by Kalana Senaratne
It is time this government gave serious thought to building a positive image of Sri Lanka. First, it needs to worry about how Sri Lankans in Sri Lanka view Sri Lanka’s image as citizens of the country, before worrying about how Sri Lankans overseas or other States would perceive Sri Lanka. If those within Sri Lanka are not satisfied with the image of their country, no amount of monitors would help boost Sri Lanka’s image. The government needs to understand that a country’s domestic and foreign policies are inextricably intertwined. Messy domestic policies lead to messy foreign policies and external affairs.
First, a question of trust and confidence; a question that is being asked these days. There was a subtle way in which President Mahinda Rajapaksa showed that his former Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama was unimpressive and not-so-trustworthy. This happened when a special group – which comprised the then Presidential Advisor Basil Rajapaksa, Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Secretary to the President, Lalith Weeratunga – was chosen to handle affairs with India. Handling the ‘Indian affair’ in the most serious and cordial way possible was one of the most important tasks before President Rajapaksa, especially during the final stages of the armed conflict. He wanted trustworthy men around him to do this.
After the general election in April 2010, came the appointment of Prof. GL Peiris as Minister of External Affairs. It was a refreshing move, an important and necessary one - given the way in which his immediate predecessor had conducted and (mis)handled affairs. It was also important, not because Prof. Peiris was the most principled politician around - but because he was, and is, one of the most educated and academically qualified politicians we have. It was also felt by some that having Prof. Peiris as the External Affairs Minister would help boost Sri Lanka’s image, given his academic qualifications and his relations with the West.
But what seems to have happened to Prof. Peiris after the cancellation of President Rajapaksa’s Oxford Union address is somewhat telling. The appointment of a ‘Monitoring MP’, to ‘monitor’ the work of the External Affairs Ministry is a curious, awkward and odd one. Why a special Monitor, like in a school class-room, to monitor work of the External Affairs Ministry, when there is a Permanent Secretary, a Deputy Minister and a Minister? And why now?
A number of questions arise. Is this appointment a way of showing that President Rajapaksa is unhappy about the Oxford-debacle? Is he unhappy with the way in which the External Affairs Minister and the Ministry in general handled the issue? Is he unhappy with the advice he received from the SLHC in London? It was not so long ago that a no-confidence motion was brought against Prof. GL Peiris in Parliament by the Opposition. But is this appointment of a Monitor the most compelling show of no-confidence, not by the Opposition, but by the President himself?
With such questions hanging in the air, how would the External Affairs Ministry or those within the establishment view these political developments? This is a question that goes unaddressed, and a question that politicians don’t give much thought to. How does the confusion created by these wholly unnecessary and unwanted appointments impact on the diplomats representing Sri Lanka, especially career-diplomats, and the job they are supposed to do?
The government needs to give serious thought to the importance of improving the morale of those who, professionally, are required to defend and further the interests and image of Sri Lanka. Those within the foreign-service establishment are there to stay, and meaningless appointments such as the appointment of ‘monitors’ would only make our professional diplomats more demoralized. Given the nature of our politics, there is confusion caused as to who is in charge; minister or monitor? This creates a deeply frustrated foreign-service establishment, members of which will develop a cynical attitude towards those who are their political masters. The establishment will be divided on party-political lines (if it is not already). More seriously, this could also lead to a situation where some, out of sheer anger and hatred, act against the interests of the country they are supposed to defend. Given the kind of external threats that Sri Lanka continues to face from separatist elements overseas, such a development could be a most serious setback.
Underlying this mess is the inability of the government to realize that building a positive image of Sri Lanka (as opposed to a negative image, which can be built somewhat easily) has much to do with understanding some fundamentals, one being, that domestic and foreign policies are closely linked. It is, in the main, a country’s domestic policy that the diplomat based overseas would need to defend.
For instance, in the realm of human rights, the government cannot expect its diplomats overseas to do a ‘good job’ in defending Sri Lanka, when a simple scrutiny of the domestic legislative framework and the mechanisms established to protect human rights are seen to be failing. The government cannot expect its diplomats to argue that Sri Lanka has credible and independent institutions when political practice and Constitutional amendments do not point in that direction. In terms of ethnic-reconciliation, the government cannot expect diplomats to be doing their best in terms of educating the world about Sri Lanka’s progress in terms of ethnic-reconciliation when serious debates ensue within the Cabinet about whether or not the Tamil version of the Sri Lankan national anthem ought to be abolished. On this issue, it needs to be noted that President Rajapaksa has, correctly, postponed taking a decision on this matter; and one hopes that the President would not only postpone, but simply end the debate, by deciding conclusively that there would be no abolition of the Tamil version of the national anthem. These are the simple ways in which that clear link between domestic and foreign policy can be established.
The point, then, is a simple one. The government cannot expect anyone to monitor Sri Lanka’s image and its external affairs, and such monitoring will turn out to be utterly superfluous, unless serious steps are taken, domestically, to improve its own image by adopting and implementing policies which are meant to address problems affecting the people of Sri Lanka. Some of the views expressed by Sri Lanka’s former diplomats, over the years, and especially during recent times, need to be considered far more seriously by this government. The myth held on to by certain politicians, that our foreign and domestic policies are unrelated and the latter has no bearing or impact on the former, needs to be demolished. In fact, that myth has been demolished. It’s just that some don’t seem to understand this.
(Kalana Senaratne is a postgraduate research student based at the Law Faculty, University of Hong Kong)