D.S. Senanayake- A study of his foreign policy

To mark the 60th death anniversary of the country’s first premier we publish an extract from an article by J.R. Jayewardene, who served as Finance Minister in Mr. Senanayake’s Cabinet

On February 4, 1948, Ceylon regained her freedom. As a colony, she had no independent foreign policy. During the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, the whole of South-East Asia was controlled by Western power, and had no means of following a foreign policy of its own. It was during this period that man's economic environment changed from feudalism to capitalism; that the great discoveries which gave man greater control over the forces of nature, were made; and the industrial revolution was ushered in.

The foreign policies of the Western powers, which alone counted, had their beginning during this period, and the theories of balance of power commenced then. During this formative period in the history of mankind, Ceylon, together with so many of her neighbours, was tied to the chariot wheels of the British Empire, and her foreign policy was the foreign policy of the United Kingdom.

When independence came in 1948, we were able, not only to govern our country, but also to direct its foreign policy. It is fortunate that, at this important stage in our recent history, we had a man of wisdom and balance, such as the late Mr. D.S. Senanayake, to direct us.

It is useful to study the principles which guided him and the interests he sought to protect, in framing that policy. As a member of his Cabinet, since he became Prime Minister, and as one who represented Ceylon at many international conferences during the 4½ years of his term of office, I can speak with some knowledge of his mind. In this article, however, I have sought to support such views as I felt Mr. Senanayake held, by reference to his own speeches.


The first question he considered was that of Defence. Mr. Senanayake was aware that the defence of our freedom was one of the primary obligations of the State. He was realist enough to know also, that the security of small nations depended on their ability to defend themselves either individually or collectively. Ceylon had no army, navy or air force; she had formed part of the defence plans of the United Kingdom (UK) and, unlike India, which had a standing army that had won its laurels in several wars, would have been left defenceless by the departure of the British forces. Moreover, Ceylon occupied a strategic location in the Indian Ocean, and may have been sought after by a nation which intended to dominate this region of the world.

"I cannot accept the responsibility of being Minister of Defence unless I am provided with the means of defence."

If we could not defend ourselves, he thought, the next best thing was to look round for some other country which would. At the moment, he could think of only one country with sufficient interest in us to defend us at their expense, and the UK was that country. He also saw that our security was involved in Britain's security, because Britain needed the use of the Indian Ocean for her ships and other vessels to maintain her great two-way East-West trade. It is in this context that he bargained with the British Government and entered into the Defence Agreements which were signed simultaneously with the passing of the Independence Act. It was a mutual pact, whereby, we would allow Great Britain to use bases in Ceylon with our consent, and we would help Great Britain if she was attacked, and it was to our advantage to help her.

This Defence Agreement, while it lasts, must necessarily colour our foreign policy. If we accept the fact, that this Agreement in no way whittles down our independence, and that it was entered into in our interests, as much as in the interests of the UK, then we have some clue to the way in which Mr. D.S. Senanayake's mind was working, with regard to Ceylon's foreign policy which he was then framing.

The Commonwealth

The defence alliance with the UK logically, led Mr. Senanayake to affirm his allegiance to the Commonwealth. He never had any intention of leaving the Commonwealth, once freedom was granted. The political parties to which he belonged- the Ceylon National Congress (CNC) and the United National Party (UNP); nay, all democratic parties in Ceylon, wished Ceylon to be an independent member of the Commonwealth, some as a monarchy, others as a republic. It was only the Marxist parties that sought to sever Ceylon's connection with the Commonwealth. Mr. Senanayake's desire to be in the Commonwealth arose from various reasons.

Mr. Senanayake was convinced that the Commonwealth had no expansionist ideas, and that, its one ambition and desire was to preserve peace in the world. He wanted peace for Ceylon and peace for the rest of the world, and he felt that, whatever weight he could throw on the side of those who wanted peace, would help the cause. He also had a great admiration for the Englishman and his way of life. It is natural that this should be so, for the people of Ceylon had moved with them for over 100 years, and though, some of the memories of that association, particularly the events in connection with the riots of 1915, during which time Mr. Senanayake and his colleagues were imprisoned, were not happy ones, yet, Mr. Senanayake was aware that the Englishmen were democrats at home, and imbued with a sense of fairness. Once the British Government decided to grant freedom to India, Pakistan, Burma and Ceylon, whatever differences of opinion he may have had with them, or any distrust he had towards them, disappeared, and he felt that, "the known devil was better than the unknown devil."

Communist Countries

His attitude towards Communism, both at home and abroad, left no doubt in the minds of people. He had several times expressed the view that, even at his advanced age, he was in politics to protect Ceylon from Communism, that he believed in rebirth, and felt that, he would be born over and over again to help in the fight against Communism. His attitude towards International Communism was governed by the knowledge that he felt, that International Communism did not seek peace, but sought to bring about trouble in other countries. This, he thought, tended to war. He openly stated, that he did not approve of these methods. He identified International Communism with the policy of the Soviet Union. He did not think this policy would tend to peace. "Enslavement of the world is what we believe to be their attitude…… We will never be with Russia until she gives up her policy." He was, however, not concerned with Russia's internal government, nor with China's internal government. He would recognize them and be friendly with them, and trade with them, but he did not approve of their foreign policy.


In this context, it may be relevant to state his views about the United States of America. In a debate on the Address in July 1950 he stated:-

"As far as the United States is concerned, there is not the slightest doubt that she holds the view that we hold. That is, they are for democracy. As long as they are for democracy, and as long as it becomes necessary for us to associate ourselves with either the United States or with anyone else, we will join that side." (11)

And again-
"I do not agree that it is only through America that the living standards of the Asian peoples could be raised. But, at the same time, I feel that, if it is only with the assistance of America that the standard of living of the peoples of Asia could be improved, there is nothing wrong in obtaining that assistance."
In the light of these remarks, which shows his attitude to both the Commonwealth and America, he refused to accede to the request of the Opposition, to deny harbour facilities to an American flotilla on its way to the Korean war. While Mr. Senanayake thought he should take no part in the Korean war, as it was a United Nations Organisation (U.N.O.) matter, and Ceylon was not a member of the U.N.O., he saw no reason why facilities which were available to the Americans in the past should not be made available now. He drew a distinction between this incident and the refusal to grant facilities to the Dutch, to use our aerodromes in their military action against the Indonesians. The distinction was that, in one case, the Dutch were opposing a movement for freedom, and in the other, the U.N.O. was opposing aggression by International Communism.


"Our attachment to India, our close association with India, whether it be cultural or otherwise, makes us feel that it is very necessary for us to be in close friendship with that country."
"We consider India to be one of the greatest nations in the world, but we do not expect India to play the role of trying to establish rights where they have no rights, or privileges where they have no privileges, or of trying to deprive other countries of their rights."

U.N.O. and International Organisations

Ceylon applied for membership of the U.N.O. Her application was vetoed by the Soviet Union, on the ground that Ceylon was not free. A few years after our first application, Commonwealth countries pressed very strongly that Ceylon should be admitted as a member. This time, Russia did not raise the plea that Ceylon was not free, but bargained for the admission of some of her satellite countries as members of the U.N.O., if her objection to Ceylon's admission was to be withdrawn.

This made Mr. Senanayake rather bitter about Ceylon's admission into the U.N.O., and did not renew its application, nor press for admission. He, however, took full advantage of the organisations set up by the U.N.O. dealing with Health, Food, Education, etc. Under his leadership, Ceylon continued to play an important part in the activities of these international organizations. One of the chief organisations which Mr. Senanayake was keen that Ceylon should join was the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the International Bank for Reconstruction & Development, better known as the World Bank (WB).

We became members of these Organisations in 1950, and since then, have attended their annual meetings - held in Paris, Washington and Mexico. Here too, Ceylon played an important part in their proceedings and gave her decision on all matters that needed a decision, independent of all countries and guided by her own views. The WB was of considerable help, both in sending out an Economic Mission and in granting us a substantial loan towards the completion of the second stage of the Laxapana Hydroelectric Scheme. It was Ceylon's inability to join the U.N.O. that enabled us to enter into a trade pact with China. Ceylon, therefore, enjoyed a dual advantage namely, the advantages that the U.N.O. gave to its members, as well as any advantage that she derived from her not being a member.

Foreign Trade

With regard to Foreign Trade, his view was that we should trade with foreign countries, irrespective of their political views and ideologies. When questioned in Parliament, whether he had refused to have anything to do with Russia with regard to the sale of rubber, he replied- "If Russia wants our rubber, let her become another competitor and compete with these people……. The Russian representatives can come here and buy in the open market. When it is a question of money, I do not mind taking even from my enemies.

I have no scruples about that, so long as I do not cheat anybody." With this idea, he permitted the private sale of rubber to China, even after the U.N.O. had decided that its members should not sell strategic materials such as rubber, to China, which was held to be an aggressor in the Korean conflict. Though America was anxious that we should not permit private trade to sell rubber to China, Mr. Senanayalce did not impose an embargo on such sales. He was, however, negotiating with America, with regard to the sale of our rubber in bulk to America. There were difficulties about agreement on the question of price, and while discussions were proceeding, he died. It was after his death, that the Rubber-Rice Pact with China was entered into.


The question of freedom for Japan was mooted at the Colombo Conference of Commonwealth Foreign Ministers. There was some hesitation among some of the countries, before agreeing to freedom for Japan. Mr. Senanayake came out very strongly on the side of complete freedom. He was of the opinion, that a nation of 80 million people could not be kept in subjection, without danger to the peace of the world, and the Conference decided that steps should be taken to make Japan free. On his instructions, his representative in London, pressed the same point of view at a conference of Commonwealth Ambassadors, and ultimately, America took the same view, and steps were taken to draw up the Japanese Peace Treaty. This Treaty came up for consideration at San Francisco, in September 1951, and Mr. Senanayake instructed me to represent Ceylon, to support freedom for Japan and not to ask for reparations. He said in the House, that he had taken a step towards peace with Japan and to make Japan a sovereign State. He had instructed our representative to press for even more favourable terms for Japan, at the Conference. He could not understand the attitude which kept two big nations such as Germany and Japan under subjection. He said-

"We are asked why we do not favour this bloc or the other bloc. We are not concerned about favouring this bloc or that bloc. We are concerned about maintaining peace in this world. Any little action that we can take, however small that may be, we shall take as far as Ceylon is concerned. Ceylon feels that peace cannot be established in this world by hatred, or revenge, or by suspicion, or keeping nations under subjection. That would only develop into greater wars and greater misery." On being questioned as to why the Republican China was not being recognised, as she had not been invited to the Conference, he said-

"It is much better for us, not to think of the disputes that exist between all the States, but that, we should try to settle disputes one by one. This is the first step that we are taking for the safety of Asia and perhaps, for that of other countries as well….. Let us forgive and forget the past, and let us hope that Japan will live as a friend in the future. That is the attitude that Ceylon would take. We will not be a party to tightening the hold over Japan or of any power. Our contribution will be to make Japan as free as possible."


- A knowledge of Mr. Senanayake's views on Foreign Affairs and a study of his speeches on this subject, show the realistic attitude he adopted in framing Ceylon's Foreign Policy. This was quite in keeping with the attitude he adopted to all other questions. He based his Foreign Policy on two fundamentals-
(1) Defence of his country's recently regained freedom?
(2) Membership of the Commonwealth of Nations as a sovereign State.
He believed in these two ideals because, he thought they tended to peace; peace for Ceylon, peace for Asia, and for the world. He then began to build a superstructure on this foundation, on the following principles:-
(a) Friendship with other countries, particularly those that believe in peace.
(b) Ceylon would contribute towards the maintenance of peace.
(c) Russia and her satellites wished to enslave the world, and Ceylon was opposed to this.
These were the main principles of his Foreign Policy, and arising from these, as I have stated, flowed all the other considerations. It was a realistic policy, formulated in the interests of Ceylon and the peace of the world.

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D.S. Senanayake- A study of his foreign policy


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