When the media first announced that President Sirisena would be paying a state visit to Germany it was said that this would be the first by a Sri Lankan Head of State in 43 years. How wrong that was! Other news media, particular the plethora of websites that exist today, picked up the news item [...]


Missing historical significance of journey to Germany


When the media first announced that President Sirisena would be paying a state visit to Germany it was said that this would be the first by a Sri Lankan Head of State in 43 years. How wrong that was!

Germany was divided at the time of Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike's visit.

Other news media, particular the plethora of websites that exist today, picked up the news item and repeated it without taking the elementary precaution of checking the veracity of what the original report said.

This habit of picking up what some media outlet says as fact and blindly reproducing it is increasingly becoming an undesirable feature of Sri Lankan journalism. It only underlines the fact that persons move into media without basic training or not trained subsequently which is so very essential if the media is to be a responsible purveyor of correct information and a public educator.
Besides the fact that the last visit to Germany was not 43 years ago, it seems some present day news reporters are unable to distinguish between a head of state and a head of government.

Let us go back 43 years when, according to these erroneous reports, the last Sri Lankan Head of State visited Germany. That would in the first half of the 1970s-in fact 1973. This was shortly after the United Front Government headed by Sirima Bandaranaike which came to power in 1970 had adopted the new Republican Constitution of 1972.

The Head of State then was Governor- General William Gopallawa who as President under the new constitution, was largely a ceremonial figure. The Head of Government was Mrs. Bandaranaike as Prime Minister.

It was Mrs. Bandaranaike who visited in1974 the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) called the Bundesrepublik Deutschland. So it was not the Head of State of Sri Lanka who visited the FRG but the Head of Government.

The fact that Mrs. Bandaranaike’s visit to the FRG had historical significance has, unfortunately, not featured in any scene-setter of the Sirisena visit. What has been sadly missed is that Germany was divided at the time, a result of the post-war division of the ‘spoils’ among the victorious allies.

So there were two Germanys when Mrs. Bandaranaike visited – the FRG which had invited her – and the German Democratic Republic (GDR) known in German as the Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR), a member of the Soviet bloc, which she had diplomatically recognized after coming to power in 1970, much to chagrin of West Germany.

Mrs. Bandaranaike, a founder- member of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and ideologically anti-west, had also diplomatically recognized North Vietnam and North Korea at the same time.

Apart from getting the year of the visit and the official status of the high-level guest wrong, no mention was made of the important fact of the two Germanys. She visited West Germany not the GDR she had diplomatically recognised.

It was also wrong to say the last visit was 43 years earlier when in fact it was 15 years. President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga paid a state visit to Germany in 2001 with Lakshman Kadirgamar her foreign minister.

There is a difference between the visit of her mother Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike and President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaranatunga. Her mother’s visit was to West Germany in a Germany divided by the cold war and belonging to the two confrontationist power blocs and the two military alliances – NATO and the Warsaw Pact – which buttressed them.

An unforgettable symbol of that confrontation between East and West was the infamous Berlin Wall that actually separated showpiece West Berlin from the dilapidated and economically backward East.

It was the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 as a consequence of then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of perestroika and glasnost that paved the way for the reunification of Germany.

Chandrika paid a state visit to a Germany that had been unified around 11 years earlier during the time of Chancellor Helmut Kohl. It is this single unified Germany that President Sirisena has just visited and not the half that Mrs.Bandaranaike did.
One might well ask why West Germany invited Mrs.Bandaranaike whose strong attachment to non-alignment and her proclivity to the socialist bloc were anathema to the west, especially the US.

In fact West Germany cut off economic aid to Ceylon (as it was then) in 1971 in retaliation for the diplomatic recognition of the GDR by the Bandaranaike government just as the US did when we entered into the rubber-rice pact with China during the Korean war.

The fact that three years later Bonn – then the temporary capital of West Germany -should turn around and invite the Prime Minister for a state visit shows a remarkable improvement in bilateral relations.

There were two local reasons that prompted this attitudinal change. In 1971 the Bandaranaike government faced a left-wing insurgency launched by the JVP. Moreover fissures were later beginning to appear in the United Front government which included the Trotskyist LSSP and the pro-Moscow Communist Party. The LSSP pulled out in 1975 and the CP several months later.

With more liberal new economic policies that lifted ceilings on income etc in place, the west felt it politically prudent to strengthen the hand of the much less doctrinaire SLFP led by the Prime Minister.

Furthermore the antagonism that West Germany showed towards Mrs. Bandaranaike for her friendship with East Germany (GDR) quietly faded because of the changed relationship between the two halves of Germany.

The architect of this radical shift in West German policy was Willy Brandt the Social Democrat Chancellor. Willy Brandt was at the butt end of his mayoralty of West Berlin in 1966 when I came to the divided city for a five month stay on an advanced training programme in mass communication. It was at the height of the Cold War but Willy Brandt was already beginning to hint at policies that would eventually lead to his “ostpolitik”- an opening to the east – which reached fruition when Brandt became Chancellor of West Germany and entered into détente with Moscow that had further repercussions.

Four years later in mid-March 1970 I was visiting East Germany as a guest and was travelling through the GDR seeing the far less affluent other half of Germany. It was at that time that the leaders of the two Germanys – Willy Brandt and Willi Stoph – met in the East German town of Erfurt for the first round of talks that was to lead to West Germany granting de facto though not de jure status to its Communist brother.

I remember writing a piece in the Daily News on the opening of the Willy-Willi talks on my return to Colombo.
The Basic Treaty signed in December 1972 between the two countries was intended to establish good neighbourly relations and in effect meant the jettisoning of the Hallstein doctrine which basically held that the FRG will not recognise any state that entered into diplomatic relations with the GDR.

The fact that the Hallstein doctrine was never employed against Ceylon when it recognized the GDR in 1971 was because Brandt’s ostpolitik was already taking root for he had been pushing it through since becoming foreign minister in 1969.

So West Germany’s new policy approach to East Germany was seen as an important step in ensuring peace in Europe. The diplomatic recognition of the GDR by Sri Lanka was no longer a major irritant. Combined with this new atmosphere which characterised relations between the two Germanys there was the felt need to support the more moderate SLFP government. All this led to her being invited for an official visit to West Germany.

The dilettantish and obnoxious remarks about Kishani Jayasinghe’s operatic rendition of Danno Budunge brought back memories of an article I wrote 13 years ago in the Sunday Times (ST Plus 7.12.2003) after listening to her at a charity show in London organized by Ameena Musthapha, wife of then High Commissioner Faisz Musthapha.

The other day Tissa Devendra, retired civil servant reminded us that Italian trained Hubert Rajapakse had rendered the same devotional song in operatic style at Independence Day events in 1948 and continued to do so very successfully thereafter. I wonder what they would call the caterwauling of some of our female Sinhala and Bollywood pop stars -a mutiny on the high cs?

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