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Sri Lankan Foreign Service: Beating the “Deer Skin” at Home?

Feb 26, 2011 5:15:00 PM- transcurrents.com

By Bandu de Silva

It looks as if all Pundits have spoken their mind on the recent performance of the Foreign Service and there is nothing more left to be said. But as an old Foreign Service hand, now watching the claims and counter-claims by present generation of our Ambassadors over their respective achievements in Geneva, New York and elsewhere in sheer amusement, I get the impression that Sri Lanka’s foreign policy is being reduced by these few Pundits to a view that nothing mattered other than what happened in Geneva or New York. That is against what another vocal former Sri Lankan diplomat, K. Godage has been saying repeatedly that “our major foreign policy challenge is right here, just 30 miles across from our shores on the other side of the Palk Straits”

We see the problem right now. This week as I write two eminent Editors of the island’s two leading Daily newspapers have devoted their learned Editorials to the brewing problem over daily intrusion by Indian fishermen to Sri Lankan fishing grounds off Jaffna peninsula and its foreign policy implications. On the other hand, I find in the article published in The Island under the name of Foreign Minister G.L.Peiris, a somewhat different emphasis.

There is neither mention of Geneva or New York in the Minister’s article, but a concentration on bilateral situations, and in general global situations, the promotion of trade and investment, and in respect of the local scenario related to foreign policy issues, advances being made on the local situation in respect of detainees in IDP camps, and speedy implication of recommendations of the LLRC. These measures indubitably contribute to influence the international climate towards Sri Lanka. One may even consider the Foreign Minister’s article a subtle rejoinder to those who have tried to emphasise the Geneva/New York as the epi - centres where foreign policy issues are concentrated and the issues raised there.

The claims and counter claims over the role of Geneva and New York, and of the respective role each Ambassador played, are best left to be analysed by the future generations. That is what I would say as one trained in the [empirical] discipline of a historian, where we learnt that things should be allowed to lie till the actors are no longer on the scene. That is the time needed for a dispassionate assessments in a truly historical perspective. Against that background, what former Ambassador Sarala Fernando has said about Geneva situation at the time she left, and what Ambassador Dayan Jayatilleka sid in countering it and the support lent by Prof.Rajiva Wijesinghe in favour of the latter’s contention are simply waste of time which is not going to help the brewing situation before the Sri Lankan government right now.

If they are relevant for the purpose of planning future strategy that is best done in private conclave than in public. This is an area where the Foreign Office /Government could make use of the experience of immediately retired diplomats as our neigbouring country, India, does but that sort of idea is never acceptable here. So there may be a point in the critique that the Foreign Office bureaucracy at a given time is closing its ranks and this could be seen as part of the problem which gives rise to open discussions like what we are seeing now.

One could not be blamed if one looked at these claims and counter claims simply as ego-boosting situations before the public; and in the case of those still holding office, a kind of acting as well before the powers that are, to demonstrate (should I say defend?) how important their personal role had been. In all these claims one cannot fail to recognise the ‘ego’ factor; or one might even say, ‘survivival ’ factor. The retired Ambassador cannot be accused of the latter unless she too is expecting some kind of reward. What seems to be highlighted in this debate then is the personal factor, and not the circumstances which brought about that. that might be an old way of looking at situations and persons like Prof. Rajiva Wijesinghe seem to be on the side of the personal equation.

Speaking of reward for service rendered, that is a common thing today when it comes to diplomatic appointments, it is the military service, but not other consideration that seems to be of importance for selection. For any analyst in the diplomatic scene anywhere, that is a pointer to the importance attached to military service in this country today. That is what one saw under the dictatorial regime under Suharto in Indonesia, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and under military regimes in Bangladesh, just to pick up a few examples in our own region.

The military officers are seen as the savior of the country in Sri Lanka now despite a former Army Commander being incrassated now for other reasons. But it was not so earlier. That points to the ascendancy of the role of the armed services in this country as I told an International Conference on Asian Studies held by the Royal Asiatic Society/ Open University of Sri Lanka in a paper presented last year. Armed services were once considered a despised profession even in the U.S. before men like General Abram and a few others brought the armed services to the top even above the civilians. The popular concept of the soldier In Sri Lanka in the popular ‘Kolam’ plays around my hometown and at Ambalangoda, a soldier, as I well remember, was presented by a ‘Kolam’ mask which looks despicable even to look at, was no different to that of the concept in the U.S. earlier, and later in the ‘Hunuvataye Kathawa’, a play adopted from the ‘Chalk Circle.”

The result in Sri Lanka today is to reward the officers with diplomatic appointments. That is also a twin recognition that diplomatic service, especially, the higher posts are seen as plum positions in public service – a service now lost its true significance and come to mean “Diplomatic [Reward] Service, ” and on the other hand, the rise of the officer class. “Why only, the ‘starch-uniformmed officer class’? Why not for the average soldier wearing muddied boots toiling in the mosquito-infested bunkers who did the actual fighting making the greater sacrifices? One may ask.

There is also no longer any evaluation if any civilians, either from the trained cadre of professional diplomats, or other competent persons in civilian life who are capable of meeting the obligations of the responsibilities attached to a diplomatic post. One can see the contrast in former State Secretary, Henry Kissinger’s statement about the career service. The consideration in Sri Lanka now is not the present or future requirements of the land but a recognition of what one did in the past in the battle field or in an air-conditioned operations room in Colmbo! Some of the candidates may be what in America they called ‘spit-shined and polished boots’ or ‘starched khakis; ’ or as General Collins called some of his Service colleagues ” Mother-fuckers” (quoted by Prof. Andrew V Bacevich in “New American Miltarism”). Some in Sri Lanka were even utter failures in the battle field as the former Army Commander General Gerry de Silva wrote in a learned paper which I quoted last year at the international Conference last year.

Today, one can be catapulted from a highly controversial role from the battle field giving lessons to troops how to direct mortar fire – this is no exaggeration, hundreds of the public were made privy to a Video film presented to a packed public audience sometime back by one of them - to the chamber of the UN Security Council or its basement consultation rooms or elsewhere! So, it is the battle field performance and even non-performance in some cases, which is the applied criteria for diplomatic rewards. And the country complains that the professional diplomats are not doing their job to defend the government!

The government may have a point in appointing all Service personnel as Ambassadors to world Capitals. They can answer the critics over any charges of war atrocities as they were the ones really familiar with situations in the battle field far better than the professional diplomats who are largely used to writing long reports and making good speeches. Not so always! There may be points one could learn from this other discipline, like my learning how to approach political reporting under a Major General I worked with . That was when I was the adviser to a Major General who was the head of the mission. being a senior middle range Foreign service officer nearing Counsellor rank at that time . He even demonstrated to me how to write political reports in military style!

He showed me that his Report was like a battle field plan: scouting, strategy planning, frontal attack, flank attack in support, withdrawal in face of stiff opposition. The last point, he said, was the most important. That was his defence if the Report was challenged in the Foreign office! He was not just a Sandhurst trained army officer but also a Barrister from one of the prestigious Inns in London. The gentleman was the Sri Lanka’s first Army Commander, Major General Anton Mutucoomaru, one of the finest gentlemen I ever met and a human being to the core. I even wondered if he could have ever engaged himself in active service in war/battle! But such men are very rare!

One must not forget the role of females also in promoting their respective husbands in military service to heads of mission posts. I remember once, one of these ladies seeing me wearing a pair of shoes with spit/spin polish, asked me what shoes they were and where I purchased them. The pair was about 20 years old even then, and is still giving me good service at 35 years. I told her they were ‘K’ shoes well known in the old days in the colony. The next thing I knew was the husband being appointed as head of mission to the country where ‘K’ shoes were manufactured!

Let us ask some more serious questions. What is the message we give to the world when we send out serving/ retired Generals and other Officers as heads of mission and other rankers where civilians may seem more appropriate? Isn’t the message that we are a country run by Generals, like former Suharto’s regime in Indonesia, or even Saddam Hussein’s in Iraq, though it is not actually so in Sri Lanka. But that provides grist to the mill of the Diaspora. They have the work cut out for them. They would ask, as a group of them posited against me on the Zurich television once, ”Look, who is representing the country? Doesn’t that prove our point? “ And that will go down far better than thousand of reams of government propaganda denying such a situation in the country - I mean the ascendancy of the armed services over the civilian administration.

The present situation of diplomatic appointments to many world Capitals is then enough to prove the point that we are a highly militarized country, not only with proof of a military budget far exceeding what the country can afford, but also with reported 60,000 soldiers breathing down the necks of Tamil citizens in the North as the TULF leader, Ananda Sagari, a moderate Tamil politician wrote this week. This is no plea that the country should not be prepared to meet its security concerns. I am strongly of the view that it cannot moderate its security arrangements right now.

Let’s move on! The task now is to handle the situation in Geneva during the coming days but our lieutenants (diplomats) are fighting among themselves to the amusement of the adversaries, even exposing the weaknesses on our side. To quote a phrase from the late President R. Premadasa which he often used in my hearing “ Mama me udu-gan bala oruva pedagena yanakota mage habal karayo eka eka habl walin gahagannawa.” (when I am rowing my boat up stream my oarsmen are fighting among themselves). How true! Sure! One would have expected some constraint on the part of the polemists!

Coming to Kalana Senaratne who wrote on the subject of Foreign Service’s role a few days back, his title killed my enthusiasm to read it. However, reading it on, I found it was not about the title but something different. It was a critique all round of the type I have engaged in here. He should have avoided the title and the concluding sentence. But I suppose he also wanted to join the bandwagon to bash the Foreign Service, which is a popular theme of the uninitiated as well as the Professorials.

In more recent times, only Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadiragamar recognized the importance of the professional Foreign Service and helped to build it up. After him it was ruined again vey recently. Later, under the former Minister one heard we were back in the Hamidian era when institutional mechanism that Prof. Rajiv Wijesinghe wrote about was thrown out of the window, and senior diplomats were seen quarrelling for ministerial favours as the media reported.

Way back, one reads in the then Indian High Commissioner, J.N.Dixit’s book, “Assignment Colombo” that he virtually avoided the Foreign Office and dealt directly with the President. At individual level, Mr Dixit wrote, he recognized only two officers in the Sri Lankan Foreign Office, namely, Secretary W.T. Jayasinghe, whom he called a correct Civil Servant, and Director of Asia, the late Jayanath Rajapaksa as a very capable officer. That is what Prof. Wijesinghe would have recognized as “individual out-put.” On the other hand, a very senior Indian Foreign Service officer who is still my family friend whom I had known from salad days, told me during one of his very important visits to Paris that his government did not trust the Foreign Minister Hamid! That was confidential to me but that was well known.

Now we learn that out of 39 months in office the recent former Minister was out of the country 36 times! One cannot complain if that brought results. From the point of statistics, I thought it was bad in the time of the first Foreign Minister A. C.S. Hamid who visited Paris alone where I was first Charge’ and later Ambassador at least once a month, for reasons I knew not as head of the mission! It was only on one occasion that a need arose for me to meet him and that was when I was Charge, when I arranged for him to meet the French Foreign Minister, Guirengo, a former French career officer, over garment quotas for Sri Lanka in the EEC (now E/U) and later invited him to dinner in my house. He was ever thankful for that and had been telling my friends about it for a long time.

One thing must be said in favour of Mr.Hamid. He did not trouble me expecting attendance from me or asking me to meet him at the airport which he knew could not be expected of me, perhaps, remembering that he sat at my feet as a younger M.P. to listen to my lecture series on China delivered to a group of close friends in the room of my friend Sirisena Cooray, who was later the Colombo Mayor and a Cabinet Minister. That was also, perhaps, my undoing later, the cause of a period of tumultuous relationship between us when he became Foreign Minister.

We have now a Foreign Minister in whom the country could place confidence because of his academic brilliance. But foreign policy making is not all that. The Minister has to be receptive and should have a strong motivated team to support him as Ranjan Wijeratne built up, and I knew of, during his short term and Lakshman Kadiragamar did later to a finesse, as acknowledged all round.

In 1983 after the July riots, the international situation was very bad for Sri Lanka. So was the bi-lateral situation with India which saw a near invasion of the island by India. As such, the country had to handle two problems at the same time. President J.R.Jayewardene looked for “his” senior professional diplomats at that stage. I myself was picked up from hibernation –one may even call it the “Gulag” after nearly three years in exile and sent to Paris and to cover Switzerland, Spain and the Vatican.

The narration of this unsavoury past events is only to show how we moved away even then from essential to parochial after a period of building up of a fine tuned institutional mechanism at the Foreign Office under Prime Minister Mrs. Bandaranaike. Mr. S. W.R.D. Bandaranaike did not live long enough though he himself wanted to build up a strong mechanism.

It is the need for a fine mechanism at the Foreign Office that Prof. Rajiv Wijesinghe has finally stressed in his article in defence of Dayan Jayatilleka’s role in Geneva? True! As it is who is responsible for emasculating this institution which under Prime Minister Mrs. Bandaranaike saw its performing best earning plaudits round the world? One may say that the situation changed after the 1980s and Sri Lanka’s foreign policy had to meet serious challenges arising from the LTTE insurgency and the way the government responded to it. The Diaspora was active then too but not to the extent it is today and the world opinion had not firmed up against Sri Lanka as it was later.

What are we doing today? Only paying lip service as Prof. Rajiv Wijesinghe has done in spotting the problem? Is that enough? Now one cannot blame the professional service because there is no such thing except in name and a set of demoralized officers hanging there. A few raw newcomers are pushed up as Ambassadors. I am not saying this from a point of superiority. It took me 30 years training/experience to rise to the position of being selected as an Ambassador and that to the important post in Paris with other concurrent accreditations. Today you reach that position in one thirds of that time or less when in the old days one did not even qualify to be a Senior First Secretary. Something must be wrong in the recruitment/ training policy that the Foreign Ministry now does not have the full capacity to send out mature career diplomats as heads of mission. Or else, either there must be a qualitative improvement today; or there were qualitative shortcomings in the old guard. One thing must be said.

Judging from the performance of some of the non-professional heads of mission sent out today, the foreign establishment has become cumbersome, costly, and inefficient. That is what I heard from Australian friends, mostly old journalists and professionals when I went their two years back and met many of them and Sri Lankans at a dinner offered to Sri Lankan cricketers. Many of the professional diplomats of ten year standing have proved to be far more effective in recent times than others.

The professional service cannot be blamed for the omissions and commissions every one speaks of. The issue must be addressed to non-professionals as well who constitute a wide segment of the Foreign Service at the head of mission level and other level.

Kalana Senaratne touched on important points. Palihakkara too did so when he said the governance and foreign policy are closely -, and I would say inseparably - twined. They are the policies of the government that diplomats are asked to defend. If the problems which are right here are not removed how could the diplomats defend them? This week, a news item highlighted that the Human Rights Commission had not been functioning for several years and new members are just been appointed when another round of diplomatic battle is about to be faced in Geneva. What more evidence was needed to give to the world that there was no human rights violations in the country when there was reluctance even to appoint the Commission? I recall Dr.Radhika Commaraswamy telling the President at the time of her departure to the UN to fill the post she was vacating without delay. But did it happen? My memory is blank on that. I shall not touch on other areas Kalana Senaratne has listed as this essay will become unwieldy.

I recall, when there were human rights violations in the 1980s when actually human rights awareness record was almost nil, I worked along with the Late Mr.H.W.Jayewardene, P.C., to set up the Human Rights Centre in Colombo to impart H/R education to the ranks of Police and Armed Services and a general awareness all round. We did not run away from responsibility. We worked with international organizations to obtain their support which was appreciated and willingly extended . That was part of the job assigned to me by Mr.Jayewardene. What are we doing today except beating the ‘deer skin’ (‘muva-hama’) at home (the Foreign Service) as the local adage goes? Surely, on the lines of Kalana Senaratne ’s article, we ought to engage in some soul searching without blaming everything to the Foreign Service.

There is another point in Kalana Senaratne’s article which deserves attention. That is over Prof. Wijesinghe’s remark that “… to ensure maximum impact [at the UNHRC in Geneva], they will need to involve Dayan [Jayatilleka] again in their deliberations, as well as their activities, though that should not be too difficult since he is now resident in Paris as our Ambassador.”

When I saw Dr.Dayan Jayatilleaka’s name being mentioned for the Paris post I had a hunch that he was being brought closer with a purpose. The bi-lateral scene that Paris itself may not a very attractive field for an articulate person like Dr.Jayatilleka except that UNESCO provides an international platform, albeit the intellectually inspiring environment around. That is provided that Dayan Jayatilleka succeeds in converting the French government as an ally to influence the E/U. and others.

UNESCO is another kettle of fish. With my nose trained to smell diplomatic rats I thought exactly in terms that Prof. Wijesinghe has spoken about a fitting role for Jayatilleka in Geneva while being in Paris. He could be drawn into the Sri Lankan team but the problem is he may not want to play second fiddle and would want to play his “provocative engagement.” I would hesitate to use the derogative term “megaphone diplomacy” one hears at times. As a former ‘trouble –shooter’ myself in that area, I can empathize with Dayan Jayatilleka’s choice of strategy but there are occasions when to use it and when not to. I remember the days of the Indian diplomat Krishna Menon who was one of India’s very forceful diplomats but one often heard the negative effects of his eloquence in international enclaves and in Western circles.

Kalana Senaratne hesitates to endorse Prof. Wijesinghe’s argument, because, as he pronounces, Ambassador Jayatilleka is not a ‘solution’ today. His point is that solutions need to come from Sri Lanka in the form of a significant improvement of human rights protection and the activities of the HR Commission, the passing of necessary legislation, the implementation of certain human rights action plans, etc. (issues on which Prof. Wijesinghe is better able to answer as he is working on those areas back home). None could disagree.

That is more important as he says, than involving a diplomat based elsewhere to do what other diplomats are supposed to do (unless of course a precedent has been set). This is also quite opposed to the practice followed in the Foreign Office when W.T.Jayasinghe, a very correct Civil Servant was in charge when he would not permit another Ambassador even to participate in a ceremonial occasion like the Tea Centenary celebrations held in London for which the then Minister of Plantations had extended an invitations. Such were the age-old Civil Service norms observed then. But those times are now over. I think team work is good when we are dealing with serious issues.

The significant point arising from Kalana Senaratne’s observation is that decisions on foreign policy matters and the manner of managing them should not depend on personal factors but should flow from a centrally managed policy mechanism. It was the lack of such a mechanism that Prof.Rajiv Wijesinghe was complaining about. While one can concede the absence of it, one should also ask the question how long the country is going to meet its foreign policy compulsions today based on the efficacy of selected individuals rather than evolving an institutional mechanism to guide policy. One recalls Shirley Amerasinghe’s contribution but no one talks about the support that the Legal Adviser Chris Pinto and the Foreign Service officer, the late Karen Breckenridge rendered. They were not men after the plaudits.

But if stories that outsiders are now running the foreign office is correct as the media is reporting, then God save this country!