How like us to confound confusion
Immediately after the assassination of Lakshman Kadirgamar there was a perceptible shift in a key element of our foreign policy- or what there is of it.

The day after his murder, Foreign Secretary H.S. Palihakkara called the Colombo-based diplomats to a meeting at which he said quite clearly what was expected of the international community.

His talks with the diplomats left no doubt that the government believed-as do most people without PhDs from Cambridge-that the LTTE killed Kadirgamar. Those who like to discuss or debate the whys and wherefores of that despicable killing have already engaged in plain speaking, hair splitting or even aired their fantasies.

No doubt such debates will go on in Colombo’s polite and not-so-polite society where denizens of the deep (I mean those with deep pockets) gather or the nocturnal progeny of politicians hang out and enjoy those moments of Ecstasy.

Right now I am not concerned with the reasons for the murder. What is significant is that the assassination of the foreign minister led almost immediately to a reassessment of foreign policy thinking and how we expect the international community to deal with one party to Sri Lanka’s intractable conflict.

This is so particularly in our relations with the west because some western nations and institutions somehow seem unable or unwilling to practice what they have so assiduously preached to us over the years.

I’ve lost count of the number of times the west has lectured us on the need to respect human rights, how they, as the civilised nations on Planet Earth, would do this, that and the other to us barbarians if we step outside the norms of respectable human behaviour.

Preaching human rights
So when our foreign secretary tells the gathering of diplomats from the “free world” and other not so free nations that they should adhere to international law and their countries should fulfil their obligations under international law, some might have expressed surprise.

Is he not preaching to the converted? After all, in the gathering surely there were diplomats from countries that have assumed the mantle of arbiters of civilised conduct, from countries that helped draft the conventions and treaties; that laid down the parameters of proper international behaviour.

Now here is a potty little country with even pottier politicians, telling the wealthy and mighty all about international law and their responsibilities toward upholding a legal regime.

If the international diplomats left the meeting somewhat bewildered it is not at being lectured to by Sri Lanka. Some of these countries have not only blatantly violated human rights, running prisons and torture camps such as Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, but are also proposing new laws that would probably kick civil liberties in the groin and start the dismantling of charters and conventions on human rights that go back half a century or more.

The bewilderment is not merely because we seem to have a foreign policy that blows hot and cold. It is also because Sri Lanka has a domestic policy that blows cold and is surely inconsistent with what we are trying to do abroad.

During Kadirgamar’s first tenure as foreign minister he conducted a strong international campaign to have the LTTE ostracised, if not banned outright.

This surely was why the LTTE dismissed him as a traitor, for Kadirgamar’s policy to corner the LTTE made much headway internationally, though Canada has stepped back somewhat after its politicians came under pressure from LTTE supporters and Norway.

Then came the Ranil Wickremesinghe era, if one might call such a brief period an era. It was an era in the sense that it saw the Kadirgamar-led policy stood on its head by a new government determined to please and appease for peace in its time.

We now know that the Wickremesinghe government was taken for a ride- from Bangkok to Oslo and back again- by a group that was street and jungle savvy though not educated in British and American universities.
What is more it was the Wickremesinghe government that allowed, under a lopsided ceasefire agreement, the Tigers to break out of the Wanni and roam the world in the name of widening their political horizons.

What they did widen was the territory under their control and the capacity to engage in both conventional war and terrorism.

But at least it might be said there was consistency in the domestic and foreign policy approach to the LTTE. While the government and some of its ministers lavishly buttered the Tiger bread, our diplomatic missions were forced to quickly change gear.So from saying how terrible the Tigers were, how they coerce the Tamil diaspora to part with money and how children are abducted and forced into playing soldiers, the diplomats had now to sing praises to the peace loving Tigers who were after all preparing for democratic governance.

Since diplomats are said to lie abroad for the good of their country, I suppose they had no difficulty in cutting their talk according to their brief, whatever their personal opinions of these pendulum swings.

But where do our missions stand when one day our diplomats speak with awe and reverence of the Tigers and the next day search frantically for the new hymn sheet that carries the authorised version.

Not only do such rapid changes in stance make it embarrassing for those who are expected to conduct foreign policy abroad with conviction, but it is even worse when at home the self-same people once described as terrorists are treated as virtual VIPs and the Wanni leaders dictate terms with imperiousness worthy of a Roman tribune dealing with slaves.Organisations suspected of terrorist links are honoured at the say- so of some public servant or similar lay about who cannot see beyond his nose.

It is not only injudicious but surely laughable when policies are changed with little regard for consistency and international respectability.
Who could really tell when current policy of baiting the Tiger becomes one of holding the Tiger by the tail.

Thought must also be given to the justification of having defence attaches or advisers attached to some of our missions. We had defence attaches in certain missions when our needs and priorities were different. I suppose we had one in London because of the colonial relationship and as our military officers were mainly trained in the UK at one time.

Waste of resources
But the situation has changed. While defence attaches might be justified in countries with which we have close military ties, it seems ridiculous to have them drawn from the armed services when there is hardly anything to do.

Crucially what exactly do these officers do. They report directly to the ministry of defence and only the ministry is privy to whatever they report.
This might be good for major powers that could afford to have political and military reporting.

But do we need to waste our limited resources and work in such a compartmentalised manner. Should not the defence ministry share whatever information is passed on with the foreign ministry however useless the information to assess reliability and avoid contradictions and inconsistencies? If all they do is pinch information published in the media they hardly serve any purpose.

President Junius Jayewardene started this rot by posting faithful UNPer Col. C.A Dharmapala’s son “Dingo” Dharmapala to Washington as military attaché.

Do we have to continue to behave so ludicrously? If we must have defence attaches, they should work alongside the rest of the diplomatic mission and not pretend to be 007s with a licence to swill.

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