The meeting in Sri Lanka in November 2013 of the Commonwealth Heads of Government provides a great opportunity for our government. This can be summed up in one word, Engagement, which Sri Lanka has not been very good at over the last few years.

The principles of engagement, which we need to understand, are very simple. First, we need to listen carefully to what others say. Second, we need to put our own perspectives and practices clearly and systematically. Thirdly, we need to search for common ground between us and our interlocutors, and work towards strengthening those commonalities and developing understanding of how mutual appreciation could be strengthened. Fourthly we need to work out where there are differences, and point out where these are because of inadequate understanding of our situation. Finally, where there are differences based on perspectives, we need to explain our own position clearly, and indicate why changes on our part would not be beneficial to the Sri Lankan people. However – and this is a vital caveat to this last aspect – we must try to understand different positions, and listen to arguments supporting them, and if necessary adjust our own positions if those arguments are clear and convincing.

About each of these, there have been great difficulties in recent years. We do not listen carefully, and we tend to put everyone who criticizes us in the same basket. We then play to local galleries by criticizing them and, since the sincere are generally nicer than those who have a subtle agenda, we are more critical of the decent. This has made us lose credibility amongst those who, even if they have different approaches in some respects, are basically our good friends. The manner in which India is often treated in our media, and even by some in authority, is a shocking example of this absurdity.

The excuse offered for this boorish and counter-productive behavior is that there are elements in India who are opposed to Sri Lanka and its interests. This may well be true, because there are elements in every country who have their own views of what should be happening. But, given that the same is true of some individuals in Sri Lanka, and that they operate in a more crude fashion, we can hardly build our policies on the aberrations of a few. Second, the official position of leading officials in India has been extremely positive for the last two decades and more. To base our own position on rumours and suspicions of clandestine activity is absurd, and the more so when there is clear evidence of clandestine activity within Sri Lanka to undermine relations with India.

With regard to putting our own perspectives and practices clearly, we have failed miserably. This is also because we allow too much leeway to those who play to the gallery, and wish to score debating points, instead of sticking to the truth and presenting it convincingly. The manner in which we fell prey to the charge of war crimes, which I believe to be preposterous, exemplifies this. When a false charge was made against us, at the end of 2009, instead of denying it on the grounds that it was a lie, we went into paroxysms of indignation by claiming it was traitorous. This created the impression that it was true, and what was wrong about it was making it public. Thus, simply because we wanted to score what we thought were electoral points (assuming indeed that this was the rationale for this destructive behavior), we laid ourselves open to serial abuse as it were.

Similarly, when the Darusman report came out, we failed to rebut it clearly. Indeed there was no coherence about our response, which we insisted on claiming was not a response, but an attempt to tell our own story. If that was the case, we should have told that story much earlier, instead of waiting to be attacked. And, to make it worse, instead of focusing on the issues in question, we meandered with a host of unnecessary details that made the intended rebuttals unreadable.

Unfortunately we have not learned our lesson since, and have failed to develop an effective communications strategy. This is the more reprehensible given that we have excellent communicators held in high regard by the international community. The query by a recently arrived political affairs officer of a country that has been uniformly negative about us over the last few years, as to what happened to the team that had carried such conviction in Geneva in 2009, is testimony to our determination to shoot ourselves in the foot, though whether this was because of jealousy or at the behest of another country with its own agenda is a moot point.

I worry therefore about whether we will be able to get across our points clearly and coherently. But I hope that those responsible have made sensible plans in this regard, and will ensure that credible interlocutors are available, given the captive audience that we will have.

Seeking common ground has also not been our strong point. The responses to the visit of Navanetham Pillay illustrate this, and so does the effort to portray her as a prejudiced Tamil. Though some of her actions and pronouncements could have been more balanced, by and large she said enough positive things which we should have built on. Her unequivocal condemnation of the Tigers was a great step forward, given how mealy mouthed many in the international community have been about this, and we should have made much of her clear message to the terrorist obsessed members, I believe only a small minority, of the diaspora. We should also have welcomed her recognition of the substantial development in the North, and used that to obtain assistance for what we should have also paid attention to from the start, namely Human Resources Development in the conflict affected areas.

When we come to the area of differences, we need to understand where our critics are coming from. Where there is no argument about principles, we should show how we have acted in good faith in defence of the interests of the Sri Lankan people. In this regard, it is preposterous that we have not given greater weight to efforts to implement the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. Even if it is too late now to have a dedicated Ministry for what is our best defence against criticism, we must set in place a communications strategy, using individuals whose credibility and integrity are not in doubt. Fortunately  we have such individuals in abundance in various executive positions at the moment, ranging from the Ministers who were so positive about the Navi Pillay visit, to the Secretaries, including the Media Secretary, who have done much to further the LLRC and the Human Rights Action Plan.

But in presenting what we have done well, and what further we plan, we should not attempt to defend the indefensible. Sadly, even where we have taken action against individuals who acted wrongfully, we conceal this – perhaps because we are now nervous of being called traitors ourselves – and thus lay ourselves open to further criticism. But another reason for taking publicly the few measures we need to with regard to accountability is that we must also ensure the primacy of the Rule of Law, and that the State supports prompt action against violators. Given that we now have leadership in the Police that commands respect for both integrity and efficiency, we must encourage them to take tough decisions, not only with regard to errant police officers but also errant politicians. Allowing state agencies to be held guilty because of the abuses of a few is not fair to the Sri Lankan people or its democratically elected government.

In order to make best use of the opportunity to engage, we must also develop a suitable strategy that builds on our strengths and the strengths of our friends. We know that we have much to show with regard to our Youth and, with a sympathetic and capable Minister, that is an area in which our achievements, including our commitment to pluralism, can be showcased. With regard to business, though we have an communicator in the Governor of the Central Bank, we also need to promote greater efficiency and streamline our systems to encourage investment. But we should also put in place a strategy that makes clear our determination to provide better job opportunities, together with appropriate training, for those who have been underprivileged for so long – and this means not only the people of the North and East, but also those in other areas that have been neglected in the past. Our current concern with top down infrastructure is insufficient to win hearts and minds, though we must also make clear that such work is a prerequisite for the people friendly development policies we are pursuing.

Where we have been remiss is with regard to the Civil Society aspect of the Meeting, where changes in perspectives have led to many lost opportunities. This is because we still do not have a sensible approach to community organizations, where our worries – in a few cases justified – about some advocacy organizations have inhibited us about using them as partners. This is tragic, because a system of establishing our priorities and then finding both local agencies and foreign funders willing, within our developmental parameters, of supporting these, would have meant a much more efficient use of resources available than we now see. Again, this is where I hope sensible discussions will lead in time to the Ministry charged with Reconciliation also having a brief to work with community organizations to promote this.

Finally, we need to consider where and how our efforts at engagement have worked well, and we should build on these. While we received much support from many Commonwealth countries to have the meeting here, we know that one or two were bitterly opposed to us. Though of course we should engage with them, and assuage the genuine fears of those who worry about some of our policies and practices, we should use the positive approach of others to show how misguided these excessively critical elements are. We should also make clear our appreciation of countries such as India and Australia which others were trying to dragoon into opposition to us, but which, without compromising on suggestions as to how we could do more to promote Reconciliation, maintained and asserted their confidence in our capacity to improve things for all our people.

In this regard, we must take our leadership role seriously. We cannot afford to neglect the position we will occupy for the next two years, but there is a danger of this happening, given the opportunities we lost with regard to our leadership of the G 15. Those responsible for Foreign Relations at the time advised the then Minister against us accepting the position, but when he was properly briefed he encouraged the President to accept. Unfortunately nothing was done with the position, even though we were at the height of our international prestige at the time, following the successful outcome of the Geneva Special Session.

We need therefore ideas and initiative, of the sort that led to our more articulate diplomats being appointed to positions of influence such as the Chair of the UN Working Group on the Right to Development. The President has a number of excellent ideas about the participatory and inclusive path to Development that countries like ours should take, and we should use this opportunity to get across a new vision, rather than simply responding to crisis after crisis. That will need innovative ideas and strong communications skills but we are not without these, if only we understand the opportunity CHOGM gives (and our current need) to shine internationally, rather than simply, like Cato, sitting attentive to our own applause.

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