There is an old story — apocryphal or not, I don’t know — that Roman Emperor Caligula found his representatives serving in distant parts of his realm so inefficient that he wanted to send his favourite horse as a consul believing that it would serve him better than some of his two-legged representatives. If Caligula [...]


Political infighting and this mockery of diplomacy


There is an old story — apocryphal or not, I don’t know — that Roman Emperor Caligula found his representatives serving in distant parts of his realm so inefficient that he wanted to send his favourite horse as a consul believing that it would serve him better than some of his two-legged representatives.

If Caligula found his faithful steed had more horse-sense than some of his envoys who might well pass off as diplomutts, as we termed them some five years or so ago, it is understandable he would consider promoting his horse over the asses, who represented him in Rome and elsewhere.

Caligula was luckily not his real name. But then it was certainly better than that of his mother who was known as Agripinna the Elder. Anyway the state of our diplomacy — and some of those who represent our governments these days and those in governments who appoint them — does raise both ire and guffaws often in equal measure.

Early last week, I read of Foreign Minister Tilak Marapana (was this his second coming?) addressing a group of military men who had gone through a course at the Bandaranaike International Diplomatic Training Institute (BIDTI) and had being trained to be defence attache’s/advisers in some of our diplomatic missions abroad.

At their passing out (not quite a parade though) the learned counsel (sorry, sorry) the Hon. Minister told them of their main duty. And that was to “serve the people of Sri Lanka”. Now that is what you would call great thinking. Had Caligula lived he would have had the learned minister visit every nook and corner of his empire spreading the good word and enlightening the emperor and his subjects.

Stressing the obvious is not a bad lesson to teach after all. Stressing what everybody knows or should know is a good lesson to be kept in mind though most politicians (not to mention some diplomutts) tend to forget or ignore this sacred lesson. They prefer to rely more on that adage that accruing wealth, if not dipping their fingers deep into the State treasury, like charity, should begin at home.

So all this garbage about serving the people and the nation is what one tells a gullible populace. That is the public face, the façade intended to fool the citizenry, especially the voters who are looking forward to chuck the current blighters out and elect a new lot who they think will serve them honestly.

They seem to have forgotten the words of that great revolutionary Che’ Guevara, who said that “Cruel leaders are replaced only to have new leaders turn cruel”. Maithripala Sirisena, who, in his youth, is said to have dabbled in Left politics, might have read it somewhere at some time. If not, one can always replace “cruel” with “crooked” and one would still be hitting the bull’s eye.

Those who join the armed forces, I believe, take an oath to serve the nation. Perhaps Minister Marapana is not aware that public officials also take an oath at the beginning of each year to uphold the Constitution and serve the nation. This is read out and is repeated by state officials and staff in our diplomatic missions on the first day they come to work in the new year. So to tell uniformed personnel that they must first serve the people/nation is so much frippery since they have already taken an oath to service the nation. That is, unless, Minister Marapana is drawing a distinction between the nation and its citizens.

Now that this training course was to give officers a lesson in diplomacy and diplomatic practice, one wonders whether they were reminded of or any questions were raised about the unfortunate recall of Brigadier Priyanka Fernando over a hand gesture he made drawing his finger across his throat during last year’s Sri Lanka Independence Day ceremony.

There is no need to go into the history of this incident, especially as the Westminster Chief Magistrates’ Court is to have further hearings later this month. What is interesting is that a barrister who appeared in Brigadier Fernando’s defence is said to have, according several media reports, argued that this throat-slitting gesture was part of this job description, which I believe is being contested by the prosecution.

There are many, including lawyers, who believe that this is a doubtful defence. Anyway there will be many who will be waiting eagerly for the next court sitting in a few days’ time. One wonders whether the foreign minister has warned the prospective defence attaché’s to make sure that each job description does include throat-cutting hand gestures as an essential part of a defence attaché’s official duties lest he be charged under British law, while police and prosecutors ignore public displays of LTTE flags and portraits of Prabhakaran which are prohibited under England’s Terrorism law.

When the Foreign Ministry and the President acted differently with regard to the brigadier’s case, it only signalled to the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Tamil diaspora that the Sri Lanka government is divided. It opened the doors to some Tamils playing innocent babies frightened by a gesture from 20 yards away, to explore the possibilities of legal action. The decision of our Foreign Ministry to suspend the brigadier from duties and ask him to return to Colombo was disputed by the President who withheld the immediate recall.

As political relations between the two senior partners in the yahapalana coalition worsened, not only was Sirisena disputing certain decisions and selections to diplomatic posts, he was only openly claiming that he did not know of Sri Lanka co-sponsoring the 2015 Resolution at the UNHRC. According to the President, nobody told him of it, just like the 100-Day programme of the new government. He said he did not know who drafted it. That seems strange as it is contained in his own election manifesto and, therefore, was out before the government was installed.

With these kinds of political shenanigans publicly known, diplomats serving abroad are not only likely to be confronted by foreign journalists trying to unravel Sri Lankan political conundrums, but they will tend to avoid not only foreign media persons but Sri Lankan journalists, too, who might want to pose certain questions on developments in Colombo.

The curtain was about to go up on the grand comedy when President Sirisena decided to send his own delegation to the Geneva meeting of the UNHRC. The official delegation was originally to be led by Ambassador Azeez, our representative to the UN in Geneva. The original delegation which was to have political representatives will now be headed by Minister Marapana and will include Sarath Amunugama from the president’s delegation and the Northern Province Governor Suren Raghavan, who is trying to dig his own diplomatic furrow to India, ignoring diplomatic traditions, protocol and courtesies.

Had the President and the Foreign Ministry stuck to their original plans, it would have created an utterly uncomfortable scene for Ambassador Azeez. Would he take his instructions from the Foreign Ministry on the new resolution being proposed by the core group led by the UK or would he have to follow suggestions made by the presidential envoys.

This is the kind of contretemps that diplomats, especially those serving abroad, find themselves in. Not that there are no diplomats who are willing and able to serve all sorts of political masters to save their skins or more likely to win favours by bending in two — and even three.

While politicians steadfastly continue to sling mud and other projectiles, the US prosecutors want to have more than a word with our one time ambassador to Washington, Jaliya Wickremasuriya, and Sri Lanka would  like to have a couple of words with our former ambassador to Moscow, Udayanga Weeratunge, two political ambassadors.

Meanwhile, as I pointed out a long time ago, Washington is still without a head of mission one and a half years or so after the last one quit. I also hear that a presidential nominee to Singapore has been contested by the Foreign Ministry.

When will these tweedledee and tweedledum games end? Perhaps, a charity shop can donate some children’s’ games so the people and the world will be free of such a political gridlock.

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