So it was another mess-up by that once-sacred institution that houses the brains that oil our diplomatic machine. Last Sunday this newspaper referred to the embarrassing episode when the New Zealand Prime Minister John Key and his aides on an official visit to Colombo were almost stopped from leaving the hotel they stayed-in for non-payment [...]


Will they clean up the mess from our diplomessy?


So it was another mess-up by that once-sacred institution that houses the brains that oil our diplomatic machine. Last Sunday this newspaper referred to the embarrassing episode when the New Zealand Prime Minister John Key and his aides on an official visit to Colombo were almost stopped from leaving the hotel they stayed-in for non-payment of their final bill.

Fortunately the communications network in this country worked better than the internal communications system at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs which has undergone name change under the yahapalanaya style of government but certainly not altered the lazy insouciance and bloated image of itself that has characterized the approach to diplomatic affairs and practice in recent years.

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key on an official visit to Colombo is seen here with the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe

What’s in a name asked the Bard. What indeed! Had the return to an earlier name spelt an improvement in performance in the service provided by this ministry that had in the golden years earned the respect of many capitals around the world for the professionalism of its diplomats and the resolute manner in which they conducted affairs of state, one might be excused for glossing over recent errors as the aberrations of ill-trained mediocrities thrust into positions that are hardly their métier.

With the man in charge of minding the store scouring the world for new friendships or capitals to explore, the ministry founders from one faux pas to another while foreign diplomats scratch their heads but publicly pay pro-forma tributes to the new government.

But as the Sunday Times has pinpointed time and again, it is not a single faux pas that has brought embarrassment to this country but several which inevitably leads to questions of the quality of those entrusted with the tasks of conducting national diplomacy locally and abroad.

The embarrassment to this government by the sorry mess the Foreign Ministry made at the tail end of New Zealand Prime Minister Key’s stay is symptomatic of the malaise that has eaten into the very bowels of this institution. Months before the Key fiasco, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on a visit to Japan, fired several salvoes in the hope of rescuing a floundering diplomatic ship.

What happened to the New Zealanders must surely rest at the doorstep of the Protocol Division which is responsible at this end for coordinating visits of delegations from abroad. Yet more recently it has shown that those tasked to shoulder these duties are not only incapable of handling the simplest of them but have also cultivated an oversized ego.

It seems that those who have been thrust into positions they are ill-equipped to handle appear to take their jobs so lightly and lackadaisically without regard to what is expected of them. Here is an example of the attitude that seems to prevail among some of our so-called diplomats. Last month the Sunday Times raised the question of President Sirisena’s visit to Germany. It was a legitimate issue because while it was described as a State Visit there were doubts expressed in some diplomatic quarters whether it was in fact so.

Since I had my own views about what constitutes a state visit I wrote to the spokesperson of the ministry asking for a clarification. That official, Mahishini Colonne replied promptly saying that as it was a matter for the Protocol Division she had passed it on to the relevant division for a response.

That was on February 22. Some days later I sent a reminder inquiring whether Protocol had responded which obviously it had not. In the meantime I emailed several serving officials both in Colombo and at our missions overseas asking whether my interpretation was correct. They all gave their views which corresponded with my own some replying “you are quite correct”.

At this writing on March 10, nearly three weeks later, I am yet to hear from the panjandrums at Protocol. If one of the key divisions in our ministry is unable to answer a straightforward question it means sheer apathy, a lack of regard for public queries or an inflated self-image which precludes them from providing basic information not only to the public but to their own colleagues whose task it is to feed the public and media with information.

Surely the raison d’etre for this government to create the post of a ministry spokesperson was to provide information and answer questions. While that should be appreciated the position becomes non-functional and the spokesperson incapacitated if senior officials in the other divisions of the ministry fail to respond by providing the required information.

The reasons for this range over an area from deliberate obstruction, nonchalance, jealousy and throat-cutting that prevails among some of the present crop of so-called diplomats. Several years ago when I referred to some as “diplomutts” in a column, friends in the career service thought I was being unfair. Naturally it was not a reference to all career officers. There are very competent, well-read, serious-minded individuals who understand and perform their tasks as career diplomats in the foreign services of other nations do.

But the quality of recruits has deteriorated in the last two decades or more, one reason being the politicization of the foreign ministry with inbuilt factionalism and ill-trained or untrained career officers not mentally equipped for the task of diplomacy, jumping over qualified seniors because of their political affiliations.

A case in point is what is happening in the Protocol Division. The kind of purblindedness and arrogance that prevailed when some served in Public Communications with one officer telling me how to write a press release when I was serving at our Bangkok Embassy. It caused then foreign minister Bogollagama to label him “a fool”. This habit seems to have been carried over to Protocol.

The same kind of arrogance and lack of perspicacity had prevailed in some of our other outposts including Sri Lanka’s first and biggest diplomatic mission where dog- eats-dog policies had reduced the effectiveness of our diplomacy.

Luckily for me when I went into journalism straight out of Peradeniya University I came in touch with many career diplomats who later became friends with whom I had close relations and had the opportunity of spending days with them, watching them at work at their overseas posts and their interaction with their counterparts from other diplomatic missions.

Those I came to know included some of those from the very first batch to enter our foreign service such as Vernon Mendis, Arthur Basnayake (who passed away recently), Glennie Peiris, Ben Fonseka and H.O.Wijegoonewardena, my house master at S.Thomas College.

Later there were others such as Manel Abeysekera, Elmo Joseph, Bandu de Silva, Susantha de Alwis, Chandra Monerawala, Jayantha Dhanapala, Wilhelm Woutersz, Nihal Rodrigo and a few who are still in the service I rather not mention for good reason. I had a long experience with Shirley Amerasinghe during the days spent in the Middle East on a UN mission and with Neville Kanakaratne in Washington.

There were others like Esmond Wickremesinghe an adviser to President Jayewardene who would have taught the present lot a thing or two about diplomacy and negotiating skills. Unfortunately the frailties of the current foreign ministry and several of its denizens, let alone a discussion on what is inherently wrong and how some of it can be put right, will take more than a single Sunday Column to air. This discussion must be carried further because structural alterations to the ministry as envisaged in the arrangement with the Singapore foreign ministry is not enough to put this right.

The refusal of the ministry to clarify the innocuous query about what defines a state visit is a classic example of responsible career persons either not being aware of government policy or being imbued in their own importance not to take media queries seriously.

The government has said it believes in open administration and is now ready to debate the freedom of information draft bill. While the government is promising openness, minions in the foreign ministry appear to think disclosing what constitutes a state visit is tantamount to leaking state secrets.

Such people have no place in a freshly-oriented foreign ministry. Either they should seek another career or fall in line with state policy. With heads of missions being called to Colombo later this month for a briefing on what is expected of their missions and their tasks ahead, it would be useful to put down some issues that Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and his team and the Singapore advisers would need to take up at some stage.

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