By Rajan Philips –
DS Senanayake’s foreign policy was simple and straightforward even though Dr NM Perera poured scorn on it, calling it: “Anglo mania and India phobia”. This controversial starting point of independent Ceylon’s foreign policy reflected the political dominance of a certain worldview espoused by DS Senanayake and his UNP government in contrast to the alternative thesis advanced by the island’s political Left. There were other considerations in between, especially the political relationship between the Sinhalese and the Tamils. Overall, the conflicting attitudes to Anglos (or the West in general) and India at the political level were influenced by domestic political differences arising from their respective social bases and ideological biases, as well as the egotistical impulses of individual leaders. The relative dominance of these attitudes in domestic politics has shaped the twists and turns in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy since independence.
Starting with “Anglo mania and India phobia” under DS Senanyake, steered along the non-alignment road by the Bandaranaikes, and reversed abruptly and then turned sharply into a ‘game-changing’ agreement with India by JR Jayewardene, Lanka’s foreign policy attitudes have been veering towards “China mania and Anglo-Indo phobia” under Mahinda Rajapaksa. Yet, the country not only cannot cut itself loose from either the West or from India, but also does not want to sever those connections. Therein is the dilemma for Sri Lanka despite establishing numerous independent connections with other countries and nations from China to Russia to Cuba over the last sixty years. The hosting of the 2013 Commonwealth summit brings into sharp focus how this dilemma has been playing out in Sri Lankan politics from the Premiership of DS Senanayake to the Presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa. And Commonwealth is the one forum where, despite the organization’s growing irrelevance in the world, Sri Lanka’s present and its future come to terms with its colonial past and its geographical reality at the same time.
Jungle John and Oxford Solomon
Don Stephen Senanayake’s worldview and pro-western tilt were a direct colonial inheritance that had tied up Sri Lanka’s trade and economy, as well as higher education and elite mobility to good old Britain. His ‘anti-Indianism’ in foreign policy was partly colonial legacy that had separated the administration of the island from that of the subcontinent, partly native prejudices, and partly the political agenda to deny citizenship to immigrant Indian workers and to malign the Left as Indian agents. This is not to deny the obvious admiration that most Sri Lankan political leaders, including DS Senanayake and others in the UNP, would have had for the Indian independence movement and its frontline leaders. Nor was DS Senanayake subservient to British officialdom. In fact he began his political life rebelling against British officialdom. In the end, he proved to be the safest vehicle for an orderly transfer of power while averting political agitation. DS Senanayake was not anti-imperialistic but that did not make him unpatriotic. True to becoming father of the budding nation with British blessing, and its first Prime Minister (1947-52), he saw the future of Sri Lanka unfolding prosperously in the shadow of the old empire.
Others, especially the Left, saw it differently. But the alternative foreign policy thrust would arise not from the Left but from SWRD Bandaranaike after he defected from the UNP and founded the SLFP. However, it would be farfetched to attribute the foreign policy differences between DS Senanayake and the UNP, on the one hand, and SWRD Bandaranaike and the Left on the other, to the difference between a supposedly dichotomous Western view of things and a contrastingly unifying Eastern vision. That is the thesis Rajiva Wijesinha appears to have delivered in a conference in distant Rio de Janeiro, embellishing it as well with the mango tree riddle that the great Mahinda Thera posed to King Tissa to test the King’s cerebral readiness for conversion. When sociological explanations are not elaborating the obvious they end up missing the obvious. This is a case in point. To cut to the chase, in comparison to his political rivals, DS Senanayake, the celebrated Jungle John, was the quintessential rustic and a lifelong Buddhist, but who instinctively separated his personal faith from his political role. The others were mostly either ‘Ox-bridge purists or London practicals’, to modify Dr Colvin’s swipe at SWRD. The explanations for the differences among them, and there is quite a range of them, are best found in the political circumstances surrounding them as well as the personal characteristics and quirks of individual actors. There has been quite a range of actors too – DS, Dudley, Sir John, SWRD, Mrs. B, JRJ, Premadasa, and now Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike was far more the child of colonial comfort and upbringing than DS Senanayake ever was. He was the most westernized political leader in Sri Lankan history. He was also more subservient to officialdom during the colonial rule than DS Senanayake. And unlike the latter, SWRD, Anglican by birth and upbringing, realigned his faith to be in conformity with his political role. But once he cut himself loose from the UNP and DS Senanayake, Bandaranaike was able to bring his intellectual abilities to envisage new directions for Sri Lankan foreign policy. As Prime Minister (1956-59), he was in ready agreement with the concept of and the movement for non-alignment among emerging countries articulated and spearheaded by Nehru, Nasser and Tito, the founding fathers of non-alignment. He also set in motion the process of diversifying Sri Lanka’s external contacts by starting to establish diplomatic ties with communist countries. He ordered the closure of British air and naval bases in the island and steered its foreign policy towards non-alignment. However, non-alignment for SWRD did not mean the severance of Sri Lanka’s ties with Britain or the West. He held in high regard the educational links that Sri Lanka had developed with Britain and even personally intervened to help gifted students obtain funds to pursue their studies in Britain. One such beneficiary was Lalith Athulathmudali. SWRD also authorized Sir John Kotelawala, his defeated rival, to transfer private funds from Sri Lanka to buy a farm in England. He did not send his rival to jail.
While not a foreign policy matter, it is instructive to note, in the current context of the Rajapaksa regime and its National Security paranoia, that one of the early actions taken by SWRD as Prime Minister was to disband the Public Security Department that had been set up by Prime Minister Kotelawala directly under his command to spy on opposition political parties and subvert their activities. Although beleaguered during his short tenure and ultimately murdered by sociopolitical miscreants, SWRD Bandaranaike innovatively tried to create a free and fair playing field for parliamentary politics, a culture of tolerance for political dissent, and respect for freedom of expression and freedom of the press. There have also been suggestions that he was planning to retire after his first term and to that end he was working towards a coalition with the Left Parties under a different SLFP leader. As a true democrat he was not thinking of extending his term but he was planning a proper democratic succession that would certainly not have included anyone from his family. He had neither patience nor tolerance for family bandyism. The participants at the Commonwealth summit must know that democratic traditions have been taking root in Sri Lanka in the past but they are now being uprooted and discarded by none other than the host government at the summit.
After his untimely death, non-alignment became a cherished Bandaranaike principle in foreign policy for the SLFP governments of Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike (1960-64 and 1970-77). The SLFP governments also forged new economic and educational ties with East European countries. But these ties were motivated more by ideological inspirations than trade or economic considerations, and the resulting industrial corporations established in Sri Lanka with Soviet assistance all ended in failure within their first twenty five years. Soviet educational ties have also disappeared after the collapse of the socialist second world.
In contrast and ironically under a UNP government, Sri Lanka signed the highly beneficial Rubber-rice Pact with China in 1952. Although the pact was a perfect outcome in the prevailing global circumstances, the pact itself was not the result of any shift in the UNP’s foreign policy or new trade strategies at that time, but the result of its egotistical championing by the then Trade Minister, Richard Gotablaya (RG) Senanayake, to humiliate the then Finance Minister, Junius Richard Jayewardene, who was known for his pro-American views and was dubbed by the Left as Lanka’s “Yankee Dickie”. RG was the maverick scion of the Senanayake clan and a bitter rival of JR Jayewardene, and both were Ministers in the short-lived (1952-53) government of Dudley Senanayake. In the byzantine world of the old UNP, RG Senanayake was a paternal cousin of Dudley Senanayake and a marital kinsman of JR Jayewardene, and to complete the loop RG’s younger sister (Neela) was married to Dudley’s younger brother (Robert) in a somewhat unusual parallel cousin marriage. The political significance of the marriage was that because of her devotion to her brother she did everything she could to undermine the relationship between Dudley and JRJ. Be that as it may.
In the 1960s, Mrs. Bandaranaike went further and started the tradition of inviting China to build political monuments in Sri Lanka starting with the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Centre (BMICH). The tradition has been immensely expanded under President Rajapaksa with a mixture soft Chinese munificence and hard infrastructure loans. In a manner of speaking, the 2013 Commonwealth summit will take place under China’s shadow in the Mahinda Rajapaksa Nelum Pokuna Auditorium in Colombo built by the Chinese government as a gift to President Rajapaksa. Although not the person for rhetorical flourishes like her husband, Mrs. Bandaranaike chose a state banquet in Beijing to deliver the celebrated broadside against the West, calling it the “rapacious West” to the delight of her speech writers. As Prime Minister, she spectacularly hosted the summit of the Non-Aligned countries in 1976, but the summit show could not save her government from being thoroughly routed in the election an year later, in 1977.
The paradox in the connection between foreign policy and domestic politics under SLFP governments was the relationship with India. While distancing themselves from the West and reaching out to China and Pakistan, the SLFP governments of the Bandaranaikes maintained a positive relationship with Indian government and a very cordial personal relationship with the Nehru family. But the special friendship with India did not stop the SLFP governments from appearing to side with China during the Sino-Indian border dispute and from overtly siding with Pakistan during India’s liberation of Bangladesh. Yet, for India’s part, Prime Minister Nehru sent Cardinal Valerian Gracias of Bombay to facilitate a settlement between the SLFP government and the local Catholics during the school takeover crisis; Lal Bahdur Shastri accepted the repatriation of half the upcountry Tamil population under the Sirima-Shastri Agreement; Indira Gandhi chose to forego whatever claim India could have asserted in regard to the islet of Kachchatheevu located between Jaffna and Tamil Nadu; and it was said anecdotally that during the 1971 JVP insurrection, the Indian Navy threw a protective cordon around Sri Lanka to prevent any outside intervention. Mrs. Bandaranaike’s exceptional act of cordiality during the Non-Aligned summit was inviting Indira Gandhi to stay at the Temple Trees, the PM’s official residence, and herself moving to the family home at Rosmead Place in Colombo. Quite a contrast to the current Commonwealth summit, with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh keeping Colombo guessing whether he would attend the summit or not.
In contrast as well, the Sri Lankan Tamil question did not explode to the point of involving India directly in Sri Lankan affairs during the time of the Bandaranaikes as it did in subsequent years starting from President Jayewardene to the current situation under Prersident Rajapaksa. The language question, language-based discrimination in the hiring and promotion of public servants, repatriation of Tamil plantation workers, media-wise standardization in university admissions, and the constitutional overhaul in 1972 repudiating not only the informal communal compact underlying the Soulbury Constitution but also the formal pact between SWRD Bandaranaike and SJV Chelvanayakam (the pact that RG Senanayake described to his cousin Dudley as one that will leave the Bandaranaike name written in letters of gold in Lanka’s history!) – were all accomplished over two decades between 1956 and 1977 under Bandaranaike governments. But except for occasional expressions of concern from Madras (Chennai) elites, there was no formal reaction at the government level either in Chennai or in New Delhi. In fact, on repatriation and Kachchatheevu, Delhi gave the Sri Lankan government everything it asked for. But everything changed after 1977, and nothing has been the same. How so?
It would be simplistic to attribute this sea change to the shift in foreign policy since 1977 under JR Jayewardene’s UNP government. JRJ made no bones about his intentions to dispense with non-alignment and realign Sri Lanka with the West. To him it was a natural restoration, and he took his landslide electoral victory as a vindication of every idiosyncrasy that was part of his political makeup. “Let the robber barons come”, he declared opening the economy to the West at the national level. Looking locally at the village level, he assured that good times are back again recalling the old good times before 1956, as he saw them, when “no village wedding was complete without ball cheese and cream crackers.” But these changes alone would not have brought about the estrangement between the government of Jayewardene and that of Indira Gandhi. JRJ and his UNP propagandists may have crossed the line in dragging the name of Indira Gandhi into their campaign jokes to ridicule Mrs. Bandaranaike at home. Just as JRJ did not forgive Mrs. Bandaranaike for arresting his son during the JVP insurrection in 1971, Mrs. Gandhi may not have forgotten R. Premadasa’s crude platform jokes at her expense and that of her younger son Sanjay.
But the bigger issue was the Tamil question. After the Bandaranaikes had sown the communal wind and left the political scene, it was left to JR Jayewardene to reap the whirlwind. By changing the constitution and prolonging his tenure JRJ inadvertently extended his own agony of having to deal with the Tamil problem that had by now gone off the systemic rail of constitutional politics into the anti-systemic quagmire of political violence. India’s involvement in the matter was the result of many factors on both sides of the Palk Straits. The riots of 1977, 1981 and 1983 struck a sympathetic chord in Tamil Nadu. Immediately after 1983 India became the largest recipient of Tamils leaving the island in droves. The passage of the Sixth Amendment in 1983, as was duly noted in the 2005 Sarath Silva Supreme Court ruling that stopped President Kumaratunga from stretching her second term tenure, shut the door on the systemic Tamil politics of the TULF and opened the door to the anti-systemic politics of the LTTE.
Aside from anti-systemic politics, there was also the deterioration of traditional political norms in Colombo, Delhi and Chennai. Politics was not being played anymore by the old rules of cricket. The formal channels of political communication between the government and the TULF totally broke down. New Delhi turned its back on the traditions of Jawaharlal Nehru and created its own caricature (RAW) of the American CIA for meddling in neighbouring countries. The Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, MG Ramachandran, utterly inept in the governance of his State, found a self-satisfying purpose in sponsoring LTTE activities. What began as a farcical entanglement involving the Sri Lankan government, Tamil militants, the Tamil Nadu government, and Indian government agencies, soon turned into a major Sri Lankan tragedy, especially for the Northern and Eastern Provinces. The Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement signed on 29 July 1987, by President Jayewardene and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was intended to put an end to the fighting and start a period of political stability based on provincial autonomy for the Tamils within a united Sri Lanka. But it was a “fragile peace”, as the late Mervyn de Silva called it soon after the accord, and it was not long before hostilities were resumed but with the difference that the LTTE was now taking on the Indian Army. The hostilities or the Eelam Wars as they have been grotesquely called finally came to an end in 2009, 22 years after the signing of the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement when government forces finally defeated and destroyed the LTTE.
The Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement was not JRJ’s moment of glory even though the Hindu (Chennai newspaper) at that time editorially paid tribute to the President’s “moral and political courage, the tactical skills and the overall quality of leadership.” The US Congress passed a Resolution commending JR Jayewardene and Rajiv Gandhi, and one of its movers even floated the idea of nominating them for the Nobel Peace Prize. The rub was that praises came from India and America and there was hardly any echo of them in Sri Lanka. JRJ is denigrated even today for the Agreement he signed and the 13th Amendment it gave rise to. Regardless of its pygmy detractors then and now, the Agreement is one of President Jayewardene’s most significant achievements and one that is proving to be a strong survivor against all odds. With Machiavellian shrewdness and obvious social snobbery, JRJ avoided directly with the LTTE and let Rajiv Gandhi and India take the responsibility for cajoling, containing, and finally fighting the LTTE. Just as his Open Economy policy brought the island’s moribund economic base into conformity with its changing social superstructure, JRJ’s Indo-Lanka Agreement set the framework to bring Sri Lanka’s domestic politics into alignment with changing global and regional realities. “The Tamils have no reservations on this Agreement … in the spirit of give and take in any agreement the Tamils are agreeing to the compromise envisaged in the Agreement and giving it a chance to work” said TULF leader Amirthalingam speaking at a public meeting in Chennai days after the Agreement was signed in Colombo. Amirthalingam paid with his life for accepting the Agreement but he stands thoroughly vindicated today.
From Donoughmore to David Cameron
The Northern Provincial Council election and the formation of its first government by the TNA are a vindication of Amirthalingam’s acceptance of the Agreement and of the Agreement itself. If it has taken so long for so little, the blame for that should go to those who paralyzed the Agreement by resuming fighting and to those who refused to implement the Agreement and the Thirteenth Amendment honestly and sincerely even after the fighting ended in 2009. President Rajapaksa’s government needed much prodding from India and the West to be dissuaded from abrogating the Agreement and repealing the Thirteenth Amendment, and to be persuaded to honour the President’s earlier undertaking to hold the NPC elections. The hosting of the Commonwealth Summit itself became one of the main factors in the President’s decision to proceed with holding the NPC elections.
As I noted at the outset, the Commonwealth is one forum where Sri Lanka’s colonial past and its geographical reality come to terms with its present and its future. The coming together becomes all the more appropriate when the Commonwealth summit is held in Sri Lanka. In the twists and turns in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy in general and in the relationship with India and the West in particular, 1977 is the watershed year. The difference after 1977 is that that the Tamil question in Sri Lanka became the main if not the overriding factor in the country’s relationship with the outside world. The controversy over Sri Lanka’s hosting of the summit is a reflection of that relationship. India and the West are implicated in the internal Tamil question more than China, Russia, Middle Eastern, African or Latin American countries. While the Tamil population in India and the Tamil Diaspora in the West are the main reason for this implication, the reality is also that all Sri Lankans share their religious and cultural roots with India and have their own familial, social and cultural ties with the West. Sri Lanka is not a resource laden economy to have much choice over changing its trading partners at will, and few countries are closer and quicker for travel to enable successful trading partnerships than Sri Lanka and India. Establishing far flung diplomatic posts in Africa and Latin America purely as a means to get votes at international forums to counter the West will not only be costly but also counterproductive.
The government’s foreign policy dilemma – neither being able to cut itself loose from the West or from India, nor wanting to sever those connections – is a contrived dilemma created by the stubborn unwillingness to work towards a political solution to the Tamil question after finishing the war with the LTTE. The answer is to change course in domestic politics without wasting time and resources in external maneuvers. A positive aspect of that maneuvering, however, is that the government and especially the President are constrained to dialoguing, rather than isolating themselves from any dealing, with the West and India. President Rajapaksa certainly comes across as wanting to be more gregarious with foreign leaders than, say, President Premadasa was. In fact, the current President wants to travel everywhere and be welcomed everywhere, even if it would be just a visit to Oxford. The determination to host the Commonwealth summit despite all the detractions is also reflection of his gregarious disposition.
But gregariousness in diplomacy comes with prices especially in a situation like the one that Sri Lanka has been in after the war. The hosting of the Commonwealth has already cost the President politically in having to reject and displease those who were demanding the cancellation of the NPC election and the repeal of 13A. On the other hand, the President’s decision to proceed with the NPC election and shut the door on the 13A-repeal agitators has helped enhance the credibility of his government. It would be reasonable to expect President Rajapaksa to positively move forward on his own volition and work with the new NPC Administration. That would be the prescription for statesmanship. At the same time, it will not hurt for others who have access to the President to keep encouraging him to do just that, for such encouragements from multiple sources will also help him to push back extremists like the BBS and the JHU within his own ranks, not to mention his Defence Secretary brother. The Commonwealth summit, behind its formalities, could be the forum for providing such encouragement by visiting leaders who have an interest in helping Sri Lanka overcome its vexing internal problem.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, who will be attending the summit in spite of calls to boycott it, has indicated his intention to raise with President Rajapaksa the Tamil question and other human rights and media freedom issues. One would hope that India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will also attend the summit and use his leverage on President Rajapaksa to achieve positive results. David Cameron has also announced that he will be travelling to Jaffna, while the new Northern Province Chief Minister, Justice CV Wigneswaran, has extended an invitation to the Indian Prime Minister to visit Jaffna at an opportune time. There cannot be a more opportune time for Manmohan Singh to visit Jaffna than during the Commonwealth summit. Commonwealth leaders and delegations from Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa are also likely to join the Jaffna bandwagon. It used to be said jokingly in the old days, borrowing from Samuel Johnson’s wisecrack on Scotland, that the only good thing about Jaffna is the road going out of the Peninsula. Now thanks to the Commonwealth summit, world leaders are going to make the journey to Jaffna. The symbolism should provide the impetus for some meaningful changes benefitting the war affected areas of the North and its people. Eighty years ago, the Donoughmore Commission recommended, as a ‘federalizing feature’ in its constitution, that sittings of the new State Council should be held periodically in Kandy and in Jaffna in addition to its permanent location in Colombo. Back then the demand for devolution was a Kandyan Sinhalese preoccupation and Jaffna was yet to be infected by federalism, let alone separatism. But no provincial sessions of the old State Council were ever held. Long after the recommendations of the Earl of Donoughmore and his Commissioners, a British Prime Minister will be visiting Jaffna to help bring closure to a problem that may have started then but has since grown and been aggravated in multiple ways.