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The Mahaweli



by Chanaka Wickramasuriya

“Mahaweli mahaweli mahaweli”….. Virtuoso pandit Amaradeva’s classic resonates out there as the author traces this river; geographically, along the topographical contours of this varied land, and historically, along its intricate relationship with this island’s both ancient and contemporary civilizations.

The Mahaweli, or literally ‘the great sands’, is not just a river. And it is not just the island’s longest river (at 335km), or the one with the largest river basin (10,500 of the island’s total 65,000 sq km). The Mahaweli has a natural uniqueness to it that has resulted in a profound bearing on the formation and evolution of our cultural and political heritage. It will not be presumptuous to say that this river, analogous to its meandering trace, has carved the path for the history of this island’s peoples. Or even perhaps, been responsible for the sheer existence of a history itself. Amaradeva poetically alludes to this in his classical ballad.

One can say that the Mahaweli traces its headwaters to the Kotmale Oya and Hatton Oya. The former, having its source along the north western slopes of the Horton Plains plateau, while the latter traces its beginnings along the Watawala ridge. The significance of this will not be lost to even the amateur hydrologist. An overlay of the rainfall patters of Sri Lanka on her map shows that the country’s highest annual average rainfall takes place along this range, and notably, on account of it being fed by the more prolific South West Monsoon, at almost twice the precipitation of its North East counterpart.

This makes for a remarkable fact. The Mahaweli becomes, as far as this author can ascertain, the only Dry Zone river to be fed by the South West Monsoonal rains.

Having harnessed and coalesced these waters, the Mahaweli carves an idyllic path northward along the Gampola valley. The splendor of this valley discernible to even this author, as he once sat at a hermitage on the hills of Hindagala watching this river, dotted on either side by quaint hamlets and rice fields, the vestiges of an ancient kingdom that found refuge during trying times. And alas only to be told by his mentors that he was negating the benefits of his vipassana endeavors by pleasing his senses!

The river thus meanders its way up to Gannoruwa. And here, the providence of nature, or the hands of the formative deities of this land, depending on your preference, make a call. The river encounters a small hillock at Gannoruwa, and perhaps because of it, and unlike like all rivers originating on the western slopes that carve their way down toward the western seaboard, the Mahaweli makes an abrupt right turn.

At some point in pre-history these waters would have then encountered a formidable bridge of Charnockite rock in the escarpment between the central plateau and the southern edge of the Knuckles massif. Eons of hydrological erosion then forced these waters through the gorges of Randenigala and the breathtakingly narrow Rantambe, churning out what would have then been class four and five rapids. Legend has it that the master equestrian King Rajasinghe II would leap across the narrow 20-foot gap on his trusty steed, and that until more recently when the dams of the Mahaweli Development Program took shape, the sounds of these churning waters could have been heard over five km away. Like a giant hydrological serpent, the river breaks through this East-West divide to rear its head onto the eastern half of the island. And here too the seemingly inexplicable takes place.

Having garnered further waters from the Knuckles via the Hulu Ganga, from Pidurutalagala via the Ma Oya, from Horton Plains via the Uma Oya and from even as far as the Badulla and Passara hills via the Badulu Oya and Loggal Oya, instead of finding what would look to the layman as a path of least resistance directly toward the eastern seaboard, the Mahaweli decides to turn north.

The river then traverses this almost directly northern path, covering about half of its total distance, and a third of the island, to break into the ocean via a myriad of mangrove forested deltas at the island’s largest bay at Koddiyar in Trincomalee. Here too merging into yet another natural wonder of what is one of the world’s largest natural harbors, replete with underwater chasms and gorges of over 700m deep. But not until the river has harnessed even greater waters along the way through its largest tributary, the Amban Ganga, it too a creation of the western slopes of the Knuckles range, and the less plentiful Hasalaka Oya and Heen Ganga, which gather waters off the range’s eastern slopes. In this section the Mahaweli creates what is the country’s largest deposits of alluvial soil, spanning the entirety of its northern trajectory and breaking into vast areas of up to 10km wide on account of seasonal flood plains, as well as the largest seasonal sand banks from which the river derived its name.

Thus, it is as if nature was the precursor to our island’s proud hydrological engineering heritage, and even its modern manifestation of the Mahaweli Development Program. For nature seems to have decided long ago to find a way to harness the bounty of water from the island’s salubrious western slopes and nourish its dry north-central and eastern plains. A feat of engineering even modern man would have found hard to, and is yet to, replicate.

But the story of the Mahaweli does not end there. Mankind soon pounces upon this natural marvel to both exploit and tinker with her resources for their benefit. It is akin to having been endowed with a mythical nature’s guitar, and then fine tuning its cords to seek the perfect tune. The resulting dance having spanned over two millennia yet continues. While this story could be arguably best narrated through time, this author will choose to deliver it, like the river itself, along the course of its journey.

The story begins in the upper reaches of the Kotmale Oya, the Agra Oya. Here, literally and metaphorically shrouded in the mists of the Thotupola hill and time, a little south of Pattipola, are the remnants of a little known 220m long tunnel and 11km long canal. Believed to have been constructed circa the 13-14th century, it is perhaps the earliest known subterranean trans basin canal. Considered an engineering marvel for its time, this canal used to divert the west bound waters east into the Uma Oya basin to irrigate the lush fields of the Uva.

Moving down the Kotmale Oya, further nourished by the Nanu Oya is the Upper Kotmale Reservoir and Hydro Power scheme. The third largest power generator of the Mahaweli Development Scheme originally conceived between 1965-69 under and FAO/UNDP funded master plan, this was one of the last to be completed in 2010 after a series of environmental controversies and re-engineering. The river is then joined by the waters of the Devon Oya, Pundal Oya and Ramboda Oya and flows into the famed and beautiful valley of Kotmale, once the sanctuary of the legendary King Dutugemunu during his youth. This valley was inundated by a rock-filled dam 87m high and 600m in length starting in 1978 under the Accelerated Mahaveli Development Program, becoming the second highest hydro electricity generator of the scheme. Its added function being controlling the flood waters of the Gampola valley and optimizing the diversion flow at the barrage at Polgolla.

As the Mahaweli, now as a fully-fledged river or ganga, meanders its way around the upper middle-class suburbs of Kandy, evoking visions of our checkered history with names like Primrose Gardens, Anniewatte and Mawilmada, we encounter the Polgolla Barrage. Polgolla was the first of the projects under the Mahaweli Development Program and was implemented in 1976. At 144m in length and 14.6m in height, a relatively innocuous looking structure compared to its gargantuan brethren, the Polgolla Barrage nevertheless, in this authors view, creates the most geographically impactful diversion of Mahaweli waters.

It starts with an eight km long underground penstock northward to Ukuwele power station. Ukuwele then releases these spent waters into the Dhun Oya, which in turn connects to the Sudu Ganga which then emerges further north as the Bowatenna Reservoir. Built in 1981, the picturesque Bowatenna’s primary purpose was retention and diversion of waters for irrigation. In a bizarre twist of engineering and geographical fate, the released waters of Bowatenna become the Amban Ganga, making the Mahaweli the only river to feed its own tributary.

Waters diverted from Bowatenna are channeled through a tunnel to Lenodara, and from there enter the Dambulu Oya. It is from here that modern man’s diversions of the Mahaweli start to enter the realm of the ancient kings, and their stupendous feats of hydrological engineering and civilization building.

The Dambulu Oya has a little known but unique history, as it is a conduit of Mahaweli waters from two separate modern and ancient diversions. The ancient system starting from Demada Oya, a tributary of the Amban where an anicut built by Dhatusena diverted waters to the Wilimiti Oya, a tributary of the Dambulu. The Dambulu Oya thus takes Mahaweli/Amban waters from both Dhatusena’s creation as well as the modern Bowatenna, via the Ibbankatuwa Tank, north into the gigantic Kala Wewa – Balalu wewa complex and the Kala oya basin. Dhatusena’s “only treasure” as he proclaimed, for which he earned his patricidal son Kassapa’s wrath, Kala Wewa is the largest tank complex of ancient Sri Lanka and was built in the fifth Century AD. Waters from the Kala Wewa are transferred via the famous Jaya Ganga, carved also during the same time with the intricate engineering precision of a gradient of one foot to one mile, 86km to Devanampiyatissa’s third Century BC Tissa Wewa in the ancient citadel of Anuradhapura. Waters also find their way to the more modern Rajanganaya further west via the Kala Oya itself. The excess waters of the Tissa wewa find their way into the Malwatu Oya, the islands second longest river, and off that via the Yoda Ela into the famed Giant’s Tank over 50km north west of Anuradhapura, it too a creation of the legendary Dhatusena, to irrigate the famous Rice Bowl of Mannar.

A bifurcation at Dambulu Oya built in 1976 also takes Mahaweli waters into the ancient and touristically popular Kandalama tank, the origin of which is little known, as well as to the Hurulu Wewa a further 25 km north. Built by Mahasen in the first Century AD, the Hurulu is the primary repository source of Sri Lanka’s fifth longest river, the Yan Oya, where a new reservoir was constructed in 2017 about 50km further north east. Sporting what is Sri Lanka’s longest main and saddle dams totaling a staggering six km in length, the Yan Oya project infuses water into the ancient Padaviya Tank. Originally built to trap the waters of the Ma Oya, the actual origins of this very ancient tank are yet debated but speculated to having been built by Saddhatissa (137-119 BC). 165km from its original diversion at Polgolla, this will be the furthest point north yet traversed by the Mahaweli’s waters.

But Bowatenne is not done yet in her generous dispersions of Mahaweli’s bounty. Rather coincidentally and poignantly perhaps, situated at what is considered the center of the island, the reservoir stands where the iconic Nalanda Gedige temple stood. Since relocated to the banks of the lake, this temple represents a unique fusion of Hindu and Mahayana Buddhist Tantric architecture and is thought to have been built around the 13th Century. Waters thus blessed flow beyond Bowatenna as the mighty Amban, the Mahaweli’s largest tributary, which has an ancient and contemporary history worthy of her own story.

To be continued


The Gem and Jewel of Pohottuva governance



What a gem of a minister he is!


Who else, State Minister Lohan Ratwatte, the gem and jewel of today.


He resigned from his Prison Portfolio, not having done anything wrong, as he says it. He has gone beyond the stuff of any politician. He truly deserves to be given the highest regard by the Saubhagya Strategists. Just think of any politician of today, especially from the Pohottuva Team, who will resign from a portfolio for not having done anything wrong, when those who have done so many blatant wrongs, keep glued to their portfolios?

What do you think should follow?

Surely, it is so simple. Get promoted to the Cabinet. Take the “State” off his ministerial title and swear him in as the Minister of Prison Reforms, etc,, and Gem and Jewellery Industry.

Do you think that is the strategy of the Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour of the Gotabaya Politics?

Why not? Promotion, elevation or unearned freedom is the very stuff of today’s Rajapaksa governance. We don’t forget the pardoning of former Staff Sergeant Sunil Ratnayake, convicted with death sentence, for the murder of eight Tamil civilians inlcuding three children, affirmed by the Supreme Court.

Come on. That is just one Saubhagya move.

OK. The next Saubhagya move was the pardoning and release of Duminda Silva, sentenced to death along with four others, over the murder of a rival politician and three others. He has also been appointed the Chairman, National Housing Development Authority.

Keeping with that trend of Saubhagya-Rajapaksa politics and governance, is it wrong to soon promote Lohan Ratwatte as a Cabinet Minister, giving him back the power over all prisons and prisoners, and the gem and jewellery industries, too.

But what about all these complaints about this Lohan man? Flying to the Anuradhapura Prison by helicopter, getting Tamil prisoners held there to kneel before him, holding this revolver against two of them ….

He says he has done nothing like that. He has visited the prison as the minister in charge, and never even touched a Tamil prisoner … Shouldn’t we believe such Ratwatte words? Should we not forget that the first public report on this came from a Tamil MP, Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam. Should we forget how the Ponnambalams have opposed the Sinhala Only politics of Sri Lankan progress?

Then what about all this talk of this Lohan minister’s visit to the Welikada Prison?

 C’mon, why must you believe such gallery nonsense, when there is no report from the Prison authorities?

It is not gallery nonsense, but the Stuff of the Gallows, with a beauty queen or cosmetics queen in his company.

Just remember that he went there too as the Minister of Prisons. As he says, he could go there at any time. That is the power of even a State Minister. The man who stopped the prison from burning, as he says it!

But, what about the gallows, of wanting to show it to his beauty/cosmetics queen?

I’m sure that Lohan R would have seen the opportunity to use the Welikada Gallows as a new tourist attraction.

What tourist attraction?

We are now in the process of reviving tourism, especially from Ukraine and Russia. They may like to see real gallows, and how it functions too. He may have been thinking of adding the Welikada Gallows as a special tourist attraction – where persons sentenced to death could be really hanged. There are many who applied to be hangmen when President Sirisena wanted the gallows to function again. They remain unemployed. Shouldn’t the gallows be revived to give more employment to future hangmen?

Just see the Saubhagya opportunity if the Welikada Gallows is promoted as a tourist attraction. How much would a ticket cost in dollars? Think how this would help Ajith Nivard Cabraal in his new plans to bring in more foreign exchange. This surely is the stuff of Lohan Ratwatte, apart from his continued interest in gems and jewellery.

But, surely didn’t he know that the UNHRC is now in session in Geneva. Has he not known anything about Michelle Bachelet, who is raising questions about Human Rights violations in Sri Lanka?

Now, now, don’t move into unwanted terrain. Human Rights and the Prevention of Terrorism Act are all being handled by Foreign Minister GL Peiris, with punditry of increasing question. You mustn’t try to put Lohan Ratwatte to the same rank of political and diplomatic punditry.

Just remember that Lohan Ratwatte is an elected SLPP – Pohottuva – politician. He is certainly one who likes both Gems and Jewellery. He was ready and fast in giving up Prisons and Prison Reforms, with no charges framed against him. There were only allegations about him, made by a Tamil and other Opposition MPs and such persons. Our system of governance and justice is far removed from what is known as the Rule of Law. It is the Rule of Power.

Let’s forget detainees in prisons (for many years), the so-called reports of a drunken minister with friends and beauty/cosmetic queen, just think of the Rule of Power – just now it is the Power of Lohan and Gotabaya.

When the President received Lohan’s letter of resignation from the Prison Sector, he was not asked to leave the Gem and Jewellery Sector too. He could look after and promote Gems and Jewellery, and remain the stuff of Pohottuva.

This is the Gem and Jewellery line of Rajapaksa Governance. Lohan Ratwatte has displayed his love for gems and jewellery. With his promotion to Cabinet status, will he be known as the “Muthu-menik Lohan Amathi, Sir”?  The true Gem of Pohottuva Politics and Governance!

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The wonder of youth



By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

The wonder of youth was best on display in the evening of 11 Sept., when two hugely talented teenagers, both unseeded, gave an amazing display of tennis in vying for the US Open title. Of course, I wanted Emma Raducanu, who represented GB, to win but had lingering doubts as her opponent, Leylah Fernandez was more experienced and had defeated players ranked 3, 16, 5 and 2, to reach the final. This was only the second Grand Slam Emma has played in, having to withdraw during the fourth-round match in Wimbledon due to breathing difficulties which made some wonder whether she had the mental grit to stand the rigours of tough competitions. She proved them wrong in a spectacular manner, reaching the final in an unprecedented way. She had to win three rounds to get into the tournament as a qualifier, and won the next six rounds, reaching the finals without dropping a set in any of the matches. By then, she had missed the return flight to the UK which she had booked as she never expected to be in the competition so long!

Sports are so commercialised that many Brits without Amazon Prime subscription were going to miss seeing the first British woman to play in a Grand Slam final after 44 years. Fortunately, in one of its rare good deeds, Channel 4 paid for screening rights and we could join over 9 million Brits on the edge of their seats for two hours. It was well worth it, as Emma won the final again in straight sets, creating yet another record by being the first qualifier ever to win a Grand Slam! In another rare gesture, Amazon had agreed to donate the fee for advancement of tennis for girls.

Emma Raducanu’s spectacular win was witnessed by Virginia Wade, the first winner of the US Women’s title in the open era in 1968, Arthur Ashe winning the Men’s. She was also the last British woman before Emma to win a Grand Slam; Wimbledon in 1977. Fortunately, Sir Andy Murray was able to break the even longer drought in Male Tennis by winning the US Open in 2012, 76 years after Fred Perry’s 1936 Wimbledon win.

It was very sad that Emma’s parents could not be there in person at the proudest moment of their lives due to quarantine regulations. Whilst shedding a tear of joy for Emma Raducanu’s ‘impossible’ victory, I was saddened to think of the wasted youth in Sri Lanka. How things changed for the worse in my lifetime continues to puzzle me.

We belong to a fortunate generation. We had excellent free education which we made full use of. We had good teachers, not ‘private tuition masters’! We could plan our future as we knew we could get a place for higher education as long as we got the required grades. Our progress in universities was not hampered by student’s unions controlled by unscrupulous politicians with warped thinking. I started my practice of medicine a few months after I turned 23 and was a fully qualified specialist by the time I turned 30. I was not one for sports but did writing and broadcasting. Therefore, I can look back at my youth with a sense of satisfaction.

Unfortunately, we lacked a political class with a vision. Perhaps, this happened because most of the politicians except those at the time of independence took to politics by exclusion than by choice. Lucky politicians got ministries, not because of competence or education, but on the basis of caste, creed, religion, etc. There were no shadow ministers in the Opposition and with the change of government another set of misfits became ministers. For some time, the status quo was maintained by senior administrators who were trained for the job after being selected following a highly competitive examination.

Anti-elite campaigners succeeded. Permanent Secretaries became secretaries and Ministers became permanent as long as they did not upset their bosses! No proper planning was done and the slippery slope started. Then came the terrorists; the JVP destroyed a generation of Sinhala youth and the LTTE destroyed a generation of Tamil youth. Now, there is a greater danger affecting some youth the world over––Islamic extremism.

When I started training postgraduate trainees from Sri Lanka in Grantham Hospital, the first thing I noted was their age and started diplomatically finding out why it had taken them so long to get into PG training. I was shocked at the unwarranted delays they faced which were not due to any fault of theirs. All of them were brilliant but the system had failed them. We need to reinstall discipline so that we have schools and universities functioning properly, ensuring valuable years in life are not wasted.

Perhaps, we need to get out of our insular attitudes. There may be some lessons to learn from studying the background of these two talented players. Leyla Fernandez, born in September 2002 in Quebec, Canada has an Ecuadorian father and a Filipino mother. Emma Raducanu was born in November 2002 in Toronto, Canada but moved to the UK when she was two years, with her Romanian father and Chinese mother. Three months before winning the US Open, she got an A star in Mathematics and A in Economics, in the A level examination whilst attending a state school.

These two teenagers, 23 years old Naomi Osaka, whose father is Haitian and mother is Japanese and 25-years-old Ashleigh Barty, whose father is of indigenous Australian descent and mother is of English descent, joined to form a ‘fab-four in women’s tennis, dawning a new era in tennis as the era dominated by the fab-four; Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic of the men’s game is drawing to an end. Considering their dexterity, women’s tennis may become more popular than men’s. Who knows!

It is well known that mixing of genes has an enhancing effect. It is also well established that inbreeding leads to many genetic defects. Perhaps, this is another reason why we should get rid of artificial divisions like caste. Although one would have expected that we would have a more enlightened attitude, the matrimonial columns of any newspaper give enough evidence that archaic institutions are still strong.

It is high time we stopped protecting archaic systems and moved forward. This will give an opportunity for the talents of our youth to be displayed and it is our duty to harness the wonder of youth for the advancement of the country.

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A neutral foreign policy in current context



By Neville Ladduwahetty

During a recent TV interview, the Host asked the Guest whether Sri Lanka’s Foreign Policy is in “shambles”. The reason for the question was perhaps because of the lack of consistency between the statement made by the President and the Secretary to the Foreign Ministry relating to Foreign Policy. For instance, the first clear and unambiguous statement made by the newly elected President during his acceptance speech delivered in Sinhala in the holy city of Anuradhapura in which the only comment in English was that his Foreign Policy would be Neutral. This was followed during his address to Parliament titled: The Policy statement made by Gotabaya Rajapaksa, President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka at the inauguration of the Fourth Session of the 8th Parliament of Sri Lanka on January 3, 2020, in which he stated: “We follow a neutral foreign policy”.

However, the Secretary to the Foreign Ministry has on different occasions stated that Sri Lanka’s Foreign Policy is “Neutral and Non-Aligned”. Perhaps, his view may have been influenced by the President’s Manifesto, “Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour”, that stated that out of 10 key policies the second was “Friendly, Non-Aligned, Foreign Policy”

The question that needs to be addressed is whether both Neutrality and Non-Alignment could realistically coexist as policies to guide Sri Lanka in the conduct of its relations with other Nation-States. Since neutrality is a defined policy that has a legal basis and has a history that precedes Non-Alignment, there is a need for the Neutral State to conduct its relations with other States according to recognised codified norms with reciprocity. On the other hand, Non-Alignment was essentially a commitment to a set of principles by a group of countries that had emerged from colonial rule and wanted to protect their newly won independence and sovereignty in the context of a bi-polar world. The policy of Non-Alignment therefore, should apply ONLY to the members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). Thus, Non-Alignment, being only a set of principles adopted by a group of like-minded sovereign States to protect and preserve their common self-interests, its conduct in respect of States outside the Non-Aligned Movement becomes unstated and therefore undefined. Neutrality instead is a clear policy that defines how a neutral country such as Sri Lanka conducts its relations with other countries, and how other countries relate with Sri Lanka primarily in respect of the inviolability of its territory.


A statement dated August 22, 2012 by the External Affairs Ministry of the Government of India on the historical evolution of the Non-Alignment Movement states:

“The principles that would govern relations among large and small nations, known as the “Ten Principles of Bandung”, were proclaimed at that Conference (1955). Such principles were adopted later as the main goals and objectives of the policy of non-alignment. The fulfillment of those principles became the essential criterion for Non-Aligned Movement membership; it is what was known as “quintessence of the Movement until early 1990s” (Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, “History and Evolution of Non-Aligned Movement, August 22, 2012).

“Thus, the primary objectives of the non-aligned countries focused on the support of self-determination, national independence and the sovereignty and territorial integrity of States; opposition to apartheid; non-adherence to multilateral military pacts and the independence of non-aligned countries from great power or block influences and rivalries; the struggle against imperialism in all its forms and manifestations; the struggle against colonialism, neocolonialism, racism, foreign occupation and domination; disarmament; non-interference into the internal affairs of States and peaceful coexistence among all nations; rejection of the use or threat of use of force in international relations; the strengthening of the United Nations; the democratization of international relations; socioeconomic development and the restructuring of the international economic system; as well as international cooperation on an equal footing” (Ibid).

These commitments did not deter countries such as India from violating the very principles India committed to in Bandung. To start with, India undermined the security of Sri Lanka by nurturing and supporting the training of non-state actors in late 1970s. Having made Sri Lanka vulnerable, India proceeded to coerce Sri Lanka to accept the Indo-Lanka Accord under which India was committed to disarm the militants. Having failed much to its shame, India violated the principle of the right of self-determination when it compelled Sri Lanka to devolve power to a merged North-East Province. All these actions amounted to a complete disregard and the mockery of the lofty principles of NAM undertaken to protect India’s self-interest. What is clear from India’s actions with regard to Sri Lanka is that when push comes to shove, self-interest overrides multi-lateral commitments.

In a similar vein Sri Lanka too, driven by self-interest, voted in support of UK’s intervention in the Falklands because of the debt owed by Sri Lanka to the UK for the outright grant given to construct the Victoria Hydro Power Scheme, although conscious of the fact that by doing so Sri Lanka was discrediting itself for not supporting the resolution initiated by NAM to oppose UK’s actions. These instances demonstrate that Non-Alignment as a Foreign Policy is subservient to self-interest thereby underscoring the fact that it cannot be a clear policy to guide how a State conducts itself in relation to other States.

Commenting on the issues of limitations imposed by being a Member of NAM Shelton E. Kodikara states: “For Sri Lanka as indeed for many of the smaller states among the non-aligned community, membership of the Non-Aligned Movement and commitment to its consensual decisions implied a widening of the institutional area of foreign policy decision-making, and collective decision-making also implied a limitation of the area of choice among foreign policy options…” (Foreign Policy of Sri Lanka, 1982, p. 151).

Therefore, arrangements with common interests such as those by the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) or Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) or any other group of countries with common interests, are mechanisms whose support and solidarity could be sought when needed to advance causes, as for instance when Sri Lanka advanced the concept of making the Indian Ocean a Zone of Peace, and later in 2009 did so in Geneva. Notwithstanding such advantages, the hard reality is that Non-Alignment does not represent a clear statement as to how a State conducts its relations with Nation-States outside the Non-Aligned Movement. Therefore, it follows that Non-Alignment cannot be considered a statement of Foreign Policy by a State.


The statement by the Foreign Affairs Ministry of India cited above that the “quintessence” of the principles of the Non-Alignment lasted until early 1990s, was because the bi-polar world that was the cause for the formation of NAM had ceased to exist with the territorial break-up of one of the power blocks – the USSR. Consequently, the USSR lost its influence as a global power. In this vacuum what exists currently is one recognized global power with other powers aspiring to be part of a multi polar world. In the absence of recognized power blocks the need to align or not to align does not arise because Nation-States are free to evolve their own arrangements as to how they conduct their relations with each other. Consequently, the concept of Non-Alignment individually or collectively is a matter of choice depending on the particularity of circumstance, but not as a general Foreign Policy to address current challenges.

With China attempting to regain its lost territory and glory as a civilizational State following its century of shame, the geopolitical matrix has changed dramatically. The economic gains of China the likes of which are unprecedented alarmed the Western world to the point that the US deemed it necessary to adopt a policy of Pivot to Asia thereby making the Indian and Pacific Oceans the focus for great power engagement. This shift of focus has caused new strategic security alliances such as the Quad to emerge to contain the growing influence of China among the States in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. With the Maldives joining India as the latest members of Quad, Sri Lanka has become isolated; a development that has brought Sri Lanka’s location in the Indian Ocean into sharp focus as being of pivotal strategic interest to great and emerging powers.

It is in this newly formed geopolitical context that Sri Lanka has to formulate its Foreign Policy that necessarily must be fresh if Sri Lanka is to equip itself to meet the new challenges created by a coalition of States to contain the rise of China. One option is to join the Quad. This could mean Sri Lanka distancing itself from engaging with China. The other option is to engage with China to the exclusion of the Quad. Either of these options would cause Sri Lanka to lose its independence and the freedom to protect its core values and interests. Therefore, the choice is not to settle for either option.

These unprecedented circumstances and challenges cannot be countered by harking back to the glory days of Non-Alignment, because major influences of the movement (NAM) such as India, have recently abandoned the original principles it subscribed to when it became a part of Quad. Therefore, although NAM still represents a body of likeminded interests with the ability to influence causes limited only to resolutions that further the interests of its members, it is not in a position to ensure the inviolability of the territory and the freedom of a State to make its

A neutral

own hard choices. It is only if a Nation-State proclaims that its relations with other Nation-States is Neutral that provisions codified under the Hague Conventions of 1907 that would entitle Sri Lanka to use the inviolability of its territory to underpin its relations with other Nation-States. Therefore, the Foreign Policy statement as made by the President to Parliament should guide Sri Lanka in its relations with States because it is relevant and appropriate in the geopolitical context that currently exists.


The Foreign Policy of a State is greatly influenced by its History and Geography. Historically Sri Lanka’s Foreign Policy has been one of Non-Alignment. Furthermore, Sri Lanka participated in the Conference in Bandung in 1955; a date recognized as the beginning of the Non-Aligned Movement. Thus, although the geographic location of a State is well defined, the significance of its location could dramatically be transformed by geopolitical developments. The staggering economic revival of China from early seventies under the leadership of President Deng Xiaoping whose philosophy was to hide capacity, bide time and never claim leadership, was perhaps the reason for China’s tremendous transformations both economic and social, to proceed relatively unnoticed.

It was only with the announcement of President Xi Jinping’s policy of the Belt and Road Initiative announced in 2013, that the world came to realize that the power and influence of China was unstoppable. This policy resulted in China establishing its footprint in strategically located countries in the Indian and Pacific Oceans by funding and constructing infrastructure projects. Sri Lanka happened to be one such country. The need for the U.S along with India, Australia and Japan to form a security alliance to contain the growing power and influence of China in the Indian and Pacific Oceans was inevitable.

India’s alliance with the US has shifted the balance in Asia causing China to be the stand alone great power in Asia. As far as Sri Lanka is concerned this new dynamic compels Sri Lanka to make one of four choices. One is to align and develop relations with the US and its allies. Second is to align and develop relations with China. The third is be Non-Aligned with either. The fourth and preferred option is to be Neutral not only with the Quad and China, but also with all other States, and develop friendly relations individually with all States.

The policy of Non-Alignment by a State is an external declaration of intent that a nation would not align itself with either a collective or individual center of power such as the Quad or China, in the conduct of its relations. Neutrality by a State, instead, means not only a statement that it would be Neutral when conducting relations with collective or individual centers of power and other States, but also how such a State expects all States to respect its Neutrality; a policy that would be in keeping with Sri Lanka’s unique strategic location in South Asia. Thus, while the former works outwards the latter works both ways. More importantly, how Neutrality works is governed by internationally codified laws that are in place to guide reciprocal relations.

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