glass houses shouldn’t shed their clothes
President Rajapaksa’s address
to our heads of diplomatic missions might have had something
of the resonance of Ranasinghe Premadasa but not his
panache nor his venom.
His homily on the reshaping of foreign
policy and the task of our diplomats abroad might have
made more sense if it did not absolve senior politicians
and those careerist round him and lay the blame squarely
on those who represent us abroad for all the purported
Had I but space enough and time I
would have dealt in greater depth with his address.
Not because President Rajapaksa had many points to make
but because in the interest of the nation, an invocation
so readily made by politicians who have little to say
and much to hide, it requires a closer examination as
our diplomats do not represent governments but the state
and it is public money that is being spent.
Mahinda Rajapaksa did speak some home
truths and indeed there are shortcomings in the foreign
service and many have had misgivings about the ultimate
usefulness of some of those lying abroad on our behalf.
But there is the flip side of the
coin. Unfortunately President Rajapaksa, consciously
or otherwise, refrained from flipping the coin over
to take a long hard look at what was plain enough to
see if one had the will and the courage to look.
Let me quote Rajapaksa: “To
the best of my knowledge I cannot say that our foreign
service has carried out this task very well. I regret
this. I am able to talk of this with some understanding
as I have experience of this in my 36 years in politics
and meeting many ambassadors and high commissioners
and information obtained from the staff of our embassies.
That is why I wish to emphasise this.” The president
was referring to the need for diplomatic missions to
attract foreign investment to the country.
I have had almost 45 years experience,
not in politics but in the media, and in three countries
where I too have met hundreds of ambassadors and high
commissioners of other countries.
During my 10 years in Hong Kong--many
of those as diplomatic editor of a newspaper-- I inevitably
met many, many, high calibre diplomats from over 80
countries represented there, some of who went on to
hold high office or were promoted to key posts abroad.
Some of those who opted for Hong Kong
were under the impression they would have a quieter
life there than in their previous postings. They learnt
their error within a couple of weeks.
Mahinda Rajapaksa has passed through
Hong Kong when he was Labour Minister. I don’t
know whether he met any foreign diplomats then but they
were very busy people in an even busier place where
24 hours a day was not enough.
President Rajapaksa like Premadasa
before him seems to scoff at diplomats attending “evening
parties” as though it was kapalla bipalla seven
days a week.
How wrong could he be! As so many
high-ranking diplomats in Hong Kong used to tell me,
they were so much on the move that much of their business
was done at receptions where top businessmen and officials
Moreover they were top career diplomats
or well known personalities in their own countries,
not potty party hacks, sycophants and semi-literate
parasites who have to be paid back from the public purse
because they pasted some election posters or treated
one to a gothamba rotti and mus curry in Dubai or somewhere
during one’s less ambitious days.
Those who come for equity, Dr. Colvin
R de Silva used to say in the days when parliament was
an educative and not a cacophonous chamber like today,
should come with clean hands.
It is a pity that with so many so-called
lawyers in the government they have not learnt this
elementary lesson in law and morality. President Rajapaksa
offers bouquets to foreign diplomats because some of
them approach him, his ministers or officials about
products or services from their countries.
Unfortunately, he did not spell this
out clearly. Could it be because tender procedures are
set side in favour of a particular company or product,
because politicians and their panjandrums pocket a handsome
commission or are offered gratifications which, of course,
as honourable men they flatly refuse. Is it because
Sri Lanka has so many “Mr Ten Percent” (some
have probably upped it due to inflation) that diplomatic
pressure has to be brought to bear before some belated
honesty is seen?
If foreign diplomats approach the
highest in the land it might not necessarily be because
they are better diplomats. Rather it could be because
our rulers are easily approached or that there are many
skeletons in our cupboards that those diplomats try
to rattle them in order to stop corruption spreading
deeper and wider.
Such diplomatic behaviour does not
denote greater skill. It is more a reflection on the
foibles of our political establishment.
It is true, more often than not, that
Sri Lankan workers, particularly in the Gulf countries,
receive shabby treatment at the hands of embassy staff.
Such people need a dressing down as the president did.
But on a number of other issues President
Rajapaksa sounded simplistic. He talks of the usefulness
of foreign languages. I thought every foreign service
officer had to learn a foreign language other than English.
Anyway he urges diplomats to study
the language of the country in which they are posted.
Fine. So our diplomats will return to class half of
their time wherever they go. Meanwhile, new tasks, including
telling anybody who cares to listen (and even those
who do not), all about Mahinda Chinthanaya, as though
the rest of the world could care a jot.
The real scream is about promoting
investment and tourism. Like Noah said to the animals
go forth and multiply he tells our envoys go tell the
world what a beautiful place Sri Lanka is.
Elsewhere in his speech, he talks
of having websites and gathering information. Even an
army major sharing a beer with a diplomat who is obviously
interested in gathering information, is viewed as a
triumph of foreign diplomacy not as a reason to chastisise
In this age of high speed communication
and a multiplicity of information sources, it is not
easy to convince others of our essential goodness when
politicians have made an ugly mess that our diplomats
are expected to clean up. Not that we have a great bunch
of diplomats. But their tasks would be simpler if politicians
cleaned up their own dung.
Take investment promotion. How much
real investment has “Roving Boggles” brought
to the country as against his expenditure? He does not
travel alone either but prefers to cart his family along
apparently at state expense.
Value for money, did the president
Have presidential admonitions tempered
his conduct? No. So if the president cannot set an example
of political rectitude by stamping on errant ministers
and corrupt politicians, how kindly would the world
accept his chinthanaya even if our envoys were to kneel
12 hours a day praying to all the deities.
Rajapaksa talks of tourism. He forgets
that tussle between his tourism minister and the chairman
of the Tourism Board who he tried to oust but could
not in the first days of his presidency. Now it is the
minister versus his ministry secretary.
Such serial comedies raise belly laughs
in tourism circles and they readily admit that this
is indeed refreshingly Sri Lanka.
Whatever happened to that inquiry
about forged US visas that emanated from Sports Ministry
premises and a minister’s name was widely mentioned?
Did anything happen or was that too swept under a convenient
What of those 50-odd ministers, politicians
and sundry hangers-on that went to Cuba and New York.
They too had diplomat passports and were ambassadors
at large (some were even larger). What was the credit
they brought the country, travelling at public expense?
Did the money come out of the foreign ministry budget
that Rajapaksa referred to or did he cough it up?
Why was nothing mentioned of that
great foreign policy triumph which was conceived apparently
in the presidential secretariat and hatched in London
of inviting Sinn Fein negotiator Martin McGuiness to
Sri Lanka. Off he went to Kilinochchi and declared to
the world that the European Union should never have
banned the LTTE. There he was a former IRA terrorist
making the pronouncement that was enthusiastically greeted
by Norway and others.
Rajapaksa’s great foreign policy
advisers achieved in one fell sweep what even the LTTE
failed to do.
Today our missions are still trying
to clean up this mess and others that a dim witted government
with a foggy vision of the world has created in our
When a Finland led EU report reaches
the UN Human Rights Council shortly condemning Sri Lanka’s
record, will the public realise that our tragic errors
of judgement have come home to roost.
I mentioned such a resolution was
in the offing several weeks ago. Will President Rajapaksa
spell out how our diplomats should wipe off this tarnished
image? Not with a cloth soaked in the chinthanaya, for