23 September, 2023


Foreign Policy In Sri Lanka, 1948-1956

By Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

Partly in spite of and partly because of the political leadership, in its first 10 years of independence Sri Lanka never got to evolve a foreign policy of its own. Scholars are divided on why exactly this was so, with some pointing at the indifference of the first two UNP regimes to the country’s external relations and others arguing there was no need for the country to think about external relations just yet. However, it must be borne in mind that far from feigning indifference, the first two Prime Ministers – D. S. and Dudley Senanayake – placed special emphasis on the issue of foreign policy in their opening addresses to the nation. One can argue that these statements lacked a certain depth and solidity, and that they were couched in vague abstractions which never came out in practice. But this is different from saying that these governments didn’t think much, if at all, about foreign policy.

An Occam’s razor explanation of the supposed indifference of these administrations would be that they did not have to bother about foreign policy, owing to a series of agreements in 1947 that brought it within British jurisdiction. Most accounts of the transfer of power that the Ceylon National Congress and the United National Party oversaw in that decade tend to oversimplify how foreign policy (along with defence) was handed over to Whitehall, with K. M. de Silva claiming it was a pragmatist pincer move against security threat perceptions from India. Even Shelton Kodikara, in his excellent book on Indo-Lanka relations, posits that these perceptions, entertained by the UNP, seemed real. Once we accept that premise, it becomes easy to legitimise the decision to relegate the country’s foreign affairs to Britain.

However, the truth was far more complicated than that, and ironically it is to foreign historians, not local writers, that we must resort here. James Manor’s study of S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike (The Expedient Utopian, 1989) is more than just a biography of a Prime Minister; it is a sociological treatise on the colonial elite in Sri Lanka, indeed on how different that elite was to its counterparts in much of the Afro-Asian world. Of particular interest is its discussion of how the very character of this milieu had a hand in shaping the external relations of the country: a point seldom delved into, much less appreciated, by mainstream local historians.

Both K. M. de Silva and, to a lesser extent, Shelton Kodikara argue that statements made at various times by various Indian officials, diplomats, and leaders – even the great Nehru himself – pushed the country’s leaders to build a working relationship with Britain as far as defence and external relations went, even after independence. We know now that this is the reason the UNP trotted out to rationalise its decision to cede these twin matters to Whitehall, as evidenced by D. S. Senanayake’s claim (one he made repeatedly) that he could not think of the country’s interests as long as it did not have a standing army of its own. To the extent that his fears about aggression and intervention from abroad were moulded by the lack of a proper army back home, his decision to bandwagon with Britain can be viewed as a precautionary measure taken against the possibility of Indian interference.

I believe it was James Manor who first chose to depart from this reading of the 1947 Defence Agreement. Pointing as evidence to a colonial despatch (D. S. Senanayake to the Secretary of State, 28 February 1947, CO 882/30), Manor concluded that D. S. Senanayake and the UNP were eager to show themselves to the British as their true heirs. Given that Britain desired governments friendly to it in its former colonies, the ruse worked sufficiently well enough to persuade colonial officials to not just opt for the UNP, but also prefer Senanayake to the other aspirant to the proverbial throne, Bandaranaike. The latter they viewed in a rather negative light, even if they saw him as a more suitable successor than the alternative Senanayake warned they would get if they did not repose their trust with his party: the Marxists.

In his work on Indo-Lanka diplomacy Shelton Kodikara outlines three factors that influenced Sri Lanka’s immediate relations with the rest of the world: the Defence Agreement of 1947, the Soviet Union’s decision to veto the country’s attempt to enter the United Nations the following year, and the linkage between foreign and domestic politics. Regarding the latter point, Kodikara identifies the then regime’s antipathy to the Left as a major factor, yet he fails to place it in its proper historical context. Since he has not done so there, it is imperative that we try to do so here.

For the then government to have preferred the West over India owing to the Marxist opposition and the fact that the latter courted, and won, the Indian Tamil vote – a fact that, incidentally, compelled the D. S. Senanayake regime to disenfranchise vast swathes of the estate population with absolutely no regard for their civil liberties – its ideology would have had to be the direct opposite to that of the forces it contended, almost to the point of obsession, on the domestic and foreign policy front. It is this ideology, of the ruling party and elite, that neither Kodikara nor de Silva discusses. That, in my view, is an inexcusable omission.

Inexcusable, because no proper overview of the foreign policy of the first 10 years of the country’s post-independence period can be made without factoring in the way the leaders of the time thought, both amongst themselves and in opposition to forces the elite to which they belonged sought to combat. The late Vernon Mendis, as I wrote in my essay on independence to this site, went as far as to justify the measures taken by these leaders against the Marxist opposition on the grounds that certain figures on the Left (such as S. A. Wickramasinghe) made statements that could, at one level, be construed as invitations to the Communist bloc to interfere in the country’s affairs. It is regrettable that an entire generation of diplomats interpreted these incidents while laying aside, or choosing to ignore, what obviously were flagrant violations of civil liberties committed by then government against the opposition. One can only say that most textbooks on foreign policy – excluding Kodikara’s book – tend to present a revisionist history, painting the Left in a negative light while choosing to ignore the reactionary ideology of the government. We need go beyond this.

As James Manor has shown us only too clearly, mainstream historians and even constitutional lawyers allied with the then government (like Ivor Jennings, to whom the disenfranchisement of the Indian Tamil population did not seem to constitute an aberration in a supposedly democratic polity) idealised the likes of John Kotelawala as strongmen, forgetting the state resources they utilised and the paramilitary groups they formed to keep what Judy Waters Pasqualge characterises as an imagined threat on the Left at bay. In Sri Lanka’s post-independence history only once did an elected leader sanction the burning of books and the deportation of an expatriate from the country, and that was Kotelawala, under whom Sri Lanka came close to siding with a Cold War power, almost as close as it would under J. R. Jayewardene. 

The truth of the matter was that, as scions of a rightwing rentier elite, the colonial bourgeoisie in Sri Lanka differed in degree and substance from that of not just India, but also much of the rest of the Afro-Asian world, to such an extent that by 1948 they had come to prefer Dominion status to the prospect of what K. M. Panikkar, soon to be the Indian Ambassador to China, saw as a federation between India, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar. In later years Jayewardene was to claim that it was the Soviet Union’s vetoes of Sri Lanka’s efforts to enter the UN that fuelled the government’s antipathy to the Communist bloc. While the distinction the D. S. and the Dudley governments drew between Stalinist Russia and Maoist China – by Sir Lalitha Rajapakse, Robert Senanayake, and D. S. himself – and the recognition Sri Lanka afforded to the latter in 1950 can be construed as evidence for this, it does not explain the tortuous route the 1951-1952 regime took to ink the Rubber-Rice Pact with Beijing and the efforts it made to distinguish between trade and diplomacy with the Iron Curtain, a distinction Kotelawala epitomised when he established trade links with Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Romania without opening as much as a single Embassy.

Simplistic explanations will thus not do if we are to historicise foreign policy. What do we need then? We need an account of foreign policy that cuts through the rhetoric of personalities, political parties, and political systems, and identifies why decisions were taken and policies were enacted. I may be overstating it when I say that none of the books and essays written on the subject, particularly on the period discussed in this piece, has, barring a few exceptions, presented a comprehensive overview of the way foreign policy came to be crafted in Sri Lanka.

But then such a statement is not wide of the mark. Ideology is an important internal determinant when it comes to foreign policy formulation, and yet historians, in their quest to absolve leaders from their own actions, indeed from history itself, appear to have failed to factor in and account for it. We hence need an alternative history, one that can go a long way in helping us understand not just our past, but also our future. Sri Lanka’s foreign policy is not in the best of shape. Understanding the past is a first step towards ameliorating that. A vital, and necessary, first step.

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Latest comments

  • 5

    Uditha you mean to say that was the last time we had a foreign policy ??? You may be right
    What we had since independence is begging for loans and donations policy.

    • 0

      Had we?

  • 2

    Uditha Devapriya,

    Why you have not mentioned in your article, ‘Foreign Policy In Sri Lanka, 1948-1956” anything about the historic Bandung conference held in 1955?.

    Was it a lapse or an intentional omission?

    29 countries in Asia and Africa took part and the conference was called Asian–African or Afro–Asian Conference.

    The objective of the gathering was to discuss peace and the role of the Third World in the Cold War, economic development, and decolonization.

    The giants of that era including Jawarhalal Nehru, Indian Prime Minister, Chinese Premier and Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai and Indonesia’s Sukarno and our own Sir John Kotalawela participated.

    This Bandung Conference was supposed to be the forerunner to the Non – aligned Movement.

  • 2

    Well, the Senanayakas’ policies I believe were nothing to do with India. India was a half dead sleepy giant at that time and is now only licking its wounds to look glossy for the globe. Soon they would fall asleep again. But the West is prompting them to prop the US global reserve dollar and therefore keep the capitalistic machine producing and producing towards Armageddon. West feels it is imperative for India to merge with the surrounding countries and become the S. Asian QUAD or something.
    Therefore India was at no threat to Motherland at that time. Lankan Elite just liked the British look, and they fell in with the play-act very easily compared to any other country. And they thought that the Masses would follow along soon, and all will remain a British colonial glory. Did any good opportunity pass them by at that time? I doubt it. But if they were more in tune with the Masses (of all races), sticking to the Leftist system of Bandaranaikes’ would have surely have placed Lanka in a very good position at this time, with some capitalism to boost up the system.

  • 3

    SJ hadn’t we??

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