Posted on November 19th, 2020


US replaced Britain as the dominant power in the world when World War II ended.  The baton was transferred from UK to USA.  For USA too, Sri Lanka was a highly desirable country. It had two military advantages, its location in the Indian Ocean and the harbor at Trincomalee.

 However, Sri Lanka in 1948 was rejoicing in its newly independent statehood. It was not advisable for US to invade and take it over. USA concentrated instead on developing a close relationship with newly independent Sri Lanka. Diplomatic relations with the United States of America was established on 29 October 1948, with Sir Claude Corea as Ambassador.

Sri Lanka continued to consider Britain   as the model even after Independence. Therefore it was necessary first of all, to make Sri Lanka aware of the USA.  USA set up the United States Information Service (USIS) with cultural centers in Colombo, Kandy and Jaffna. Each center had a substantial lending   library of American   books, especially fiction, as well as records of American music, especially musicals. American films were shown.

These Centers were a valuable   source of American culture. They were free and were eagerly used by us, then seniors in school. Sarath Amunugama in his biography, ‘The Kandy Man’, appreciatively recalls using the American Center in Kandy.

 These Centers would have been set up in Sri Lanka sometime after 1953. The United States Information Agency (USIA) which administers this in Washington was made a separate agency in 1953. Department of State advised on foreign policy. 

USIS libraries were expected to build   understanding of the United States as a nation, its institutions, culture and ideals, to create the respect and confidence needed for the US to carry out its world role’.

The Centers in Kandy and Colombo were very active up to the 1980s, I visited them regularly. They had designated heads at the time, lots of staff, space, a regular supply of new books, journals and showed lovely films.

In the 1950s, the US Information Centre distributed free to select homes, an anti-Communist magazine ‘Free World’ which featured Southeast Asia. It said that Communism was bad and America was good. This was the time of the Cold War between USA and Russia.

Sri Lanka was also given the very pleasing experience of authentic American culture. American   artists were brought   on tour. Martha Graham Dance Company, including Martha Graham herself, performed in Colombo in 1956. I was taken to see her dance. Graham did a lot of floor work. I remember that even now. J.H. Esterline said the performance appealed to the Colombo fine arts cognoscenti, ‘which was exactly the opinion-setting audience we sought.’

The Golden Gate quartet    visited in the late 1950s. Marian Anderson came in 1957.  These performers sang in Colombo and Kandy to appreciative audiences.  I heard   the Golden Gate quartet at the Kandy American Centre and I still recall it with pleasure. Forget what I thought of Marian Anderson.  I had never heard a contralto before. Duke Ellington performed at University of Peradeniya in 1963.  The performance was well attended.

Sport was not forgotten.  A team of American tennis players including Althea Gibson came to play exhibition tennis matches in Colombo, in 1956. Gibson was the first African American to win the French, US, Australian and Wimbledon championships.

There was American aid. The Ford Foundation regional office in India, set up in 1952, served Nepal and Sri Lanka as well. This Foundation later established an office in Colombo. The Ford Foundation was set up to help in economic improvement, education, freedom and democracy, human behavior, and world peace.  The US Agency for International Development (USAID) set up a branch in Colombo in 1956. This agency is still very active.

The US- Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission was founded in 1952 by an agreement between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of Ceylon for the administration of educational exchange programmes in Sri Lanka. The programmes aimed to promote cultural understanding between the United States and Sri Lanka through mutual academic exchange. Fulbright scholarships were offered for postgraduate study in America. They were considered prestigious and much sought after. Teachers from American universities came to Peradeniya on assignment.

Sri Lanka started to receive flour under the PL–480 (Public Law 480) programme in 1956. Public Law 480 permitted the President of the USA to authorize the shipment of surplus commodities to friendly” nations, either on concessional or grant terms. USA negotiated PL–480 agreements with countries to stop them from accepting assistance from Communist countries. In 1972 ‘Triposha’ was provided under PL 480.

USA needed communication bases in Asia. In 1951 Ceylon signed an agreement with the US to relay Voice of America (VOA) programmes over Radio Ceylon, which was then a popular radio station heard all over India.  In return Radio Ceylon would get modern, new broadcasting equipment.  VOA used the facility to broadcast to all of Asia, including Central Asia.  Its first relay station was in Ekala.

USA quietly set the ground for future American intervention in Sri Lanka .Ceylonese who could become future leaders in Ceylon were invited to visit the US at US government expense. Each was given a custom made itinerary.  I recall that from the early 1950s, conversations in drawing rooms, on Sri Lanka politics, included the observation that Trincomalee harbor could comfortably hold the 7th Fleet of the American Navy, which was its Pacific fleet. This was repeated decade after decade.

The US created an office for itself. An American NGO, CARE, had been invited by the UNP government to distribute milk powder. CARE was an acronym for Cooperative for American Relief Everywhere’.  A CARE office, controlled by USA,   was set up to do this distribution.

 In 1956 when the MEP government came to power, Philip Gunawardene objected to CARE distributing milk powder. It could be done by local agencies. What was the need for CARE to set up an office here, for the mere supervision of the distribution, he asked.  Why did the previous government allow a voluntary organization to set up a branch office in Ceylon. Philip had   tried to change the agreement, but found that was not possible. ‘I looked,’ he said.  Philip was suspicious. ‘I fear the Greeks even when they offer gifts ‘

US objected to the 1956 Rubber-Rice pact with China and promptly cut off aid to Sri Lanka, under its rule of not giving aid to countries that sold strategic materials to Communist countries. USA also made France, Italy and Japan withhold their supply of sulphur fungicide, badly needed by Sri Lanka’s rubber plantations. US had earlier turned down a request from Ceylon for a 50 million dollar aid.   J.R.Jaywardene, known as Yankee Dickie”, supported the US viewpoint and strongly opposed the Rubber-Rice Pact.

The Peace Corp of the USA kept coming and going. Peace Corps was in Sri Lanka 1962–1964, 1967–1970, 1983–1998. Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike kicked them out after she became Prime Minister in 1970. The US Peace Corps volunteers were booted out in 1970 as CIA agents”, said analysts. They came back in 1983  and were sent away in 1998.  

The US Peace Corps evolved from a CIA front known as the International Voluntary Services   during preparations for the war against Vietnam. The US Peace Corps has been expelled from a number of countries for spying for the CIA, meddling in local politics, and running drugs. Indonesia ordered them out in 1965, after 16 months.  Pakistan and India refused to renew approval of PC projects in their countries in the early 1970s.

However, US never really made inroads in Sri Lanka like it did in the rest of Asia said analysts.  Left-wing parties saw to that. The Voice of America relay station in Sri Lanka was called a US propaganda tool beaming to Asia. PL 480 was dubbed a trick to get the people to eat American bread rather than rice.   When the UNP Government of 1965-70 was invited to join the US-led ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations), the left objected and Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake bowed to the left wing opposition.

Initially, US did not need to worry about Sri Lanka’s political orientation. The first Prime Ministers of Ceylon, DS Senanayake and John Kotelawala were openly anti-Communist and anti-Russia. The situation changed with the MEP government of 1956.The MEP government established   diplomatic relations with Russia and China.  The US had to intervene.

The 1960s was marked by a proliferation of underground political violent movements among the Sinhala youth  such as Gini pupura and Peradiga Sulanga, said Gamini Samaranayake   . These were splinter groups from CP or LSSP. At least one of these groups later showed allegiance to the USA, therefore there is the possibility that there was US interference in this area, he said.   1970 saw the rise of the JVP. The JVP was CIA, said NM Perera. It was alleged that Rohana Wijeweera was recruited by America when he was studying in Russia. (continued)

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