479. Briefing Memorandum From the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs (Saunders) to the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs (Newsom)1


  • Proposed VOA Expansion in Sri Lanka: History and Current Status

In his message to Congress of March 22, 1977 the President mentioned the need to locate four additional VOA transmitters in the Far East.2 The President did not specify countries: VOA considered as possible locations the Philippines (further expansion), Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand, and Sri Lanka where small VOA transmitters had been constructed in the early 1950’s. In December 1977 VOA Deputy Director Hans Tuch travelled to Colombo to discuss the possibilities with Ambassador Howard Wriggins.3

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Ambassador Wriggins at that time opposed approaching the newly installed United National Party administration of J.R. Jayewardene. He believed—and the Department concurred—that the volatile nature of the Sri Lankan politics could result in the loss of any substantial long term VOA investment in Sri Lanka, even if in the short term the Jayewardene Government should welcome such construction. A large VOA installation in Sri Lanka would be an unavoidable target for the left in the next election in Sri Lanka. The present government probably would be accused of compromising Sri Lanka’s non-alignment. The visibility of a VOA relay station, both in its construction and when finished, could also be a tempting target for peaceful demonstrations or even terrorist action.

In addition to these considerations there are some specific obstacles in reaching a new agreement. The current VOA agreement states that the Government of Sri Lanka has the right to veto both the content and languages of VOA broadcasts. This is contrary to VOA’s current charter and would have to be dropped, presenting a target for opposition assertions that J.R. Jayewardene (who in the past earned the epithet “Yankee Dick”) had sold out to the Americans. It is worth noting that the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, which forms the core of the left in Sri Lanka, is not a fringe opposition, but has alternated in power with the UNP for decades. After the SLFP’s last electoral victory in 1970 the Peace Corps and the Asia Foundation were expelled and AID programs curtailed.

Convinced that Sri Lanka did not offer a good prospect for VOA expansion and untroubled operation for the 15 year period needed to justify the investment, VOA looked elsewhere in 1978. Unable to find alternative sites, VOA once again turned to Sri Lanka.

As there appeared to be no other options available to VOA and the UNP government was more firmly established, Ambassador Wriggins reversed his position during consultations in the Department in May 1979.4 Accordingly he informally approached President Jayewardene with the general VOA proposal on June 20. Jayewardene was mildly encouraging and suggested that the subject be discussed after the Havana Non-Aligned Summit. In reporting that meeting (Colombo [Page 1093] 3234, attached)5 Wriggins stated his assumption that VOA would staff out the design and a statement of policy concerning the proposed facilities for Embassy review prior to preliminary formal discussions in October.

VOA did not do so. After we called this to their attention in November, however, VOA Acting Director Tuch asked Wriggins to approach the GSL with a proposal based on past discussions between VOA, State, and the Ambassador (cable attached).6 In a phone conversation with the INS Country Director on December 12, Wriggins reported that the VOA engineer resident in Colombo is hesitant to approach the GSL without a more formal proposal. Nonetheless, Wriggins plans to discuss the general prospects for VOA expansion at a farewell meeting with President Jayewardene today7 and seek a reaffirmation of his supportive position.

We are sending a memorandum to VOA informing them of this conversation and urging that they promptly staff out a clear-cut proposal if Jayewardene provides an affirmative response.8

During Don Toussaint’s consultations,9 the current state of play as described above was discussed with ICA Director Reinhardt, and in two meetings held with VOA Acting Director Tuch and staff.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, P800005–0443. Confidential. Drafted by Lee O. Coldren (NEA/INS). An unknown hand initialed the memorandum for Saunders.
  2. On March 22, 1977, Carter sent a message, along with a report, to Congress on U.S. international broadcasting. For the text of the message, see Public Papers: Carter, 1977, Book I, p. 478.
  3. Telegram 4913 from Colombo, December 14, 1977, reported on Tuch’s visit to Colombo. During the visit, the Embassy informed him that “the political situation in Sri Lanka was insufficiently stable to justify the investment of some $15 million in four VOA transmitters, which would probably not be ready for business for 5–6 years.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D770465–0209)
  4. During a meeting with VOA, ICA, and Department of State officials on May 24, Wriggins agreed that the Sri Lankan Government should be approached with the proposed VOA expansion, but he warned: “If something happens to President J.R. Jayewardene, there could be trouble for VOA. J.R. would see the foreign exchange, technology transfer, and so on, advantages. Alternate successors may not be so sophisticated. I expect the Foreign Ministry would be opposed—they cherish non-aligned equal distant from all major powers. Broadcasting in Russian & Chinese therefore, could pose problems for them.” (Memorandum of conversation, May 24; Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Country File, Box 73, Sri Lanka: 1/77–1/80)
  5. Not attached. Telegram 3234 from Colombo, June 21, is in the National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D790327–0158.
  6. Attached but not printed is telegram 28203 from USICA to Colombo, November 14, which conveyed the ICA’s request to Wriggins.
  7. No record of the meeting was found.
  8. No memorandum was found.
  9. On November 27, Toussaint was appointed Ambassador to Sri Lanka and Maldives.