The recent intrigues by the nastier elements in the Ministry of External Affairs have prompted some thought about the confused and confusing nature of the diverse elements that make up the current government. The need to examine this in greater detail has been made clearer by the strange affair of Mr Gunaratnam. The implications of what occurred there have been explored carefully in a thoughtful article by Laksiri Fernando, through analysis of the statement issued by the Ministry of External Affairs. I believe that article should be studied carefully by all those concerned with the continuity and success of this government, which is I believe the perspective from which Prof Fernando has written.

There are some related considerations that I think should be explored further, given the statement by the Ministry, which in fact exposes its complete incompetence in this regard. Prof Fernando suggests that the statement indicates that ‘the “security establishment” has encroached into other ministries and in this case the Ministry of External Affairs’ but I think what it also indicates is that that Ministry has completely abandoned its responsibilities in dealing with international issues.

The government has after all argued that the Australian High Commission was remiss in failing to provide information about Mr Gunaratnam’s arrival in this country, whereas its reactions to his abduction made it clear that they knew all about him. It is claimed that the High Commission had not responded to an inquiry, but surely the correct thing to do when information is required, and there is reason to believe that any delay is detrimental to the national interest, is to call in the Australian High Commissioner and explain the situation and request active cooperation.

Unfortunately such calling in does not occur. Our Ministry of External Affairs had proved singularly incompetent in dealing with the international community, whether diplomats of Non-Governmental Organizations, despite the powers it has. I can think of several instances in which it should have called diplomats or others in and, very politely, indicated the serious implications of what was happening.

I first advised the Ministry to do this when the former Canadian High Commissioner threatened a local NGO because she was concerned about questions that had been raised about the financial improprieties perpetrated by Rama Mani. It may be remembered that the latter trying to ‘make waves’ as she herself put it in Sri Lanka by suggesting that the Responsibility to Protect doctrine should be implemented here. Subsequently I pointed out that, in dealing with NGOs, frank discussions were better than what seemed irrational attacks, and that regular meetings to ensure that they used funding to promote the welfare of our citizens was better than hysterical reactions when something went wrong.

I suspect that it was for this reason that the Secretary to the Ministry in charge suggested I request to be appointed to monitor NGO work and ensure better coordination in accordance with national needs, but given the total dysfunctionality of the system, the letter I received was total rubbish, suggesting I be invited to discussions which I knew never took place, given the incapacity of the officials concerned to participate actively and constructively in discussions.

But if an incapacity to ensure adherence by NGOs to the agreements according to which they work in this country is incurable as far as the Ministry is concerned, more serious is its failure to discuss matters constructively with diplomats. I have noted before the absurdity of Paul Carter being allowed to continue with his poisonous efforts to suborn military personnel, and I believe that, had this matter been raised with the American Ambassador as it occurred, with no suggestion that she was in any way responsible, we might have ensured better relations, instead of the current situation. The same could have been done when she, improperly in my view, held a discussion on the Darusman Report that included junior officials of the UN without clearance from the UN leadership. While she had every right to discuss matters with fellow ambassadors, her involvement of the UN without any formal approach was improper. And while of course she can invite whatsoever Sri Lankans she chooses to, it could have been pointed out to her politely that it seemed strange she should have only invited NGOs thought hostile to government – whereas the previous week, in an effort to indicate a more pluralistic approach, she had entertained the Secretary of Defence along with a more healthy cross-section of NGOs.

Similarly, the Gunaratnam phenomenon should have been dealt with transparently, through open discussions with the Australians to ensure that they fulfilled their obligations to a friendly nation by revealing what they knew about the gentleman’s entry into this country, and any change of name that might have occurred while he was in Australia. Such discussions would need to be recorded and a letter sent confirming what had transpired, so that our position, and our belief that Australia too had our best interests at heart, would be established. In such a situation, any intervention by the Australian High Commission indicating knowledge that had not been shared with us would obviously have been inappropriate.

None of this takes away of course from the fact that, if government knew Mr Gunaratnam was overstaying his visa, he should have been openly taken into custody, allowed free access to lawyers, and charged with whatever crime had been committed. I know myself that, when I had once entered Thailand illegally – having happily walked across the border from Cambodia, not knowing that this was a privilege allowed only to Cambodians, and not having been challenged – I was told by the Australian diplomat with whom I was staying in Bangkok that I had committed a serious offence, and I should hoof down to the Immigration Office and clear myself as soon as possible. The official there, having initially told me that I would have to go to prison, in time registered my innocence and put the matter right through what I recall as a hefty fine.

That is how Mr Gunaratnam should have been dealt with, the Australians being left to decide if they wanted to intervene had they not supplied us with information as requested following a meeting at the Ministry of External Affairs. Instead, although it would seem that he was guilty of an offence, what has happened allows him to seem innocent and the whole Sri Lankan government to be brought into disrepute.

Unfortunately, there is simply no understanding, as I have realized during my various interactions with the Ministry, of either principles or practical procedures amongst the officials who make decisions there. My offer to help with training, based on the universal appreciation expressed by the officials of the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights who had not heard of basic principles of administration until I became its Secretary, have been turned down. It is in despair about continuing incompetence that I have suggested a more formal role, but obviously I do not need to be insulted with the assumption that I am simply seeking positions like everyone else.

But some changes need to be made there soon if this country is not to become a plaything of more powerful nations.