One of the most preposterous charges laid against Dayan Jayatilleka in the Ceylon Today diatribe is that he writes too much. It is of course understandable that this comes from the Mandarins of the Ministry of External Affairs – I am assuming that Ms Bastians who wrote the article was fed by that Ministry, given that her husband Gehan Indragupta is a member of the fraternity – since their distinguishing feature is that they cannot or do not write at all.
I was made vividly aware of this when I was in Lebanon, where our ambassador is one of the brightest thinkers in the Ministry, though doubtless looked down upon by the Mandarins as someone who does not write perfect English. I was told by someone in authority that this was one of the problems with many staff, but obviously nothing has been done to improve the situation, if indeed it is a problem (given the general quality of English anyway, and the actual excellent content of those the Mandarins look down on). When indeed the Minister asked me to help draft statements I said I could easily help, but would it not make more sense for me to train people in writing? I heard nothing more, and I suspect the reason the President gave me in his shrewd fashion means that I will not be permitted to assist in that regard, or indeed any other.
To get back to our ambassador in Lebanon, he has edited a collection of essays on directions for Sri Lanka foreign policy, but it seems that the Mandarins had not contributed. He himself had written an essay, and one had been promised by Ravinatha Ariyasinha, our man in Brussels, but apart from those two, I believe that all contributions come from outsiders. In such a context, the Ministry should be delighted that it has at least some people working for it whose writings are highly respected internationally – but instead we are beset by petty jealousies that will strive to destroy one of our few diplomats who is regularly called upon by his peers to speak for them in public forums.
Indeed, it is a tribute to the President that he thought of Dayan for Paris, which I must confess I thought would be a waste of his talents. But Dayan understood the potential of working in a place with so much intellectual capital and interchange, and I believe the President realized from the start how important his role in UNESCO and in various think tanks would be.
Dayan has of course contributed to the volume that is planned, as have other thinkers such as Prof Amal Jayawardena who was another of those called on by Lakshman Kadirgamar when he was asked to chair the Board of the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies. Characteristically those who were appointed to run the place after that Board – which was admirably chaired by Mr Dharmasiri Peiris for a year or so after Mr Kadirgamar’s assassination – cannot understand the intellectual potential of the place and have not gone beyond the tutoring tasks the place confined itself to before Mr Kadirgamar tried to make a change. The relationships he tried to set up with impressive think tanks in both China and India have come to naught.
The Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute for International Relations and Strategic Studies, which comes directly under the Ministry of External Affairs, has not fared much better. Though there was an effort to revive it recently, it still sees itself as a mouthpiece for those Ministry officials and others who are considered safe, and it does not provide the space for debate or indeed for discussion that is what think tanks are about. The seminars it has conducted on Reconciliation are typical of what has gone wrong.
Initially, when the series was started, Rohan Guneratne, whose idea I believe it was, wanted me to be involved, but for reasons which he has indicated he understands this was not something the Mandarins at the Ministry could bear. And so they have held meetings at which, like Edward Lear’s Pelican Chorus, all one hears are claims about how wonderful the establishment is.
I should be grateful though for this absurdity, because that is what prompted my plea to the organizers of the Reconciliation Forum planned some months back to invite opposition figures as discussants. The very positive approach of those who participated, whilst raising issues of concern, is what prompted the decision to develop a National Reconciliation Policy, and that document could I believe provide a lifeline to the government if it wants to move forward without seeming to succumb to unwarranted pressures.
Meanwhile, far from producing any position papers, the LKIIRSS seems to have retreated into having the occasional lecture, with no plans for policy documents or studies of the changing international environment that could so easily overcome us.
In an effort to plan more carefully for what might come at us unexpectedly in relation to our commitment and obligation to pursue reconciliation, I did through the Reconciliation Office set up a group of officials to discuss policy and possible responses to national and international pressures and problems. The Ministry of Defence has sent some very bright young officers who have participated actively and produced excellent ideas. Needless to say, the Ministry of External Affairs has not even responded to my letter.
Listening to the group in action, I was reminded of those fascinating discussions I have had at Indian and Chinese think tanks, initially when we were guided by Mr Kadirgamar through the BCIS, later on visits to India when the High Commission has set up meetings, in both Delhi and Chennai. Exchanging ideas is vital, and both registering what others expect, and explaining what is impractical or difficult. In the process one can usually hit on compromises that will satisfy the basic requirements of all, if not their highest expectations.
But that type of discussion simply does not occur in Sri Lanka, and I fear that perhaps many of our officials may not understand what is required and how to contribute. That is why we must cherish practical intellectuals such as Dayan and Tamara Kunanayagam, whose paper on the implications of the US resolution made such an impact on the ambassadors with whom it was shared. Why such a discussion paper had not been circulated previously, and why the concepts she had raised were instead turned into yet another tool for lobbying without discussion of common interests, is beyond me – unless one notes yet again an instance of what the Indians told me had been our problem after Dayan left Geneva, our incapacity to ask for and discuss advice, resorting instead simply to asking countries for their votes. That is no longer the way the world works, but trying to get our Ministry of External Affairs to understand that will prove impossible without some concerted practical and policy changes.