Sirima’s Foreign Policy: continuity and departure

former Ambassador

Sirima Bandaranaike, wife of SWRD Banadaranaike, became Prime Minister after the general election in 1960, held after the untimely death of her husband when the term of the interim government led by W. Dahanayake had ended and the government formed by Dudley Senanayake subsequently had been defeated in a vote taken on the Throne Speech in Parliament.

During the short tenure, Dahanayake’s domestic policies demonstrated no great inclination to adhere to SWRD. Bandaranaike’s policies. He formed his own political Party (LPP) to contest against the SLFP of Mr. Bandaranaike.

At the 1960 election, Mrs. Bandaranaike led the husband’s party to a massive victory based on the sympathy card, but she could not be sworn in as she had not contested. She was therefore, elected to the Senate to enable her to be sworn in. Mrs. Bandaranaike held power till December 1964 when her government was defeated in Parliament.

Bandaranaike’s legacy continued

In her first policy statement made in Parliament in 1960, Mrs. Bandaranaike virtually repeated her husband’s foreign policy when she said that in "external affairs, her government would maintain its policy of non–alignment with power blocs and neutralism and co-existence; and her government’s relations with the Commonwealth as well as foreign countries would be friendly".

This is the first time that the term "Non-alignment" was used by the Ceylonese government in describing the country’s foreign policy.

SWRD Bandaranaike had articulated his foreign policy in minimum terms until the Colombo Powers Conference of 1954, but at that summit, concerns over stockpiling of nuclear weapons were expressed by delegates. A call was made for the suspension of testing of hydrogen bombs. Besides, anti-colonialism and a militarist approach to foreign policy to which the Ceylon government subscribed became more pronounced. The non-aligned phraseology had not yet received final shape by 1954.


Bandaranaike had not interfered with foreign interests except for requesting the British to withdraw their bases in Ceylon, which was accomplished by mutual agreement of both sides and nationalising Life Insurance.

During her first phase in power, Sirima Bandaranaike extended nationalisation to all forms of insurance and that affected foreign interests. What hurt Western interests most was the nationalization of oil companies owned by British Shell and US (Caltex - Standard Vacuum. In 1961, the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation, was set up to reduce import costs and saving foreign exchange, by diversifying import sources, and foreign oil companies to negotiate terms of operation of the new Corporation and terms of payment of compensation. The oil nationalisation and the allied question of compensation payment became a culminating point in the deterioration of the country’s relations with the West under Mrs. Bandaranaike.

In the West, Mrs. Bandaranaike’s domestic actions which affected these foreign vested interests were seen as a deviation from the country’s former foreign policy which her husband had continued to practise.

To make matters worse, at the banquet given to Mrs. Bandaranaike by the Chinese government in Beijing, in January 1963, she spoke of the ‘rapacious’ designs of the West when reminding Afro-Asian nations that they might run the risk of succumbing once more to the designs of the West. This reference to the "rapacious" West made headlines in Western media and became the turning point in reaction against Ceylon. Though Mrs. Bandaranaike remonstrated that she had been quoted out of context on a remark made over dangers to newly emerging countries coming under threat of neo-colonialism that explanation had no effect.

Within a month of the Beijing misadventure, the US government retaliated by withholding economic assistance to Ceylon using the powers given to the American President under the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961.The government saw the US action not as an economic sanction but as a politically motivated affair. The US policy could be seen not as an isolated instance, but as a continuum of actions followed when US interests were affected.

Further Radicalisation of NAM Principles:

Mrs. Bandaranaike, was now practising non-aligned principles more vigorously after the Belgrade and Cairo Non–Aligned conferences. From being a participant in the First NAM conference in Belgrade (1961), she progressed to become a convener of the second NAM conference in Cairo (1964). There she proposed the extension of the concept of nuclear free zones to cover areas and oceans which were free of these weapons; that all NAM nations should take steps to close their ports and airfields to ships and aircraft carrying nuclear weapons; that all colonial powers should liquidate bases existing in their former colonial territories.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Bandaranaike refused permission for the US Seventh Fleet to enter the territorial waters of Ceylon and protests against the intention of moving some nuclear task force units for operational purposes to the Indian Ocean fleet and expressed concern over it.

The visit of the East German good-will mission to Colombo around this time to negotiate the upgrading of its mission drew protests from West Germany and France, and that, too, may have been seen as retaliatory actions by the Ceylonese government.

These actions may not have been retaliatory, but ones taken in conformity with the non-aligned policy of the country, which was becoming more and more assertive under Mrs. Bandaranaike. In India, at the time, Jawaharlal Nehru was in power and his brand of non-alignment, as reflected in the Belgrade documents, was less abrasive. He was more interested in world peace while other leaders emphasised other views.

Mrs. Bandaranaike who attended the NAM Conference in 1961 may have been influenced by its dogma than formulating a policy, which served the domestic needs. To achieve such a mix of priorities, a deep insight as displayed by Nehru and SWRD Bandaranaike was needed, more than an impulsive response. The Ceylonese foreign office at the time seems to have ill –served Mrs. Bandaranaike and played more to the tune of her evolving idiosyncrasies. The use of phraseology she employed in Beijing to describe the West could have been avoided had she been apprised of implications.

Sino-Indian border war 1962

Ceylon’s position was a difficult one in respect of this war as she had close economic and political relations with both countries, besides, the close cultural ties with India. Jawaharlal Nehru may have expected Ceylon to support her at least by naming China the aggressor as some of the members in the opposition like, Philip Gunawardena did.

On China policy, the Indian Prime Minister has been criticised by his own former Ambassador to Beijing, R. K. Nehru, Prime Minister’s cousin, who not only demolished "the myths of China's "betrayal" but also pointed to Jawaharlal Nehru's "romanticism" and of others to which very many ardently cling today, partly out of ignorance, partly to score points in partisan politics, and partly because chauvinism holds them in its grip and they enjoy its embrace."(A.G.Noorani). Others too, like Brooks-Henderson report that analysed the conflict blamed India. Neville Maxwell’s book which blames India squarely for China War, was banned in India.

However, Indian propaganda, supported by the West, had successfully presented India as the victim of Chinese aggression. Nehru himself seemed to have been convinced so. Mrs Bandaranaike chose a most sagacious alternate path over this issue. In an effort to prevent the continuation of hostilities between the two mighty nations, she took the initiative to summon the Colombo Conference of six Non-Aligned countries with a view to exploring ways and means of bringing the two belligerents to the conference table to settle the dispute. Anyone who has studied the issue deeply, might even contemptuously view this as a pipe-dream or even as an extension of "kitchen –politics"; but Mrs. Bandaranaike’s mission to Beijing, carrying the decisions of the Non-Aligned leaders who met in Colombo, was not without its effect. When the Non-Aligned leaders met in Colombo, Premier Zou En Lai announced a unilateral cease - fire. Actually, China had been offering a solution going to the extent of accepting the McMahon line with some modification, but Prime Minister Nehru was intent on a military solution. He approached the U.S Ambassador, Kenneth Galbriath, seeking US air support to lift Indian troops to the border to "fight to a finish"; but the US Ambassador thought it was a foolish adventure and provided air support only to evacuate Indian troops. Other records, however, give a nuanced report saying U.S transport planes returned when they found a unilateral ceasefire had been declared by China. Initially, Mrs. Bandaranaike’s proposal was received cordially in India, but later India herself considered it provided a breathing-space and accepted the Colombo proposals in toto; though acceptance by China was with some reservations.

As far as India was concerned, her war with China made a dent in her policy of Non-Alignment. This is seen in Nehru’s claim that over the war, that he would even ‘align with the devil to win China’, and appreciation of Ceylon’s stand was seen further in the commendation made by Zou En Lai paid during his second visit to Ceylon In 1964, on Ceylon’s foreign policy.

One of the most significant stands taken by Ceylon after this visit was the stand on nuclear testing and the preservation of the Indian Ocean as an area of peace. Ceylon welcomed the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, but Mrs. Bandaranaike was not loathe to speak against China’s first nuclear bomb explosion.

Mrs. Bandaranaike’s landslide victory 1970

What made the electorate to lose confidence in K.M.P. Rajaratne and Philip Gunawardena and Chelvanayakam were its failure in the economic front despite, its programme of food self-sufficiency, as well as the Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake’s attempt at a solution of the political issue of the Tamil minority through the establishment of district councils, proved disastrous to the government’s popularity among the majority Sinhalese."Dudleyge bade masala wade" (Masala wade in Dudley’s tummy) became a popular slogan. Soon after government took power, a Buddhist monk was shot by Police which caused displeasure among the Buddhists.

Mrs. Bandaranaike won the General election held in 1970 decisively and formed the coalition government (derogatively called "Hatha-haula") with the inclusion of two Trotskyite LSSP leaders, and the CP Leader, Pieter Keuneman, as important Cabinet Ministers. One of the first external acts of the government was to accord recognition to the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), North Vietnam, North Korea, the South Vietnamese Revolutionary Government, Sihanouk Government in –exile. At the same time, in pursuance of a pledge that steps would be taken unless Israel withdrew its forces from occupied territories, or found a solution to the West Asian crisis acceptable to Arabs, diplomatic relations with Israel, which her husband had established, were suspended.

Effect of JVP insurrection 1971

Though Mrs. Bandaranaike commenced with the traditional friendship with China, the JVP insurrection of April 1970 dampened this relationship, since it was suspected that there was Chinese complicity with it. When the Ceylon government sought the help of India, Pakistan, Britain, the U.S and Soviet Union, it refrained from asking China for help. Premier Zou EN Lai categorically denied involvement and offered support to the government. When the insurrection was suppressed, China sent a powerful delegation comprising two top Chinese leaders with an economic package including a grant of Rs.150 million in convertible currency and a further interest free loan of Rs.265 million for agro-based industries and another interest free loan of Rs. 48 million to Ceylon. In addition, five patrol boats were also offered. The promise of the Bandaranaike Memorial Conference Hall, which was promised as a gift during Zou En Lai’s second visit to Ceylon, was also redeemed during Mrs. Bandaranaike’s term of office from 1970 to 1977.

By the time of Mrs. Mrs. Bandaranaike’s visit to China in 1972, the memory of 1971 had disappeared and a high water-mark was reached in relations between the two countries with the big aid Package,

Meanwhile, the Ceylon government requested the closure of the North Korean Embassy in Colombo and it remains so to this date.

Land Reformation

In domestic policy, as a measure of socialization of the economy, land ownership was reformed reducing land ownership per person to 50 acres of highland through an act of Parliament in 1972. As a continuation of the policy, foreign owned estates too were nationalized later, which action affected foreign investment interests in Ceylon.

Bi-lateral Relations –

Indo-Ceylon relations under Mrs. Bandaranaike

The Indo-Ceylon agreement of October 1964 has been claimed as a triumph of statesmanship and diplomacy for both Mrs. Bandaranaike and Lal Bahadur Shastri. The former was able to rise above politics to seek a solution to what she considered was a "national" problem. Unfortunately, the architects of the agreement were out of office during the phase of its implementation. Dudley Senanayake’s hands were tied by the compulsions of a coalition government, which included the Federal Party. On the Indian side, the bureaucracy began to hinder the implementation from the very beginning. Under amendments brought about under Dudley Senanayake and later under J.R. Jayewardene, the spirit of the agreement was lost. A large number of Indians who should have registered themselves with the Indian High Commission did not do so, and even those who obtained Indian citizenship remained in the island as its citizens.

By the end of 1964, Mrs. Bandaranaike lost the majority in the vote over the Throne Speech in Parliament as a result of a Party coup, in which the Party stalwart, C.P de Silva left its ranks over disagreement on the nationalization of the Lake House, the major media outlet. In the General Elections that followed, the UNP gained victory and formed the new government under Dudley Senanayake.

Indo-Pakistani War of 1971

Ceylon was caught in an ambivalent situation over military intervention in East Pakistan in 1971. She permitted Pakistani air planes all transit facilities at the Katunayake airport, provided that the crew did not wear military uniform, was a defiant act taken to preserve her foreign policy of maintaining a balance of power in South Asia. This was not received well in India. However, Ceylon recognised Bangladesh the following year.

Maritime boundaries agreement with India

The Government of the Republic of India and the Republic of Sri Lanka signed an agreement on March 23, 1976, establishing maritime boundaries in the Gulf of Mannar and the Bay of Bengal. Ratifications have been exchanged and the agreement entered into force on May 10, 1976, two years after the two countries negotiated a boundary in the Palk Strait.

Soviet invasion of Afghanistan

Afghanistan, Mrs. Bandaranaike opposed the invasion. India was compelled to abandon the NAM principles on this issue, because of her treaty alliance with the Soviet Union which herself was at loggerhead with China, and stood advantageously to her over her dispute with China.

NAM’s new emphasis

From the 4th NAM summit held in Algiers, new emphasis began to be laid on a new economic order which was followed up in Colombo NAM Summit of 1976. In the meanwhile, the concept of peace received further support, with the idea of making the Indian Ocean a zone of peace which was mooted by Mrs. Bandaranaike at the Singapore Summit of Commonwealth leaders in January 1971, and later at the UN General Assembly resolution.

The later years of Mrs. Bandaranaike were largely occupied with preparation for the 5th Non - aligned Summit Conference in Colombo, at which she was to take up the chairmanship of the movement. The Colombo Conference had brought to the surface the dichotomies within the group. The broad consensus, however, was that aid was not, and could not be a solution to the world’s economic problems. The action programme of the conference, which set up the framework for "a new international economic order", is the most important contribution of the conference.

Sacking of the Finance Minister

The sacking of Trotskyite Finance Minister, Dr. N .M. Perera, and the simultaneous resignation of Dr. Colvin R de Silva in the latter part of Mrs. Bandaranaike’s administration, and the appointment of her pro-American nephew as Finance Minister, Felix Dias Bandaranaike, saw the movement away from extreme socialism practiced earlier. Relations with US also began to thaw to a measurable degree with a satisfactory solution of the compensation payment for US oil companies. U.S. economic aid was resumed and the World Bank led Aid Consortium began to consider aid to Ceylon during the last three years of Mrs. Bandaranaike’s administration. Ironically, Mrs.Bandaranaike had to now depend on what she had eschewed in principle a few years earlier. (The writer was a member of the small delegation from Ceylon which attended these sessions).

Under the J.R Jayewardene government, a maliciously appointed Presidential Commission withdrew her civic rights. Consequently, she was not able to play any active role in domestic or international politics. Her fame, however, continued throughout the Non-Aligned world.


Though her foreign policy at the commencement was confined to the definition of her husband’s policy, as time went on Mrs. Bandaranaike’s foreign policy began to expand to meet the changes in both the domestic and external environment. At the Cairo NAM Summit, where she was a convener, she was seen playing a major role in defining the role of NAM. By the time of the 5th NAM Summit held in Colombo, she was holding the reins with the New International Economic Order giving precedence, but not without losing the emphasis on political dimensions, which had come to be accepted as major principles earlier. In contrast to the foreign policy of Premier Nehru, domestic and external compulsions did not deter Mrs. Bandaranaike following an independent foreign policy based on strict Non-Alignment. Unfortunately, she could not have a hold on the local political situation after holding the Nam Summit in Colombo. Non-Alignment was beginning to lose its shine in the island under the pressure of economic difficulties. Her opponents succeeded in convincing the electorate that even in the Soviet Union, alternative forms to socialism like Perestroika after 1989 were becoming acceptable.

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