In the last few weeks I have looked at the way in which several of the pledges regarding reforms in the President’s manifesto were forgotten or subverted by those to whom he entrusted the Reform process. In addition there are some fields in which reforms have been carried through, but in such a hamfisted fashion that the previous situation seems to shine by comparison.
One area in which this has happened is that of Foreign Relations. The shorter manifesto declared that ‘A respected Foreign Service free of political interference will be re-established’. This was fleshed out in the longer version, with the following being the first four Action Points –
- The country’s foreign policy will be formulated to reflect the government’s national perspectives.
- Within hundred days all political appointments and appointment of relatives attached to the Foreign Service will be annulled and the entire Foreign Service will be reorganised using professional officials and personnel who have obtained professional qualifications. Our foreign service will be transformed into one with the best learned, erudite, efficient personnel who are committed to the country and who hold patriotic views.
- Cordial relations will be strengthened with India, China, Pakistan and Japan, the principal countries of Asia, while improving friendly relations with emerging Asian nations such as Thailand, Indonesia, and Korea without differences.
- Our Indian policy will take into due consideration the diversity of India.
With regard to foreign policy itself, there is no sign of coherent formulation. I had suggested, in our discussions while formulating the manifesto, that we should flesh out the section on foreign policy, but it was argued that this was not of great interest to the voters. However I put together some guidelines, which I had hoped would help government to work out how policy should be formulated and implemented. Amongst the ideas I put forward are
a) we should have regular consultative meetings of senior level Foreign Ministry officials. If these happen each week, there should also be provision, perhaps on a monthly basis, for consultation of officials of relevant Ministries such as Finance and Defence and Trade. Such meetings should be minuted, and decisions / action points notified to relevant officials with provision for feedback.
b) We also need to build up collegiality within the Ministry. Whilst there are good reasons sometimes for appointment of non-career individuals to Head of Mission posts, all other posts should be reserved for members of the Diplomatic Service. These officials should be required to submit brief regular reports on their activities, which should be based on targets identified by the Ministry, with consultation of the Head of Mission.
c) But there is also need of a wider professionalism. For this purpose Government should establish at least two high level think tanks. The existing government managed institutions could be upgraded, but they should function independently and have research staff who could produce position papers and suggest responses to international developments. In addition, these think tanks should have a training wing, which develops communication skills in addition to the capacity to analyse. They should also publish journals to which diplomats are expected to contribute.
Obviously I had no right to expect the new Minister to act on these suggestions, but what I am sorry about is that he seems to have no ideas of his own as to how to develop systems to fulfil the commitments in the manifesto. While of course much has been done to recalibrate foreign relations, with emphasis on the West – a good idea, but it should not be our only concern, and it certainly is not what was pledged in the manifesto – the main focus of attention as far as the manifesto is concerned is removal of envoys appointed by the previous government.
So 38 Ambassdors and High Commissioners were called back, with several of the vacancies having not as yet been filled. Thailand and Japan (and the Philippines) only have officers in charge at present, which is true also of Britain and Russia and France and Italy and the Netherlands and Brazil. Canada and Australia and Bangladesh have Acting High Commissioners while Iran, and Palestine, seem to be completely vacant according to the Ministry website.
The latest casualty is India. Prof Seneviratne, who had been appointed fairly recently by the last government, was not removed when the rest were, but he has now been suddenly recalled. The reason given for this was exposed by former Ambassador Nanda Godage, who found the decision destructive – ‘we are recalling a High Commissioner who is a much respected intellectual, who understands India, speaks Hindi and has above all, contacts at the highest levels of the Indian administration, this is a foolish act and not in our national interest. I inquired from a VIP of this administration the reason for the recall and his response was “he was appointed by the last government’.
This is not what the manifesto said. It wanted a professional foreign service, but this does not mean having only members of the foreign service. The fact that this government kept on able retired personnel, such as Prasad Kariyawasam and Karunasena Amunugama, and also it would seem from the website the capable political appointee in Jordan, Gamini Rajapaksa, indicates that it does realize personal appointments sometimes makes sense. Indeed it has chosen an individual with no diplomatic experience, Mr Skandakumar who headed George Steuarts, as the next High Commissioner to Australia.
I know him and believe he would do very well. But Admiral Thisara Samarasinghe also did an excellent job, indeed such a good one that our present Prime Minister, in one of his more preposterous moods, criticized the Australian government for what he saw as unprincipled support for us in recent years. So, having destroyed what was being built up in Australia, where we had good relations, government will now have to start again.
Meanwhile it has not thought to send good envoys to countries such as Britain and Canada which were excessively critical of us in recent years. Certainly, when I was in London recently, I found much disappointment at the vacuum – which was not a criticism of the gentleman who had been sent there to take charge after Chris Nonis was attacked and resigned, but it was common knowledge that he was anxious to leave. Given the strength of the elements in the diaspora who are negative about us (far more than in Australia), we should be doing much to build good relations with the vast majority in Britain and Canada who would be inclined to work with us positively. But far from that being planned, it seems not to have been even considered, until finally the Tamil National Allliance and the Global Tamil Forum made a pitch for this
But revenge rather than reform seems to be the priority. Ranil Wickremesinghe has interpreted the President’s manifesto to mean that it was wrong of Mahinda Rajapaksa to appoint his friends, but it is perfectly proper for Ranil and his ilk to appoint theirs. The fact that each case should be looked at on its merits has escaped him. Certainly there were instances in which the former President made inappropriate appointments, and indeed several to lower levels in the foreign service, a practice unheard of until J R Jayewardene started it and sent the wives and daughters of his favourites to foreign climes. But President Rajapaksa also made several appointments of ‘personnel who have obtained professional qualifications’ and to get rid of them simply because they were appointed by the last government is appalling conduct. And then to fail to fill up the positions is to compound the damage to the country.