The past couple of decades have seen the robust growth of the new branch of international affairs, the serious study of intelligence services through the prism of history. Given such a significant context, revising the hidden footprints left by the British Intelligence Service in Sri Lanka unfolds many stories on British interests in the island driven by different motives.
During the Great War, British intelligence officers made a blunder in their assessment of the activism of the nationalist Sinhalese Buddhist community.
The evasive methods deployed by the British intelligence over Sri Lanka have a dubious history dating back to the infancy stage of British establishment in the country in the 19th century as it was British spy John Doyle who manipulated the Kandyan aristocrats in fastening Kandy’s final subjugation to the British.
During the Great War, British intelligence officers made a blunder in their assessment of the activism of the nationalist Sinhalese Buddhist community. When 1915 Sinhalese-Muslim riots broke out, then British governor Robert Charmers was misguided by his intelligence officers who described the trajectories that paved the path for the events sparked by the German spies to destabilize the British rule in Ceylon.
Reaction of the governor to such a convoluted report prepared by his intelligence was a fierce one, which resulted in the brutal oppression of the Sinhalese Buddhist leaders in the nationalist movement.
Sri Lanka’s crucial geopolitical importance raised British concern over the island’s security during the Second World War. The far east branch of Government Communication Headquarter (GCHQ) was set up in Hong Kong in 1935 as Far East Combined Bureau (FECB) and its codebreakers moved to Colombo after the Japanese captured the Malayan peninsula.
The British intelligence activities in Sri Lanka during the Second World War consisted of two fronts. The first front worked under South East Asia Command (SEAC) when it moved to Peradeniya in 1944 under Lord Louis Mountbatten. The second front called “Force 136” was a special team focusing on clandestine missions and its headquarters was shifted to Kandy in 1944.
The operatives of the “Force 136” ranged from different calibres as there were British planters, businessmen and even teachers who opted to be intelligence agents. Major Gorden Borrows was one such a charismatic British intelligence officer, who later stayed in Sri Lanka as a classics teacher in Trinity College, Kandy. Doglus Browning and Edward Cairney were other notable agents in the Force 136 based in Sri Lanka during the war years. In particular, Carirney was a part of an eight-man team operated from Trincomalee regardless of his disguised career as a planter.
Amidst the military support granted to Sri Lanka from other states such as India and Soviet Union, the covert role played by the British intelligence was well noted by premier Sirimavo…
British influence in post-colonial Sri Lanka was not completely decayed after Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948. On the contrary, British aid was frequently extended to the governments in power. The hartal that took place during the premiership of Dudley Senanayake in 1953 frightened the whole government by virtue of its gravity and the whole cabinet including the prime minister escaped to a British ship HMS Newfoundland in the Colombo harbour.
The other incident showing the shadows of British intelligence in post-independent Sri Lanka was the first Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) insurrection in 1971. The armed rebellion of JVP was brutally suppressed within a few months by then prime minister Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike with fervent support extended by the international community that included Sri Lanka’s immediate neighbour India. But, the UK declassified documents held in the National Archives in Kew denote the British played a shadowy role in assisting the Sri Lankan government to suppress the JVP rebels.
Amidst the military support granted to Sri Lanka from other states such as India and Soviet Union, the covert role played by the British intelligence was well noted by premier Sirimavo as she was highly impressed with the MI 5 stationed officer in Colombo Jim Patrick, who trained Sri Lankan police to hunt the top JVP leaders.
A telegram sent by the British High Commission in Colombo boasted of its active involvement in suppressing the JVP uprising. It states “What mattered most, however, were the small arms ammunition, armoured vehicles and other materials supplied by Her Majesty’s government with quite remarkable speed and to decisive effect”.
Jim Patrick further advised Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranike to send Sri Lankan police officers to Malaya to study the counter insurgency strategy, where Jim Patrick had been a counter terrorism specialist.
A telegram between the British diplomats in Colombo and Malaya dated 12th July 1971 testifies how MI 5 facilitated Sri Lankan Police officers to be trained in Malaya. British intelligence presence in Sri Lanka in 1971 was further bolstered by the advisory mission of two intelligence stalwarts from the UK namely Colonel Roger May and Michael Macoun to Sri Lanka.
Under J.R Jayewardene’s administration, British Intelligence services penetrated the internal political apparatus easily due to Jayewardene’s natural leaning for the West.
Under the recommendations made by the Colombo-based MI 5 officer Jim Patrick, Col May and Macoun, Sri Lankan government sent Superintendent Senarath Kadigawa to Malaya to learn the tactics on counter insurgency. One may ask what trajectories set that path for British intelligence services to save the anti-imperialist prime mister Sirimavo, whose leftist foreign policy was a sheer anathema to the British.
The truth was that the British bonhomie towards its ex-colony arose from British suspicion of Soviet entry to Sri Lanka’s strategically important Trincomalee harbour. Soviet warship Vladivostock’s visit to Trincomalee in 1971 before the JVP insurrection was another intimate cause for British trepidation and it clearly showed the British MI 6 report to then British premier Prime Minister Edward Heath. Report states “Soviet use of Trincomalee would enhance the Soviet Navy’s ability to deploy its units in the Indian Ocean in much the same way as the use of Egyptian ports has facilitated its operations in the Mediterranean.
It would moreover make it easier for the Russians to maintain a central position in the Indian Ocean through which many of the United Kingdom’s and Western Europe’s vital trade routes pass”.
Under J.R Jayewardene’s administration, British Intelligence services penetrated the internal political apparatus easily due to Jayewardene’s natural leaning for the West. When Tamil separatism began to so wits early seeds in the Northern province of Sri Lanka, ex-MI 5 director Jack Morton advised Jayewardene to reorganize the intelligence machinery in Sri Lanka, which paved the path to establishing the National Intelligence Bureau in 1984.
Morton, a former director of the UK security service MI5, was a veteran British spook. In 1973, he helped re-organize the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) Special Branch to set up an MI5/Army database on terror suspects for Britain’s counterinsurgency campaign against Irish rebels.
All in all, it is evident that British intelligence presence in the island always coincided with its geopolitical and economic interests.