The Ambassador in Ceylon (Crowe) to the Department of State

No. 540


  • Conference of the South Asian Prime Ministers of Burma, Ceylon, India, Indonesia and Pakistan held in Colombo, Ceylon, April 28–May 1


The South Asian Prime Ministers of Burma, Ceylon, India, Indonesia and Pakistan held their conference in Colombo for 4 days at the end of April.1 It had been called by the Prime Minister of Ceylon in December of last year for the purpose of considering matters of common interest to the five countries. The meeting, which observers had felt beforehand might well turn into a vehicle for India’s creating a third area of neutrality dominated by itself, brought forth considerable divergence of views amongst the participants. It showed that India did not speak for South Asia and that the area was not unanimous in its attitudes towards not only problems in the area but as well world affairs. Three topics became the principle matters of discussion: the Indo-China question, colonialism, and Communism. After considerable difficulty a communiqué was formulated to express the views of the conferees. This was a patched up compromise which propounded a number of “expressions of hope” but added little that was constructive for the area or with respect to international relations.


The original basis for the conference provided that there be no agenda nor commitments to either discuss or resolve any particular problems. It had been further agreed that if controversial subjects were introduced they would not be discussed if objected to by any of the Prime Ministers. Particularly in the mind were the U.S. military assistance to Pakistan and the Kashmir question. In this light it was originally thought that the conference would not have much significance and would merely represent a parley where views could be expressed and opinions exchanged. It was hoped, although not very sanguinely, that in private conversations some progress might be made on the Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan.

Two developments occurred, one over a period of several months before the conference, and the other immediately preceding it, which radically changed the complexion of the meeting. The first of these was the growing evidence that India proposed to press vigorously for its announced aim of creating a third area or third force of neutralism [Page 1131] in the struggle between the free world and the Russian-Chinese Communist bloc. India was to assume the role of leadership and dominance in this. At least as far as Ceylon was concerned India brought strong pressure to bear through the press and through its diplomatic representation in this country to induce Ceylon to accept Indian policy. The other immediate development which turned into the paramount issue at the conference was the decision by the four great powers, U.S., U.K., France and Soviet Union, taken at Berlin to hold a conference at Geneva to seek to settle the seven years old war in Indo-China (besides attempting to find a solution for the Korean issue).2 The Secretary of State’s speech of March 29 calling for “united action” against international Communist aggression in Indo-China3 followed by the proposal made by Mr. Dulles and Mr. Eden in London on April 13 for a collective security agreement in the Far East and South East Asia4 struck the spark for agitation that the South Asian Prime Ministers seize themselves of the Indo-China problem. The press in India and Ceylon violently condemned the Dulles-Eden proposal and demanded that the Asian Prime Ministers step in either to restore peace themselves in Indo-China or take part at least in the solution of the issue as an Asian affair. For the U.S. and the other free world countries there was latent in this the danger of the South Asian Prime Ministers adopting a position which would play into the hands of the Communists and militate against the efforts of the free world to assure a free, independent and non-Communist Indo-China and to prevent Communist expansion into South East Asia. (Reference Embassy’s telegrams 304, April 1, 1954; 322, April 18; 323, April 20; and 326, April 20.)5

On the eve of the conference the Prime Minister of India, Shri Jawaharlal Nehru, announced in the Indian House of the People a five point plan for a solution of the Indo-Chinese hostilities. This plan, which is discussed in detail below, was to take the form of recommendations to the Geneva Conference. At the same time the Indian High Commissioner in Ceylon, Mr. C. C. Desai, gave out to the press in Ceylon, under the tendentious statement that “Five Colombo Conference Powers have tentatively agreed on a plan which they will propose as a means to bring peace to Indo-China,” a program for implementing the Nehru plan. It called for cease-fire in Indo-China with a division of the country under Vietminh and Vietnam rule. [Page 1132] “The ‘temporary territorial settlement’ would give Tonkin and Northern Annam to Ho Chi-Minh.” There would be a five year transitional period during which all foreign elements would be excluded from Indo-China both military and civil. During that time the five Colombo Conference Powers would control and enforce the agreement. It was implied that Indian troops would probably have to do most, if not all, of the policing and administering. The hope was expressed that “Chinese Communism” would be kept out of Indo-China but it was stated that there would not, however, be any interference with domestic Communism within that country. The statement concluded with the declaration that “the Communists would probably accept the plan but if they did not Communist imperialistic aims become clear to Asians, which is not now the case.” (Reference—Embtel 329, April 23 and 335, April 25.)6

Proceedings of Conference

On the opening day of the conference, April 28, speeches were made by each of the Prime Ministers setting forth in general their views. The remarks of each were published in the press. They set the temper of the whole meeting. Mr. Nehru said that the major problem was the “cold war” but that since the Ceylonese Prime Minister had proposed the conference two other urgent problems, Indo-China and the hydrogen bomb had come to the fore. He stated that the proposals which India had put forward to deal with these problems were not ones to decide the questions, “this way or that.” “We merely indicated certain steps which might be taken, steps which we hoped would lead to a settlement. They were steps to be taken by the parties concerned and not by us.” Mr. Mohammed Ali said that what the conference should do was not to intermingle in matters that were not its direct concern but to devote itself to problems between the conference countries themselves, mentioning specifically the Kashmir dispute. The Prime Minister of Ceylon, acting as Chairman of the Conference, proposed for consideration the topics of Indo-China, control of atomic weapons, “the threat to democratic freedom—from aggressive Communism and the retention of and the attempt to perpetuate colonial rule” and economic questions such as “self sufficiency in food, stabilization of the prices of our valuable raw materials, development of agriculture and industry within a balanced economy, and expansion of trade between our countries—for cooperation to improve the living standards of our people.”

The effort of Mr. Mohammed Ali to have Kashmir discussed was over-ruled by the others and the conference proceeded to take up the Indo-China question as its first item.

[Page 1133]

Mr. Nehru presented his five point plan for Indo-China as follows: (1) The establishment of a “climate of peace”, (2) A cease-fire in Indo-China, the cease-fire group to consist of France, the Associated States of Indo-China and Vietminh, (3) immediate termination of French sovereignty in Indo-China, (4) direct negotiations between the forces fighting in Indo-China, (5) non-intervention denying aid, direct or indirect, with troops or war materials, to the combatants or for the purpose of war to which the U.S., Soviet Russia and the United Kingdom and China should be the primary parties. An additional or sixth point was added that the United Nations should be kept informed of the progress of the Geneva Conference and its good offices sought for purposes of conciliation but not for invoking sanctions.

During the discussions that ensued lines were drawn up, with India and Indonesia accepting the Indian proposals in toto and Pakistan and Ceylon refusing to agree to point 5 on non-intervention. The Burmese Prime Minister maintained a cautious position stating that there should not be left a vacuum in Indo-China which would give either side in the conflict any advantage.

The Indonesian Prime Minister, Dr. Sastroamidjojo, went so far as to seek to append to the Indian plan a condition precedent that Communist China be admitted into the United Nations. This, however, was “objected” to by all the other four premiers and left for a separate resolution.

The arguments between Mr. Nehru and Mr. Mohammed Ali were reported to have become bitter and impassioned almost to the extent of disrupting the conference. (Reference Embtel 340, April 30)7

There was an endeavor on the part of Mr. Nehru to report out a majority resolution with a minority disagreement appended by Mr. Mohammed Ali. It is significant that perhaps only the support of the Ceylonese Prime Minister, Sir John Kotelawala, to Mr. Mohammed Ali prevented this and maintained one of the original premises for the conference that any decisions taken should be unanimous. A creditable source has reported that during the debate between Mr. Mohammed Ali and Mr. Nehru over the non-intervention clause, the former, besides insisting that such a provision would be embarrassing to the Geneva Conference, averred that he saw a far-reaching implication in it. He is reported to have stated that Mr. Nehru might very well try to use such a provision against Pakistan and in a short time call upon Pakistan to reject American military assistance as intervention in that country.

The Indian resolution for control of atomic weapons was unanimously adopted.

The subjects of colonialism and anti-Communism again brought forth differences of opinion and long arguments. Mr. Nehru stated [Page 1134] as his point of view that colonialism was mainly confined to Asia and Africa and to be of two types, the first foreign rule over subject peoples, and the second in Africa, attempts by small minorities of European settlers in semi-independent states to dominate vast coloured majorities. He was opposed to both of these. The other Prime Ministers agreed with him on the adoption of anti-colonialism resolution but the Pakistan and Ceylonese premiers wanted to have a resolution against Communism as well. Sir John Kotelawala introduced such a resolution condemning international Communism and its efforts of infiltration and subversion of the democratic countries. The debate that ensued brought Pakistan, Ceylon and Burma on the one side, and India and Indonesia on the other. The arguments boiled down to an insistence by the former that international Communism was foreign aggression and intervention, and by the latter that it was merely an ideology. Mr. Nehru in arguing that Communism was entirely different from colonialism, the one being “a fact” and the other “an idea”, contended that Communism was a state of mind which should be changed by obtaining the confidence of the people and influencing them against the attractions of Communism. He further said that the challenge of Russian Communism was really the challenge of her economic system and that the real test was which economy, Communism or capitalism, would pay better dividends to the people. Both Mr. Mohammed Ali and Mr. U Nu insisted that the Asian countries should look on the dangers of colonialism. Sir John observed that Communism had no real respect for “codes of behavior” and therefore could not be tolerated.

The other topics which the Prime Ministers included in their final communiqué were accepted without much discussion.

There is attached the official statement of the final communiqué.8 The drafting of the statements on the controversial points, i.e., those concerning non-intervention, colonialism and Communism, were worked out by a committee headed by Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, the Minister of Finance of Ceylon and Governor-General designate. Particular attention is invited to the formula found for phrasing the statement with respect to Communism. This states the “Prime Ministers—declared their unshakeable determination to resist interference in the affairs of their countries by external Communist, anti-Communist or other agencies.”


As has been brought out in the foregoing, instead of this Conference being one of harmony and unanimity of views it turned into a forum of considerable difference of opinions and policies and even discord between the five nations of South Asia. This development is amusingly [Page 1135] depicted in the enclosed cartoons9 that appeared in the local press. One is captioned “East Meets West” and portrays caricatures of the five Prime Ministers with the Chairman, Sir John Kotelawala, stating “Well Gentlemen, one thing has been established !—When it comes to disagreeing, we are not second to the West !”

The Conference also brought out that India and particularly Mr. Nehru did not, as many observers had been inclined to believe before, “speak for South Asia”. Some of his views were opposed by Pakistan, Ceylon and Burma, adamantly so by Pakistan. There was fortunately no full-fledged breach between the two countries but this was prevented only through compromise by all concerned and particularly by noticeable compromise on the part of India which previously had publicly announced its policies and the specific plans for their implementation.

Another element of the Conference, which though not played up at least in the press of Ceylon, was the failure of the meeting to adopt any really constructive proposals or at least formulate ideas and programs to this end. Although it was hardly to be expected that a solution of the Kashmir dispute could be found at the Conference, it had at least been hoped that a better understanding for combatting Communist aggression in the area might have been reached and a measure of cooperation arranged in the economic field. It is, of course, realized that since the economies of the country concerned are mainly competitive rather than complementary not a great deal in a material way could have been anticipated but at least a more favorable atmosphere for economic improvement and for facing the problems of food and population could have been engendered. These subjects were not even touched upon.

The statement with respect to intervention by “external Communist, anti-Communist or other agencies” could if taken out of the context lend itself to varying interpretations. There is no doubt about its meaning when viewed from the background of the debate at the conference. For Pakistan, Ceylon and Burma it had no other implication than rejection of Communist or other intervention in the countries themselves. It does not mean to these three countries at least any concept of a third neutral area or force between the free world and the Communist world. It would also seem that it would take very specious arguing in the other two countries to try to give such an interpretation to it. It will be of interest to see whether any such attempt is made. There has been one pro-Indian line editorial in the Ceylon press subsequent to the Conference which tried feebly to give such a coloration to the statement but that argument only appeared once and seems likely to be dropped for lack of any substantiation.

One further action which the Conference also failed to take was any reply to the statement addressed by Mr. Eden of Great Britain to the three Commonwealth Prime Ministers as to whether the South Asian Conference group would associate itself in any guarantees with respect [Page 1136] to a settlement to be arrived at in Geneva on the Indo-China question. Nor has there been any word that the three Commonwealth governments have individually directly replied. It may be significant in this respect that both Pakistan and Ceylon are reported to have stated that they would not send any troops to Indo-China for policing or administrative purposes. Sir John Kotelawala is quoted as having said “We have neither the army, navy or air force to give such a guarantee.” He added that Ceylon, however, was prepared to support the other nations in any sanctions that might be imposed on any party that might transgress or violate a settlement.

For the Ambassador:
James Espy
Counselor of Embassy
  1. Documentation regarding the Colombo Conference is in Department of State files 120.4346E, 790.00, and 790.13.
  2. For documentation regarding Indochina, see volume xiii. For documentation regarding the Geneva Conference on Indochina and Korea, see volume xvi.
  3. Secretary of State Dulles’ speech, entitled “The Threat of a Red Asia”, is printed in the Department of State Bulletin, Apr. 12, 1954, pp. 539–542.
  4. For documentation regarding the conclusion of the Southeast Asia Collective Defense Treaty, see vol. xii, pp. 1 ff.
  5. None printed; Colombo telegrams 304, and 322 are in Department of State files 751G.00/4–154; and 790.5/4–1854, respectively and Colombo telegrams 323 and 326 are both in Department of State file 790.5/4–2054.
  6. Neither printed; Colombo telegram 329 and 335 are in Department of State files 120.4346E/4–2354 and 120.4346E/4–2554, respectively.
  7. Not printed. (120.4346E/4–3054)
  8. Not printed.
  9. Not printed.