The Foreign Policy of Sirimavo Bandaranaike


By Jayantha Dhanapala

"I am happy to attend this great assembly not only as a representative of my country but also as a woman and a mother who can understand the thoughts and feelings of the millions of women, the mothers of this world, who are deeply concerned with the preservation of the human race." Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike The date – 1961. The venue – Belgrade. The occasion – the first Summit meeting of the Movement of Non-aligned Countries. In that setting, representatives of 25 nations came together to found the Nonaligned Movement (NAM), which rejected the Cold War division of the world into ideological blocs while demanding the democratization of global politics, and which grew into a transcontinental coalition of 118 member states and 17 observers playing an influential role in the post Cold War period of international relations. Among the 25 founding member nations was Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), and at the head of the Sri Lankan delegation was the nation’s recently elected prime minister, the first female prime minister in the world.

A little over a decade after the island emerged as an independent country, Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s pioneering role and her unshakeable identification with Non-alignment set an irreversible trend in Sri Lanka’s foreign policy providing the island-nation with an invaluable reservoir of international support. Her service, under a Westminster form of government from 1960-65 and again from 1970-77 in the powerful position of Prime Minister and Minister of Defence and External Affairs, witnessed her nation’s bold identification with the economic diplomacy of the developing countries of the Group of 77. It also marked the emergence of the United Nations Conference on Trade And Development (UNCTAD), of which a distinguished Sri Lanka economist, Dr.Gamani Corea, would later serve as Secretary-General, having been nominated for the position by Mrs.Bandaranaike. It also bore witness to her understanding of the geopolitical importance of good relations with both India and China, her neutrality between them in the 1962 war, and her efforts to mediate between the Asian giants. It was a testimony to her skilful use of personal diplomacy in negotiating agreements of longstanding bilateral issues between Sri Lanka and India and in securing foreign aid from China and other countries, and in general it demonstrated her unswerving and principled commitment to the national interest of her country in the conduct of foreign policy. These exceptional qualities set trends in her country’s foreign policy that continued after her. Decades later, the name of Sirimavo Bandaranaike, among Sri Lanka’s leaders, remains best known internationally. That is a tribute to a leader whose flair for international relations was intuitive and innate, and whose style in the conduct of foreign policy – the métier in which, unlike many of her predecessors and successors, she excelled — was intensely personal.


"Underlying the policy of non-alignment is the belief that independent nations, although small and militarily weak, have a positive role to play in the world today. This attitude is completely different from that of washing our hands of these matters, which was perhaps the idea behind the classical theory of neutralism. That was non-involvement — remaining in splendid isolation. There is, Hon. Senators would agree, a world of difference between this and non-alignment." (Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike on Sri Lanka’s Non-aligned Foreign Policy, speech given to the Senate on 23 January 1964)

Ensuring Sri Lanka’s participation at the Belgrade Summit along with Tito, Nehru, Nasser, Nkrumah, Castro, Sukarno and other giants of the emerging global south was an instinctive and historic act on Premier Bandaranaike’s part. Her husband, assassinated in 1959, had set his country on a new course, articulating a foreign policy distinct from the pro-Western inclinations of his predecessors — a pro-active alternative for developing countries recently emerged from colonialism. Having observed his conduct of this robustly independent foreign policy at first hand, and accompanying him on his foreign visits, Sirimavo Bandaranaike established personal links with many of the leaders of the newly emerging countries. These connections remained one of her great strengths, as she communicated with other international leaders directly to obtain benefits for Sri Lanka and to help formulate unified Nonaligned responses to global situations.

In the early stages of her leadership, Mrs. Bandaranaike collided with Western governments as a result of her policies of nationalization of the petroleum distribution in the country and later the tea and rubber plantations. Such clashes led one of her speechwriters to introduce a toxic phrase, "the rapacious designs of the West", in a speech delivered in Peking, China, in January, 1964. These words led to a predictable storm of controversy that took her a long time to live down, but ultimately her demonstration of scrupulous objectivity between the West and East, along with her many visits to Western countries, succeeded in dislodging the prejudices that this statement had created. Such diplomatic skill was proved beyond doubt when Mrs.Bandaranaike appealed to the international community for assistance in response to the eruption of the youth-led insurgency of 1971. Help came from a wide range of countries – Western, socialist and Non-aligned countries including India and Pakistan.

While no non-aligned summits were held during Mrs. Bandaranaike’s tenure as Leader of the Opposition from 1965-70, Sri Lanka’s participation in the Nonaligned Summits of 1961 in Belgrade and 1964 in Cairo had already carved out a permanent place for her in global politics. On her re-election in 1970 she was, fortuitously, able to lead the Sri Lanka delegation to the Lusaka Summit in 1970 and to the Algiers Summit in 1973. When the venue for the next summit was under consideration, after the Lusaka summit, Mrs.Bandaranaike’s strong interest in contributing to the movement that she had helped found led her to put forward Sri Lanka’s interest in hosting a summit. This move led to a conflict with Algeria, which had similar ambitions, having emerged proudly independent after a hard-fought struggle with France. The dispute was resolved at the Non-aligned Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Georgetown, Guyana, when Mrs. Bandaranaike was satisfied, albeit grudgingly, by the decision that, while the 1973 Summit was awarded to Algeria, the 1976 Summit would be held in Sri Lanka.

Despite carping criticism by the opposition, the 1976 Nonaligned Summit was to be one of Sri Lanka’s great triumphs in foreign policy. Detailed planning supervised personally by the Prime Minister ensured its success. Veteran diplomat Dr. Vernon Mendis was appointed Secretary-General of the Conference, Manel Abeysekera placed in charge of the protocol arrangements, and senior career diplomats – Arthur Basnayake, Ben Fonseka, Izzeth Hussain and others - were given responsibility for other aspects of conference arrangements. The newly constructed Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall (BMICH), built by the Chinese and opened in 1973, was the venue.

It was Mrs. Bandaranaike’s task, as the Chair of NAM, to present the Final Declaration of the Fifth Nonaligned Summit to the UN General Assembly in 1976, with Sri Lanka’s Ambassador Shirley Amerasinghe presiding – surely a unique concatenation of circumstance for any country . Then, elections in 1977 deprived Mrs. Bandaranaike of reaping the benefits of the chairmanship of NAM, and in a curious twist of historical irony President J. R. Jayewardene – who remained deeply sceptical over NAM – was destined to fulfill that role, handing it over to Cuba in 1979. However, Mrs. Bandaranaike’s contribution to NAM remains indelible, her consolidation of NAM policies in Sri Lanka decisive. President Jayewardene’s aberrations from Nonaligned policies – such as the disastrous vote for the UK in the Malvinas Islands issue at the UN– brought negative consequences for Sri Lanka.


A firm grasp of the implications of Sri Lanka’s unalterable geopolitical context, together with a close relationship between the Bandaranaike and the Nehru families, going back as far as the 1930s, before India and Sri Lanka had achieved independence, was a hallmark of Mrs. Bandaranaike’s India policy. She maintained close relations with Indian prime ministers Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi, while holding firm to Sri Lanka’s national interest. Thus, her bold attempt to mediate in the Sino-Indian war of 1962 and her resolution of two important bilateral disputes – the citizenship status of almost a million persons of Indian origin who had been brought to work on the tea and rubber plantations in British colonial times, and the maritime boundary between the two countries in the Palk Strait – strengthened Sri Lanka’s most important bilateral relationship. The fact that Sri Lanka’s finest diplomat, Shirley Amerasinghe, was High Commissioner in New Delhi at the time of the Sirima-Shastri Pact of 1964 ensured that, in terms of an informed analysis of Indian policies and professional advice on the policy parameters of the bilateral relationship, Mrs. Bandaranaike was well served.

The issue of the citizenship of persons of Indian origin who had been brought to the country by the British colonial authorities as indentured labour on tea and rubber plantations had been an irritant in Sri Lanka-India relations from the 1930s. Diplomatic efforts to find a solution, including the 1954 Nehru-Kotelawala Pact, had only partially succeeded, until Mrs. Bandaranaike’s visit to India in 1964, when Lal Bahadur Shastri was Prime Minister. Anecdotal evidence from those present indicates that the two Prime Ministers reached agreement and entrusted officials of both sides with working out the details.

The Sri Lanka side soon complained to Mrs. Bandaranaike that Indian officials – belonging to a ‘babuocracy’ traditionally powerful, obdurate and ungenerous in their dealings with neighbouring countries – were thwarting the implementation of the agreement. Mrs. Bandaranaike telephoned Prime Minister Shastri to say that she would leave New Delhi the next day unless their original agreement was readied for signature. Senior Indian officials scurried to her presence shortly thereafter with assurances that the agreement would be ready. In October 1964 the Sirima-Shastri Pact was signed, whereby 525,000 persons of Indian origin would be repatriated to India while 300,000 would be granted Sri Lankan citizenship.

Mrs. Bandaranaike re-opened the issue after her re-election in 1970, and, on the basis of her excellent personal relationship with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, she agreed on 28 June 1974 that the citizenship of the remaining 150,000 persons would be resolved by granting 75,000 of them Indian citizenship and 75,000 Sri Lankan citizenship. In subsequent years, the United National Party Government’s domestic political considerations in Sri Lanka, influenced by the Ceylon Workers Congress, resulted in the granting of Sri Lankan citizenship to all persons of Indian origin remaining in Sri Lanka.

Another success of Mrs. Bandaranaike was the resolution of the maritime boundary between India and Sri Lanka. The status of an uninhabited island, Kachativu, in the Palk Strait had been the subject of controversy and chauvinistic statements in both countries. Extensive research by Sri Lankan officials like Foreign Secretary W. T. Jayasinghe and Legal Adviser Christopher Pinto and the political sagacity of the two women premiers led to the June 1964 agreements demarcating the maritime boundary between the two countries, Kachativu falling on Sri Lanka’s side with the proviso that Indian nationals would continue to be able to visit the island to dry their fishing nets and visit the church there as they had done in the past without the requirement of visas. Another agreement in March 1976 demarcated the maritime boundary in the Gulf of Mannar and the Bay of Bengal. Both agreements became vital in the context of the UN Law of the Sea negotiations and Sri Lanka’s claims for resources in her territorial waters and on her seabed.

In the years after her electoral defeat in 1977, the action of the J.R. Jayewardene government in vindictively and undemocratically depriving Mrs.Bandaranaike of her civic rights contributed to the deterioration of Indo-Sri Lanka relations. During this period, however, Mrs. Bandaranaike remained in close contact with Mrs. Indira Gandhi.


One of the first challenges to Mrs. Bandaranaike’s foreign policy was the outbreak of the Sino-Indian war of 1962. She was deeply distressed, since both Asian giants were friends of Sri Lanka with close historical and cultural ties, and their hostile relationship could only be dysfunctional in terms of Asian solidarity and the emerging importance of the Global South. Officials like Glannie Peiris, familiar with the Colombo Powers Conference of 1954, which led to the Afro-Asian Conference in Bandung in 1955, were on hand to assist Mrs. Bandaranaike in her mediation. The war had broken out in October 1962; on November 21, Zhou En-Lai declared a unilateral ceasefire providing space for diplomatic efforts.

The non-aligned nations remained non-aligned, on the basis that if they were to mediate they could not take sides in the dispute. Six of the non-aligned nations — Egypt, Burma, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Ghana and Indonesia, selected on the basis that they were all acceptable to India and China - met in Colombo on 10 December 1962. The proposals that emerged from the Colombo Conference stipulated a Chinese withdrawal of 20 km from the ceasefire line observed by China without any reciprocal withdrawal on India’s behalf. Although the mediation effort was encouraged, the failure of these six nations unequivocally to condemn China is said to have deeply disappointed India. Mrs. Bandaranaike was requested by both sides to visit both countries with the proposals. India accepted the proposals in toto while China accepted them in principle as the basis to start negotiations. In the event the initiative withered on the vine.

The mediation effort, bold and unique as it was, failed to bring the warring Asian giants to the negotiating table at the time. More than four decades later the boundary issue between India and China remains unresolved, but that circumstance has not prevented the two countries from forging a flourishing bilateral relationship with a strong economic component.

Mrs. Banadaranaike regarded the mediation effort as "the highest of Ceylon’s efforts in seeking to achieve its foreign policy aims". Addressing the Senate in her country on January 23, 1964, she stated:

I recall that, soon after the Colombo proposals were first formulated, the criticism was made that the proposals favoured China. So much so that the Indian press as well as the local press spared no efforts in decrying the efforts of the Colombo powers. Later on, after the Indian Government had decided to accept the Colombo Conference proposals, the press reactions were that the Colombo Conference Powers had given inconsistent interpretations in Peking and in New Delhi.

The Chinese Government expressed the view that the Colombo Conference countries had gone beyond the positions of mediators and would be functioning as arbitrators or judges if the Chinese Government were called upon to accept the proposals in toto as a pre-condition for direct negotiations between India and China.


Mrs. Bandaranaike did much to place relations with China on a steady course. Her husband’s actions in opening diplomatic relations with China in 1957 provided the foundation of her own policy towards China while continuing the trade relationship that had been forged in 1952, and her objective conduct of the Colombo Powers mediation effort in the Sino-Indian war impressed Zhou En-Lai, with whom she formed a close friendship. Her visits to China in 1964 and 1972 helped to consolidate bilateral relations, as well as the personal connections she developed with Chinese leaders at a time when China was relatively isolated, not regaining its seat in the UN until 1971. Drawing upon the historical and cultural links between the two countries, she encouraged exchanges. At Mrs. Bandaranaike’s request, relics of the Buddha were brought to Sri Lanka for exposition.

Chinese aid to Sri Lanka began during Mrs. Bandaranaike’s term of office. Very different from the aid received from other countries, aid from China was distinguished by its soft terms and its relevance to the development needs of the country. The first high-profile project was the construction of the BMICH, in which she was personally involved; the donation of this international conference hall fulfilled her long-felt desire to host a Nonaligned Summit in Sri Lanka. Mrs. Bandaranaike personally supervised the construction plans and its execution, ensuring that groups of Sri Lankans – from foreign ministry officials to students, workers and farmers – voluntarily assisted the Chinese workers in the ‘shramadana’ campaign. She eagerly awaited the opening ceremony of the BMICH in May 1973, hoping that Zhou En Lai would visit Sri Lanka for this purpose. Unknown to her, Zhou Enlai had unfortunately been diagnosed with the cancer to which, in 1976, he finally succumbed. In his stead China sent one of its famous ten marshalls who had led the Chinese Revolution, Hsu Hsiang-chien. This gesture, intended as a tribute to Sino-Sri Lankan relations, was well received. Since the BMICH project, successive Sri Lanka governments have had the assistance of China in building the Supreme Court Complex and, now, a Cultural Complex, apart from the Hambantota port and Norocholai coal plant, in a burgeoning aid relationship initiated by Mrs. Bandaranaike.

One initiative that threatened to compromise cordial relations with India was the Sino-Sri Lanka maritime agreement. Signed on 25 July 1963, this purely commercial agreement was intended to promote Sri Lankan and Chinese vessels operating from their respective ports to engage in foreign trade, cargo and passenger services, but, in a strange spin, some sections of the Indian media alleged that it involved handing over the strategic natural harbour of Trincomalee to China! The opposition UNP joined in the controversy during the election campaign of 1965 but, after being elected to power, did nothing to abrogate or amend the agreement. The perception of a threat to Sri Lanka-Indian relations also disappeared. Altogether, Mrs. Bandaranaike’s foreign policy success continues to benefit Sri Lanka at a time when China has emerged as a major economic power in the world.


One of Mrs. Bandaranaike’s less successful initiatives was her proposal to make the Indian Ocean a zone of peace. She first mentioned the idea briefly in her speech at the NAM Summit in Lusaka in September 1970, and it was reflected in the final declaration of the Lusaka summit. On her return from Lusaka she directed her officials in the Foreign Ministry to flesh out the concept. The nuclear-weapon-free zone was the more familiar concept, but Mrs. Bandaranaike preferred the more ambitious concept of a Zone of Peace, in order to insulate the Indian Ocean from great power rivalries. The plan was a direct response to the expulsion of the people inhabiting British owned Diego Garcia and the conversion of that Indian Ocean island into a U.S. base. Eventually a resolution in the UN General Assembly’s First Committee dealing with Disarmament and International Security Issues was proposed by Sri Lanka. Out of respect for Mrs. Bandaranaike the NAM countries supported the resolution, but most of the West abstained with the U.S., U.K. and France strongly opposed

In repeating the same resolution in subsequent years an operative paragraph called for the establishment of an ad hoc Committee on the subject for more focused discussion of the proposal. Thus the General Assembly declared the Indian Ocean a zone of peace by resolution 2832 (1971). It called upon the great powers to enter into immediate consultations with the littoral states of the Indian Ocean, the aim being to halt the further escalation and expansion of their military presence in the region. The declaration upheld the need to preserve the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the states of the Indian Ocean region and sought to resolve political, economic and social issues affecting the region under conditions of peace and security.

The ad hoc committee was created with the permanent representative of Sri Lanka appointed chairman and has continued ever since, albeit with little tangible progress. Some factions in Sri Lanka criticized the proposal as paving the way for India to be the sole naval power in the region. Despite all efforts to revitalize the committee, enthusiasm to pursue the proposal is obviously lacking. The lesson, in hindsight, was that proposals cannot be pitch-forked into the U.N. without adequate diplomatic preparation. The resolution was introduced hastily at the behest of Mrs. Bandaranaike without full consultations among the littoral states and the major powers.


Mrs. Bandaranaike’s stewardship of the foreign policy of Sri Lanka coincided with the coming of age of the country’s professional foreign service. In 1949, the first career diplomats had been recruited through a separate examination and interview. In Mrs. Bandaranaike’s first term, a relatively large number of political appointees sent as heads of diplomatic missions was justified by the fact that the career service was still maturing. In her second term, however, she became the first Prime Minister to appoint career diplomats as heads of missions: Arthur Basnayake to Japan, Ben Fonseka to Kenya, H. O. Wijegoonewardena to Iraq, Y. Yogasunderam as permanent representative with ambassador rank to the UN in Geneva, and Rex Koelmeyer to Sweden. Vernon Mendis remained as director-general in the foreign ministry, and Mrs. Bandaranaike relied on his advice and expertise.

In order to ensure the success of the NAM Summit in Colombo, Prime Minister Bandaranaike transferred many senior career diplomats back to the country, replacing them temporarily with officials from other ministries and other political appointees. At the same time, she understood the need for a separate career foreign service as indispensable to a successful foreign policy, in accordance with widespread international practice, and she therefore continued her policy of appointing career diplomats as heads of mission.

The basic unit of political reporting from diplomatic missions abroad was the fortnightly report, through which Sri Lankan diplomats and their staffs conveyed a confidential analysis of the political and other developments in the country of accreditation, especially as they impinged on Sri Lanka’s national interest. Inevitably the quality of such reports varied, but the Prime Minister’s secretary – Bradman Weerakoon and thereafter Dharmasiri Peiris – ensured that the better reports were sent to Mrs. Bandaranaike. She also received special dispatches from the Sri Lanka diplomatic missions and policy papers generated within the Foreign Ministry. Amazingly, they were all returned with neatly penned marginal comments signifying the Prime Minister’s strong and conscientious interest in the subject, to the great professional satisfaction of her diplomats.


This is a personal memoir, not a scholarly essay, written by a career diplomat who worked in the Ministry of Defence and External Affairs and in the Embassy of Sri Lanka in the U.S.A. while Mrs. Bandaranaike was Prime Minister. Two personal anecdotes may therefore be permitted.

The first concerns the private visit of a group of Chinese doctors to Colombo in the 1970s. They came courtesy of the Chinese government to attend on Mrs. Ezlynn Deranaiyagala, a kinswoman of the prime minister, as well as on the prime minister herself. They were accommodated in the prime minister’s official residence, and because of my proficiency in the Chinese language I was asked by Mrs. Bandaranaike to take them on excursions to places of tourist interest on weekends. On every occasion we used the private car of Mr. Ralph Deraniyagala; the use of official transport was not even considered. Mrs. Bandaranaike’s scruples about separating her private life from her official position and perks went further. It was once necessary to host the doctors to lunch at the Hikkaduwa rest house. On my return Mrs. Bandaranaike asked me about my expenses and, when I produced a bill, promptly gave me her own personal cheque. I continue to marvel at this exemplary conduct, unique in the behaviour of our politicians.

The second anecdote comes from Mrs. Bandaranaike’s state visit to China in 1972, the most successful visit of a Sri Lankan leader to a foreign country that I have witnessed. At the end of the visit, as normal protocol required, the officials began preparing the customary gifts for people in the Chinese government associated with the visit. It was late at night in the Sri Lanka delegation’s office room as we gift-wrapped the parcels and pasted the appropriate labels on them. A figure in a dressing gown with her hair let down in a plait slipped in to join in our collective work: Mrs. Bandaranaike, quietly working with her staff. She remained mindful of her housewifely duties and her personal touch in supervising the tying of the bows and the neatness of packaging of us clumsy-fingered men was invaluable. The Opposition parliamentarians had derided her as a "kussi-amma" or "a woman of the kitchen" but here was a graceful blending of the woman and the leader joining her staff on the work floor. She was also often criticized as being "radala" or "aristocratic" but here she was unostentatiously unmindful of rank or status.

That was the woman and the mother who spoke at the first NAM Summit in Belgrade. That was the Prime Minister who was the most successful foreign minister of modern Sri Lanka.

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