Role of oral history in understanding
Sri Lankan foreign policy
The issue of diplomatic relations with Israel – Part II

Continued from yesterday

Expert advice & voting against Egypt

This situation of reliance on expert advice, a practice followed very much in U.S. foreign policy making, where the Desk Officer in the State Department is a central figure in policy making, though working behind the scene, contrasts with the position taken by the former Permanent Secretary, Gunasena de Soyza, a much respected civil Servant, a decade earlier to which Hussein referred in his article. Hussein says the Permanent Secretary set aside his professional advice and instructed the Sri Lankan (then Ceylonese) representative at F.A.O., Sir Arthur Ranasinghe, to vote against the admission of Egypt into that body. He thinks it was due to lobbying by Lorche, the very energetic Israeli Charge’d’Affaires in Colombo. What is amazing is that according to the sequence of events given by Hussein, the situation he described should have taken place under Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike though he did not place emphasis on that fact and did not give the point of time when that decision on Egypt was made.

This brings me to the point

I presented to G.V.P.Samarasinghe which he used successfully to prevent Mr.J.R.Jayewardene’s pressure. Later, my report became the reference document in the Foreign Ministry on the Israeli issue and also formed the knowledge-base for Parliamentary debate. [The document is now not traceable though there was a later reference to it by my colleague Tissa Jayakody and now remains part of ‘oral history’]. Anyone who read my report could have made use of it to place the responsibility for taking the initiative to open diplomatic relations with Israel on Mr.Bandaranaike. My purpose was only to put things in perspective and argue the point against upgrading diplomatic relations to embassy level. Having known Charge’d’Affairs Ramati so closely, I was not blind to see his own ambition to be appointed the first Israeli Ambassador here. He was a very senior skilled diplomat.

Role of British High Commissioner

In discussing the decision to open diplomatic relations with Israel, I depended on official records, notably, a semi-official letter written by the British High Commissioner in Colombo (Sir Cecil Syres as I recall) to Permanent Secretary Gunasena de Soyza. In the old [school/intimate diplomatic] tradition, addressing by first names, the British High Commissioner suggested to the Permanent Secretary that the Ceylonese government may, ‘as a recognition of the role Israel played over the issue of admission of Ceylon into the U.N., be accorded ‘official recognition’ by the Ceylonese government.

The idea was that as a [new] member of the U.N. Ceylon should accord diplomatic recognition. It seemed unnecessary as both countries were members of that organization. It would then seem going an extra distance to get Israel, the protégé of the British government, some propaganda advantage. Whether the British High Commissioner’s initiative was due to a fear that the new government under Mr.Bandaranaike would take a negative position towards Israel was behind this move one cannot say. But, as Hussein says the Prime Minister was a statesman, the only of that kind in the recent political history of the country. At that time, it was also no secret that Israel followed socialist policies in her internal affairs. Our left politicians continued to be sympathetic to Israel. However, the West may have looked at Mr. Bandaranaike with suspicion especially with signs of his government moving away from the Western orbit and getting closer to the Soviet bloc. So, the question of a negative response from the Bandaranaike government, if there was any such, was misplaced. As I say, on the contrary, his government gave a very positive reception to Israel. The opening of the Israeli embassy here cannot be disposed as due to trickery by the Israeli government in imposing a Charge’d’Affaires on Sri Lanka on the Bandaranaike government. (Oral tradition quoted by Hussein).

The evidence I presented was, as I recall, that the British High Commissioner’s letter was submitted by the Permanent Secretary to Prime Minister Bandaranaike. I cannot even think of there having been an opportunity to take up the issue with the former U.N.P government as in the context of the content of the British High Commissioner’s letter, it could not have been written when she was not a member of the U.N. The first Prime Minister, D.S. Senanayake’s policy of observing a low profile in international affairs was continued, by and large, by his two successors, Dudley Senanayake and John Kotalawala, except that the latter veered more to the West.

Sri Lanka’s admission to the U.N. was made the turning point by the top British diplomat to take up the matter. Our admission to the U.N. was in October 1955, just a few months before the general election in which Sir John Kotalawala’s government was defeated and Mr.Bandaranaike’s coalition party came to power. Even if it is granted that the Israeli lobby worked so fast during these few months before the election when the U.N.P was in power, the evidence presented by Mr.Bandaranaike (Hansard) itself would show that the government machine had been understandably, rather slow at that time, preoccupied as it was with mounting opposition to Kotalawala government and international issues like the gross persecution of Buddhists in Vietnam under the Din Diem regime.

The British High Commissioner’s letter provided Mr.Bandaranaike an opportunity [to sympathise with the ‘accursed’ Jews ] and he snatched it. That was a hot issue to make an international impact. I am not blaming him for that. As Hussein says, [and I am yet to examine that matter carefully], he was a statesman who looked at things rather rationally, and sympathetically, to the Jews in this case, whose historical condemnation he much regretted.

I cannot recall having seen any comment from the Political Desk on that occasion. Political desks were virtually non-existent at the time, the Permanent Secretary and his Senior Assistant Secretary (Neville Jansz) being the only interlocutors with the government in taking policy decisions. A such, there was no ‘fine-tuned’ verification of the British High Commissioner’s statement of Israeli help or Ceylon’s admission to the U.N. which was given as the reason for the British diplomat’s reminder, against such other support received from other countries.

One could then say that the process of our foreign policy making was not well advanced to that extent then; and our new representation at the U.N. was also not sufficiently geared for such inquiry. [it was much later that Ambassador Shirley Amarasinghe picked up a young man from my village, Piyatissa de Silva who had become a documentation officer and gave him local rank of Second Secretary to enable him unimpeded access to the UN Documents Centre].

Had such inquiry been made on U.N. records, as I did 45 years later, when I was Director-General, Policy Planning in the Foreign Ministry, to the seeming annoyance of Ambassador Neville Kanakaratne in New York, who obviously suspected some sinister purpose in that inquiry and reported the matter to Secretary W.T.Jayasinghe, one could have come across amazing evidence of Arab support to Ceylon, perhaps, no second to what the Israeli’s were reported to have rendered.

I recall among the U.N. records, the almost passionate plea that the Syrian representative made year after year for Ceylon’s admission, which in my later years as Ambassador, I used to advantage, in my interaction with Syrian diplomats. Arab support to Ceylon then lost sight of by default – one may even recall the flamboyant Egyptian Ambassador, the only Arab representative in town who seemed to be more preoccupied with grooming would be sons-in-law for his eligible daughters and who was seen in his red sports open coupe driving to the Colombo Swimming Club at noon daily in the full glare of the public - whilst that of Israel was built up to unimaginable heights by the Israeli lobby. (e.g., the British High Commissioner in Colombo).

The net result was that the Prime Minister even went beyond what the British High Commissioner suggested and gave an order to take steps to exchange diplomatic relations with Israel. My memory is quite clear that the Prime Minister’s order was to make it reciprocal, and there was no " laying-by for further consideration" as the decision to send an Ambassador to Israel as Mr.Bandaranaike claimed two years later (1958) in Parliament. That "laying-by" came afterwards as I said earlier due to other reasons. The difference was that while Israel will have a mission here, Ceylon will have only a concurrent accreditation of an ambassador appointed to another country. The decision was made to appoint Mr.H.A.J.Hulugalle, who was our Ambassador in Italy. There was no mincing of words on that clear direction of the Prime Minister or the way it was interpreted by the top official hierarchy in the Foreign Office. So, there was no ‘laying-by…" of the appointment of a Ceylonese Ambassador to Tel Aviv resulting from statesmanship.

I did not see Mr.Bandaranaike’s statement in Parliament when I wrote my report in 1965. Even if I did, in the light of evidence discussed above, I would have called it ‘a diplomatic inexactitude.’ The U.N.P. government may have made a decision to exchange diplomatic relations which should fit in within that short spell of our gaining admission to the U.N. and Mr.Bandaranaike winning the election a few months later, but how does one account for Mr.Bandaranaike’s over-positive response to the British High Commissioner’s suggestion to extend recognition to Israel?

Today, the documents are no longer there except perhaps, what is retained in the Hansard (one has to research that), and it is ‘my oral evidence’ as against ‘Hussein’s oral evidence’ that is still available. This was no oral tradition in the 1950s but very much based on factual data. In 1989 when I wanted to show this case [and a few China files] to the last batch of recruits to the Foreign Service whom I trained in 1989-90, (all Ambassadors now) as examples of the way foreign policy was made but all these files were then missing as I said earlier, sent to Valachanai for recycling; and many were consumed in the bon fires. My narrative to the trainees then became ‘oral tradition’!

I followed these eventS closely with the meticulous interest of the new recruits to the Foreign Service then, and more so, with interest in historical development as former history research student. The Arab protest was heard even in Beijing where I had been posted Third Secretary at the time when an Egyptian diplomat shouted from afar, "Silva,…… You are ‘finished’….’finished!" ,which attracted the attention of all the guests at a diplomatic National Day reception at the Beijing Hotel. All eyes turned at me and my senior colleague, A.T.Moorthy and several others close friends came running to me thinking that I had committed a serious diplomatic indiscretion. That should show how Arab emotions ran over the issue.

Voting against Egypt

Hussein seems to place the responsibility for the decision to vote against the admission of Egypt to F.A.O. on Permanent Secretary, Gunasena de Soyza but finds it difficult to provide a rationale for his action except to say that the Permanent Secretary had a dislike for the Egyptian Ambassador in Colombo but I doubt if that could be the real cause. Anyway, things ended well as Ambassador Sir Arthur Ranasinghe ignored instructions and voted for Egypt’s entry.

One may be right in thinking that though Mr.Bandaranaike was sympathetic to the Jews he may not have wanted on that account to take a policy decision affecting a country like Egypt which had freed itself from the shackles of colonial bondage. I also find it difficult to place at what point of time the decision taken in Mr.Bandaranaike’s time to oppose Egypt’s entry to F.A.O. took place.

With the landmarks I mentioned in place where would the decision on a vote on Egypt’s entry into the F.A.O. fit in? I am puzzled! Mr.Bandaranaike became A very vocal critic of Anglo-British-Israeli aggression in Egypt over the Suez canal take over. That was early in 1957. The Asian Ministers who met in New Delhi selected him as the spokesperson to carry a message from that meeting to New York when he met the British Prime Minister, Sir Anthony Eden on the way and President Eisenhower in Washington. His government’s policy towards the Arabs was one of close friendship despite the Israeli affair which may have been a slip.

In this context the vote on Egypt’s entry to F.A.O. and its timing presentS an enigma. From the response he received from the Arab League over the appointment of Mr.H.A.J. Hulugalle as the first Ambassador to Tel Aviv, which led to his calling off the arrangements, the Prime Minister would have known how damaging a vote against Egypt in the F.A.O. would have meant.

Bandaranaike may have made the initial mistake of being carried away by the British High commissioner’s (Sir Cecil’s, as I recall) diplomacy and his own sympathy for the Jews as a people, though not for Zionism, and even considered Israel’s image favourably at that time as a Socialist country, but could he or his Permanent Secretary have engaged in anti-Arab policies? It seems to me that Hussein has either simplified things or mixed up the chronological sequence.

Sri Lanka had been admitted to the U.N. at the 1955 autumn session of the General Assembly, just a few months before the General Election. The Suez Canal crisis took place in early part of 1957 on which Mr.Bandaranaike joined Asian leaders to put their collective weight behind Egypt. He had decided to exchange relations with Israel in 1956 soon after he became Prime Minister. So, where does Gunasena de Soyza’s directive on voting on Egypt fit in? Surely, it is difficult to think that this old generation Civil Servant was not astute enough to have taken such a decision which would have political ramifications without the knowledge of the Prime Minister!


Without going into research on this issue, the only point of time under Mr.Bandaranaike’s stewardship when to my mind, such a thing may have been possible was after Philip Gunawardena left the M.E.P. coalition and when the Prime Minister seemed to begin to view Communism with reservation. The suggestion is that Mr.Bandaranaike may have been amenable at this point of time to western pressure not excluding favouring Israel by voting against Egypt. Still, why should a pro-Israeli stance be taken so far irrationally to oppose Egypt’s admission to F.A.O? after all, wasn’t Mr.Bandaranaike a firm advocate then of the policy of ‘nuetrality’ in international relations and Aafro-Asian solidarity was the thing that was in the air? Did he throw discretion out of the window a full Israel-supporter? Or, as Hussein seems to think the Permanent Secretary took the decision himself? I doubt.

The discussion now takes me back to the point I started off- the importance of the oral tradition. The information Hussein has placed before us based on what he learned from a former Chief of Protocol as to how the Israeli government suddenly sent Charg’dLorche and his family arrived in Colombo, which he thinks was a trick played on the Ceylonese government [to make it a fait accompli situation ]– I do not agree on that – is an interesting episode. Such situations do occur in diplomatic circles, as I remember the Soviet advance to set up the embassy landing without consultations with the Foreign Office in Colombo, arrived on a long Sinhala New Year- Easter week when the whole of Colombo was deserted and the time I had as the only duty officer to meet their ‘curious’ requests, the first of which was to change the hotel accommodation we had reserved! Suspicion of bugging I suppose!

One does not have to go far to find out how foreign embassies have been flouting the diplomatic rules a well as immigration regulations in the country by engaging temporary visitors as permanent diplomatic staff in their "Cultural Sections". Today, the media speaks even about the ramifications of the recent visit to the island of a President of another country on the recently concluded provincial elections in the Eastern Province! Another article would be required to detail out these issues. Interesting as the episode of the first Israeli diplomat’s arrival, I think it would be too much to try to infer it as a case of Israeli craftiness though one can put nothing beyond Israeli diplomacy.

The discussion so far should also show that when using oral tradition evidence has to

be sifted carefully in order to explain seeming inconsistencies as the case of the vote against Egypt under the Bandaranaike regime would demand.

From Hussein’s writings one could not get away from feeling that there is an attempt to absolve Mr.S.W.R.D.Bandaranaike from responsibility for that decision over the vote on Egypt as much as to clear him of direct responsibility relating to the opening of diplomatic relations. I had also seen some of Hussein’s earlier writings in the same vein. I find it rather difficult to agree with his view of Mr. Bandaranaike’s role in view of my own exposure to documents and assessment of things. But this is all oral tradition now, as far as we retired diplomats are concerned. Healthy academic debates of this nature are to be welcomed.

I am not proposing a debate with Hussein on this issue and having told my piece, I very much wish to avoid one as that could drift the dialogue beyond the academic level. I respect his knowledge of things, particularly, diplomacy including ‘diplomatic language’ on which a detractor tried to take him and me to task! He was one of the very few former Foreign Office officials who wrote very clear and incisive reports which provided guidance to us who joined the Foreign Office two years later. What may seem wanting is to put things relating to the present discussion in their correct chronological perspective in order to reconcile our somewhat different understanding of the issue of the beginnings of relations with Israeli.

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