The Demise of American Diplomat James W. Spain: An Eulogy
By Daya Gamage
“You were the Education Minister under late premier Solomon Bandaranaike. Were you responsible in bringing the Sinhala Only policy in the 56-59 periods and implementing it under your watch?”
American Ambassador to Sri Lanka James W. Spain asked this question from the veteran Sri Lankan politician Dr. Wijayananda Dahanayake at his Richmond Hill residence in Galle somewhere late 1987.
Spain met Dahanayake at then Galle District Minister Rupa Karunatilleke’s official residence couple of weeks before when he attended the bi-centennial of the Amarapura Nikaya (Buddhist Order) in Galle. President J.R. Jayawardene was the chief guest and Ambassador Spain was the Guest of Honor.
During the ‘tea break’ at Rupa’s residence following the Buddhist ceremony Spain spotted Dahanayake, went into a brief conversation and struck by the veteran Sri Lankan politician’s erudition: He advised me, with the concurrence of Dr. Dahanayake, to make an appointment with him for a longer conversation at Richmond Hill.
I happened to be Ambassador Spain’s political specialist.
The ‘Sinhala Only’ was the first question Ambassador Spain raised with Dr. Dahanayake when he met the latter a couple of weeks later: I was privileged to accompany the ambassador to listen to the two to three hour highly erudite conversation between the two sages.
The former Sri Lankan prime minister and education minister under S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike gave the following reply which I remember as: “I had my education at S.Thomas College, Mt. Lavinia in the medium of English. The knowledge I have was the result of my English education. I know the value of English, and do you think I will ever deprive others of broadening their knowledge discouraging the leaning of the English Language? I was not responsible and under my watch English education was never retarded and discouraged.”
The near-three hour conversation was the most erudite one I witnessed between two giants of scholarship: Western literature, astronomy and astrology, Western history, the wave of liberalism in Europe, American foreign policy, and of course, Sri Lanka’s ethnic and ‘National Question’ were the issues covered.
During the period he was representing the United States in Sri Lanka, November 1985 through June 1988, Sri Lanka faced the issues of ethnic relations, minority rights, failed talks between minority Tamil representatives and a government which possessed a ‘constitutional dictatorship’ and lackluster solutions to this South Asian nation’s pressing national issues that involved all ethnic communities. To Ambassador Spain, the National Question was an issue that confronted all ethnic communities in Sri Lanka.
Ambassador Spain, during his tenure, had an up close and personal relationship with many of these issues that plagued Sri Lanka.
It was to his utter frustration that he posed the ‘Sinhala Only’ question to Dr. W. Dahanayake at Richmond Hill.
He was concerned about the right of all ethnic communities in Sri Lanka but privately expressed his dissatisfaction to the rise of Sinhala and Tamil chauvinism. He was of the opinion that both these extremism that buried the moderate voice would lead to a confrontation that will take a generation to repair the damage and simmer down the emotional upheaval in ethnic communities.
He strongly felt that political and administrative power should be devolved to the periphery as an initial step to redress the grievances of the minority Tamils but professed that the ‘Tamil side’ should be diplomatic to allow the ‘Sinhala side’ to come out with the proposal so that the majority Sinhalese would not entertain fear of dividing the nation as professed by the Tamil Tigers. His understanding of the separation of power during the Sinhalese Kingdom was quite enough to say that the devolution to the rural village and running their own affairs was not alien to the Sinhalese.
He was frustrated that the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution was not fully implemented and that those who brought the amendment were in fact were not serious about devolving power to the periphery.
It was a politically turbulent time that James W. Spain represented the United States in Sri Lanka. With many conversations with him, in my capacity as the political specialist of the embassy and on personal level, he singled out a series of missteps of the political establishment that comprised the ruling and opposition parties which he prophetically saw will have long term consequences for this South Asian nation.
He was posted to Sri Lanka at a time the Thimpu Talks between the Tamil representatives and the government of J. R. Jayawardene had already collapsed. He was America’s chief diplomat in Colombo when the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified. He was in Colombo when the Tamil Tiger stubbornness leads to the hardening of views on the Sinhalese side.
He endeavored to use his diplomatic prowess to strengthen the moderate voices of both sides to marginalize the extremism of both groups.
It is to the delight that the United States Department of State since late has realized the importance of strengthening the moderates of Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims to find a solution to the National Question.
I recognize Ambassador James W. Spain as an early American diplomat who served in Sri Lanka who identified the pitfalls of policy decisions of all sections of the country’s polity, the long term consequences of policies and decisions such as alienation of moderate opinion of both Sinhalese and Tamil popular movements, and America’s limited engagement in solving Sri Lanka’s National Question.
During his tenure, Ambassador Spain never sounded as he were imposing ‘America’s Will’ on Sri Lanka but made representations to all sections that has interest in the National Question to bring sense to them and move away from extremism.
When he decided to reside in Sri Lanka after his retirement from the U.S. Foreign Service I asked him as to why he took that decision instead of returning to his country of birth, his reply was that he could make use of his contacts, both in the State Department and in Sri Lanka, his knowledge of the pressing issues of the country and whatever diplomatic experience he possess to help Sri Lanka come out of the ‘difficult period in her history’. He knew that he was accepted by all sections of the influential Sri Lankan voices to be of some help to pass this ‘difficult period in her history’.
His love and affection for Sri Lanka made him to perform as an unofficial American diplomat since his retirement in June 1988 until he left for the United States in late 2006 for medical treatment. He passed away on the American soil on January 2.
May the turf above be soft on him.
- Asian Tribune -