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Neutral foreign policy in practice



by Neville Ladduwahetty

President Ranil Wickremesinghe has repeatedly declared that Sri Lanka’s foreign policy is neutral. However, he and his government, meaning the Foreign Ministry in particular, has not elaborated on how a policy of neutrality works in practice. Notwithstanding this lacuna, the policy of neutrality as the foreign policy was first adopted by former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa during his acceptance speech, perhaps, influenced by the six foreign policy options presented in an article titled “Independence: Its meaning and a direction for the future” (Neville Ladduwahetty, The Island, 14 Feb., 2019). Despite the fact that the policy of neutrality has been accepted by two Presidents and the current Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, on grounds that it legitimately permits Sri Lanka to be free from getting entangled in major power rivalries, members of this government still publicly announce their preference for a Non-Aligned foreign policy.


The lack of consistency has manifested itself in several instances. For instance, despite the Policy of Neutrality, an assurance given by the President to India’s Prime Minister was that Sri Lanka would factor in the security concerns of India in the implementation of the Policy of Neutrality. In the background of such assurances India did not hesitate to raise objections when a Chinese Research Ship, with surveillance capabilities, sought permission to dock at a Sri Lankan Port. However, because India could not present sufficiently valid grounds for its objections, Sri Lanka stood by its decision to permit the Chinese ship to enter Sri Lankan waters; thus living by its commitment to the Policy of Neutrality.

It is reported that the Chinese Embassy is again seeking permission for Shi Yan 6 to enter Sri Lanka’s Exclusive Economic Zone from October to November 2023. It is reported that Sri Lanka is considering this request. The practice of considering such requests on a case by case basis should stop. After the previous experience, the Defence Ministry, together with the Foreign Ministry, should have developed a Standard Operating Procedure in keeping with the Policy of Neutrality to handle requests relating to scientific studies or any other capabilities that could be a threat to the inviolability of Sri Lanka’s territory as a declared Neutral State and circulated it among the Foreign Missions. Such an exercise would convey how the Policy of Neutrality operates in practice.

On the other hand, Sri Lanka failed to live by its Policy of Neutrality when it conceded to the objections raised by India for the construction of a Solar Power Plant on the Island of Delft on grounds that it was a threat to the security of India without any elaboration, despite it being a contract offered by the Asian Development Bank after calling for international tenders. Sri Lanka did not question the grounds for the objections. Instead, it caved in without question, thus compromising its Policy of Neutrality.

The most recent manifestation of the lack of consistency was when the President signed 5 MOUs with India, all of which was to advance connectivity with Sri Lanka to the point of integration with India. The Policy of Neutrality flies in the face of such undiluted integration with one country at the expense of its relations with other countries, thus making a mockery of the credibility of Sri Lanka, its leaders and the dignity of its Peoples.

The perception that the current economic crisis justifies Sri Lanka accepting grants and lines of credit from India or from any other country should be seen as an opportunity by any country to exploit Sri Lanka’s current economic weakness to further its own interests by controlling the destiny of Sri Lanka. This after all, is not looking at a gift horse in the mouth. It is nothing but a Trojan horse that demonstrates how unadulterated realpolitik works. The reality is that India took the initiative to lend a hand to Sri Lanka during its hour of need in order to prevent any other State from lending a hand to Sri Lanka that is in its own backyard.



Based on an ICRC Publication on Neutrality, June 2022.

The Introduction of this publication states: “The sources of the international law of neutrality are customary international law and, for certain questions, international treaties, in particular the Paris Declaration of 1856, the 1907 Hague Convention No. V respecting the Rights and Duties of Neutral Powers and Persons in Case of War on Land, the 1907 Hague Convention No. XIII concerning the Rights and Duties of Neutral Powers in Naval War, the four 1949 Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocol I of 1977.



The territory of a neutral State is inviolable. It is prohibited to commit any act of hostility whatsoever on such territory. Neutrality describes the formal position taken by a State which is not participating in an armed conflict or which does not want to become involved. This status entails specific rights and duties. On the one hand, the neutral State has the right to stand apart from and not be adversely affected by the conflict. On the other hand, it has a duty of non-participation and impartiality.

Neutral space comprises the national territory of the neutral State, its territorial waters and its national air space. Neutral persons are nationals of neutral States. They lose their neutral status if they commit hostile acts against a belligerent. Individuals may join the armed forces of a belligerent party, but then they also lose their neutral status. They still have all the guarantees of protection that a member of those forces would enjoy, and therefore are entitled to POW status if they are subsequently captured. If, however, they can be defined as mercenaries, whom we covered in an earlier lesson, they do not have the right to be considered as combatants or POWs.

As long as their home State maintains normal diplomatic relations with the belligerent State they are living in or visiting, neutral persons are to be treated in the same way as they would be in peacetime. They remain under diplomatic protection. If there are no such diplomatic relations, neutral persons are entitled to be treated as protected persons under the Fourth Geneva Convention. It makes no difference to their status if they are civilians or members of the armed forces of the neutral State to which they belong”.


Policy and instructions – the neutral State must also take measures to ensure and enforce the protection of its neutrality in the neutral space for which it is responsible in relation to the belligerent parties and, in particular, their armed forces. To obtain neutral status, the State does not have to make a formal declaration, nor do other States or parties formally have to recognize such status. A formal declaration will only have the effect of making Neutral status better known.

The armed forces of the neutral State also require clear instructions on how they are to operate in relation to the defence of their territory and in dealing with incursions. For isolated and accidental violations of neutral space, the instructions might include the need to issue warnings or give a demonstration of force. For increasingly numerous and serious violations, a general warning might be called for and the use of force stepped up.

Particular obligations – the neutral State must ensure respect for its neutrality, if necessary, using force to repel any violation of its territory. Violations include failure to respect the prohibitions placed on belligerent parties with regard to certain activities in neutral territory, described above. The fact that a neutral State uses force to repel attempts to violate its neutrality cannot be regarded as a hostile act. If the neutral State defends its neutrality, it must however respect the limits which international law imposes on the use of force. The neutral State must treat the opposing belligerent States impartially.

This obligation does not mean that a State is bound to treat the belligerents in exactly the same way. It entails a prohibition on discrimination.

It forbids only differential treatment of the belligerents which in view of the specific problem of armed conflict is not justified. Therefore, a neutral State is not obliged to eliminate differences in commercial relations between itself and each of the parties to the conflict at the time of the outbreak of the armed conflict. It is entitled to continue existing commercial relations. A change in these commercial relationships could, however, constitute taking sides inconsistent with the status of neutrality.

A neutral state must never assist a party to the armed conflict, in particular it must not supply warships, ammunition or other war materials directly or indirectly to a belligerent power, but otherwise its trade with the belligerent States remains unaffected”.

The material presented above embodies internationally recognized practices that should be adopted by a neutral state.

Therefore, as a neutral state it is appropriate that issues relating to the armed conflict that ceased in May 2009 are also addressed under provisions of international humanitarian law applicable to non-international armed conflict as codified in additional protocol ii of 1977.



The general understanding is that the focus of Foreign Policy is how a State maintains friendly relations and cooperation with other States in the pursuit of its national interests. However, the fact that origins of national interests are influenced and often driven by domestic interests is not given the attention it deserves. For instance, a key national interest is food security. Therefore, the domestic policy should be how to implement agricultural policies that ensure food security in a manner that assures access to food at affordable prices.

However, food security is possible only if there is sufficient water. This is where irrigation becomes a vital component in a domestic policy of food security. These issues were presented in the article referred to earlier that advocated Neutrality as the appropriate Foreign Policy for Sri Lanka in the context of geopolitical rivalries titled “Independence: Its meaning and a direction for the future”. The relevant section with appropriate updates from this article is presented below:

“Since Sri Lanka possesses skills, technical knowhow and materials locally, except for a small component of imported items to design and build infrastructure projects relating to water supply, highways and high-rise structures, and the only shortcoming is finance, the government should facilitate financing arrangements through local banks, through Treasury Bills or through specific taxes instead of taking bilateral loans from any of the major powers blocks. If Sri Lanka is compelled to take loans to implement infrastructure projects to further its economy, at least Sri Lanka should insist whenever possible that the design and construction of such projects should, as a policy, be undertaken by Sri Lanka. However, there are projects beyond the capability of local talent in fields such as power generation and value addition of raw materials that are currently being exported. One way of attracting Foreign Direct Investment is for the government to encourage and facilitate the emerging class of astute entrepreneurs to engage with the private sector in countries that have the know-how to implement those projects that are beyond the capabilities of local talent”.

“In the meantime, the government should focus on food security by giving every possible incentive locally, not only because tried and tested skills and knowhow are available locally through centuries of experience but also because it is the fastest and most effective way to improve the livelihood and wellbeing of the bulk of the nation. Such traditional agricultural practices should be coupled with up to date technologies relating to transport, packaging and processing of agricultural products together with marketing the end products for local consumption as well as export’.

“Since water is the most vital input for agriculture the government should undertake a programme to restore the ancient tanks that dot the landscape of Sri Lanka as part of food security, because the consequence of climate change is the certainty that it is not possible to predict when and where it would rain. As a key feature of such a programme, the upper elevations that form the catchment area of the major rivers in Sri Lanka should be declared a natural reserve under the control of the central government and reforested to harvest precipitation from either of the monsoons”.

“A development strategy that should run parallel with food security should be the development of a whole range of organic agricultural products including spices outside the range related to food security e.g. horticulture, flowers, ornamental plants and foliage along with spices and herbal medicinal plants not only for local consumption but also specifically targeted for export. A few pioneering entrepreneurs have already embarked on this field of activity but it is only a serious and concerted thrust undertaken by the government as an integral part of a National Economic Policy to develop agriculture and agriculture-based products that could take this field of economic activity far beyond what it is today. Each of the 24 Districts should be declared the epicenter of such agricultural endeavours based on targets set by the Center. Such a strategy would contribute directly to the human development of a hitherto neglected section of the rural population with the minimum of external input”.

It is evident from the foregoing that a whole range of Economic Policies could emerge based on the Domestic Policies adopted. These Domestic Policies would contribute immeasurably to Sri Lanka being free of the dependence on imported agricultural products. For instance, the declaration by the Minister of Agriculture that Sri Lanka imports nearly 2 Billion Dollars of fruits and vegetables is a shameful admission of a failed and flawed Domestic Policies. In such a background to talk about competitive export oriented Economic Policies is to reverse priorities.

An issue that is of vital importance to a State that practices Neutrality as its stated Foreign Policy is that it cannot afford to entertain unsolicited infrastructure projects such as the Light Rail Project from Japan and the offshore Nuclear Power Plants from Russia. Since the actions of a Neutral State must be neutral and therefore act free of any preferences or biases in the implementation of its Economic Policies or any commercial activities, its engagement with other States should be transparent and open. Furthermore, the initiative to implement such projects should be formulated by the Neutral State as part of its Domestic Policy.


Now that the President and Prime Minister of Sri Lanka have declared that Sri Lanka’s foreign policy is neutral, the material presented herein gives the internationally accepted norms by which a Neutral State should conduct its Foreign Relations and in turn how other States should respect its Policy of Neutrality. One vital aspect of such a norm is the respect of other States for the inviolability of the territory of the Neutral State and its integrity.

The Policy of Neutrality is the best defence Sri Lanka has to deter global powers from attempting to get control of Sri Lanka because of its strategic location on grounds internationally recognized norms of conduct applicable to a Neutral State. The extent to which Sri Lanka succeeds in retaining its Freedoms and Independence amidst such challenges depends on how Sri Lanka conducts its Foreign Relations as a Neutral State.

The most recent concern to the Policy of Neutrality is the request by the Chinese Research Ship to enter Sri Lankan waters to carry out research studies in collaboration with National Aquatic Resources Research and Development Agency (NARA); a practice they have been engaged in since 2017 after signing an MOU. The MOU has lapsed and is due for renewal. The recommendation is that if such concerns are to avoided the Defence Ministry together with the Foreign Ministry should develop a Standard Operating Procedure relating to the entry of any sea going vessel to enter Sri Lankan waters and circulate it among the Foreign Missions so that they are forewarned about the internationally recognized rights of a Neutral State.

The other aspect addressed is the symbiotic relationship that exists between Domestic Policies and Foreign Policies. In this regard the recommendation advocated is to seriously and strenuously focus on developing internal strengths particularly in the fields of agriculture to ensure food security and in the field of horticulture for export. In short, the Domestic Policies should focus on reducing imports in all fields that Sri Lanka can free itself of external dependence. The fact that Sri Lanka imports fruits and vegetables is a shame that Sri Lanka can do without.

As a Neutral State, Sri Lanka should conduct its Foreign Relations in a manner that underscores its core civilizational value of self-reliance to meet future challenges.


Understanding policy of neutrality



Yuan Wang 5, Chinese research and survey vessel, at the Hambantota port in August, 2022.

by Neville Ladduwahetty

In order to assuage the apprehensions of India regarding the intended arrival of the Chinese research vessel Shi Yang 6 to Sri Lanka, an informed source of the National Aquatic Resources Research Agency (NARA) is reported to have said “a team of officials from the NARA would board Shi Yang 6 to observe research activities”. This act is “widely seen by Sri Lankan interlocutors as an attempt by the Government to signal to the countries which are at loggerheads with China that Sri Lanka is privy to what is transpiring in the whole process and to make sure that it will pose no security threat to any third country” (Daily Mirror, September 19, 2023).

Continuing the above DM report states: “Sri Lanka advocates a neutral foreign policy. However, India, Japan and the United States are skeptical about Chinese maritime activities in the Sri Lankan territorial waters since they fear that it is part of a major effort by China to systematically map the seabed across the vast swath of the Indian Ocean. They fear hydrographic data, collected in the process, can be used for security related purposes later …. Nevertheless, Sri Lanka insists that it is a neutral venue to all countries, and won’t allow its territory, be it sea, air space or land to be used against the security interests of another country, particularly India” (Ibid).


Sri Lanka is indeed encouraged and heartened by the stand the country has taken to exercise its rights in keeping with its stated policy of Neutrality backed up by provisions of Internationally accepted Customary Law relating to entitlements, such as exploring within Exclusive Economic Zones of Coastal states. However, this stand could be strengthened by incorporating provisions of International Law as stated in Part V of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea presented below.

By incorporating these provisions into the Corpus of Domestic Law, Sri Lanka would be in a much stronger position to exercise its sovereign rights in the Exclusive Economic Zone by way of imposing penalties on those who violate its provisions and in particular those who engage in illegal fishing and destroying natural resources by the fishing crafts of India and other countries.


Rights, jurisdiction and duties of the coastal State in the exclusive economic zone

1. In the exclusive economic zone, the coastal State has:

(a) sovereign rights for the purpose of exploring and exploiting conserving and managing the natural resources» whether living or non-living» of the waters superjacent to the sea-bed and of the sea-bed and its subsoil» and with regard to other activities for the economic exploitation and exploration of the zone such as the production of energy from the water currents and winds

(b) jurisdiction as provided for in the relevant provisions of this Convention with regard to:

(i) the establishment and use of artificial islands, installations and structures:

(ii) marine scientific research:

(iii) the protection and preservation of the marine environment:

(c) other rights and duties provided for in this Convention.

2. In exercising its rights and performing its duties under this Convention in the exclusive economic zone the coastal State shall have due regard to the rights and duties of other States and shall act in a manner compatible with the provisions of this Convention.

3. The rights set out in this article with respect to the sea-bed and subsoil shall be exercised in accordance with Part VI.


A top source that is considered to be familiar with Indian affairs is reported to have stated: “Sri Lanka’s neutral position is acceptable but it is doubtful for India whether Sri Lanka being economically weak, has the strength to maintain such an approach” (Ibid), and cited the example of India purchasing fuel from Russia despite objections by the United States. That top source has forgotten that India despite its power, once “invaded” Sri Lanka hoping to resolve the conflict in Sri Lanka and was compelled to return in shame having failed to fulfill its mission.

According to him “India can act in this way because it is powerful enough to resist any pressure…”. For India to buy oil from Russia despite objections from the U.S. means that these objections are relatively benign because the U.S. needs India as part of QUAD to counter China. However, this being a commercial arrangement, it cannot be compared with the legacy of despicable acts repeatedly committed against humanity of weaker States by so called “powerful states” in the pursuit of their interests.

It is evident that the “top source” is unaware that the International Order does not make a difference between “powerful states” and the rest, because one of the principal pillars on which the United Nations Charter rests states in Article 2 (1) that “The Organization is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members”.

Furthermore, Principles and Duties of a Neutral State are based on International Customary Law, which in its Introduction states: “The sources of the international law of neutrality are customary international law and, for certain questions, international treaties, in particular the Paris Declaration of 1856, the 1907 Hague Convention No. V respecting the Rights and Duties of Neutral Powers and Persons in Case of War on Land, the 1907 Hague Convention No. XIII concerning the Rights and Duties of Neutral Powers in Naval War, the four 1949 Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocol I of 1977 (ICRC Publication June 2022).

Despite the existence of such International provisions “powerful states” have not hesitated to brazenly flout its provisions in the pursuit of their interests most of which are warped imaginations.

For instance, it was India that imposed its will on Sri Lanka when it forced Sri Lanka to accept the 13th Amendment; an act that denied Sri Lanka the fundamental right of self-determination enshrined in Article 1 (2) of the Charter of the United Nations that state:

“To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples…”. This Amendment crafted by India compels Sri Lanka to adopt devolution to Provinces as a form of internal government to satisfy the imaginations of the Tamil community in Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu. This was violently rejected by the People when it was first introduced and ironically even after more than three decades continues to be rejected not only by the majority but also by the Tamil community in Sri Lanka. Despite such rejections, India keeps insisting the Sri Lanka should live by its provisions; the latest being at the ongoing General Assembly Secessions in New York.

Under the circumstances, Sri Lanka has to come up with an innovative strategy within the provisions of the Constitution to get free of 13A because its entrenched contradictions hinder peripheral development. What is most objectionable about devolution as a concept is that it fosters the operation of Central Government and Provincial Government functions simultaneously that often are at variance thus perpetuating disparities within and among Provinces amounting to entrenching discrimination among the Peoples; a fact that is starkly evident among the States in India and other countries that have divested Central power.

Another practice adopted by “powerful” India is to overlook the violations committed by the Fishing community in Tamil Nadu at the expense of the Fishing community in Sri Lanka, by robbing the maritime resources and vandalizing the marine environment by resorting to bottom trawling within Sri Lanka’s Exclusive Economic Zone notwithstanding the fact that it is a violation of Article 56 of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. Instead of raising such issues at bilateral meetings, despite the presence of the Minister of Fisheries, Sri Lanka has been trapped into commitment to issues of connectivity that bolster India’s influence over Sri Lanka.


While Sri Lanka appreciates and is proud of the position taken by NARA and the Government in respect of the intended arrival of the Chinese research vessel, Sri Lanka has to exploit all International safeguards to overcome potential threats from the so called “powerful states”. In a background where “powerful states” would not miss an opportunity to exploit the circumstances in other States, countries such as Sri Lanka have to depend on the shield or weapon of international law to protect their interests.

Therefore, for them, it is the codified rule of the Rights and Duties of a Neutral State and the incorporation of the relevant provisions of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea into Domestic Law or the fact that its provisions are part of Customary Law to protect its sovereign rights and enforce its interests in the Exclusive Economic Zone.

Such material should form the framework of a Standard Operating Procedure as suggested in a previous article (Neutral Foreign Policy in Practice, August 22, 2023). A strengthened Sri Lanka would then be in a position to avail itself of the resources of the International Court of justice, as other countries have done to seek redress. Furthermore, since they are numerically greater, their strength lies in a Rules based World Order and not on “power”, irrespective of its source.

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Some buildings with their attributes gone forever



Rest houses were places we grew up with and most had existed during the later years of British rule in Ceylon. Counterpart in India was called a dakh bungalow, or so Cass remembers from staying overnight long ago in one in Sanchi. Rest houses were really what their name implied: places to rest in; mostly for government administrators when they travelled on government business termed circuits. There were the circuit bungalows too but they were in remote areas and with much less amenities.

The best-known rest houses were Nuwara Wewa and Tisa Wewa in Anuradhapura, the one jutting into the Parakrama Samudra in Polonnaruwa, in Belihuloya, Ella, Hambantota Tissamaharama, Kankesanturai and Elephant Pass, and in Peradeniya, opposite the Botanical Gardens. They were well known for their gentlemanly keepers, most dressed in cloth and shirt, and the food served: excellent lunches with the invariable fried karola or hal messo; the wonderful coconut sambol and the fried red chillies which was not a usual homemade appetizer.

Now, most of these wonderful places of staying in comparatively cheap, are called resorts and expanded, losing the old-world charm, the warm welcoming ambience, and the spacious one storey roominess. They were tossed aside by hotels being constructed and so they too changed ‘shape’. One or two deteriorated – the Hambantota RH accompanied by the deterioration in standard of clientele too becoming more a water hole than temporary stay-in place. Some surpassed their previous selves like the Ella RH which was transformed to a high-end inn.

We often lunched and stayed in several times and remembered was the Peradeniya RH with its wide veranda with tables to lunch or dine at, looking across at the trees in the Gardens, particularly that variety which had red drooping down flowers bordered by bright red spathes which we called kukul kakul and even ate, delighting in its sour flavour. No more. None of the view of glorious nature; none of the almost al fresco lunching; none of the old-world charm and particular ambience of the old rest house. It has been rebuilt and ‘developed’ to a horrible state.

Change – for better, for worse

On a recent visit to Kandy after many years the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens was walked through, with plenty others, both local and foreign. One small niggle of doubt was the fee charged from foreigners Rs 3,500, Cass believes. Too excessive is her opinion particularly in comparison to what locals pay. We should not fleece foreigners though they are with dollars, pounds sterling, euros or whatever.

The gardens are excellently maintained; the orchid house glorious in its blooms and the banning of vehicular traffic very wise. Unlike many of our Buddhist places; visitors who found it difficult to walk much and toddlers were amply catered for by frequently running motorised open vehicles. The layout of the Gardens is almost the same as it was for many decades previous, but improved and maintained sprucely clean.

In sharp contrast was the Peradeniya Rest house. Cass forgot to note its name. The old building was so stately yet with a comforting, welcoming air about it. You usually parked yourself in the wide quarter-walled verandah at a table or in a comfy, un-upholstered chair. Now you are led to the first floor to a fully curtained room. Tall windows were all closed and the drawn curtains obliterated even a glimpse of the outside. Cass ordered rice and curry since she did not want a buffet lunch. Not possible to serve rice and curry a la carte was the waiter’s reply. Only Chinese dishes could be ordered. Cass was aghast.

Imagine not being able to order our basic meal in a restaurant that was a rest house previously with the reputation of serving the best rice ’n curry. You had to have the buffet if you wanted rice and curry; if you ordered your lunch it would be Chinese – fried rice, chopsuey, etc. Isn’t that a travesty? You are enclosed claustrophobically in a heavily curtained room with fans; cut off from fresh air and all the greenery around, and dictated to on what you eat. That is development for you!! Cass calls it mudalali aberration. The buffet was simple enough with a couple of additions like soup to a rice and curry meal costing 1800. Chinese was 1200.

Special committees

I am sure all adults of Sri Lanka object to President RW’s promise to set up a Parliamentary Committee to look into and report on the Easter Sunday suicide bombs in April 2019. A comment people make is that RW’s solution to any problem/matter is to appoint a committee; never mind the report and taking action.

You can bet your last thousand rupees that if a Parliamentary Committee is set up to report on the C4 documentary and its repercussions etc., all politicians will be exonerated and the ones who are pointed at as the accused, would be pronounced lily white. Zahran did it all by himself with ISIS control. We millions of Ordinaries too cry out against a fully local panel of investigators, and never a group of MPS.

A boxed news item on page 1 of The Island of Tuesday September 19 had this heading: CID takes over probe into gun attack on MP. The car with Anuradhapura District MP Uddika Premarathne was shot at. No one was injured. But quick as lightning, the Police handed over the hunt for perpetrators to the CID. They too will work overtime and catch the miscreants.

Good! But what happens over the several motorbike shootings and those guilty of distributing dangerous drugs and making this lovely island rotten with drug importers, peddlers and takers? Oh, those can be taken time over and never nail the guilty and punish them. Rather assist those caught and jailed to get out or at least attempt escape.

Heartwarming story

An Indian friend sent me this story which so gladdened my maternal heart. It is shared here so more mothers could feel appreciated.

Ninth Grader Ajunath Sindhu Vinayala of Trissur (Kerala), often heard his father brush his mother aside as “just a housewife. She does not work.” Ajunath was surprised because he never saw his mother not busy so he painted this picture (published with this article) depicting all the chores she did. His teacher sent it to the State govt office where it got selected as the cover for the 2021 gender budget document. The appreciative son with more of his pictures can be accessed on the Internet.

Almost all Sri Lankan mothers will agree with Cass that our sons and daughters are wonderfully grateful and caring people, with many living overseas but still visiting, transferring money and sending parcels of goodies and necessities. Bless them, we mothers/grandmothers chorus.

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Amunugama on Anagarika: A partial review



By Uditha Devapriya

In the course of his study of myths and legends, Bruce Kapferer observes that those who attempt to rationalise myths are as much in error as those who believe in their literal meaning. There are several points in his book with which I beg to differ, but I agree with this specific point. Myths have a logic and a life of their own, and any external compulsion to alter or rationalise them will be met with hostility. Kapferer’s other contention, that myths are continually being renewed and reborn, is also tenable. The narrative around which these myths revolve may stay the same, but the implications of such stories change from era to era. Millenarian platitudes about glorious pasts and histories, of utopic Edens before the Fall, whether in Buddhist or Christian societies, fall into that category.

I reflected on Kapferer when I reread Sarath Amunugama’s impressive book on Anagarika Dharmapala, The Lion’s Roar, the other day. Dharmapala has gone down as perhaps the most misunderstood national figure or figurehead in our history. For close to two centuries if not more, Sri Vikrama Rajasinghe got a bad press as well, but thanks to recent forays by Gananath Obeyesekere, we have come to understand and, as a nation, identify with the tragic figure that he was. Dharmapala, however, is more complex, because his writings and speeches lend themselves to a multiplicity of interpretations: out of necessity, he made it a point to speak differently to different people. Ultimately, I believe all national figures end up being misunderstood. Dharmapala was no different.

What Amunugama tries to do in The Lion’s Roar is to present Dharmapala in a new light. As one reads through his book, one realises how predictably he has been presented until now. Most contemporary assessments of Anagarika Dharmapala place him at the forefront of the Buddhist Revival of the late 19th century. Though, in later years, he broke ranks with the organisation which gave the revival its impetus, the Theosophical Society, he nevertheless maintained contacts with it. Sociologists and anthropologists have presented the Revival as having been led by an emergent, nascent Buddhist bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie. The latter were constantly frustrated in their efforts to join the ranks of the former, a point which more or less pitted them against foreign traders and minority groups.

Anagarika Dharmapala

Until now, social scientists have been content in casting Dharmapala as a messiah, of sorts, of this petty bourgeoisie. Dharmapala’s actions certainly did not endear him to the up-and-coming Sinhala bourgeoisie. Unlike his brothers Edmund and Charles, he was alienated from the many elite and bourgeois groups which formed the basis of later political associations, of which the most prominent would have to be the Ceylon National Congress. That may have been because of Dharmapala’s own background, which stood a tier or two below that of the Senanayakes and the Attygalles. Sarath Amunugama goes as far as to contend that the death of F. R. Senanayake in India closed the possibility of an open conflict between Dharmapala and these families. Yet even Senanayake’s death did not wholly foreclose these possibilities, as the many press campaigns against Dharmapala shows.

Anagarika Dharmapala

Is it accurate, then, to locate Dharmapala at that crucial juncture between the formation of the Theosophical Society, the beginning of the Buddhist Revival in the late 19th century, and the emergence of a weak but aspirant Buddhist petty bourgeoisie in the early 20th? This is how social scientists have generally viewed him, so far.

Dharmapala himself may not have been conscious of his role here. Yet as Regi Siriwardena eloquently put it once, “[t]o say that any thinker or leader served the interests of a particular class is not necessarily to say that he was conscious of doing so, still less that he was hired or commanded by that class.” The ultimatum of social scientists and anthropologists, hence, seems to be that he became the ideological vehicle of these groups, that as the latter’s attitudes to foreigners and minorities hardened, they saw in him a definitive “ancestor from antiquity.”

Amunugama attempts to shed new light on Dharmapala’s followers and acolytes by bringing to the foreground groups which have been excluded from most contemporary assessments of Dharmapala’s life. Prime among them are what Amunugama sees as “subaltern” groups, among whom he includes the Sinhala working class. This working class, he contends rather convincingly, were swept away from their roots into the cities, where they confronted a new and different social order.

As they became more aware of the conditions of their existence and sought to transform them, they began to encounter foreign traders and minority groups, hired by the colonial government to counter the growing tide of trade unionism and Sinhala proletarian discontent. It is against this backdrop that they saw Dharmapala as a saviour, and not just a saviour, but someone they could call their own.

This is, to be sure, an intriguing point. Yet how “subaltern” were these classes Amunugama associates with Dharmapala? Without splitting hairs too much, I think we must bear two points in mind. The first is that, until the formation of a Left movement in the 1930s, no political association, however radical, envisioned a Ceylon falling outside of the orbit of the British Empire. This was as true of bourgeois reformist associations as it was of nationalist ideologues. Whatever “subaltern group” in Sri Lanka at this juncture saw things differently, in contrast to their mobilisation by the Left after 1935. In that sense Dharmapala fulfilled a role, however limited, for these groups. The Marxists could not have been more different to his ideology, as their struggles on behalf of Indian Tamil plantation workers showed. But then Dharmapala was no Marxist, even if a scion of his family – Anil Moonesinghe – made a seminal contribution to the Left movement of the country.

The second point recalls an observation Gananath Obeyesekere once made in relation to Dharmapala and his disciples: namely, that their attitudes to the Other – which Amunugama dwells on at considerable length in his remarkable study – were paradoxically activated by their alienation from their social and kinship groups. In their quest for “identity affirmation”, the Dharmapalists sought a negative identity for themselves, in relation to the Other.

I think that more or less explains the Sinhala working class’s affinity for Dharmapala, at a time of rising anger against foreign traders and minority groups, including the Malayalis. Such anger cannot be condoned, especially when it transforms into racialist feelings. But it helps explain why, in the absence of an anti-imperialist Left movement in the country, these groups could gravitate to nationalist figures – and why even as key a representative of the Sinhala working class movement as A. E. Gunasinha could invoke him in his struggles.

Does this necessarily mean Dharmapala’s politics were not anti-imperialist, or in the least radical? I think the jury is still out there, though I believe that Dharmapala’s emphasis on industrialisation has been missed out by those who see only his ranting against other social groups and ethnicities. Dharmapala once counted among his defenders a highly unlikely figure: Yohan Devananda.

Writing in the Lanka Guardian, in response to Regi Siriwardena, Devananda contended that Dharmapala “did perform an essential historical function in rousing the national consciousness against the foreigner.” I do not know what to make of this assertion, given that for Dharmapala’s followers, “the foreigner” has come to include all groups deemed “alien” in the country. But there is no doubt that he did, at the end of the day, serve a function. The question that countless scholars have raised, which Amunugama tries to answer, is exactly in whose interests he served that function.

The writer is an international relations analyst, independent researcher, and freelance columnist who can be reached at

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