14 April, 2024


Sri Lanka’s Role In Japanese Peace Treaty 1952: In Retrospect

By Bandu de Silva

Bandu de Silva

Bandu de Silva

28th April 1952 was the day on which the Japanese Peace Treaty officially signed by 48 countries from those which attended the San Francisco Conference of September held in the previous year came into force. From all accounts published both in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) and abroad, it would appear that the role played by the representative of the small island nation at the San Francisco Conference to consider the draft treaty of peace with Japan, marked a high watermark in the island’s foreign policy record since independence. The credit is largely conferred on the messenger, J.R.Jayewardene, then Finance Minister, who represented Ceylon at the San Francisco Conference. Wikipedia account of the Conference states that Minister Jayewardene’s speech was received with resounding applause and afterwards, the New York Times stated “The voice of free Asia, eloquent, melancholy and still strong with the tilt of an Oxford accent, dominated the Japanese peace treaty conference today.”

Tracing the background to the Conference, the Ceylonese Minister observed that it was at the Colombo Conference of Commonwealth Foreign Ministers held in January, 1950, that for the first time the case for a completely independent Japan was proposed and considered. In his speech at the San Francisco Conference he said: “The Colombo Conference considered Japan not as an isolated case, but as part of the region known as South and Southeast Asia, containing a large proportion of the world’s wealth and population, and consisting of countries which have only recently regained their freedom, whose people were still suffering as a result of centuries of neglect. Two ideas emerged from that Conference – one, that of an independent Japan, and the other, the necessity for the economic and social development of the peoples of South and South-east Asia, to ensure which, what is now known as the Colombo Plan was launched.

“Mr Kenneth Younger has explained how, after that Conference, a Working Committee of Commonwealth High Commissioners worked on a draft treaty, and later had consultations with the American representative, Mr Dulles.

“The treaty now before us is the result of those consultations and negotiations. It represents some of the views that my Government had, and some of them which it did not have. I claim that at the present moment it represents the largest common measure of agreement that could be attained among the countries that were willing to discuss peace with Japan.

“The main idea that animated the Asian countries, Ceylon, India and Pakistan, in their attitude to Japan was that Japan should be free. I claim that this treaty embodies that idea in its entirety.

JR JMagnanimity
 the Sri Lankan Minister who capped up his statement in support of freedom for Japan by quoting a passage from Buddha’s teaching which taught magnanimity, stated:

“This treaty is as magnanimous as it is just to a defeated foe. We extend to Japan a hand of friendship, and trust that with the closing of this chapter in the history of man, the last page of which we write today, and with the beginning of the new one, the first page of which we dictate tomorrow, her people and ours may march together to enjoy the full dignity of human life in peace and prosperity.”

A Reassessment

However, considered against the background in which Sri Lanka was placed in the international politics at the time as well as matters which had affected her economic situation in the post-independence years of early 1950s, viewed also against the background of J.R.Jayewardene, who played a key role on behalf of Sri Lanka at the Colombo Conference of Commonwealth Foreign Ministers held in January 1950 and at the San Francisco Conference on Japanese peace treaty held in 1951, a reassessment of the role that Sri Lanka played in relation to the Japanese Peace Treaty may not seem out of place.

What dominated the international scene at this time was the escalation of the Cold War between the Super Powers. The Soviet Union had spread its tentacles into Eastern Europe and the Chinese Communists had succeeded in ousting the regime of the West’s war time ally, Chien Kai-Shek of China.

The Vietnamese Communist troops led by Ho-Chi-Min had overrun North Vietnam since 1946 and in South Vietnam south of the 16th parallel, the Viet Cong guerillas supported by the North Vietnamese forces were waging an unceasing guerilla warfare against the southern part of the country which was still under French domination. The US which had entered the war in support of the French committed US ground troops under President Johnson who advocated the Domino Theory. The ramification of this struggle was being felt in the neigbouring countries of Cambodia and Laos.

In the Korean peninsula, the North Korean troops encouraged by Soviet Union and China had crossed the 38th parallel in June 1950 which resulted in a three year old war, with the UN Security Council calling it aggression by North Korea and resolving to send UN troops in defence of South Korea.

In neigbouring Malaya which was a British colony, a Communist Chinese inspired insurgency against the British (viewed by the Australian Labour Party as an insurrection by a small group of Malayan Chinese against Chien-Kai-Shek), against which the British government had commenced a massive onslaught, was already in hand. By 1959, Australia under the Menzies government had committed to send Lincoln transport aircraft to Malaya to be followed by commitment of Naval support and engagement of ground troops which had had experience in guerilla warfare in Caledonia against the Japanese.

At the time of the Colombo Conference of Commonwealth Foreign Ministers held in January 1950, Sri Lanka’s (then Ceylon’s) politics, then two years since independence, and enjoying a high economic standard compared to other Asian countries, was being influenced by the former colonial power, U.K., and her ally, the U.S. Sri Lanka’s worries in the economic field were yet to surface within a year or so.

The turning point for Sri Lanka appeared with the U.S. decision to release war stock-piles of rubber which was to depress the price of natural rubber in the international market. Rubber being a major export commodity of Sri Lanka, the U.S. move which was to be followed by U.K., presented a serious challenge to the precarious economy of the island. Sri Lanka was now compelled to find new markets for her rubber and the first opportunity was offered by the People’s Republic of China. The Korean war rescued the rubber industry temporarily but very soon it was back to face the double effects of the release of war stock-piles and the devastated health of rubber plantations due to over-tapping to maintain the Allied war-machine during WW II.

This was also the time Sri Lanka was presented with another problem which would have seriously affected the political survival of the ruling United National Party. That was the sudden shortage of rice in the international market, which was staple food in the island as much as in Asia. The shortage was claimed to be resulting from bad weather conditions in the traditional supplier countries of Myanmar and Thailand but that explanation did not take into account the fact that Communist China had entered into a five year contract with Myanmar to purchase her entire export surplus of rice in a rice-for-arms deal which I was to discover during my stay in China. Surely, the information that China was supplying Burmese rice and Sri Lankan Food Department was sending vessels for loading to Burmese ports, to lift rice under the first five year trade and payments agreement with China, should have engaged the attention of our government but there was no co-ordination between our foreign relations hierarchy and food department. The latter was interested only in technicalities relating to rice supplies.

The trade agreement with China which also saw the Chinese paying a premium of US 0.05 cts per kilo of Sri Lankan rubber saved the rubber industry and paved the way for the rapid replantation scheme which was undertaken with the Chinese subsidy.

Asian Perspective

The Finance Minister of Ceylon presented what he termed “an Asian perspective” to the issue of the Peace treaty with Japan. In his speech he highlighted this when he asked the question: “Why is it that the peoples of Asia are anxious that Japan should be free?” and went to answer it saying: “It is because of our age-long connections with her, and because of the high regard the subject peoples of Asia have for Japan when she alone, among the Asian nations, was strong and free and we looked up to her as a guardian and friend. I can recall incidents that occurred during the last war, when the co-prosperity slogan for Asia had its appeal to subject peoples, and some of the leaders of Burma, India, and Indonesia joined the Japanese in the hope that thereby their beloved countries may be liberated.”

Here the Sri Lankan Minister can be seen even becoming emotional even to the extent of raising what may appear to be a controversial point relating to justification of sections in Asia collaborating or wanting to collaborate with war time Japan, including the idea of co-prosperity offered to Asian countries by wartime Japan. Notwithstanding this aspect in the Minister’s speech, a point I wish to raise is if Jayewardene was alone in this Asian aspiration for future Japan. Though his speech was coloured with quotations from Buddha, and his observation in Japan where he stopped on his way to San Francisco, and came under the influence of the Ambassador Sir Susantha Fonseka who was an ardent supporter of the Japanese cause, and even the influence behind the government’s decision not to ask for war compensation. ( I read the Embassy files where Sir Susantha had argued the case for not wanting to accept compensation when the Japanese government had offered to build an Embassy building in Tokyo for the Sri Lankan government).

Other Asian supporters

Who were others outside the Asian region who wanted Japan to take her due place in the world community as free nation? There was a large segment of European countries led by Britain and France and above all, the U.S. which had established a new relationship with Japan as an occupied country where US troops were still stationed. If one follows the historical sequence which led to the San Francisco conference as described by the Sri Lankan Minister in his address to the Conference, one cannot miss the pioneering role of the Colombo Conference of Commonwealth foreign Ministers where Japan’s future role was included in discussions. According to the Minister, the Colombo Conference “considered Japan not as an isolated case, but as part of the region known as South and Southeast Asia, containing a large proportion of the world’s wealth and population, and consisting of countries which have only recently regained their freedom, whose people were still suffering as a result of centuries of neglect. Two ideas emerged from that Conference – one, that of an independent Japan, and the other, the necessity for the economic and social development of the peoples of South and South-east Asia, to ensure which, what is now known as the Colombo Plan was launched.”The Minister also pointed out that [Mr Kenneth Younger has explained] how, after that Conference, a Working Committee of Commonwealth High Commissioners worked on a draft treaty, and later had consultations with the American representative, Mr Dulles….”

Australia’s Role

 Here I would like to bring up in the role played by Sir Percy Spender, the Australian Foreign Minister at the Colombo Conference who together with Mr J.R.Jayaewardene promoted the idea of the Colombo Plan. This was a time that Australia herself following anti-Communist agenda and concerned about the expansion of Communism to the north of her borders, was participation in the Korean war in defence of South Korea in the war which commenced in 1950, and was considering support for the British in Vietnam during the first Vietnam war (1946-1954) and for committing troops in Malaya against the Chinese Communist insurgency. While Australia under Menzies government (1949 onwards) wanted to protect Australia from a possible Communist expansion, her attitude towards post-war Japan was not only one of accommodation but marked with ideas of developing Japan as an alternate market for her agricultural products. Australia felt the geographical isolation during World Wars when due to German submarine activity her agricultural products which was Australia’s life bold then, could not reach Britain and Europe. Menzies was even accused by his opponents of harbouring ideas of ceding Australia north of the Brisbane line to expanding Japanese domination during WW II.

The argument in support of liberalizing Australia’s trade with Japan was the prospects of a strong Japan becoming a bulwark against expanding Communism in Asia which fear was at its height in the 1950s with the Korean War on one hand, and the war in Indo-China, on the other hand. This fear which was very much present in US and UK, came to be shared by Australia, with men like Casey directing External Affairs at the time of the San Francisco Conference. Casey had even thought that if Japanese overtures for friendly relations with her were opposed, that might even open prospects of nationalism of a militant type emerging, and extremists contemplating a deal with the Communists as a means of re-asserting Japan’s position. It was even thought Japan and China could make a deal despite the long standing antagonism of the two nations.

The Commerce Agreement with Japan which was signed only in 1957, for which trade Minister McEwen was given credit, had several years of background consideration. The Colombo itself lend support to the growing Australian interest in new relationship with Japan and Australian Minister’s role in working together with Sri Lanka was not only mutual-feeding of the fear of a rising Communist threat to Asia and Pacific but also seeing prospects of Japan becoming bulwark against Communist expansionism. This latter prospects, however, did not appear in the published documents of the Colombo Conference though it may have been talked about privately among the leaders who met in Colombo, among whom Prime Minister D.S.Senanayake equally shared the anti-Communist with his erstwhile colleague Robert Menzies of Australia.

Criticism of the Soviet opposition

It is the Sri Lankan Minister’s remarks filled with sarcasm on the amendments with which the Soviet Union sought to “insure to the people of Japan the fundamental freedoms of expression, of press and publication of religious worship, of political opinion and of public meeting – freedoms, which he said, the people of the Soviet Union themselves would dearly love to possess and enjoy,” .

Disagreeing with the Soviet Union, the Sri Lankan Minister said: “the reason why, therefore, we cannot agree to the amendments proposed by the Soviet delegate, is that this treaty proposes to return to Japan sovereignty, equality and dignity, and we cannot do so if we give them with qualifications. The purpose of the treaty then is to make Japan free, to impose no restrictions on Japan’s recovery, to see to it that she organizes her own military defence against external aggression, and internal subversion, and that until she does so, she invites the aid of a friendly power to protect her, and that no reparations be exacted from her that harm her economy.” It looked as if the Sri Lankan Minister was stealing a chapter from the Americans, especially, in defence of what obviously, is the presence of US forces in Japan.

Here one may pause to think of the position the Soviet Union observed in objecting to Sri Lanka’s admission to UN on the ground that the island nation was not independent because of the Defence Agreement entered into with U.K prior to independence. (Sri Lanka was later admitted to the UN in 1956 not on the merits of the case but in consequence of a package deal, a horde deal indeed, under which several Soviet satellite republics and Outer Mongolia were admitted). The Sri Lankan Prime Minister, D.S.Senanayake was not overtly interested in the country’s admission. It was his senior Ambassadors in London and Washington who worked hard behind the scene to get the country admitted at each year’s annual sessions of the General Conference. As the UN records reveal, one of the most vociferous advocates of Sri Lanka’s case annually was the Syrian delegate.

A hidden US hand?

The point I wish to raise is if the US made use of Sri Lanka’s situation arising from Soviet objections to her entry into the UN to get Sri Lanka’s spokesperson at the Conference to raise the issue of Soviet reservations on the proposed Japanese Peace Treaty. Raised against the background of Asian support for Japan to be a free nation, such a stand taken by the Sri Lankan representative who was a key spokesperson from Asia, would have carried greater weight than any cold war adversary like the US, raising the issue. It is also interesting to note that the person selected for this purpose, if it was American aspired, as I said, was none other than whose partisanship towards America was no secret. He came to be identified as America’s point man in Sri Lanka [known as Yankey Dicky during the deliberations over the trade agreement with China in 1952 for his open opposition to it]. Was that opposition to the trade agreement with China also U.S. inspired? This is not to question if the Sri Lankan representative, a lawyer himself, was not capable taking up the issue of Soviet objections. The coincidence of the congruence of US and Sri Lanka’s views on the Soviet position on the Japanese Peace Treaty is strong to be the result of parallel thinking.

Sans the reference to the Soviet Union, the address of the Ceylonese Minister could have been taken as a great contribution representing the Sri Lankan ethos set in a Buddhist background as much as representing a strong collective opinion shared by identically thinking countries. That Sri Lanka on her part refused to ask for any compensation for the little damage incurred during Japanese air raids makes Sri Lanka’s contribution even unique.

A Unique diplomatic fiat

Overall, Sri Lanka’s stand made boldly and clearly at the San Francisco Conference stands out as a unique diplomatic achievement which not only brought the country accolades from countries represented at the Conference as representing the voice of Asia and one where Buddhist principles resonated more conspicuous because there was no competitive representation from India to represent the cultural thrust that goes with that country, but also cemented a binding relationship with Japan for many more years to come. The Japanese response to Sri Lanka’s stand has come to stay and passed down as an unforgettably grateful memory from generation to generation followed by generous Japanese contribution made over the years towards Sri Lanka’s economic development for which she has provided valuable aid with a high percentage of grants and soft and medium interest – demanding loans. This is then could be considered one of the high points reached in Sri Lankan diplomacy seen during the post –independence period.

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Latest comments

  • 2

    A big Thank You to Bandu De Silva for this timely article that commemorates the anniversary of what remains, arguably, the pinnacle of our diplomatic success.
    In a rare instance of over enthusiasm, the NY-T’s ‘…still strong with the tilt of an Oxford accent…’ must have had the old fox in stitches since he never ventured anywhere near the dreaming spires. (Perhaps it rubbed off when sitting so close to SWRD in those good old times…)

  • 1

    During the war did we hold talk with Japan to offset colonial dominance. Did JR have a part.Did our countries gain Independence as we did not back Japan and on promises to us.JR was thew first finance Minister of Sri lanka and participated in our struggle for freedom.

  • 1

    As Sri Lanka was a British colony at the time of WW II, any open demonstration favouring Japan could not have been possible. As JRJ’s speech points out, there had been a general empathy towards Japan, which was perhaps, an emotional one, as it was the first country in Asia to rise against western imperialism and economic dominance with its own co-prosperity idea.
    A good friend of mine, who worked in the legal division of Interpol in France told me that the late Edwin Wijeyeratne (he was not Knighted then) had proposed a resolution in the Kegalle Urban Council expressing support for Japan. How he was Knighted then is a big question.
    The late Manjusri, [he was then Ven.Manjusri] who resided in the temple in our village during WWII along with Tibetan Bhikku, S. Mahinda, and another Bhikku from the temple who left on a journey round the island to copy temple paintings were suspected to be Japanese agents and were arrested on Hambantota-Wellawaya road and their binoculars and baggage were confiscated. They actually ended up their journey after meeting LSSP leaders who had escaped from prison and gathered at a Rubber estate in Matale belonging to P.H.William de Silva’s father who was from my village. I still remember the two Bhikkus coming down from the temple at dusk with their begging bowls hung on their back, through a back footpath which ended opposite our house to proceed to Aggaramaya at Polwatte, Ambalangoda, where another left-minded Bhikku, Polwatte Buddhadatta, the erudite Pali scholar lived. It was from there they planned the rest of the journey.
    In Japan, I met an old Sri Lankan, married to a Japanese who claimed he joined Subhas Chandrabose’s national army.
    Bandu de Silva

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