(Text of Editorial Appearing in the “Sunday Times”of October 12th 2014 Under the heading “EAM like a madhatter’s dinner party”)
There is nothing so deafening as the External Affairs Ministry’s continued silence on the resignation of Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner in no less a capital than London, on a complaint that he was assaulted by a Government MP designated as ‘Monitor’ to the very same Ministry.
The honourable thing for any ‘Honourable’ Minister in charge of the Ministry to do would be to inform the country of the circumstances that had led to this unprecedented event. Yet, two weeks have passed since the incident transpired at a dinner party in New Jersey and there has been nothing.
The President had personally herded the delegation to New York for the United Nations General Assembly; External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris and the Ministry Secretary were in the team. One could assume, therefore, that these higher-ups are in possession of the facts, particularly as the Secretary was also among guests at the party. News of the assault has already been widely publicised but the Ministry maintains an information blackout.
With so many questions asked — particularly by Opposition parties — Parliament would have been the ideal forum for a statement. But the Ministry was silent. Worse, when the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna tried to raise the matter in the House, it was resisted on a technicality and that it was not a matter of public importance. The fracas could have passed off as an ordinary indiscretion at a private party, had not the High Commissioner lodged a complaint of a criminal nature before calling it quits. His resignation was accepted, although belatedly. This is no private matter. The incident is a reflection of the depths to which Sri Lanka’s diplomatic corps and the External Affairs Ministry (EAM) have sunk. That is inarguably a matter of public concern.
Those at the helm are either unconcerned about or incapable of stopping a further deterioration of what has been akin to a Mad Hatter’s tea party in the running of the country’s foreign affairs. Contrary to what they would like the citizenry to believe, it is not an everyday occurrence for a Government MP — especially one that runs the EAM while the Minister chooses to be routinely airborne — to slap a High Commissioner.
The High Commissioner was himself an example of Sri Lanka’s heavily politicised diplomatic machinery. A medical doctor and chairman of a private company, his appointment came as a surprise to many. His egocentricity meant that nobody in the Foreign Service wanted to work under him. He flaunted his position as “personal appointee” of the Minister and edged three deputies out of the mission. He could not get along with the fourth.
But such discord and one-upmanship are commonplace in many working relationships within the EAM. The Ministry has turned into a mismanaged den of intrigue in which a few key players plot to undercut others while some hardworking, professional diplomats strive to keep things together without having their necks slashed. They are the glue that holds the organisation together. Some have been banished to the wilderness for no fault of theirs. The Diplomatic Training School is churning out half-baked new recruits by half baked diplomats. The exam system for intakes is seriously flawed and not up to standard. The Institute of Strategic Studies is nothing but an institute for lectures, seminars and workshops.
Goings-on in the Ministry are now verging on the bizarre. This week, a Buddhist monk turned up at the gates of the ministry claiming that a Foreign Service officer had commissioned him to do voodoo on a list of other officials, including senior ones. The monk carried a copper plate on which were etched the names of those he wanted black magic performed on. This just beggars belief.
The extent of the Minister’s ineffectiveness is illustrated in multiple ways. One example of this is how he looks the other way when Cabinet Ministers bypass the EAM and write directly to foreign Heads of Government seeking funding for various projects using the communal card. The Government of Sri Lanka shamelessly disregards its own financial regulations for a few bucks. Then we donate that sum to another country and pretend we are an aid-giver.
The President’s Office runs the country’s India and China policy. With little to do, the Minister has coined a “Look Africa” policy, the tangible benefits of which only he seems to know. The Minister has spent a pretty packet visiting African capitals in pursuit of this curious hobby. The safaris intensify when a resolution on Sri Lanka is about to be taken up at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). We spend on water supply schemes in those countries while facing water shortages here and fund projects to save the African elephant while our elephants are reduced to skeletons in some skewered policy difficult to fathom. We made a mad dash for the Chair in Office of the lame duck Commonwealth a year ago; what on earth for.
Meanwhile, Sri Lanka’s relations with several powerful nations and blocs are worsening. The EAM does not seem to set or guide any policy. Ties with Washington are backsliding. On a visit to the US, the Minister was only able to meet the Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia. That’s as high as he could get. The President did get an appointment with Secretary of State John Kerry but seemingly got a lecture on good governance. Government spin doctors tried to give out that there had been a softening of the US stance on Sri Lanka through an inspired leak to the local media. It prompted a sharp rebuttal from Washington and made matters worse. Today, the ultimate in foreign policy is securing photo ops with foreign ministers and having statements published in local media. But one needs only to take stock of Sri Lanka’s position in the world to understand that the picture is not healthy. Gone are the days when foreign policy was conducted with intelligence, integrity and finesse.
The country has alienated the US and Europe and played double games with West Asia. It is trying to mend broken fences with India but has done nothing to reach out to Tamil Nadu that has created a headache for the Central Government in New Delhi. Sri Lanka has turned its back on its decades-long Non Alignment policy by becoming a virtual satellite state of China. Distanced somewhat from Japan, relations with Russia and Australia — at least — are on an even keel. Still, the Ministry continues to set up missions in various capitals even while existing ones are financially incapable of fending for themselves.
The prospect of yet another UNHRC resolution hangs like the Sword of Damocles over the country’s head, something that hasn’t yet been addressed in a suitably strategic manner.
The Government might want to sweep the incident in New Jersey under the carpet; or from what we hear, the complainant ex-High Commissioner is bound to be the accused in a sham inquiry now in progress by the EAM. But the incident shows the dismal state of those in charge of the country’s foreign affairs. This was not just an isolated incident, but the culmination of a string of events that have bedevilled that Ministry for some time now. Those who really know what’s going on in that once hallowed institution – the External Affairs Ministry, are not that surprised it has come to such a pathetic state.