Brief Overview of Sri Lanka's Foreign Relations to Post-Independence

Brief Overview of Sri Lanka’s Foreign Relations to Post-Independence



Sri Lanka has the distinction of being one of the few modern States which has remained a distinct sovereign entity for over 2000 years. It can also justifiably claim to have distinguished itself in the realm of international affairs for much of that time.

Sri Lanka’s introduction to international diplomacy occurred in epic circumstances when a momentous link was established in the 3rd century BC between the mighty Indian Emperor Asoka of the Mauryan dynasty and his Sri Lanka contemporary King Devanampiyatissa of Anuradhapura through the medium of the Emperor’s two personal emissaries, his son and daughter, Mahinda and Sanghamitta respectively, who brought Buddhism to Sri Lanka. Buddhism thus became the premier faith in Sri Lanka. In due course Sri Lanka became the second home of Buddhism from where it was carried to other countries. In fact, Buddhism became an impetus and an inspiration in the foreign policy of Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka enjoy a unique geographical location which is a combination of three vital geopolitical dimensions: its contiguity to the Indian subcontinent from where successive of civilization have emanated, its equidistant position between East Asia and East Africa which has enabled it to bestride that region, and its situation astride the sea lanes linking East and West which has made in the true meeting ground between East and West. That configuration of circumstances continues to this day to be the cornerstone of Sri Lanka’s international reputation. The wide are of the region thus became an area of influence for Sri Lanka especially in the first millennium AC.

Sri Lanka’s links with India continued to grow, initially with the North but with the emergence of South Indian kingdoms in the latter half of the first millennium the centre of gravity in Sri Lanka’s relations with India shifted to the South. Sri Lanka became embroiled in the power politics of Southern India. After standing up to successive threats through adroit bilateralism for two centuries, the Anuradhapura kingdom finally succumbed to the Cholan Empire. Although Anuradhapura liberated itself in due course, the South Indian kingdoms of Pandya and Vijayanagara continued to be threats which led to the downfall of the Sri Lankan kingdoms.

In the maritime sphere Sri Lanka had extensive foreign contacts which included imperial Rome, the Hellenistic kingdoms, the court of Axum in the Horn of Africa, the Sassanid kingdom in Persia, the Byzantine empire on the Western side and the maritime empire of Sri Vijaya, China, the kingdoms of Siam, Cambodia and Myanmar on the eastern side. The relationship with China was unique. It extended for five centuries AC, from the 5th to the 10th, and featured some sixteen delegations from Sri Lanka to the imperial court. Sri Lanka utilized its strategic location as a half way house to become an entrepot and an emporium in the maritime life of the region. Sri Lanka thereby become virtually the commercial hub of the region. This is borne out by the wealth of commercial artefacts of different origins found in the Island, and the places where they were discovered, which reveal the existence of several ports on the coast line of Sri Lanka. Further testimony to the ancient maritime connections of Sri Lanka comes from the number of names by which the Island was known, the abundance of references to it in the travel literature of the time, the number of famous travellers it attracted, all of which justify Tennent’s description of Sri Lanka as one of the best known islands in that time. With the rise of Islam, Sri Lanka became a base for Arab trading activities in the region.

A new chapter in the history of Sri Lanka began with the arrival of European powers in Asia, notably the Portuguese and the Dutch, beginning from the 15th century. Their quest for political and commercial footholds in the Island resulted in intermittent conflicts with local kingdoms. These conflicts culminated in the struggle against the Kandyan kingdom which withstood successive invasions, like Constantinople of old, but succumbed in 1815 to British rule in the wake of Britain’s mastery over India at that time.

British rule lasted almost 150 years and was the first real experience of foreign rule over the whole of the island. Reflecting on it at this juncture of the 50th anniversary of liberation a fair verdict on British rule would be that while, like all alien regimes, it had its drawbacks and limitations, especially in the economic and cultural areas these were balanced, if not outweighed, by positive contributions on the political side which were, primarily, the peace which the British regime brought, the administrative unification of the country, political experience in the development of parliamentary institutions, the rule of law, the growth of a commercial economy, albeit a dependent one, and the creation of a Western educated intelligentsia through the teaching of English which prepared the country for independence when it came. Political institutions like the legislative Assembly and the State Council became an arena where future leaders learnt the art of self government. It was presumably the political maturity which those early leaders showed that led to the bloodless and friendly transfer of power in 1948. British rule did not specifically provide any training in the formulation of foreign policy and the conduct of foreign relations, but it is significant that some of Sri Lanka’s first Ambassadors were veterans of the State Council.

With independence in 1948 foreign policy became a matter of paramount importance in view of the sensitive geopolitical situation of the Island against the background of the turmoil in the region at that time. This explains the Defence Pact with the United Kingdom, the erstwhile colonial ruler. A further indication of the importance ascribed to foreign policy assumption was the Prime Minister’s assumption of the portfolio of Foreign Affairs. The post–independence foreign policy of Sri Lanka could be divided into a number of phases.

The first could be described as the Commonwealth phase, the highlights of which were Sri Lanka’s opting for membership of the Commonwealth and Prime Minister D. S. Senanayake’s fullsome support for the Commonwealth, the Defence Pact with the United Kingdom, the launching of the Colombo Plan and Sri Lanka’s role at the San Francisco Peace Conference in 1951 which was in line with the decisions taken at the Colombo Foreign Minister’s conference of 1950. This phase ended more or less with the death of Prime Minister D. S. Senanayake and made way for what may be called the regional phase.

This second phase marked the beginnings of a turning away from the West, not in a spirit of antagonism, but to explore other contacts and relationships. The search for an Asian identity had already begun. It was first manifest at Purana Quila in 1947. Sri Lanka’s rice rubber Pact with China was a revolutionary event for that time as it incurred the displeasure of the United States of America. Prime Minister Sir John Kotelawala followed with the meeting of the Colombo Powers which was a significant step in the search for an Asian identity. That meeting did not go beyond an exchange of views and ideas though it certainly had an impact on the Geneva conference on Indo-China of 1954. The meeting of the Colombo powers had a surprising sequel in that it stage- managed the landmark Bandung Conference of 1955 which gave rise to Afro Asianism and opened the way later for the Non Aligned Movement. In tune with his own personality Sir John Kotelawala’s foreign policy was robust and dynamic. It was epitomized by his tour of many countries in order to project a favourable image of Sri Lanka and dispel ignorance of it.

The next phase is associated with Prime Minister S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, the Oxford educated liberal. It is rightly regarded as a sharp break from the past. He abrogated the United Kingdom Defence Pact and entertained notions of leaving the Commonwealth, not as an expression of hostility to the West but because he had a vision of universality as the appropriate foreign policy for Sri Lanka, which he saw as a potential Asian Switzerland. Prime Minister Bandaranaike, one of the greatest Asian thinkers on foreign policy, envisaged a world order where even small countries like Sri Lanka could help to resolve international problems and create peace and harmony in an embattled Cold War world. He shared with Jawaharlal Nehru the belief that through a policy of dynamic neutralism the Third World could play a mediatory role in the resolution of international conflicts through the United Nations. His policy of universality had another manifestation in his establishment of diplomatic missions in the Communist world as an expression of open hearted diplomacy.

In the next phase of Sri Lanka’s post-independence diplomatic history the policy of Non Alignment unfolded fully. Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike played a key role in the development of the Non Aligned Movement. In her first administration a highlight was the mini Summit of December 1962 where on her own initiative she convened a meeting of six Heads of State to help resolve the Sino Indian border conflict. She earned high praise for this from all concerned. Another monumental achievement was the Sirima Shasthri pact which resolved a long standing dispute with India over the status in Sri Lanka of plantations workers of Indian origin. The phase of Non-Alignment really blossomed forth in her second administration after the five year government of Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake. These were the Indian Ocean peace Zone proposal of 1971, the resolution of the dispute with India over Kachchativu Island in the Palk Strait and the Colombo Non Aligned Summit of September 1976 when the Prime Minister and Sri Lanka became the cynosure of the world. From being the world’s first woman Prime Minister Madam Bandaranaike had gained recognition as a figure of international stature.

The next phase under President Jayewardene cannot be characterized by a single caption as it was multidimensional and a blend of several elements, such as ties with the Commonwealth, the launching of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), faith in the United Nations, the commitment to disarmament as seen in his proposal for a World Disarmament.

Authority, However, its outstanding feature was the adoption of the open economy which has transformed the outlook and prospects of the nation.

Dr. Vernon Mendis

Deshamanya Dr. Vernon Mendis was a member of the first batch of officials recruited to form the country's Diplomatic Service, then, the Ceylon Overseas Service in 1949.

*(Above extract from Foreward, by Dr. Vernon Mendis*. From "Sri Lanka Foreign Affairs: A review of activities carried out during the period 1994-1998 with highlights of Sri Lanka's foreign relations in the post-independence period" published by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, February 1998).


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