Fiftieth Anniversary of China-Ceylon Rice-Rubber Pact


China, Sri Lanka and a third country India are much in the local news, all because a scientific ‘armed’ Chinese ship is heading to the Hambantota Harbour and loud noises of protest are heard from across the Palk Strait. Our country is caught in a bind: cannot refuse friend, China from refueling or whatever its need to enter our southern harbour which China thinks it owns, having a 99-year lease on it; and cannot upset India, which has of late given us immense help in the way of loans to tide us over very bad times.  It’s a call between friend and neighbour. A Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) has been thrown to both nations by announcing the ship’s arrival is postponed: a SOP, India will throw back at us, as postponement means the Chinese ship will eventually dock in close proximity to India, which fears the ship’s equipment will interfere with its vast electronic connections and commerce.

China helped the two recent regimes of Rajapaksa rule by loaning huge amounts to build a harbour, airport and other infrastructure which are termed vanity buildings and white elephants. But that means we are in debt to China and that is commonly termed a ‘debt trap’ with its relevant connotations.

Earlier however, the fast expanded People’s Republic of China was benevolent to us: they gifted the BMICH to Sirimavo Bandaranaike in memory of her husband. We remember with ease and even affection Chou en Lai, second to the great Mao Tse Tung, who visited our country more than once. Now it’s different with China, one of the superpowers and with its Road and Belt initiative moving across the globe, building buildings and using money- influence on several countries that lie in the path of the ancient Silk Road.


China was consolidating itself as a united nation under a powerful Communist regime in the 1940s and 50s. It needed raw material to expand its industrial sector and even start new industries since so far China had been agricultural and feudal.Natural rubber was a commodity that was much needed then before synthetic rubber was manufactured. Sri Lanka had plenty since the Korean War had ended and our rubber was no longer in high demand by the US.  

Our Prime Minister was Dudley Senanayake at the time and his Minister of Trade and Commerce, R G Senanayake. Ceylon was in crisis: reduction in foreign exchange and inability to sell one of its prime income earners –rubber. There was a shortage of rice, since we were then not self sufficient and imported rice from Burma and other countries as the demand was heavy; it being sold,subsidised.

Thus, demand met supply both ways with the two countries benefitting. Under the guidance of RG Senanayake a Rice – Rubber Pact was signed in 1952. It was considered a historic agreement. Economist Dr J B Kelegamanoted in 2002: “This agreement was the most useful one, thus far with Sri Lanka and the most durable and successful in the world.” 

And thus, this year the fiftieth anniversary of this Pact was celebrated, but almost mutely. A meeting or two was held; no more, since the government and its people are all preoccupied with present multiple troubles: economic, political and social. How think of celebration?


Personal thoughts are that; what we suffered then was so minor, compared to our troubles of today. We lived very well, and since Independence the country thrived. Our forex was earned from the major cash crops of tea, rubber and coconut.  In the 1950s, due to the Korean War, there was huge money earned from rubber. Shot down by two ‘situs’; the war ended, and synthetic rubber came into the world market.

Remembered is,that we imported much of our rice; gave a measure of free rice to the poor and soldsubdised to all. Thus the UNP was derided as buthgottas. Well remembered is, how I escorted two young daughters of a person who was contesting a Parliamentary seat close to Colombo on the UNP ticket.We went house-to-house campaigning. Then crossing paddy fields, we had a crowd of men shouting the taunt to us: buthgotto.

It was said poor Dudley Senanayake was shown a small experimental paddy field lusciously growing being tended with extra care and fertiliser and given falsified statistics of what a local rice crop yielded. Deluded at first, and then disappointed and frustrated, he left the premiership.

– Kumari