download (1)A couple of years back one of the more thoughtful of our career Foreign Ministry officials tried to put together a book on Sri Lanka’s international relations. This was an excellent idea in a context in which we do not reflect or conceptualize when dealing with other countries.

However it turned out that hardly any Foreign Ministry officials were willing or able to write for such a volume. Still, with much input from academics, the manuscript was finalized. But then the Minister decided that it needed to be rechecked, and handed it over to his underlings at the Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies, where it has lain forgotten since.

Recently I retrieved from my archives the two pieces I was asked to write, and am republishing them here –

Sri Lankan relations with the different regions of Asia present a fascinating prism through which to examine our changing position in the world. The subject also suggests areas in which we might develop our position further, in terms of defining more clearly our objectives, and endeavouring to fulfil them more coherently.

Though the field requires constant attention and care, there is not really much need of further definition with regard to three areas. South Asia, the SAARC Region, and in particular India must remain our main focal point. The attention government pays to ensure that we are on a similar wavelength to India is a feature we should never have allowed to lapse, while continuing of course to ensure positive relations with Pakistan and the other countries in the region.

With regard to East Asia, similar principles apply. Our friendship with China has been a cornerstone of our approach to other countries, and this obtained even in the era soon after we obtained independence, when the Soviet bloc considered us a satellite of the West. From the time of the Rubber-Rice Pact, negotiated by R G Senanayake, we made clear our determination not to let the formulaic approach of other countries adversely affect our relations with the most populous country in the world. During the last years of the Cold War, friendship with China accorded with the predilections of the West, but now that the latter is wary of increasing Chinese capabilities, we should not let ourselves be stampeded into a less affectionate relation.

We developed our friendship with China while continuing to maintain excellent relations with Japan. Based initially of the positive approach of J R Jayewardene shortly after the Second World War, Japan has since displayed a commitment that must appreciate. Despite its close relations with the West, Japan was the first of the Co-Chairs of the programme of assistance connected with the Cease Fire Agreement on 2001 to recognize that Sri Lanka continued to deserve support when the LTTE was sabotaging the Peace Process. We should continue to build on such sympathies, whilst developing further mutual understanding of what we have in common, both a philosophical mindset based on a tolerant religious outlook, and our status as distinctive island nations off a large and potentially dominant continent.

With regard to the Middle East, we have maintained excellent relations since the time when Mrs Bandaranaike was  an icon of the Non-Aligned Movement. The balance of that association changed when oil became perhaps the most precious commodity in the world, and we became unduly dependent on the remittances of migrant workers to the area. But countries now much more wealthy than us have not tried therefore to affirm superiority, and we must in appreciation of current ties, ensure a balance in our responses to the current volatile situation.

In all three of these areas, I should not, we must take advantage of increasing openness to the world by promoting tourism from those areas. If not strictly related to foreign policy, we must ensure the development of facilities that will cater more effectively, including through better language training programmes in the industry, to the larger influx of visitors we should cultivate.


Turning now to areas where we should be developing new relationships, we need most crucially to enhance our relationship with the countries of South East Asia. At the time we got our independence from Britain, we were clearly far ahead of those countries in terms of development. Our economy, not least because of the rubber boom of the war, when Malaysia and Indonesia were under Japanese occupation, was considered one of the most vibrant in Asia. Our health and education systems, with impressive literary rates that encompassed near parity for females, were objects of envy. Not surprisingly, when Lee Kuan Yew became Prime Minister of Singapore, he saw Sri Lanka as a model, to which he scarcely dared aspire.

That was in the fifties. By the end of the next decade, we had begun our comparative spiral downward, while Singapore was on the way up, along with some of the other countries in the region. The symbol of the new era was the establishment of the Association of South East Asian Nations, an organization designed to develop economic cooperation and other links between some countries in the region.

Those countries were those that supported the West in the Cold War, namely Malaysia and Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines and Thailand. Previously they had been associated with the West in the South East Asia Treaty Organization, one of the ring of military alliances with which the West tried to encircle the Communist world. The best known of these was, and is, NATO, but long forgotten now is CENTO, the Central Treaty Organization, which included the British sponsored monarchies of the Middle East as well as Pakistan.

SEATO countries had by and large helped the United States during the Vietnam War, Thailand offering military facilities as well as opportunities for rest and recreation that contributed to its massive tourist entertainment industry. Indonesia had been recalcitrant previously, but the coup that got rid of Sukarno had resulted in a solid ally in the form of General Suharto. In the Philippines, which had been a colony of the United States, Marcos had proved such a reliable friend that the United States turned a blind eye to his subverting democracy to stay on in power.

All these countries, unlike those of French Indo-China or Burma / Myanmar, were anchored firmly in capitalism. Malaysia and Singapore, having achieved independence long after the socialist consensus of the forties had declined in Britain, had developed much more open economies than the countries of South Asia. It therefore made sense, as military intervention looked increasingly likely to be unsuccessful in the region, to think of more effective measures to bind these countries to the West. Hence, I suspect, the emphasis on trade relations as conducing to increasing prosperity – in a sense in line with the original manner in which the Cold War was fought, when the Marshall Plan helped to propel Europe and Japan into prosperity, and unbreakable allegiance to the West.

The next decade had seen cruder efforts at domination, the subversion of democracy in iran and support to military dictatorships not only in the Asian countries mentioned, including Pakistan, but also in Uganda and Ghana and Nigeria. In short, the philosophy of the West at this time seemed to be assistance to bastards, as Lyndon Johnson put it, provided they were obsequious.

This perhaps was what caused Dudley Senanayake diffidence when Sri Lanka too was invited to join ASEAN when it was formed. Though emphatically supportive of the West, he came to political maturity in the thirties, when principle still seemed to count for something in the political traditions Britain practised, and bequeathed to its colonies. He was certainly opposed to the socialist policies of the government he had replaced, but he thought that membership of ASEAN would violate the Non-Aligned principles he still believed in. Besides, he had an old fashioned view of development, and thought the revival of agriculture more important than trade or services.

Admirable though Dudley Senanayake’s idealism might be, it was also impractical. Whilst one can understand a certain distaste for the regimes of Marcos and Suharto and also whatever military grouping dominated Thailand at the time, he should have allowed some credit to the democratic traditions of Malaysia, and also Singapore, at a period when Lee Kuan Yew seemed less rigid than he subsequently became. Interestingly enough, the then Minister of Industries, the former Marxist Philip Gunawardena, was more in favour of following the ASEAN model, but in the end the government stayed firmly within the South Asian tradition – and continued with South Asian growth figures, as they used to be described.

Dudley Senanayake’s government was replaced in 1970 by a much more radical socialism, and the result was economic collapse, precipitated also by the oil price hike of the mid-seventies. Mrs Bandaranaike extended the term of the Parliament elected in 1970 by two years, which proved disastrous since, instead of just losing the election, her party lost almost all its seats. The UNP was now led by J R Jayewardene, who had none of Dudley Senanayake’s qualms about social systems or international relations. Unfortunately he was also somewhat old fashioned in his approach to development, so he still kept tight state control of services and public sector institutions, but he did give much more space to private business.

He had a similar approach to international relations, working on old dichotomies. Thus his support for the West was accompanied by hostility towards India, which led to a serious come-uppance in 1987, when India interfered with our internal issues and Jayewardene had to accept that the West had no intention of intervening. Similarly, in looking only Westward, he did not lay much stress on relations with ASEAN, which had by then begun to develop into an economic power house. Thus it was his Prime Minister, Ranasinghe Premadasa, who pushed the idea of applying for membership of ASEAN, and this was only pursued half-heartedly. Given that by then Sri Lanka was moving on a collision course with India, and would probably be more of a liability than an asset, the dominant forces in ASEAN politely turned down our application.

Since then our relations with ASEAN countries have been on an ad hoc basis. We made no further attempt to develop relations at the time when ASEAN expanded significantly, with the admission not only of the former Communist countries of French Indo-China, Vietnam and Cambodia and Laos, but also of Burma / Myanmar, in spite of its continuing isolation. We have certainly developed economic links with many of the ASEAN countries, notably Singapore and Malaysia, which is now the largest investor in Sri Lanka, but we have made no concerted effort to take advantage of their expertise in dealing with multi-nationals. We have established direct diplomatic links now with Vietnam, and developed very positive relations with countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines, which our Anglo-centric approach tended to ignore in the past, but we have no clear policy about strengthening ties with ASEAN as a whole. Indeed we have not even applied as yet for Observer status, whereas this has been granted now to India, as well as several other countries.


The reasons for changing this approach, for a more coherent policy towards ASEAN, are many. In the first place, we have long-standing cultural links with the area. There are few other countries that practice Theravada Buddhism, and we are held in high regard for our historical importance as guardians of the faith in not only Thailand and Burma / Myanmar, but also in Cambodia and Vietnam. Given the influence of this variety of Buddhism even in countries where the Chinese version is dominant, we are now a place for pilgrimage by Malyasian Buddhists of all denominations, and the same would go soon for Vietnam too.

Given the importance of other religions too in Sri Lanka, we have more in common with all the ASEAN countries in this regard than they do with each other. In addition we have common Sanskrit roots, for language as well as legend, which means that visitors to and from countries in ASEAN see and hear the familiar. Interestingly enough, on recent visits to the area, I have been reminded of our cultural ties in Thailand and Cambodia and, most notably, in Burma / Myanmar by Aung San Suu Kyi.

It should be noted that we also share connections with regard to recent history with some of the further nations in ASEAN. Indonesia is the only other country in Asia to have had a significant Dutch presence, and we still have in Sri Lanka citizens we describe as Malay, though they are in fact the descendants of Indonesian soldiers brought over by the Dutch. Many Sri Lankans, mainly from Jaffna but also from the rest of the island, went to work in Malaya and Singapore, and we should encourage their descendants to re-establish contact with their roots. And though the Philippines was ruled from America, first by the Spanish and then by the Americans, they are the only country apart from us that was under foreign rule for nearly half a millennium and yet preserved its own distinct cultural identity. Such shared experiences should be studied together, and not left to the analysis only of the colonizers.

Culture and sentiment however are not reasons in themselves for improving relations. More important are the economic benefits of closer connections to this area. It is true that we compete in some areas, but there are others in which we can supply much needed goods, be they vegetables to Singapore, which is more and more aware, given its dominant economic position, of the need for food security, or simply tea of the upmarket variety. We can also be a useful transit point for goods to be exported westward.

Clearly we are thinking on such lines, and the efforts to expand BIMSTEC, the trade agreement with India and Bangladesh and Burma and Thailand are laudable. But in the long run we should also be developing our relations with ASEAN countries further east. Given the attention being paid to these countries by India and China and Japan and Korea, it would make no sense to be left behind, simply for want of trying.

Developing such links will also help us to ensure support when we need it. The countries of ASEAN proved immeasurably helpful when we faced criticism at international meetings in the last few years. We know that they gave solid support to us against terrorist forces, though in the past some of them had provided refuge to the Tigers, and even turned a blind eye to arms deals that did us tremendous damage. In that regard, the manner in which our security sector ensured cooperation is a model we should follow in other respects too. Certainly we should be aware that, if ever we are under threat again, there will be strong lobbying against us. In such a context we should not take anyone or anything for granted. Recently the impression has been created that we are simply asking countries for their votes, whereas previously we sought active cooperation. It is the latter approach that we need to pursue, with regular consultation, not simply approaches at times of need.

Sri Lanka is, after all, a small country, and opportunities for high level interaction with leaders of other countries are limited. At gatherings of bodies like ASEAN however, there will always be opportunities for bllateral meetings too, and not only with members but with Observer states too. We should seek participation in such meetings and take advantage of the presence there of countries with whom closer contact will be beneficial.

Sri Lanka has a unique position geographically. It is also a cultural centre, with its mix of religions and cultural traditions. In the old days, with its excellent education system, it was able to provide teachers as well as civil servants to other countries in Asia, as well as elsewhere. With education better developed in other countries, this will be difficult to replicate, but we can still use our central position to better effect. Given our positive relations with all major powers in Asia, we can also serve as a bridge, if we run our foreign policy on consistent and easily recognizable principles. At present we are sometimes regarded simply as a bone of contention, on the lines perhaps of the confrontational approach we adopted when the Cold War was at its height. On the contrary, we should make it clear that, in strict accordance with the original principles on Non-Alignment, we have a generally positive outlook towards all countries. WE should therefore seek to build better relations with the countries in ASEAN, both on the basis of that principle, and in furthering it through assisting with developing better understanding between other countries.


Finally we need to consider too our relations with the countries of Central Asia, which became independent with the break up of the former Soviet Union after the failed coup attempt of 1991. Some of the leaders of those countries have been in power since then, and some indeed represent the more conservative traditions of the former Soviet Union, and were indeed supportive of the failed coup attempt. However they moved swiftly to the promotion of their own national interests, in obtaining independence, and have since developed their own distinctive and varied approaches to relationships with both Russia and the West.

They need to do this, given that the five countries in question are all Muslim ones, and given the current tendency in many Muslim countries to highlight the role of religion in politics. Afghanistan and Iran and Pakistan are close neighbours, while both Russia and China have substantial Muslim populations in neighbouring regions, which could contribute to political volatility. Given that the borders between all these countries have been porous over the centuries, and given that Soviet demographic policies led to all these countries having significant demographic diversity, we must understand that there are strong security considerations that govern their international relations.

It is not likely that we will be able to build up close economic or political ties with any of these countries in the short term. We should however develop contacts, given the energy resources they possess which we may need to take advantage of in the future and, more importantly, the possibility of expanding markets for our products.

We should also study their shifting relationships with the world at large, given their central position between Russia and China and India, their attitude to the politics of religion that dominates many of the other Muslim nations in the region, and also the significant contacts the West has developed in the area over the last two decades. India now devotes significant efforts to dealings with this region, and we should liaise closely with India to benefit if possible from their expertise as to the situation there and its implications for the wider world.

In short, we need to continue learning, and also thinking, so that we will not be left behind as Asia continues to develop. The coming century will see an Asia with increasing influence, which may rouse resentment, though it could also be of enormous benefit to other countries too, if they are prepared to adjust previous attitudes and policies based on the dichotomies of domination. Sri Lanka was an admirable exponent in the past of Non-Alignment designed to maximize the benefits of sympathetic cooperation for all. We should strive to regain something at least of that earlier perspective and talent.