We don’t know whether we are we coming or going’, a colleague remarked expressing the state of confusion that prevails on some of our key foreign policy issues. He was referring particularly to the status of the said visit to Sri Lanka of the three member panel appointed by UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon regarding allegations of ‘war crimes’ by our armed forces.
Moon had said that after long consultations between him and President Rajapaksa the panel of experts will visit Sri Lanka and meet the Lessons Learnt and National Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) and he hoped the panel would get good cooperation. He appreciated the flexibility of the Sri Lankan government.
‘Patriots’ in uproar
These reports indicated that the Sri Lanka government was backtracking on the tough stand taken earlier that such a visit by UN experts was tantamount to violation of the country’s sovereignty. Reports that the UN panel would be visiting Sri Lanka resulted in an uproar among ‘patriots’ who have earlier upheld the government’s resistance to this panel of experts and the uproar has renewed.
During last week it was reported that visas had been granted to the panel of experts for them to give evidence before the LLRC but reports from the UN said that giving evidence was not the purpose of the visit. Other reports said that the experts would meet the panel outside Sri Lanka. So the visit of the UN panel of experts remains in a state of suspended animation and the ordinary people truly don’t know whether the experts ‘are coming or going’.
This is indeed a strange position to be in. The UN, whether we like it or not, is the supreme body in international relations and it looks ridiculous when a small country like ours locks horns with it. Perhaps the ego of some Sri Lankans is inflated to a proportion where we are advised to no longer look upon this island as ‘a small country’. It would however be a grievous mistake to ignore how the rest of the world sees us.
GL as scapegoat
The immediate reaction of many including those who may have scraped through the GCE-O and A/L is to take pot shots at the ‘professori’ GL, and his ministry. But are all this his doing? We will come to that later on.
Take the Oxford fiasco over which our pundits have written reams long enough to fill a text book. Whose fault is it that made the stupid diplomatic blunder possible? President Rajapaksa cannot be faulted as a politician to have accepted the invitation to address the prestigious Oxford Union. But it would have been obvious to all Sri Lankans resident in London that the Tamil diaspora fanatics would attempt to vent their fury on the Sri Lankan President during his visit.
The Sri Lanka High Commission in London rightly advised that President Rajapaksa should not make the visit at this particular time and this was conveyed by Minister Peiris to the President. But the President decided to brave the diaspora hordes. Some of his advisors with little or no experience in dealing with such demonstrations had given him the green light. So President Rajapaksa, like in The Charge Of The Light Brigade, decided to ride into a valley of unknown dangers but fortunately was saved from his ill conceived bravado and advisors by the Oxford Union which decided to cancel the lecture following the threat posed by an estimated mob of 300,000.
It was a colossal diplomatic blunder but the Presidential spin doctors, spun out the garb of Rajapaksa bravado overnight and the Presidential cheer squads went into action before the planed landed on the tarmac of the Katunayake airport. A humiliating retreat was projected as a magnificent act of heroism by the vast propaganda network, now well placed throughout the media, and the imaginary conspirators in London — London police, Oxford Union and British government officials were lambasted while even the Oxford University’s democratic traditions were subjected to cow-dung flung from Colombo. Attempts were made even to link up the fiasco to an ‘international conspiracy’ against the Rajapaksa government such as whenever this government shoots itself in the foot.
At whose doorstep should the Oxford fiasco be placed and whose responsibility is it to resolve the on going feud with Ban-Ki- Moon? The easiest way out is to make Prof. Peiris the scapegoat by ignoring the hard fact that the Minister of Foreign Affairs (or External Affairs as it is now called) is not solely responsible for the conduct of foreign affairs.
Political hangers on
A cardinal flaw of all governments has been to pack all Lankan embassies with their political appointees. Some of them are political hangers on while others had been competent professionals in their own fields but not in diplomacy. Are these people trained and competent to defuse a political bomb that is known to be ticking away? Diplomats we presume by their training could be able to defuse such a bomb through diplomatic channels. Can lawyers, however good they are, rise to the occasion? Highly paid military attaches may be physically able to dismantle a live bomb but not a ticking political bomb. Thus, while the Tamil diaspora bomb was ticking away in London it is apparent successful diplomacy was not resorted to. All the High Commission could say was: ‘Don’t come’ whose political appointees are over crowding the London High Commission.
Since Independence in 1948 till 1977 the head of state who was the prime minister was in charge of defence and external affairs. President J.R. Jayewardene however created the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and appointed a minister of foreign affairs who was kept out of some vital areas which he took on with his brother, the eminent lawyer H.W. Jayewardene. JRJ did not heed the advice of Foreign Minister A.C.S Hameed on establishing an Israeli Interests Section in Colombo under the American Embassy. Likewise at critical times in relations with India, his chief negotiator was his brother.
Kadirgamar the exception
After JRJ all foreign ministers had presidents breathing down their necks save for the time when Lakshman Kadirgamar was the minister. He had a good rapport with his President, Chandrika Kumaratunga and together they were highly successful in their diplomacy, with Western countries, many of them proscribing the LTTE during their time.
Mahinda Rajapaksa had Mangala Samaraweera who was making good progress but in less than two years he lost the portfolio and soon fell out with Rajapaksa. Rohitha Bogollagama lasted three years in the ministry till he lost his seat at the last election. Prof. G.L.Peiris, undoubtedly most erudite and qualified to hold the post has been appointed. But in crucial negotiations with India the President’s brother Basil has been brought in. Prof. Peiris has also a ‘monitor’ appointed to his ministry — Sajin Vass Gunawardena, a confidant of President Rajapaksa but a neophyte to politics and foreign affairs.
Prof. Peiris like all his predecessors has the supervisory eye of the President overseeing him including others attempting to share his cake. Some of the bashing the ‘professori’ receives, it appears, may not be of his own making. Peiris too is not a diplomat but given a competent diplomatic corps much could be achieved.
Sri Lanka cannot hope to be the Asian Miracle with their embassies in important world capitals staffed with political idiots and incompetents.