27 May, 2022


President GR’s Foreign Policy Deviation 

By Dayan Jayatilleka

Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka

Having been a keen student of politics, Sri Lankan and international for decades, and observed it for over a half-century, I’d name enlightened self-interest with rationality at it’s very core, as the single most important quality in politics and policy. In no domain is this more so than in international relations in general and foreign policy in particular. 

Sri Lanka has just buried Nonalignment. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has abandoned Sri Lanka’s long-held framework of ideas on the world, and this country’s long-standing identity in world affairs. He has severed Sri Lanka’s moorings; discarded its (conceptual-perspectival) bearings.

For the first time in (almost) 60 years since Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, under the leadership of Madam Bandaranaike, was a founder-member of the Nonaligned Movement in Belgrade in 1961, a Sri Lankan Head of State addressed the United Nations General Assembly and omitted any reference whatsoever to Nonalignment and/or the Nonaligned Movement, the foundation of our identity and way of being in world affairs, and the global family we belong to. 

It is also the first time in 64 years, since SWRD Bandaranaike addressed the UNGA in 1956, that a Sri Lankan leader addressing the UNGA, omitted any reference whatsoever to Palestine.    

Addressing the virtual global summit of the UNGA to mark its 75th anniversary, President Rajapaksa completely avoided the terms Nonalignment/Nonaligned and declared instead that “Sri Lanka is committed to follow a neutral foreign policy with no affiliations to any particular country or power bloc.” 

He reiterated the shift in a conversation with new Ambassadors: “…In this context, Sri Lanka has chosen neutrality as its foreign policy…” 

Interviewed by PK Balachandran, Rear-Admiral Jayanath Colombage, Secretary to the Foreign Ministry defined President GR’s policy of neutrality as NOT one of Nonalignment: “This is why the President is wanting Sri Lanka to be a neutral country, not a non-aligned country, but a neutral country…”

The Nonaligned Movement was founded in the vortex of the Cold War and defined itself as opposing “bloc politics” and eschewing “affiliation with rival military blocs conceived in the Cold War context”. 

‘Neutrality’ is conceptually ‘thin’, suitable for a hot war or its imminence. Non-alignment is not only built for a Cold War and superpower or great power competition, it is also a ‘thick’ concept, collectively evolved and deliberated on by leaders and foreign ministers (some legendary) and thinkers of the global South (plus Yugoslavia’s Tito) over decades, with the declarations and documents of the NAM, and published writing on it, filling a library. 

For a small state like Sri Lanka, especially a small state in, and of, the global South, safety lies in numbers. It is folly to deny or downgrade its identity of belonging to a grouping of 120 countries of which we were a founder-member and (later) chairperson, and which served our national interest by affording a space, platform and collective voice of and for autonomy in a polarized world. 

The 2020 GR regime’s mindset is a throwback to the 1980s JR regime’s mindset, critiqued as dangerously deluded folly and farce at the time by my father, Mervyn de Silva:

“The island’s ‘nodal position’ in the Indian Ocean and of course, Trincomalee, nourished the comforting conviction that Sri Lanka was the hub of the universe, and we ourselves a coveted prize that major external powers (external to the region) with their substantial global and regional interests, will be only too eager to pacify even at the risk of their demonstrably larger interests…” 

(‘Sri Lanka’s Ethnic Problem’, Center for Society & Religion, October 1984, republished in Crisis Commentaries: Selected Political Writings of Mervyn de Silva, ICES Colombo, 2001, p 65)

Today’s abandonment of nonalignment was pioneered in the 1980s. It’s colossal fallacy was spotlighted by Mervyn de Silva, whose warnings proved prophetic in 1987. 

“Cut away from its moorings, Sri Lankan foreign policy is adrift.” (Ibid, p67)

“It was not nonalignment that left us naked. It was the gradual rejection of all the basic premises of that traditional non-alignment, of which the cornerstone was the relationship with India, that left us naked to our enemies, real or fancied, internal or external.” 

(Marga Institute lecture 1985, republished as ‘External Aspects of the Ethnic Issue’, Ibid, p72) 

By what policy process, dialogue and debate, did the deliberation take place, which concluded that Sri Lanka is ‘neutral’, not ‘nonaligned’? Lakshman Kadirgamar would’ve been aghast. Do the PM, the Cabinet, the Foreign Minister, the SLPP and the ruling coalition concur with this abandonment of our Non-aligned identity, commitment and heritage? Perhaps, as with circulars, so also with foreign policy?   

Nonalignment provides the broad, tested base, upon which policies of ‘multi-directionality’/‘omni-directionality’ which maximize flexibility, such as Charles De Gaulle’s ‘tous azimuths’ and Evgeni Primakov’s ‘multi-vector’, can be mounted. Swapping nonalignment for neutrality is beyond idiosyncratic; it is unilateral, arbitrary, neo-isolationist and solipsistic. 

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Latest comments

  • 6

    Non-alignment and neutralism are synonyms.

    The words came into existence during the cold war and lost its relevance after the collapse of Soviet Union and the dissolution of WARSAW Pact.

    I think’ it was Jawaharlal Nehru who coined the word ‘non- aligned” and the word was extensively used since the founding of non-aligned movement in 1961.

    Switzerland was neutral during the Second World War.

    Now we have only NATO..One of the founding fathers of Non alignment “Yugoslavia” ceased to exist and others lost interest.

    Mervin de Silva during his lifetime was a relentless exponent of the concept of non-alignment, his death almost coincided with the collapse of Soviet Union, and now his son takes over his father’s legacy.

    The word nonalignment is now only in the dictionary, but the movement is dead and buried long ago and Now Dayan is trying to resurrect it for his own glory.

    • 7

      Nehru wanted to be a world leader. So created this non-alignment movement separate from USA and west on one side and Soviet Union on other. China at that time was not considered a super power and was lured in to the group. Nehru who was singing Indo-Cheeni bai bai had a rude shock when China invaded Arunachal Pradesh in 1962. He never recovered from it and died in 1963. Non-aligned movement was not quite neutral. Sri Lanka except for brief periods, was with Russia. This Russian tilt cost heavily to Sri Lanka during the period 1970 to 1977 when country sank to low level in economy with shortages of food, clothing and medicines. Present tilt toward China will result in dire economic state as USA and west and even Japan are being antagonized. Moody’s country down grading (indirectly saying that it is bankrupt) is a harbinger of events to come.

    • 4

      Non-alignment was conceptualized by Jawaharlal Nehru and the idea was first presented or mentioned by him at Bandung in 1955. It was institutionalized in 1961, by five Founder-Members viz Nehru, Tito, Sukarno, Nasser and Nkrumah. The name of Srimavo Bandaranaike finds no mention in 1961.
      In 1970, china renewed her offer of gifting an International Conference Hall, first made in 1964. The building was completed in 1973 and Sri Lanka wanted it opened with a bang with the next Non-Aligned Conference. It couldn’t materialise then, but the wish was realised in 1976. With the Conference gloriously conducted under the Chairperson-ship of Prime Minister Mrs. Bandaranaike, Her name got associated with non-alignment in a big way.
      A senior Minister even exulted in the media that PM. Sri Lanka was Leader of two/thirds of the world. The Sri Lankan voter cut her Party to size at the 1977 elections by voting in only 1/12 th of the members. The parallel is easily drawn.

    • 5

      Aren’t India and China both supposed to be non-aligned?

  • 9

    Dayan Jayatilleka,

    Can you please explain in simple words for a common man or woman to understand the difference between being neutral and non-aligned, instead of using political science jargon which most people don’t understand.

    We know there are geopolitical powers like the West, America, China, India, Russia, and others.

    Do world powers care about the nonaligned movement as force to be reckoned with?

    Thank you.

    • 6

      Dayan I wrote a few months ago that GR/MR regime will attempt Russian/Israeli type of assassination of prominent Tamil activists who are campaigning against atrocities of the regime. Recently there was news that a Tamil Human rights lawyer in UK who had exposed abduction and murder during MR/GR regime was targeted but luckily escaped. They are antagonizing India the same way JR antagonized India during 1977 – 1987 period. If they think that they can scare away India by bringing in top level Chinese delegation to proclaim their support to the regime as well warn others to keep off Sri Lanka, they are sadly mistaken. Then India had acted solely but this time it will be joint one with approval of USA and west. GR/MR will have to decide whether they want parippu or kavung.

  • 7

    Gotbaya’s direction is well established. He is not bothered about Non-alligned or Neutral policy. Most of the Buddhist Sinhala think that Gota will create a Buddhist Sinhala only military country. Why he is so urgent to get 20th amendment when there is two third majority in parliament and his family is in the cabinet? I think he understand it is a difficult task to control Buddhist Monks without a full power because he knows that all those MPs who are elected in the parliamentary are opportunistics and any time they will vote against him when he takes strong action against Buddhist Monks who are violent and MPs who corrupted throughout their carrier. So, he doesn’t trust these parliamentarians and Monks. He need to take strong action to make them silent (you know what I mean). So , there is going to be a full pledged military power for next five years and thereafter without any election (no parliament) or any judiciary. He also think China will help Gotabaya and his military. Gota is a silent dictator will not leave any evidence.

  • 7

    The argument that ‘non-alignment’ is not relevant anymore as the cold war between the two superpowers has long ended is just malarkey to camouflage Sri Lanka’s new foreign policy orientation. ‘Neutrality’ is actually a code word to signal that Sri Lanka is all set to neutralize India’s Big Brother role in its affairs by bringing in China as the counterforce. This is what is meant by ‘neutrality’ and this is the avowed dream of the ideologues of Sinhala-Buddhist hegemony. They find Dayan and his Dad’s foreign policy criteria not merely irrelevant, but as positively dangerous in the evolving domestic, regional and global situation.

  • 0

    The author may be an expert in his own acknowledged field. Through a web article he is addressing not merely his counterparts but compatriots, who alas, do not know the foreign policy jargon and fine divisions and differences in meaning of various terms. To ordinary blokes like us Non-alignment means not to lean against any power bloc there can be. Neutral means to steer our own course again without being partial. What is the fine difference between all this? According to the little we know the “neutrality” of the Yahapalana government was essentially to appease various parties interested in Sri Lanka by giving control of various bits of Sri Lanka such as the Hambantota Port to the Chinese, a terminal in the Colombo Port to the Indians and so on. What is the neutrality of this Government and not Non-Aligned as per the quotation of the new Foreign Secretary? Is this a mere Mantra? The real question is what do we in Sri Lanka have in our hands when some other nation tries to bully us? Does this neutrality afford us to tell those fellows to go to hell like what President Percy did in chasing away Miliband and Kuchner?

  • 1

    Hmmm…..Neutral is, 5% money from China, 5% money from USA, 5% money from India, and the rest is our own efforts. Non-aligned is like 1% money from other places.

    But what is 200% money from China, 200% money + involvement with USA, and 50% involvement with India(and some money and cow-gods)? That’s reveling in the richness of others. Will it work, or will it implode or explode, is the question. Well, we have to innovate sometime I guess, to find out.

  • 1

    What good the non-alignment movement brought to SL?

    In 1976 SL held the NAM summit and was the head of it. Meanwhile another NAM country called India armed, trained and financed Tamil terrorist groups to break up SL! And they invaded SL in 1987.

    If SL was aligned to a superpower, it would not have happened.

    SL must hedge its position by allowing China, USA, India, Israel, Saudi/Pakistan and Russian military bases in the island. Saudi/Pakistan and US military can be based in Trincomalee. Indian army can be based in Jaffna. Indians were wonderful in Jaffna during 1987 to 1990 time. People in the north loved them. Israeli and American military can be based in Colombo. Russian military in Galle and Chinese military in Hambantota.

    This is equidistant foreign policy. The only way forward for SL as one nation.

    • 0

      Why Saudi/Pakistani Military in the predominantly Tamil east , where which is also part of the their homeland? You want them in the east in order to capture the east for your fake Arab , large low caste converted immigrant Tamil Dravidian community from South India, so that you can create a fake Arab Wahhabi/Salafist homeland, from stolen Tamil lands. Pakistan and Saudi will love it but definitely not the USA. You are cunningly trying to lump the USA with Pakistan/Saudi , so that it is acceptable to India but only want these Islamic extremist nations in the Tamil east. Arrive in the Tamil east as refugees a few centuries ago and now falesely claim large chunks as your homeland ,with the support of certain Islamic nations and the racist Sinhalese establishment , who are only supporting your fake claims for their own agenda in the east. I have long suspected from your comments , that you are Southern Muslim and not a Sinhalese. Constantly fawning to the Sinhalese and running down the Tamils but never a bad word against the Muslims , always trying to depict them as the allies of the Sinhalese. Most Sinhalese show more hatred towards the Muslims than to the Tamils , whom most know in their heart are the same people as them,

    • 1

      Are you High or retarded ? .

  • 0

    By saying ‘ Neutral’, SL is trying to deflect criticisms of getting closer/ reliant on China. Chinese had been getting involved with countries that are looking for funding to run their countries. Chinese are spreading their wings whole over the world. USA so far hasn’t been trying to catch up or keep a check on the Chinese advancement to become the superpower in the Pacific and Indian Ocean. We certainly do not want proxy wars to happen in our tiny island.

  • 2

    The father of the Non-Aligned Movement was the late Jawaharlal Nehru. The founders of the Non-Aligned Movement were Jawaharlal Nehru of India, Sukarno of Indonesia, Joseph B.Tito of Yugoslavia, Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt and Dr.Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana. Srimavo Bandaranayake came later after attending the first Conference. Srimavo Bandaranayake showed active interest in the NAM, but allowed Pakistani military Aircrafts to refuel in Katunayake International Airport in the war against India in Bangladesh. Non-alignment should be distinguished from Neutrality. Switzerland and Burma were the only neutral countries. Sri Lanka has just buried Nonalignment. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa cannot be blamed as abandoning Sri Lanka’s long-held framework of ideas on the world. Later Srimavo Bandaranayake too leaned towards China during Chou-en-Lai’s period as Prime Minister and this trend was intensified when Mahinda Rajapakse was President. Srimavo Bandranayake failed herself to diffuse the tension when China suddenly waged a war against India after accepting the Panchaseela policy.

  • 1

    Dear Dayan
    With all due respect what our excellency has stated what needed to be stated in the UN that is we are a Neutral Country based on the reality today and is our stand given there is no NAM actively around to make such reference too. It would have been very foolish for our head of state to make such statement too standing in front of all other world leaders?? nor should you be reporting this as a deviation in foreign policy???
    Not taking any credit away from the NAM and the historical facts some of which you have stated could not in anyway coxed up with the title nor about Sri Lankan position as stated by our Excellency.
    Secondly regards to Palestine issues I feel “yes” would be nice to mention our position as we have very rightfully stood our grounds on this for a long time…………we just been through a miserable war and if we talk too much about this also makes us look a bit odd too?
    None of the other countries do this anymore either including India is one of biggest partners with Israel on all issues what Israel does…..so may be a bit of that coming through too.

    • 1

      May be…….we should give the benefit of the doubt to the Excellency as his focus is on delivering justice to us and may be one day we will focus on all others??

      What happed to Col Gaddafi who was one of the prominent supporters of NAM who “walked the talk” of serving the developing countries and a prominent ambassador for peace permanently in Palestine by asking Israel to allow all the Palestinian to be free and fair citizen of the entire Nation (he never believed in separate palaestinian states because what is being offered (not yet) is a joke?? What happened to Yugoslavia after the late Hon Tito, what happened to hon late Indra Gandhi, what happened to all our politicians who all got assasinated (you said you were part of Tamil Militancy??)

      Specially the FP politics has been ghetto making and the GOSL ensured the innocent Tamils will not end up like destitute Palestinians in Israel??? but be the honourable citizens of the “entire” Sri Lanka “one for all and all for one”?? it is also walking the talk you do not see??? a bigger picture?

  • 1

    Non-alignment had a context and purpose which faded away with the decline of the anti-imperialist content of the ex-colonies since the late 1970s.
    With the exception of India, the key founding states of the NAM had been fully subverted by the early 1980s.
    NAM had since lost its potential as a rallying point for the defence of the sovereign states of what became the Third World.
    However, NAM still has political significance to the extent that imperialism resents it and NAM has sent signals of defiance against US imperialist attempts to isolate Iran and other US targets.
    The case for non-alignment ceased to be since 1990 as there have been no rival power blocs.
    The true choice is between accepting the fiat of the imperialist bloc led and dominated by the US and defying it.
    Thus, non-alignment has a meaning only in the context of refusal to submit to US imperialism.
    In fairness, the NAM has that content at least on paper. But it is not a force that can deliver.
    Neutrality refers to balancing between rival forces operating in one’s region. Superficially it resembles non-alignment to the extent that it preempts joining predatory alliances with vested interests. But it is woolly in the way it is interpreted and implemented to mean many things to many people.

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