Kotelawala had put SL on world map

The former premier stood for Ceylon's rights. But he was not greedy and unfair, writes PK Balachandran.

india Updated: May 08, 2006 16:56 IST

One of the unrecognised aspects of post-colonial Asia's movement towards unity and towards acquiring a voice in world affairs, is the significant contribution made to it by Sir John Kotelawala, Prime Minister of Ceylon in the early 1950s.

Kotelawala had struck a balance between opposition to Western neo colonialism and opposition to the emerging Communist imperialistic threat.

Sure enough, this was not the most popular or acceptable line, given the aura that the Soviet-Red Chinese line had in the eyes of leaders of states just emerging from long periods of Western capitalist and imperialist domination.

But Kotelawala succeeded in getting his Asian colleagues to see the wisdom that lay in his "middle path".

Later developments showed how right he was about communism, when communism collapsed in its own bastions.

Need for Asian unity

After the folding up of the British, Dutch and French empires, and the collapse of the short-lived Japanese hegemony in Asia in the middle and late 1940s, the newly established states were concerned with two things:

• Governing themselves independently and developing their backward economies;

• Forging an alliance to further their collective interest in the emerging world, which posed new threats, and to acquire a voice in the re-shaping of the new World Order.

The new threats came from two quarters: Western neo-colonialism on the one hand, and Eastern communist totalitarianism and subversive expansionism on the other.

Pandit Nehru, the Prime Minister of India, being the most international of the new Asian leaders, was the first to realise the need for Asian unity.

He organised the Asian Relations Conference at New Delhi in March-April 1947, even before India became officially independent.

Other Asian leaders took the cue and a series of conferences was held in various parts of Asia, such as Colombo in Ceylon, and Bogor and Bandung in Indonesia.

The man behind the Colombo conference, held in 1954, was the then Ceylonese Prime Minister, Sir John Kotelawala.

Significantly, unlike Nehru, Kotelawala did not fancy a large conference. He was for a small one where select leaders could talk to each other, in-depth, in an informal atmosphere about their common problems.

He did not even believe in a pre-determined agenda.

This was an entirely new way of conducting international relations.

"It was a very congenial idea for me, because I had been a life long believer in the efficacy of talking things over informally and as friends round a table, and I thought I would try to get my colleagues of the countries nearer home together for an informal discussion of matters of common interest," Kotelawala wrote in his book An Asian Prime Minister's Story (George G Harrap and Co, London, 1956).

His original proposal was to confine the conference to Burma, Ceylon, India and Pakistan, all close neighbours with a shared culture and a shared political inheritance from the British Empire.

But soon, it was suggested that another new country, Indonesia, might be included because it shared the culture of the South Asian Four.

There were enquiries from other countries too.

"But I had to explain to them that we were confining ourselves to a neighbour's group, and that the special purpose of the meeting would be lost if we went farther afield," Kotelawala said.

Almost anticipating SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) which came into being in 1985, Kotelawala and his cohorts decided that only common issues would be discussed at their meetings and that contentious bilateral issues should be avoided.

Kotelawala described this as a "wise" decision and said that the Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan and the Indo-Ceylon conflict over Indian immigrants were not taken up for discussion.

The conference discussed "broad and universal" issues such as Indo-China, the hydrogen bomb, colonialism and racialism, international communism and economic cooperation in South-East Asia.

And this helped drew world attention to the Colombo conference, he observed.

Context gave Colombo conclave importance

The Colombo conference acquired more importance than its organiser imagined because of the international context in which it was held.

At that time, Indo-China, a French administered South East Asian region comprising Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, was trying to free itself from French rule even as it was plagued by a communist insurgency.

"The war in Indo-China had reached a stage at which it was imperative it be stopped unless the Powers involved were prepared to run the risk of precipitating a third world war," Kotelawala wrote.

" When the Asian Prime Ministers met in Colombo the Geneva Conference was discussing the possibilities of a settlement in Indo-China and other Far Eastern problems."

"The deliberations and decisions of five leaders in Asia had a great influence in making final the settlement reached in Geneva," Kotelawala noted.

"Five nations with populations totalling more that 500,000,000, were to make it clear that the only scheme to ensure peace in Asia would be one formulated or approved by the leaders of Free Asian countries."

"What was wrong about SEATO (the American sponsored South East Asia Treaty Organisation) was that the opinion of Free Asia had not been sought in regard to the troubles in Vietnam and Korea."

"The Colombo Conference was going to demonstrate to the world that the people of Asia knew what was good for them.

Our future lay in the direction of peaceful development of our immense resources of men, land, and material, and not in the dissipation of our strength and our slender financial resources in a catastrophe that might engulf us and extinguish our hard-won freedom," Kotelawala wrote.

" If we failed, Asia's security and freedom would be considered of no consequence in the global strategy of two power-blocs," he warned.

At the opening session of the Colombo conclave, Kotelawala struck a note of urgency.

"Time is running short, and with the pressures that are developing all around us, we shall have to do something as a matter of urgency, if we are not to be submerged in a world conflict that seems dangerously near."

The Ceylon Premier did not want the conference to degenerate into a forum for platitudes and propaganda.

Fortunately, it was serious business, and it was heartening to be told that the Big Powers deliberating on Indo-China sitting in Geneva, had asked for a full report on the recommendations of the Colombo conclave.

Eventually, its call for ceasefire was heeded by both the Western Powers and Red China.

Those assembled in Geneva invited the "Colombo Powers" to set up a South East Asian body, which would supervise an interim administration in Indo-China.

"Our lack of any direct political and commercial interest in Indo-China made us the most acceptable choice for the proposed supervision," Kotelewala explained.

He was congratulated for placing this idea before world opinion.

Since the world had just entered the age of nuclear weapons, especially the hydrogen bomb, the Colombo conference sought more information on the "destructive capabilities, and the known and probably disastrous effects of these weapons," so that there could be a search for an agreed solution to the "grave problem that threatens humanity."

Divided over threat from communism

Of all the five Prime Ministers assembled at Colombo, Kotelawala was the keenest on a strong statement on the threat from communism.

"I am an avowed and inveterate opponent of Communism," Kotelawala declared in his book.

He had more than ideological reasons for this attitude. His main opponents in Ceylonese politics were Marxists of various hues, who kept instigating strikes to bring down his government, and trying to brand him an American and neo-imperialist stooge in an era when the popular cry was "Yankees Go Home!"

But Kotelawala made it clear that he was not against acceptance of communism by free choice.

What he was against was communism, which had been thrust on a people in an "insidious, subversive, traitorous and imperialist" way.

"I was therefore particularly anxious to secure a declaration on international Communism, but although everyone was agreed as to the sentiment, there was difficulty about the formulation, because it was felt by some that Communism was not the only external influence that deserved to be kept out."

In the discussion on communism "tempers were short and nerves frayed."

At one stage, one of the Premiers lost control of himself, banged the table and shouted at another, "You are nothing better than an American stooge!"

To which, the other retorted with equal heat, "And you are nothing better than a Russian stooge!"

Kotelawala did not identify the Prime Ministers, but it is likely that they were Nehru of India, and Mohammad Ali of Pakistan.

Pakistan had joined the anti-communist and US-inspired South East Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO) and the Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO), while India considered these to be antithetical to peace.

With matters getting out of control, Kotelawala as the chairman, stepped in, to bring order. But he too exploded!

"I lost my own temper as Chairman, and exploded. I shouted to them to stop bickering and behave themselves. I asked them to remember that we were Prime Ministers."

"The two statesmen I rebuked came to their senses at once, and both apologised to me," he wrote.

Ultimately, Kotelawala had his way on communism, more or less.

Thrashed out mainly by Ceylon's Finance Minister Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, a natural diplomat, the Joint Communiqué was mild in tone and broad in its scope, but said what Kotelawala wanted it to say.

"The subject of Communism in its national and international aspects was generally discussed and the Prime Ministers made known to each other their respective views and attitudes towards Communist ideologies," it said.

"The Prime Ministers affirmed their faith in democracy and democratic institutions and, being resolved to preserve in their respective countries the freedoms inherent in the democratic system, declared their unshakable determination to resist interference in the affairs of their countries by external Communist and anti-Communist or other agencies."

"They were convinced that such interference threatened the sovereignty, security and political independence of their respective States and the right of each country to develop and progress in accordance with the conceptions and desires of its own people."

First Published: May 08, 2006 14:13 IST