In my college days, I remember reading a book of essays by the great American satirist and cynic S.J. Perelman. That collection of essays titled “Crazy like a Fox” turned me into an instant admirer of this humourist who was a regular contributor to The New Yorker. My mind was thrown back to the Perelman [...]


Standing diplomacy on its head


In my college days, I remember reading a book of essays by the great American satirist and cynic S.J. Perelman. That collection of essays titled “Crazy like a Fox” turned me into an instant admirer of this humourist who was a regular contributor to The New Yorker.

My mind was thrown back to the Perelman era making me wonder what he would have said had he followed with increasing wonderment the passing comedy called diplomacy in Sri Lanka and the antics of some who profess to represent the country abroad.

If Perelman was to collate all the curious happenings in Sri Lanka and some of the goings on in missions overseas he would probably call it “Crazier than the Fox”. But it does not need a Perelman to visualise this comedy of errors and horrors. The comic interludes of present day diplomacy stare us in the face.

How can one fail to see the deviousness, cunning and use of nepotistic connections to often override principled policy-making and the national interest as so-called diplomats work to feather their own nests. The public will recall that in the pre-presidential and parliamentary election days in 2015 those seeking high office virtually swore they will eschew nepotism and cronyism in appointments to public office and create a healthy meritocracy that will determine selection.

When Mangala Samaraweera became foreign minister he recalled all the politically-appointed heads of missions and later all other appointees in our missions abroad. And the people stood on the sidelines and cheered the yahapalanites for keeping to their promises.

Slowly the applause tied. The yahapalana aanduwa had its own set of friends and relatives to satisfy and fill vacancies and posts that did not exist. At the last count there were more politically-anointed heads of missions than those from the career service and 196 others in diplomatic and non-diplomatic posts in our 60-odd missions abroad including such important capitals as London and two of the most important posts in western Europe. Washington is also vacant and New York will soon be.

If meritocracy governed such appointments then the word seems to have undergone a rapid change in meaning in the last three years. A survey has reportedly shown that some 90-odd of our MPs have not passed their GCE ‘O’ levels. It is time somebody did a survey to ascertain how many of our politically appointed ‘diplomats’ have passed the ‘O’ levels? It certainly would be revealing!

It would also be interesting to know how some of them managed to get past the High Posts Committee of parliament which is supposed to evaluate the suitability of a nominee to a key post.It might at least be said in mitigation of the MPs that most of them were elected by the people — some may have got in through the back door — for which one could blame the voters.

But who is responsible for some of the atrocious appointments as heads of missions to our diplomatic posts abroad? Surely that responsibility must lie squarely with our politicians holding high office. Heads of Missions are named and appointed by the President.

I was reminded of the story of an ancient Roman emperor called Caligula who is said to have appointed his favourite horse Incitatus as a consul. Some historians say the emperor was mad. One tends to doubt it was madness that drove him to name his horse as a consul. Rather it was his way of saying that his animal had more horse sense than his diplomatic representatives.

Talking of horse sense I received an email early last week sent to the media by some advertising firm named ImagePlus Advertising located in Pahalagama, Gampaha. The individual who sent it said that he is doing so on behalf of their client the Sri Lankan High Commissioner to London Amari Wijewardene.

What caught my immediate attention was the headline which read more like a paragraph. Though normally it would be a waste of space to quote it in full it needs to be done as it contains the kernel of the so-called press release.

It read: “Sri Lankan High Commissioner to the United Kingdom Her Excellency Amari Wijewardene successfully initiates the second high powered parliamentary delegation to Sri Lanka.” Only a couple of days earlier the Foreign Ministry sent out a media release stating that a four-member delegation of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Sri Lanka is currently visiting the country. It said the delegation was led by Rt. Hon Ranil Jayawardena and consisted of three other Rt. Hon members.

It was all getting to be quite confusing. If one was to believe the Foreign Ministry it seemed that the delegates had suddenly been elevated overnight as privy counsellors and landed in Colombo as Rt Hon members of the Commons instead of common and garden MPs.
So it was with some trepidation that I re-read the headline of the press release from London circulated in Colombo on behalf of High Commissioner Wijewardene. If her diplomatic skills had initiated a second “high powered” delegation to take wing then it would appear there were two delegations from the UK lurking around somewhere.

Just to identify who were in the Wijewardene initiated second delegation I scrolled down a few centimetres of the Gampaha-released script to look at the accompanying photograph. Unfortunately (for me that is) I would have had to stand on my head to look at the faces on the photograph. The picture was upside down which some might consider as reflecting the conditions at the source.

I was not going to risk my neck to take a better look at the smiling faces of a delegation that managed to get away for a few days from the UK’s beastly winter. For a moment I wondered whether our London high commission was trying to give journalists its own kind of spondylosis seeing how charming it is to the media. But then it seemed that the upside down picture was an oversight. Such things do happen even in the worst of circles.

To begin with this delegation is described as a “high powered parliamentary delegation”. If this is “high powered” one would like to know what the high commission considers a low powered one?

Why is the high commission and whoever wrote this acclamation to Amari (and in poor English too like a previous career diplomat-turned letter writer) trying to mislead the Sri Lankan public?

Could those who put together this paean of praise point to any member of this delegation who had entered the Commons before the general election of 2015, less than three years ago? This delegation consisted of four junior MPs.

Just last week Prime Minister Theresa May reshuffled her cabinet and also appointed deputy ministers. The names of these delegates did not figure in any appointment.

Moreover these junior MPs were touted as representing the All Party Parliamentary Group on Sri Lanka. Is it not strange that all four were from the Conservative Party. The group has vice chairmen from all the major parties but none of those parties were represented on this delegation which appears to have been cobbled together for mere show rather than any bilateral usefulness.

The high commission states that this is the second high powered parliamentary delegation initiated by the high commissioner. Which was the first one, why was it not publicised like this high powered one that seems to have no power at all?

Such is the state of the mission that it cannot even spell correctly the name of  Sri Lanka’s prime minister. The mission press release calls him “Wicramasinghe”. An example of careless and shoddy work.

The release goes on to say that the high commissioner has been able to “build strong relationships with key British parliamentarians, important economic institutions, key ministries in the UK and other key diplomatic missions for the benefit of Sri Lanka”

With all these “key” connections one would have expected the high commission to put together a strong delegation with senior parliamentarians from both houses and people of substance who are able to influence government thinking and policy making. Instead what do we get, a third eleven that has hardly played in the international arena.

Has the high commissioner met senior politicians of the Labour Party such as Jeremy Corbyn, the prime minister in waiting; Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry; Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbot or the new leader of the LibDems Vince Cable? Clinging on to some junior Conservatives and not cultivating senior members of the shadow government is hardly doing justice by Sri Lanka.

It is claimed that religious celebrations organised by the high commission “were attended with unprecedented participation”. How anybody who turned up here only recently could write of unprecedented participation without the slightest inkling of what went before, is being duplicitous.

Those to claim to have successfully bound all Sri Lankan communities together would surely be more useful in the home country than out here. Anyway success should be judged by those who are said to have been brought together not by those who say they have achieved this.
Unfortunately space limitations do not permit further comment though there is much more to be said. Those who wish to blow their own trumpets should leave it to such jazz greats as Louis Armstrong and not stumble over the keys.

In my 50 years or more of association with diplomats and diplomatic missions both local and foreign I am yet to read a press release that is used to promote one’s self. The press release ends rather curiously. “It is worthwhile to mention that all activities have made with the concurrence of the Foreign Ministry of
Sri Lanka.”
Are we made to understand that this press release, with its linguistic aberrations and all, had the concurrence of the ministry? Heaven forbid!

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