Can GOTA steer foreign diplomacy like Mrs. B
To answer that question, it is essential to first know how successful Mrs. B was in her foreign diplomacy and a comparison of the periods and scenarios during her rule and that which Gotabaya is likely to inherit. Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike became the world’s first female prime minister and held power from 1960-65 and 1970-77. She was not only the PM but the Minister of Defense and External Affairs too. This aligns to the recent policy declarations made by Mr. Gotabaya Rajapakse. Sri Lanka had the best period of foreign diplomacy under Mrs.B – countries of the world still fondly remember Sri Lanka because of the relations Mrs.B nurtured while keeping national interest uncompromised. These are ingredients the nations looks forward to in a Gotabaya Rajapakse presidency!
Mrs.B & Non-Aligned Nations
The principle concept of the non-aligned nations was that – nations may be small & militarily weak but they too have a role to play in world politics. Non-involvement was replaced with non-alignment alongside engagement.
1961 Belgrade: Movement of Non-Aligned Countries Summit wherein, Sri Lanka became one of 25 founding nations of the Non-Aligned Movement.
1976 Colombo: Non-Aligned Summit
Dr. Vernon Mendis appointed Secretary General of the Conference
Ms. Manel Abeysekera in charge of protocol
Held in the BMICH gifted to Sri Lanka by China in 1973
Mrs. B Chairperson of NAM
Outcome of that was her ability to balance relations with both India-China /India-Pakistan and maintain a neutrality during the regional wars and even playing role of mediator. Her skillful use of personal diplomacy was seen in the manner she negotiated bilateral agreements while also securing foreign aid. All this she did while securing the national interests of the country and not an inch did she compromise Sri Lanka’s national interests. Nationalizing petroleum distribution, tea & rubber did not go too well with western governments but she went ahead nonetheless. Whether LTTE & JVP are the gifts she received for her nationalism is something to seriously think about. TNT/Prabakaran emerged the same year Mrs.B made Ceylon a Republic. JVP
It is this ability that has etched her place in history. She proudly stood and was proudly welcomed among the other greats of the time – Tito, Jawahalal Nehru, Fidel Castro, Sukarno, Nkrumah and Nasser.
She is far more fondly remembered by even her advisories than those who have willingly compromised the sovereignty of Sri Lanka.
Mrs. B did all this as a virtual novice to politics. She was driven into politics following her husband’s ghastly assassination in 1959. The situation is not the same for Gotabaya Rajapakse. He has been very much involved in politics serving in a formidable role as Defense Secretary outshining all his predecessors and being the guiding light behind the war victory. Post-conflict his administrative acumen was shown in turning Colombo to one of Asia’s finest cities. Both took to their roles as a duck to water.
Petty politics has been the downfall of Sri Lanka’s progress. Non-aligned policies failed as a result of the UNP leadership taking a pro-West policy and successive UNP governments have continued to adopt same strategy inadvertently distancing themselves from good relationships within the Asian region.
Mrs.B & India
It is in first realizing the potential advantage of Sri Lanka’s geopolitical positioning that any leadership can adopt strategies to protect and enhance Sri Lanka’s geopolitical advantage while meeting the aspirations of countries seeking relations with Sri Lanka.
Not only did Mrs.B strengthen Sir Lanka’s geopolitical advantage but struck cordial ties with the Nehru family as well as other political counterparts. She ensured that they treated her on par with them and not given any inferior role. What is noteworthy and poignant is that she did not shirk an inch of Sri Lanka’s national interest and she appointed the cream to be her nominees – Shirley Amerasinghe was High Commissioner to New Delhi. When the Indians were stalling during the Srima-Shastri repatriation pact, all she said was that she would leave Delhi unless the agreement was ready for signature and that was that. (In October 1964 – 525,000 persons of Indian origin were repatriated to India while 300,000 were granted Sri Lankan citizenship). This is the type of leadership the nation looks forward to in Gotabaya Rajapakse
Note: In 1974 of the remaining 150,000, she agreed to grant 75,000 Sri Lankan citizenship & 75,000 Indian citizenship but the UNP for vote bank politics decided to grant all 150,000 Sri Lankan citizenship.
Another fete of Mrs B is the resolution of the maritime boundary between India & Sri Lanka resulting in Kachativu being declared Sri Lanka’s as a result of research & guidance of Foreign Secretary W T Jayasinghe and Legal Advisor Christopher Pinto.
With the Ranil Wickremasinghe government severing ties with China, Gotabaya Rajapakse will find himself in no different a position Mrs.B faced during the Sino-India war of 1962. For Mrs.B the animosity between India & China meant that it would affect Asian solidarity and she organized a Colombo Conference to mitigate & mediate. Fast forward with 21st century being Asia’s century and the rising power houses of India & China showing growing tensions, Gotabaya Rajapakse too finds himself in a similar position. Just as Mrs.B thought rightly, advisors of Mr Rajapakse must also look at the larger picture of the need to mediate to stabilize Asia.
Mrs.B & China
Sri Lanka began post-independence diplomatic relations with China in 1957 under rule of SWRD Bandaranaike though for centuries Sri Lanka has had ties with China previously. The aid received by Sri Lanka from China during Mrs.B’s tenure came as soft term aid for development. BMICH stands as a monumental gift from China to Sri Lanka. She was much saddened when Premier Zhou En Lai could not attend the opening in 1973 due to cancer to which he succumbed in 1976 but China’s respect was shown by sending one of China’s 10 Marshalls who led the Chinese Revolution. Many of Sri Lanka’s proud monuments are pinnacles of Sri Lanka-China relations – Hambantota Port, Nelum Pokuna, Supreme Court Complex, Norocholai coal power plant, Lotus Tower to name a few.
With US pivot to Asia, renaming of United States Pacific Command (USPACOM) to U.S. Indo-Pacific Command on 30 May 2018, increasing US military and non-military presence in Asia, pressures to sign MCC, SOFA & ACSA – the Indian Ocean has become a volatile zone.
Mrs. B failed to make the Indian Ocean a zone of peace engraved in her NAM Summit in Lusaka in 1970 as a strategy to prevent power rivalries and her response to the expulsion of the indigenous natives by Britain to occupy Diego Garcia as a US base. Noteworthy is the manner that a UN Resolution was proposed by Sri Lanka signed by NAM countries but abstained by US-UK & France. Resolution 2832 (1971) declared the Indian Ocean a Zone of Peace and it would be poignant for the Gotabaya Rajapakse team to see the relevance of this declaration in the present context of power rivalries.
At the Viyathmaga Convention, Mr. Gotabaya Rajapakse clearly indicated that there has to be a synergy in National Security Policy and National Economic Policy & Nation’s Foreign Policy. Undoubtedly so.
Mrs.B etched her place in economic diplomacy among the Group of 77 at a time when the UN Conference on Trade & Development (UNCTAD) was formed her nominee Dr. Gamini Corea went on to serve as its Secretary General.
Mr. Rajapakse can take a leaf from Mrs.B – foreign policy under Mrs.B was the best period Sri Lanka can proudly recall. Sri Lanka was respected by both West & East. The West in particular respected her steadfastness and resolve despite being a small nation. She steered foreign policy by ensuring a professional foreign service. Career diplomats were those patriotic and who put the country first. She appointed some of the best and respected personnel to head missions. She made it a point to read every diplomatic dispatch sent to her and ensured each had a personal comment and this is the type of direct involvement Mr. Rajapakse should follow. President Premadasa was also one to follow up on every instruction given and that ensured no lethargy or delay in carrying out orders given.
The UNP derogated her as ‘kusi-amma’ but her tenure remains the golden age of diplomatic engagement and foreign policy successes.
Mr. Gotabaya Rajapakse need not follow anyone’s footsteps but in looking back to take a leaf or two out of any success story – he surely has to look at Mrs. B’s foreign policy and diplomatic relations for no government before or after has succeeded to outmatch what she achieved.
Shenali D Waduge