Monday, Oct. 05, 1959

The People's Premier

Whenever one of his subordinates suggested that an extra bodyguard might be a good thing to have around, wiry, fragile-looking Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike, 60, would only laugh. Proud of being known as "the people's Premier" of Ceylon, "Banda" refused to worry about personal safety, almost every morning would throw open his rambling bungalow on Colombo's shady Rosemead Place to all who wanted to see him.

One morning last week, soon after new U.S. Ambassador Bernard Gufler* had left the bungalow, a monk in saffron robes approached the Prime Minister on the veranda. While Banda bowed low in the Buddhist greeting, another man in monk's robes drew near and whipped out a .45 pistol. As the Prime Minister cried out his wife's name, "Sirima! Sirima!" his assailant fired again and again. By the time a sentry brought the assassin down with a wound in the thigh, four bullets had pierced Banda's liver, spleen and large intestine. Next morning, after a five-hour operation, Solomon Bandaranaike died.

"I Do Not Love You." The son of a rich Ceylonese public servant whose devotion to the British Crown won him a knighthood in 1907, Banda had long steered a perilous course through the tricky tides of Asian politics. He was raised a Christian and educated at Oxford, where his debating skill earned him the admiration of his English classmate, Anthony Eden. But once back home, Banda renounced Christianity in favor of Buddhism, threw off Western dress in favor of long white sarongs, and plunged into the movement that was to bring Ceylon independence within the Commonwealth in 1948. In 1951 he set up his own Marxist Ceylon Freedom Party. Five years later he was, as Eden had predicted, his country's Prime Minister.

"I do not love you, Banda, dear," his critics hooted, "because you change from year to year." Yet Banda's talent for political survival was so astonishing that a cartoonist once pictured him as a grinning cat, leaning on his own sixth gravestone and saying, "Well, six down, three to go." Though he once actually fell short of a parliamentary majority, he managed to hold on to power by a judicious distribution of parliamentary secretaryships and minor portfolios. He survived brawls and Cabinet mutinies, ruled, until his death, with a shaky majority of one.

"A Little Outbreak." Last year Banda's country was torn by bloody riots between Hindu Tamils and Buddhist Sinhalese, in which men were burned alive. Though his own vacillations and tendency to flirt with political and religious extremists were largely responsible for the riots, Banda airily dismissed them as "one of those little outbreaks." It was a far less serious little outbreak that finally brought him down. His assassin turned out to be a 43-year-old monk who practices the traditional Ayurvedic (native) medicine—a secret method of treatment with herbs and massage. According to Colombo police, the monk bore a personal grudge against Banda, presumably because of his refusal to rid Ceylon of its modern doctors.

Within an hour after the monk's bullets found their mark, Ceylon's tough, puckish Governor General Sir Oliver Goonetilleke proclaimed what amounted to a state of emergency over Ceylon—a volatile land that boasts the highest homicide rate in Asia. But next day, as Banda's like-minded colleague, Education Minister Wijayananda Dahanayake, took over the premiership, a strange quiet settled over the country. Taxis, buses and cars flew mourning flags of white; the only hint of violence lay in a rising wave of public feeling against the Buddhist clergy. In Colombo a two-mile-long queue waited five hours in the scorching sun to pass by Banda's coffin in the Rosemead Place bungalow. At first the police refused to admit them, but at last Sir Oliver intervened. "The gates of the Prime Minister's home," he said, "were always open to the people. They must be open now."

*A successor to the hapless Maxwell H. Gluck of Manhattan, who, shortly before his departure for Ceylon, won nationwide jeers—and new U.S. fame for Bandaranaike—by admitting to the Senate that he could not "call off" the Ceylonese Prime Minister's name.