ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, October 08, 2006
Vol. 41 - No 19
Front Page Columns
Thoughts from London

Those in glass houses shouldn’t shed their clothes

By Neville De Silva

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 ills.

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 gathered.

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 the major.

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 say?

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 political carpet?

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 own backyard.

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 heaven sake.

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Copyright 2006 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.