26 May, 2022


Foreign Policy In Sri Lanka: Is It Effective & Productive?

By Sarath Wijesinghe – 

Sarath Wijesinghe

Sarath Wijesinghe

Correct foreign Policy for a nation is a pre-requisite for development and prosperity. It has a direct effect and impact on commercial and trade relations among members of the world family and the world. In a fast developing world, it is becoming increasingly difficult to live in isolation. The advent of modern technology has promoted increased globalisation and an interconnected world community with the internet playing a large role in redefining political dynamics both domestic and international. Sri Lanka’s foreign policy is based on the principle “friendly towards all and enmity towards none based on the principles of non- aligned foreign policy, without taking sides of any major power block”. Do we maintain this foreign policy depends on the behaviour of the Leader of the country, Foreign Minister/Ministry and the Ambassadors representing the country world-wide. Foreign Policy is guided by the Minister of Foreign Affairs with the Ministry officials and the Ambassadors guided and advised by the head of the state. Today member countries of the world family are directing their Ambassadors to give priority to commerce and trade along with the traditional duties they are entrusted with.

Historical Aspects of our Foreign Policy

Sri Lanka’s foreign relations with other countries could be traced back to 3rd century BC when King Devenampiyatissa had close friendship with the unseen neighbour, Emperor Asoka who sent his son and daughter as emissaries to introduce Buddhism to Sri Lanka. 245 BC Emperor Asoka was instrumental in dispatching noble teachings of Buddhism to Sri Lanka an epoch making event through his son Arahathth Mahinda and followed by his daughter Sangamitta. Sri Lanka immensely benefited from the glorious Mayurian Civilization. A new culture in Sri Lanka was dawn based on principles of Buddhism with developments culturally economically due to the close connections with the neighbours. Friendship between the close friends then were equal, close and interconnected to friendship, culture, religion and developments of both countries culturally and economically irrespective of the size and population. There is ample historical evidence of Sri Lanka having diplomatic and personal relationships with China, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Maldives Islands, Thailand, Pakistan (known as Gandara in Pali) and many Western/Eastern and other countries in the world. This is a classic example of our long cherished and correct foreign policy maintained from time immoral.

Mangala Japan 2015 JuneRecent Past

In the present context it is useful to trace Sri Lankan foreign policy and relations back to pre-independence, as during the independence foreign policy was controlled and decided by the colonial British Powers. During the world war and the era of League of Nations British Empire was controlling the foreign policy of all the colonies. After the Independence in 1948 no changes were made on foreign policy as Sri Lanka then backed the west and the Colonel rulers and powers. On the 1st part of 20th century whole of South and South East Asia was controlled by Western powers. When Sri Lanka gained Independence it was defence less with no proper Army, Navy or an Air force to protect the country. It is correct on the part of Hon D.S.Senanayaka- named then Father of the Nation- who said “I cannot accept the responsibility of being Minister of defence unless I am provided with the full authority to take decision on defence. Accordingly he perused the defence agreement with UK which is the best option then which SWRD got rid of depending on safety and protection on the strength of the nonaligned foreign policy of the country. As a realist Politian he joined the Commonwealth and developed close links with the USA and continued friendship with UK the colonial father. His positions were clear in his statements on USA, UK, India and International organisations which Is the reflection of the foreign policy then. Hon D.S. Senanayake is a great son of Sri Lanka who mooted Agricultural developments whilst being honest about his pro west policy and continued western type rule during his tenure of office. Dudly Senanayaka era is the same as D S Senanayaka based on affiliations with the West.

Bandaranaike and Rajapaksa era

SWRD Bandaranaike who was elected 4th Prime Minister of Sri Lanka is a statement following “3rd way” who was instrumental on the transformation of Sri Lankan Foreign Policy to a completely different direction based on principles and concepts of non-alignment, the fashion and the theme of the era not aligned to any power block engaged in the cold war making attempts to attract member countries as allies and supporters. Bandaranaike and Narue of India became leaders of the non-alignment movement with many others wishing to be independent of any power blocks. Naru put forward the theory of “Panchaseela,” – five political precepts- and assumed leadership of the Non Alignment movement with likeminded colleagues in all corners of the world for peaceful co-existence, world peace and for a peace in the Indian Ocean. SWRD was firm and committed to non-alignment which echoed in his frequent public statements. He was for realistic and practical non alignment process. He said “for heaven’s sake be friendly with England or any anyone else, but do not commit yourself to anyone of them”. In 1957 Embassies of USSR and China were started followed by many other East European and Latin American Countries. Bandaraneika’s neutralism coupled with pragmatism paid dividends by world leaders such as Harold Machmilan of Britan, Menzies of Australia, Peter Nash of New Zealand, Prime Minister of Canada, West Germen Deputy Chancellor, Choe En Lai of China, Suharatho of Indonesia and Narue of India were some leaders of states visited him. He said “We are committed to the cause of Justice and freedom as much as anyone is.” Jayawardena’s rule from 1977 to 1988 was pro west where he liberalized trade from careful and planned economy of Bandaraneika rule. Though Jayawardena said that the success of foreign policy of any country depends on its close cordial and fruitful relationships with south Asian neighbours especially India, during his period the friendship with India was on the lowest ebb where India invaded Sri Lanka and pressurised to formulate and implement Indi Sri Lanka accord and the 13th amendment. Sirimo Bandaranaike’s policy was to be personally and political friendly with India where she made tremendous inroads on many areas including Indo Sri Lanka upcountry Indian Labours issue, Maritime Boundary issue any many other thorny matters were settled in our favour including “Kattachive” issue, Using GOOD OFFIC to settle Indo China war, and many other agreements and many concessions on friendly level.

Sirimovo Bandaranaike and Rajapaksa followed the same concepts with practical changes. Non Alignment Summit during Sirimovo and the Commonwealth Summit during Rajapaksa are historical land marks and achievements for Sri Lanka with balancing effects on non-alignment which itself is a world force not aligned to any power group. Kumaranatunga’s two terms have been insignificant as no international intersections took place during her regimes and it was business as normal. To her credit she maintained non alignment foreign policy with Kadigarmer who is an accepted and highly respected Foreign Minister who pounded on LTTE politically in the international arena to discredit the most ruthless and feared terrorist organization crushed by Rajapaksa later with the amazement of the world predicted that terrorist organizations cannot be crushed militarily. Rajapaksa foreign policy has been the force behind the assistance and support equally from the West and rest, including India with the yeomen service and support to free South Asia and the entire world from the terror regime shocked the entire world.

Rajapaksa’s foreign policy is exactly a photocopy of Sirimovo Bandaranaike’s policy which is noted to be the best era of our foreign relations, which Rajapaksa has clearly formulated in Mahinda Chintana as nonaligned and practical as a trustee of the Nation aimed at Unity development and aiming for the country to be the wonder of Asia. He acted as a regional leader as the head of SAARC and a world leader as the head of the commonwealth tough overrun by his former health minister at the premature presidential election, when he had two more hears to go. Rajapaksa claims it an international coup and a part of regime change process by the West and some international organisations.

Do we have a Foreign Policy today?

What is our Foreign Policy? Do we have a Foreign Policy; are we any longer Non Aligned? Are frequently asked but un- answered questions which has direct impact on the economy, prosperity and the future of Sri Lanka which has been transformed to be a most stable and peaceful country in the world after eradication of terror and introduction of mega developments, major improvements of infra structure and atmospheres on investment and tourism with the influx of investors and tourist as the main by-product of the peace dawned after three decades of war. Neutralism is not cowardice according to SWRD non alignment is not just being a passive actor in the world family. He said “we do not want to look either to the capitalism of the West or communism in the East- till we find the precise form of society that we think is the most suited to the country.” He said it is something very positive and not negative as the saying long ago in Galialee that the Sabbath was for man and not man for the Sabbath. He believed in positive and effective non alignment movement aiming at development and prosperity. It is doubtful whether we have a clear cut foreign policy today and it is time to spell it out loud and clear to the world with serious considerations and through study. It is a necessity to be clear on the foreign and other policies which are interconnected to our safety, security, developments and prosperity.

Foreign Policy

Sri Lanka is located strategically in the Indian Ocean on the famous Silk Route traditionally and historically used by Arabs and Chinese for trade with South Asia. The Indian Ocean is now a primary focus of international politics and strategy. Its geo – political prominence makes it a pivotal factor in the global balance of power. In deed it infrequently called the “Ocean of the Future”. The focus on Sri Lanka has hardened after Rajapaks winning the war and strengthening the position as an “Iron Fist” ruler in the traditional democratic environment. Fast and mega developments on infrastructure, Harbours, Aeroplanes, with the assistance of China which is a economic giant dealing with the other economic and political giants has irked and misunderstood India themselves dealing economically and political with China as allies. Rajapaksa’s extreme popularity, fearlessness, and leader ship as an emerging leader in the capacity of the leader of Commonwealth, SAARC amd many international organisations and a group of emerging nations irked the west responsible for the destabilization of the Middle East and may other Asian African and Latin American countries on attempts of regime change.

Foreign Policy of a country is an extension of domestic policy and the policy of the government in power. In many countries the governments change but not the foreign policy. Notably in UK, USA India USSR EU and China where the foreign policy is linked to economy, the changes are slight on change of governments which unfortunately is not the case in Sri Lanka. Foreign policy is how a government/country acts and reacts on and with the world family and the international organization on policy and economy of the member state and the world family. Foreign Policy is formulated and decided by the head of the state as his prerogative which he will delegate to the Minister of foreign affairs at his will and wish. Today in Sri Lanka the policy appear to have shifted towards west with closes contacts with USA and limited deals and dealings with the USSSR, China which includes the nonaligned and left block which has a soft corner for nonaligned Sri Lanka. In the current political pickle it is doubtful who decides and manages the foreign policy as the President, Prime Minister and the Minister of Foreign Affairs make different and conflicting statement on policies practice and theory on foreign policy which is expected to be clear clean managed and directed by the head f the state. Any statement made by the head of the State or the foreign minister is a part of international law and could be used as authentic in the world forum. Therefor the statements of the foreign minister should be responsible diplomat and non-political devoid of vengeance viperous and crude which reflects on the country as his statements are taken serious by the world. Are we living upto the world slandered is a moot issue to be decided by the people at an appropriate forum.

Foreign Policy should be effective and productive

Foreign policy should be productive to the people and effective to the economy. Today member countries expect their Ambassadors representing the countries to give priority to economic developments along with the traditional ambassadorial duties. Accordingly we find foreign Ambassadors in Sri Lanka work day and night looking for business trade and contracts for their countries from Sri Lanka on various megaprojects launched by the Sri Lankan government. It is the duty of our Sri Lankan Ambassadors worldwide too to promote business trade and development projects for the development of our country. Whilst the foreign Ministry officials are given the due share it is the duty of those responsible to pick Sri Lankans in various walks of life on trade, tourism, education and other promotional/professional aspects for diplomatic appointments purely based on merits, though it should not be a disqualification for a person in politics, profession or in business to be a diplomat. There was continuous flow of Trade Missions and interactions to and from “United Arab Emeritus” and “Israel” to Sri Lanka and vice versa in the recent past organized by the Sri Lanka Embassies, with respective governments and the business communities with effective and productive results.

Way forward

Our country needs a Sri Lanka Friendly foreign policy aiming at the development and the prosperity of the Nation not necessarily following or promoting any group or ideology West East or North. We must always think of developing Sri Lanka in the real Sri Lankan way based on the visions of our visionaries, and not following the other” Isms” or blocks. Classic example is the vision and visionaries of the great power Israel – a desert with no water 67 years ago a world power now as a result of the correct foreign policy and vision of the great visionaries transferred to be a world leader on agriculture and Hi Tec. They had a vision and visionaries with a plan who loved the Nation and the people. They had only human resources. Dubai has only 4% oil compared to oil rich Adudabhi. But the visions of visionaries of the land have exploited the geo-situation which has brought Dubai to a top slot in the world business and affairs. We need not be aligned to any power block or group to be successful and to be the wonder of Asia. Foreign policy is an effective and a productive weapon and a concept which is to be used with a long term vision with a visionary aiming at economic industrial agricultural educational cultural and all other area of/on the national development. It echoes the policy of the Nation to the world and the mouth piece responsible for the friendship with the rest of the world where all other nations give probity to. Bad and ineffective foreign policy can ruin a nation and vice versa. It is the navigator and the leader for development and prosperity in the country region and the world over. Successes of many nations are mainly on/due to management of foreign policy properly and apply/implement correctly in the cultural and economic development which is to be carefully formulated and tested. Foreign , Security, Defence, and Economic polies in Israel changes only when necessary in the interest of the Nation and peoples, despite ferocious infighting in this unite democratic but” Iron Fist” world power base. Our neighbour India is a classic example on the conduct of the foreign policy and the Ministry which has long traditions and principles we should try to implement. Our leaders must be careful in making statements and speeches on foreign policy and other public and international affairs which is taken serious by the world family and the international organisations including UN IMF and other groups. They should restrain and refrain from making personal attacks and making statements aiming at individuals locally and internationally. It is advisable for them to have good speech writers and give special attention on eloquence, contents, context and the tone in making pubic/international statements because such statements may become part of international law in practice.

*Sarath Wijesinghe – former Sri Lankan Ambassador to UAE and Israel

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Latest comments

  • 3

    When Gota was in charge Sri Lanka held a conference called the “Galle Dialogue”. Navies from all competing nations would meet there and discuss issues.

    Being in maritime junction its essential to take a lead in things like combating sea piracy.

    The Galle Dialogue should continue as before.

  • 2

    I fully agree with your analysis of the present situation.
    the guys in the present govt were blaming Mahinda Rajapakse stating uneducated guys were appointed to foreign service.
    But the very same people appointed one of the most undiplomatic ,uneducated guy as foreign minister.Has he got any proper and relevant education ,other than SSC from royal and some certificate not even distantly related to diplomacy and foreign relations.
    the way he conducted himself during his first official visit to China, our all weather friend for centuries most disgusting and most undiplomatic.When nobody was helping it was China who gave every support to eliminate LTTE so that everybody have peace of mind knowing that husbands and wive who go to work and children who go to school will return home safely and not in coffins.
    But when this fellow when to US and met “Karry” acted like servant boy and invited american fellow to come here, the guys who have destroyed middle east, made pholliphine and thailand their playground (to realease natural stresses.

    he does not care,because, he is a man gone against the wish of God like his boss,you know what i mean.

    so we commoners pray that the god almighty to sent them eternally to hell so that we can safeguard our motherland sinhale (sri lanka)

  • 1

    Why not productive looking at the manner they got that UNHRC demands delayed upto Sep ? Had the Megalomaniac Rajapakshe been in power, nothing like that would have been able to achieve in this life. Now with almost certain MR and thugs will definitely be marginalized by the election to be held on the 17th, I believe, future foreign policy towards srilanka will be good one.

  • 0

    My Wijesinghe,

    You sound to me like the quintessential political lackey that emerged from the woodwork of the Rajapaksa regime. Your profile outlines you as a lawyer, therefore I can assume you were one of many political appointment of the Rajapaksa machinery.

    You undermine your entire professional credibility when touting the Rajapaksa’s “all the eggs in one basket” foreign politics is the way of the future. The fact that he appointed inept friends and trusted yes-men to the Foreign Service, that the Foreign Service was run by a former Warf clerk, that the spineless professor was a powerless FM and that are for the first time, facing international censure due to the total mismanagement of our post-war foreign politics, perhaps this is all hunky dory for you.

    I strongly believe that our foreign service was NEVER more politicised or in a worst state than when President Rajapaksa thankfully was summarily dismissed from office. There was a huge glut of quality career diplomats as the more capable ones had left some time back due to a lack of career path. We were seen the world over as a banana republic with “King Louie” of Jungle Book in charge. It was a true embarrassment for us Sri Lankans to endure such a state.

    I can truly understand your state of mind of late, the gravy train ran out of gas in January but now has a slender chance of a second lease of life. From your photograph, it is obvious that you are now in your advanced years and this is perhaps the last chance to cling on to a “pattama” that can perhaps help finance a couple of your grandchildren through University.

    Fortunately for the rest of us who do not have the luxury of having one foot in the UK, the people of this country are an educated lot and spoke loudly and coherently in January…….they will once again on the 17th. Enjoy your retirement, I am sure you were more than sufficiently compensated for your services.

  • 5

    Dias has guaged rightly that this Wigesinhe is a political stooge of the Rajapaksas.He was formerly Ambassador in ABU DHABI where he performed like a fish out of water,turning the Official Residence of the Ambassador in to a chummery.For all this,Wigesinge was next sent to Israel where he performed similarly.

    On second thought we cannot blame the man for he did the only thing he was good at:his wife owns and runs a way side eatery in Nugegoda !!

  • 1

    This man without any shame writes on foreign affairs, being one of the persons who was responsible for destroying the Sri Lanka foreign service. He has not displayed any professional qualities in his career as a lawyer or in other capacities being “Mediocre”. What he writes will only be read by his Medamulana clan.

  • 1

    What has Sri Lanka gained by holding the Commonwealth Summit spending Billions. It was a good opportunity for people like Sajin Vass and Chri Nonis to plunder our resources. Can he mention a single investment that has come to Sri Lanka as an outcome of the Commonwealth Business Forum held as a side event of the Commonwealth Summit.
    Well it did one good thing. People who were carefully watching that carnival and tamasha having understood the way the Rajapksa government was wasting public funds, gave a decisive verdict at the Presidential elections and sent MR back to Medamulana. That became the end of Sarath Wijesinghe’s POLITICAL diplomatic career too.

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