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The Value of Diplomacy: Britain and Sri Lanka Bilateral Relations

By Srimal Fernando Global Editor, The Diplomatic Society

The British presence in Sri Lankan affairs dates back to the eighteenth century. In this regard, since independence in 1948 from Great Britain, Sri Lanka's relationship with Britain has stood the test of time over the decades.  Today the diplomatic relations between the two countries is more meaningful and constructive. Britain has become one of the top trade partners of Sri Lanka with over 200 UK companies operating on the island and having a two-way turnover reaching US$1.2 billion.

Photo: Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, welcomes Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena to Buckingham Palace

In the early eighties, Britain enjoyed a very close economic relationship with Sri Lanka. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, visited Sri Lanka twice since independence, first in 1953 and then in 1981. During her second visit to Sri Lanka in October 1981 at the celebration of 50 years of adult franchise in the island nation she said “Britain and Sri Lanka have had a long association, which has remained cordial throughout all the constitutional changes affecting our relationship, and our two countries now stand together as equal, independent members of the Commonwealth.  We may be geographically far apart, but through our historic links and our common beliefs, we have developed feelings of mutual regard which overcome the tyranny of distance.  We are friends and shall remain so.” 

In 1980 the overall British aid allocation to Sri Lanka had totalled an estimated amount of 30 million pounds.By the mid-eighties British aid allocation to Sri Lanka tripled. In  1984  British  Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher ceremoniously opened £113 million British aided  double curvature 122 meter high Victoria Dam  with a crest length of 520 meters, constructed under the Mahaweli Diversion Programme (AMDP ).  During  the ceremonial commissioning of the Victoria Dam Hydro-electric Scheme Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said 'I am certain together we have created this mighty work which will stand for decades, a sure sign of what our friendship and co-operation can achieve,'.

Britain, through the Department for International Development (DFID) committed £13.5 million humanitarian assistance to Sri Lanka since 2008(Difid 2015 ). Following the end of conflict in Sri Lanka in 2009 many western donors either pulled out or reduced their engagement with the South Asian island nation. However, the United Kingdom   continued to channel over £5 million on de-mining in Sri Lanka. In fact, de-mining nearly 73,000 square metres of land in the former High Security Zones in the Northern Province was one of the Britain’s main accomplishments in Sri Lanka (

Prince Charles and British Prime Minister David Cameron’s landmark visit to Sri Lanka in November 2013 to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting was a milestone that further strengthened bilateral ties between the two countries. The Sri Lankan conflict had a terrible impact and caused enormous social instability to the South Asian island nation, yet many challenges remain in promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in the country.
Photo: British  Prime Minister David Cameron (r) meets with Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena (l) of Sri Lanka at Prime Minister’s official residence at No: 10, Downing Street in London, England.

Britain was committed to standing up for those affected by Sri Lanka’s civil war.  Britain has played a pivotal role in this area. During the visit to Sri Lanka British Prime Minister Cameron said, ” I accept it takes time but I think what matters is getting on the right pathway, getting on the right track, because it’s only through generosity, through reconciling people that you can make the most of this country”.

Sri Lankans have contributed to a phenomenal explosion in the Asian population in Britain. Sri Lankans have been migrating to Britain for several centuries. There are substantial diaspora populations in Britain. Estimates of the size of the Sri Lankan diaspora vary. Overall, Sri Lankan diaspora in UK is estimated around 500,000.

In a bid to bolster existing bilateral relations and understanding between Sri Lanka and the United Kingdom, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena paid a three-day visit to Britain, on 7th March   2015. During the first year British High Commissioner to Sri Lanka James Dauris travelled to the city of Kandy and paid his respects at the Sacred Temple of the Tooth. “I am delighted to be in Sri Lanka and to see Kandy on my first official visit as British High Commissioner” said High Commissioner Dauris during his visit to Kandy.

Since inception, the bilateral relations forged between Sri Lanka and Britain span more than two centuries, marked by a shared British colonial heritage across many areas. In the context of diplomacy between Great Britain and Sri Lanka should look forward to the future, targeting investments in new growth areas.



April 2018






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