On his third day in Sri Lanka, John Rankin managed to get lost in Colombo. That long rambling walk is part of the new British High Commissioner’s unconventional approach to his work. Having presented his credentials to President Mahinda Rajapaksa, early on, he went on to do the same with the Maldivian President, Mohamed Nasheed as the non-resident British High Commissioner to the Maldives. With other formalities like introducing himself to his new staff and the local diplomatic corps completed, he says he wants to devote time and energy to understanding “what makes a country tick from the bottom up.”
Having taken up his posting on February 14, Mr. Rankin sat down with The Sunday Times for his first interview in Sri Lanka. Laid back and informal, Mr. Rankin reveals that he is still very much in the process of settling in. Though he has his family’s pictures in a position of pride on the grand piano at Westminster House, his books are still being shipped over and he’s thinking about shuffling the artwork in his newly refurbished living room around a bit. It must be taxing to have to uproot oneself every few years, but Mr. Rankin says that it’s one of the things about being a diplomat that most appeals to him – “Each time it’s a real challenge, a learning experience. It’s endlessly fascinating,” he says with evident relish.
|John Rankin: In the process of settling in. Pic by Athula Devapriya
Originally a practising solicitor in Scotland and a lecturer in public law at the University of Aberdeen, Mr. Rankin’s career has taken many an interesting turn. He joined the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) in 1988 as an Assistant Legal Advisor and was later promoted to a Senior Legal Advisor. “The Berlin Wall was still standing when I joined the Foreign Office,” he says, explaining that travelling in Germany at that time was “straight out of the John Le Carre novels.”
Their delegation was followed as they travelled from one side to the other and they were put up in hotels which clearly had two way mirrors in them, he remembers. In East Germany to conduct negotiations on behalf of the British Government, Mr. Rankin recalls with some clarity the events of October 18, 1989, when the then head of state, Erich Honecker resigned. The German party engaged in the negotiations were called back. “I think nobody quite anticipated that things were going to move so fast...the next time I went back to Berlin, the Wall had come down,” he says. The opportunity to have been a bystander at such a pivotal moment in history seems to have solidified his intention to be a career diplomat.
In fact, it was as a part of the UK Mission to the UN and to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva that Mr. Rankin realised he wanted to make the switch. “I really enjoyed the frontline policy work, beyond the legal consultancy which I’d been doing.” He had his chance when he was asked to serve as the Deputy Head of Mission at the British Embassy in Dublin where he worked on the Northern Ireland peace process for five years. He would go on to serve as the Consul General in Boston between 2003 and 2007 (“In Boston, they seem to have forgiven us for the Boston tea party”) and he describes the city as a “fascinating place to work.”
It was his experience in Ireland however – he landed there just after the Good Friday agreement - which may have given him some insight into Sri Lanka’s present situation. He takes pains to establish that he believes no two scenarios are directly comparable, but “having seen the devastating effect that terrorism could have on the lives of ordinary people from every side of the community in Northern Ireland,” he believes that for people living in such areas, the chance to live a ‘normal’ life is one of the first steps in the right direction – “particularly young people have broken the cycle of violence there,” he says, describing the positive effect of new education and employment opportunities on the Irish.
On a recent visit to Jaffna with Alistair Burt, the Foreign Office Minister, he had a chance to see if the same was happening here. He says that his first impressions were of there being a lot of activity with small businesses operating and cultivation taking place.
“I was encouraged to see bits of normal life returning after the conflict,” he says, adding that “the signs of progress are really good, but I also saw the challenges that remained.” Though it is for Sri Lanka to decide how it will move toward a sustainable peace, Mr. Rankin believes the process in Ireland taught him a personal lesson in how important it was to “sit down and engage with people who in past times you would not have had a dialogue with.” Such conversations, especially between people who were previously in direct conflict, helped establish a middle ground and a common cause.
“There is a need to examine some difficult issues of the past, as well as look into the future,” he says. His last posting as Director, Americas at the FCO, began in 2008. With a network of embassies to manage, he had to cope with the humanitarian crisis posed by the earthquakes in Haiti and in Chile. In that time, their primary responsibility was helping British nationals in their time of need and in coordinating relief efforts.
Now in Sri Lanka, Mr. Rankin is looking at capitalising on a tool that might help him meet his biggest priorities. He says he would like to use New Media like Twitter, Facebook and Youtube to not only open up dialogue with both young people and the populace at large, but also to network with British nationals visiting or living in Sri Lanka. (Recently, the British became the first High Commission in Sri Lanka to launch their website in Sinhala and Tamil.) Mr. Rankin, who has blogged a bit and will tweet when out on visits, says that he hopes these strategies will “help me just to make that personal engagement I want to make.”
In his official capacity, Mr. Rankin hopes to strengthen ties between the two countries. As the second largest investor in Sri Lanka, the U.K is already a key bilateral trading partner. From education to construction, Mr. Rankin imagines U.K companies will find a great deal of business here, but he says he’s hoping to go beyond and encourage work in the currently undeveloped high technology sectors. From historical links to modern tourism and a love for cricket, the U.K and Sri Lanka share many interests, says Mr. Rankin emphasising the Commonwealth links.
Over tea, Mr. Rankin describes his first few weeks in Sri Lanka as “fascinating, interesting, challenging.” He also reveals that his wife Lesley, and his children, Heather, Isobel and Angus, will not be accompanying him on this posting. Isobel, who is a second year student of nursing at King’s College, Angus who is still in school hopes to be an engineer and Heather who has just finished her law degree at Cambridge, are expected along with their mother for a visit in April . (Lesley is a health professional focusing on child protection.) “Being apart from them is the difficult bit of diplomatic life,” he says, adding that he is “looking forward to going off on my own with our family.”
Between now and then, Mr. Rankin is likely to have his hands full, but he’s already thrown himself into work...and play. His first tennis lesson in Sri Lanka is already scheduled and he says he will be devoting some spare time to learning the local languages.
On a professional level, he knows that his government expects him to deliver difficult messages and does not doubt that he’ll receive some equally firm ones in response. He seems more than ready to pick up the gauntlet. “I’ve learned a lot in my first three weeks, and I’ve got a lot left to learn,” he says, “It’s been a whirlwind start.”