Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History

Witness to the Start of Sri Lanka’s Brutal Civil War


The Sri Lankan Civil War was one of the bloodiest conflicts in recent times, claiming the lives of nearly 100,000 people. Foreign Service Officer Dorothy Black was posted in Sri Lanka in the early years of the conflict (1983-86) and recalls a time of constant tension, political intransigence, and death.  Terrorists routinely placed plastic bombs on the underside of vehicles in the capital of Colombo, leading to tight security measures throughout the city.  Areas of Sri Lanka that were strongholds of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) were off-limits for just about everyone, including diplomats.  Tourism dried up.  There was even a case where a USAID couple was kidnapped by terrorists and held hostage. Ms. Black also speaks about the intransigence of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran—she notes that he was not ready to negotiate under any circumstance and his ruthless leadership was one of the reasons for the longevity of this civil war. Dorothy Black had a very successful career in the Foreign Service from 1966-1989, serving at posts in Germany, Nigeria, Greece, and finally Sri Lanka.  Black was interviewed by ADST’s Charles Stewart Kennedy beginning September 20, 2010.

Read Dorothy Black’s full oral history HERE

Excerpts:
“An American couple who were AID contractors were kidnapped during my tour. It was quite scary with U.S. hostage negotiators sent over by the State Department”

The dangers of traveling around Sri Lanka during the civil war: “Because one tactic the Tamils used was to put a plastic bomb on the underside of cars, the embassy started to examine all cars as they drove into the compound. The guards had mirrors that they used to look under the cars when they were driven in. They checked under your fender or in the trunk to make sure there were no explosives. The big hotels would do the same, as they were also targets. . .. I remember one bomb going off at the Colombo railway or bus station. It did kill a number of Sri Lankans, but most foreigners would take cars rather than public transport. Later on there were bombs planted on some of the roads in the north, which is why areas like Trincomalee, Jaffna, and Batticaloa became off limits for us…. An American couple who were AID contractors were kidnapped during my tour. It was quite scary with U.S. hostage negotiators sent over by the State Department.”

“If he didn’t speak Sinhalese, the Sinhalese would attack and often murder the person with machetes or by burning alive.”

The enmity between the Tamil and Sinhalese populations: “It was a generational problem—Sinhalese and Tamils didn’t trust each other in large part because the 18-25 year old population couldn’t communicate with each other. The problem arose starting in 1956 when S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike ran for prime minister on the “Sinhalese only” platform, which is when Sinhalese became the official language and schools were segregated based on language. The main purpose was to give Sinhalese speaking people a leg up in the economy because they would know how to read and write in the official language, Sinhalese…. When the Sinhalese were murdering Tamils in July 1983, the only way the Sinhalese bullies could tell if a person was Tamil was to ask him to speak. If he didn’t speak Sinhalese, the Sinhalese would attack and often murder the person with machetes or by burning alive.”

“I always said that the only way to end the Sri Lankan insurgency that wracked the island for so long was to kill him.”

On Prabhakaran, leader of the Tamil Tigers resistance movement: “Prabhakaran was absolutely ruthless with both friends and enemies and was uninterested in negotiating. I think he planned to fight to the death. He would have been a terrible leader of a government if the Tamils had ever managed to get their Eelam. I always said that the only way to end the Sri Lankan insurgency that wracked the island for so long was to kill him. And that’s what they finally did just a year or so ago. . . the leader of the Tamil Tigers (Prabhakaran), had no incentive ever to reach a negotiated agreement. His calling in life was being an armed rebel. People who are guerrilla leaders never do very well in governing.”

Drafted by Neil Nabar

Table of Contents highlights:

Education

     BA in Political Science, Stanford University                                                                1964                                                                             

     MA in International Relations, Johns Hopkins University                                      1966                                                        

Entered Foreign Service                                                                                           1967

     Bonn, Germany – Central Complement Officer                                                         1968-1969

     Lagos, Nigeria – Economic Officer                                                                               1971-1973

     Colombo, Sri Lanka – Economic Councilor                                                                1983-1986

     Kingston, Jamaica – Economic Councilor                                                                  1986 – 1989

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