25 July, 2021

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Was He A Missing Member Of Cambridge Spy Ring? The Untold Story Of Sri Lanka’s Legendary Communist Leader Pieter Keuneman

By Punsara Amarasinghe

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.

Picture of Pieter Keuneman meeting a Soviet official in Moscow in 1974

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 punsaraprint10@gmail.com 

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Latest comments

  • 7
    4

    A nonentity passes judgement on an accomplished political leader.
    “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. Therefore, today’s interpretation toward characters like Peter Keuneman should be lenient as they were products of their own ideological integrity”.

    • 5
      0

      There was nothing on Pieter Keuneman for the British intelligence.
      A subjective mind digging for evidence can always find something to fit in with his prejudices.
      PK was perhaps the most pro-Soviet in the Communist Party. But there was no secret about it.
      There is still much ideological and political criticism of PK within Left circles; but no personal attacks.
      To stir suspicion that he was a spy is mischief which will delight Red Baiters.
      My only complaint is about you plea for leniency.
      PK needs no apology on his behalf. He did what he believed.

  • 4
    5

    Punsara Amarasinghe,

    When I read your article, I filter and consider your favorable comments about Pieter keneman as gospel truths and leave the rest as some ignorant hearsay or gossip.

    Pieter Keuneman was my childhood hero .I consider him as one of those who inspired and guided me to sympathize with socialism, equity and equality, others being NM, Colvin, Edmund and other LSSP leaders.

    When someone writes or says anything bad about them rightly or wrongly, it pains me. They were my idols in my boyhood. They may have their pluses and minuses, who are we to judge them.

    When you try to evaluate any historic figure or historic event, the context is important and the context justify the contributions made by Keuneman as an outstanding Parliamentarian, humanist and an intellectual par excellence.

    They were worthy of being role models to the youth of that era.

    Finally, Thank you Pulsara for reminding us such a historic figure at this turbulent time in Sri Lanka

  • 1
    3

    A riveting piece of Communism and espionage during the times of Pieter Keuneman.

    • 0
      1

      What rivets one speaks volumes about the riveted one.

  • 7
    3

    This article is unnecessarily sensational.
    It is true that Kueneman was a Communist. He didn’t try to hide it, nor was it illegal. Burgess, MacLean, etc went on into the highest ranks of the British Civil Service, and were in a position to pass on valuable information. PK went back home and agitated for Independence. What information could he have passed to the Soviets ? The number of holes in the Navy’s flagship?

    • 5
      1

      OC
      I wonder if CT needed something sensational.
      News on the GR-MR rule is getting rather routine and even boring I suppose.
      *
      To the credit of the Cambridge Five they did not do it for money.
      This from Yuri Modin their “handler” is interesting:
      “In his 1994 book, Modin (their controller, starting in 1948) revealed that in the early days Moscow did not really trust the Cambridge Five, British agents who were passing secret information to the Soviet Union. The KGB had difficulty believing that the men would have access to top secret documents; they were particularly suspicious of Philby, wondering how he could have become an agent given his Communist past. According to a review of Modin’s book, “the center concluded that all five must really be British intelligence officers trying to penetrate the KGB”.
      (Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yuri_Modin)

      • 0
        0

        S.J,
        What a convoluted plot the Cold War was! According to recent information, the West was trying to close a “missile gap” which didn’t exist, and the Soviets were trying to display missiles they didn’t have. We are lucky to be alive.

        • 0
          0

          OC
          Thanks.
          But, don’t you think that we were too far outside the firing range to be even collateral damage.
          Exaggeration of the enemy’s strength certainly helps certain categories of business and career.

    • 3
      1

      “This article is unnecessarily sensational.”

      Spot on!

      Now it’s in vogue to create an alternate reality ………. a la Fox-News ………..

      Rupert Murdoch’s influence is greater than that of Christ, Buddha, Mohamed, Vishnu, Marx, Elvis ……….. all put together ………. perhaps with the exception of Trump and Mahinda ………

      Rupert is the new messiah!

      Hope he could lead us to the Promised Land ………. when others couldn’t!

      He hasn’t much time left

  • 2
    2

    It is very unlikely that Comrade Pieter would have spied. It would have been an affront to his personality.

    However, it should be stated that whenever it rained in Russia our communists pulled out their umbrellas!

  • 2
    2

    It is very unlikely that Comrade Pieter would have spied. It would have been an affront to his personality.

    However, it should be stated that whenever it rained in Russia our communists pulled out their umbrellas in Colombo!

  • 8
    3

    Old Codger, a good question, what information did Keuneman , this young student from Ceylon have of espionage value? Our intellectual scholarship , if this article is representative , is shallow.

    I do not know of any writing of international standard originating here, if there is any, only a tiny drop for a relatively large population. Of course , our guys praise each other, but the rest of the world is silent ! Perhaps they are embarrassed !

    We will say that too is a conspiracy, but we also can see what is cheese and what is chalk.

    Compared to the smelly nonsense that is called leadership in this country today, old Left leaders were well read, sophisticated, and financially honest. They had imbibed some of the best ideas and attitudes that came from the West.

    It seems that the local culture has only pious postures and hypocrisy as substitutes . A culture that can only mass produce mediocrities.

    • 2
      1

      DS,
      “It seems that the local culture has only pious postures and hypocrisy as substitutes . A culture that can only mass produce mediocrities”
      Amen to that.

    • 0
      1

      “They had imbibed some of the best ideas and attitudes that came from the West.”
      Far better ethical values are Oriental.

  • 3
    2

    Intellectual conviction and commitment to social justice drove the great figures of the old left – NM, Colvin, Keuneman, Edmund, Philip, Leslie, Dr. S.A.Wickremasinghe, etc. – to embrace Marxist ideologies in spite of their privileged backgrounds. They were at the forefront of the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles, and rendered great service to the working class and the poor of this country. Naturally they, just like the English Communists, came under suspicion by the British government of being possible enemy agents. But as the writer points out there were no evidence of any treasonous activity on the part of Pieter and other Sri Lankan leftist leaders despite their ideological allegiance to the Soviets. They also stood up for a secular and pluralistic Sri Lanka for well over three decades. But the “revolution” always stayed around the corner and never showed up. As a result they decided to change their political strategy. Sadly, they gave in to the dictates of “united front” electoral politics and made concessions to the rising tide of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism. But still … they were leaders of great mettle and caliber. A far cry from the Velicha Watakkas of that are

    • 1
      2

      If these ‘intellectual’ buffoons’ set the country on a firm footing, why is the country in a mess today. They all including SWRD and Felix were privileged off-springs of wealthy Ceylonese of the time who received their education in the West. Communism and Socialism were in vogue at that time. None of these ‘intellectual idiots’ were practical thinkers or politicians. They should have studied King Ashoka in India to figure out what is fit for the Ceylonese society and culture. Then came Wijeweera to put the icing on the cake. Pol Pot of SL.

      These ‘idiots’ had nothing else to do other than fighting for political leadership in the country. The country suffered. When faced with a bank strike, Dr. NM fired all the strikers! This was the person who started the trade unions. Later on Reagan repeated it in the US, so did Thatcher in the UK.

      We had practical and benevolent politicians in Ceylon. They were affiliated with the UNP. Somaweera Chandrasiri and MS Themis coming to the parliament to become ministers was a cruel joke on the people. The sitting bunch is the same.

      The principles of governance was already in our culture. Buddhism and King Ashoka has shown us the way. Not Lenin, Trotsky, and Mao. Stop hero worshipping these theoreticians. Lets start with enforcing the rule of law and an impartial educated judiciary.

  • 3
    2

    [Part 2 – Contd. from above]
    .
    A far cry from the Velicha Watakkas of today’s self-parody of the left. They have ended up as monthly recipients of fat cheques from the bourgeois state for furnishing the Rajapaksa Bandit Family with a progressive veneer.

  • 0
    0

    All was a student gambit at Cambridge at the expense of the Lankan state, after of which attained high position in Sri Lankan parliament for show and tell. In the meantime Lankans who were truly struggling rose up in hopeless rebellion only to get tortured and massacred, whilst their man in parliament sat merely jawing, socializing and holding intellectual discussions about foreign communist jargon, all the while preventing a man of the masses from doing the necessary for struggling countrymen.

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