So what are we — fish, flesh or fowl? Judging by what appears in the print and electronic media on happening in Sri Lanka we are foul, and fouled up badly. For years we thought we were the only Pearl in the Indian Ocean. Now another pearl — an X-Press one at that — has [...]


Playing pandu with our diplomacy


So what are we — fish, flesh or fowl? Judging by what appears in the print and electronic media on happening in Sri Lanka we are foul, and fouled up badly. For years we thought we were the only Pearl in the Indian Ocean. Now another pearl — an X-Press one at that — has joined us polluting our waters.

Tragedy upon tragedy strikes this pearl with venomous intent. But let’s leave the managing of the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent vaccination programmes that some ministers and their juniors greet as “successful” which surely takes a bellyful of gall if not an armful of Sinopharm at $15 a dose, if you will.

Right now I am on a different subject. Last Sunday, the Political Editor of this newspaper devoted a good part of his column to what might be called the mess in the handling of our foreign relations and our foreign policy in general. This is not the first time-and probably not the last — that he has found the Foreign Ministry and its actions sadly and badly wanting.

A few months ago, this column referred to some peculiar (or should I say funny?) diplomatic doings as “diplomessy” and not without cause. Over the years I have had occasion to refer to responses from the ministry and at times its missions abroad as hardly tolerable approximations of the truth and sometimes downright untruths, a phrase that avoids a more apt one.

A lot has been written in the political columns about the conduct of our diplomacy including Sri Lanka being outvoted in Geneva last March at the UN Human Rights Council in a highly critical resolution and Colombo’s mathematical charade to construe the voting as a victory for Sri Lanka.

It is such farcical conduct by some ministers and their political aides that has turned us into a laughing stock in several foreign chanceries as has been told, destroying our once-held reputation for highly professional and skilled diplomacy which has now turned quite sharply to dross.

Having been outsmarted by a group of western countries led by Britain in the absence of the US, we are now proposing to play diplomatic ball with the British parliament as though our defeat on the virtual battlefield of Geneva can be won on the cricket field of the Sinhala Sports Club grounds turning diplomatic comedy into farce.

Some are still trying to unravel a fundamental question about Sri Lanka’s foreign policy. In Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s election manifesto and in his post-election swearing-in as president he said Sri Lanka would follow a neutral foreign policy implying that the policy of non-alignment that served us well on the international stage is to be dumped in the dustbin.

In a post-Geneva interview to a local newspaper Foreign Ministry Secretary Admiral (Ret) Jayanatha Colombage said: “I don’t see a major shift in our foreign policy. Towards the latter part of 2020, Sri Lanka launched its first-ever written, documented foreign policy directives for 2020 and beyond. This 20-point foreign policy is there and I don’t think it needs major changes because of the resolution”.

“The 20-point foreign policy directives were designed to economically develop Sri Lanka and maintain social harmony. We need to continue that rather than responding unnecessarily to the UN resolution. We need to move on for the sake of Sri Lanka.”

Meanwhile Justice Minister Ali Sabry speaking at a discussion along with Education Minister Prof. GL Peiris to promote Colombo Port City said Sri Lanka follows a non-aligned foreign policy.

More importantly perhaps in a statement issued by the Chinese Embassy in Colombo immediately after the departure China’s Defence Minister Wei Fenghe’s visit, it said “China appreciates Sri Lanka’s independent and non-aligned foreign policy.”

So what is Sri Lanka? Is it neutral as the president says it is, with the foreign secretary echoing the words of the president on neutrality, signalling a departure from Sri Lanka’s traditional policy of non-alignment?

If neutrality means staying clear of major power conflicts and following a policy of equidistance, then is Sri Lanka’s current policy one of genuine neutrality? Do our actions at home match the political rhetoric that is intended, one believes, to convince the world that Sri Lanka is striking out on a new path acutely conscious of its geostrategic location.

If so whatever happened to that “India First” policy that we declared so earnestly at the beginning of this new journey? And does neighbouring India, one of the major powers in the growing military confrontation in the Indian Ocean, take Sri Lanka at its word after being ousted from the Colombo port Eastern Terminal project along with Japan?

Where then is the 20-point new foreign policy document that Foreign Secretary Colombage claimed has been done and dusted? Since one had only heard about it from Secretary Colombage but had somehow failed to reach the public I inquired from our High Commission in London believing that our diplomatic missions at least should have an idea what the country’s newly charted foreign policy is.

The lack of space does not permit me to recount in detail what followed that inquiry and so it must remain for telling on another day.

But it appears that formulation of foreign policy has been left to an NGO called Pathfinder in which former minister Milinda Moragoda was a leading light. Now we must wait to see whether Sri Lanka is to be led up the garden path keeping the Wikileaks leaks in mind.

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


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