In 1956, Mr. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike won a landslide election victory to become the fourth Prime Minister of Ceylon. He was notably different to his predecessors in both domestic and foreign policies. As a reputed statesman of the late 1940s and the 1950s, his foreign policy is an area which needs to be examined in detail.
This was the era of national independence movements. While colonialism was in decline and newly independent nations were emerging, the Cold War was also making its presence felt in another political theatre. These new developments meant that new nations were thrust into power politics straight away and had to decide which way to choose. While some countries chose either of the two camps-capitalist or socialist-some nations chose neither in particular. This was the beginning of the concept of non-alignment.
Bandaranaike was a noted statesman of the ‘third way.’ He had made it clear even before he became Prime Minister. Even during the Second World War, he put his dream of international cooperation into words when he reportedly commented on the Atlantic Charter signed between Britain and the U.S.A. He stated at his presidential address to the Sinhala Maha Sabha in September 1942 that, “….It would be a magnificent act if England, America, Russia and China formulated an Eastern Charter for all Eastern peoples.”
This shows the keen interest Bandaranaike had on international developments. This became more evident when he represented Ceylon in the Asian Relations Conference at Delhi in 1947 and again in the conference regarding the Indonesian situation at the same city in January 1949, where he spoke on Asian regionalism and cooperation. However, at this early stage, Bandaranaike did not actively engage in debates regarding Ceylonese foreign policy at the national legislature. His first major speech at the parliament on foreign policy was in 1950, when he criticized the suggestions of the left wing parliamentarians of an “independent” foreign policy and quitting the Commonwealth. As a Cabinet Minister, he was bound to defend his government. However, while expressing the advantages of the Commonwealth for a small nation, he expressed his admiration for Nehru’s foreign policy, which was the root of the concept of non-alignment.
This admiration was a consistent feature of Bandaranaike’s foreign policy. In the above speech, he argued that the left-wing parliamentarians were suggesting an “unpractical” policy for a small nation. However, even after he left the UNP in 1951, Bandaranaike continued to admire non-alignment rather than stronger ties with the two power blocs as suggested by some other politicians. While the left was advocating strong ties with the socialist bloc, the UNP government was becoming increasingly pro-Western. In July 1953, Bandaranaike made his views clear when he criticized the Dudley Senanayake foreign policy in the parliament.
“I say, for heaven’s sake, be friendly with England or America or anybody else, but do not commit yourself to any one of them…….. As far as I can see, the wisest foreign policy that is being followed in the world today by any leading statesman is that of Pandith Jawaharlal Nehru….”
This was a clear indication of Bandaranaike supporting the neutralist non-aligned policies in foreign relations. During the premiership of Sir John Kotelawala, Bandaranaike vehemently criticized the UNP foreign policy, which was becoming increasingly pro-Western despite the declared “neutralism.” Kotelawala was ready to ally himself even with the “devil himself” against Communism. While Bandaranaike was no supporter of Communism, he criticized this tendency of Kotelawala which was epitomized in the latter’s speech at Bandung. Bandaranaike was critical of the Prime minister’s conduct at the Asia-Africa summit because as he thought, Kotelawala’s action lacked diplomatic courtesy and digressed from the main points of the agreement with regard to the agenda of Bandung.
Foreign Relations as Prime Minister
In his first policy statement as Prime Minister of Ceylon, which was read by the Governor- General on April 20, 1956, Bandaranaike clearly stated his foreign policy statements and goals. He stated that: “In its foreign policy, my Government will not align with any power blocs. The position of bases at Katunayake and Trincomalee will be reviewed…… consideration will be given to exchange of diplomatic representatives with countries in which Ceylon is not at present represented.”
Bandaranaike viewed the removal of the two bases as essential for the independence and neutrality of Ceylon. The initiation of the diplomatic relations with the socialist bloc was to be also important for her neutrality. Also it was driven by economic considerations. Ceylon was still tied to the West, especially Britain, in the economic sphere. Diversification of trade was essential for her to be independent of one or several countries economically, therefore also helping her to be neutral in a proper sense. Bandaranaike once stated: “we are faced with the problem of converting a colonial society into a free society and a problem within it of achieving task in the context of a world which itself is changing…… we like to be friendly with all and like to obtain what is advantageous to our own society while following our own way of life”
The way Bandaranaike went about securing his two main goals showed his statesmanship and diplomacy. From the very beginning, he negotiated with the British government on his intention of seeing the military bases out of Ceylon. The Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ meeting in July, 1956, became a very important platform for him to express his views. He held discussions with the British counterpart, Sir Eden, in during this gathering. Discussions between the two statesmen were continued in November when Bandaranaike passed London on his way to and from New York to attend the UN General Assembly. The bases were withdrawn by the British in October and November 1957. On the occasion of the transfer of the Katunayake RAF base on November 1, 1957, Bandaranaike stated that “Ceylon’s independence is complete today.” Although it is a contentious statement, it shows the importance he gave for the withdrawal of the bases.
However, this was done without damaging Anglo-Ceylonese friendship. The Ceylon Prime Minister even decided not to visit Egypt on his way back from New York in 1956 for fear of antagonizing the British. However, he was critical of the Anglo-French invasion of Egypt and made it clear to his British counterpart also.
Bandaranaike was very careful to keep the Western countries informed of his decision to initiate diplomatic ties with USSR and China. He told the House of Representatives of the Parliament on his return from New York that he had informed President Eisenhower that there “should be no misunderstanding on their part when we chose to pursue in the interest of humanity, friendly relations with Communist powers.” In 1957, Ceylon established diplomatic relations with both USSR and China and cultivated friendships with other Eastern European countries. However, when he was deliberating the establishment of diplomatic relations with the German Democratic Republic, many Western nations protested and he decided against it as a result.
These actions show Bandaranaike’s neutralism coupled with pragmatism. His achievements and reputation in the international arena speaks volumes of the success of his policies. The eminent statesmen who called on him at Colombo during 1956-59 included Harold MacMillan of Britain, Menzies of Australia, Peter Nash of New Zealand, Diefenbacker of Canada and Deputy Chancellor Erhard of Federal Republic of (West) Germany. Further more, Chou En-lai, Soekarno and Nehru also called upon him. During this period when Ceylon also suffered immensely due to devastating floods, she received foreign credit from both camps. Among them, the USSR gave Rs. 142.8 million and the USA gave nearly Rs. 160 million.
Mr. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike vehemently refuted critics of neutralism who suggested that neutralism is being uncommitted and being blissfully indifferent to everything by isolating oneself. At the UN General Assembly in 1956, Bandaranaike uttered a few sentences by which the neutralism and the concept of non-alignment can be clearly defined. “We are supposed to be uncommitted nations. I strongly object to the word. We are committed to the hilt. We are committed to preserve decency in dealings between nations; we are committed to the cause of justice and of freedom as much as anyone is. That, briefly, is our position in Asia.”
It was a grave tragedy that such a committed statesman had to end his life as a victim of an assassin.