195. Letter From the Deputy Chief of Mission in Ceylon (Smith) to the Director of the Office of South Asian Affairs (Bartlett)1

Dear Fred : I am writing this while we are in mid-stream in attempting to judge the probable course of the new government. Swayed perhaps by our own interests, we were initially hopeful that [Page 410] Dahanayake would be able to command his team, enforce a sense of national discipline and pursue a basically moderate program for the 18 months technically remaining. In this he had and perhaps still has, the advantages accruing from the shock of Bandaranaike’s assassination and the desire of reasoning people for moderation and an end of fanatical communalism.

It is still possible that he will succeed. He appears greatly changed from a year ago, more responsible, dignified and sober. However, the events of the past two weeks have been far from encouraging. The imposition of press censorship2 has almost certainly turned the newspapers from their initially considerate treatment of Dahanayake to potentially violent criticism at the moment censorship is lifted. Moreover, this condition is bound to arouse deep suspicion as to the veracity of any solution of the assassination which the government presents finally.3

With censorship compounded by the lack of normal social contacts during this period of mourning, firm information is even harder to obtain than usual. The Colombo rumor mill has taken the place of papers (though, the printed word is often as full of rumors as the spoken), and we are deluged with reports of intra-cabinet strife, which cannot yet be confirmed or denied. What does seem evident is that no tragedy or necessity can produce wisdom or ability in a basically weak cabinet.

Of perhaps more lasting significance is the possible effect of the assassination of Bandaranaike by a Bhikku4 on the Buddhist Singhalese. These people, the bulk of the nation, have been desperately trying to develop some cultural unity and pride. [4 lines of source text not declassified] their Buddhism was one of the few remaining possibilities. Now this has received a severe blow [less than 1 line of source text not declassified]. The consequence could be a [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] sense of inferiority, division, and apathy.

From the standpoint of U.S. objectives, we are all agreed that the ideal solution to the current political situation would be for Dahanayake to govern constitutionally for a few months while conditions quiet down and then hold elections in a more normal atmosphere. The actual probability of such a solution is most uncertain [1 line of source text not declassified].

[Page 411]

From a narrow viewpoint, I feel we are most fortunate in that no real charge of intervention or political pressure has been brought against the U.S. during the whole series of events from Philip’s5 resignation to the present (I except one or two wild statements by Philip himself). Just last week Tarzi Vitacchi, Editor of the Ceylon Observer, spoke in most complimentary terms to John Roach 6 of the correct and aloof position maintained by the Embassy during the past year while at the same time providing substantial help to the Ceylonese people. He contrasted this record, which he said was generally recognized, with U.S. activities during a previous period. This comment justifies fully, I believe, the policies adopted by the Country Team earlier in the year, and is a reflection of the positive actions taken to clear our record of changes [charges] of partisanship.

We will continue to attempt as full reporting and assessment as possible during the uncertain period ahead. However, I feel we must exercise considerable restraint in our contacts with and approaches to key government figures who are, at least by rumor, engaged in internecine battles to avoid any indication that we are taking a hand.

Early in my tour here I wrote a personal assessment of the fragmentation of Ceylonese society and its political significance.7 The basic conclusion reached was that we must expect weak governments for the indefinite future. Subsequent events, to me, have reinforced this conclusion. There is no apparent organization in Ceylon which would provide, constitutionally or by dictatorship, an acceptable or superior alternative to the present painful adjustment to self-government under democratic process.8

Sincerely yours,

  1. Source: Department of State, SOA Files: Lot 62 D 443, Official–Informal Correspondence. Secret; Official–Informal.
  2. The Government of Ceylon imposed comprehensive censorship on the press effective midnight, October 6. Censorship was lifted on October 20. (Despatch 308 from Colombo, October 9; ibid., 746E.00(W)/10–959; despatch 348 from Colombo, October 23; ibid., 746E.00(W)/10–2359)
  3. The question of whether important political figures were involved in the assassination aroused considerable comment in Ceylon. Police arrested Buddharakkitha Thero, a member of the SLFP Executive Committee, and several of his associates in connection with the crime. (Despatch 327 from Colombo, October 16; ibid., 746E.00(W)/10–1659)
  4. A Buddhist monk.
  5. Philip Gunawardena.
  6. Director, U.S. Operations Mission in Ceylon.
  7. Reference is presumably to despatch 516 from Colombo, October 28, 1958, and despatch 547 from Colombo, November 7, 1958. (Department of State, Central Files, 746E.00/10–2858 and 746E.00/11–758)
  8. Bartlett replied to Smith in a letter of November 6, which reads in part as follows:

    “I read your letter of October 19, 1959, with great interest. I agree with your general conclusions and especially with your observation that the United States has been extremely fortunate in not being charged with intervention or applying undue pressure over the past year.” The letter continues: “I suppose we must be prepared over the next few years to put up with a series of unstable governments indulging in irrational actions. I only hope that the instability and the irrationality can be kept to a minimum.” (Ibid., SOA Files: Lot 62 D 43, Ceylon—1959)