at a stream-crossing and continuing our torrid journey. Then quite suddenly, through the forest curtain, there loomed to our right the towering black rock, Lunuatugalge which was our destination. Gone were the fatigue and the anxiety on seeing this fabulous rock, rising 400 feet in a gentle arc sheltering one of the most beautiful caves in Sri Lanka. It is approximately 200 feet long and as much as 30 feet broad in places, and had evidently housed many families in ancient times, for it had been partitioned with brick walls to form about a dozen rooms. The carving of the drip ledge of the cave must have been a stupendous feat, for it is at the upper end of the arc at a height of some 100 feet above ground.
It was a pity the cave was not habitable, for dust lay thickly about, wasps and bambara bees were everywhere and bears appeared to occupy some of the rooms. Going through the cave and climbing its roof, we came upon two reasonably flat rocks where we decided to stay put. While Pat Decker and Ranger de Silva enthused about the view, I looked around with some trepidation. I observed that the rock assigned to the three of us, was not flat but was gently sloping and, at its bottom it just fell away more than I00 feet, with only the branches of a palu tree to hold us if we accidentally fell over. The wind velocity was also not in our favour, making our perch rather precarious.
However, by the time we had unloaded and unpacked and the first round of hot tea came up, I felt I had accomplished something. The view was indeed enchanting. It looked more like a wilderness of rock with a sprinkling of forest. There was Dematagala 1,008 feet high, the highest rockscape in the whole of Yala, and Thalaguruhela on whose summit (800 feet) are the remains of a stupa; and in its shadow the skull-like Pettigala, Mayagala (Wadambuwa) in Block 3 and so on. Our minds were taken back to pre-Christian times when in this belt of jungle between the rivers Menik and Kumbukkan was a flourishing civilisation, going hand in hand with the rise of Kataragama and Mahagama (Tissamaharama).
The shrill trumpet of an elephant close by broadcast our intrusion and the immediate belling of an agitated sambhur told us that beneath the green carpet it was already dusk. We descended to prepare for the night. Almost immediately the full moon appeared, unusually large and clear, behind Dematagala. It was the night of the Poson Poya.
I looked around at my staff and realized they all belonged to Yala. Piyadasa was a nephew of the famous Andiris, the grand old man of Yala, while David was a Kumana stalwart and the son of Karolis, a Range Assistant. Kirineris happened to be the jolly, irrepressible son-in-law of the legendary Menika, ‘chieftain’ of the Kumana village. These then were the ‘jungle graduates’ schooled in the wild and where knowledge, experience and dedication will forever remain unsurpassed.
Among other subjects we hoped to study on this expedition, was the occurrence of rathu-walaha, a species of brown bear recorded only from this part of Sri Lanka. The late Mr. C.W. Nicholas, the first Warden of the Department of Wildlife had alluded to this animal in his Administration Report for 1952. The existence of a brown bear in this Reserve, first reported by Mr. H. Neville in The Taprobanian in 1885 is still believed in and there are men who claim to have seen it in recent years. It is said to be smaller in size than the (normal) sloth bear, dark brown and not black in colour, more gregarious, aggressive and fierce. Its former range is said to have extended as far as Panama.
Neville’s passage and the legends concerning it related round our dying campfire the previous night, haunted me as we plunged through the unrelenting thorny scrub next morning. Every grunt of an unseen pig relayed through the nelu was magnified into the frenzied cough of a charging bear; and every squeal of an infant langur came down from the lofty canopy as the death yells of fleeing Nittaevo. Ahead of me Ranger de Silva had stopped and was showing his men the fresh claw marks of a bear, which had clambered up a neralu tree. Kirineris and David came up with some leaves and flowers which had defied identification even in their experienced hands. The younger watchers asked for water, which was doled out in thimble-like mugs by Piyadasa. When an Oliver Twist among them craved for more, he had only to be sternly reminded by the ranger ‘Nothing more till you find your own water at the next pool, wherever that is’.
The compass, on which we were pinning our faith, showed that we were heading south-east, slightly wide of Dematagala. ‘I remember some interesting plains around here’, said Ranger de Silva grabbing his battle-axe and disappearing through the trees. It was a signal to follow although I would have preferred to sit under a tree and let the jungle talk to me.
The plains were indeed attractive and refreshing after the dense vegetation of the high forest, but what caught my eye was a magnificent sambhur standing at the far end of a glade, dripping mud. We had not seen water for hours now and this was a surprise. ‘Boys’ said Kirineris ‘there’s water in that unawe’. An unawe, if I may explain, is a set-up by which water oozes through the soil from a spring. This is a heaven-sent gift to the animals during the dry season and these are fairly well spaced out in Yala block 3 and the Strict Natural Reserve. The sambhur left, grumbling. The water in the wallow was, of course, undrinkable but a little further up a puddle was dug out and left to settle for 10 minutes. We drank our fill and collected some more for the rest of the day.
At this point we had another surprise, a rather unpleasant one, for there on a shrub close by was the unmistakable jungle sign to show that a person or persons had gone groping before us. The Ranger and Kirineris examined the three distinct slashes one under the other, on a weera tree and declared that they were not more than a week old. Poachers? We began tracking. It was easy following the broken twigs, and we heaved a sigh of relief when we came upon a rambling rock on which the intruders had halted. The signs were those of villagers who stole into this area to collect bin-kohomba, a plant which fetches a high price in Kataragama, from where it is marketed to other parts of the country. Its juice, which is intensely bitter, is said to be a tonic and also a cure for ‘mild’ leprosy.
Wild beasts and bees
The search for new archaeological remains and inscriptions led us to a sizeable water-hole, unnamed and not marked on the map. We approached it cautiously, testing the wind. Piyadasa got there first and beckoned to us excitedly. He showed a buffalo, which as we approached rose suspiciously, swirling round on his own axis till he located our clicking cameras. In the few seconds before he identified us and prepared to charge I saw in him a fearful frown and wildness. Kirineris stepped out with gun in hand, a movement which changed the buffalo’s mind. To Kirineris, a Kumana villager, buffalo is the most unpleasant and feared of all Yala’s inhabitants.
This water-hole was apparently well patronized and having built a ‘hide’ of rock boulders we sat down. It was a hot day with a gusty wind and the time was just after 12 noon. Conditions were ideal to bring animals out for a noonday drink.
They did not disappoint us. A group of unsuspecting, carefree sambhur came first. They virtually frolicked on the edge before plunging happily into the water. The base of the buck’s antlers was as thick as my knee. There they lay until a wild boar spoilt the serenity of the place by coming up behind us, getting our scent and crashing headlong into the bush. Up and out went the sambhur as though they were shot. Throughout the hour spent at this lonely pool several such scenes with different players held us enthralled.
To me, being carefree and undisturbed was the spirit of the Strict Natural Reserve. We wandered several miles scouting round for water-holes and kemas (rock pools) and marking them on a map; collecting samples of unidentified plants, geological specimens, and other items, and all the while trying to return by a circuitous route. This became the pattern of our meandering over the next few days after which all that was new was sifted, weighed and recorded.
Our presence on the rock was attracting undue attention. The night before, too, we heard a leopard sawing close to the kema at which we bathed. And today after we returned from the gruelling trek I felt an uneasiness. The bambara bees, too, resented our intrusion and had sent down a few soldiers to warn us. Fortunately we immediately realized why. The smoke from our camp-fire was eddying up to their hives and causing them distress. We had to reduce our camp-fires to one. The wind was also building up to add to our discomfort, and once it blew the hurricane lamp right off its crude tripod.
Skirmish with a bear
I was disappointed that we had not encountered a normal bear, let alone a rathu-valaha. Pat agreed, between scowls as he scraped off columns of ticks from his shins. The men sensed our disappointment, too, and came round the fire to console us with some delightful folk lore. David was nearest the fire and was relating a particularly complicated story even for a folk tale, when for a moment we thought he had lost the theme, for he said ‘Don’t move or get excited, but I think it’s a bear.’ Someone groaned. But Ranger de Silva was quick on the uptake and peering round rasped to me ‘Sir, it’s a bear, a large one’. Pat and I saw it together not more than four feet from David, behind the red embers. He looked enormous and stood there swinging his head and shoulders as bears usually do.
The situation was an impossible one. I looked anxiously at the 100 foot drop. It was no place to have a serious misunderstanding with a ferocious animal equipped with dreadful claws and teeth. Besides, he could not be seen in the darkness if it came to a showdown. In the meantime he waddled closer. The best thing to do was to keep talking, until we got out the three-celled flashlights. Having the lights on him we all stood up together and swore at him. With a muffled roar, which sounded to us like a deafening charge, he shuffled backwards. We advanced. That shook him a bit and he scurried down to one of the rooms in the cave. By now we were once more calm and sat there watching him many minutes until he got up and faded away into the night.
During the rest of our stay we had more incidents but none to equal this and I made sure of one thing. I cut a stout pole from a wewarana tree and kept it very close to me at all times. On the last night before we were to leave we braved the bambara bees and lit two fires once more, for some jungle message was conveyed to us that we would be visited again.
I wanted to keep awake but not with the kind of fatigue one has after 11 hours of walking. Sleep must have come swiftly and deeply, for when I awoke to some hoarse whispers about me, it was already dawn. David came up, and prodding with the club showed me what the excitement was about. Not two yards from where we all slept and near the hurricane lamp was unmistakable evidence left by ‘our bear’ as he padded down to claim his rightful drink from the rock pool.
Thank God, we had all slept so well!
(The writer, now deceased, was both Director of the National Zoological Gardens and Director of Wildlife Conservation – excerpted from ??????? compiled by CG Uragoda)
by Sanjiva Senanayake
(continued from last week)
CROWN WITNESSES AND CONDITIONAL PARDONS
Three additional suspects were originally produced before the Chief Magistrate of Colombo, when hearings started on December 14, 1959. They were F.R. (Dickie) de Zoysa, Mrs. Wimala Wijewardene and Carolis Amarasinghe who provided different perspectives on Somarama’s involvement.
Dickie de Zoysa was a close associate of Buddharakkitha and a long-standing personal friend of the deceased PM. He was the elder brother of both the Minister of Finance, Stanley de Zoysa, and DIG Sidney de Zoysa. He was apparently involved in Buddharakkitha’s brother’s unsuccessful shipping venture, and was annoyed with the PM when it was rejected in August 1958.
Shockingly, there was no valid evidence against him. Justice Alles’ book included this cryptic passage, pregnant with meaning, about his arrest –
“In view of the political implications of the assassination case, it was inevitable that interested parties, particularly politicians, should have interfered with the police investigations. Pressure was brought on the police to arrest Dickie de Zoysa, a factor that would necessarily have embarrassed his brother, the Minister of Finance. The police, however, were of the view that the admissible evidence against him was too slender to warrant his arrest, but as a result of political pressure, particularly by some Ministers, the Inspector-General of Police gave a written order to ASP Iyer to arrest Dickie de Zoysa. Iyer had Dickie de Zoysa arrested in November 1959, just before plaint was filed. He was brought to court and discharged and no charges were framed against him at any stage.”
(Alles p. 158)
The only mention of Dickie de Zoysa in connection with this case was in Somarama’s ‘confession’ made on November 14, 1959. De Zoysa was arrested on November 19, five days later. One can speculate about how and why de Zoysa featured in it at all, even as an insignificant, minor character. His alleged ‘involvement’ resulted in political pressure and led to the early resignation of the Minister of Finance. Somarama’s ‘confession’ is dealt with later.
Wimala Wijewardene, had been the Minister of Health in the MEP Cabinet until she was forced to quit after the assassination. It was publicly known that she was in an intimate relationship with Buddharakkitha, and it was clear from the evidence of many during the SC trial that he conducted all of his personal and political discussions in Colombo at her residence. It was effectively his Colombo office. She was arrested on the same date as de Zoysa but there was insufficient evidence against her and she was discharged by the magistrate.
Carolis Amarasinghe, ended up as the prosecution’s star, opening witness in the Supreme Court (SC). He was a practitioner of Ayurveda, a father of seven and Jayawardena’s family physician. He was also the Chairman of the Kolonnawa Urban Council and a die-hard supporter of the PM. His close association with Buddharakkitha was via the College of Indigenous Medicine.
Amarasinghe was remanded on October 15, 1959, and was effectively treated as a co-conspirator throughout. He made three statements to the police prior to his arrest but did not say anything about the alleged conspirators. But on October 21, one week after his arrest, he gave an elaborate account of secret meetings and plans discussed at his house by the accused. He followed up the very next day by making a statement to a Magistrate, which was admissible as evidence in a court under the Law of Evidence. As a quid pro quo, he was promised a conditional pardon by the prosecution, and was officially made a Crown Witness on January 12, 1960 in the middle of the magisterial inquiry. Since the pardon depended on the evidence he would give, he was held in remand custody even during the SC trial in 1961 and was brought to court under prison guard.
In an article written in 2008, Mr. R.J.N. Jordan, Superintendent of the Magazine Prison at that time, provides some interesting insight into Amarasinghe’s mental state before he made the statement –
“Some days after being on remand, suspect Dr. Amerasinghe complained of an uncontrollable diarrhoea to me on my daily visits to his place of location (cell). Dr. B.T. Jayasekera the Senior Prison Medical Officer who treated him mentioned to me, that it was a condition induced by fright and medication alone would not arrest the condition.”
The question arises – did the information in the statement come gushing out all of a sudden, or was it fleshed out and flushed out?
The ploy of suspects turning Crown Witness and escaping punishment was quite current at the time due to sensational cases such as the Turf Club Robbery (1949) and the Sathasivam murder case (1951). During cross-examination of Amarasinghe by counsel for Newton Perera, it was established that a discussion between Amarasinghe and Newton Perera took place regarding conditions to be negotiated for pardons. This had taken place during a three-week period preceding Amarasinghe being officially given a conditional pardon, when the two were held in the Magazine prison. It is clear that Perera, who was arrested on October 22, also considered turning Crown Witness but that did not happen for reasons unknown.
A key part of Amarasinghe’s wide-ranging statement, as far as Somarama was concerned, recounts a few meetings at his house about six weeks prior to the assassination during which there was talk by Buddharakkitha of “shooting practice”, presumably for Somarama with Perera as the trainer.
It is incredibly strange that almost all of Buddharakkitha’s meetings in Colombo were held at the home of his confidante and partner Wimala Wijewardene but, when it came to the most critical decision of his life, he chose Amarasinghe’s place. It is especially so if, as stated by Amarasinghe, he was never part of the ‘plot’.
On the first visit (fixed as August 14 by Newton Perera) Buddharakkitha, Jayawardena, Somarama and Newton Perera visited him. Perera had allegedly obtained a revolver and some bullets for Buddharakkitha’s personal protection several weeks earlier, but the latter complained that the bullets were not firing. Buddharakkitha gave some money to Perera to procure better bullets and asked Amarasinghe to provide his car. A few minutes after Perera left, the others departed leaving a message for Perera to get in touch with Buddharakkitha. The car returned later without Perera.
Two days later, the same foursome arrived separately in the afternoon, with Perera getting dropped off in a police car, wearing police uniform. Buddharakkitha again asked for Amarasinghe’s car for Perera, who left and came back, wearing the national dress. When the visitors wanted to leave immediately, Amarasinghe asked where they were bound and was told they were off to Muthurajawela for some shooting practice. Muthurajawela in 1959 was a vast, sparsely inhabited marshland a few miles north of Colombo. Amarasinghe declined an invitation to join them.
Then two days later Somarama came alone in the morning. He was not a close associate and had not visited alone before. When questioned about the shooting practice, Somarama told him categorically that it was in preparation to murder the PM. Amarasinghe was horrified that such dastardly deeds were being discussed in his house and told Somarama that he didn’t want them to visit any more. Just then Buddharakkitha and Jayawardena arrived and took Somarama away. Despite all this, Amarasinghe could not explain why he did not go promptly to the police and save the life of the PM, whom he ardently admired.
Newton Perera in his evidence mentioned the visit on August 14 but said there were no other visits. Instead. he said that on the next day, August 15, Buddharakkita called him still complaining about his revolver not firing. Jayawardena then came for him, picked up Somarama and went to Buddharakkitha’s temple. After Perera cleaned the gun, Buddharakkitha suggested going to Muthurajawela to test it. Where Buddharakkitha had tested the gun to discover that it was not working was unknown.
When they got to a desolate spot Perera fired a few shots in the air and returned the revolver to Buddharakkitha. As Perera was getting into the car, he saw Somarama run out and fire a few more shots in the air. It seemed such a waste of precious, hard-to-find ammunition, when one shot would have proved that the revolver worked. Anyway, there were no available targets and no training in marksmanship took place. Perera said that he did not meet any of the accused thereafter till after the assassination.
Amarasinghe and Perera were both considered co-conspirators and, therefore, could not legally corroborate each other’s evidence – corroboration had to come from an independent source. In effect, their accounts about the visits to Amarasinghe’s house and Muthurajawela stood alone, unconfirmed by other, independent evidence.
There is an interesting and controversial interpretation of this aspect in the judgement of the Court of Criminal Appeal –
“Amarasinghe’s evidence that he said that he practised firing with a revolver to shoot the Prime Minister is corroborated by the fact that he shot the deceased with a powerful revolver. No more corroboration need be looked for as his act provides corroboration in the most material particular. It is therefore unnecessary to discuss further the charge of conspiracy against the 4th accused.”
Readers who wish to check further can access the text of the judgement at
TO BE CONTINUED …..
The writer can be contacted on this subject at [email protected]
The 20th death anniversary of M.S. de Silva, the only Lankan journalist in my memory, who left journalism and carved out a business empire, fell two days ago. His wife, Karuna, asked me to write something about this ever smiling man, always in his trademark whites, who never forgot his friends whatever heights he scaled. Immensely proud of his southern roots, he was one of the many entrepreneurs in this country, born south of the Bentara river, who made a name for himself as a business baron. This, like others of his ilk, he did with very little seed capital of his own, making and losing a fortune but never demonstrating the slightest trace of bitterness. When I was made the editor of what was then the Ceylon Daily News in the early eighties, he rang to congratulate me and tell me, rightly or wrongly, that I was the first southerner to get there.
MS, as I wrote some time ago on his 90th birth anniversary that fell on April 18, 2019, cut his journalistic teeth in the once British-owned Times of Ceylon which together with the Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd., or Lake House as it was (and is) best known, dominated the news industry in the colonial days and well into the post-Independence period. He then moved to Radio Ceylon, and the Government Information Department probably for the security of a pensionable government job, and was assigned by the department to the Trade Ministry under Mr. T.B. Ilangaratne, a veteran left-inclined politician.
Older readers will remember that the Times, located in the Colombo Fort, once owned the country’s tallest building until Mr. Justin Kotelawela’s Ceylinco House rose some storeys higher. All this is history today with Colombo’s skyline replete with high-rises dwarfing buildings of the mid-1950s. MS was one of a kind with a shock of curly hair, a broad smile that seldom left his face and a warm heart. He as ever ready to dig into his deep pockets to help his many friends in an ill-paid profession who were often broke.
Those were the days the Information Department was housed in what was previously the British High Commission in Colombo, a stone’s throw from Queen’s House. While the Director on Information sat in that building where the photographers and their darkroom as well as the necessary, though somewhat rudimentary, infrastructure was located, the press officers were assigned to various government ministries where they had offices but came to Queen’s Street for meetings with their bosses and other business. Karuna probably requested me to write this because I am possibly the only journalist yet in harness who was privy to those days when MS was a press officer. Among his colleagues were several prominent newsmen of the day and names like BH Hemapriya, Kenneth Somanader, Dalton de Silva, UG Wimaladasa, HB Dissanayake and Victor Sumathipala come readily to mind.
As my late friend and colleague, Ajith Samaranayake, wrote some years ago in a piece on MS, these press officers had a strong foundation in journalism having begun their careers in newspaper publishing houses, and were well informed about the activities of the ministries to which they were assigned. They were not mere peddlers of handouts written by others or what we in the profession called “sunshine stories” (not about what has been done but what is going to be done often on the never never) and hurrah boys of their ministers ever-hungry for publicity, then as much as now. I know that Karuna was not altogether happy that MS was giving up the security of a government job to get into business, but MS had Minister Ilangaratne’s assurance that he could always come back if things didn’t work out.
Like Ilangaratne, MS too was left-inclined and was proud that he, as a 14-year old teenager had been the legendary communist Pieter Keuneman’s interpreter at a political meeting in the south when Keuneman was not quite fluent in Sinhala. There was a news clip of a photograph of that meeting that MS treasured.
His plunge into business was perhaps inspired by his genes. Although MS was orphaned at the age of 12-years, his father like many from Galle, had struck out to Malaya setting up a business in Penang. Fate was kind to MS and his Trade Exchange (Ceylon) Ltd., across Chatham Street from the Pagoda Tea Rooms. His was among the first companies that traded with China and the business proved a success. I remember him importing a Chinese bike, branded Phoenix, at a time Raleigh was king, which he could price very competitively. He was also among the first to export coconut seedlings to Cuba.
It was Trade Exchange that set up Laklooms, one of the early batik brands with a showroom on Galle Road, Bambalapitiya, close to the Green Cabin. Karuna stamped her own personality on the batik business which also prospered. The proximity of both their father’s offices to two landmark Rodrigo Restaurants was a bonus to MS’s children, his daughter Nilupul tells me.
I remember attending Press Officer Hemapriya’s wedding at MS’s home at Raymond Road, Nugegoda, which MS and Karuna hosted. Karuna made the cake and the reception, befitting the host’s southern origins, was lavish with old friends from his newspaper and Information Department days present. Nimal Karunatillake’s wife, Chandra, very much a part of the journalist/press officer circuit at that time, whom I drove to the reception, called that house, from where he moved to Rosemead Place, Colombo-7 when the gods smiled down on him, “MS’s palace.” But good times were not for ever and for reasons I never knew MS hit hard times and had to fight a protracted case against the People’s Bank, which went on for years. He won both the case and the appeal the bank instituted and asked me to publish the results.
MS died prematurely at 70 and his family believes that these travails shortened his life. He faced adversity stoically and success never went to his head. May he attain nibbana.
Manik de Silva
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