Sri Lanka News and Information Portal

  • Increase font size
  • Default font size
  • Decrease font size

The Foreign Policy of Sirimavo Bandaranaike - THE INDIAN OCEAN AS A ZONE OF PEACE PROPOSAL

Article Index
The Foreign Policy of Sirimavo Bandaranaike
All Pages


One of Mrs. Bandaranaike’s less successful initiatives was her proposal to make the Indian Ocean a zone of peace. She first mentioned the idea briefly in her speech at the NAM Summit in Lusaka in September 1970, and it was reflected in the final declaration of the Lusaka summit. On her return from Lusaka she directed her officials in the Foreign Ministry to flesh out the concept. The nuclear-weapon-free zone was the more familiar concept, but Mrs. Bandaranaike preferred the more ambitious concept of a Zone of Peace, in order to insulate the Indian Ocean from great power rivalries. The plan was a direct response to the expulsion of the people inhabiting British owned Diego Garcia and the conversion of that Indian Ocean island into a U.S. base. Eventually a resolution in the UN General Assembly’s First Committee dealing with Disarmament and International Security Issues was proposed by Sri Lanka. Out of respect for Mrs. Bandaranaike the NAM countries supported the resolution, but most of the West abstained with the U.S., U.K. and France strongly opposed

In repeating the same resolution in subsequent years an operative paragraph called for the establishment of an ad hoc Committee on the subject for more focused discussion of the proposal. Thus the General Assembly declared the Indian Ocean a zone of peace by resolution 2832 (1971). It called upon the great powers to enter into immediate consultations with the littoral states of the Indian Ocean, the aim being to halt the further escalation and expansion of their military presence in the region. The declaration upheld the need to preserve the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of the states of the Indian Ocean region and sought to resolve political, economic and social issues affecting the region under conditions of peace and security.

The ad hoc committee was created with the permanent representative of Sri Lanka appointed chairman and has continued ever since, albeit with little tangible progress. Some factions in Sri Lanka criticized the proposal as paving the way for India to be the sole naval power in the region. Despite all efforts to revitalize the committee, enthusiasm to pursue the proposal is obviously lacking. The lesson, in hindsight, was that proposals cannot be pitch-forked into the U.N. without adequate diplomatic preparation. The resolution was introduced hastily at the behest of Mrs. Bandaranaike without full consultations among the littoral states and the major powers.


Mrs. Bandaranaike’s stewardship of the foreign policy of Sri Lanka coincided with the coming of age of the country’s professional foreign service. In 1949, the first career diplomats had been recruited through a separate examination and interview. In Mrs. Bandaranaike’s first term, a relatively large number of political appointees sent as heads of diplomatic missions was justified by the fact that the career service was still maturing. In her second term, however, she became the first Prime Minister to appoint career diplomats as heads of missions: Arthur Basnayake to Japan, Ben Fonseka to Kenya, H. O. Wijegoonewardena to Iraq, Y. Yogasunderam as permanent representative with ambassador rank to the UN in Geneva, and Rex Koelmeyer to Sweden. Vernon Mendis remained as director-general in the foreign ministry, and Mrs. Bandaranaike relied on his advice and expertise.

In order to ensure the success of the NAM Summit in Colombo, Prime Minister Bandaranaike transferred many senior career diplomats back to the country, replacing them temporarily with officials from other ministries and other political appointees. At the same time, she understood the need for a separate career foreign service as indispensable to a successful foreign policy, in accordance with widespread international practice, and she therefore continued her policy of appointing career diplomats as heads of mission.

The basic unit of political reporting from diplomatic missions abroad was the fortnightly report, through which Sri Lankan diplomats and their staffs conveyed a confidential analysis of the political and other developments in the country of accreditation, especially as they impinged on Sri Lanka’s national interest. Inevitably the quality of such reports varied, but the Prime Minister’s secretary – Bradman Weerakoon and thereafter Dharmasiri Peiris – ensured that the better reports were sent to Mrs. Bandaranaike. She also received special dispatches from the Sri Lanka diplomatic missions and policy papers generated within the Foreign Ministry. Amazingly, they were all returned with neatly penned marginal comments signifying the Prime Minister’s strong and conscientious interest in the subject, to the great professional satisfaction of her diplomats.


This is a personal memoir, not a scholarly essay, written by a career diplomat who worked in the Ministry of Defence and External Affairs and in the Embassy of Sri Lanka in the U.S.A. while Mrs. Bandaranaike was Prime Minister. Two personal anecdotes may therefore be permitted.

The first concerns the private visit of a group of Chinese doctors to Colombo in the 1970s. They came courtesy of the Chinese government to attend on Mrs. Ezlynn Deranaiyagala, a kinswoman of the prime minister, as well as on the prime minister herself. They were accommodated in the prime minister’s official residence, and because of my proficiency in the Chinese language I was asked by Mrs. Bandaranaike to take them on excursions to places of tourist interest on weekends. On every occasion we used the private car of Mr. Ralph Deraniyagala; the use of official transport was not even considered. Mrs. Bandaranaike’s scruples about separating her private life from her official position and perks went further. It was once necessary to host the doctors to lunch at the Hikkaduwa rest house. On my return Mrs. Bandaranaike asked me about my expenses and, when I produced a bill, promptly gave me her own personal cheque. I continue to marvel at this exemplary conduct, unique in the behaviour of our politicians.

The second anecdote comes from Mrs. Bandaranaike’s state visit to China in 1972, the most successful visit of a Sri Lankan leader to a foreign country that I have witnessed. At the end of the visit, as normal protocol required, the officials began preparing the customary gifts for people in the Chinese government associated with the visit. It was late at night in the Sri Lanka delegation’s office room as we gift-wrapped the parcels and pasted the appropriate labels on them. A figure in a dressing gown with her hair let down in a plait slipped in to join in our collective work: Mrs. Bandaranaike, quietly working with her staff. She remained mindful of her housewifely duties and her personal touch in supervising the tying of the bows and the neatness of packaging of us clumsy-fingered men was invaluable. The Opposition parliamentarians had derided her as a "kussi-amma" or "a woman of the kitchen" but here was a graceful blending of the woman and the leader joining her staff on the work floor. She was also often criticized as being "radala" or "aristocratic" but here she was unostentatiously unmindful of rank or status.

That was the woman and the mother who spoke at the first NAM Summit in Belgrade. That was the Prime Minister who was the most successful foreign minister of modern Sri Lanka.

~ ~ By Jayantha Dhanapala