By Punsara Amarasinghe –
The memory of Pieter Keuneman still echoes in the Sri Lankan political space as a stalwart of Communism, whose contribution made monumental impacts in the post-colonial political trajectories in the island nation. Keuneman’s political career was a distinguished one as his presence in Sri Lankan parliament remained uninterrupted from 1947 to 1977 and he held a cabinet ministerial position in Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s government in the early 1970s. His political romance with Communist ideology was paradoxical with his affluent upbringing, which reflected the colonial bourgeois standards of pre-independent Sri Lanka under British rule. Pieter Keuneman was born to a family of Dutch descendants and his father Justice A.E Keuneman, who happened to be a puisne judge of the Supreme Court provided him with a chance of studying at Cambridge.
Cambridge university between the two world wars embodied the array of radical intellectual transformation in Britain that fervently challenged the arcane ethos that prevailed in the British intelligentsia. The awful circumstance that arose from the “Great Depression” in 1929 began to make a stir in British society and its rigour had penetrated elite universities like Cambridge. This was the epoch that young Keuneman spent his undergraduate years at Cambridge and it is no wonder how Leftwing ideology had instilled into Peter in the same way as it aspired many other British undergrads came from English public schools. This atmosphere paved the path for the infiltration of Soviet agents on British soil to recruit promising British students as informants. The famous Cambridge spy network, which consisted of Kim Philby, Guy Burges, Donald Mclean and Anthony Blunt was born in this period, in which all the members hailed from privileged social backgrounds. But contrary to this social depiction their beliefs were radical, but simple: the rich had exploited the poor for too long; the only bulwark against this injustice was Soviet Communism, the inner fortress of the world movement.
Keuneman reached the zenith of his fame at Cambridge by proving his stentorian oratory at the prestigious Cambridge Union where he secured the presidency in 1939 for Michaelmas term. He was the Second Sri Lankan who became the president of the Cambridge Union after Sir James Pieris in 1877. But unlike Pieris’ era, the majority of the Union in the ’30s filled with Communist flamboyance, which echoed the changing political sentiments in Europe that stood between the rise of Fascism and economic crisis. Both successors to Keuneman at Cambridge Union, Mohan Kumaramangalam (India) and Michael Straight (USA ) were staunch Communists, wherein the later spied for the KGB. There was no direct evidence proving Keuneman’s links to the Soviets till the British National Archives issued some declassified documents in 2019 as a part of a project of Prof. Christopher Andrew, who was the official historian of the British domestic intelligence service MI 5. The historic information revealed from the report suggests that Keuneman may have maintained contacts with some of the Soviet recruiters in prewar Britain. The document released by the National Archives of Britain has unveiled the decisive role played by Soviet agent Arnold Deutch who was known as Otto at Cambridge and his involvement in running the infamous Cambridge spy ring. Yet, it is unclear that Deutch had any particular interest in young Keuneman as a potential informant as the report provided no clear references. But, according to MI 5 document, British Intelligence kept a hawk-eye on Keuneman with his widely recognized fame as the first Communist president of Cambridge. The file numbered “KV6/147 was devoted to tracing Keuneman’s whereabouts, which gives a vivid description of how British intelligence followed his routine during his entire period in Britain. Moreover, the memoirs of famous British leftist historian Eric Hobsbawm provide several remarks on the intellectual charm of Keuneman at Cambridge as he recalled him as dashing, witty and remarkably handsome. These phrases did not come out of the blue as Hobsbawm first fell in love with Keuneman’s fiancé Hedi Stadlen, but she in turn fell in love with Keuneman and the couple tied the knot in 1939. Released MI 5 documents have unfolded how British intelligence cops were suspicious about Hedi as a Soviet spy. Hedi was a Jewish woman, who escaped from the rise of Fascism in Austria and she excelled herself as a brilliant student at Cambridge. Notwithstanding her academic brilliance, Heid and Kenumn were watched by British intelligence. However, throughout his stay in Cambridge, British authorities could not find a direct trace of Keuneman’s involvement in espionage. Yet, the report released by the British State Archives has indicated some of the links that existed between Peter Keuneman and Guy Burges, who was one of the main faces of Cambridge spies. Thus, it is not a mere conjecture to assume Kenumn was a part of a big spy network planted by the Soviets in pre-world war Britain. In particular, the Soviets were well aware of the anti-imperial sentiments hidden among the students who came from the British colonies and it favoured their purpose of manipulating them under the pretext of “word revolution”.
Keuneman joined the socialist forces in the Spanish civil war in the same manner as Kim Philby did, but the success of the socialists in Spain was short-lived before the ruthlessness of General Franco. Just after the outbreak of the Second World War, Keuneman returned to Sri Lanka and became the first general secretary of the Ceylon Communist Party in 1943. From 1947 to 1977, Keuneman played a crucial role in Sri Lanka’s leftist politics, which reached its pinnacle when he became the cabinet minister of housing and construction in Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s government in 1970.
It’s been now nearly 25 years since Keuneman passed away after an illustrious political career. Nonetheless, the Soviet Union certainly took a keen interest in him as their Communist acolyte in Sri Lanka and this was closely monitored by the Western intelligence agents based in Colombo. The interview given by former American diplomat George G.B Griffin, who served as the Second Secretary in the US embassy in Colombo in 1962 to Charles Stuart Kennedy in 2002 provides an interesting set of information on KGB activities in Sri Lanka. Griffin’s reminiscences on the Soviet diplomatic community in Colombo affirms the grip they maintained among the local politicians in Sri Lanka and Griffin has mentioned Peter Keuneman’s name as a zealous Communist leader, who maintained a closer relationship with Moscow.
None of the above-stated sources provides an explicit reference to brand Peter Keuneman as a Soviet mole. Even if he chose the path of serving the interests of the Soviets, it should be evaluated based on the depth of his ideological conviction in a different era. Those who chose the path of betraying their country for Soviet interests like notorious Kim Philby committed their treason in good faith under their deep idealistic position, which showed the Soviet Union as the last resort of the commoners in their battle against capitalism. Therefore, today’s interpretation toward characters like Peter Keuneman should be lenient as they were products of their own ideological integrity.
*Punsara Amarasinghe is a visiting scholar at Science Po, Paris and reading for his PhD at Scuola Superiore Sant Anna, Pisa, Italy. He previously held two research fellowships at Center for Global Legal Studies, University of Wisconsin Madison and Higher School of Economics, Moscow. Punsara can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org