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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Asian allies

Whilst Mrs Bandaranaike’s multilateral diplomacy earned her and the country numerous plaudits on the world stage, it was her bilateral engagement that proved the importance of personality, and interactions of leaders at the highest level. Before taking office, Mrs Bandaranaike had opportunities to interact with several world leaders while accompanying her husband to the UN, neighbouring countries and when world leaders arrived in Ceylon. The bonds of friendship built with these leaders would remain throughout her life, and were not limited to her times in power.  

The Nehru family of India was very close to the Bandaranaikes from the 1940s onwards. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and Jawaharlal Nehru had known each other from the time the former was a minister in Ceylon and this particular friendship even changed the path of Ceylon’s foreign policy following his election in 1956. 

In December 1960, the new Prime Minister was in New Delhi at the invitation of her Indian counterpart, commencing a longstanding official connection with India. Mrs Bandaranaike in return invited Prime Minister Nehru to visit Ceylon in October 1962. The significance of the visit was its timing. Despite growing tension with China, he accepted the invitation, especially for the inauguration of the Bandaranaike Ayurveda Research Centre being named in memory of Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, whom he considered a close friend. He also addressed Parliament during his visit. 

In October 1964, she was in India at the invitation of Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri. A crucial matter concerning the settlement of the citizenship status of almost a million person of Indian origin, who had been brought to work on the tea and rubber plantations, was addressed through the Sirima-Shastri Pact that was inked during this visit. It was decided that 525,000 persons of Indian origin would be repatriated to India while 300,000 would be granted Sri Lankan citizenship.

During her period in the Opposition from 1965 to 1970, Mrs Indira Gandhi had come to power, and was a guest in Sri Lanka in April 1973. The visit included an address to Parliament and the two Prime Ministers examined means through which they would settle several issues, chief among which were the resolution of citizenship of the remaining 150,000 people of Indian origin in Sri Lanka, demarcation of the maritime boundary between the two countries and ownership of the island of Kachchativu. The following year the ownership of Kachchativu was resolved with India renouncing claim to its ownership while the demarcation of the maritime boundary in the Gulf of Mannar and the Bay of Bengal would be done in 1976. Seen as vital in the context of the United Nations Law of the Sea negotiations, these agreements aided Sri Lanka’s claim of resources in her territorial waters and on her seabed.  

In January 1974, Mrs Bandaranaike and Yugoslav President Josep Tito were Chief Guests at India’s Republic Day ceremony. A historic occasion on which world leaders are invited to grace the Republic Day events with the President and Prime Minister of India, Mrs Bandaranaike was bestowed this rare honour during the premiership of Mrs Indira Gandhi. 

Following her defeat in 1977, a Presidential Commission of Inquiry, found her guilty of abuse of power and her civic rights and parliamentary membership were removed in October 1980. This particular act caused grave concern for Mrs Gandhi. One of India’s envoys to Sri Lanka, J. N. Dixit wrote subsequently that ‘one of the main briefs as High Commissioner of India was to persuade Jayewardene to restore her (Mrs Bandaranaike’s) civil rights and to lift the ban on her participation in politics because India was convinced that with her wisdom, experience and great influence on Sri Lankan public opinion, she would contribute to resolving the complexities of Indo-Lanka relations….’ Mrs Bandaranaike was held in such high esteem in India that despite her emphasis that this particular ‘issue was an internal one which should be resolved internally and not through any external interference’, the matter was raised continuously until her rights were restored in January 1986. 

The close affinity enjoyed by the two lady Prime Ministers for over three decades, came to an end in October 1984 when Mrs Gandhi was assassinated. Attending the funeral, Mrs Bandaranaike joined a large number of world leaders who arrived in New Delhi for the final rites which took place along the banks of the Ganges.  

Mrs Bandaranaike, though known to have closely associated India and her leaders, always ensured that Sri Lanka’s position and prosperity were not questioned or infringed upon. From her impartial position in 1962 at the height of tension between India and China, to her strong stance on the repatriation of people of Indian origin, her unremitting position on the ownership of Kachchativu, as well as her opposition to the Indo-Lanka Accord, Mrs Bandaranaike never allowed her personal friendship to hinder Sri Lanka’s path, and instead used it for the betterment of the country. 

Mrs Bandaranaike was able to nurture close ties with Pakistan during her tenures as well, with the President of Pakistan Field Marshal Muhammad Ayub Khan undertaking a visit in December 1963, followed the next year in September by her own visit to Islamabad, where she addressed a joint session of the Senate and National Assembly of Pakistan. This was a first by any Sri Lankan leader and considered a rare honour which has been bestowed on a very few leaders to date.  

During her second term, Pakistani President Zulfikar Ali Bhutto visited Sri Lanka in December 1975 wherein he addressed the National State Assembly, becoming the second Pakistani leader to do so. He held extensive discussions with Mrs Bandaranaike on the situation in Pakistan, especially in the period after the break-up of the country and in light of the support Sri Lanka had extended Pakistan in permitting the refuelling of civilian aircraft flying between East and West Pakistan. 

Relations with China reached an all-time high during Mrs Bandaranaike’s administrations, given the establishment of diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China in 1957 by Prime Minister S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike and the historic visit of Premier Chou En-lai in the same year. Mrs Bandaranaike, who had met with Premier Chou once again during her mediation visit in 1963, invited him to Ceylon, an invitation he accepted in February 1964. 

The visit saw Premier Chou offering a gift in the name of Prime Minister S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, in appreciation of his efforts in establishing and promoting diplomatic relations and as a symbol of friendship between the two countries. Mrs Bandaranaike requested an international conference hall, and in November 1970 worked commenced on the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall (BMICH). The early stages of construction saw Mrs Bandaranaike, her Cabinet Ministers, Members of Parliament, and a cross section of society participate in a shramadana-style process for its construction. The building, which was completed four months ahead of schedule, was designed in keeping with the country’s architectural designs, and declared open on 17 May 1973. 

Vice Chairman of the State Council of China Marshal Hsu Hiang-Chien joined Prime Minister Bandaranaike and President William Gopallawa for the ceremony. Speaking at the inauguration Mrs Bandaranaike thanked China for “this outstanding gift” and hoped that the hall would be “an abiding embodiment of Prime Minister Solomon Bandaranaike’s faith in internationalism and the brotherhood of man, as well as the realisation of a wish which was dear to his heart that Sri Lanka could someday serve as a meeting ground for nations of the world.” The BMICH stands as a monument to the strong friendship between Sri Lanka and China. 

In June 1972, Mrs Bandaranaike undertook a State Visit to China, during which she met with Chinese leader Mao Tse tung, Premier Chou En-lai and senior leaders of the country. In her wide ranging discussions with her counterpart, Mrs Bandaranaike explained the Five Year Plan of her Government. In support of her efforts, the Chinese Government immediately provided Sri Lanka with a long-term loan free of interest. In the area of international relations, Mrs Bandaranaike stressed the proposal for declaring the Indian Ocean a Zone of Peace, a move that was widely supported by China. 

Despite the Chinese leadership knowing the closeness enjoyed by the Bandaranaikes and the Nehru/Gandhi family in India, they still worked hard to build strong ties with Sri Lanka during the governments of Mrs Bandaranaike. As a leader of a small power in South Asia, the ability to be accepted in the capitals of India, China and Pakistan at the same time, and continuously, is undoubtedly a herculean task, but one that Mrs Bandaranaike achieved with great finesse and fortitude. 

Cold War engagement

As a founding member of the Non Aligned Movement and as a leader who led her country’s delegation to the first five NAM Summits, Mrs Bandaranaike wouldn’t be expected to have engaged deeply with either protagonist in the Cold War. Contrary to expectation, her interactions with both sides of the divide was extensive and reflected her ability to highlight international concerns, express joint stances of like-minded nations and also derive a suitable degree of leverage in favour of Sri Lanka.  

In December 1961, with the introduction of the Disposals Policy by the United States of America, rubber prices were dropping globally owing to the release of natural rubber from the US stockpiles. Ceylon, as a rubber producing nation was directly affected, as were several other countries, and she wrote to President John F. Kennedy urging him to abandon the policy. She drew attention to the importance of the rubber industry to Ceylon and the serious consequences which the decline in rubber prices was having on the country’s economy.  President Kennedy noted thereafter that he was “fully aware of the seriousness of this situation for Ceylon, which depends heavily on its exports of rubber for foreign exchange earnings and for state revenues. I assure you that the United States will conduct its disposal sales of surplus rubber with great care and that we wish to take all possible steps to minimise any adverse effects which these sales may have on the world market.” President Kennedy brought about modifications to the disposal programme within three weeks. In April 1962, Mrs Bandaranaike reacted to America’s testing of a nuclear device. Writing once again to President Kennedy, Mrs Bandaranaike claimed that “coming at a time when there is universal demand for the outlawing of these tests ad when the hopes of the world are centred on the current negotiations in Geneva, the resumption of these tests is a grave setback to peace and brings mankind once again to the brink of nuclear destruction.” She was forthright in her standpoint, informing the US President that “the neutralist nations like Ceylon, who are dedicated to the cause of disarmament and the banning of nuclear tests, are shocked at this disregard of their cumulative wishes.” 

President Kennedy, in replying Mrs Bandaranaike, recalled her speech in Belgrade, “that every stage and phase of disarmament should be established by having an effective method of inspection and control over its operation and maintenance.” He added that “although there may be some differences between us as to what constitutes ‘effective’ inspection and control, I am heartened that we seem not to differ over the need for it.”

Mrs Bandaranaike’s decision in June 1963 to make the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation the sole importer and distributor of petroleum products in the country caused great consternation in Washington and London, as she nationalised oil companies. The decision came at a time when she was concerned about the lack of a satisfactory mechanism to conserve foreign exchange and to ensure an uninterrupted supply of oil. Her actions led to the invoking of the Hickenlooper amendment which restricted aid from the United States, but President Kennedy was keen to improve relations. 

In that same month, notwithstanding the dampening of relations, she was instrumental in leading efforts at the United Nations in raising concern over the discrimination of Buddhists in South Vietnam. By mobilising world opinion, Mrs Bandaranaike wrote to Indian Prime Minister Nehru, Burmese leader General Ne Win, Prime Minister of Laos Prince Souvanna Phouma, Cambodian leader Prince Sihanouk, Japanese Prime Minister Ikeda, Thai Prime Minister Thanarat and Nepalese King Mahendra and called on them to support diplomatic efforts in alleviating the suffering of Buddhists in Vietnam. 

Her engagement in what may be termed ‘Buddhist Diplomacy’, saw her galvanising support and appealing to President Kennedy once again to use his good offices with the Government of South Vietnam to ensure the granting of freedom of worship and religious equality for this community.  

In July 1963, Mrs Bandaranaike welcomed the initialing of the Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty by Britain, the United States of America and the Soviet Union. Issuing a message on this occasion she stated that “this is indeed an important first step on the road to world peace. If the present Treaty, as we genuinely hope, could lead to a total ban on nuclear tests, it would indeed be hailed as the most significant act of peace since the Second World War.” “Ceylon,” she said was hopeful that “the present achievement of the three powers will usher a new era of international confidence and pave the way for even greater achievements towards general and complete disarmament.”

In November 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Writing to Mrs Jacqueline Kennedy, Mrs Bandaranaike noted that “as a wife and a mother who herself lost her husband in such tragic circumstances, I know how you must feel in this hour of grief.” His passing ended a bond of friendship between the leaders of two vastly differing countries, yet remains testimony to the ability for leaders to share mutual respect for each other.  

Upon her visit to New York in October 1971 to address the United Nations General Assembly, Mrs Bandaranaike undertook a private visit to Washington where she held bilateral discussions with President Richard Nixon in the Oval Office, and with Secretary of State William Rogers, in addition to being hosted by the US First Lady. President Nixon had a strong interest in Sri Lanka, having visited in November 1953, when serving as Vice President. 

Deeply aware of the ramifications of engaging with a single super power during the Cold War, Mrs Bandaranaike undertook a state visit to Moscow in October 1963, with the aim of strengthening relations between the two countries and continuing the international efforts she had undertaken in the short span of three years since her election. As the first Sri Lankan Prime Minister to ever visit the Soviet Union, she held extensive discussions with Premier Nikita Khrushchev and was successful in negotiating the purchase of oil at a cheaper price as Ceylon would be buying in large quantities from the 01st of January 1964 when the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation would be responsible for complete distribution in Ceylon. 

The visit which was labeled a ‘mission of Friendship’ was hailed by the Russians. Addressing a state function in Moscow, Mrs Bandaranaike noted that “it was when Mr Bandaranaike himself was planning to visit your country that his tragic assassination took place. I am happy that I have been able to fulfill a wish that we both shared – a visit to the Soviet Union.”

In November 1974, she was invited to the Soviet Union and Georgia, which saw her travelling to Tashkent, Moscow and Tbilisi. Meeting with Premier Kosygin and Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, Mrs Bandaranaike’s visit strengthened relations with the Soviet Union, which had dispatched a special plane for the Prime Minister and her delegation to travel to and from Moscow. Her interactions with the Soviet Union didn’t deter her from closely associating Yugoslav President Marshal Josep Broz Tito, who had visited Ceylon in January 1959 and was identified as a pillar of the Non-Aligned Movement, and with whom she had shared many international platforms. Their engagement throughout her terms of office consolidated relations between the two countries and resulted in a friendship that extended beyond her years in political office. During Mrs Bandaranaike’s illnesses, Marshal Tito had offered facilities in Yugoslavia for treatment. His death in May 1980 resulted in Mrs Bandaranaike flying to Belgrade to pay her last respects. 

Global outreach

Mrs Bandaranaike’s foreign policy included global outreach, across political ideologies, and was geared towards enhancing the prospects of the island nation. This dialogue was promoted with a cross section of countries from the different regions of the world and saw her meeting her counterparts often at the bilateral level, but also on the sidelines of multilateral fora.

With Ceylon being held in high esteem by the Egyptian people owing to the stand of the country during the tripartite aggression against Egypt in 1956, Mrs Bandaranaike was accorded a warm welcome by President Gamel Abdel Nasser and Prime Minister Ali Sabry during her visit in October 1963. Disarmament and tension in South Vietnam topped the agenda of her discussions which also resulted in the United Arab Republic (UAR) agreeing to purchase a higher quota of tea from Ceylon. Egypt, which had been joined to Syria to form the United Arab Republic, had played a key role with Ceylon at the height of the Sino-Indian border dispute and exerted tremendous effort to avoid an outbreak of war. 

Following the death of President Nasser in September 1970 Mrs Bandaranaike attended his funeral and also marked his passing in Ceylon with the declaration of two days of national mourning for a leader who had come to the rescue of the island at a time when an oil shortage was experienced. His immediate dispatching of vessels was an act for which Mrs Bandaranaike remained ever grateful. 

In April 1975, Mrs Bandaranaike visited Iraq for four days. The visit came at a time when the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) was sharply increasing oil prices and countries like Sri Lanka were feeling the direct impact of such changes. During discussions with Vice President Saddam Hussein, Mrs Bandaranaike was able to comprehensively explain the damage being done to developing countries. Finally Iraq decided to supply 250, 000 tonnes of oil on a four year deferred payment scheme at a very low rate of interest, which was a welcome move. 

Vehemently opposed to apartheid in South Africa, Mrs Bandaranaike, speaking in the Senate in January 1964 noted that “we have subscribed to the imposition of economic sanctions against South Africa, although we have said that for such sanctions to be effective all nations of the world must unite in the applying of these sanctions and it would be futile for small countries such as ours to seek to impose such sanctions unilaterally merely as a gesture but without effect.” 

Extending her support to Nelson Mandela and his struggle to free South Africa from Apartheid, Mrs Bandaranaike, who although never meeting Mandela himself, raised concern on several occasions in international fora. Following Mandela’s release from prison, he would frequently recall Mrs Bandaranaike’s support for his long and arduous battle and the support received from Sri Lanka, noting with appreciation the letters of support she had sent him while he was imprisoned. 

In January 1975, Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda with whom Mrs Bandaranaike had interacted at several international fora undertook a visit to Sri Lanka, at a time when preparations were being made for the Non Aligned Movement summit. 

With Canada and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, she enjoyed a close friendship which extended to his family. Undertaking a four day visit to Ceylon in January 1971, Prime Minister Trudeau acknowledged the high regard with which he held Ceylon in the Commonwealth, as a country that accommodated two languages and four religions which was an example for Quebec and Canada. Mrs Bandaranaike reciprocated the visit in October that year. 

In Mexico in June 1975, she held discussions with President Luis Echeverría Álvarez and senior Ministers in his Government, and was able to secure Mexico’s agreement to purchase a larger quantity of cinnamon. Her visit was followed in quick succession by the visit of President Álvarez to Sri Lanka. 

In October 1963, Mrs Bandaranaike was in Czechoslovakia for interactions with Prime Minister Jozef Lenart and President Antonin Novotny, as well as in Poland meeting Prime Minister Josef Cyrankiewcz, where she was feted, especially by the Polish Women’s League which drew inspiration from her achievements. 

In December 1970, she received Pope Paul VI who undertook a short visit to Sri Lanka. She was in the Vatican in September 1973 during which she had a private audience with the Pope at Castel Gandolfo. 

Undertaking a four day official visit to the United Kingdom in October 1971, Mrs Bandaranaike, who was the guest of Prime Minister Edward Heath, appreciated the support extended by the UK earlier that year in tackling the youth uprising in Ceylon. In addition to meeting the Queen, the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, she also discussed the implications for Ceylon if Britain joined the European Economic Community when she met the Chief British Common Market Negotiator, Geoffrey Rippon. 

Mrs Bandaranaike undertook a visit to West Germany at the invitation of Chancellor Helmut Schmidt in September 1974, where the energy crisis evolving in the world and its impact on developing countries was the focus of discussion. 

In October 1976, Mrs Bandaranaike was in Oslo, where she met with her counterpart Odvar Nordli who welcomed the effort made by her in international affairs, noting the Non-Aligned Movement and the role Sri Lanka had played in the Law of the Sea Conference, chaired by Ambassador Shirley Amerasinghe. 

Embarking on an East Asian tour, Mrs Bandaranaike visited Jakarta in January 1976 for deliberations with Indonesian President Suharto, then flew to Bangkok, where she was the guest of Prime Minister Kukrit Pramojand and also met with King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Queen Sirikit. In Rangoon on the final leg of the tour, she was hosted by the Prime Minister, Brigadier General Sein Win, and President of Burma, General Ne Win. During her visit, Mrs Bandaranaike also met with Burmese politician and diplomat, Khin Kyi, who was the spouse of the assassinated Burmese leader Aung San and mother of Aung San Suu Kyi. 

Covering other East Asian countries later that year, Mrs Bandaranaike was a guest of Prime Minister Datuk Hussein Onn and Deputy Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamed. They expressed appreciation on behalf of the Government of Malaysia for the permission granted for a hijacked plane from Kuala Lumpur to refuel in Colombo. She was also received by the King, Sultan Yahya Petra. Thereafter Mrs Bandaranaike visited Manila as a guest of President Ferdinand and Mrs Imelda Marcos, before leaving for Tokyo, where Mrs Bandaranaike held talks with her Japanese counterpart Takeo Miki resulting in Japan pledging increased grant and project aid. In addition to visiting Mikimoto Pearl Island and the city of Kyoto, Mrs Bandaranaike was also hosted by Emperor Hirohito and Empress Kojun. 

The enormity of the task was confounded when realising that Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike served not only as Prime Minister but also as Minister of External Affair and Defence during her terms from 1960 to 1965 and 1970 to 1977. It is also understood that stalwarts within the political and bureaucratic frameworks in Sri Lanka greatly aided her in the formulation and implementation of foreign policy. Felix Dias Bandaranaike from the political milieu, with W. T. Jayasinghe, Dr Vernon L. B. Mendis, and N. Q. Dias among many others, as well as Bradman Weerakoon and M. D. D. Peiris, played monumental roles in assisting the Prime Minister.

Her enthusiasm in foreign policy and international relations saw the inauguration of the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies (BCIS) in December 1974 and the Bandaranaike International Diplomatic Training Institute (BIDTI) in September 1995. The two institutions remain an embodiment of her contribution to the world of international relations and diplomacy to this date, with a great number eager to delve into the world at large, walking through their doors daily. 

Mrs Bandaranaike was the first woman Prime Minister in the world and a Sri Lankan stateswoman who made a significant contribution to the realm of global affairs. She blazed a trail that few have attempted to follow. Irrespective of the nature of political belief, support or preference, the 60th anniversary of her election is a poignant reminder that a Sri Lankan overcame immense challenges, and achieved much in the international arena for her country and its people, and that Sri Lankan was Sirimavo Ratwatte Dias Bandaranaike. 


Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s trailblazing foreign polic: Part I

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