If the news flowing along the grapevine is correct-and the ear-splitting silence from the Foreign Ministry seems to suggest it is – then the new Foreign Minister deserves much more than a pat on the back. In fact a few hallelujahs would certainly not be out of place for the cleansing process he envisages was [...]


Ravi moves to cleanse our diplomessy


If the news flowing along the grapevine is correct-and the ear-splitting silence from the Foreign Ministry seems to suggest it is – then the new Foreign Minister deserves much more than a pat on the back. In fact a few hallelujahs would certainly not be out of place for the cleansing process he envisages was much overdue. That is if the country’s diplomatic service is ever to come within striking distance of what it was in its early days.
Even if it cannot achieve the reputation acquired not only within but without our shores during the years when highly professional, competent and intelligent officers (too many to mention though some deserve to be named) dedicated to their profession rather than self served with aplomb, it can be resurrected to fit some more meaningful purpose.

The new appointment at the Foreign Ministry is an opportunity for minister Ravi Karunanayake to emerge from under a cloud and see his early reputation restored.

To do that, however, it is necessary to scrub the service of those who grovel, resort to political manipulation, use of influence and throat- cutting. It is publicly-known that these are methods used by some career officers and political appointees with much on their minds and little in their heads. This has been nurtured into a fine art often to cover up inadequacies and ignorance.

The news reaching us was that Foreign Minister Ravi Karunanayake had said at a meeting with senior ministry officials and heads of various divisions that he intends as a matter of policy, to stop the practice of granting extensions to Sri Lankan diplomats serving in missions abroad and they should return to Colombo at the end of their tour of duty, usually three years.

I understand that the minister wanted it recorded in the minutes of that meeting. If all this is true then he is doing a service – not only to the diplomatic service but to the country as our own experience and anecdotal evidence clearly indicate.

There would, of course, be occasions when a short extension could be justified due to exigencies. When I was serving as deputy chief of mission in Bangkok the ambassador and I received a fax from the ministry saying I was transferred to the London High Commission from May 2012.
The then ambassador and former army commander General Shantha Kottegoda immediately wrote to the ministry asking it be deferred. It was not because we were from the same alma mater though the old school tie has proved very useful under the yahapalanaya administration.

The extension was sought because then President Mahinda Rajapaksa was due in Bangkok on a working visit which we had arranged, on the same day I was to leave for London. He asked for a short delay of my transfer (how I could be ‘transferred’ was strange as I was not a ministry official) as I was involved in arrangements for the presidential visit. It was indeed granted and I stayed on until July.

There are occasions when short extensions are necessary or may be allowed on certain compassionate grounds. But to seek extensions for the flimsiest of excuses is surely unfair by other officers awaiting their due postings abroad. To make use of contacts within and outside the career service to seek extension after extension is to discriminate against deserving officers in their own service who have contributed far more to preserve some of the traditions and standards of the career service than some of those seeking longer stays have ever done or will do.
It is because of these diplomatic shenanigans that politicians and public target the diplomatic service for criticism, sometimes unfairly and ignorantly, calling the service a holiday home for the incompetent whose real purpose in wanting to prolong their stay is to educate their children abroad at public expense and build a bank balance.

That criticism is at times unfair by those officers who dedicate themselves to working long hours and going out of their way to be helpful to Sri Lankans and others. There are others who shortly after taking up their new posting are already planning on how to become an ambassador before their retirement two or three years hence. I have personally come across both the dedicated and the duplicitous in my time.

Looking for excuses to gain extensions by connivance or deceit is a practice more widely resorted to in modern times because the use of political influence has penetrated the public service at almost every level unlike in decades gone by when there was little political interference in the administration.

This has all changed in recent times. It would not be a strange phenomenon to hear of pleas made on behalf of officers on the grounds that, say for instance, the SAARC summit is due in a year or a BIMSTEC meeting is scheduled for the next year and a particular officer’s presence at the current station is important.

It would be even more ludicrous if such fervent pleas for extensions are called for because an important UN conference in New York or Geneva or a Commonwealth Summit is due two years from now and such and such officer’s participation is vital or else the whole edifice of Sri Lankan diplomacy would collapse like the Meethotamulla rubbish dump.

This newspaper reported a couple of weeks ago that Foreign Minister Karunanayake had asked his ministry to obtain 10-point reports from some of our senior diplomats on how to improve performance. Since one does not know right now who would be characterised as a “senior diplomat” and who will do so, it could be that some missions in important capitals not having senior diplomats would be left out of the loop.
In that event some other means should be adopted to assess how to improve the services rendered by such a mission probably with input from the senior-most career diplomat drawing on his/her wider experience at other important missions.

It would of course be recognised that needs and improvements would differ from mission to mission and a one size fits all solution is not prudent or feasible. But there are certain basic niceties that should be observed if missions in major capitals or the smallest post are to function efficiently and smoothly without the rancor and division one tends to observe on one’s travels. Much would depend on the intra-staff relations and how those who are described as ‘minor’ staff are treated by those in higher positions.

In Bangkok the two ambassadors I served under, Prof J.B. Disanayake and Gen Shantha Kottegoda. would invite the entire embassy staff including the Thai ‘cleaning’ lady who had worked in the embassy for almost 20 years, to the residence for dinners or lunches. I would do the same, making no distinctions with regard to position or social status. We even went on two or three day trips round Thailand and even neighbouring states.

The bonding was so good because they were not ostracized. Senior staff did not have to ask them for help. They would do so voluntarily because they were not treated as modern- day slaves serving the high and mighty. They should be made welcome with facilities for them and their families made available. It is then they are made to feel they are an integral part of the mission.

It is not always that drivers and office assistants get an opportunity to serve in an overseas mission. These are positions that have been recognised as ones that should usually be filled by home- based staff. There are some who would like to deprive them of that rare opportunity of serving abroad and would rather fill them locally.

The argument adduced is that it would save the country money. But the real reason for such jiggery-pokery is not the supposed patriotism but to be surrounded by ‘loyal’ staffers who owe their positions to those who recruited them.

In my many decades of contacts with foreign diplomats I learnt that confidential secretaries of heads of missions and often their immediate deputies were their own nationals. This was to ensure that confidential communications remained confidential and secure and classified or vital information did not reach the wrong ears or hands.

Surely it is important that such posts are filled by Sri Lankans whether from the Foreign Ministry or the administrative service. To preserve the confidentiality of important communications between the ministry and diplomatic missions, only Sri Lankan nationals serve in those posts. Minister Karunanayake is now in a position to etch this as policy, just as he should make certain posts in our missions that have been won after much discussion with the Treasury permanent and set in stone.

In a brief interview with the Sunday Times earlier this month Ravi Karunanayake said that among the tasks he would undertake in his new job is the reorganisation of the diplomatic missions, a study of the quality of those joining the service and the service that the missions render, obviously to the country, to the diaspora and in building cordial and useful bilateral relations.

It is not surprising that he wants to look at the fundamentals. On one occasion when he visited Bangkok while in opposition and I had invited him for lunch at a Thai restaurant we talked about diplomacy and his vision of what Sri Lanka’s diplomatic missions should be doing to earn their keep.

He now seems to want to see that vision manifest itself through some basic changes. While that would indeed be welcome he must ensure that some of this is cemented as policy. Inevitably there will be those who would contact him for favours -if they have not already done so – and press him to order changes that would undermine his own stated policy. If such ad hoc changes are made to suit the whims and fancies of others, it is the minister’s reputation that will suffer.

It is known that Ravi Karunanayake was under a cloud and that some within his own party and some SLFP ministers wanted him removed as Finance Minister. He has virtually admitted this in the interview with this newspaper.

Now he has a new ministry and intends to make changes. Here is an opportunity for him to emerge from under that cloud and see his early reputation restored. That cannot be done by succumbing to requests from those that consider themselves influential. Now is the opportunity for Karunanayake to start afresh in new surroundings and with new ideas to prove that he can withstand such pressure and stand tall without letting his policies be compromised.

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