Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s trailblazing foreign policy

Reflections on the 60th anniversary of the election of the world’s first woman Prime Minister: Part

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Sirimavo Bandaranaike



History is replete with women who led their countries in varied capacities, either as royalty or revolutionaries. Yet it wasn’t until July 1960 that the democratic process saw the election of the world’s first woman Prime Minister to lead a country which had gained independence a little over a decade before. 

Ceylon shone internationally as Sirimavo Ratwatte Dias Bandaranaike took the oath of office, as a country and Prime Minister challenged the conventional norm at a time when women were not at the helm of political parties or governments. It was a progressive step given its origin in the East, in a developing country.

The foreign policy of Sirimavo Bandaranaike has been closely connected with that of her husband, but close examination of her tenure, indicates that she, in her own right, was instrumental in securing an advantageous position for the country she led, in the international community. Her foreign policy, and the manner in which she advocated, formulated and implemented it, deserves due reflection at this landmark juncture, as Sri Lanka prepares for another General Election. 

Debate prevails over decisions made during her tenure in the 1960s and once again in the 1970s. During these periods she retained powers of governance in her office as Prime Minister which was not so during her third term from 1994 to 2000 as an Executive Presidency had been introduced. The foreign policy decisions that were made resulted in several unique developments that aided the country in several arenas, while some decisions are construed to have been detrimental. 

Irrespective of the nature of the debate and its diversity, the prevalence of it is indicative that initiatives were taken, policies formulated, processes of implementation used, and results reaped during her years in office. As a Sri Lankan she broke gender barriers, overcame challenging national situations, advocated non-alignment and implemented it, and left an indelible mark in history. 

Of equal importance is the manner in which she formulated policy, the key individuals around her assisting in that process, the mechanisms she used to implement such policies as well as the countries and organisations that she worked with as Prime Minister. In retrospect, it was her personality, policy and the people she worked with which could be collectively identified as astute factors that augured well for Sri Lanka. 

Through the Non-Aligned Movement, the Commonwealth and United Nations, she was influential in the multilateral arena. Her actions in mediating between India and China led to the reduction in hostilities. The term ‘shuttle diplomacy’ although not coined in the early 1960s, would best describe what she engaged in, as a relatively new player on the world stage. 

In her bilateral relations, she maintained the friendliest relations with India, while also working extremely closely with China and Pakistan. Despite her stance in the Cold War, she corresponded regularly with US Presidents concerning international issues and took the lead in soliciting their support. Equally determined to continue good relations with the Soviet Union, she even undertook a state visit to Moscow and several other countries east of the divide. Having made lifelong friends among the leaders across the world, from Canada, to Egypt, and Iraq to Yugoslavia, to name just a few, the personal friendship she exercised with statesmen and women would stand Sri Lanka in good stead at critical times. 

It is prudent on this anniversary to reflect upon key developments, numerous though they may be, of a leader, who strode the world stage with aplomb and ensured that the island of Sri Lanka was internationally recognised once again. 

Leadership at a young age 

At different stages of her life she had been exposed to leadership, and 1960 wasn’t the first occasion that she had been called upon to lead. Growing up she was the eldest child of Barnes Ratwatte Dissawa, who was the “Rate Mahaththaya” and hence actively involved in governance, while her mother, Rosalind Mahawalatenna Kumarihamy was a renowned Ayurvedic physician. This meant that the young girl took on a position of leadership among her siblings at a very young age as both parents served the community at large. 

A Girl Guide during her schooling career, she subsequently married Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike who was the Minister of Health and Local Government in 1940, and actively involved herself in social service, especially though the Lanka Mahila Samithi. She witnessed power, politics and personalities from a ringside seat for the next two decades, as her husband held many different positions. As Mr Bandaranaike progressed from being a Minister, to Opposition Leader and finally to the exalted position of Prime Minister, it was Sirimavo Bandaranaike who remained at his side and as witnessed the triumphs and travails of leadership and power. 

It was his assassination in 1959, and the months thereafter that resulted in her entry into active politics and finally saw her being called upon to be sworn in as Prime Minister, as the party she led, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, won the general election in July 1960. She brought stability to the office, as the preceding months had seen two other Prime Ministers holding office for brief periods following the assassination. 

Non Aligned Movement

Coming to the helm of a country when the Cold War was raging, the new Prime Minister was determined to ensure that Ceylon was not drawn into the rapacious race which had divided the global community. Whilst Ceylon had been associated with the concept of non-alignment from before independence, and Sir John Kotelawala had convened the Colombo Conference in 1954, and started the journey to Bandung the next year, it took until September 1961, for the Non Aligned Movement to be formally launched. 

Sirimavo Bandaranaike played a role which made her renowned in the Movement, leading the national delegation to the first five Summits, in 1961, 1964, 1970, 1973, and in 1976 when she hosted the leaders of the Non-Aligned world at their fifth Summit in Colombo. 

Addressing the first Non Aligned Movement Summit in Belgrade in Yugoslavia, Mrs Bandaranaike expressed her happiness “to attend this great conference not only as a representative of my country but also as a woman and a mother who can understand the thoughts and feelings of those millions of women.” An issue that she championed on consecutive occasions was the need to secure zones free of nuclear weapons. In 1961, she cautioned that “our endeavour should be to influence world opinion to such an extent that governments, however powerful, cannot regard warfare as an alternative to negotiation.” 

Similarly at the second Summit in Cairo in Egypt she stressed that “the idea of non-alignment arose out of our determination to be free of involvement with power blocs. With the changes that have occurred in the relations between the great powers…it is true that the definition and function of non-alignment needs re-examination.” As a result of her initiative, the Cairo Conference adopted two resolutions, which called for the establishment of zones free of nuclear weapons covering the oceans of the world, and a total condemnation of the big powers’ efforts to establish and maintain bases in the Indian Ocean. The Cairo Declaration was thereafter endorsed as a cornerstone of Ceylon’s foreign policy. 

In the second half of the 1960s when she was in the opposition, there was no NAM Summit, and upon her re-election in 1970, she led the Ceylon delegation once again to Lusaka in Zambia for the third session of the grouping. Highlighting that caution alone doesn’t result in sound policies, she noted that “the small developing countries like mine which seek to follow a non-aligned policy are subjected to many pressures, threats and trials. But there is no question that non-alignment and friendship to all countries is the best policy for newly developing countries. The size of our own conference today proves that half of the world has come to understand and value non-alignment as a positive force in international politics.” 

At this Summit, two proposals from Ceylon were adopted which called for the Zones of Peace to be closed to Great Power rivalry and conflict, and that the Indian Ocean should be declared a Peace Zone. She was very keen on hosting the Non Aligned leaders in Ceylon and in 1972 at the NAM Foreign Ministers Meeting in Georgetown, Guyana, she offered to host an upcoming summit, and this was awarded accordingly, with the 1976 Summit held in Colombo. 

In the Algerian capital of Algiers for the 4th NAM Summit Mrs Bandaranaike was instrumental in supporting efforts of the Movement to tread a new path in bringing economic development onto the agenda of NAM. With the Economic Declaration and the Action Programme for Economic Co-operation being adopted, it became evident that the Movement was focused on making a significant difference in the lives of the people it represented by addressing basic needs and improving standards. 

When the NAM came to Sri Lanka in August 1976, Mrs Bandaranaike was determined to steer the grouping along a path of economic development whilst emphasising the need for collective economic self-reliance. This was to reduce the gap between the developed and developing countries through a ‘New International Economic Order’. The Summit in Colombo was seen as a crowning moment in her foreign policy, as the Movement wasn’t just another grouping, or one which didn’t make an impact. From its inception, right through the 60s and 70s NAM remained a critical and crucial grouping, which was the only solace for countries that didn’t want to be engulfed by the opponents of the Cold War. 

Ironically the impact of NAM on the Cold War, on Sri Lanka, and the role played by leaders such as Mrs Bandaranaike, among many others internationally, who were identified as stalwarts of the Movement, hasn’t received due recognition or research. 

The Commonwealth 

After occupying a seat in the Senate or Upper House of Parliament on 5 August 1960, Prime Minister Bandaranaike tasked herself with due emphasis on domestic policy. Her first official multilateral engagement was in London at the Commonwealth Prime Ministers Conference in March 1961 when Harold Mcmillan was Prime Minister. It was the first Commonwealth Conference at which a woman Head of Government participated. Although the Queen presided over the opening of the sessions, she did not join the deliberations of what was widely regarded as a gentlemen’s club. It wasn’t until May 1979 that the United Kingdom accomplished the task of electing a woman Prime Minister, when Margaret Thatcher entered Downing Street. Other Commonwealth members, notably India, saw Indira Gandhi take on the mantle of leadership in January 1966. 

Mrs Bandaranaike once again led the Ceylon delegation to the 13th Commonwealth Prime Minister’s Conference in July 1963 in London hosted by Prime Minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home. Once the nomenclature changed to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, she attended the first session in Singapore in January 1971 when it was led by Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew. He too had undertaken a visit to Ceylon at the initial stage of her second term in August 1970, when Colombo was the first stop on his world tour. 

In April 1975, Mrs Bandaranaike attended the third Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Jamaica, hosted by Prime Minister Michael Manley, at which attention was predominantly focused on the Vietnam War. She understood the relevance of working with the Commonwealth and its member states, especially through the strong bonds of friendship she built with leaders of the grouping, which enriched her bilateral relations. 

The United Nations

The United Nations and its system was not a new arena for Mrs Bandaranaike. She first accompanied her husband who was Prime Minister in 1956 when he addressed the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) for the first time after Ceylon had been admitted in December of the previous year. During her first term in office from 1960 to 1965 it had been Sir Claude Corea, Felix Dias Bandaranaike, G. P. Malalasekera and R. S. S. Gunewardene who had participated. 

In the second year of her second term, Mrs Bandaranaike raised an issue of growing concern during her first address to the UNGA. She reiterated a call she had made repeatedly, in urging world peace through a nuclear free world, and noted that “the global implications of the proposal (declaring peace zones) require that it should receive universal acceptance and be fitted into the larger design of world peace and security and of general and complete disarmament.”

Her belief in the United Nations and its ability to play a monumental role was highlighted, when she further observed that “we have the Charter and a formidable body of international law, including declarations and resolutions, to illumine our path towards those goals. It is in our minds alone that darkness still exists, a darkness created by fear, hatred and suspicion. Our problem is to rid our minds of those darkening elements.”

When she returned to the UNGA in September 1976, it wasn’t only as the leader of Sri Lanka, but also as the Chair of the Non Aligned Movement. Here she spoke on behalf of two and a half billion people from 86 countries. Questioning the moral and rationale justification for wealth distribution and the insensitivity with which such irregularity was accepted Mrs Bandaranaike remarked that humanity which “has displayed so much ingenuity and brilliance in weaving an intricate fabric of technological and scientific achievement in so short a time in terms of [his] evolution, it should not be so difficult to respond to the call of humanity and justice.” 

In March 1974 she championed the need for a World Fertilizer Fund while delivering the keynote address at the United Nations Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East, in Colombo. Having received support, a resolution, co-sponsored by Sri Lanka and New Zealand, was adopted, and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) was tasked with its preparation. This resulted in the birth of the International Fertilizer Supply Scheme Fund four months later, which was to be a boost to agriculture based economies. 

A few years later the Food and Agriculture Organisation awarded her the Ceres Medal in recognition of the contribution she made in the field of food self-sufficiency in Sri Lanka. In presenting the medal, named after the Roman goddess of agriculture, in May 1977 the Director General of FAO, Edouard Saouma said that he could “think of no one who, by her actions on behalf of the needy, is more worthy to represent all that is symbolised by Ceres.” 

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) invited her as special guest in June 1975, for the special session of the ILO to mark International Women’s Year, and devoted it to the role of women in human progress. Mrs Bandaranaike used the platform to renew her commitment in working towards the progress of peace, justice and equality in the economic sphere. Identifying overarching issues and the need to overcome them, she outlined that “women’s rights, the creation of employment and human resources development, are all excellent ideals, but the pursuit of them in the absence of economic wherewithal, and the prospect of ultimate fulfilment would be both frustrating and self-defeating.”

A week later Mrs Bandaranaike was in Mexico to attend the World Conference on Women. Delivering the keynote address once again, at this UN Conference, Mrs Bandaranaike succinctly outlined the objective of the fight for women’s rights, and the struggle for equality. She remarked: “We are not here only to demolish discrimination but to envision the benefits to the human race of integrating this forgotten half of humanity in development.” 

Shuttle Diplomacy 

Her international engagement wasn’t limited to the arena of multilateral organisations. It extended to the sphere of mediation among large players on the world stage. Mrs Bandaranaike’s mediation in 1962/3 is what modern day International Relations discourse describes as ‘shuttle diplomacy’. It is engaged upon by a third state when tension between two countries has risen to a heightened stance and they are unable to sit down and talk to each other. At the time of her mediation, the term had not been coined, yet the deed remains significant, as it was based on her initiative. 

As tensions rose between India and China and a standoff was being experienced, Mrs Bandaranaike, who had been in office for a little over two years, convened the Colombo Conference in December 1962, bringing together representation from Burma, Cambodia, Egypt, Ghana and Indonesia. Aimed at mediating and attempting to reach a possible solution to the conflict between the two Asian giants, she was successful in averting all-out war, although the border issues remain a thorn in their bilateral relations. 

On 8 January 1963, Mrs Bandaranaike visited China to apprise the Chinese Government on the outcome of the deliberations in Colombo. Conveying a positive response, Mao Tse Tung and Chou En Lai, expressed gratitude for her initiative and efforts to promote a peaceful settlement. The visit was a further opportunity to reaffirm the Bandung Principles, whereby it was agreed that ‘the application of these principles and the observance of the spirit of Bandung not only in so far as this problem was concerned but also in the case of all other problems which arose in this area, would assist in their expeditious and peaceful solution.’

Thereafter on 12 January 1963, the Ceylonese Prime Minister was in India, seeking the concurrence of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru for the Colombo proposals. He accepted the principles of the Colombo Conference in toto and thus conflict, tension and bloodshed were averted between the two large neighbours. On that occasion, Mrs Bandaranaike said “I think it is a lesson of history that war does not solve any question: it only provokes more problems.”

Her passionate stance against war, injustice and inequality is clearly seen in her approach to multilateralism and similarly in her bilateral relations with countries in the South Asian neighbourhood and across the world. 

(To be continued)

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