Eating the words and savouring it
Eating his own words appears to come fairly easily to Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama. They seem to flow down his esophagus without too much constriction, like chewing the cud I suppose.
He might not show any ill effects but what of the country that he represents abroad at various international gatherings? We might have been spared the international embarrassment had he shown diplomatic prudence.
Is it a case of not heeding the advice of professionals in his ministry or the result of pure arrogance based on ignorance of international developments and therefore an inability to read political trends? Whatever the reason for this unashamed gluttony we have not come out of this unscathed, though we might have won the eternal gratitude of Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf, though probably not of the multiplicity of other forces in Pakistan that Musharraf has tried to silence in his desire to cling to power.
Therein lies the political myopia of our foreign minister who seems to labour under the delusion that leaders are permanent .Other dictatorial leaders — and surely that is what Musharraf is despite the Houdini-like gestures he is again making towards political accommodation while suppressing dissent and judicial integrity — though they were permanent verities on the political landscape of their countries too. For most of its 60 years since independence Pakistan has been under military rule, interrupted by interludes of civilian administration. But Pakistan is not the only country in our neighbourhood which has seen military men in power or seen the return of the military to overthrow civilian rule. It is happening right now in Bangladesh and Thailand, a reminder to us all that glorification of the military could easily be misunderstood to mean that a country would be better ruled under the jackboot of the uniformed.
Unfortunately, nobody seems to have educated our foreign minister to the simple fact that there is more to diplomacy than a Hardy Amies suit, an Yves Saint Laurent shirt and a Gucci tie.
To adapt the words of Hamlet there are more things in international relations than is dreamt of in Bogollagama’s flatulent diplomacy. There was no doubt, certainly in my mind, that Bogollagama would turn up in London for the extraordinary meeting of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) that secretary-general Don McKinnon called after Musharraf imposed emergency rule and suspended the constitution just days before the Supreme Court was to rule on the legitimacy of his re-election as president.
The meeting was to discuss the situation in Pakistan and what action should be taken since Islamabad had violated once more basic principles of the Commonwealth. Moreover it was a little over a week after McKinnon had told us over lunch that Musharraf had promised to shed his uniform by November 15 and he was looking forward to the promise being kept. Even at that time there were doubts that Musharraf would do so, if past experience of presidential promises was anything to go by. What made the whole affair so embarrassing for Sri Lanka, a member of CMAG as it is of the Commonwealth Committee on Terrorism (CCT) which neither Bogollagama nor his ministry secretary Kohona appeared to know about, is the comments made by the foreign minister following a meeting of CMAG in New York just one month before Musharraf’s dictatorial act to ensure that he stayed in power whatever ruling the Supreme Court intended to make.
In New York on September 28, Bogollagama went out on a limb announcing in a subsequent press release that he “welcomed the progress recorded in the democratic process in Pakistan and the maintenance of the rule of law. Noting the recent submission in the Supreme Court that the posts of President and Army Chief would soon be separated, Sri Lanka was of the view that with these positive developments Pakistan could soon be taken off the CMAG agenda.” If ever there was poor judgment and a complete misreading of the situation in Pakistan this surely was it. Last week in London, Bogollagama was supporting a CMAG decision that put Pakistan on notice and gave Musharraf 10 days to get his act together or face the prospect of being suspended from the Commonwealth once again.
This time round the foreign minister who had extolled Pakistan’s progress toward democracy and maintenance (not restoration, mind you) of the rule of law was forced to sing another tune, though he was somewhat off key from many of the others. Another press release this time dated Nov 12 and written in some kind of English which purists might call execrable, stated “Foreign Minister Bogollagama has expressed satisfaction on (sic!) the outcome of the Extraordinary Meeting of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) convened by Commonwealth Secretary General Don McKinnon on Monday (12 November 2007) to primarily decide on the “developments in Pakistan, on the eve of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting CHOGM scheduled to be held in Kampala, Uganda on 21 November 2007.”
Why “primarily decide” pray? There was no other business but this, as a Commonwealth Secretariat news release stated. If that first paragraph was wordy the next one should test the credulity and the linguistic comprehension of the reader. It said: ‘Commenting on the outcome, Minister Bogollagama said “following extensive deliberations that lasted almost 5 hours, the CMAG succeeded in arriving at a formula which can be put to test (sic) in Kampala, in terms of the progress Pakistan makes in fulfilling its obligations in accordance with Commonwealth principles.” He added that “conscious of the complexities Pakistan presently (or at present?) faces in maintaining stability while ensure liberty with security” and that (a peculiar sentence what!) “Sri Lanka wished to have Pakistan given more time to demonstrate progress which could be reviewed at the Kampala summit.”
So what progress is Bogollagama talking about here? One thought that in late September he was already praising Pakistan for progress in the democratic process and actually wanted Pakistan to be taken off the CMAG agenda so that the Commonwealth would no longer need to monitor Pakistan. Bogollagama tried to save face for his absolute faux pas by arguing that any action against Pakistan be stayed until the Kampala meeting assesses the situation. But he had to concede that the retrogressive action by Musharraf demanded that Pakistan stay on the CMAG agenda and not be removed from it.
One can understand why Sri Lanka has tried to dilute any collective action against Islamabad. Pakistan provides weapons and logistical support in the burgeoning war against the Tigers. There is validity in that argument as there is in the position that an unstable Pakistan would destabilise the region, particularly at a time when Bangladesh itself is under stress politically. But one wonders whether the latter argument was not the ostensible reason for our support and it is the Musharraf regime’s military assistance that was foremost in our minds when we took that stand.
Even if there is a cogent argument in extending some support, the important question is whether there was a need to announce to the whole world where we stood especially when those remarks made in New York made us the laughing stock in the eyes of the world when the more perceptive would have known that Musharraf would not surrender power easily and democratic decision-making was furthest from his mind.
The additional danger of course is that in supporting such extreme measures such as the suspension of the constitution, sacking of senior judges of the judiciary, locking up of politicians, cracking down on the media and suppressing criticism of what is really a military regime, others in our own country might be led to believe that this is the road to follow to perpetuate their own hold on power.