Resurrecting a dying breed
NEW YORK— The Sri Lankan embassy housed in the diplomatic quarter in Zamalek, in the Egyptian capital of Cairo, was once a home for the aged providing a roof for retired bureaucrats, fading politicians and ex-military officials.
One of the last of these ambassadors, an ailing lawyer and former parliamentarian, was so frail and in such poor health that he remained virtually non-functional, and later died in office.
The Egyptians, not surprisingly, were very unhappy. At a meeting with a visiting official from the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry, an Egyptian official asked him why successive governments in Colombo kept unloading retirees in Cairo.
And then he zapped the Sri Lankan official with a zinger: "The only things older than your ambassadors are our pyramids and mummies," he said, with a self-satisfied smile on his face. The point was well-taken.
The High Commission in Kuala Lumpur was no better: it was once a veritable graveyard for Sri Lankan envoys and the Kanatte burial grounds of the diplomatic service.
At least two High Commissioners died in office while a third died less than 24 hours before he could fly to Kuala Lumpur to take up his assignment.
Tragically, the Daily News had a frontpage story about the departing High Commissioner while, unbeknownst to the news editor working on the graveyard shift that night, the back page of the same newspaper ran the High Commissioner's death notice in the late-breaking obituary column.
And that perhaps was a first even for Lake House. But that's another story.
Since the death rate was relatively high in Kuala Lumpur, there were unconfirmed rumours that the High Commissioner's residence was haunted instilling fear into the minds of some envoys who had either second thoughts about taking up assignments— or flying into the Malaysian capital accompanied by a "kattadiya" as personal baggage.
Perhaps to allay their fears, the High Commissioner's residence was subsequently moved to a different part of the bustling city. Since then, the death rate had apparently declined.
A third High Commissioner posted to Malaysia, a political appointee, never even returned home. Beating the odds, he decided to permanently settle down in Kuala Lumpur, even though he did not qualify as a "bumi putra".
And now with a new government in office, the Foreign Ministry has sent circulars to all Sri Lankan missions overseas advising career and non-career diplomats, who have completed three years of service in their respective stations, to return to base.
The tour of duty ends March 31. And all career diplomats have been asked to report to the Foreign Ministry on April 1, also known as April Fool's Day.
With dozens of new appointments on the way, the new Foreign Secretary Nihal Rodrigo, one of the most accomplished diplomats in service, has his plate full.
An intense debate has once again surfaced in Colombo: should some of the key capitals be manned by career or non-career diplomats.
Since the Sri Lanka Mission to the United Nations was opened back in 1956, there has been only one career diplomat as its head: Ben Fonseka.
The Sri Lanka embassy in Washington, on other hand, was opened in 1948. But it has had only two career diplomats as heads of mission: Susantha de Alwis, a former newspaperman on the Daily News, and Jayantha Dhanapala, currently Under-Secretary-General for Disarmament Affairs.
The world of diplomacy has undergone a political metamorphosis— whether in London, New York or Washington.
The skills a diplomat acquires depends either on the intensive training he or she receives at the start of a career or the professional skills already acquired in the case of non-career diplomats and political appointees.
Sri Lanka has had its own share of good and bad diplomats— both among career and non-career envoys.
In Washington, two of the outstanding non-career diplomats were the late Neville Kanakaratne, a lawyer by profession, and Ernest Corea, former editor of the Daily News and the Observer.
Corea had a tougher assignment because during his tenure in 1981-1986 he had to face a formidable political campaign launched against Sri Lanka in Capitol Hill by Tamil expatriate groups charging the government with human rights violations.
But the right appointment to the right diplomatic post depends not only on the Foreign Secretary but also on the Foreign Minister.
The outgoing Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, despite occasional lapses, did a creditable job strengthening the foreign service to meet the growing needs of a changing world.
The late A.C.S. Hameed, notwithstanding his occasional bureaucratic failings, had a thorough grasp of international affairs, and particularly so when he served as chairman of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM).
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of at least one of the former short-lived Foreign Ministers who once frantically summoned his officials to get their advise about Sri Lankans caught in a crossfire in "a civil war in Siberia."
A civil war in Siberia? In the former Soviet Union? The officials looked at each other, non-plussed.
"Sir, are you sure it is Siberia," one of the officials asked the minister. "We know there is a civil war going on in Liberia, in West Africa".
"Oh, yes, yes. I say, you may be right," said the minister. Anyway, Liberia, Siberia. What's the difference. They are all the same.