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“Friendship With All, Enmity With None”: An Assessment of Sri Lanka’s Foreign Policy In The Times of DS Senanayake and Maithripala Sirisena


Shakthi De Silva

In a recent event concerning the foreign policy of Sri Lanka, Professor Jayadeva Uyangoda declared that Sri Lanka’s foreign policy since the government change of 2015 has been ‘friendship with all; enmity with none.’1

DS Senanayake

DS Senanayake

The significance of coining this phrase has been missed by some. The import of this statement rests in a similar comparison made in the House of Representatives Debates (HRD vol.3, 1058) many years ago. The HRD report mentions that ‘our policy in foreign affairs is to be the friend of all and the enemy of none’ in reference to late D.S Senanayake’s foreign policy in the period immediately after the granting of independence by the British.2

In this article I hope to begin, by reviewing the foreign policy of D.S Senanayake and relating it to the possible reasons that influenced his foreign policy decisions/choices.

Maithripala Sirisena

Maithripala Sirisena

Then, I intend to examine the influence of India to the foreign policy decision-making of Sri Lanka in the past. I also attempt to ascertain the similarities between the two regimes, both past and present and conclude as to why both governments’ external relations can be fitted under the statements identified above. For ease throughout this article in reference to the island I have used Ceylon and Sri Lanka interchangeably but for clarification purposes, the term Sri Lanka was formulated through the 1972 constitution of the country.

D.S Senanayake often called ‘pro-western’ in his outlook was not completely western oriented in his external polices although one can conclude that his policies were “inclined towards the west” 3. His priorities stemmed from the consideration of national interest not personal empathies or personal interest; although, he was guided to a certain extent by his close relationship with British lawmakers and politicians.4

D.S Senanayake, having understood the tension and heated climate surrounding the initial cold war period of the late 1940s and early 1950s; grasped the possible complications and problems of attaching newly independent Ceylon (Sri Lanka) towards either of the two camps. Had he been more closely affiliated to the capitalist bloc; the Indian Ocean region would be under the threat of an arms buildup and possibly even gunboat diplomacy. This would also have increased tensions in India, which began to chart a domestic policy under Nehru, more towards socialism in ideological orientation. There were many other reasons as to why Sri Lanka’s foreign policy outlook towards India during the D.S Senanayake regime was not as close as the later Bandaranaike regimes.

Indian independence, unlike Sri Lanka, was obtained mainly through strikes, boycotts, campaigns and nonviolent protest whereas the latter’s independence was relatively on the lines of negotiation and high level advocacy (especially considering the role played by Sir Oliver Goonetilleke in ‘shuttling’ between Sri Lanka and the United Kingdom).

After independence India went on to create a new constitution while Sri Lanka continued with the Soulbury constitution till 1972. The new constitution of India forged ahead of Sri Lanka to create
constitutional autochthony, thereby increasing its divergence with Britain, whereas Sri Lanka closely held to its relationship with Britain.5

Moreover Britain had shown (through its actions in occupying and governing many regional territories in the Indian Ocean and in its immediate neighborhood) the strategic significance of the Indian subcontinent as a region that opens both to the west and to the east, in land and sea routes. India would naturally learn from the role played by Britain and perhaps continue in influencing countries that were its geographical neighbors. These factors may have played a significant role in the foreign policy management and decision making of D.S Senanayake.

Although D.S Senanayake understood the strategic significance of Sri Lanka, located between some of the major shipping lines in the Indian ocean, “He realized that a small country should not as soon as it gained independence proceed to behave like a great power.” 6

Hence he chartered his foreign policy on the basis that it is best to ‘be the friend of all and the enemy of none’. As Dr. Nayani Melegoda mentions: “He wanted peace for Ceylon and peace for the rest of the world.”7 He struck a close relationship with the distant British and the commonwealth, as in my view:

1. He understood that Britain no longer had expansionist aims in the Indian Ocean.

2. He knew that the British naval force would be a deterrent factor if India was to directly or indirectly influence Sri Lanka’s foreign policy making (thus maybe a minor balance of power was at play in D.S Senanayake’s mind).

3. He knew some of the British parliamentarians and hence he had an understanding of their attitude towards the region of south Asia.

4. And lastly Sri Lanka had close trade and economic relationships with Britain and this would only be a further strengthening of an existing friendship.

Thus his ‘pro-west’ outlook might have been the reaction of the above and not entirely his personal inclination towards Britain. It was not his personal likes playing the major role in shaping the islands foreign policy but a carefully guided and visionary understanding of the current context and international cold war climate. It was a measured and carefully calculated decision and not as some say, his personal affinity towards Britain playing the leading role in foreign policy affairs. D.S also understood that maintaining close relations with India (Sri Lanka’s geographical neighbor) is imperative and proceeded to do so but in such manner that suggested that Sri Lanka would draw an independent foreign policy which would take into consideration India’s concerns but won’t be guided solely by that factor.

In addition, Sir Ivor Jennings elucidates that: “India thus appears to be a friendly but potentially dangerous neighbor”8 to Sri Lanka in the immediate post independent phase. Hence one may determine that D.S Senanayake understood the gravity of maintaining friendly relations with India but in doing so, kept it at arm’s length. As Stalin had stated to Paasikivi of Finland: “there is nothing I can do about geography.”9 Perchance to reassure its immediate southern neighbor, Nehru also visited Ceylon in 1950.

Despite all the motives which may have influenced D.S Senanayake to chart a foreign policy that kept India at arm’s length; he still maintained cordial relations with India without giving it too much cause for anger or concern through his foreign policy decision-making.

Moreover to further reemphasize the ‘friend of all and the enemy of none’ policy the rubber-rice pact with China (which is by far not a western country both in its outlook and geographical position) was concluded by his successor Dudley Senanayake. Dudley was motivated into making this pact not by political concerns but by economic apprehensions which clearly elucidate the role national interest played over ideological familiarity in the foreign policy decision making of the country. As Professor Jayadeva notes in relation to the connection between Sri Lanka and China following the port city issue : “A point that may interest the observer is that the government (of President Maithripala Sirisena)has so far been careful to emphasize the economic dimensions of its closeness to China, thereby playing down the possibility of any political and ideological closeness.”

This appears to be the same in the case of Sri Lanka during the term of the late Dudley Senanayake. He undertook the agreement purely for economic concerns and left the relationship on “economic” terms without further expanding ties or diplomatic representations during his tenure.

Dr. J. B. Kelegama believes that: “It is a tribute to the two Senanayake’s (Dudley Senanayake and R.G Senanayake) that they displayed remarkable pragmatism and courage in negotiating the Trade Agreement. They did not allow their prejudices or ideological considerations to stand in the way of deciding what was in the best interests of the country; nor were they intimidated by threats of big powers.” 10

Thus Sri Lanka’s foreign policy during that period of time appears to be motivated towards the securing of the national interest of the country and on maneuvering the foreign policy away from ideological convictions, confrontations and contentious issues. It was truly a “friend of all and the enemy of none” policy in external affairs except in connection to Russia. (Russia at the inception of the islands’ independence exercised its veto and did not grant Ceylon a position in the UNITED NATIONS resulting in a growing distancing between Sri Lanka and Russia till 1955.)

Now to reflect upon the present, Professor Jayadeva states that the present government seems to possess the same focus and bearing, although just like the Senanayake regime, the present regime is criticized for being pro-western in outlook. This criticism stems from the sharp turn that the new government took in its external relations characterized by the co-sponsoring of the A/HRC/30/L.29 resolution in the 30th Human Rights Council.11

All of this points to a divergence and contrast between the current and previous governments but not necessarily a pro-western outlook per say. Although relations with China had got to a rocky start at the beginning; relations seem to be doing well at present and as this is a government incorporating both the United National Party (UNP) and Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) I do not think any hiccups of that nature would be perceivable in the near future.12

Thus the foreign policy seems to be one of “friendship with all; enmity with none”. Sri Lanka seems to be engaging with states that it had not under the previous regime and with states that were on close friendly terms during the past regime. Thus this proactive level of engagement reflects, verifies and attests to the words of Professor Jayadeva.

In conclusion, the foreign policy stance of both the governments of the Senanayake and Sirisena regimes appears to be similar. Both comprehended the international context in which it operates and managed relationships and friendships so as to ensure that Sri Lanka maintains no clear cut ideological identity but instead focuses on increasing relations and friendly ties with all states, if it is in the islands national interest.

This policy orientation might have been the reason why President Sirisena had the privilege to be able to have an audience with Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace (12th march 2015) and to be invited to the G7 in May 2016.

In my view this ‘flexible’ foreign policy is timely and apt in the present context and will only benefit Sri Lanka in the future provided that it does not deviate from this too much. The significance of Professor Jayadeva’s statement lies in the fact that it characteristically draws similarities between the foreign policy objectives of the D.S Senanayake and President Maithripala and also in the manner in which the national interest of the country was sought after (and the steps taken in this regard) through a “friendship with all; enmity with none” foreign policy.

Works Cited

1. Uyangoda, Jayadeva. “Sri Lanka’s Foreign Policy Trends since January 2015: Some Critical Thoughts.” Groundviews. N.P., 15 June 2016. Web. 18 June 2016.

2. For more information see: Karunadasa, W. M. Sri Lanka and Non-alignment: A Study of Foreign Policy from 1948 to 1982. Dehiwela: Image Lanka, 1997. Print. Pg.23

3. Kodikara, Shelton U. Domestic Politics and Diplomacy. Ed. W. B. Dorakumbure. Colombo: Bandaranaike Center for International Studies, 2008. Print. Pg.19

4. For more information see: Jennings, Sir Ivor. The Road to Temple Trees: Sir Ivor Jennings and the Constitutional Development of Ceylon: Selected Writings. Ed. Harshan Kumarasingham. Colombo: Center for Policy Alternatives, 2015. Print.

5. For more information see: Swaminathan, Shivprasad. “India’s Benign Constitutional Revolution.” The Hindu. N.P., 25 Jan. 2013. Web. 18 June 2016.

6. HULUGALLE, H. A.J. The Life and times of Don Stephan Senanayake. Gunasena, 1975. Print. Pg.201


8. Jennings, Sir Ivor. Commonwealth in Asia. London 1951. Print. pg.113

9. Kodikara, Shelton U. Domestic Politics and Diplomacy. Ed. W. B. Dorakumbure. Colombo: Bandaranaike Center for International Studies, 2008. Print. Pg.83

10. Kelegama, Dr. J B. “The Significance of the Ceylon-China Trade Agreement of 1952.” Island Feature Article. N.P., n.d. Web. 18 June 2016.

11. “Promoting Reconciliation, Accountability and Human Rights in Sri Lanka.” United Nations Human Rights Council. N.P., 29 Sept. 2015. Web. 18 June 2016.

12. The historical relationship between the UNP and China has not been the best, with the opposition UNP arousing fears that the maritime agreement with china of 1963, brought about under Mrs. Bandaranaike, allocated the Trincomalee harbor as a military base for the Chinese; which incidentally was not true. For further reference see: Kodikara, Shelton U. Domestic Politics and Diplomacy. Ed. W. B. Dorakumbure. Colombo: Bandaranaike Center for International Studies, 2008. Print. Pg. 26-27