Foreign Relations of Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s experience in diplomacy has demonstrated the potential role for a small country with initiative and flair in international affairs but also certain inherent difficulties in the exercise of its sovereignty.

by V.L.B. Mendis

Few countries in the world could claim to have been so well known throughout its history as Sri Lanka. From earliest to modern times it has enjoyed an international reputation and been admired. The reasons for its fame have changed as often as its name in that as Taprobane in classical times it was associated with Precious stones, as Lanka in the Middle Ages it was the land of Buddhism, as Ceylon in the modern age it was coveted for its spices and as Sri Lanka in contemporary history, it has been notable for its policy of non-alignment and initiatives on its behalf.

The most attractive Island throughout history

This reputation is to a large extent the result of its geographical location and its products. It was the crossroads of international trade in the classical world as the half-way house for trade between East and West and the meeting ground of Greek, Persian, Aksumite, Chinese and Indian merchants. Later it was a forward base for the trading operations of Muslim merchants in South East Asia from where they were able to exercise control over the commerce of that region up to the 16th century when the arrival of European rivals challenged their position. In the trading empires of the latter the Island continued to be a focus both as a source of spices and for its commanding position in relation to both the Western and Eastern regions as it was astride the sea lanes to both.

During the 18th century, when the emphasis shifted from trade rivalry to the power struggle between European powers, Sri Lanka once more played a crucial role bee.se of its strategic location and specifically its possession of the great naval base of Trincomalee of which it was said that it could hide the entire British Navy, and the importance of which was perhaps the only point on which Napoleon and Pitt the Younger could agree. This importance remained till recent times because during the Pacific war it was the only bastion left to the British and was the point at which the tide of war turned. Even in post-war times it was deemed to be important enough to be the subject of a Defence Agreement between independent Sri Lanka and Britain. In the logistics of the nuclear age its overall strategic value may have diminished but as far as Asia is concerned this cannot be entirely discounted.

Its strategic location has been matched by the appeal of its products both of which have been an irresistible combination indeed. Its precious stones were known the world over and perhaps canned for it the reputation as the emerald or resplendent isle or pearl of the Indian Ocean and its persistent gemmological imagery. Buddhism, its other treasure, was associated with the Triple Gem. With the Arabs and the European traders spices supervened as the attraction but this too continued the same romantic reputation though in this case in terms of aromatic fragrance and appetite. With the 19th century came its trilogy of tea, rubber and coconut of which tea has been an international label for it and rubber a strategic commodity. A feature of its trade which is a strength and weakness has been the single track character at a given time of dominance in a particular commodity instead of diversity. Today with the Free Trade Zone, tourism, precious stones, this image has been transformed. However its timeless appeal and poetic charm continues to fascinate the visitor and if at all has been intensified by its tourism.

The foreign relations of Sri Lanka were a reflection and result of them factors which have shaped its history. These extend for over two thousand years and for length and continuity is a record which few countries could claim. For a country of its modest size and resources this is certainly unique. The outstanding feature of its career in this regard was its invariably prominent role in such affairs and natural zest for them. Diplomacy and representational capacity seemed to be its metier as it certainly was of its emissaries. Such initiative and flair has characterized the country from earliest times and was presumably the secret of its success and the impact which it made. It has been seen how in classical times Sri Lanka was widely known although by other names and referred to in the literature of several countries. According to Pliny it appears to have sent a trade envoy to the Roman court but whether this is true or not it is not unlikely that Sri Lanka merchants ventured abroad. From the beginning of the Christian era the Island was receiving foreign traders and lay within the circuit of international trade in the western region of Asia. This was the setting which led to the establishment of successive trading posts in Sri Lanka by Aksum and the Sassanids and later the Muslims. In the other direction it was one or the first countries to send delegations to China.

Diplomacy in the realm of Buddhism

It really made its mark in diplomacy in the realm of Buddhism where it virtually took over the heritage from India and emulated Asoka as a permanent emissary for Buddhism in Asia at that time. In modern times its activities on behalf of Buddhism have become global in scope. Sri Lanka had a unique place in the history of Buddhism as the centre of the Theravada doctrine and as such it attracted pilgrims and scholars from other countries who sojourned in it on study and religious tours visiting its several holy places. It was the venue of some of the sacred symbols of the faith such as the tooth relic, the holy mountain, stupas enshrining relics.

After the eleventh century it was the turn of pilgrims and religious teachers from Sri Lanka to venture forth and preach the faith in other lands like Burma and Siam with decisive effects. It seemed that at this stage Buddhism and diplomacy went alongside and there are instances where Buddhist clergy have intervened successfully for settlement of secular disputes and bringing about peace between combatants. One of them is reportedly that the hostilities between Sri Lanka and Burma ended through the intervention of Buddhist monks. Through these activities Sri Lanka established enduring bonds with Asian countries such as Burma, Cambodia and kingdoms in Siam (Thailand). Thus during this period Sri Lanka acquired an international reputation as a result of its dedicated services towards the propagation of Buddhism in Asia and as a premier centre of its doctrines and institutions.

After the 16th century the power struggle of the West, in Asia, posed serious diplomatic and political challenges to the Sri Lankan kings in common with other rulers in that continent and taxed their skills. Sri Lanka had to contend with four such contenders all of whom except the French occupied parts of the Island until the British overran the whole of it. For three centuries the Sinhala kingdom survived their efforts to pin control by playing one against the other and adroit diplomatic manoeuvres. These involved elaborate negotiations and continuous dealings with foreign Powers and combating their designs. Sri Lanka rulers became in the process great practitioners of diploma, who could be more than a match for their opponents. If ultimately they failed it was because diplomacy alone was not enough against superior militarism and its ability to purchase traitors. Apart from its own stubborn resistance, the success of the Sinhala kingdoms in lasting three centuries in the face of the threat and keeping the intruders at bay must be attributed to skill in diplomacy and diplomatic insight. At the same time during the last quarter or the 18th century and during the transition period when Sri Lanka, future was in the balance, the Island became a crucial issue in European diploma, and peace negotiations. This was because of its strategic value to the combatants. It figured in major international conferences and was a subject of negotiations between the British, French and Dutch. T. Peace of Amiens turned to some extent on the decision on Sri Lanka.

In the post-war world with the resumption of independence Sri Lanka has continued this tradition of diplomatic initiatives and flair. It pioneered the Colombo Powers in 1954 which was the road to Bandung and non-alignment. Its Prime Minister Mr. S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike was one of the ideologues of neutralism which anticipated non-alignment apart from being a cogent advocate of Asian solidarity. As Finance Minister Mr. J. R. Jayewardene was a founder of the Colombo Plan which has lasted until now with a sustained record of worthwhile contributions and be played an important role in the Peace Conference of San Francisco of 1951 and earned the appreciation of Japan. Its Prime Minister Mrs. Bandaranaike following the leadership of her husband was associated with non-alignment from its inception as a pioneer member and played an important role in it with Sri Lanka becoming the venue of its Summit conference in 1976.

Sri Lankans in Global Arena

Sri Lanka has made original and creative contributions in international affairs, one of them being the proposal for a Peace Zone in the Indian Ocean. Sri Lanka diplomats have excelled in the international field. One of the most illustrious was Mr. H. S. Amerasinghe who had the distinction of being the President of the UN General Assembly in 1976 and the Chairman until his death of the Law of the Sea. Other instances include Sir Claude Corea who was Chairman of GATT in 1956. Mr. Gamani Corea Secretary-General of UNCTAD, Dr. Herat Gooneratne Director-General of the WHO in Asia for fifteen Years, Sir SeneratGunewardene, Sri Lanka’s first Permanent Representative to the UN and Chairman of The Human Rights Committee on Hungary. Mr. Raju Coomaraswamy outstanding negotiator and for many years an Assistant Secretary-General in the UN Secretariat, Mr. N. T. D. Kanekeratne, one time Ambassador to the USA considered at that time to be one of the most outstanding in that capital, Mr. G. S. Peiris, Sri Lanka’s first career Ambassador. They highlight the natural ability which its people have for diplomacy and the need to properly harness this talent.

Sri Lanka’s experience in diplomacy has demonstrated the potential role for a small country with initiative and flair in international affairs but also certain inherent difficulties in the exercise of its sovereignty. Its espousal of non-alignment has won goodwill but the pursuit of such policies could incur the displeasure of powers even if they are dictated by considerations of national self-interest. In their choice of economic policies which is related to the global contest their freedom is limited. Still to the developing states of the third world there is no alternative to non-alignment which is veritably their only hope consistent with dignity and perhaps of the world. Its impact, whatever its limitations and despite efforts to distort it is the one stabilizing factor in the world today and the reassurance for the small states.

Today it has become a formidable political and economic force and not merely the moral pressure it was at the outset. Indeed it is now more of a bloc like the others and therefore able to meaningfully hold them apart and at bay. The unavoidable rigs within its own ranks may not matter so long as overall solidarity is not affected. Each state should be free to make its arrangements in terms of its self-interests provided it is without prejudice to overriding fraternal interests. The one weakness today seems logistical namely that of institutional gaps in non-alignment which prejudice its capacity to mobilize its efforts. This is the absence of a Secretariat and its tenuous coordinating arrangements which are not geared for quick reflexes. The conclusion is increasingly inescapable that it should have a permanent Secretariat and machinery like other communities such as the OAU whose strength and effectiveness is largely due to this. A problem would be a venue because this could trigger off a conflict of territorial claims. In such an event the claims of a country like Sri Lanka with its unimpeachable record of non-alignment and conducive atmosphere and ideal logistics should merit consideration. Alternatively some of the accepted international capitals of the world today like Geneva or Vienna should serve as well.

Deshamanya Dr Vernon Loraine Benjamin Mendis was one of the best Sri Lankan experts on diplomacy and foreign relations of Sri Lanka. He served as the Secretary General to the Non-Aligned Summit of 1976, Sri Lankan High Commissioner to United Kingdom and Canada, Sri Lankan Ambassador to France, and Director General of Foreign Affairs, Government of Sri Lanka. The above excerpts adapted from the book, “Foreign Relations of Sri Lanka:  from Earliest Times To 1965”. He passed away on 23 June 2010.  

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