Skip to Content

Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2956

Don Dharmasena: Yesteryear U.S. Public Diplomacy activist dies at 100

By Daya Gamage – An Asian Tribune Tribute
Los Angeles, California. 07 September, (

In the early 1950’s when the United States diplomatic mission in Sri Lanka was developing its public affairs program – which is obviously linked to the public diplomacy strategy – the hierarchy of the American Embassy, the ambassador included, turned to two persons to put the foundation to its reach to the general public, media and the officials in the Government of Sri Lanka who were in a position to influence policymakers: Subramanian Chettiah and H. Don Dharmasena.

Mr. Chettiah, who one edited the widely-read Tamil newspaper, the official organ of the Tamil political party Federal Party Suthanthiran, had a good rapport with Tamil political activists including their parliamentarians and the media, while Mr. Dharmasena was connected to the Sinhalese media and Sri Lanka government officials who were running the state media, and other officials who had influence in formulating policies on public affairs and connected issues.

Both Chettiah and Dharmasena collectively maintained close relationship, rapport and discourse with those who were running the English language media as well.

The fifties were the beginning of Washington’s endeavor to cultivate relations with those in Sri Lanka who were connected to public affairs and public diplomacy; was very much interested in strategic communication. Political parties with nationalistic agenda were emerging, and that scenario affected the mass media and politicians who were in constant contact with the ‘nationalistic’ media of both the Sinhalese and Tamil. The English media could not escape that trajectory during that period.

Mr. Dharmasena, with Mr. Chettiah, was middle of this transition since the mid-1950 when American diplomacy was taking shape in this South Asian nation. Dharmasena was a stalwart who placed the foundation for that American diplomacy that took-off in the 1960’s well over to the 1970’s.

Introduced to the American Embassy for media work by Prinse Gunasekara in early 1950s, the emerging national-socialist who later went onto become a political stalwart in Sri Lanka’s political arena until he fled the country in 1989 for serious security reasons, Dharmasena was not a socialist but had staunch nationalist mind which helped to shape American diplomacy to suit the nationalist fervor during the 1950s through 1960’s. By the time Sri Lanka’s nationalism, both Sinhala and Tamil, emerged in the early 1970’s, the United States diplomatic mission in Colombo, Sri Lanka had put a solid foundation for Washington to implement its foreign-policy planks beyond the 1970’s to the new millennium.


H. Don Dharmasena, the senior Information Specialist for the now-defunct U.S. Information Agency, was largely responsible for that Washington’s endeavors.

Mr. Dharmasena, the veteran public affairs activist who served the U.S. Government from early-1950’s to late 1970’s passed away on September 03 at the ripe age of 100.

Attributed to Abraham Lincoln was this saying: It’s Not the Years in Your Life That Count. It’s the Life in Your Years. Mr. Dharmasena had a very rich life, a fruitful life, a passionate life, and a valuable contribution in those years.

This writer had the privilege of being his Information Assistant from June 1970 through 1978, the year he retired from the Federal Government, witnessing and benefitting from his acumen which was associated with good judgment and forward-looking ability. This writer is indebted to Mr. Dharmasena for helping to lay a good foundation for himself for the critically analyze methods engaged in investigative research and, of course be a good media man.

Mr. Dharmasena often handled, with tact, hostile media environment against the United States within the island of Sri Lanka. His contacts with the mass media, those who controlled state media network – both Sinhala and English – and Sri Lanka government officials who were associating with the handling of the media were intimate enough to settle scores between them and the issues arose due to Washington’s foreign policy decisions.

He worked very closely with Subramanian Chettiah, who was the head of the media unit of the public affairs division of the US Information Agency’s Colombo office, to put across the Sinhalese beliefs and sentiments to the Tamil media network and the politicians of the Tamil people to reduce the passions which were well connected to both Sinhalese and Tamil nationalism rapidly emerging during that era: Often engaged with senior American Foreign Service officials stationed in Colombo to make them knowledgeable of the prevailing scenario in Sri Lankan society at all levels.

This writer had up-close and personal knowledge of the manner in which Mr. Dharmasena discharged his duties, despite worked for the United States Government, nevertheless, never relinquished his affinity and love toward his country of birth – Sri Lanka- when dealing with volatile issues.

USIS in the fifties were translating books for the public done by the son of A.E. Gunasinghe, who was Labor Party Member of Parliament. Several books were sent to London to a Sinhala/English scholar for review, and he gave very bad reviews prompting the head of the USIS (an American official) to discontinue him.

Prinse Gunasekara, who was teaching at Ananda College in Colombo was doing some translations for the USIS during that time, while on the editorial board of the Sinhala daily newspaper Lankadipa.

When USIS wanted a translator/information assistant, Mr. Dharmasena who was teaching at Dharmasoka Pirivena within the premises of the Vidyalankara Piriven was contacted by Mr. Gunasekara which helped Mr. Dharmasena in the early fifties to join the press section of the American Embassy. Subramaian Chettiah was already in employment in the USIS doing English/Tamil work for the USIS.

It was Mr. Dharmasena who founded the ‘American Pravurthi’ (American News) as a periodic publication disseminating American way of life, culture, economic achievement, political/historic achievements and foreign policy.

When this writer met him last year for a prolonged conversation over lunch at his residence in California, and umpteenth time on phone – the latest was a week before his demise – we exchanged those pleasant memories.

Despite Mr. Dharmasena was fast approaching his centenary birthday, he was in sound mind despite he lost his vision many years ago.

I have no doubt that many in Sri Lanka – one person I could remember is the veteran journalist, commentator, writer and author Mr. Edwin Ariyadasa – will fondly remember Mr. Dharmasena and his great contribution to public affairs and strategic communication in Sri Lanka. Another, Philip Fernando, who lives in California, was a senior journalist at Daily News/Observer in Lake House who valued Mr. Dharmasena’s association.

Personally, I enriched myself due to my long – fifty year – association with him who had animosity toward none but full of love and affection.

May He Attain the Supreme Bliss of Nirvana.

- Asian Tribune -

Mr. H.Don Dharmasena, a veteran public affairs specialist (1953-1979) at United States Information Agency’s Colombo, Sri Lanka office who died at the age of 100 on September 03,2019 with his onetime public affairs assistant in the ‘70s, Daya Gamage. The picture was taken last year when this writer visited him in his California residenc
diconary view
Share this