27 May, 2022


The Premadasa Foreign Policy Pivot

By Dayan Jayatilleka –

Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka

“How can legitimate governments, deriving their sovereignty from their people, accept fetters on their freedom from outside? We must be alert to the danger of a new colonialism, wrapped in spurious moral considerations, emanating from alien cultures.” ~ President Premadasa, Address to the opening session of the 6th SAARC Summit, Colombo, 21st December 1991)

Ambassador Bandu de Silva has critically commented on President Premadasa’s policy towards Israel. His reconstruction (‘More on Sri Lanka’s Israeli connection’, The Island, July 10th 2017) is a speculative caricature, which is factually erroneous in some matters and incomplete in others. What is at stake here is an accurate understanding of both the Premadasa presidency as well Sri Lanka’s foreign policy and diplomatic history. This is all the more important today when Sri Lanka is suffering from a policy of supine sellout in international affairs, following a period of vast blunders and distortion in the postwar years and especially the second term of President Rajapaksa.

President Premadasa’s move on Israel, including the setting up of the Mossad Commission, was catalyzed by the publication of the book by Victor Ostrovsky and Claire Hoy, entitled ‘By Way of Deception’. An expose of Mossad’s duplicitous operations throughout the world, the book revealed that in the Sri Lankan war, the Israelis had been backing both sides, the Sri Lankan state as well as the Tamil Tigers. Premadasa was incensed by this duplicity against Sri Lanka. Though his rivals, headed by the pro-Israeli former Minister of National Security Lalith Athulathmudali, scoffed at the Ostrovsky book, and was echoed in this derisiveness by Colombo’s upper middle class (which took the same attitude towards President Premadasa as they later would towards President Mahinda Rajapaksa, approximately for the same reasons), serious students of Middle Eastern affairs and of Israel in particular, such as my father, Mervyn de Silva, knew better than to scoff.

Victor Ostrovsky was up until that time, the youngest ever recruit of the Mossad—he was that good. Much more importantly, his volume provoked the iconic founding father of Mossad, Isser Harel, to make a rare, perhaps unique television appearance, to denounce Ostrovsky’s whistle-blowing. If the contents of the book were a joke, Isser Harel would have hardly dignified it or demean himself by coming out of the shadows to denounce it.

Thirdly, the book contained details that made complete sense—such as the statement that it was the Israelis to wrestled with the problem that the Tigers were facing an army drawn from a numerically much larger population base, and came up with a solution of a great equalizer, namely to give the Tigers a huge edge in landmine technology which could take out a whole cluster of the enemy, thereby neutralizing the numerical advantage of the Sinhala majority.

Fourthly, the veracity of Ostrovsky’s book was born out by the fact that the Government of Israel—a country which takes itself very seriously and prides itself on being a liberal democracy at least for its Jewish citizens—took out a writ in the New York City courts, banning the book’s publication, which the authors barely surmounted by publishing it in Canada, but with much less effect than by a top New York publishing house as planned.

As Mervyn de Silva’s painstakingly researched presentation before the Mossad Commission pointed out, a distinguished former Israeli diplomat who was in Sri Lanka in 1958 during the first anti-Tamil riots, wrote an article in the Israeli press after July 1983, drawing a parallel between the Tamils of Sri Lanka and the Jews, implying that the Tamils were the Jews of South Asia. The writer, Netanel Lorch, a personal friend of Mervyn’s, was the official historian of the Haganah, the armed force that fought for Israel’s independence and later became the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). Mervyn strongly argued that whatever the military assistance to Sri Lanka, Israel would, in the final analysis, always be far more sympathetic to the Tamils than the Sinhalese.    

President Premadasa’s policy towards Israel was but part of a much broader pivot in foreign policy. When the Tigers went back to war, Premadasa and Ranjan Wijeratne opted for a strategy which could only be partly implemented because of unexpected external shocks. The contours of that strategic pivot were best evidenced by the trip that Ranjan Wijeratne was sent on in 1990, together with the then Army commander Hamilton Wanasinghe. That trip was to Iran, Iraq and Libya and the purpose was the massive purchase of weapons and ammunition, in the face of a Western ‘soft embargo’ on Sri Lanka.

Had the massive infusions of weaponry taken place, and with Denzil Kobbekaduwa having been tasked with the counteroffensive and later made Overall Operations Commander (OOC), the war would have been won on Premadasa’s watch. This was not to be, because Gulf War I, “Desert Storm” erupted, and derailed the entire project. Iran stayed a true friend of Sri Lanka’s though, and a massive planeload, a Lockheed C5A if I rightly recall, arrived every month, laden with ammunition for us. It was this ordnance that was so helpful in Operation Balavegaya, the relief of the siege of Jaffna fort.   

It would be gravely wrong to attribute Premadasa’s Israel policy to domestic political rivalries i.e. issued of personalities. Such an explanation could not explain his stand on a crucial issue, the revocation in 1991 of the “Zionism is Racism” resolution passed by the UN General Assembly in 1975 at the high point of Third World activism and the strength of the Non Aligned Movement. In 1991 President George Bush Sr. addressed the UNGA and urged the repeal of the 1975 resolution. With the USSR about to fall, the Berlin wall having collapsed and the USA’s “unipolar moment” dawning, his appeal was heeded including by India. Only 25 nations voted against the US move. Most of them were Islamic or Arabic while the others were Communist party-led (such as Cuba and Vietnam) or left-led. There was only one country which was among the principled, defiant 25 that was neither Islamic, Arabic nor left-led. That was Sri Lanka.

The decision was taken despite a dinnertime telephone call made from the residence of the US Ambassador Marion Creekmore by Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to President Premadasa. The call both irked and (for reasons that shall remain unstated) amused President Premadasa, but stiffened his resolve. He instructed our PRUN-New York to neither abstain nor absent himself, but to vote against the repeal. His point was that the repeal of the 1975 UNGA resolution should have been traded in for a peaceful settlement of the Palestinian issue.

Premadasa’s policy towards the West and India issued from fundamental principles: sovereignty, self-respect, reciprocity. As Bradman Weerakoon testifies, when powerful US Congressman Stephen Solarz warned President Premadasa that his decision to close down the Israeli Interests section “would have consequences”, Premadasa stood up, icily asked the key US legislator “do you think that we, in this country, are unaware that actions have consequences?” Declaring that “this meeting is now at an end”, he walked out of the room. Similarly, when Dr. Rohan Perera, currently our PRUN-New York, and Bradman Weerakoon drafted a note with regard to the conduct of UK High Commissioner David Gladstone (at the time, patron of Mangala Samaraweera) who had interfered in the electoral process in the South, President Premadas was gently admonitory, saying: “…but the three letters that I want are not in this note: P…N…G!”—by which he meant persona non grata. He made sure they were integrated into the text.

President Premadasa’s attitude to the IMF and World Bank was pretty much the same. When, during his absence, his top officials such as Mr. Paskaralingam, had agreed with the visiting delegation of the Bretton Woods twins, to effect deep cutbacks on Janasaviya, he made  his top officials watch a video of a fiery yet grateful platform speech by Janasaviya recipient Violet Lalini, followed it up by reading out from his well-thumbed and flagged copy of his election winning manifesto “New Vision, New Deal” and firmly instructed to go back to the World Bank and IMF officials and tell them that what these top officials had promised would not and could not be implemented because it went against the mandate that the President and his government had obtained from the people of Sri Lanka. Unlike today’s UNP leadership in government, he was the servant of the Sri Lankan people, not of foreign institutions or countries—and he made sure that his bureaucrats observed the difference.      

As for India, Premadasa’s policy had three phases. The first was his successful attempt to remove 70, 000 Indian troops from Sri Lanka’s soil—something which both he and Madam Sirima Bandaranaike had promised the people in their contending election manifestos. Premadasa’s ‘Chittavivekashraamaya’ speech, in which he publicly and unambiguously called for the Indian troops to leave, and followed it up with a masterly, controlled polemic with Indian PM Rajiv Gandhi (every word of which represented his thinking), not only demonstrated his absolute, unflinching commitment to the restoration of Sri Lanka’s sovereignty whatever the risk, but was also an almost Cuban-type model of how a small country should and could stand up to a much larger neighbor.

The second phase was the virtual boycott by India of the SAARC Summit in Colombo, when Premadasa was elected chairperson. Almost all other SAARC members came to Colombo in a gesture of solidarity. It was a tribute to Premadasa’s counter–hegemonic asymmetrical diplomacy against regional hegemonism, and it succeeded.

The third phase of Premadasa’s relationship with India was symbolized by the warm embrace between him and Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, after the Indian navy had intercepted and destroyed an LTTE ship carrying Kittu an attack in which Kittu was killed or killed himself.

Earlier in his career, in the 1960s, Premadasa sought to balance off the pre-eminence of India in the region by a “Look East” policy, arguing that Sri Lanka (Ceylon at the time) should identify itself more with South-east Asia.

The Rajapaksa tilt to China was prefigured by Lakshman Kadirgamar, but the latter was only returning, whether he knew it or not, to the Premadasa presidency’s line on China. (Premadasa it must be noted had visited China and Russia in 1957 and published a booklet.) The textiles for Premadasa’s island wide free school uniforms program was a gift from China. More significantly, the chief guest at the UNP’s convention during Premadasa’s presidency (and Sirisena Cooray’s General Secretary-ship of the party) was the high level representative of the Communist Party of China.

Premadasa was no mere mercurial populist or nationalist. Anyone who knew him was aware of his steely self-discipline, clarity and resolve. He had a lucid notion of (a) the hollowness of Sri Lankan foreign policy of the previous decade and (b) the shortcomings and lack of commitment of the official foreign policy apparatus. When the country’s leading foreign policy and world affairs analyst Mervyn de Silva made the same point at the sessions of the Organization of Professionals Associations in 1989 and both suggested and initiated the setting up of a foreign affairs study group, to scrutinize and reorient both our foreign policy as well as its organizational instrumentality, President Premadasa enthusiastically embraced it.

The FASG was set up with Dr. Gamini Corea as head and Mervyn as Deputy. Foreign Minister Hameed attended the first sessions. Mervyn nominated his old university friend Lakshman Kadirgamar to the FASG. The Foreign Ministry was represented by Ambassador Nihal Rodrigo and Aruni Wijewardena, the Central Bank by Anila Dias Bandaranaike. The official liaison between President Premadasa and the FASG was Presidential Advisor on International Affairs Bradman Weerakoon. Sadly for Sri Lanka, when Dr. Gamini Corea, Mervyn de Silva and others handed over the FASG’s report on restructuring our foreign policy and foreign missions to the President of Sri Lanka, it was to President Wijetunga and not President Premadasa who was keenly awaiting it and eager to act on it and would have immediately implemented it. (He had sent Mervyn to several capitals including London and Washington in 1993 to report on restructuring our missions). Premadasa was assassinated by the Tigers in May that year.       

Speaking as Prime Minister, at the 8th NAM summit in Harare in 1986, Premadasa had proclaimed:

“It is these same imperatives, sanctity of territorial sovereignty and integrity, which lead the government and people of Sri Lanka to condemn interference by major powers in the affairs of small states. Whether this interference is in Central Asia, Central America or the Caribbean, it is unjustified. The existence of governments or the assumption of office by governments which are disliked by their neighbors, is no excuse for overt or covert intervention. External invasion, subversion or destabilization is the theft of decision making from citizens of the nation. We in the Non Aligned Movement may only be able to resist these intrusions with words. But let the words ring loud and clear—interference is wrong; interference is unprincipled; interference must stop”.

This was the core doctrine or philosophy that animated Premadasa’s foreign policy. When will a UNP government, a UNP leader, or indeed Sri Lanka as a nation, speak like this again in the world, to the world and for the world?

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Latest comments

  • 7

    “accept fetters on their freedom from outside?”

    Dayan Buddy,

    Shhhhhhhh! ……… Don’t let it out to anyone. I had a secret chat with Mahinda. It’s all hush hush. He said that he gave part of Lanka freehold to China as a back-handed defence treaty. So if India invaded, it will be invading China-territory too, and will be obliged on China’s part to defend it’s territory. ……….. Very, very clever ……. No? …. Yes?….. Yes, No?…… Now, do I have to remind you of his other great insight ……… tricking good ol’ Vellupillai to sell/betray himself for 30 pieces of Silver? Man, that takes the cake!
    ………….. Only you and I are blessed with the gift to discern Mahinda’s unparalleled insights. …….. Others just get taken in by the showbiz and razzmatazz ……… Mahinda forever!

    • 3

      Nimal Fernando – An example of a “Buddy” (by definition) can also mean your faithful dog!

  • 5

    Absolutely nothing on the 600 or so policemen asked to lay down their weapons ?
    What happened after that?
    Writer’s block?

  • 6

    Except GAM UDAWA (upliftment of rural poor)or few other programs, nothing was seen as fine under Premadasa administration. That murderous era was so black even going worst to that of Rajaakshe. Following 89/90 insurgency, there had instead a hatred wave throughout the country not the least chance to see how a state leader could ever be like that authoritarian. Even almost everyone paid a smile, at the time, Premadasa got killed by a bomb leaving him not even his head intact. Premadasa and his politics were identified with any other uneducated leaders of the world. I still remember, how ram, Premadasa fearlessly added to then Radio program that nothing was unfair, if JVPers killed innocient people, there he insisted his direct mediation killed those JVPrs. That was the first time, ever I heard, a state leader defended himself the right to SHOOT and kill any citizen without respecting the value of a human life. To that time, over 50 k youth across the country, more in southern rural areas were killed and found the dead on tyre pyres.
    > I really don’t know why a man – who is known to be a self-proclaimed political analyst always to sit with highly critical state leaders. </b This should be a mental problem as I see it. Dayan Jayathilaka could do lot more for this nation, if he could see him in a mirror.
    But this man Dayan Jayathilaka to repeat about his Guru Premadasa and his external principles should really be a joke. To that time, not a single person adding any Premadas’s good qualities. Even Amnesty International sent to then STATE a petition asking for investigations of missing students ( youth in the country).

  • 1

    Dr.DD., you are spot on with your comments about Israel’s treacherous double dealing with Sri Lanka. Premadasa did the right thing by kicking them out.

    The strange part is, though Chandrika re-established ties with Israel, it was only during Mahinda Rajapakse’s Presidency that the relationship thrived with the Mahinda, in spite of being the Founder President of Palestinian Solidarity in Sri Lanka till he became the President of the country, paid an Official visit to Israel, I believe in 2014. The Prime Minister and several other Ministers also visited Israel during the last government which NEVER happened during JRJ’s or Chandrika’s tenure..

  • 2

    premas foreign policy was to give arms to the ltte in an effort to get rid of the Indians ask paski about it
    that was all he was capable of

  • 2

    Dayan, what the hell are you saying? For example you are quoting the book by Victor Ostrovsky and Claire Hoy, entitled ‘By Way of Deception’: “……… An expose of Mossad’s duplicitous operations throughout the world, the book revealed that in the Sri Lankan war, the Israelis had been backing both sides,……..”.
    Dayan was everywhere and at one stage in a Tamil liberation movement. Did he get the Israel backing?

  • 0

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