It was through Defence Secretary Colonel (Retd.) Gotabhaya Rajapaksa that we got to know that the Government of Eritrea, formerly a part of Ethiopia, a country in the Horn of Africa, had refused to accredit the Charge d' Affaires of the Government of Sri Lanka. The Foreign Ministry has so far made no comment.
It was the Foreign Minister who proposed in August last year that diplomatic relations be opened with the new state. He cited the usual education, trade, economic and political ties between the two countries, but also said that "the exchange of security and intelligence information" is vital to Sri Lanka.
The latter seems to have been the main factor because Eritrea had been considered a trans-shipment point for arms and hub for LTTE activities in the past, and the Government was rightly concerned that it needed a point-man there to monitor these moves.
Hence, though our ambassador in Cairo was to handle diplomatic relations in Eritrea, a senior army officer was to be posted to the station. There was some logic to this, given that it was a military officer in South East Asia who nabbed LTTE kingpin and arms procurement chief Kumaran Pathmanathan alias 'KP'; but whether the officer should have been sent before a diplomat to open the mission is a moot question.
The Defence Secretary blames the entire fiasco on newspaper reports that revealed Sri Lanka's overt intention of keeping a tabs on movements by whatever LTTE fringe elements remain in that part of the world.
One must ask if the normal diplomatic practices were followed. Usually, an agreement is reached between the two countries to establish diplomatic relations. We are told that this was done in Cairo on November 15 last year. The Foreign Minister's cabinet paper to open a diplomatic mission in Eritrea pre-dates this agreement. It is only after such an agreement that the two parties would move for concurrent accreditation. Delegations of senior officials visit each other and then agreement is reached on opening a mission and deciding whom to send. We seem to have put the cart before the horse, and the Foreign Ministry's 'press release diplomacy' about 'finding Eritrean links' etc., clearly unnerved this newly emerging nation.
The LTTE factor is a key issue for the Government, and it is only right that the Defence Ministry keeps a close tab on any developments, but it is important that the Foreign Ministry backs it up with the required expertise on diplomatic protocol.
The Eritrean fiasco must be read with the events that unfolded in London last week, where the Global Tamil Forum (GTF) was held with state patronage.
The Government of Sri Lanka viewed this as an unfriendly act by the British Government. The final declaration of the GTF calls for an economic boycott of Sri Lanka, investigations into 'war crimes' - and self-determination for the Tamils. It is to this type of conference that the British (Labour) Government lent its patronage.
While Sri Lanka's Foreign Minister summoned the British Acting High Commissioner in Colombo and conveyed his Government's dismay, in London our High Commissioner could only meet a Deputy Director of the South Asia desk at the Foreign Office.
It was a terrible comedown for the High Commissioner accredited to the Court of St. James', but then that is the depths to which our foreign relations have plunged. The High Commissioner should not have gone to Whitehall for that meeting. If the Permanent Secretary could not see him, he should have just posted his protest letter.
If that is the kind of hardball the British Government is playing, and we wish to reciprocate, our High Commissioner should have been recalled to Sri Lanka for 'consultations' -- a diplomatic message that conveys unhappiness with bi-lateral relations. We were quick to recall our Ambassador for not being present (he was on leave) when our Prime Minister went to Japan on a private visit, but not for this affront.
Unfortunately, this Government doesn't seem to heed the nuances of protocol, nor realize what a diplomatic snub is, as long as it can play to the gallery in Colombo with street demos demanding that the British go home.
Still worse was that at the meeting, the Deputy Director had pointed out passages of Foreign Secretary David Miliband's speech at the GTF meeting on non-violence, criticising the LTTE for terrorist activity, recruiting child soldiers and not tolerating dissent, -- as if our High Commissioner cannot read English.
Mr. Miliband had also lectured Sri Lanka on human rights. This from one known for duplicity even at home; he recently hired a star Queen's Counsel Jonathan Sumption to suppress evidence of the MI5's (the British External Secret Service) complicity in torturing a terrorist suspect in a case before the British High Court.
One can empathise with the British (Labour) Government battling to survive at the upcoming parliamentary elections and desperate for every British Tamil vote. This arguably, is not the time for it to be considerate towards a fellow Commonwealth member-state and think how it would feel if the Colombo Government supported an extremist Islamic organization that had sympathies with al-Qaeda.
But, enough of British hypocrisy. Where is Sri Lanka's foreign policy heading? Just the other week we lost the GSP+ duty concessions for Sri Lankan exports to Europe despite four Cabinet Ministers making frequent visits to Brussels promising the President that they can turn it around. And, Sri Lanka cannot hope for a change of heart in Britain later this year because even the opposition Conservative Party only recently reprimanded Sri Lanka on the manner it was handling its democracy.
The Defence Secretary has conceded that it is "very difficult" to suppress the residual elements of the LTTE internationally - the 'transnational, transitional Eelam' without the support of the West.
Isn't there then an urgent need to re-evaluate Sri Lanka's foreign policy with the West? The credo of the new world is engagement, not confrontation.