The Ceylon Constitution of 1948 mandated that Defence and Foreign Affairs should be subjects assigned to the Prime Minister. This arrangement lasted until 1972. Even when the new constitution was introduced, the arrangement lasted in practice until 1977, when the system of parliamentary government was abolished. During these thirty years, there were many Prime Ministers [...]

Sunday Times 2

Sirimavo Bandaranaike as Foreign Minister

By Leelananda De Silva

Sirimavo Bandaranaike counted many Foreign Policy successes

The Ceylon Constitution of 1948 mandated that Defence and Foreign Affairs should be subjects assigned to the Prime Minister. This arrangement lasted until 1972. Even when the new constitution was introduced, the arrangement lasted in practice until 1977, when the system of parliamentary government was abolished.

During these thirty years, there were many Prime Ministers and Sirimavo Bandaranaike was there for nearly 12 years and so she is the longest serving foreign minister of Ceylon/Sri Lanka.

The period that she was foreign minister saw Sri Lanka punching above her weight in foreign affairs. After 1977, with the breakdown of internal peace, and also Indo-Sri Lanka relations, Sri Lanka’s place in international relations declined from being a major player, especially in a non-aligned context, to being a supplicant requesting various favours from foreign countries.  In the United Nations, Sri Lanka played a defensive role. Foreign ministers of Sri Lanka could never achieve the dominant position that Mrs. Bandaranaike had in her time.

There is much to be said for the Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka being the Prime Minister. She had contacts at the highest levels unlike a foreign minister. An illustration of this was her close relationship with India’s Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and with Pakistan’s Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

The Prime Minster as Foreign Minister did not have the time or the inclination to intervene with details of foreign policy management and administration. Those tasks Mrs. Bandaranaike left to her permanent secretary. The management of the foreign service was highly professional at that time.

During her first term, as Prime Minister and Foreign Minister between 1960 and 1965, she mainly dealt with the political aspects of foreign policy. She had great achievements during this period. Indo-Sri Lanka relations were excellent. She settled the issues relating to Indian citizens in Ceylon (the Sirima-Shasthri pact) and maritime border issues with India, negotiating at the highest levels with the Prime Ministers of India. She intervened in the Sino-Indian dispute, travelling to both countries as an intermediary.

Professor J.K. Galbraith, who was the US Ambassador in India at the time, records in his Ambassador’s Journal, the anticipation with which interested parties looked forward to Mrs. Bandaranaike’s mediation efforts. Mrs. Bandaranaike attached the highest importance to the maintenance of friendly relations with India, and she did that as an equal and not as a subordinate party. (Going forward to the 1970s, Mrs. Bandaranaike did not hesitate to offer Pakistan refuelling facilities for its aircraft on their way to what is now Bangladesh, irritating Mrs. Gandhi no end.) Mrs. Bandaranaike also proposed the Indian Ocean to be a Zone of Peace, which still remains a relevant proposal in much changed circumstances.

When Mrs. Bandaranaike returned to power in 1970, after a break of five years, her foreign policy had a stronger economic dimension. During this period, she was also Minister of Planning and Economic Affairs and in her own mind, economic issues came to be dominant even in the conduct of foreign policy. Between 1973 (when the Algiers summit adopted Colombo as the venue of the next Non-Aligned Summit) and the Colombo Summit in 1976, Mrs. Bandaranaike attached even greater importance to economic issues in international relations and also in non-aligned forums.

I am familiar with this aspect as she appointed me as Secretary of the Economic Committee of the Non-Aligned Summit as early as 1973. She told me that she wished to attach equal importance to the economic agenda as to the Non-Aligned Movement’s political agenda. She had two reasons for this approach. First, the Non-Aligned Movement was highly divided on political issues and by focusing on economic issues, she could diminish the tensions within the movement. Secondly, North-South economic issues and relations had emerged as dominant features in international relations, and the Prime Minister was anxious to be active in this area. She also was of the view that it is through a greater focus on economic issues, that she could relate domestic economic issues of Sri Lanka to its foreign policy.

Let me relate a few instances of her approach. When the Economic Commission for Asia and Far East (ECAFE) held its Annual Sessions in April 1974, she proposed in her opening speech that a World Fertilizer Fund should be established. This was a time when there was a serious world food crisis. The World Food Conference was to be held in Rome in November 1974. Her proposal was to be taken up at this Conference. It led to the establishment of the International Fertilizer Supply Scheme by the UN.

Then at the World Food Conference, Sri Lanka proposed the establishment of an International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). Although it was not established in the form that Sri Lanka had proposed (the proposal was to concentrate on financing irrigation development), Sri Lanka’s proposal received serious consideration. The FAO later awarded the prestigious CERES medal to Mrs. Bandaranaike.

At the Non-Aligned Summit itself, she made the proposal for a Commercial and Merchant Bank for the developing countries. The rationale for this proposal was that developing countries, particularly the smaller ones did not have the capacity to obtain the best deals for their imports. They could not buy in bulk. The proposal was based on two experiences. The first was that of the Crown Agents in London, who made purchases in bulk for the countries of the British Empire. The second was the local Sri Lankan experience. When we were buying food, oil or pharmaceutical products, it was found that we imported commodities when the prices were high and that we were having large stocks when the prices were low. The Non-Aligned Summit adopted this proposal and UNCTAD took it up later.

Another interesting aspect of her approach was with regard to pharmaceuticals. Professor Senaka Bibile had come up with innovative proposals to rationalise the purchase of pharmaceutical products. It was an approach which was relevant to all developing countries.

Mrs. Bandaranaike told me (I was Secretary of the Economic Committee of the Summit) to attach Senaka Bibile to Sri Lanka’s delegation. He worked with me on this Committee and the Summit adopted Sri Lanka’s proposal to pursue further Professor Bibile’s approach. This was a clear instance of Mrs. Bandaranaike relating her foreign policy concerns to domestic policy.

Equally, at the Commonwealth Summit in Kingston, Jamaica in 1975, Mrs. Bandaranaike tabled proposals on what was at that time an important issue to Sri Lanka — that of the Brain Drain. A high level ministerial committee had made far-reaching proposals to address the issues concerned with the Brain Drain. Mrs. Bandaranaike told me to present a paper to the Commonwealth Summit, suggesting ways and means to assist countries like Sri Lanka to address Brain Drain issues.

There are many other instances I can quote, from my own experience of Mrs. Bandaranaike’s continuing concern to link up domestic and foreign policy. She wanted foreign policy to be of relevance to her domestic economic policies. When she visited Iraq to see Saddam Hussein, she obtained a good deal on concessionary supplies of oil. When the Sterling company estates were taken over, she was anxious to ensure that fair compensation was paid to British interests and she raised this issue with Harold Wilson, the British Prime Minister. She did not want to jeopardise the relationship with Britain. When she visited countries in the South East Asian region including Japan in the aftermath of the Non-Aligned Summit, her concerns were equally economic and political.

Mrs. Bandaranaike was much concerned that Sri Lanka should be an active player in the United Nations system. She supported Shirley Amarasinghe, our Ambassador in the UN, to be the President of the UN General Assembly in 1976. She actively supported Dr. Gamani Corea to be the Secretary General of UNCTAD. At this time, UNCTAD was a key player in the North-South discussions. Then she supported Shirley Amarasinghe to be President of the Law of the Sea Conference, which was one of the most important conferences of recent times, creating a new legal regime for the world’s seas and oceans.

(The author of this article was Senior Assistant Secretary and Director, Economic Affairs of the Ministry of Planning and Economic Affairs, 1970-1977. He was also Secretary of the Economic Committee of the Non-Aligned Summit in Colombo in 1976. He travelled abroad extensively with Mrs. Bandaranaike on her foreign visits. He wrote his memoirs – The Long Littleness of Life – published in 2016)


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