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Harmonizing our multi ethnic multi religious society without polarization is the way forward

Feb 19, 2011 7:45:03 PM- transcurrents.com

by H.M.G.S.Palihakkara

I wish to thank the hosts of this event for asking me to speak in memory of Professor J. E. Jayasuriya. To state that Professor Jayasuriya was an icon in the realm of education in Sri Lanka would of course be saying the obvious. Many who paid tributes to Professor Jayasuriya now and then have spoken comprehensively about his seminal contributions to almost all facets of education in Sri Lanka be it in policy formulation, textbooks, curriculum development, research, and last but not the least, in the noble profession of teaching, including educating the educators.

I can hardly add to the eloquent testimonies to Professor Jayasuriya’s untiring professional work towards advancing education in Sri Lanka. However, those of us who have had the fortune of being taught by Professor Jayasuriya will, I hope, be forgiven when we pay particular homage to him for we have personally experienced his commitment and ability to contribute so much for so long, on so broad a front. He did so while remaining focused all the time on the fundamental tenet of his profession- the centrality of ‘teaching’ in the complex enterprise we call ‘Education’. For me personally, this was an experience that spanned my learning curve not only as a student of Prof Jayasuriya’s pioneering BEd venture at the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya but also, perhaps more importantly, as a pupil in a small school in the rural South.

During a good part of my primary school life, my scores in arithmetic had been pretty consistent. My consistency however had been in scoring embarrassingly low marks as compared with other subjects in which I scored significantly high marks. As we moved into Grade 9 this track record was disturbed. Our arithmetic class was rather unexpectedly blessed with a rare combination, the combination of a great teacher and a great textbook. The text book that provided inspiration to the teacher was one written by a gentleman called J. E. Jayasuriya. It turned out to be, at least for a few of us in that class, a perfect prescription for our arithmetic allergies. The arithmetic class was no longer a torture session of painful number crunching and computing. It became a venue for a learning process of breaking down issues and working out solutions .That process helped us understand the components of a problem before trying to conceive solutions thereto. I ended up with a Distinction pass for Arithmetic, one of the two D passes that year if my memory serves me right, at our SSC examination in 1961. But more importantly perhaps at least some of us in that class were beginning to acquire the analytical skills needed to address real life issues later.

In retrospect, that textbook was the instrument that demonstrated to me it was possible to transform seemingly complex computing questions into seemingly simple problem solving formulae. It was this unique ability of Professor Jayasuriya to extract simplicity from complexity and his talent as a good communicator that enabled him to win the hearts and minds of many students. He did this with great skill and acceptance on a broad spectrum of subjects ranging from simple arithmetic in junior school to child psychology and personality building taught at the Peradeniya University, that hallowed institution many of us still recall with pride and nostalgia.

Apart from being a great educator Professor Jayasuriya was also a great human being. He addressed his students with a warm heart and a cool head. But he was frank in telling us the truth that at the university, one acquires knowledge and skills in order to be analytical in drawing conclusions, but one acquires wisdom only when these acquisitions are successfully applied to the challenges of real life situations, be it professional work or family duties. In that sense, Professor Jayasuriya was a ’no nonsense’ teacher. He emphasized that as a teacher he can help you to get knowledge and skills but acquisition of wisdom is your own business. In my stint as a public servant from1969 to 2009, I found this truism more applicable to diplomacy than in any of the other disciplines I had to dabble in. This brings me to our topic today.

In discussing the post-conflict foreign policy challenges, I would like to briefly touch upon the intra-conflict diplomatic issues that confronted Sri Lanka especially in the terminal phase of the military operation against the LTTE. This is a perspective necessary to facilitate a better appreciation of the post conflict diplomatic challenges facing Sri Lanka. Before I do that, let me confess that I use the term "conflict" lightly. I do so because precision about terminology referring to Sri Lanka’s problem is not easily achieved, i.e., whether we should call this situation an ethnic conflict; a terrorist problem; a communal issue; a civil war; a counter insurgency operation or even a humanitarian operation as it was described towards the latter part of the military campaign in 2009. Leaving this rather complex discussion aside, I thought we could be satisfied with the term "conflict" for the limited purpose of the topic I speak to, today. That term can denote conflict of ideas, conflict of perceptions, conflict of interests, conflict of prejudices or even the conflict of absurdities. Before I proceed further, let me add another caveat; I speak today not as an expert or an informed academic on foreign affairs. My perspective is that of a practitioner.

Little do we appreciate that Sri Lanka’s conflict (and even its genesis) has been a highly externalized process. This external dimension has manifested in different forms for over three decades now. And it has assumed new meaning and somewhat disturbing proportions in the post conflict period. Consequently, there has been intense external influence and intrusive scrutiny over the conflict as well as many attempts at its resolution. This external influence and scrutiny spilled over into the post conflict period as well.

What are the factors that contributed to this unique phenomenon?

The first contributor is a consistent pattern of leadership failures in Sri Lanka for which all successive Governments and all ‘democratic’ political parties since independence must bear responsibility. When domestic processes fail to find solutions to internal problems, external prescriptions become inevitable. You create space for external forces to advocate and even impose solutions for the latter’s political or strategic convenience, be it from a regional power or from extra regional powers.

A secondary contributing factor is a large and vocal expatriate community or Diaspora that remained very much focused on the Sri Lanka conflict from the outset. A significant and continuous outflow of people, both economic and asylum migrants from Sri Lanka since the 1983 communal violence, has led to the creation of a substantial Diaspora influence group especially in a number of countries in the Western hemisphere. They have in fact become a very influential and vociferous opinion-making body, even impacting on the electoral fortunes of politicians in their respective host countries.

Another development that has externalized the conflict was the so-called "peace process" in Sri Lanka – the failure of which since 2002 has eventually led to the military activity that culminated in the elimination of the LTTE. This process also brought in the involvement of Norway as the facilitator and a group of Western countries known as the co-chairs in an oversight role for the ‘peace process’. This external involvement in the Ceasefire Agreement brokered by Norway and the subsequent ups and downs of the peace talks with the Tigers entailed a great deal of foreign involvement in what were hitherto considered essentially internal affairs of Sri Lanka.

I had taken it for granted that all of us are aware of the well documented role of our friendly neighbor India in this context, until a friend pointed out to me that nothing should be taken for granted! India was indeed a major contributor in internationalizing the Sri Lanka situation and providing intrusive Indian military inputs thereto in the pre-1983 and the post-1983 periods. This good neighbourly influence and brotherly guidance will continue, it appears. It is likely to manifest in more sophisticated but perhaps non-military forms. It may continue not only bilaterally but also through multilateral means. This intrusiveness can grow in intensity and frequency especially if a consensual political process does not take root here to capitalize on the soldiers’ success over the LTTE to ensure a sustainable post conflict peace building process.

Another development that brought further external visibility to the conflict in Sri Lanka was an emerging trend among local political parties to enmesh foreign relations with the interests of parochial electoral politics, by canvassing domestic governance issues abroad, for the purpose of electoral strategy at home.

The unfortunate synergy of all these created many situations in which a negative image of Sri Lanka sharply contrasted against what the country stood for before; a model Third World democracy with egalitarian ethos and socio-economic achievements.

Consequently, when the Government of Sri Lanka began its military activity against the LTTE, after it became clear that the LTTE was not seriously interested in a negotiated solution, the Sri Lanka situation was already under intense international attention.

Last but not the least, one must also bear in mind that in a shrinking world where the forces of globalization and the power of IT are at play, no country remains an island anymore. No situation can remain isolated. For a variety of reasons a conflict anywhere, be it internal or inter-state, will be a matter for attention everywhere as evidenced by recent events in Egypt. Real time television, internet, remote sensing technologies, and robust armies of investigative journalists work synergistically to bring conflicts and humanitarian emergencies instantly to the drawing rooms of millions of homes all over the world. Unlike previously, no conflict can escape public attention anymore. The recent Wikileaks episode demonstrates the power of Internet for dissemination and even disruption. The highly classified state secrets can no longer be counted upon to remain secrets.

Impactful contributions from various social networking web sites have led to dramatic political upheavals in some Middle Eastern countries, signifying that States find it difficult to keep abreast of, let alone keep under control, what was hitherto known as matters of exclusive domestic jurisdiction. It has been said, (and the jury is still out on this issue) that the world has just witnessed the first ‘Face Book revolution’ in Egypt, a phenomenon basically driven from Cyberspace.

It was in such an evolving international back drop that the Sri Lanka security forces approached the terminal phase of its military operation. The LTTE had taken over 300,000 Tamil civilians as virtual hostages, and exploited these innocent victims as human shields, exposing them to the LTTE’s own fire and to the crossfire between the two sides. Given the humanitarian dangers entailed, the ensuing situation was considered by the key international players as one that is ripe for international ‘humanitarian’ intervention in order to bring the conflict to an end through negotiations. This was the prevailing Western (international) sentiment notwithstanding the precautionary humanitarian measures taken by the security forces and the exercise of maximum restraint to minimize civilian casualties and other collateral damage.

The LTTE resorted to the abhorrent practice of holding such a large number of civilians as hostage with blackmail-like intent - to exploit the notion of ’civilian protection’ for their cadres’ safety. They also threw untrained and underage cadres to the battle, employed suicide bombers mostly among the unsuspecting civilians who were crossing over to the government lines and in fact fired at those civilians who were trying to leave. In this scenario of imminent and massive blood-letting and in view of the LTTE’s blatant disregard of all the calls by national and international leaders and bodies like the United Nation Security Council to free this human shield, the LTTE remained intransigent in its refusal to let the people go. They had the cynical knowledge that the human shield was the only last resort security available to their top leaders. Many international figures cautioned of an imminent ‘blood bath’ on the beaches of Puthumathalan on the Eastern sea board. The LTTE and its Diaspora lobby further dramatized this to good effect by threatening ‘ a collective suicide’ on the Puthu-mathalan beach.

For a number of reasons, this was an unprecedented foreign policy challenge for Sri Lanka. Firstly, this was the first time the Sri Lanka situation figured at the UN Security Council. In fact this was the first time any issue pertaining to Sri Lanka’s internal affairs, especially its security and integrity, had come before the UN Security Council. The Council is the only organ of the UN which can issue a legally binding directive to halt a military operation in its tracks, like it did to Israel concerning its operation in Gaza around the same time. The concern for the Sri Lanka Government was that it would have left room for the LTTE leadership to find a way out to re-group, re-arm and resume their terrorist campaign for Eelam. There was therefore understandable apprehension that what happened in 1987 to stop the Vadamarachchi operation against the LTTE could happen again in 2009. While the former of course was bilateral pressure from our neighbour, a regional power, the latter would have been a multilateral decree from the big powers that constitute the UN Security Council. Since such a decree would be legally binding, it would be qualitatively different from other similar calls, including a resolution in the Human Rights Council in Geneva which can be only recommendatory in nature and thus not legally binding.

The challenge for Sri Lanka at that time was to prevent the UN Security Council from issuing such a decree and leave no room for an external enforcement operation to be initiated in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka was able to successfully prevent this from happening by employing a multi-pronged strategy that harmonized military, humanitarian and diplomatic action. This multi-faceted approach ensured the provision of humanitarian support, assistance and protection to the people victimized by the LTTE on the one hand, and facilitated effective strategies of preventive diplomacy in Sri Lanka as well as at the UN Security Council in New York. There was no resolution or any other decree passed by the UN Security Council directing or constraining the Government’s action to bring the conflict to an end.

This was undoubtedly the most formidable multilateral diplomatic challenge that confronted Sri Lanka since her independence. Any mandatory external intervention under the fiat of the UN Security Council could potentially have resulted in adverse far reaching implications on the fundamentals of the Sri Lankan nation state, i.e.… its territorial integrity and sovereignty of its people.

Having successfully achieved the complicated diplomatic task of preventing intervention during the conflict, Sri Lanka seems to be confronted with more difficulties in handling the less complex diplomatic dimension of the post conflict peace building task. This dilemma is seen in even sharper relief in the context of the comprehensive and concerted effort undertaken by the Govt. in the fields of resettlement, rehabilitation, livelihood, infrastructure development etc

In my brief remarks today I would like to refer to a few areas where this challenge is clear and present, and make some observations thereon. I must hasten to add that this is not an exhaustive or complete list but a highly selective listing.

Challenge of reconciliation and accountability:

One of the key post-conflict issues that has been projected here and abroad, some say in a rather contrived manner, is the debate on accountability or the question of compliance with International Humanitarian Law (IHL) during the terminal phase of the military operation. The journalistic short-hand usually poses this complex question as the ‘war crimes’ issue. The Government has established a Commission on Reconciliation which is expected to address a broad range of issues that straddle the conflict and post-conflict period including the humanitarian issues relevant to the conduct of the war. However, certain lobby groups abroad, particularly the so-called Diaspora elements sympathetic towards the LTTE and their political constituencies in certain countries have sought to side-step or even undermine this larger domestic reconciliation effort - an effort that encompasses both reconciliation and humanitarian law aspects while the Diaspora–backed effort is focused only on the latter.

They have called for an international scrutiny on the magnitude of the humanitarian and human rights issues that were manifest in the last stages of the conflict, and the relevant accountability aspects. The pressure for such an inquiry has become greater, precisely because Sri Lanka was able, as I described earlier, to prevent action by the UN Security Council to halt the military operation and thereby provide room, wittingly or otherwise, for the LTTE to remain a key player in a possible negotiation attempt later. This is a challenge that needs to be handled in a careful and calibrated manner in which policies and institutions relevant to governance, the rule of law and diplomacy must work with each other rather than work at the expense of each other. On the one hand we need to safeguard Sri Lanka’s national interests, aspirations of its people of all communities and our image and reputation as a long standing democracy. On the other hand Sri Lanka needs to work with all countries especially with those who may disagree with us on certain issues, in order to project ourselves as a nation at peace and a venue for secure investment and good business during this post-conflict period.

We need therefore to preserve the independence of the local mechanisms created and to show to those who voice their concern on accountability issues, that the Government is serious about addressing them. Most importantly, the Government needs to show the victims of the conflict, be they victims of LTTE terrorism or of the military operations, that the Government is responsive to conflict related grievances as well as their root causes. It is in this manner that one can meet the current challenge thrown at us by those critics of Sri Lanka, rather than hurling abuses at our critics. Diplomacy is all about dealing with people with whom you disagree or agree to disagree. Diplomacy is therefore not a zero sum game of cultivating one or one set of friends at the expense of another.

Diplomacy is also about seeking common ground where none seems to exist. This is especially so when such common ground may eventually bring benefits to your nation not only in terms of investment and economic activity, but also in the form of its image and reputation as a civilized society – a society where peaceful dissent is seen as an enriching experience and an exciting democratic challenge and not an act of treachery or treason - a polity where equity and egalitarian ethos prevail in governance and society. Our sovereignty is best protected in this manner rather than sloganeering it to unreceptive audiences. The Government has done well by establishing an independent mechanism for reconciliation. It is important to show that the nation after emerging from an injurious and costly conflict, still retains the strength of character and the political will to introspect; look at its own track record and see if we had gone wrong somewhere and if we had, what remedial measures can we, as a civilized society, undertake and what course corrections should be made. This message is the one we can and should market in meeting this challenge rather than marketing a message of infallibility cast in a notion of sovereignty which is slowly but surely fading away.

Challenge of Sovereignty:

Let me say a few words on the important matter of sovereignty, again from a practitioner’s perspective. Defending the sovereignty and territorial integrity is fundamental to the foreign policy of any independent nation. It is the bounden duty of any diplomat to do so. Sri Lanka and her diplomats are no exception. This is because the notion of sovereignty is the bedrock on which the nation state system of the current world order lies. Since of late, there has been a resurgence of the sentiment of asserting the Sri Lankan sovereignty. This is justifiably so, considering the nearly three decades of terrorism inflicted by the LTTE upon the sovereignty and integrity of the nation in both diplomatic and territorial terms.

We have discussed the causes and effects of this in the preceding remarks. Our soldiers and the political leadership provided by our President enabled the country to free itself from this manifest threat to its sovereignty and integrity. The nation reasserted the jurisdiction of the elected Government throughout the island, thereby exercising the sovereignty vested in the people as per our constitution. However, can we safeguard our sovereignty so valiantly reestablished by our soldiers, simply by sloganeering it?

There are several aspects to ponder. Firstly, sovereignty is something that cannot merely be preached but must be exercised. Sovereignty carries with it duties towards own citizens. Where there is failure to discharge such duties, fertile ground is created for unwelcome intervention. It is a fundamental tenet of sovereignty that the Government and its security agencies must have the monopoly of the use of force within its jurisdiction and no other entity within or outside the country can be allowed to impair that authority thereby undermining the rule of law. When a Government is unable to or unwilling to exercise that authority for whatever reason, certain crimes go unpunished; certain offenders enjoy impunity and certain investigations waver. When that happens, the principle of asserting the monopoly of the use of force and upholding the rule of law will be undermined and correspondingly, the exercise of sovereignty will be impaired.

It is therefore imperative that illegal carriers of arms and irregular groups who undermine the rule of law and tarnish the good name of the legitimate security forces be brought to book, thereby consolidating the sovereignty rescued by the soldiers. A vigorous program of punishing offenders and upholding the rule of law is required for meeting this challenge.

Another consideration that needs to be borne in mind is, like everything else in the world of Einstein’s physics, sovereignty too is not absolute. Although in the post civil war era in Europe, the popular belief was that sovereignty was almost absolute and enshrined so in the’ Peace of Westphalia’ Treaty, that has not been matched in practice. Moreover, the forces of globalization and wonders of technology, especially the IT and connectivity explosion throughout the world have rendered sovereignty a porous concept.

We therefore have to understand that in the modern world our sovereignty can be safeguarded only to the extent that we learn to live with other nations in an inter-dependent way, not in an adversarial way. Sovereignty has thus become a truly relative notion.

Sri Lanka has signed international treaties and other agreements, each of which require us to share with other countries and multilateral institutions reports and rationale for some of our sovereign decisions. This certainly is not a subjugation of our sovereignty to anyone else. This is an act of exercising our sovereignty and expression of the strength of character of our system to be transparent, accountable and reasonable, first to ourselves and then to others.

Similarly, we as members of the same multi-lateral bodies which look into the reports of other member states, has equal rights to observe and comment on others’ reports which are also expressions of the sovereign rights of those countries. In the modern world therefore we have to use the notion of sovereignty as a tool for dignified engagement and not as a cover for unilateral isolation.

Sri Lanka has always been up front in presenting itself to the outside world and has had a diplomatic profile quite disproportionate to its geographic or demographic attributes and military or economic clout. As a resurgent nation brimming with hope following the elimination of a terrorist menace, we should therefore look forward to asserting our sovereignty amongst ourselves and exercises it with other nations. We can do so most effectively when we are at peace with ourselves and when we invest our military gains in sustainable political and socio-economic processes .Harmonizing our multi ethnic and multi religious society without pandering to elements of polarization is the way forward in this regard.

Projection of this wholesome approach as the articulation of our sovereignty is indeed a priority task for our foreign policy establishment. This is both doable and desirable.

Challenge of human Rights:

Sri Lanka also faces a diplomatic challenge concerning our human rights record. As to whether the kind of diplomatic pressures Sri Lanka is under on this score, is justifiable or not could indeed be the topic of an interesting discussion. However the fact remains that it has become almost ritualistic for certain countries to predetermine their bilateral dialogue with Sri Lanka, focusing on human rights. The media have reported on many such bilateral discussions where our interlocutors invariably refer to human rights concerns in the country and even suggest progress on human rights as conditions for dialogue and business in other areas e.g. commerce, security and even people to people contact.

Several considerations are relevant here. First of all, Sri Lanka need not be defensive on human rights. Human rights problems exist in all countries. Addressing human rights concerns is good in itself. There is no need or in fact no basis to suggest or consider human rights as a Western concept. They are very much a part of our constitutional obligations. And many of the core values embedded in the sutras preached by the Lord Buddha if put together, will constitute a great Bill of Rights predating and perhaps even surpassing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the genesis of the modern human rights regime. We have also freely and voluntarily subscribed to about two dozen international covenants on human rights. These accessions indeed represent the exercise of our sovereignty. It is our sovereign right to commit ourselves to such obligations. Therefore the best way to reverse an adversarial relationship on human rights is to remove human rights concerns from such bilateral agendas.

There are two ways of doing that; firstly, by empowering our domestic mechanisms to promote and facilitate the full and effective implementation of our constitutional obligations on human rights and ensuring that our system of administration of justice is enabled to judge independently and robustly. Secondly we can broaden our bilateral diplomatic discussions beyond a single issue agenda (of human rights) into other areas of common interest e.g. regional cooperation, environment, terrorism, human and arms trafficking, non-proliferation, economic cooperation etc.

If we continue to argue that human rights problems are not unique to us and therefore no one should talk about that, it is simply not prudent diplomacy. Whilst it may constitute a good political speech for local consumption, it may in the long run militate against our own interests, (especially business and economy) our own image building and in fact the longevity of the elected government.

Challenge of ‘Diaspora’:

The next challenge I would like to talk about is the so-called ‘Diaspora’. The phenomenon called the Diaspora has thrown up a number of issues at least as far as Sri Lanka’s foreign policy interests are concerned. One of them is terminological. The dictionary meaning of the word Diaspora is that it represents a people denied of a homeland, legitimate or otherwise. The highly diverse Sri Lankan expatriate community may not fit that description since that community consists of economic migrants, asylum seekers, those who have well founded as well as ill-founded fear of persecution and many more. However for reasons we discussed earlier the word Diaspora has become virtually synonymous with a vast array of external lobby groups, (both pro-LTTE and anti-LTTE as well as pro-Govt and anti- Govt.) focusing on Sri Lanka. We may therefore continue to use the word for the limited purpose of our discussion despite this ambiguity. I have already referred to Diaspora and its potential to do good or harm to Sri Lanka.

We know how the Diaspora came about since 1983, but we know little about how the Diaspora works. We know even less than little as to how the Diaspora can be handled. It was clearly demonstrated by recent events where certain Diaspora groups were able to embarrass Sri Lanka and her President. Equally important is that certain elements of the Diaspora who tried, but failed, to get the UN Security Council to pass a resolution ordering the Sri Lanka Government to stop the military operation have now resumed their campaign to put Sri Lanka in the dock as it were, in the post-conflict period. The recent incidents were only a preliminary manifestation of what could be a sustained and embarrassing campaign. Such a campaign, if successful, could deny to the country the vital economic and political support in terms of aid, FDI and other business opportunities that will be needed for Sri Lanka to invest the decisive military success it secured in a programme of sustainable prosperity for all its people. Certain Diaspora groups may still harbor the ambition of resurrecting a ‘shadow’ LTTE abroad when in fact the soldiers were able to eliminate the LTTE at home.

It will therefore be in Sri Lanka’s interest to engage the Diaspora in two ways:

- by engaging those elements in the Diaspora who do not want to see the re-emergence of the abhorrent ideology and the institutional framework of the LTTE and;

- by launching clearly visible and humanely responsive policies, programmes and projects to address the real concerns of the conflict victims’ communities, especially the minorities.

The desirable course of action for the Government is to undertake such things not as a response to any foreign pressures bilaterally or multilaterally, but as a response to the people’s grievances aired through domestic mechanisms. When local actions progressively become responsive and relevant to minority grievances, the hostile Diaspora will become gradually irrelevant and the constructive Diaspora will become progressively assertive. Thus the domestic reconciliation process will advance and external efforts at polarization again will fade away. The host Govts. will listen less to the Diaspora and more to the Govt. of Sri Lanka. The Diaspora’s adverse impact on Govt’s foreign policy endeavours will correspondingly diminish. The contrary seems to be happening now - a sharp contrast to what transpired during the time when this same Govt. was able to get an EU-wide consensus to ban a ‘peace-talking’ LTTE in Europe. It is in this manner that a preventive diplomacy strategy can be adopted to address and negate the concerns articulated by the Diaspora and their host countries.

Institutional Challenges:

It is perhaps appropriate for me to make a few remarks here on what I would describe as institutional challenges. And they have a relevance to handling the Diaspora as well. The Flagship institution of any Nation’s foreign policy structure is its Foreign Ministry. The career Foreign Service constitutes its crew. Our Foreign Office, now with its significantly improved title of MEA, is endowed with a good crew. Weather being so unpredictable these days, I do not want to call it an all-weather crew but having worked with them for some decades I do know that many of them are thorough professionals who can handle pretty rough weather. It would be useful for the Govt. to assess objectively if the crew capacity has been optimally used to tackle the growing inventory of foreign policy challenges as I am personally aware that many of these professionals have contributed to some significant foreign relations achievements for the country and for this Govt. led by President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

To cite a few; the massive post tsunami coordinating effort, including the GSTP facility (where the Foreign Service and the Commerce service worked hand in hand), the unprecedented airlift of our nationals from the war zone in Lebanon in 2006, almost 6,000 of them at virtually no cost to the Govt; annual diplomatic effort at the UN and European multilateral venues since the late 80s to deter intrusive Resolutions on Sri Lanka; successful preventive diplomacy effort at the UN Security Council without alienating any country to deter intervention in Sri Lanka during the anti-LTTE operation in 2009; a sustained and painstaking diplomatic effort to get a European consensus to list LTTE as a terror outfit despite counter lobbying by a powerful group of countries and a multi-million dollar Diaspora. This action was repeated in Canada where much of the credit should go to the active Sri Lankan community there. It was this same crew of third secretaries, first secretaries , counselors and ambassadors who were in and out of the Chanceries in Europe almost every day carrying a carefully worked out brief as to why their accreditation should impose a ban on an organization with whom the then Govt had concluded a flawed ceasefire agreement

The significance about the effort of these officers was that they did not put up bill boards on the road sides announcing victory and claiming credit the way some other newer model envoys did. Having got the LTTE ban quietly then they would go to work on the next objective quietly, the ban on TRO, restrictions on fund raising and so on. They do so because diplomatic effort by definition is discreet business; one cannot have a high decibel strategy and one cannot crow about victory. Crowing has two problems. You make your diplomatic counterpart on the losing side an enemy. You would also embarrass your diplomatic friend who supported you by clustering him into your camp as it were. So these professionals, as far as I know, do not crow. They work on the next project. But the Govt. must give them projects, give them inspiration, and give them incentives. . The Govt. must recognize them and not downsize their dignity. Professionals cannot and will not publish their success. Govt must do it. Sometimes there is nothing to publish because in certain instances in diplomacy the greatest success is the absence of something, eg. an adverse Resolution on Sri Lanka. You cannot advertise that as if it is a bridge or a road. It is also not a bright idea to advertise that absence or crow about it as you signal your adversaries to work harder next time.

Granted, like in all services all may not be well with the Sri Lanka Foreign Service. As in any group of humans, the statistical law of the normal curve would apply here as well. There may be the fringe of the normal curve - the miscreants in the woodwork. That is the irrelevant minority against whom disciplinary procedures must apply. Like in the normal curve there is the significant majority who are hard-nosed professionals who have our national interest at heart. Like me many of them have become public servants from the rural heartland of our country. I know that personally, having served with them during some critical periods in our national affairs. The Govt. will be well advised to use this knowledge and experience judiciously and not lose it unwisely. Such a policy will stand in good stead in meeting the challenges ahead.

Challenge of consensus:

A new challenge in the foreign policy area is the task of domestic consensus building on foreign policy. Following independence, Sri Lanka initially has had a good tradition of a broad based bipartisan approach to foreign relations. During the last 20 years or so however, especially since the 1983 communal violence, a pattern was emerging slowly but surely where foreign policy issues were being dragged into the parochial political discourse at home. The massive outflow of people from Sri Lanka following the July ‘83 events, the progressive externalization of the conflict and the Sri Lanka political parties tragically exploiting these national issues for short term electoral advantage have all contributed to the unraveling of this consensual approach to foreign policy issues.

It was no longer possible, therefore to decouple a highly externalized ethnic issue from an electorally politicized ethnic issue at home. As a result, we have seen the rather disturbing and I would even say a shameful practice of domestic politicians taking up a range of governance issues with foreign countries and foreign organizations as they were either unable or unwilling to agree, or agree to disagree, on those very same issues locally. The regrettable outcome of this practice is that successive Governments are obliged to deal with a host of domestic governance issues with bilateral and multilateral interlocutors as these very same issues are injected into such discussions by different local political parties. All political parties and all successive governments have contributed to this unfortunate situation.

It is so unfortunate that at one point, when the security forces were able to entrap the LTTE leadership into a small area of the No Fire Zone on the Mathalan coast and when the LTTE held 300,000 people as a human shield, a query arose as to why all democratic political parties in Sri Lanka did not see it fit to issue a unanimous joint call through the Parliament or through some other political forum calling on the LTTE to free these people and lay down arms. Sadly, even at that critical hour, once again our politicians failed abysmally to summon the necessary political will to reach such a consensus. As usual perhaps some did not want to give credit while others did not want to share credit. It was said that had there been such a unanimous call from the democratic establishment of Sri Lanka against what is perceived to be one of the most ruthless terror outfits in the world, the UN Security Council was ready to reiterate that unanimous call. Once again, as events unfolded this was not to be. It is therefore important that Sri Lanka’s political establishment gets back to the path of bipartisan foreign policy making of the past rather than allow vital foreign policy interests to be dissipated in parochial electoral politics.

As one can see, governance and foreign policy are functionally linked. So are the attendant challenges. When governance is in deficit, diplomacy cannot acquire merit all by itself. The converse is also true. Image building abroad cannot be significantly different from the Rule of Law image we create for ourselves at home.

Challenges for all of us:

In conclusion let me revert to Professor Jayasuriya again. He taught our BEd. psychology class the importance of ‘introspection’ for personality building at the level of the individual. ‘Introspection’ by all of us is just as important for post-conflict peace building and reconciliation. As the nation emerges from a costly and traumatic conflict, introspection at three levels will help move the reconciliation process forward.

At the apex level, the top leadership of all sides on the political and ethnic divide must reflect on as to why successive leaderships failed to build a culture of consensus on critical national issues. They must also introspect as to how they can bring about consensual democracy as against the currently prevalent culture of adversarial politics.

At the community level, civil society and its ‘organizations’ must reflect carefully on how to build bridges between national interests and their institutional interests without compromising their advocacy principles.

Thirdly at the level of the individual, the citizens can and must find ways to use their franchise to educate their political leaders on the need to make course corrections towards consensus building on national issues. All BEd. graduates would know that adult education can be a frustrating and costly enterprise. We have to assume that all politicians are adults. We must therefore educate those adults in order to save our children from another round of bloodletting. When you get your governance act together, getting your foreign policy act together will be less of a problem. It is the job of the foreign policy maker to sensitize those who govern, to this stark reality. This may be quite a challenge but one that must be taken up