27th January 2002

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Thoughts from London
By Neville de Silva

Dad's army marches on and on

Somebody with a head on his shoulders moved expeditiously to pre-empt a move that would have made Sri Lanka the laughing stock in the chanceries of the world.

Recent news reports said the new government was planning major changes in our diplomatic missions abroad.

Every government has the right to make changes to its diplomatic personnel.

That often includes recalling political appointees of the previous administration, especially if they were incompetent and put into position purely as pay offs for their loyalty to the party or leadership.

Every country makes allowance for such appointments- from the sole super power to smaller countries which provide a quid pro quo in the way of ambassadorships for their fawning faithfuls.

This is not to say every political appointee is a disaster. 

But there are certain basic rules that governments abide by- at least governments that take foreign policy and diplomacy seriously.

One such theorem- followed by most governments- is not to transfer both your head of mission and his deputy out at the same time. This is particularly so when one's diplomatic missions are small and the number of diplomatic officers at the mission are few.

The rationale behind this is simple-there must be continuity. If the head of mission- ambassador or high commissioner- is recalled or goes on a cross posting, the office is not entirely headless because the No. 2 slips into the role.

In most postings the No. 2, has at some stage or the other, acted as High Commissioner or Charge d'Affaires and has acquired the practical experience of slipping into the shoes of the head of mission.

But to remove both head of mission and the second- in- command at the same time is like cutting off both legs.

If news reports were correct, the initial transfers ordered would have seen three capitals lose their two top diplomats at the same time. Two of them were key capitals- Washington and London and the third Pretoria.

In Washington, Ambassador Warnasena Rasaputra and his deputy A.Wijewardene, a career diplomat, have been recalled home. One can understand recalling Ambassador Rasaputra who has been in the US capital for six years or so and is in his 70s or 80s. But the need to pull both out at the same time, is totally ill considered.

The same is true of London where High Commissioner Mangala Moonesinghe and his deputy Jayantha Palipane, another career diplomat, were initially transferred at the same time.

Mangala Moonesinghe came here from New Delhi in mid-2000 and Palipane less than a year before that from Cairo where he was our ambassador.

Those tutored in the ways of diplomacy and the efficient functioning of chanceries must wonder at this dramatic, but meaningless move which removes both head of mission and his deputy from two important postings simultaneously.

It seems to me that those who proposed such a mass movement of our diplomats are unaware of how protocol conscious some capitals are and how peeved and angry some foreign ministries are when heads of missions are transferred out suddenly before they can spend even a year.

I wonder how the Japanese foreign ministry would react to what it would perceive as an insult when our ambassador is transferred out before completing one year.

Many large capitals are quite protocol conscious and this is true even at the social level. So stratified are some capitals that ambassadors and high commissioners would entertain only their counterparts or govervnment officials of their standing and rank, unless it is absolutely necessary for some reason to go below that to counsellors or others. It is horizontally organised.

As any diplomat who has served in New Delhi, for instance, will say what a stuffy old place it is, where officials of the South Block- as the Indian Foreign Ministry is know- behave like princely patriarchs of the British Raj. That is why contacts at the proper level are so essential.

Clearly to make such simple administrative errors- for political or other reasons particularly from such highly stratified capitals, is to leave some young acting head of mission flapping like a fish out of water.

There is the other side of the coin. Sometimes political appointments are made and he/she is allowed to languish in the capital until they virtually take route. I remember Malaysian foreign ministry officials complaining to me about Sri Lanka insulting them by often sending political rejects when Malaysia posted career diplomats to Colombo.

They felt angry when a former MP, C.Rajadurai was kept as high commissioner to Malaysia for some eight years or so.

It turned out to be a real disaster. The previous UNP government was also responsible for sending retired armed servicemen and police chiefs as heads of missions as though the people of Sri Lanka owned them some special reward for behaving like a pocket Patton or a self adulatory Montgomery.

And those who have had to move with diplomats in various capitals for professional reasons, are sometimes told how their political appointees have behaved. One retired service chief posted as head of a mission preferred to engage in Bacchanalian bouts than pursue diplomacy and was rarely seen at the mission according to foreign ministry officials of that capital. 

If the stories now circulating about diplomatic appointments are correct, then it seems that this government is doing what the previous UNP governments and its successor, the PA administration did.

A country's diplomatic service cannot and should not be turned into an employment agency for loyalists and hangers-on. While some such appointments might be made, is it necessary to exchange one geriatric for another or having allowed senior official's kith and kin to make money out of arms deals, now make room for the patriarch too?

There was a time when our diplomatic service was like the Maradana railway station- there were so many comings and goings of nondescript persons that there used to be a standing joke about the foreign minister which went like this. He would stand at the doorstep of his office and call to passing members of the public.

"Where are you going?" the minister would ask.

"I am going to Kandy town," the man or woman would reply.

"No, no" says the minister with genuine interest, "Go to Paris". And so another diplomat was born.

The result was that Sri Lankan missions ended up with translators who could not translate, drivers who became first secretaries, women relatives of political leaders who became secretaries in charge of information and whose educational level had to be proved to an incredulous parliament with the help of her SSC certificate. 

I understand that transfer orders which landed in our chanceries in numerous capitals of the world on January 1, have been rescinded or changed after their absurdity had reached the ears of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. 

Surely there are enough people acquainted with diplomatic administration to realise that changes should not be made simply on the length of stay of a diplomat abroad. This is not to say that those who have not had a chance of a posting abroad must continue to remain at home.

But there are many criteria that should be collectively considered when official postings are made. And one such criterion is how well a person can fulfil the diplomatic tasks which are much more than inviting a couple of officials to a buth curry at the residence and claiming entertainment allowance. If that were so it might be more profitable to send master chefs from Colombo to run our diplomatic missions.

At a time when we are told the treasury is empty, has the government estimated the total cost of moving so many diplomats and their families. Is this such an urgent matter that a mass movement was deemed necessary.

There are two things to remember. The nature and substance of diplomacy has changed. Ever since the implosion of the Soviet Union and the official end to the Cold War, the perception of diplomacy and the fundamentals of global and regional politics have changed.

Our diplomacy should be geared to meeting the challenges of the 21st century. This has much to do with understanding the dangers of globalisation, the effects of all this on our agriculture, export markets, intellectual property rights, growing inequalities between the rich and poor , and the need to resist big power bullying in the areas of trade and investment policies and rules.

The other is that this government should desist from running the foreign ministry like a private fiefdom and a job agency as happened some years ago.

Our diplomatic missions are the extension of the domestic government. That government will be judged abroad by the efficiency and capacity of our missions. Let the government ponder this carefully. 

Clinically Yours - By Dr. Who

Lankans will be Lankans

This column prefers not to discuss cricket if that can be helped, but then Murali has taken 400 test wickets in double quick time and we must refer to it. The issue we see though is different- what we might call the International Recognition Syndrome. 

We have in this land of ours many a genius. They wander about unsung and are usually at the receiving end of some injustice or the other. And, in typical Sri Lankan style, we couldn't care less-that is, until they get recognition at an international level. Then, we fall over each other in our enthusiasm to adulate our new found heroes.

In that sense, Murali cannot complain, really. Perhaps because Darell Hair decided to do him in, the Lankan nation was behind him, almost from the start. But this is not about Murali; this is about the others who had to counter the local brickbats before their international bouquets. 

Four case studies come to mind: W. D. Amaradeva, Prasanna Vithanage, Arjuna Ranatunge and Susanthika Jayasinghe. Maestro Amaradeva was perhaps the most affected. His songs, then his only worthwhile possession, were pirated and the man who composed the music connived in the act. Then, no one bothered to take legal action and the man was devastated emotionally and financially. But come the Magsaysay award and the nation wallows in his achievement and media stations queue up to hear the magic words of the Master. Amaradeva was of course in our midst all this time, but it took a Magsaysay for us to realize it. Well, better late than never! 

Then we have Prasanna Vithanage, perhaps the only Sri Lankan film maker to reach dizzy heights after Lester and what does he get? A ban on exhibiting his film from a minister whose field of expertise was mass communications. Prasanna had the guts to go to courts to get his grievance redressed but now after a while, most people would still ask Prasanna who? 

Arjuna Ranatunge will of course not suffer that fate. But then, before he brought the World Cup home, he too was the victim of a power struggle. The difference was that Ranatunge learnt from all that, made a mental note of everything that happened and then when he had the chance, got his own back with accumulated interest. The Ranatunge saga will no doubt continue in the corridors of power but Arjuna was yet another example of not giving a man his due. 

The Susanthika story needs no repetition here. Suffice to say that it is the stuff movies are made of-except that the movie has been suspended now. But we mustn't forget that we nearly lost an Olympic medal because the lady irked somebody powerful. Such is the fury of a man scorned! But the point is, should we harass our heroes and wait until they get international recognition to realize their worth? 

Is the joke about the Sri Lankan section in Hell needing no guards really true? Judging from recent events, it appears so. Well, never mind, Lankans will be Lankans. And in the meantime, more strength to your elbow, Murali- even if it is slightly crooked! 

The Sunday Times Economic Analysis

Betwixt the farmer and the consumer

By the Economist
The government is caught between the consumer and the farmer. It is as much interested in placating the more articulate consumer, as much as the large number of farmers that constitute the rural electorate. It wants to keep prices of food down, on the one hand, and provide a price incentive to the farmer, on the other.

Are these conflicting interests reconcilable? How can the government strike a happy median? Where should the country's priorities be? These are certainly not easy questions to answer. It is even more difficult for politicians to find the correct mix that would ensure their votes. They have also made their task more difficult by their pre-election promises. The pre-election rhetoric generated expectations among both consumers and farmers. 

They promised to give cheap food. They also promised better prices for the farmer. It is this conflict that has resulted in hasty decisions and their modifications. In order to placate the farmer and provide an incentive to paddy and food crop production, the government announced high tariffs. It even banned the import of certain food crops. It then found rice prices rising sharply. Then it allowed the import of a " limited amount" of rice. When rice prices fall with the Maha harvest, a ban may be imposed again. 

At present the indications are that the government will opt for a degree of protection for agriculture. There are very many reasons why the paddy farmer in particular should be afforded a certain degree of protection. 

Among these reasons is the need to ensure a long-term food security. Paddy farmers also constitute a sizeable section of the population and a collapse of paddy farming implies a severe loss of income for the rural poor. Poverty and its attendant economic and social problems could be serious for society and political stability. For far too long there has been a neglect of agriculture by successive governments. There was a lack of supportive programmes for agriculture. Consequently farming is not a viable occupation. 

At times of good harvests the government imported huge amounts of rice and the market for paddy collapsed. Farmers in certain areas had to sell paddy at lower than their costs of production. Similar situations have risen with respect to potato and other subsidiary food crops. Paddy farming should also be sustained for both environmental and cultural reasons as well. 

The abandonment of paddy farming in the wet zone in particular could create serious problems of water logging. 

Paddy farming is not only an economic occupation; it is a way of life and an important part of our culture. While all these reasons suggest a support policy for paddy farming and food crop production, the pendulum could swing too much towards protection, resulting in an inefficient agriculture and high costs to the country. There must be a well-considered programme for agriculture rather than an attempt to boost production by protection alone. It is important to get prices right, but right prices are not necessarily high prices through protection. Right prices are output prices in relation to costs of production. 

What farmers need most are not excessively high prices but remunerative stable prices. Excessive fluctuations in prices can do much harm. Instead of responding merely to prices in the market, the government must formulate a comprehensive plan for agriculture. 

It must make such a plan known to the farming community. A keystone of a national agricultural policy must be to increase production through improvements in productivity. The lowering of several contributory factors for high costs of production must be part of a strategy for agricultural development. Government must support the farmer through an effective extension programme that ensures that farmers adopt the proper cultivation practices. The fact that yields are lower than the potential by far is a clear indication that cultivation practices leave much to be desired. 

Institutional support for agriculture needs to be strengthened. Institutional credit is hopelessly inadequate. The marketing systems leave big margins between what farmers get and consumers pay. If these could be reduced, then both farmers and consumers would benefit. If these things are done, what appear to be irreconcilable objectives of serving the farmer and the consumer may be achievable. But they cannot be achieved in a hundred days.

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