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Sri Lanka And Gun Boat Diplomacy

| by Gamini Weerakoon

( November 10, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) While our brothers in New Delhi are getting hot over their collarless kurtas over Chinese submarines docking in the Colombo harbour, the Chinese Defence Ministry with casual detachment issued a statement claiming that Chinese ships and submarines call in Colombo Port to refuel and allow their crews to rest.

We realised that Chinese warships calling in Sri Lankan ports is nothing new. They did it as far back as in the 14th Century.

Reading in an effort to educate ourselves in Sri Lankan history though late in life, the book Political History of the Yapahuwa, Dambadeniya, Kurunegala by bureaucrat (Ceylon Civil Service) and academician the late Dr.P.A.T.Gunasinghe, we came across the statement that a ruler of the Kotte Kingdom, Vira Alakeswara was captured by the Chinese. He states: “The records of the Chinese who captured him at the end of his chequered career say that Alakeswara was a heretic who did cruel acts against Buddhism and there is no reason to disbelieve these records”. Later in the text it is stated: according to Chinese records, the capture of Vira Alakeswara by the Chinese General Cheng Ho took place in 1411.

Admiral Cheng Ho

Our inquiries elsewhere revealed that Cheng Ho also known as Zheng He ( 1371—1433) was a eunuch, mariner, explorer and Admiral of a Fleet during China’s early Ming Dynasty and led voyages to South Asia, Middle East and East Africa from 1405 to 1433. He had left a trilingual inscription (Chinese, Persian and Tamil) in Galle which was discovered in 1911 and is now preserved in the Colombo National Museum. In the inscription it is stated: Praises the Buddha and describes the famous Buddhist Tenevarai Nayana Temple of Tondesvaram. He conducted seven expeditions with massive fleets one such fleet comprising: 62 treasure ships supported by 190 smaller ships and a crew of 27,000 sailors.

These facts indicate that the entry of Chinese vessels into the Indian Ocean is not something new although the warm and cordial ties that existed between the two countries from time immemorial as the present day saying goes may not have included capture of Sri Lankan rulers.

Portuguese Gun Boat Diplomacy

While the Chinese did engage in Gun Boat Diplomacy for good or bad for centuries so did powerful nations attempting to colonise the world. The most dramatic example of Gun Boat Diplomacy experienced by Sri Lankans was when Lorenzo de Almeida of Portugal took refuge in the Colombo harbour from the vagaries of wind and wave. Spies of Kotte, only a few miles from the harbour as the crow flies, reported it to the king. There is in our harbour of Colombo a race of people, fair of skin and comely withal. They don jackets of iron they rest not a minute; they eat hunks of stone and drink blood the report of their cannon is louder than thunder when it bursts on the rock of Yugandhara. Their cannon balls fly many a guava and shatter fortresses of granite.

This is a classic instance of Gun Boat Diplomacy of colonial powers of the 16th Century that continued to be practiced till almost the end of the 18th Century: Sail into a country far removed from the advancing military technology of Western nations and fire cannon into the country, the sound of which has not been heard by inhabitants before to scare them out of their wits. The Sinhalese were not overawed by this show of power although they mistook bread for chunks of stone and wine for blood. They tried their guile to hide the distance of Kotte from the Colombo harbour and took the Portuguese on a deceptively long route. But Gun Boat Diplomacy prevailed because the Portuguese kept firing their guns at regular intervals and after long hours of marching when they came to Kotte the sound of cannons beng fired was quite distinct.

Sinhalese too can’t complain about brigands landing in their country in boats though without guns and ruining it. Vijaya and his 500 swashbuckling brigands came down from Bengal along the Indian coast on a boat, sans guns (there were no guns at that time) enticed the ruling queen Kuveni, took over the Island and started the Sinhala race.

Indian diplomacy

Of course there were continuous boat invasions sans guns from our friendly neighbouring continent since the Chola invasion, till 1987 when South Indian politician Vaiko led a bum boat invasion which was halted in mid seas by the Sri Lankan navy. That did not deter our neighbour who followed up with parripu diplomacy, dropping bread and dhal to the Jaffna people-from air force planes. The guns were replaced by the humanitarian commodity of parripu.

So, Gun Boat Diplomacy or its evolved forms will continue in the Indian Ocean despite the determined efforts by late Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike and her big sister, late Indira, across the Palk Strait almost four decades ago.

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