The Platform

Photo illustration by John Lyman

In the annals of history, Sri Lanka was at one point a den of British spycraft.

Over recent decades, the once-overlooked field of intelligence studies has ripened into a critical area within the annals of international affairs. In this burgeoning intellectual climate, revisiting the enigmatic activities of British intelligence in Sri Lanka provides a tableau of complex stories—each motivated by an array of distinct British interests. Originating in the 19th-century exploits of British spy John Doyle, who masterfully exploited Kandyan aristocrats to tighten Britain’s grip on Kandy, the relationship has been fraught with ambiguity from the outset.

During the First World War, British intelligence fumbled in its assessment of the fervor within Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist community. The Sinhalese-Muslim riots of 1915 caught British Governor Robert Chalmers flat-footed, partly due to misleading intelligence reports. These suggested that German spies had instigated the unrest to weaken British rule in what was then known as Ceylon. Chalmers’ overwrought reaction to these flawed reports led to the harsh suppression of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist leaders.

In the crucible of the Second World War, Sri Lanka’s geopolitical significance came sharply into focus. The British Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) had already set up its Far East branch in Hong Kong in 1935, but with Japan’s conquest of the Malayan Peninsula, the operation relocated to Colombo. British intelligence in Sri Lanka during this period ran on dual tracks. The first fell under the auspices of the South East Asia Command (SEAC), spearheaded by Lord Louis Mountbatten in Peradeniya in 1944. The second, a more covert operation known as “Force 136,” relocated to Kandy. Comprising British planters, businessmen, and educators turned spies, Force 136 became a theater of asymmetrical war. Among them was Major Gordon Borrows, who would later transition to an academic career at Trinity College in Kandy.

Even after Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948, British influence endured, both overtly and covertly. When a labor strike in 1953 roiled the Dudley Senanayake administration, cabinet members sought refuge aboard the British ship HMS Newfoundland docked in Colombo’s harbor. Perhaps most insidiously, the first Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) insurrection in 1971 revealed the continuing symbiotic relationship between British intelligence and the Sri Lankan government. Declassified documents from the UK National Archives shed light on the shadowy British role in aiding Sri Lanka to quell the insurrection. Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike was particularly impressed by Jim Patrick, an MI5 officer stationed in Colombo, whose expertise in counterterrorism operations significantly contributed to suppressing the JVP.

But why would British intelligence assist an anti-imperialist leader like Sirimavo Bandaranaike, whose foreign policy was inimical to British interests? The explanation lies in geopolitics. Britain grew increasingly wary of the Soviet Union’s naval activities in Sri Lanka’s strategically significant Trincomalee harbor. In this complex dance of geopolitical pragmatism, even old adversaries became temporary allies.

Under Junius Richard Jayewardene’s tenure, British intelligence found an even more congenial environment, thanks to Jayewardene’s Western proclivities. As Tamil separatism began to simmer in Sri Lanka’s northern province, advice from former MI5 director Jack Morton led to the establishment of Sri Lanka’s National Intelligence Bureau in 1984. Morton’s expertise had been honed in the crucible of Britain’s counterinsurgency against Irish nationalists.

In sum, the intricate choreography of British intelligence on the island tells us one incontrovertible fact: Whether in the age of empire or in the realm of post-colonial geopolitics, British intelligence activities have consistently mirrored the nation’s geopolitical and economic calculus.

Punsara Amarasinghe holds a PhD in International Law from Scuola Universitaria Superiore Sant'Anna in Pisa, Italy. He also holds a Master of Laws from South Asian University, New Delhi and completed his undergraduate studies in law at the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka. Previously, Punsara worked as a research assistant at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow in 2018 for a project on Russian legal realism. He also held two visiting research fellowships at the University of Wisconsin Madison and at Paris's esteemed Sciences PO. For a brief period, he worked at the Minerva Center for Human Rights at Hebrew University, Jerusalem.