Post Independence foreign policy of Sri Lanka - an Appraisal

Image: President Rajapakse was speaking at the National “Wap Magula” ceremony, the traditional beginning of the paddy cultivation season, held at Nikaweratiya in the North Western Province Oct 04, 2007.
"That left no choice to Sri Lanka other than acceptance of the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Accord and of an occupation peace keeping force. The IPKF was a fiasco as events proved. The signing of the Accord was the nadir of Sri Lankan diplomacy when the President ruefully admitted to not having a friend in the world. The real question to be asked was that of Marc Anthony "What cause withholds you then to mourn for him"."

by Vernon Mendis

(February 4, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Among the many fields of achievement of Sri Lanka throughout its exceptionally long and truly glorious history of over 2500 years, foreign policy was one in which it excelled and showed conspicuous ability. This record in fact began rather draw with the summit of the rapport between the mighty emperor Asoka and King Devanampiya Tissa of Sri Lanka and this tradition of Sri Lanka moving with the high and mighty and gaining their confidence has been one of the features of Sri Lankan diplomacy to which the Non-Aligned Summit in Colombo in 1976 bears witness. This diplomatic skill has been a continuing tradition from ancient to modern times reflecting an inborn flair among its rulers and its people. The Asokan link which introduced Buddhism to Sri Lanka gave Sri Lanka the secret weapon in its diplomatic armoury which was its commitment to Buddhism and the evangelical role which it played in disseminating it to the world particularly to China.

From this head start through the Mauryan link of the 3rd century BC Sri Lanka evinced a keen interest in knowing and finding its way in the world of its time. Some instances of this were its mission to the court of imperial Rome of Emperor Claudius, its contacts with the Hellenistic kingdoms of West Asia, with the Sassanid and Byzantine empires and on the eastern side its relations with China, Sri Vijaya and the Indo Chinese kingdoms. These were a combination of trade, religious and diplomatic links which reached its zenith during the first millennium AD when Sri Lanka became the commercial hub of the region where traders, foreign visitors converged using this country as a kind of international conference centre which it still is. The evidence of this are the references to the island, the various names by which it is known, the tributes lavished on it in the literature of the time which evoked Tennent’s description of Sri Lanka as one of the best known countries of ancient times. The European struggle for mastery of South Asia made Sri Lanka even more famous as the crucial strategic base which could determine the course of that struggle.

The extent to which the island was an issue in European diplomacy of the second half of the 18th century culminating in the Peace of Amiens of 1802 speaks for itself. At the same time Sri Lanka had to contend with shadows which were the overhanging nearness of India and its obviously coveted geographical location which was a potential attraction to outsiders. After all the Ming empire showed more than a passing interest in it and there was the invasion by Chandrabanu of Ligor. The basic moral which has remained unchanged is that instability within the island was an invitation and an incentive to neighbours, the most glaring instance of which was the involvement of Pandya in the 13th century capitalising on the turmoil caused by the invasion of Magha of Kalinga to establish a regime in the North. This culminated in one of the most ignominious events in Sri Lankan history in the devastating invasion by the Pandyan Arya Cakravarti at the end of the 13th century and his capture of the Tooth and Bowl relics.

With independence Sri Lanka showed that it was no stranger to foreign policy in the self-confident, positive diplomacy of Prime Minister D. S. Senanayake which had two key elements namely the Defence Pact with the UK of 1948 and his attachment to the Commonwealth on which he lavished high praise. The UK Defence Pact raised eyebrows in India as much as membership in the Commonwealth in view of India’s republican views. It possibly gave Sri Lanka a kind of pro-Western image in the eyes of the world and it cost it admission to the United Nations in 1948. The truth probably is that the Cold War was to blame rather than any question of Sri Lanka’s status or image. Whether there was a pro-Western bias remains an open question but in the opening years Sri Lanka was closely identified with Commonwealth initiatives both in the launching of the Colombo Plan in 1950 as the outcome of the Commonwealth Foreign Ministers Conference and in the key role which Sri Lanka through its doughty representative J. R. Jayewardene played at the San Francisco Peace Conference of 1951 in a virtual confrontation with the awesome Gromyko.

Any questions of being pro-West were dispelled with Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake’s coup of the Sri Lanka-China Rice Rubber Pact much to the mortification of the USA. Further shocks followed in the launching of the Colombo Powers by Sir John Kotelawala in seeming defiance and competition with the expanding SEATO. It is unlikely that these moves endeared Sri Lanka to the West and were definite signs of its originality and independence. Of course the matter of the Globemasters using Sri Lanka as a staging post and also Sir John’s truculence at Bandung towards both China and India are usually interpreted as marks of a secret pro-Western sympathy, or instigation by Western powers. All these doubts were swept overboard with the advent of S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike on the scene spearheading a diplomatic and political revolution.

The first was the opting for universality and the other the People’s Government expressive of the age of the common man. Universality in practice meant repudiation of attachments and focus on the UN to which Sri Lanka had been admitted, for its diplomatic initiatives. Shedding of ties was seemingly a blow to the UK but the diplomacy of Anthony Eden, his Oxford contemporary, avoided a confrontation and on the Commonwealth he changed his mind after initial reservations. Universality at a diplomatic plane was expressed by the establishment of diplomatic missions in the Soviet Union and China thus removing the earlier stigma of anti-Communism.

His initiatives at the UN bold as they were involving Hungary, Egypt and Lebanon fell short of expectations except over Suez where Sri Lanka played a prominent role in the London conference. Prime Minister Bandaranaike is best known for his policy of dynamic neutralism which he proclaimed at the United Nations and advocated as the appropriate and logical course open to Third World countries in their aspirations to play their rightful role in the international scene. He died with his visions unrealised and it was left to his widow Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike not only to continue his mission but even to strike out on new paths.

Mrs. Bandaranaike made history not only as the world’s first Prime Minister but also as a statesman of world class. As a founder member of Non Alignment she gave practical shape to dynamic neutralism to make it a driving force for the Third World in world affairs and the choice of Sri Lanka as the venue for the 5th Non Aligned Summit was a signal recognition of her leadership role. Her proposal for the declaration of the Indian Ocean as a zone of peace was a genuine expression of adherence to its tenets to rid the world of tensions arising from militaristic confrontations.

At a domestic level the Sirima-Sastri Pact which she concluded with India in 1964 was a monumental achievement which not only resolved an outstanding problem but laid the foundation for meaningful cooperation between the two countries especially in the realm of world affairs. This affirmed the historical reality that the personal relationship and chemistry is at the heart of Indo-Sri Lankan diplomacy which could mitigate the effect of the overshadowing a symmetries. The success of Mrs. Bandaranaike’s statesmanship was a classic illustration of this which would cost Sri Lanka dearly if overlooked, as happened later. The period from 1956 till the end of Mrs. Bandaranaike’s second administration in 1977 can be regarded as a high watermark in its foreign policy when through its Non Alignment role, the personal charisma and statesmanship of Mrs. Bandaranaike, Sri Lanka gained international prestige.

High expectations were entertained of the government of Mr. J. R. Jayewardene which assumed office in 1977 in view of his reputation as a international statesman, wide knowledge, erudition and experience as a sage, long standing political leader in Sri Lanka going back to the freedom movement. His opening declarations of foreign policy affirmed his commitment to Non Alignment which he described as a golden thread and to ethical values in dealings between peoples and states. In his early years in office he attracted international attention by his proposals on Disarmament in the way of the establishment of an InternationalAuthority on Disarmament followed by Sri Lanka’s initiatives in this field at the United Nations through its membership of the Geneva Committee. He also took a leading role in initiatives over the establishment of a new international economic order which occasioned his proposal at the Non Aligned Summit in New Delhi in 1983 that Mrs. Gandhi as Chairman should lead a delegation of heads of states to meet Heads of Developed Countries to discuss means of alleviating the economic crisis facing Third World countries. A landmark step was taken by him in 1980 in the inauguration of SAARC as a community aimed at promoting economic cooperation between South Asian states. It became a fully fledged regional association as SAARC with its Summit of 1985.

The President further attached great importance to the Commonwealth as another arm of Sri Lanka’s international links. A turning point in foreign policy which enhanced it was the adoption of a open economy which paved the way for active interaction between Sri Lanka and international capital. The way seemed open for an era of unprecedented progress and achievement. Unfortunately fate decreed otherwise due to misjudgements in diplomacy.

These arose in bilateral relations in Sri Lanka’s ill-advised support of UK in the Falkland Islands operation which cost it the support of the Non Aligned world and its involvement with India in the running score of the LTTE conflict Both placed Sri Lanka in a position of dangerous isolation in the world. The problem with India had its roots in the conflict of the Sri Lanka government with the LTTE where India claiming a fraternal interest adopted the contradictory position of insisting on a negotiated settlement which the LTTE repeatedly rejected as at Thimpu and simultaneously training the militants which scarcely disposed them to a settlement. When Sri Lanka in this dilemma resolved on an all out military offensive India preemptorily forbade it sending the food drop as a veiled threat with paratroopers ready to effect a drop. That left no choice to Sri Lanka other than acceptance of the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Accord and of an occupation peace keeping force. The IPKF was a fiasco as events proved. The signing of the Accord was the nadir of Sri Lankan diplomacy when the President ruefully admitted to not having a friend in the world. The real question to be asked was that of Marc Anthony "What cause withholds you then to mourn for him". This was the measure of Sri Lanka’s diplomatic crisis at that juncture. Why India acted this way to a close neighbour and friend is much debated but the Dixit memoirs throws light on this. A short answer is the overhanging reality that the relationship with India is the underlying Achilles heel which should always be reckoned with, which if it goes awry can bring to naught the plans of mice and men. The Jayewardene regime thus ended under a cloud in foreign policy and the short-lived Premadasa administration endeavoured to relieve the agony with the withdrawal of the IPKF and an activated SAARC.

In foreign policy the record of the present government has been a steady rise from these depths to an empyrean of self confidence and restoration of the pristine image which has been achieved by a tour de force of personal diplomacy by the charismatic President and the dynamic Foreign Secretary. In a masterly strategy they have first combated and overcome the prevailing prejudices against Sri Lanka in the international community engineered by the LTTE and in this setting they have succeeded in obtaining an impressive volume of economic assistance in soft loans, grants, credits from a number of developed countries which open promising vistas of economic progress to Sri Lanka which could hopefully make it the hub of the oncoming Asian century.

More than ever Sri Lanka finds itself back in the international community enjoying its respect and fellowship and interacting purposefully with it for the attainment of its national objectives. Universality has been matched by fruitful and cordial regionalism in a happy blend of multilateralism and bilateralism which traditionally has been the keynote of Sri Lankan foreign policy and the secret of its success.

The sacrifice of one for the other could have a discordant effect as happened in 1987 and bounce the challenge to Sri Lanka foreign policy is to find the golden mean which at times seems unattainable like the of Hesperides.