In the latter half of the 20th century, the Non-Aligned Movement played an important role at a time when East-West tensions were running high. In August 1976, Sri Lanka hosted the 5th Non-Aligned Summit in Colombo. This was one of the high points in Sri Lanka’s international relations. Here, we publish an extract from Leelananda De Silva’s autobiographical volume – The Long Littleness of Life – his Memoir of Government, the United Nations, family and friends.
Sometime in 1973, Mrs. Bandaranaike, the Prime Minister, directed that I should be in charge of the economic side of the Non Aligned Summit (NAS), to be held in 1976 in Colombo. She was anxious to attach a high profile to economic issues in non aligned discussions. This was for two reasons. The first was that she wanted to make the NAS clearly more non-aligned, getting rid of the extreme anti western rhetoric of previous conferences, which was partly due to the focus on political issues. Talking economics, specially at a time when the North-South dialogue was a dominant feature in international relations made great sense. The second reason was that she felt that greater attention to international economic issues would better relate the Summit proceedings to Sri Lanka’s own economic interests. As I advised her, it was necessary to focus on relevant economic issues for Sri Lanka, instead of merely following earlier Non Aligned economic agendas where issues like transnational corporations and the New International Economic Order were focused upon. These issues were pushed by countries like Cuba and Algeria, as these were aimed at attacking the United States and other Western countries. Thereafter, my engagement with non aligned issues became my central task, during my Planning Ministry years. Between 1973 and 1977, 1 was working as much with the Foreign Ministry as with the Planning Ministry.
The Fifth Non Aligned Summitheldin 1976 was the culmination of a long process which started with the Fourth Summit in Algiers in 1973. The Prime Minister led the delegation to Algiers and the other members were Felix Dias Bandaranaike, Mrs. Lakshmi Dias Bandaranaike, Shirley Amarasinghe (Permanent Representative to the UN in New York), W.T. Jayainghe (Permanent Secretary of Foreign Affairs), Susantha De Alwis (Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva) and myself. This delegation constituted many of the key persons who were responsible for the substantive preparations of the Colombo Summit. The other two persons who were not there were Arthur Basnayaka and Izeth Hussain. The Algiers Conference was a grand affair and was held in a newly constructed palatial conference hall. One of the things that struck me most was that the Conference was not organized well. During the week we were there, the conference sessions were held in the night, and during the day we had our rest. This made most of the delegates very tired. Mrs. Bandaranaike suggested to the delegation that we should observe the way in which the Conference was organized in Algiers. There was nothing much to learn from them.
I was looking after the Economic Committee and it was being chaired by Ambassador Hernan Santa Cruz of Chile, a leading personality of the time in international affairs. I remember working closely with the Ambassador from India, K.B. Lall, who was later to lose out to Gamani Corea, in the UNCTAD Secretary General stakes. The work of the Economic Committee was dominated by Algerian pressures to obtain support for the Opec oil price hike which had just occurred, raising the price of oil from US $4 to $13. This was a great shock to poorer developing countries. The Algerians and other oil suppliers manipulated the Summit to obtain a clear endorsement of the Opec position, although it was the poorer developing countries which paid a heavy price for the oil price hike. Opec promised that they would support schemes to obtain better prices for other commodities, but this- never happened, apart from unrealistic resolutions to change the world economic order. The Opec countries started to push for a New International Economic Order which was later adopted by the United Nations in 1974. Layachi Yaker, the Algerian Minister of Trade was the key figure organizing this Opec campaign in the non aligned context (he was later to be the head of the UN Economic Commission for Africa).
The great event of the Conference, in effect, took place outside Algiers. Salvador Allende, the President of Chile was overthrown and killed in a coup led by General Pinochet during the week of the Conference. Chile under Allende had emerged as an icon standing up to US hegemony in Latin America and generally in the third world. Many of the non aligned delegations were shocked by what happened in Chile. Hernan Santa Cruz, who was chairing the Economic Committee, was the living embodiment of the Chilean crisis and he was not to go back to his country fora long time. One unforgettable memory that I have of this Summit was our departure from Algiers airport. Waiting for our respective planes, along with Mrs. Bandaranaike, were Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia and President Houari Boumedienne of Algeria was there to wish us goodbye.
The most important objective for Sri Lanka at Algiers was to get the Summit to endorse Colombo as its next venue. Whether this would be done was not at all certain. To the great delight of Mrs. Bandaranaike, the Algiers Summit confirmed Colombo as the venue for the Fifth Summit. This was the start of the preparatory process. Mrs. Bandaranaike was anxious that economic issues, particularly in a North- South context, should be equally placed with political issues on the NAS agenda. This was my task in the next four years, and those preparations were pursued largely in UN multilateral forums, which were then brought into convergence at the NAS. The story of my involvement with these North- South issues will be related in another chapter. Here, I will confine myself to non aligned forums.
After the Algiers Summit and prior to the Summit in Colombo, I attended three non aligned meetings held in Dakar (Senegal), Lima (Peru) and Algiers. The Dakar and Lima meetings were at Foreign Ministers level. Apart from myself, others on the delegations were Felix Dias Bandaranaike, Shirley Amarasinghe, and Arthur Basnayaka. The Dakar meeting was held outside the main city in a newly built conference hall, in the middle of nowhere. One night, Shirley Amarasinghe, Arthur Basnayake and I had to go in a car assigned to us by the government fora late night meeting. The relations with our driver was pretty bad as he was using the official vehicle assigned to us for his own purposes. This night, on our way to the conference hall, he stopped the car in the middle of a jungle saying there was no petrol and that he was going to leave us and go to collect some petrol. This was a frightening experience. We had to forget our status and had to plead with the driver offering him some goodies to take us to the conference hall somehow. About half an hour later, he said that he had some petrol in the car and that he would use it. Anyway, we got to the conference hall and we did not see the driver again.
I was to work closely with Shirley Amarasinghe on Non Aligned issues, although he was in New York and I was in Colombo. We travelled together for many meetings and met often in New York and in Colombo. I enjoyed working with Shirley Amarasinghe. Shirley had held the highest offices of government, being appointed as Secretary to the Treasury at the age of 47. One day in Dakar he told me that when Felix Dias Bandaranaike had to leave the Finance Ministry in 1962, he also had to leave his post of Treasury Secretary. He had thought of retiring from the public service and his brother Clarence who ran the leading motor firm Car Mart had asked him to come and take over the running of the company. He was seriously considering moving to the private sector. At this point, Mrs. Bandaranaike and N.Q. Dias who was the Secretary of the Ministry of Defence and Foreign Affairs had asked him whether he would like to move into the diplomatic service and proceed to New Delhi as High Commissioner. His whole life changed with that decision to go to New Delhi at the age of 50. For the next 17 years until his death, he was a leading figure in UN circles and latterly as Chairman of the Law of the Sea Conference.
I remember another amusing incident. Over the weekend in Dakar, Arthur Basnayake, whose academic background was geography, wished to go to the interior of Senegal by train. He wanted to go alone, and there was a train going to that place. So I accompanied Arthur to the railway station. The Dakar main railway station was totally deserted and there was no train in sight. We walked down the long platform and there was a man seated at the end of it, smoking a cigar. We asked him whether we could see the station master. He said he was the station master. We asked him about the train, which was scheduled to leave that morning. He told us that was a good question, as yesterday’s train had not yet left. He suggested to us that we take the bus outside the station to our destination, as that will get us there sooner. The bus was run by the station master’s son, and to get business for the bus, it was in the interest of father and son to see that the trains were delayed.
The meeting at Lima, Peru had the usual agendas and the usual speeches. What was more interesting was the coup that took place while we were in Lima. On the Monday morning of the conference, it was ceremonially opened by General Morales, the Military Dictator of Peru. On the Wednesday morning, as we were leaving for the conference, we were informed that we should stay in the hotel as a coup had taken place and there was a curfew. The conference met again the day after and it was wound up on the weekend. When it was wound up, the new military ruler came to declare the conference closed. The host Government Peru insisted that the former dictator Morales’s name should not be mentioned in the communique and he should not be thanked for opening the conference. This was non aligned politics at its best.
The mechanism for pursuing non aligned agendas was the Coordinating Bureau of the Non Aligned Countries Meeting at Foreign Minister’s level. I attended a meeting in Algiers of the Bureau in early 1976. The task of the Sri Lankan delegation was to keep the Bureau informed of our preparations in Colombo. I remember this meeting for one poignant reason. Although Chile had a military government now, the Non Aligned Bureau, still recognized the Allende government of Chile. Its Foreign Minister Orlando Letelier, suave, elegant and the perfect diplomat, was there in Algiers. I had a cup of tea with him and discussed the forthcoming Conference in Colombo, which he expected to attend. About a month later, he was gunned down in the streets of Washington D.C. in broad daylight, a murder which had ramifications the world over.
Let me now briefly set out my observations of the NAS in Colombo. I was appointed by the Prime Minister to be Secretary of the Economic Committee of the Conference. By virtue of my position, I chaired an inter-ministerial committee on economic issues for the NAS in Colombo. We met a few times but it was not productive in shaping an economic agenda from Sri Lanka’s point of view. This had to be done by the Planning Ministry. One of the first things I had to do was to provide an input into the Prime Minister’s speech for the Conference. After discussing with the Prime Minister and with Felix Dias Bandaranaike, I submitted two proposals- one for a Countervailing Third World Currency and the other for the establishment of a Third World Commercial and Merchant Bank. The first proposal for a third world currency was a political one, to please radicals like Cuba. The second proposal was one I had developed and discussed with the Prime Minister. She liked the proposal which was pragmatic, and this was included in her speech. The Summit adopted the proposal and was later to be followed up by UNCTAD. I was asked by UNCTAD to come over to Geneva to prepare a paper on this proposal which I did in May 1977.
I am proud of this proposal, with which Mrs. Bandaranaike agreed. She wanted a high profile for economic issues, as they related to her own domestic concerns. People could relate to food and agriculture and pharmaceuticals in a way that they do not relate to Arab- Israel or East West political confrontations. The proposal fora Bank, which had merchaht banking functions, was modelled on the experience of the Crown Agents in London. Most developing countries at the time did not have the expertise and the skills to get the best terms from exporting and importing transactions. It was found at that time that Sri Lanka was purchasing commodities like oil, rice and wheat, when prices were high in a volatile world market; and full of stocks locally when the prices were low in world markets (at a time when we should be buying). A central facility for developing countries would enable them to obtain large gains through combined purchasing and other means. The bank could also handle many financial transactions of borrowing and obtaining export credits. An institution of this kind is still relevant in today’s world for many of the smaller developing countries.
Prof. Senaka Bibile had made his mark through his proposals for rationalization of pharmaceutical supplies and the purchase of non- branded, generic products for national health services. Such arrangements reduced the costs of medical supplies. Senaka Bibile was known to Mrs. Bandaranaike. She suggested to me that I should have him on the delegation to work with me in the Economic Committee to develop his ideas through a resolution which would then be applicable to the developing countries in general. Senaka Bibile worked with me at the Conference to get the resolution drafted, and we had to do some lobbying among the delegations. I found that most countries welcomed the proposals on pharmaceuticals and there was no problem in getting a strong resolution adopted. This is a resolution which had clear implications for health policies in countries like Sri Lanka. It was a delight to have worked with Senaka Bibile.
The NAS was a historic event and it should be remiss of me if I did not mention the others who were associated closely with the NAS, as I had personal knowledge of the event. In organizing an NAS on this scale, Sri Lanka was punching above its weight in international relations. Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the Prime Minister, was primarily responsible for the success of the Summit. She personally supervised many of its key aspects. Felix Dias Bandaranaike and Shirley Amarasinghe were actively engaged in most of the preparatory work between 1973 and 1976. They were persons of international standing and were highly respected, and with Mrs. Bandaranaike, were responsible for a highly acclaimed Summit. W.T Jayasinghe , the Foreign Secretary, Arthur Basnayake, Director General of the Foreign Ministry and Izeth Hussein, Director of the Non Aligned desk at the Foreign Ministry were key figures in the preparations on the political side. Susanta De Alwis who was our ambassador in Geneva, was the secretary of the political committee, and he and I being secretaries of the two committees had to interact closely to avoid possible conflicts in conference proceedings and resolution drafting. Neville Kanakarathne can be added to this list. Izeth Hussein made a distinctive contribution in drafting what was considered an outstanding Political Declaration which captured the essence of Non-Alignment.
Dr. Mackie Ratwatte, was the man in charge of the organizational side of the Conference. He was assisted by several Foreign Office officials, specially Ben Fonseka. Manel Abeysekara managed a flawless protocol operation with finesse and flair. This aspect of the Summit was crucial, as delegations with Heads of Governments and State are sensitive to their treatment by the host country. Vernon Mendis, who was then the High Commissioner in London, was brought to Colombo to act as Secretary General of the Conference, as W. T Jayasinghe and Arthur Basnayake declined to undertake that role, Vernon’s role was to assist the Prime Minister during the Conference proceedings. Dharmasiri Peiris, Secretary to the Prime Minister, worked behind the scenes over this entire four year period and was guide and adviser to the Prime Minister on many NAM issues, and ran her office at the Conference, where many questions had to be addressed on an urgent basis. He was associated with Nihal Jayawickrama, Secretary to the Ministry of Justice and Sam Sanmuganathan, Secretary to the Ministry of Constitutional Affairs On the economic side I received much assistance from Wilfred Nanayakkara, Deputy Director of the Economic Affairs Division in the Ministry of Planning. Lakdasa Hulugalle, an outstanding economist working with UNCTAD and an authority on North South issues was in regular contact, and was a great source of advice during the Summit. Havelock Brewster, a well known Caribbean economist from UNCTAD worked with the Economic Committee, at my request. He was actively involved in the drafting of the large number of economic resolutions which came up at the Conference.
Let me divert here to record my recollections of two episodes connected with the Summit as they are instructive and should not be forgotten. First was Mrs. Bandaranayaike’s decision to vacate ” Temple Trees” so that Mrs. Gandhi, the Prime Minister of India could occupy it during her visit to Colombo. At this time, Indo- Sri Lanka relations were at a low ebb, due to Sri Lanka’s assistance to Pakistan during the Bangladesh crisis. Mrs. Bandaranaike wanted to signal her closeness to India and also her personal regard for Mrs. Gandhi by this gesture. That was a master stroke in bilateral relations. The second was with regard to Kurt Waldheim, the Secretary General of the UN. He was in Colombo accompanied by Dr. Gemini Corea, who was Secretary General of UNCTAD. He expected to address the Non Aligned Summit, of Heads of Government. There were many who were opposed to Waldheim addressing the Summit and preferred him to address the Foreign Minister’s Conference the previous week. It is my recollection that Waldheim in the end addressed the Summit. In 1976, the Secretary General of the UN was not regarded as an equal to Heads of Government.
The Colombo Summit was attended by over 60 Heads of Government and I remember seeing most of them either in the Conference hall or outside. There were Anwar Sadat of Egypt, Gadaffi of Libya, and Marshall Tito of Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia was one of the key countries in Non Aligned and Third World organizations, and it is astonishing that 20 years later Yugoslavia is no more. I remember standing next to Tito as the national anthem was being sung to bring the Summit to an end. He had gone out of the hall and had just come in and I happened to be standing next to him. Apart from the Heads of Government, there were many other Foreign Ministers and high officials I came in contact with in the course of my work on the Economic Committee. It is a long time and I forget their names.
After the Summit, in early 1977, Felix Dias Bandaranaike, Sherley Amarasinghe, Arthur Basnayake, Izeth Hussein and I were the delegation to the Non Aligned Foreign Ministers meeting in New Delhi. Mrs. Gandhi had lost the election and there was a new BJP government. Mrs. Bandaranaike had asked the Sri Lanka delegation to meet with Mrs. Gandhi, informally at her residence. This was not at all appreciated by the new Indian Government. That was the last time I was to see Mrs. Gandhi, having seen her on many occasions in the last 6 years. This was also my last non aligned meeting, as Mrs. Bandaranaike lost the election later in the year and a new government came in.