Sri Lanka’s foreign policy formulation: The first 10 years

D. S. Senanayake and part of his Cabinet with Jawaharlal Nehru


The foreign policy followed by Sri Lanka in its first few years of independence was determined by two factors: its proximity to India and its colonial past. The one influenced the other. The nature of Sri Lanka’s colonial bourgeoisie, who became the legatees of power once the British “left”, and their ideological orientation, had a say as well.

The conflux of these factors has led several commentators, Marxist or otherwise, to argue that Sri Lanka’s foreign policy was structured along pro-Western lines. Among the reasons cited for this view are the links between Colombo and London that survived independence, as seen in the Defence, External Affairs, and Public Officers’ Agreements of 1947.

Those who disfavour this theory contend, or imply, that Sri Lanka did not have the luxury of shaping a policy of its own. The decision to favour an extra-regional power, Britain, over its most immediate neighbours had much to do with the perception of threats from India, the de facto superpower in the subcontinent.

The External Affairs Ministry, by dint of the 1947 Constitution placed in the jurisdiction of the Prime Minister, had no policy it could evolve on its own; this partly explains why Sri Lanka remained the only Commonwealth country with no Institute of International Affairs until 1959. Obviously, its geographical position would have had a say there. But that couldn’t have been the only factor.

By 1947, political power in Sri Lanka had come to be dominated by a plantation rentier elite. As George Beckford in his study of plantation economies, Persistent Poverty, put it, such elites preferred constitutional reform over political protest to secure independence.

This was borne out by the kind of economy they were exercising their political power within; more so than its immediate neighbours, Sri Lanka fit the stereotype of a classic dependent colony, with primitive export-oriented plantation enclaves on the one hand and a backward subsistence peasant economy on the other.

A dependent colony produces a dependent elite. How dependent the elite were can best be seen in the way in which they secured independence: through constitutional cosmetics and formal requests, rather than the Indian strategy of non-violent action.

The ideology of this elite naturally influenced the formulation of foreign policy by the so-called “triumvirate”: D. S. Senanayake, Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, and Sir Ivor Jennings. Of course, to say that foreign policy was a mere extension of such ideological imperatives would be to simplify matters, since domestic policy is not and cannot be allowed to monopolise external affairs. And yet it did play a role, a pivotal one.

Scholars in general have desisted from drawing a link between the state of the country’s economy, the nature of its elite, and the process of foreign policy formulation. As such various motives, real or imagined, are attributed to particular regimes. Silva (2017), for instance, argues that the D. S. Senanayake government pursued a West-aligned policy because it needed to maintain relations with India while pre-empting any intervention by it in the country’s affairs: detente in the subcontinent.

The rationale, according to Silva, was that the British were less hostile towards India than certain other Western powers, had a stake in its military through ammunition sales, and thus raised less of a risk of posing an overt threat to India in the case of Sri Lanka aligning with it.

The choice of Britain as an extra-regional power, ergo, had to do with the necessity of maintaining good relations with a regional hegemony and concurrently allying itself with a Western power that would, while securing Sri Lanka’s defences against any encroaches by that hegemony, nevertheless not disrupt relations between the two neighbours.

To this end a distinction is drawn between an inclined and a pro foreign policy: “inclined’ referring to “a decision to maintain close relations with a country due to externally based threat perceptions” and “pro” necessitating “a personal disposition of the leader towards a particular state.” Senanayake’s foreign policy was more inclined than pro towards the Western powers because, apparently, he was more concerned with securing Sri Lanka’s interests than he was in joining a particular alliance.

If it were indeed “pro”, Silva goes on to suggest, foreign policy would have been shaped by “Senanayake’s personal whims.” Ergo, an inclined foreign policy, by its very definition, is pragmatic, long term, and in the country’s interests. The motive was practical, in his policy of alignment with the Western front and of cautious detente towards the Indian one.

Such distinctions, to my mind at least, betray an inability to interpret history, and more specifically a failure to comprehend the relationship between the state of a country’s economy and the stunted nature of the bourgeoisie as reflected in the making of foreign policy.

That Senanayake’s policy did not involve or prioritise his personal whims does not address a related question: whether, if the interests of an individual leader didn’t shape the policy, the interests of a clique, a group, in a word an elite to which he belonged, did. Here, I think, is the rebuttal to de Silva’s apolitical reading of the issue: that while one person didn’t determine the stances Sri Lanka took in the world out there, one dominant, dependent social class did, at least in its first 10 years.

Senanayake’s preference for a West-inclined foreign policy as opposed to a neutral one — at a time when the idea of a Non-Aligned Movement was still years if not a good decade away — led him to consistently emphasise on the limits imposed on Sri Lanka’s sovereignty by its geographical position in his despatches to Whitehall, during negotiations for independence.

In fact, reflecting this, Andrew Caldecott’s and Geoffrey Layton’s proposals on constitutional reforms in 1943, the Ministers’ Draft Constitution in 1944, and the Soulbury Constitution all reserved to the UK the twin matters of defence and external affairs: areas which would be most affected by the geopolitical implications of that geographical position.

Historians are divided on why these matters were conceded to Whitehall by the government. K. M. de Silva, for instance, contends that notwithstanding the British-inclined nature of these pacts, they were devised by Senanayake’s advisers “as a pragmatic solution to a complex problem.” “Pragmatic” is, to be sure, a word shrouded in ambiguity; to me, what was “pragmatic” about these agreements was that they cohered with the anti-Marxist ideology of the ruling party, the UNP.

The threat of India did seem real, at the time. But — and this is a point ignored by those who excoriate Senanayake as well as by those who exonerate him — that threat was, while not imagined (even in 1944 Nehru had made alarming statements about Sri Lanka’s closeness to India), overtly interpreted in terms of its impact on a colonised elite which had less in common with the new India than with the old British Empire.

Senanayake and his colleagues fitted the mould of a Hastings Banda rather than a Nehru or a Gandhi, or even a Jomo Kenyatta, here, owing to the quickness with which they aligned with the Western bloc over even the Non Aligned Movement. This underpins my counterargument to de Silva’s pragmatist reading of Senanayake’s foreign policy: that it was a macrocosm of his party’s pro-Western outlook, and that it stemmed from the recognition of a need to maintain the stronghold of a compradore elite through friendly relations with the West.

The counterargument to this counterargument is that the UNP never actively pursued a pro-Western policy at the cost of cordial relations with other countries. Proponents of this school of thought point at an address given by Senanayake in 1951 to the BBC regarding a “middle way” between Western and Eastern blocs, the Rubber-Rice Pact signed a year or so later with China despite opposition from more rightwing elements within the UNP, and the establishment of trade links with the Iron Curtain under the fanatically anticommunist John Kotelawala. Historians also point at the refusal of the Senanayake government to allow the Dutch military to use the country’s aerodromes in their assault on Indonesian nationalists as another example of how pragmatic diplomatic initiative, rather than crude political ideology, shaped its relations with the rest of the world.


Two points need to be borne in mind when making these arguments. The first is that while opposition to Marxism didn’t really prevail over all other considerations in foreign policy, it nevertheless had a large say. Only when pressing economic imperatives dictated otherwise did UNP governments, particularly under the Senanayakes (who were much less daunted by the prospect of trade with Communists than J. R. Jayewardene or John Kotelawala), consider risking the hostility of the Western bloc, if despite that risk urgently needed economic benefits could be reaped.

The Rubber-Rice Pact in that sense signalled not only the futility of hanging on to the US as a fair weather friend — after all it refused to buy our rubber at higher prices and then, when the country had nowhere else to go, threatened sanctions if it negotiated with Peking — but also the necessity of forging links with other countries, a necessity recognised in full by all three Bandaranaike-led SLFP regimes. In other words, the UNP drew a distinction between trade and diplomacy, a futile dichotomy that reached its fullest expression when the John Kotelawala regime established trade links with the Soviet Union without opening a single embassy.

The second point, a corollary from the first, is that even though UNP regimes espoused a “middle path”, anticipating the Non-Aligned Movement long before it came into being, they did so while acknowledging the West as their ideological ally. It remains to be seen what the two Senanayakes would have done at Bandung had they been in power, but we know from archival material that both Jayewardene and Kotelawala favoured an anticommunist line as far as NAM was concerned.

Kotelawala, in fact, proved to be the thorn in the side of India’s leadership over the subcontinent, something that surfaced only too clearly when he began entertaining notions of joining the US-allied SEATO (a prospect dreaded by Nehru) in a bid to get economic aid from Washington, and indicted “Soviet colonialism” at a press conference at the Bandung Conference (which upset both Nehru and Zhou Enlai).

Even in its steadfast and laudable refusal to let the Dutch military use the country’s airspace against Indonesia, the Senanayake government paid as much obeisance to the necessity of maintaining relations with a sovereign State that happened to supply the country with much needed commodities as it did to the reality of dwindling Dutch influence in the region, a reality underscored by the countervailing influence of US officials which compelled Dutch authorities to stop the attacks. The US did to the Dutch what it would do to Britain in 1956 during the Suez Crisis; thus when the UNP’s mantle passed to the Kotelawala-Jayewardene wing, the pro-West outlook of the party shifted from Whitehall to Washington.

At any rate, no one who has read up on the McCarthyist tactics of the UNP, culminating in the deportation of Rhoda Miller de Silva and the “China in Trinco” scare in the last years of the first Sirimavo Bandaranaike regime, would deny that at its most avowedly neutral, all UNP governments until 1989 believed in alignment with a US-led Cold War front.

This explains why the Senanayake government, while turning down the Dutch, allowed a US flotilla (four destroyers and a light cruiser) to use the harbour on its way to the Korean War, even though that War had become a UN matter and Sri Lanka was yet to join the UN, and India and Pakistan had both decided not to get involved. Over time this became a contradiction: as D. M. Prasad noted, UNP regimes “inclined towards the West in spite of their desire to keep Ceylon aloof from the tension of the Cold War.” It was a classic case of too many eggs and too few baskets.

Indeed, Senanayake’s denunciations of Communism, of Russia and China, tell us plainly that as with relations with these countries, their attitude to India was shaped by their alignment with the West. The biggest source of anxiety for India from Sri Lanka, in its first few years of independence, had been the Senanayake regime’s act of disenfranchising estate Tamils, which it had enforced to derail the Left. Yet it did nothing.

It’s pertinent to recall here that 40 years later, when J. R. Jayewardene rebuffed Rajiv Gandhi (in the face of a weakening Non-Aligned Movement and thawing relations between the West and the Iron Curtain) using the Western bloc as a backup, it led to disastrous results; that fiasco finally proved the folly of the political right’s alienation of India. Moreover as Rosemary Brissenden aptly noted in a 1960 essay, UNP regimes “felt themselves bound” by what that country did, to the extent that they came to fear “the disruptive power” of estate Tamils and labourers. The truth was that not even the most reactionary political elements could afford to sideline these matters. If they did, it was to their own peril.

The UNP had fears about Indian expansionism which emerged from statements made by not just heads of state, but also academics. K. M. Panikkar, for instance, put forward his idea of “strategic unity” with Sri Lanka for a realistic foreign policy underlying India’s defence interests, contending that the Indian Ocean should “remain truly Indian”, while K. B. Vaidya proposed a federation with Sri Lanka and Myanmar.

The most alarming statements issued from the great Nehru, though as scholars have pointed out he made those assertions — that a small state “may survive as a culturally autonomous area but not as an independent political unit”, and that Sri Lanka could become “an autonomous unit of the Indian federation” — before the country gained independence. Certain writers tend to view these remarks differently, as I do: for them and for me, they signalled India’s desire to escape the Western sphere of influence, along with its opposition to any Asian alliance with the US, as seen for instance in Nehru’s criticism of the Manila Pact.

D. S. Senanayake’s insistence on defence and external affairs pacts with Britain in the run-up to the 1947 Constitution, even in the face of opposition from some of his colleagues, would have been fanned by perturbing declarations made by someone who happened to be the leader of the region’s biggest powerhouse. My argument, however, is that this couldn’t have been the only factor: the ideological orientation of the elite, in South Asia’s most dependent postcolonial plantation economy, would have played a role there too. After all the scope of foreign policy formulation is as influenced by internal determinants, like a country’s political system, as it is by external determinants.

Fortunately, the so-called “Indo-Ceylon problem” never spilt over to a conflict. But the differences between Indian and Sri Lankan political elites, especially on the issue of immigration, compelled the Sri Lankan government to take on the security of an extra-regional power which had much in common with the ruling elite against a regional superpower which did not. Here was realpolitik at an almost tribal level: an elite politico-economic ideology shaping the foreign relations of a nation.

In their choice of an extra-regional bargaining chip, that elite thus attempted to balance two competing interests — retaining India’s friendship while counterbalancing it — with another, party ideology. That is why the UNP under the two Senanayakes aligned with Britain, while John Kotelawala pivoted to the US in his friendship with John Foster Dulles and his anxiety to join SEATO; Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s later tilt to China has been described, by at least one scholar, as serving the same end from a leftwing vantage point.

India, however, was to remain the regional powerhouse. J. R. Jayewardene’s failed attempt to join ASEAN, coming in a quarter century after Kotelawala’s campaign to join SEATO irked Nehru, signalled that not even the pro-Western front could dampen the Indian factor. Both the political right and left recognised this; more so the latter, in fact, since Kotelawala and Jayewardene tried to sideline it to their peril, while neither S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike (who enjoyed a warmer rapport with Nehru than almost anyone in the UNP), nor his widow (who acted as mediator in the Sino-Indian War), did so. Therein lay the difference.

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