192. Special National Intelligence Estimate1

SNIE 54–59


The Problem

To estimate political developments in Ceylon during the next two or three years.


1. We believe that an early change of government in Ceylon is likely, and that the outlook for the next two or three years at least is for continued basic instability. It is probable that this period will be characterized by coalition governments. The trend toward polarization of the political scene to the right and left is likely to continue. Important differences will remain among moderates and communists and there will continue to be basic cleavages between the Sinhalese Buddhists [Page 403] and the various minorities. Political instability will continue to impede badly-needed measures to promote economic progress. (Paras. 6–7, 9–12, 14)

2. The relatively conservative UNP appears to have profited more than any other party from Bandaranaike’s loss of popularity. While it probably could not win a majority of seats, it might emerge from new elections with sufficient strength to have a strong, if not decisive, voice in the formation of a coalition government, possibly through some kind of accommodation with the moderates of Bandaranaike’s SLFP. Except in the unlikely event of a communist takeover, we do not believe that Ceylon’s generally popular neutralist foreign policy will undergo any major change. However, a UNP-dominated government would probably be more effective and more sympathetic toward the West than the Bandaranaike government has been. (Paras. 11–12)

3. There is a constant possibility of an extra-legal attempt to seize power by one or more of the conservative groups which have been plotting against the Bandaranaike government. Under certain conditions, they could take control of the government. However, it is doubtful that they would be able to establish a stable and lasting government unless they were able to secure the cooperation of one of the main political parties or of a popular political leader. (Para. 17)


The Present Government

4. Political stability in Ceylon has deteriorated steadily since shortly after the government of Prime Minister Bandaranaike came to power in April 1956. Bandaranaike’s ineffective leadership in the face of constant quarrels within his governing coalition and repeated challenges from opposition groups (including frequent strikes called by the leftists) has been a major factor in the growing instability. The situation has been aggravated by the country’s worsening economic situation and tension between the Tamil and Sinhalese communities.

5. The position of the Bandaranaike government was badly weakened in mid-May 1959 by the defection of 12 leftist members of the coalition, including some members of the Prime Minister’s own party (SLFP), as well as all the members of the independent communist VLSSP led by Philip Gunawardena. These defections removed most of the extreme leftist element and all the communists from the government. However, the moderates, who now dominate the government, are divided among themselves, and Bandaranaike has lost his absolute majority in Parliament, although he retains a slim working majority.3

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6. Nevertheless, the Bandaranaike government, despite its precarious position, may hold on for a few months at least. Some opposition members are reluctant to undergo the risks and expenses of an early election and thus may abstain or absent themselves on a vote of confidence. But we believe it unlikely that the present government will remain in office until the spring of 1961, by which time elections must be held.

7. The most likely of the several ways by which the present government could lose power appears to be by a vote of no-confidence in Parliament or by Bandaranaike’s resignation in anticipation of such a vote. This could occur at any time through further defections from the SLFP as a consequence of inadequate leadership or pre-electoral politicking. The government’s fall might be precipitated by labor disturbances or a flare-up in communal tensions. It is unlikely that any new government could be formed which commanded a majority of the present parliament. If Bandaranaike did not remain in charge of a caretaker government, the Governor General, relying on the aid of the civil and military services, could probably run the government himself, pending new elections.

8. The next elections are due to be based on a new electoral system that increases the number of members of parliament from 101 to 157 (including six appointed members) giving increased weight to urban voters and reducing the minimum voting age from 21 to 18. However, the preparation of electoral registers for the new constituencies and the new younger voters may take up to a year. If an election were held before these registers can be completed, existing registers would be adjusted to the new electoral districts but the 18–20 year olds would not participate. The participation of these new younger voters will probably work in favor of the leftist parties. Partly for this reason, the leftist opposition apparently wants to delay elections until the registers are completed, while the relatively conservative UNP favors an early election. In any case, the leftist parties will probably make some gains from increased urban representation.

Bandaranaike and the SLFP

9. Bandaranaike’s government is discredited. The coalition he forged in 1956 is shattered and almost all the leftist faction of his own party has deserted him. His chances of emerging from a new election [Page 405] in a position to form a government are poor. Nevertheless, if he were to turn sharply left again and promote the radical policies on which he was elected in 1956, he could probably maintain a position of considerable influence in the Ceylonese political scene. On the other hand, his deteriorating position might even lead him to try to make an arrangement with the UNP—although we do not believe he is likely to do so, and in any case the UNP would probably not prove receptive to such overtures.

10. The SLFP has little political organization and appears to have lost much of the popular support it enjoyed in 1956. Its leaders have divergent personal interests and there is no unanimity on tactics or policies. In the event of an election, some of the SLFP moderates might make an accommodation with the UNP, and the SLFP might disintegrate. A government based on such an accommodation would probably prove more effective and durable than the present one. However, jealousies and rivalries between the two groups would pose a constant threat to its stability.


11. The relatively conservative UNP, led by the popular Dudley Senanayake, appears to have profited more than any other party from the loss of popularity of Bandaranaike and the SLFP. Consequently it has almost certainly improved its position in recent months. It seems to have won over at least part of the organized Buddhist support which contributed heavily to Bandaranaike’s 1956 victory, though it is still plagued with a number of discredited figures in the party structure. Senanayake claims that the UNP could now win an election but that its current advantage will diminish as the new electoral system comes into force.

12. There is no reliable basis for assessing the validity of this claim or for prognosticating the outcome of an election—particularly in view of the uncertainties attending implementation of the new electoral system. It appears unlikely that the UNP could win a majority of seats. However, it might emerge with sufficient strength to give it a strong, if not decisive, voice in the formation of a coalition government. If such a government should come to power, it would probably show more effectiveness and determination than the present government, but we do not believe that even a UNP-dominated government could resolve the basic economic, political, and social difficulties that plague Ceylon. It would probably be more sympathetic toward the West but would be unlikely to make fundamental changes in Ceylon’s foreign policy.

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The Radical Left

13. We do not believe that recent events have basically affected the prospects of the radical left in Ceylon, although it will probably gain some strength under the new electoral system. The likelihood of active cooperation between the small orthodox Communist Party (CCP) and Philip Gunawardena’s VLSSP has probably increased now that the latter is out of the government. Gunawardena might even be able to bring into such cooperation at least some of the leftist members of the SLFP who defected with him. Neither the CCP nor the VLSSP has much popular support, however, and those who recently withdrew from the government have sacrificed the influence which they derived from their official position.

14. N. M. Perera’s Trotskyite LSSP, most powerful of the radical leftist parties, has since the beginning been the most vigorous and effective opponent of the Bandaranaike government. Perera has as yet shown little indication of being prepared to make common cause with the other communist parties, although in the face of a rightist coup attempt or a united front of the SLFP moderates and the UNP in an election, he might do so. In any case, the LSSP is likely to hold and may expand its predominant position in the labor field. It will probably continue to make effective use of its ability to promote large-scale labor disturbances. The LSSP probably stands to benefit more than the other parties from the new electoral law. We do not believe, however, that the LSSP or any radical leftist government will come to power in the next election.

15. Nevertheless, it appears probable that the radical left will continue to have the ability to harass and perhaps even force the suspension of parliamentary government. We continue to believe, however, that the chances are against any radical leftist grouping’s being able to take control of the government by extra-legal means during the period of this estimate. We base this belief primarily on the assumption that fear and abhorrence of such a development by virtually all other groups—Buddhists, Christians, the SLFP, the UNP, the Governor General, and the civil and military services—would cause them to unite, at least temporarily, to frustrate it.

Role of the Governor General

16. Governor General Sir Oliver Goonetilleke has made it clear that he is prepared, if he feels circumstances require it, to assume direct responsibility for the conduct of affairs. When he took over control of the government during the communal disturbances of May 1958, he made no move to oust the Bandaranaike government. In the event of another crisis, he might act similarly, although he claims to be fed up with the present cabinet. He has also stated that he will not [Page 407] tolerate a realignment of parties which would bring a clearly leftist group into control. Goonetilleke is, however, a political opportunist, primarily interested in maintaining his own position, and is likely in a pinch to be willing to work with almost any group (other than an out-and-out communist one) which would support his continuance in office.

Possible Coup Attempts

17. There is a constant possibility of an extra-legal attempt to seize power by one or more of the various groups which have been plotting against the Bandaranaike government for at least a year. The longer the present instability continues, the greater will be the chances of a coup attempt. Most of the plotters appear to be conservative, Christian, Western-oriented civilians or members of the police and military services, who lack significant popular support or organization. If, however, they secured the acquiescence of the Governor General and of the armed forces and the police, they could take control of the government. Even under these circumstances, they would be faced with the same intractable problems as any other government. Moreover, widespread opposition to military control would add to their difficulties. It is doubtful that they would be able to establish a stable and lasting government unless they were able to secure the cooperation of one of the main political parties or of a popular political leader such as Dudley Senanayake.

The Role of the Armed Forces and Police

18. Ceylon’s combined defense and police forces approximate 17,500 officers and men, of which the most effective units are the 4,400-man army and the 8,000-man police force. We have relatively little information on the attitudes of the services, which have been non-political in the past. There are, however, indications that religious and political affiliations have begun to play a more important role in recent years. Some leading officers have indicated discontent with the lack of effective government and with the country’s leftward trend. Bandaranaike’s policies favoring Sinhalese Buddhists have also caused some concern to non-Sinhalese and non-Buddhist officers, who constitute a large share of the officer corps in the security services. In these circumstances, the services might support or even initiate an anti-leftist coup, but we do not believe that they would seek or be able to establish military dominance on the Pakistani model.

  1. Source: Department of State, INRNIE Files. Secret. According to a note on the cover sheet, “The following intelligence organizations participated in the preparation of this estimate: The Central Intelligence Agency and the intelligence organizations of the Departments of State, the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, and The Joint Staff.” This estimate was concurred in by the United States Intelligence Board on July 14. “Concurring were the Director of Intelligence and Research, Department of State; the Assistant Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Department of the Army; the Assistant Chief of Naval Operations for Intelligence, Department of the Navy; the Assistant Chief of Staff, Intelligence, USAF; the Director for Intelligence, The Joint Staff; the Assistant to the Secretary of Defense, Special Operations, and the Director of the National Security Agency. The Atomic Energy Commission Representative to the USIB, and the Assistant Director, Federal Bureau of Investigation, abstained, the subject being outside of their jurisdiction.”
  2. Supersedes relevant political sections of NIE 54–58, “The Outlook for Ceylon,” dated 18 March 1958 and NIE 54–2–58, “The Outlook for Political Stability in Ceylon,” dated 9 December 1958. [Footnote in the source text. See Documents 182 and 188.]
  3. The coalition government consisted of Bandaranaike’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the Revolutionary Ceylon Equality Party (VLSSP) led by Gunawardena. The SLFP includes practically all shades of socialist opinion. The VLSSP is independent communist. In opposition were the generally conservative United National Party (UNP) led by Dudley Senanayake, the Trotskyite Ceylon Equality Party (LSSP) led by N. M. Perera, the orthodox Communist Party of Ceylon (CCP), the Tamil parties and a number of independents. The present lineup in Parliament appears to be as follows:

    [Here follows a table showing the number of members in each party.]

    This listing does not include the Speaker, nor does it take account of the fact that one SLFP member represents two constituencies though he has only one vote. [Footnote in the source text.]