Thursday, October 16, 2014

Sirimavo Bandaranaike made the world stand to attention

In early September, 1961, leaders of 25 nations met in the Yugoslav capital of Belgrade to found the non-alignment movement. Among those who gathered were giants of world politics of the day, including Yugoslavia’s Marshal Josip Broz Tito, President of the United Arab Republic Gamal Abdel Nasser and Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. The organization marked the ending colonial age as around half the members were African countries which had been independent only for a few years. Among the leaders from around the world, there was one unmistakable person from Ceylon. She was world’s first female Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike.

Sirimavo (Drawing by Kavinda Vimarshana)
I am happy to attend this great assembly not only as a representative of my country but also as a woman and a mother who can understand the thoughts and feelings of the millions of women, and mothers of this world, who are deeply concerned with the preservation of the human race,” Sirimavo Bandaranaike said addressing the Belgrade Summit.

The concern for the preservation of the human race was a growing issue in the early years of the Cold War, when United States, on one hand, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), on the other, were engaged in a nuclear arms race. People in the so-called the Third World, who were gradually emerging from the colonial era, were concerned that their future would be in jeopardy in the backdrop of a nuclear war. It was a matter of life and death to the people concerned.

Middle path

Non-alignment was an idea generated as a response to the Cold War. In a world which was becoming increasingly black and white, some leaders in the so-called ‘Third World’ were for a middle path. Apart from Tito, Nasser and Nehru, who were the main proponents of this concept, there was considerable support to this idea from other nations. The states following this idea were erroneously named as ‘uncommitted’ by some detractors. Ceylon’s Prime Minister SWRD Bandaranaike, who also supported a middle path in world politics, put aside these erroneous definitions in his speech to the United Nations General Assembly in 1956. “We are supposed to be uncommitted nations. I strongly object to the word. We are committed to the hilt. We are committed to preserve decency in dealings between nations; we are committed to the cause of justice and of freedom as much as anyone is.”

Sirimavo Bandaranaike ended up in politics following the tragic circumstances of the assassination of her husband. After SWRD Bandaranaike was assassinated in September 1959, not only his electoral alliance, but even the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) was in danger of disintegrating. The remaining leaders of the SLFP asked Sirimavo to lead the party at this juncture.

In international politics, she tried to follow her husband’s footsteps. In January 1964, she made this very clear in a speech to the Senate of the Parliament of Ceylon. “Underlying the policy of non-alignment is the belief that independent nations, although small and militarily weak, have a positive role to play in the world today.”

Sirimavo would play a positive role in several matters in world politics especially in her mediating attempts during and after the Sino-Indian War of 1962 and her proposal of an Indian Ocean Peace Zone. The proposal of an Indian Ocean Peace Zone was later adopted and promoted by her friend Indira Gandhi. However, in the world which was dominated by the Cold War politics, this came to naught.

Peace zone

Sirimavo Bandaranaike went to a more dogmatic form of non-alignment than her husband. A small nation like Ceylon could not afford to antagonize either side of the political divide. However, some of her more radical steps did not go well with certain western powers. Therefore, there was a certain animosity developed between the western powers and Ceylon especially during the second term of her as Prime Minister (1970-77). Even during the first term, she had nationalized petroleum distribution and taken some other measures which perhaps led to the abortive military coup of 1962. She would later complain about the “rapacious designs of the west,” antagonizing some western leaders.

She attended the first five of the non-aligned summits, the last of hers being the summit in Colombo in 1976. Despite her opponents’ criticisms, it was a well planned event and brought international fame to Sri Lanka.While non-alignment and Cold War are both stories from history, Sirimavo’s proposal of an Indian Ocean Peace Zone is a very valid concept now more than ever before. In the 1970s, her proposal was more concerned by regional security. However, Indian Ocean is an integral part of the vital trade routes in a rising Asia. Ongoing discussions on a 21st century Maritime Silk Route and an Asian Pacific Zone have given new dimensions to the international politics of today. Security of the Indian Ocean is therefore vital for regional as well as outside powers. Sri Lanka, as a small country, which can play a bigger role, should start promoting Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s concept of an Indian Ocean Peace Zone once again.

Originally published in 'The Nation' on October 12, 2014.

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