D.S Senanayake, the first prime minister of independent Ceylon (Sri Lanka) has often been termed as “pro-western” in his foreign policy. The reasons that writers, historians and scholars articulate to prove this point is the close relationship that he maintained with the British on economic, defensive and ideological grounds as well as the relative distance he maintained with the socialist leaning Nehru of India, the Repressive Stalin of the Soviet Union and Mao of China since 1949.

In an article1 recently published online, I attempted to disprove this impression by exposing the “Friendship with All, Enmity with None” “middle path” policy that D.S Senanayake followed and advocated for; which was incidentally, similar to the one that the present president Maithripala Sirisena sketches.1

However due to the widespread incongruous belief that D.S Senanayake’s  foreign policy was “pro-western” I have undertaken the task of rewriting an interpretation that challenges the predisposed pre-conceptualized understanding of his foreign policy. In this article I hope to first deconstruct some of the arguments leveled to “prove” D.S Senanayake’s “pro-west” foreign policy and to expose the reasons as to why he took such a course of action. I conclude with the position that his foreign policy was the best course of action to take under the circumstances and was logical and coherent as against being merely “pro-western”. To begin, the terminological difference between “pro” and “inclined” needs to be dealt with.

In the context of this article “pro” is defined as being predisposed in supporting or embracing a certain course of action/behavior, without a factor or variable which pushes one towards that course. Thus a “pro” policy towards something would not need a factor externally or internally (in the context of a country) to influence one to follow a course of action or implement a policy; but instead arise from ones desire to pursue that policy because one wishes to. On the other hand an “inclined” policy towards something would be a result of external or internal variables which have a sizeable impact on the final decision that one takes. Thereby a factor or variable, significantly outside ones control would influence ones decision and/or attitude towards it which makes one inclined to follow a certain course of action or policy for the better interest of the country.

To articulate this difference in a simple example; one could say that India was inclined to follow a nuclear strategy in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s after its regional power China exploded its first nuclear bomb in 1964. Thus, India was not “pro” nuclear but “inclined” towards the development of “nuclear” power due to the nuclear capability of its regional rival China.

D.S. Senanayake although “inclined” towards the British due to many different variables was not “pro”-British and to suggest that he was so is, I believe not entirely accurate. He faced many issues and problems both before the British gave him the reigns of the country and even after obtaining ‘power’ from the British in the post independent phase.

As Mendis mentions: “to Sri Lanka the attainment of independence had been a bloodless victory in contrast to its predecessors and many to come…..in Sri Lanka it was the sequel to several decades of political development in a pattern of constitutional evolution which in some respects marked it out as a model colony.”2

Sri Lanka in contrast to India did not “fight” for independence in the same manner that the latter did. During this pre-independence phase led by D.S. Senanayake and Sir Oliver Goonetilleke we can observe discussions, recommendations, and letters of reappraisal being sent to the British to alter their position towards the country and proceed to grant dominion status. The islands’ relationship with Britain was, as a consequence close and cordial.3 However this did not guarantee the independence of the island. Although the ‘defense base’ idea was forwarded by D.S in the early 1940’s to thwart the threat of Japan during that period of time, it probably became a requirement to fulfill, by D.S Senanayake before the granting of independence. Some writers consider, “The defense agreement (as) an integral part of the independence package.”4 While other foreign policy academics have pointed out the same by stating that:

“It was presumably on the basis of the offer of defense and logistical facilities for Britain in the island that it was possible to clinch the deal for the immediate grant of full independence much earlier than intended before.”5

Thus D.S Senanayake may well have been influenced to adopt this defense agreement signed in November 11th 1947 (which came into effect upon independence) as one of the prerequisites and preconditions to independence.

Furthermore the lack of an effective tri-force was deeply felt in the country. Somasiri Devendra of the Sri Lankan Navy writes:

“Although the forces had to look after both external and internal threats it would have been impossible for it to meet any external threats for many years to come. The government therefore signed a defense agreement with Britain for that country to provide us a ‘safety net’ against external threats. The external threat was largely from communist countries and to a lesser extent from India.”6

D.S Senanayake also advocated for the need of the defensive treaty on similar grounds by uttering the words: ‘I cannot accept the responsibility of being prime minister unless I am provided with the means of defense.’7

Another reason may have been his sense of fear concerning declarations made by Indian scholars and members of parliament with regard to Sri Lanka, the Trincomalee harbor and the Indian Ocean. On the one hand, K.M. Panikkar in his book ‘India and the Indian Ocean’ propounded the idea of strategic unity of India, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, as one of the pre-requisites to a realistic policy of Indian defense. The conviction that “Independent India inherited a body of British strategic doctrine developed for the defense of the British Indian Empire as the basis for its own strategic theory” 8 may have augmented D.S Senanayake’s sense of apprehension at the inception of Sri Lanka’s independence. Such accounts were compounded by the naval activities taking place in the southern part of India. If, as professor Amal Jayewardene indicates, India believed in the “strategic indivisibility of the subcontinent”9 then the possibility of India adopting total control of “oceanic space” in the Indian Ocean becomes an all too frightening reality; and especially so, at the time of independence.

Fears of Indian expansionism and the possibility of Sri Lanka falling within India’s defense perimeter were ignited when Indian congressmen spoke-albeit lightly-of a federation incorporating India and Ceylon. Panikkar’s writings on the geo strategic significance of the Trincomalee harbor to India likewise, induced fears in Ceylon. Due to the islands geo strategic position and the presence of the Trincomalee harbor one can assume that India saw the island as its Achilles heel if it were to be attacked.

Although one cannot observe tensions, rivalries or enmity between the two countries a certain sense of “political aloofness”10 prevailed. This “political aloofness” may have increased the threat perceptions from the activities and statements by the islands closest geographical regional power-India-during that period of time. Herbert fisher argued that “small states seek to offset their weakness by association of alliance with other powers great and small.”11 Thus the prime ministers foreign policy which was “inclined” towards the British may have been a natural reaction to the threat perceptions he had felt from India. This is not reflective of a “pro” British foreign policy but an “inclined” foreign policy towards the British due to the existence of variables out of his control in the geo-politics of the region.

The need to keep trade lines open and continue Ceylon’s economic development was also placed high on the national interests during that time. “D.S Senanayake knew from experience during the Second World War how necessary it was to keep Ceylon’s sea and air bases free from obstruction in order to bring in the essential imports like food stuffs, without which the people would starve. Nearly one half of all food consumed was imported, one half of Ceylon’s rice was from abroad, 99% of curry stuff, pulse, and dried fish important for curries and 100% of wheat and sugar were also purchased abroad.”12

This attests yet again to the need to develop friendly ties with a country that Sri Lanka can trust; in order to strengthen and develop its military and naval fleet as well as protect the country if an invasion was to take place from a regional power. Such variables may have been decisive in shaping the foreign policy of our country during that period of time. One cannot forget that the Portuguese developed and expanded their influence to the south Asian region via a “blue water strategy” “where sea power was to be the instrument of commercial supremacy”13 and the possibility of the Indians doing the same once the British left the region may have played out in D.S Senanayake’s mind. Merely reflecting upon the decisions he took instead of examining the reasons why he undertook such decisions has resulted in a myopic outlook of his foreign policy. Upon closer reexamination one can without doubt claim that his policies did not seem to be predisposed towards the British but are instead leaning towards the British due to regional and extra regional tensions and mistrust as well as the internal fear of the rise of communist parties in domestic elections.

Sri Lanka not only took arrangements to lessen the threat perception of India but also took action to reduce the communist threat as well. The Colombo plan adopted in 1950 “was a kind of variant of the Marshall plan in Europe, as the chief strategy of the participants of the conference to meet the communist threat…”14 D.S was extremely sensitive to the communist activity which had a strong base both externally – in the north, north east Asia (with the presence of the soviet union and china respectively) – as well as internally with the rise of the communist parties within the democratic framework of the Sri Lankan election process. D.S looked towards economic and security integration through the Colombo plan but failed to continue this task due to his untimely death in 1952.

The D.S Senanayake government’s relationship with the commonwealth has also been cited by some as reason to show the prime ministers “pro-west” foreign policy. At the very inception of the country’s independence the prime minister sought to be a member of the commonwealth alongside India and Pakistan. The reason for such behavior is understandable in the context of not being part of the United Nations till 1955. International recognition is one of the foremost essentials of a state and being part of the United Nations would effectively accomplish this need; but not being granted entrance to the UN due to the soviet veto resulted in the need to closely integrate Ceylon with the Commonwealth. The commonwealth thereby not only ensured our recognition as a sovereign country equal in terms with India and Pakistan, the larger of our neighboring states, but also became a defense strategy as an effective guarantee that the island if invaded would constitute a violation of international law and the territorial sovereignty of a state recognized by the world. Moreover, “D.S Senanayake was convinced that the commonwealth had no expansionist ideas and that its one ambition and desire was to preserve and maintain peace in the world.”15

Another source of criticism is leveled at the external affairs agreement with the British signed by D.S Senanayake in 1947 which came into effect on the date of independence. However, W. M Karunadasa aptly discloses the rational reasons for such actions:

“What is more important in the external affairs agreement was the opportunity it afforded Sri Lanka to be represented abroad, through the good offices of Britain. This assistance benefited Sri Lanka in two respects. Firstly Sri Lanka did not possess the necessary apparatus to conduct efficient diplomatic relations at the time of independence; secondly, she had not sufficient economic resources to be spent on establishing diplomatic missions in many countries.”16

Thus the external affairs agreement with the British, similar to the defense agreement and the act of joining the commonwealth reveals a rational decision which shows the “inclination” of the foreign policy towards the British due to considerations relating to security and economic affairs.

Some writers have stated that the very act of recognizing the People’s Republic of China in 1950 immediately after the British proceeded to do so re-emphasize that Ceylon was “guarded and guided by the British.”17

Professor Shelton Kodikara believes that: “Ceylon recognized the people’s republic of china (PRC) on 5th January 1950 and simultaneously terminated her relations with the Chinese nationalist government (because) The UK  had accorded recognition to the new communist regime on the same day, and it would appear that Ceylon’s recognition policy was largely influenced by the attitude of the United Kingdom…..in granting early recognition to China, therefore, Ceylon was merely following Britain’s lead on the question.”18

 I challenge this notion because Ceylon had little to gain besides showing that it is following British guidelines to the word. On the other hand Ceylon had in 1949 opposed the colonialistic practices of the Netherlands in Indonesia and had even disallowed Dutch ships to dock in Ceylon. This action would not be a reassuring move to the British and would naturally showcase Ceylon’s independent course of foreign policy behavior. If one was to state that Ceylon recognized the PRC simply to follow the actions of the British, even if it did not materially benefit the island, then how could one portray the action to not allow Dutch ships to dock in Ceylon? I believe that Ceylon recognized the PRC because D.S Senanayake might have had the understanding that the PRC would one day become a market source of Ceylonese exports. Indeed his immediate successor Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake and R.G. Senanayake initiated the rubber rice pact of 1952 which was one of the longest running south-south agreements in the history of the world; brought into existence in the same year of D.S Senanayake’s untimely death.

However for all of the reasons outlined above, his go-to choice was the British. He chose the British as the closest ally to Ceylon because:

  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.”19

Thus, D.S Senanayake chose an extra regional power – the British – as Ceylon’s closest ally and his policy was carried out by his two successors up until 1956. As the prime minister elucidated in a speech given to the BBC in 1951: “A world at peace is therefore her (Ceylon’s) first and foremost need, the world’s goodwill next, and then some timely and appropriate assistance if it can get it.”20

Indeed, it was his decision to pick the United Kingdom as the country’s closest “friend” but this decision was the outcome of many variables both internal and external; and one cannot pass a judgment to state that it was entirely his natural disposition towards the British that became the sole factor in making the foreign policy decisions of the country. He was therefore not “pro-west” but “inclined” to the west. In the face of many problems and challenging circumstances he sought a closer relationship with the UK but the factors behind his actions are equally if not more important to consider.

The words of Mendis are I believe a fitting end to my article:

With little knowledge of foreign affairs but great understanding of its principles he (D.S Senanayake) had steered his country through the dangerous shoals near the shore when setting out on the voyage of independence. As the captain of that ship he deserved the place accorded to him by his people as the father of our nation. 21

Shakthi De Silva.


  1. Silva, S. D. (2016, August 04). “Friendship With All, Enmity With None”: An Assessment of Sri Lanka’s Foreign Policy In The Times of DS Senanayake and Maithripala Sirisena. Retrieved August 14, 2016, from http://dbsjeyaraj.com/dbsj/archives/47643
  2. Mendis, Vernon L. B. Foreign Relations of Sri Lanka, from Earliest times to 1965. (p. 355) Dehiwala, Sri Lanka: Tisara Prakasakayo, 1983. Print.
  3. 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.
  4. Siriwardena, L. (1992). Internal dynamics in the evolution of Sri Lankan defense policy. In G. Keerawella (Author) & P. V. Jayasekera (Ed.), Security dilemma of a small state (pp. 236-237). New Delhi, India: South Asian.
  5. Mendis, V. L. (1983). Foreign relations of Sri Lanka, from earliest times to 1965 (p.363) Dehiwala, Sri Lanka: Tisara Prakasakayo.
  6. DEVENDRA, S. (2015). The NAVY IN SRI LANKA 1937-1972. (p. 185) Sri Lankan Navy.
  7. HULUGALLE, H. A. (1975). The life and times of Don Stephan Senanayake. (p. 201) M.D Gunasena.
  8. Kodikara, S. U. (1979). Strategic factors in interstate relations in South Asia (p. 13). Canberra, Australia: Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Research School of Pacific Studies, Australian National University.
  9. Jayewardene, A. (1992). Changes in power structure and security perceptions in the south Asian sub system. In P. V. Jayasekera (Ed.), Security dilemma of a small state (p. 291). New Delhi, India: South Asian.
  10. Kodikara, S. U. (1965). Indo-Ceylon relations since independence. (p. 37) Colombo: Ceylon Institute of World Affairs.
  11. Warnapala, W. W. (1992). Political processes and aspects of national integration and security in Sri Lanka. In P. V. Jayasekera (Ed.), Security dilemma of a small state (p. 147). New Delhi, India: South Asian.
  13. Jayasekera, P. V. (1992). Changing role of Sri Lanka in British defense strategy in the Indian Ocean. In P. V. Jayasekera (Ed.), Security dilemma of a small state (p. 67). New Delhi, India: South Asian.
  14. Kodikara, S. U. (1992). Defense and security perceptions of Sri Lankan foreign policy decision makers: A post independence overview. In P. V. Jayasekera (Ed.), Security dilemma of a small state (p. 211). New Delhi, India: South Asian.
  16. Karunadasa, W. M. (1997). Sri Lanka and non-alignment: A study of foreign policy from 1948 to 1982 (p. 19). Dehiwela: Image Lanka
  17. Nissanka, H. S. (1976). The foreign policy of Sri Lanka under S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike: A turning point in the history of a newly independent country in Asia (p. 3). Colombo: Dept. of Information, Govt. of Sri Lanka.
  18. Kodikara, S. U. (1982). Foreign policy of Sri Lanka: A Third World perspective. (p. 59) Delhi: Chanakya Publications.
  19. Silva, S. D. (2016, August 04). “Friendship with All, Enmity with None”: An Assessment of Sri Lanka’s Foreign Policy in the Times of DS Senanayake and Maithripala Sirisena. Retrieved August 14, 2016, from http://dbsjeyaraj.com/dbsj/archives/47643
  20. Kodikara, S. U., & Misra, K. P. (2004). Prime Minister D.S Senanayake’s speech delivered over BBC London – January 1951. In A. Jayawardane (Ed.), Documents on Sri Lanka’s foreign policy, 1947-1965 (p. 1). Colombo: Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
  21. Mendis, V. L. (1983). Foreign relations of Sri Lanka, from earliest times to 1965 (p. 392). Dehiwala, Sri Lanka: Tisara Prakasakayo

Image Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/D._S._Senanayake_cabinet