Bogols theory: Friends in need are friends indeed

  • Denies relations with the West deteriorating
  • Defends friendship with Venezuela, Libya, Iran and Myanmar
By Anthony David and Leon Berenger

Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama says only “friends” would be appointed as heads of Sri Lanka’s overseas diplomatic missions.

“You can’t put an enemy,” he declared when asked why friends and relatives with no known qualification except their pedigree are occupying high posts.

“You have to appoint friends. You have to find friends. I will send only friends because they have to be friendly to us and friendly to the country,” he said.

In an interview with the Sunday Times, Mr. Bogollagama answered questions posed to him on wide ranging issues. Here are excerpts:

Our Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake has been finger-printed in Japan, our former Foreign Secretary and incumbent Ambassador to the UN Dr. Palitha Kohona is reported to have been asked to come to the British High Commission for an interview to get his visa to the UK, our Attorney General Mohan Peiris did just that. The country has never faced such a situation ever before. Isn’t this a failure on the conduct of our foreign affairs?

The Premier was on a private visit to Japan. We have lodged a protest with the Japanese Foreign Ministry. There has been a misjudgment on the need for finger prints. Our envoy has taken up the position that this should never have been the case in accordance with basic courtesy to the PM and the country. The Sri Lankan Ambassador was not present at the airport. Action has been taken about his absence on that day.

I would not treat this as a strain in relations between the two countries. We should treat this as an isolated incident due to the lack of representation at the required level. The Japanese Government has already reacted saying this incident was regrettable. The Japanese Foreign Ministry Director General is scheduled to speak with the PM. In the case of Dr. Kohona he was never rejected a visa or asked to be present at the UK High Commission. In the case of the AG a situation of facing an interview never arose so there was no need to make any public comments in this regard.

So you mean there was no issue whatsoever about Dr. Kohona’s visa?

There had been a lack of so-called content in the visa application as well as the time factor involved.

But isn’t this the usual reciprocal tit-for-tat treatment in foreign relations. We were rather callous with Foreign Ministers and MPs weren’t we? Not issuing them visas. Is it pay back time? Can you say that we are not equally to blame for the deteriorating relations with the West?

The Western league is currently engaged with us. I don’t see this as tit-for-tat from the West or any other part of the world. It was only the other day that I spoke to the British Foreign Secretary David Milliband and a cross-party delegation is due in the country. Their concerns are about the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and the ongoing political process which are also our concerns. We are not a hostile country and we are closely working with the international community.

But there were issues like preventing a Canadian lawmaker from entering the country recently and the cancellation of the visa of UNICEF spokesman James Elder?

We granted a visa but had to retract this following certain intelligence information that had surfaced around the time of the visit. But following this development the Canadian Deputy Foreign Minister as well as the Development Minister for the country visited Sri Lanka. In addition, I am in touch with the Canadian Foreign Minister. On the other hand there are certain local issues where the country has to take decisions. This does not mean that a particular country is a target. As far as James Elder is concerned he is still in the country.

Resisting unfair pressure by the West in the last days of fighting with the LTTE was a commendable thing the Government did, but now that the ‘war’ is over, are we unable to shift gear and re-establish our old ties with the West?

President Mahinda Rajapaksa has been meeting with several heads of state. I too have met several foreign counterparts and other top officials where bilateral discussions were held. The President has even met British Prime Minister Gordon Brown on three different occasions. So we have been interacting with the Western bloc. The President has also met with at least 10 European leaders from time to time. We even have engagements with the United States on a regular basis.

But despite all these engagements that you speak of we are set to lose the crucial GSP concessions.

We have not lost the GSP concessions .

However didn’t several Western countries band together in bringing about a resolution against Sri Lanka at the Human Rights Council in Geneva?

A month after we defeated terrorism a resolution was brought at a special session at the Human Rights Council in Geneva seeking an investigative process initiated on Sri Lanka. Did it succeed?

Although the resolution was defeated it was clear that the Western countries did not support us. Isn’t it?

Any way the West was hostile. The resolution itself was a school of thought and a philosophy that they believed in that at a time Sri Lanka had defeated terrorism they wanted us to account for what took place during the war. But some countries thought they could satisfy locally LTTE backed constituencies by supporting the resolution. The demand from these constituencies was to protect Prabhakaran. Since they failed to protect Prabahakaran they thought they would get Sri Lanka to account for it. If the West was strong they would have got more votes and succeeded in the resolution.

Some countries that were originally listed to vote against Sri Lanka even withdrew at the last-minute.

Earlier on you spoke of the constant connections with several countries. Don’t you think you should have had more support from the West during the special session in Geneva?

Some sections thought that the LTTE leadership should not be allowed to be liquidated, even though they were engaged in a bloody military campaign against the Sri Lankan Government. When the LTTE was on the brink of defeat the International Community thought there should be a surrender of weapons. That’s the time we thought that the responsibility of dealing with the LTTE lies with us as a sovereign country and we took a decision accordingly. Today, we are free of terrorism.

There is clearly a qualitative shift in our foreign policy direction. We are not only getting closer to India and China, which is understandable, but also to questionable democracies like Venezuela, Libya, Iran, Myanmar while distancing ourselves from the West – with whom even India and China are doing roaring business. Why are we getting isolated?

What is the problem with the Government getting close to India and China? Lot of our past leaders did not have the kind of relationship we enjoy with India today. The JR Jayewardene administration had only a bitter relationship with India. There was no trust. Therefore, we had to pay a heavy price. Today we have been able to defeat terrorism. Even the UK and several Western countries have dealings with Libya, and even Venezuala. So what’s wrong in us dealing with them? Iran is a traditional friend of Sri Lanka. They have assisted us in difficult times. Hugo Chavez is part of the oil network in the world and Sri Lanka is also going for oil exploration and his assistance will be helpful towards this end. Why shouldn’t we deal with Myanmar?

Isn’t it the West that has sustained us economically all these years – the Mahaveli, aid projects, the GSP+ duty concessions, our people are employed in those countries, our students are there, still. Isn’t this isolationist policy going to hurt ordinary Sri Lankans both here and abroad?

We appreciate all the assistance given by the Western powers, but they too are currently facing an economic melt down. Kuwait has provided help, while Japan is the single largest donor to the country. We are also currently building a close relationship with Australia and even moving into the African Continent.

The Ministry itself is full of shortcomings. High Commissioners and staff serving abroad are recalled mid-way with no reasons given, friends and relations with no known qualifications other than their pedigree are occupying high posts. You seem to be rectifying some of this now, but the damage has been done under your watch.

We have 57 missions in the world. We have 165 members in the Foreign Service. All heads of missions are political appointees. We now intend to maintain a reasonable balance between these appointees and those from the career service. Since I came into office we have been recruiting regularly to the Foreign Service. We have about 20 new recruits. If you have to appoint somebody you can’t put an enemy, you have to appoint friends. So you have to find friends. I will send only friends because they have to be friendly to us and friendly to the country.

Your own personal conduct has come in for criticism in the media and among the public. Is the story of your daughter’s birthday party in New York being paid for by Government funds true? Who funded your family safari in Kenya? Your Ministry ran out of funds and travel agents demanded you pay their charges which could not be met. Supplementary estimates had to be brought in Parliament.

I strongly deny the story about my daughter’s b’day party. They say Rs. Two million was wasted on the birthday cake. Where is the proof? Are there any pictures of this cake? This story was cooked up by certain sections of the press with the connivance of interested parties. No government funds were misused. My visit to Kenya was official, but the safari was on personal funds. My family and I have been globe trotting from the very early years. Safari’s of this nature are not new.

Regarding supplementary estimates the issue is that the Foreign Ministry sometimes spends for visits of other ministries and departments as they are visiting on behalf of the Foreign Ministry. For instance, the Attorney General visits on behalf of the ministry. Also after allocation of funds for overseas missions if there are currency fluctuations we have to get additional funds.

The State will have to pay Rs. 40 Million to host the next meeting of the Asia Co-operation Dialogue of which you are the Chairman to be held next month in Colombo

This is the largest grouping among Asian countries. It is important to get the foreign ministers to Sri Lanka. Shouldn’t these people be part of our economic agenda? This is to pursue economic co-operation. This is going to be the economic platform. We got the Chair over Kuwait.

But you didn’t attend its last meeting , although you say it is important.

I had to go to Australia during that period.

Why are you so reluctant to erect the statue of the late Lakshman Kadirgamar at the entrance to the Institute by his name?

The construction is currently underway at the desired spot. This is not an issue. Earlier there was an issue that there could not be a statue on Galle Road. Thereafter we selected a plot in the Vihara Mahdevi park. But there again there was a problem as you can’t have two statues on the same road as there was already one at the Liberty junction

Who brought in that regulation ?

The Municipality. Now we have decided to put up the statue at the Kadirgamar Institute. The statue will be put up within the premises, but in a manner that it could be seen from the road. I have already selected the architect for this. An estimate of Rs. 6 million was given by the Central Engineering Consultancy Bureau (CECB) and when I went to the cabinet with the estimate I was told to reduce the cost. The process is on now to put up the statue.

What is our policy regarding Tibet? Why have we not given the Dalai Lama a visa to visit the Dalada Maligawa? Has China asked you not to?

We maintain a one China policy. This amounts to recognizing only the visit of the head of state. Therefore Tibet does not come into the frame. It is the same case with Taiwan. We do not recognize these two countries. China is well aware of this policy. Dalai Lama will not be given a visa to Sri Lanka whether he is a Buddhist or otherwise.

The IDPs are an issue not just internationally but even domestically. But why can’t we tackle the subject with our overseas critiques with some diplomacy and finesse?

We will be briefing UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon on Monday. We are concerned about the situation and are keeping the international community informed.

The Government has been criticized both locally and overseas for the suppression of media including the harassment of journalists including intimidation and various forms of threat. You are a key minister of this Government, so what are your views?

We must assess the conditions that have made journalists leave the country. I believe it is more a case of propaganda that journalists are getting targeted.

But, there has been a series of incidents which have forced journalists to leave the country.

Yes, there have been instances, I don’t condone them. But at the same time if one gains personal glory or personal benefit from so called threats one must be able to distinguish between those cases and the genuine ones.

But wasn’t there a genuine threat to some journalists?

Yes and those should always be assessed.

But, aren’t you concerned about the situation.

I am

You are not the Foreign Minister of a Banana Republic, then ?

I am the Foreign Minister of a democratic country, which has a parliamentary system, and independent judiciary, a free press, an open market economy among other freedoms. I am not the Foreign Minister of a Banana Republic.

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