Colombo, Foreign Relations, Politics and Governance, Post-War

Sending Dayan home: the triumph of folly in Sri Lankan politics?

I was tempted to write this article after a few days of reading different news reports about the ‘sacking’ of His Excellency Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka, Sri Lanka’s permanent representative to the United Nations in Geneva. Different explanations have been provided by different quarters about the ‘reasons’ that led to Colombo’s decision to recall its most gifted diplomat. This article does not attempt at analyzing such explanations, or at making any judgments. Concerning Dr. Jayatilleka’s writings on Sri Lanka’s ethnic relations, his personal views expressed on the electronic media since his appointment to Geneva, and his work as Permanent Representative, there are many points that this writer and many others may not agree with. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that Dr Jayatilleka remains one of Sri Lanka’s best political analysts, scholars and public speakers.

Diplomacy is a strange professional domain, where high skills in many areas are appreciated. These generally include foreign language skills, a sound education in the areas of international relations, politics, history and related (and overlapping) academic disciplines, and excellent presentation skills. Most importantly, a good diplomat is marked by his/her ability to network thoroughly, defend his/her opinion in a logical, clear and graceful mannerism, and a strong resolve to defend the interests of his/her state in the international arena. However, the mere possession of these skills does not make a successful diplomat. To begin with, working for the diplomatic corps has been the reserve of the upper echelons of society in almost all states. Browsing through a list of French diplomats in office, one may notice that very few do not have a nom de famille à particule (i.e. a family name beginning with the preposition de, e.g. de Villiers) traditionally a sign of aristocratic descent. Those familiar with Sri Lanka’s foreign ministry and diplomatic apparatus may know the high utility of ‘contacts’ in making one’s way inside the Republic Building.

At the beginning of his term of office, President Rajapakse made a timely speech before diplomats of the Sri Lanka Foreign Service, at a workshop held at the Presidential Secretariat. In his speech, the President clearly stated that the job of a career diplomat is not limited to organizing evening receptions and providing a good education to one’s children. The overall objective of the speech appeared to be that of adding increased professionalism and credibility to the Sri Lanka Foreign Service. Three years later, one wonders what improvements have taken place.

Readers familiar with the Sri Lankan diplomatic corps may agree that the accusatory statements made by the President in the above-mentioned speech bear a fair degree of truth. The Sri Lanka Foreign Service (SLFS) is a service of lavishness, and consists of the most lucrative of government jobs. Diplomatic officials not only enjoy a very generous salary (when posted abroad), but are also provided with free accommodation, a considerably high entertainment allowance, business travel at state expense, and many other perks. One may note that these are normal privileges provided to diplomats by any state, and that Sri Lanka is no exception. I agree. Nevertheless, what leaves one perplexed is the Republic Building’s notions of the management of financial resources. Due to reasons of budget management, the Swedish Foreign Ministry has decided to close several of its embassies/consulates abroad, including their embassy in Colombo. Given the shape of our economy, it is extremely advisable that the state takes prompt measures to ensure that the diplomatic service, one of the most costly government services, is managed in a more cost-effective manner.

Visiting some diplomatic missions of Sri Lanka abroad, one is struck by the feeling that the massive budgetary allocations of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are largely spent on paying salaries, perks, business travel and the comfort of diplomats; very little investments are made on embassies, providing efficient and fast services (especially in consular divisions), and in promoting the image of Sri Lanka abroad. A visit to Sri Lanka’s embassy in Paris is a fine example. The waiting area for visitors resembles an outdated government office in the deep recesses of Sri Lankan provincialism. It is completely cramped with visitors, and people queue up literally behind the back of one another, leaving very little room for privacy when dealing with personal issues related to civil status and immigration. There are no basic facilities such as a vending machine or a fountain. There is one counter, and on busy days, the consular division turns nightmarish. The ordinary man and woman visiting the embassy are therefore made to feel unwelcome, and as per customer services, the mark is a clear 0 out of 100.

Nevertheless, there are French nationals who work in the sectors of economic cooperation (who are paid by the Sri Lankan tax payer). Their officers resemble a world apart from the consular division’s waiting area. Adorned by state of the art furniture, Sri Lankan ornaments, paintings and other décor, one is left wondering if the two sections are part of the same establishment. Upstairs, the ambassadorial offices are also lavish, and the government of Sri Lanka owns an extremely sumptuous ambassadorial residence in Neuilly-sur-Seine, the top-most high residential area of Paris, which is also President Zarkozy’s constituency (he became the mayor of Neuilly at the early age of 28). Diplomats roam in the streets of Paris in luxury vehicles with diplomatic number plates, as the Sri Lankan taxpayer fuels their luxuries.

The point I making is that the Sri Lanka’s Foreign Service establishment is in need of a more cost-effective approach to management. There are many embassies abroad where next to nothing is done as prompt services to the nation, to expatriates, or to anyone else except to the diplomats in office. By adopting an approach based on quality services, maintenance of essential services and cutting down on the less essential, the state can save billions, and use that money for crucial sectors such as healthcare and education.

As some readers have noted on Groundviews and elsewhere, the skills’ of some of our top diplomats have been amply displayed in the last few months, on foreign media. It is an unarguable truism that some diplomats in office (in extremely crucial duty stations) are thoroughly incapable of defending Sri Lanka’s interests in an articulate manner. Public speaking and presentation skills of some senior diplomats are appalling; and very few can stand up and make an eloquent oration in a language other than Sinhala, Tamil or English. It is no exaggeration to state that in the absence of Ambassador Dr Jayatilleka, the Sri Lankan government would have faced major problems in the last few months. While expressing disagreement on some of his positions, it needs to be mentioned that no other serving diplomat would have been capable of defending the Sri Lankan state the way Dr Jayatilleka did in Geneva.

The misfortune of our land is that high talent is seen as something venomous, which requires different degrees of ‘elimination’. There are those who believe that in order to possess the skills mentioned earlier, one needs to come from an upper class background. If that is not the case, your skills may value less. Then, there are individuals, especially in the Foreign Ministry, who desperately cling to perks knowing that they are thoroughly unqualified for the positions they are in. Such personae share a high level of wrath towards anyone capable of shining more than them, surpassing their meager levels of skill, and demonstrating outstanding talent. They would make all possible efforts to promptly eliminate such rare talent from the Republic Building. This, together with the adamancy of the Sinhala nationalist far right, explains the brief fax message carrying the news of Dr. Jayatilleka’s ousting.

One is left perplexed, and wonders what would be the fate of Sri Lanka if practices of this nature are to be continued. This is a vicious circle, and breaking it is a common challenge faced by all Sri Lankans at home and abroad.