Extracts from ‘Tamil Tigers’ debt to America’
Posted on November 1st, 2019

By Dr. Tilak S. Fernando Courtesy Ceylon Today

Daya Gamage worked at the American Embassy in Colombo, as the Sole Foreign Service National and a Political Specialist. 

He retired in 1994 and has been living in Las Vegas since retirement. He has been able to share his knowledge, understanding and his intimate professional association with the US Department of State in the form of a book – ‘Tamil Tigers’ Debt to America’.  

While assuring the facts contained in his book cannot be found anywhere else, he has authorised the writer “to quote anything from his book”  so that that the readers will get a sound idea of  America’s Foreign Policy,  Sri Lanka’s National Issues and the LTTE struggle in depth.

A politician’s career mainly consists of making a part of the nation do what it does not want to do, to satisfy the other part of the nation. It is the persistent sacrifice of the rights of some at the request and for the gratification of others. 

The dominant idea of the politician therefore would be that those who are opposed to him exist to be made to serve his ends if he can acquire enough power to force these ends upon them.

It was Auberon Herbert’s dictum that formed the basis of the Foreign Service Officers’ (FSOs) mindset from the time of Kenneth M. Scott (1981) and throughout the next fifteen years, which created policy planks formulating the United States’ attitude towards numerous Sri Lankan issues related to good governance, civil rights, race relations, shared rule at the centre and periphery and the rule of law.

It is in this context that one needs to consider American policies towards Sri Lanka, in order to put it into proper perspective, to clear the air for both nations to have a better understanding and a fruitful relationship.

 It is even more important for Sri Lankan officials, even those who at the time regarded themselves as ‘diplomatic/foreign policy whiz kids’ and ‘political pundits,’ to get an erudite understanding of how the American diplomatic mind works.

It is this mind that was taken seriously in Washington through a constant flow of classical diplomatic cables to which Daya Gamage had the privilege to contribute.

 But, what is noticeable is the ignorance of the GoSL (Government of Sri Lanka) officials and their inability to even decipher a glimpse of FSOs’ (Foreign Service) mindset, the result being unexplainable contradictory policy decisions by GoSL officials.

The FSOs listened to and interacted with both sides: the Sinhala activists,who claimed that a majority of Tamils enjoyed privileges beyond their numerical strength and proportion in Sri Lanka and Tamil representatives, who highlighted the separate identity of their ethnic group and canvassed the West to convince them that their rights, status in society and privileges had declined. 

The latter had a better hearing due to the occurrence of significant incidents that the American diplomatic corps took serious note of.

Nancy Murray (Journalist) who carried out extensive research in 1984 for her article titled, “The State against Tamils in Race and Class”, greatly influenced the thinking of American Diplomats in Colombo during the initial period.

A tense atmosphere exploded into State-sponsored mayhem on 31 May 1981 when an unidentified gunman opened fire during a District Development Council election meeting.

Two Cabinet ministers, Cyril Mathew and Gamini Dissanayake (both self-confessed Sinhala supremacists), who were present in town,with uniformed security  men and plain-clothes thugs, carried out several well-organised acts of destruction in burning down certain targets that included the Jaffna Library, with its 95,000 volumes and priceless manuscripts, a Hindu Temple, the office and machinery of the independent Tamil daily newspaper Eelandu, the home of a Jaffna MP, the headquarters of the TULFand more than 100 shops and markets. 

Four people were killed. No mention of this appeared in the national newspapers, not even the burning of the library and the symbol of the Tamils’ cultural identity.

Eye Wash

The District Development Council system, which the Jayewardene administration (1977-1988) put into effect in 1981, as an answer to Western pressure, mainly by America, to devolve power to the periphery, was regarded as eyewash by the international community. 

The American diplomats who scrutinised the system concluded it was not the remedy required to broad-based Tamil agitation for devolution to the periphery; indeed, it would be a catalyst for a violent uprising by the minority Tamils in the country.

The Jayawardene administration’s failure to immediately declare an islandwide curfew when the Sinhala mobs started attacking Tamil households and businesses in July 1983 in Colombo and other cities/towns, following the killing of thirteen army soldiers in the Jaffna Peninsula by the Tamil Tigers, perturbed American observers, as closely witnessed by Daya Gamage.

 The declaration by President Jayawardene, which described the mob attacks on Tamil properties and Tamils as an ‘expression of sentiments by the Sinhalese,’ shocked American diplomats in Colombo.

 The embassy also received credible information that a leading political leader of the Jayawardene regime from the Kurunegala District assembled Sinhala mobs elements, transported them by train to Jaffna and created havoc in the predominantly Tamil district in the Northern Province.

Diplomatic Cables

The reports, observations, and analysis that went into the diplomatic cables on ethnic disturbances of 1977, 1979 and 1981and regarding other significant political trends and developments were readily available to every chief mission and FSO at that time (1981-1995) for them to digest.

Once serious attention was focused on issues such as race relations, devolution of power to the periphery, governance, civil liberties, and the rule of law. The reading materials and the embassy officers’ engagements in public diplomacy and strategic communication helped the United States to develop policy planks on critical issues faced by the country.

It is important to understand that the policies pursued by the United States in the new millennium were the ones that were developed, shaped, and brought forward from the 1980s and 1990s.

 The focus of the American diplomats regarding the status of Tamils in Sri Lankan society was clearly portrayed when Ambassador James W. Spain (1985 -1989) confronted the Minister of  Education in the 1956 Solomon Dias Bandaranaike regime, Dr. W. Dahanayake, at his Richmond Hill residence in 1987 in the presence of Daya Gamage and asked him why was he responsible for English being used as a medium of education with a prime place for Sinhala language and marginalising Tamil education when he  too was  educated…… to which Dahanayake replied that it was not under his watch that the change was made but during the time of Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike in 1960.


When Cyril Mathew, a Sinhala Nationalist Minister in the Jayawardeneregime, died late 1989, the American Ambassador and the chief of political affairs quite rightly refused to pay their last respects to a ‘Sinhala chauvinist,’ but finally agreed at the insistence of Daya Gamage, who was their prime political specialist, to visit the Mathew residence in Horton Place in Colombo 7, after discussions that took note of the fact that his son, Nanda Mathew, was a Minister in the Cabinet and it was advisable to sustain the cordial contacts with him.

This was at a time when Cyril Mathew’s special assistant, who was one of Daya Gamage’s high school teachers, had been inquiring from Daya as to why the American Embassy was so interested in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs and raised questions about whether the United States was supporting the Tamil separatist agenda.

The renowned Sri Lankan journalist, Mervyn de Silva, in the May 15, 1990, edition of Lanka Guardian, wrote a eulogy for  Sri Lankan (EPRLF) Parliamentarian Sam Thambimuttu, who was assassinated by an LTTE hit squad in front of the Canadian High Commission  in Colombo, viz: “Right through the war in the East, before and after the arrival of the IPKF (Indian Peace Keeping Force), Sam Tambibuttu was the reporter’s (Mervyn)  first choice for what in the professional patois is called a ‘check’ and a  ‘double-check’…. 

 There was the more exacting professional demand rooted in the very character of a highly competitive profession.

For the foreign correspondent or the local stringer, the source of information is vital. So is ready access to the source but most of all one had to depend on reliability and credibility.

 Since this was not personal, but a professional’s tribute toSam Thambimuttu, DayaGamage had to break an old established rule of revealing the source in this instance, however, Sam’s assistance to the International Press was hardly a secret. His name had been mentioned a hundred times.

To be continued
Courtesy: Daya Gamage – Author of ‘Tamil Tigers’ Debt to America.’

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