The more I am inundated with tales from Colombo about the post-Geneva pantomimes the more entertaining it is, restricted of movement as one is with this wretched virus that has kept me locked up for months on end now. In fact this ongoing tragicomedy — as it has turned out to be — started weeks [...]


New math and ganang karayas


The more I am inundated with tales from Colombo about the post-Geneva pantomimes the more entertaining it is, restricted of movement as one is with this wretched virus that has kept me locked up for months on end now.

In fact this ongoing tragicomedy — as it has turned out to be — started weeks before the diplomatic gladiators lined up — virtually speaking — in the Swiss city for verbal battle with some of our warriors already fighting on two fronts. That is against the UN Human Rights High Commissioner and some of the Core Group members who want to roast Sri Lanka as BBQ time draws near.

Despite much of the debilitating news that regularly appeared in print editions and saddening exposès that filled the television screens, some of the stories on political doings and the derring-do of political cronies were hard to believe.

It was becoming more and more difficult to accept these stories — some so hilarious some others so despicable — that I made an appointment with a National Health Service optometrist — the only ones on duty these days — to make sure my eyes were not lying.

I was with her at the time the 47-member UN Human Rights Council was voting on the Sri Lanka Resolution. When I returned there it was on the computer screen — the whole result recording who voted for whom and who did not vote for anybody.

For the first time, as far as I can remember, there were so many who abstained from voting — 14 member states. It seemed as though they were saying with Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet “a plague o’ both your houses”.

But most enjoyable were the few lines that accompanied the score card. It said that government supporters had already accepted that Sri Lanka had won the vote on the resolution. There I was counting the votes on the score card before me and reading the message. I could not still see how 11 was more than 22.

So I shot off a quick message to my informant hoping he was at his computer asking which school of arithmetic taught that 11 exceeded 22. Thankfully he was. The reply was prompt. It said that 11 plus 14 equals 25 and that is more than 22.

Admittedly in any school of Math 25 is more than 22 unless one uses the countdown system. Anybody who has gone to school will tell you that the student who comes first in class is deemed better than the one who comes second. At least it was so when I went to college though I cannot vouch for what it is now.

But on whose or what authority does one usurp the abstentions and add on to your votes and claim victory? To start with that is stealing — the unauthorised usurpation of another country’s vote. I mean to take another country’s vote which is specifically cast in a manner that it would not be counted, and then add it to the votes that were cast in your favour is a kind of fraud, particularly if it is used by the government to mislead voters at home.

It has been said that the Foreign Affairs Minister Dinesh Gunawardena in trying to show the sponsors of the resolution did not win has introduced a new math which hopefully would not become part of the school curriculum when schools reopen after Sinhala and Tamil New Year.

Now that Education Minister Prof. GL Peiris is said to be contemplating a law that protects Sri Lankan soldiers from international prosecution following in the footsteps of the much castigated US perhaps the good professor might consider this “New Math” be introduced in all State schools.

It might create some initial confusion as did the mathematics when first introduced by the ancient Egyptians. But it will certainly place Sri Lankans among the pantheon of great scholars in this universe and promote Vyathmaga to the level of India’s great institution of higher learning, Nalanda.

The new math has great advantages if properly taught and applied in our bilateral negotiations. To begin with when our diplomacy is being handled and led by seafarers no wonder we seem to be all at sea. Some time ago when I referred to Sri Lanka’s diplo-messy there were those who thought I was being unfair.

The last few months have shown the exercise of diplomatic amateurishness, a time when professionalism should have been on display. It is not that we did not know the Geneva meeting was due and Sri Lanka was going to be confronted with a fresh report by the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights.

Given the circumstances and the timing it is all the more reason why Sri Lanka — or more specifically the government which was new in office — should have acted with more circumspection. If the government did not care a jot what the UN or its agencies thought of its policies or actions then one might excuse its bravado performances more for local display and image building.

If the government thought that being buttressed by China both economically and diplomatically is enough to survive particularly when badly devastated economically by an unprecedented pandemic well and good. However much one might reject globalization it is a fact of life and we are in the midst of it.

Foreign Secretary Colombage and Minister Public Security Sarath Weerasekara, both former admirals  know when to have all hands on deck. But it requires more. There is a time you need all competent hands on deck and this was the time, especially when one is new. That was now.

But what was on display was lack of understanding. Take a few examples. One read in the media Foreign Secretary Colombage’s claim that India assured it would support Sri Lanka over the Geneva resolution. Did Colombage misunderstand what India said or intended? Was India referring to supporting Sri Lanka in safeguarding its sovereignty and territorial integrity which is an entirely different issue?

Moreover committing India to a particular position by speaking to the media was surely undiplomatic for he had turned himself into a spokesman for India, thus embarrassing India.

At a time when there was much controversy over the government’s decision to ban burials for Muslims who died of Covid which was likely to affect the voting on Geneva resolution Minister Sarath Weerasekara added more fuel to the fire by signing a cabinet paper proposing a ban on the burqa facial veil worn by Muslim women.

The government tried belatedly to douse the fire but the damage appears to have been done judging by Indonesia, a long standing member of the non-aligned movement, Libya and Bahrain, abstaining from the vote.

This kind of public performance could have been avoided because there was no need to announce it ahead of Geneva.

The Sunday Times pointed to another diplomatic faux pas when the Foreign Secretary called on the Russian Ambassador at his Embassy at Flower Road. This cut right across the grain of diplomatic conduct. Surely it is not that there is nobody at the ministry to ask whether it was au fait to go to the chancery.

It is time the government had competent officials who knew their job back in place at home and abroad.

(Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who was Assistant Editor of the Hong Kong Standard. Later he was Deputy Chief of Mission in Bangkok and Deputy High Commissioner in London). 

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