Dr. Harsha De Silva: Response to your comment on our diplomats at Foreign Missions.
Posted on September 24th, 2016
Asoka Weerasinghe Kings Grove Crescent . Gloucester . Ontario . K1J 6G1 . Canada
23 September 2016
Hon. Dr. Harsha De Silva, MP
Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs
Government of Sri Lanka
Dear Dr. Harsha De Silva:
I was quite intrigued to read the Daily News report on what you had to say at the Rotary District 3220 event at the Galadari Hotel on 18th September. You said: “I am sad to note that some embassies are not productive and we have decided to close them. Some top officials of embassies are only keen to educate their children overseas, enjoy a plush life and attend regular cocktail parties at Sri Lankan tax payer’s money. For some, the Foreign Service is their retirement plan. This has to change.”
Wow! Minister. Did little birds at these Mission compounds come to you with that information? It would have been nice if you had mentioned the embassies that were affected with possible closures.
But the little birdies that came to you with these stories missed one important point. “The Mission Diplomats had a habit of riding on the backs of expatriates, who had been working hard spending their own time and money for years to keep the good name of Sri Lanka afloat, to get Brownie points for their reason to be posted at these Foreign Missions.” Like a Minister-Counselor at the Ottawa Mission quite proudly tells a party gathering one evening, “We have been fighting hard for years to get the Tamil Tigers banned in Canada, but I managed to do it in two months since I arrived.” Phew! What a Do-do! And I butted in by asking him, “Come on, where the hell do we, who have been fighting the Canadian Government to ban the Tamil Tigers for years, fit into your conclusion” So some of them ride on our backs seeking Brownie points for their survival and to seek better diplomatic postings.
But, to be fair on some of the Foreign Ministry Diplomats who are smart, dedicated and committed, and who are quite capable of performing their duties diligently as expected of them by you and your Minister, I say to you two, honour their basic Labour Code – “Give them the tools and they will get on with their jobs”. Without that important provision in place, it is unfair to chide the few good and the smart Diplomats at the Ministry.
About the only interest they have, you said, is to educate their children abroad, and you know what, Minister? Your Ministry loses the productivity by at least 40% when the tour of duty of these Diplomats are approaching the end, when they are preoccupied trying to figure out how they could extend their tour of duty or stay back especially to educate their children. And that is an unwritten norm among diplomats and a fact.
I don’t blame you if you happen to ask, “Who the hell are you, Asoka Weerasinghe, and how do you know all this?” Well, I was right there in the Mission in Ottawa from June 1989 until June 1994, appointed by President Ranasinghe Premadasa as a senior officer at the Mission. I wasn’t keen in accepting the invitation as I was already holding a permanent, senior position as an IS6 in Canada’s Federal Government and completing my 20th year as an employee. Did I know President Premadasa personally! No I didn’t know him from Adam. But he had the knack of picking up expatriates who he thought could help him and perform. By then I was active guarding the interest and good name of Sri Lanka, as the Chairperson of ‘Project Peace for a United Sri Lanka.’ and was working aggressively on the file and was exposed as an activist in the print and audio-visual media in Ottawa. I left Sri Lanka at age 19 and proceeded to London, UK, and then moved on to Ottawa, Canada, having been head-hunted as a liberal-scientist for a job at the National Museums of Canada. So my work experience and work ethics by then had been well entrenched from England and Canada and not Sri Lanka. Work ethics I said – like when I make an appointment to meet a client at 9:00 in the morning, I don’t arrive for the meeting at 11:00 in the morning, especially when I know that this person had been driving from 4 in the morning from Toronto for a 9 o’clock meeting. It did happen at the Ottawa Mission and I certainly wasn’t prepared to take up the role of a Foreign Ministry moulded ‘Tin God’ at the Mission.
And here’s my experience at the Mission in Canada. “Give them the basic tools and they will get on with their jobs,” I said, and that has been my motto through out my working career.
I reported for work on the 15th June 1989. I was escorted to my office and I looked around. “Do I have a typewriter” I asked the Chief Clerk. “No….No…No…Sir. You don’t have to type letters, we got steno-graphers to do that work.” “Thank for letting me know”, I said. “The typewriter is my work horse and I need one,” I said. The following morning when I arrived at the office, there was a brand-new Brother electric type writer sitting on the desk.
I worked under H.C. Walter Rupesinghe and H.C. Walter Fernando, two very good and dedicated Diplomats, who worked extremely well and in my estimation they were as good as top Deputy Ministers of the Canadian Federal Government. And I worked extremely well with them as all three of us were appointees of President Premadasa,
The work that was assigned to me was to look after the files on Communications, Media Relations, Human Rights, and Image building of Sri Lanka which was in tatters, spat at and torn to shreds by the Tamil separatists in Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal. No Canadian wanted to believe the words spoken by the Mission Diplomats, and it was a tough job to break that spell. But I accepted that challenge.
I was appalled that this Mission which had been in existence for donkey’s years had no files to provide me with bench marks on Communications or Image building. And furthermore, this Mission had sweet buggerall in the form of promotional props of Sri Lanka – artifacts, 35mm photo slides, videos, information kits, etc. But sure, they had tourist brochures. That wasn’t good enough for me. And I was embarrassed. Nor was there a decent library. So the field was open for me to be creative and help President Premadasa who trusted me that I would deliver. And I did my best, not only in Communications, Media Relations, Human Rights and Image Building, but also helped H.C. Rupasinghe to keep the Commerce files active for 14 months when the Canadian Government, quite rightly, refused to give visas for a replacement of the Tamil Commercial Attaché who stayed back with his family as refugees. And also took care of the pension files which were handled by the Chief Clerk which were in arrears of three months in payments even after him making it a cash-cow working over time. I was appalled. I had to deal with the letters that lawyers had sent to the High Commissioner on behalf of their Tamil clients in Scarborough and Halifax demanding immediate payment of their pensions. It took me two months to clear the back-log with the help of a young clerk sent from Sri Lanka.
When I was hired by President Premadasa, it also meant that I provide the Mission access to my private Museum quality collections of Sri Lankan artifacts (masks, puppets facsimiles of heritage flags, wood crafts, my wife’s antique jewellery, collection of gems, etc.) and also my extensive political library, and my papers and writings on the Eelam War, to fill the vacuum at the Mission which had zip in Image promotional props and materials. I was shocked.
So I embarked on my Sri Lanka’s Image building exercises, with no support material at hand. Remember, I told you that the Ottawa Mission had ‘sweet buggerall’ of such support material, and I relied on my private artifacts collection that was started in 1970. I am a Museologist.
- My First exercise in Sri Lanka’s Image building was to write to the Carleton Board of Education and the Ottawa Board of Education mentioning that I was from the Sri Lanka High Commission and will be willing to speak on Sri Lanka with Show and Tell subject video tapes and artifacts to students if there was a need for such a presentation. Principals from 13 Primary and Middle Schools in the National Capital Region invited me to speak to Grade 4, 5 and 6 students. So I did with artifacts and video tapes. All what I asked them to provide me with were a Globe and a VHS Tape player. What were hits with the students were the Pinnawela Elephant orphanage video and placing Sri Lankan gems on their palms and identifying them.
And here is the bummer Minister. I wanted to hand each Principal of the schools that I visited a Sri Lanka National Flag as a gift from the Sri Lankan High Commission to be hung when they celebrated the Commonwealth Day. So I requested your Ministry to provide me with 12 large National flags. I was disappointed when your diplomats in Colombo didn’t cooperate. But, you know, Minister, there are many ways to skin a cat, so I asked my sister in Colombo to do me a favour. I asked her to go to Laksala and buy me 10 large National Flags and get it over to me. Bless her, and she did. And 10 of the 13 schools I visited were presented with the Sri Lanka flag from the Sri Lanka High Commission. Before I presented them to the Principals, I explained the symbols and colours in the flag to the students.
- My second Sri Lanka’s Image building exercise was to produce a series of nine (9) 30 minute TV shows called – Songs of Sri Lanka for MacLean-Hunter Cable TV in Ottawa I scripted, edited and produced these shows highlighting our cultural vignettes – Dancing: The Tea Pluckers Dance, Gajaga Vannama, Harvest Dance and Bharatha Natyam; Kavi Maduwa; Sinhala and Tamil New Year celebrations; Kataragama Festival; Tea plucking and the production of the Ceylon’s Best Orange Pekoe; Gem mining, gem cutting and faceted gems and jewellery; Kolam and Sanni masks and ceremonies; Puppetry; Elephants and the influence on folk art; an interview with Air Commodore Leonard Birchall; my Poetry on Sri Lanka recited accompanied with appropriate images on 35 mm. slides to school children, et cetera.
The artifacts in the shows were from my private collection. The video clips were provided by Rupavahini, courtesy of Mr. A.J. Ranasinghe. I sent him a couple of blank VHS tapes with my requests and he very kindly sent them back with recorded clips of my requests.
And here is another bummer. Although promised, I was not allocated an entertainment allowance by your Ministry, when school children were brought in buses to the Mission at Range Road accompanied by their teachers for my presentations on Sri Lanka in the library, complemented with visuals on 35mm slides. from my personal library as the Mission had none. I had to ask High Commissioner Rupasinghe to help me out by providing these students and teachers with Orange Juice and doughnuts. He was kind and accommodated my request. There were about 25 students in each batch accompanied by a couple of teachers.
The Malaysian Diplomat responsible for Communications invited me for lunch at Haveli a classy Indian Restaurant one day.
He wanted to find out what entailed in producing the TV Show– Songs of Sri Lanka, as he too wanted to produce one to high- light Malaysia. When I explained the process he abandoned the idea admitting that he was not capable of doing it. Of all the foreign Missions in Ottawa it was only Sri Lanka that used the community TV station to highlight vignettes to promote their respective countries.
Do you know what Minister? Your Foreign Ministry left me embarrassed as I did not have an entertainment allowance to reciprocate the courtesy lunch to the Malaysian Diplomat. I certainly wasn’t going pay for it out of my pocket.
- My third Sri Lanka Image building exercise was to collaborate with the Canadian Parliamentary Spouses Association to produce a 30 minute video on Sri Lanka to be sent to all their Riding offices to be used during the National Literary Week.
- My fourth Sri Lanka Image building exercise was to participate in exhibitions using my private collection of artifacts as the Mission had ‘sweet buggerall’ for such an exercise:
The Art if Healing: Ritual Masks of Sri Lanka at the Canadian Museum of Civilization;
Festival of Masks: Sri Lankan Ritual Masks at the Museum of Quebec;
Sri Lankan-Canadian Writers, in Edmonton, Alberta;
Focus on Sri Lanka at Algonquin College, Ottawa;
Sri Lankan Heritage Flags, Puppets and Masks at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa;
Sri Lanka’s Kolam Masks at the National Art Gallery in Ottawa.
Mr. Minister, by now you may have noticed that there is a commonality threading right through these four Sri Lanka Image building exercises. Without my personal collection of Sri Lankan artifacts and props, I couldn’t have participated in any one of them, as the Mission in Ottawa, had ‘sweet buggerall’. Thus to chide the good, smart, bad and the ugly Diplomats at your Ministry for not being productive, is blatantly unfair. They couldn’t have done it. As I told you in my preamble, “Provide them with the basic Labour Code – Give them the tools and they will get on with their job.” Although there is an ethnic slant on this comment it boils down to,“No ticky, No washy!” And that is a reality check for you parliamentarians and Ministers who are too quick to smack diplomats accusing them being unproductive. Yes, if they have been provided the necessary tools to work with and still not being productive, then you have a good reason to not only rap their knuckles but also recall them as Sri Lanka cannot afford to have deadwood in Missions abroad. It shouldn’t matter whether it is a brother, sister, nephew or a niece of the President or a Minister, recall them. Give a break to the Tax payer and stop such nepotism.
Let me now embark on my handling the Communications and Media Relations files.
- The period when I was at the Mission 1989-1994 was a time when the Tamil Diaspora were intense in their negative commentary about Sri Lanka’s Eelam War, the alleged discrimination and persecution of their clan back home and the killing of their people by the Government’s armed forces. The active word ‘genocide’ they would spit out at every opportunity. The print media columnists were supportive of their cause spinning their griping and wanting their mono-ethnic, racist, Tamil state Eelam.
My responses on behalf of the High Commissioner, to anti-Sri Lanka comments appearing in newspapers, I wanted to land on the Editor’s desk within 36 hours after they hit the newspaper stands. My responses were vetted by the High Commissioners, and edited and approved. Each letter to an Editor went out within 36 hours. I had absolutely no time to dilly-dally and waste time sending a draft to Colombo and waiting for an approved copy. The time was the essence. If the letter did not pick up ink in seven days, I called the Chief Editors of the news papers and demanded our right of reply. I managed to get 56 letters out of 64 published in the newspapers. The newspapers were The Ottawa Citizen, The Globe and Mail (Toronto), The Toronto Star (Toronto), The Toronto Sun (Toronto), Surrey/North Delta Leader (British Columbia), The Whig Standard (Kingston, On.), Sri Lanka Abroad (Toronto), Star India Journal (Toronto) and India Journal (Los Angeles, US).
Minister, here is another bummer. I was invited for lunch at the Chateau Laurier by the Indian Embassy’s First Secretary in-charge of Communications and Media Relations. He tells me “Mr. Weerasinghe, every time we open an important news paper we find a letter from the Sri Lanka High Commission written by you. We have lots of difficulty to get one of our letters published. What is your secret?” he asked. So I coached him how to do it. I was disappointed not to be give an entertainment allowance from your Ministry thus was unable to reciprocate his diplomatic courtesy and invite him for a working-lunch and discuss our Communications strategies to deal with newspapers that spin stories of our countries which are false. I had no intention to pay for a meal out of my pocket. C’est la vie!
I sent out 223 Press Releases and 54 Sri Lanka News Letters during my contract period between 1989 and 1994.
6, Since the Ottawa Mission was not provided Information Kits by the Foreign Ministry nor by the Government Information Department I decided to produce our own as there was a great need to educate Canadian Sri Lanka watchers who were fed information by the Tamil Diaspora which were detrimental to Sri Lanka. So I decided to ask the two High Commissioners to find me $600 to produce a set of 100 kits which had a look of professionalism. They obliged, and so the following Information Kits were produced.
Sri Lanka – Human Rights (July 1991);Sri Lanka – A Mosaic at a Glance (January 1992) and Sri Lanka: A Hidden Secret – Quick Facts (January 1994). I was too impatient to wait for things to happen from Colombo so I got on with it, like going to Grand and Toy a large Stationary Store and purchased 100 silver coloured kit folders, a roll of quarter-inch wide crimson ribbon from Fabricland and had the printing done by Commoners Publishing.
The kits that I put together looked presentable, professional and classy. As an example the Information Kit, Sri Lanka: The Hidden Secret contained Quick Facts information on the following topics, each on individual sheets:
Map of Sri Lanka; Introduction;
History; Land and its People;
Democratic Ideals and Values for Good Governance;
Constitution; Guide to Sri Lanka’s Foreign Policy;
Economy; The Ethnic Conflict; Human Rights;
Implementation of Recommendations of Amnesty International;
All Part Conference (APC); Sri Lanka Health and Education;
Environment; Sri Lanka: Women in the Work Force; Sri Lanka;
The Vision of a NIC by year 2001; Free Trade comes to Sri Lanka; Investing in Sri Lanka and Shelter.
You know what Minister, if the Foreign Ministry had the where withal to provide the Ottawa Mission the Communication tools to get on with my job, I wouldn’t have spent one whole weekend writing these Quick Facts sheets for a much wanted Information Kit. The drafts of these Quick Facts sheets were approved by the High Commissioner and gave me the green light to proceed with the production. When these Information Kits were presented by HC Rupasinghe to the Sri Lanka-watching MPs, the response was positive. I recall one Parliamentary Secretary to a Minister saying,
“Good, now I can deal with these separatist Tamils intelligently
who keeps writing to me almost every day seeking my support for
their separatist cause.”
To establish the true story on Sri Lanka and to go on record at an academic level in Canada, I managed to convince a British Masters student at Carleton University’s Patterson School of International Studies to adopt Sri Lanka as her country Seminar Topic and that I will provide all the research material from my Political library. She did and it was a success story.
She presented HC Rupasinghe with a copy of the audio tape of her presentation which started as “Good afternoon Ladies and Gentlemen, I am Walter Rupasinghe, the High Commissioner for Sri Lanka in Canada…..” She defended Sri Lanka extremely well, and HC Rupasinghe was very pleased. His question to me was “Asoka, how did you manage it?” She was marked on the Seminar by three External examiners sitting at the back of the Lecture Theatre who were retired Foreign Ministry Diplomats.
My personal home political Library came to our rescue as the Mission had “sweet buggerall” to help me to explore such a venture.
- During the summer, selected High School students from across
Canada congregate at the parliament in Ottawa to participate in the National Youth Commonwealth Forum. One year two students from schools in British Columbia had been assigned to represent Sri Lanka as their Commonwealth country. They met me at the Mission wanting some brochures to familiarize about Sri Lanka.
Having heard the reason why they were collecting brochures I asked them, “If you wish me to coach you, I will gladly do it for you!” They couldn’t believe their luck and took me on my offer.
Having coached them for two afternoons at the Mission, they returned home with the Best Country Presentation Trophy. As a
Thank You, the two students with their teacher took me out to dinner at the Chateau Laurier near the parliament. One has to grab these unforeseen opportunities to help Sri Lanka, and I did.
- As the Mission had sweet buggerall as a research library, I provided from my personal political library research material, my published essays and critical writings on the Eelam War for graduate and undergraduate students at Carleton University (Ottawa), University of Ottawa, McMaster University (Hamilton), Brock University (St. Catherine’s), Brad College (New York, US), McGill University (Montreal), Concordia University (Montreal), Simon Fraser University (Burnaby, B.C.), Wilfred Laurier University (Waterloo), University of Victoria (Victoria, B.C,), University of British Columbia (Vancouver) and University of Manitoba (Winnipeg).
These University students approached, quite rightly, the Sri Lanka Mission seeking help for their term papers and theses on present-day Sri Lanka which had been a hot topic because of the Eelam separatist war. The Mission in Ottawa was lucky that I provided the students access to my personal home political library. If not the Mission’s Communication’s Officer would have been holding his head between his palms in embarrassment.
It would be easy for the diplomats to get out of that awkward situation by saying “We are not here to provide research material for University students. I wouldn’t buy that. Minister, let’s get this straight, we are here not just to play diplomacy but also as a public service agent, and parry every time the Tamil Diaspora provide false information for these University students whose final work will go into print. That is exactly what was happening.
So you need to make a serious attempt to provide the diplomats with the basic Labour Code – give them the tools and they will get on with their job.
- I was also invited as the Communications Officer of the Sri Lanka High Commission to address the public on the following topics, which I was happy to accept to promote Sri Lanka. They were:
Sri Lankan Healing Masks: The Delicious Nightmares at the Canadian Museum of Civilization;
Claim for Separate State in Sri Lanka: The Eastern Province whose Home Land? at the Sri Lanka United National Association (SLUNA) in Toronto, This talk became the basis for an excellent editorial in the Ottawa Citizen, and
Buddhist Spirituality in Meditation at the Sai Baba 20th Anniversary celebrations in Ottawa.
- And finally my efforts to deal with the Human Rights File. My desk was flooded with questions and complaints about alleged human rights violations of Tamils in Sri Lanka. Almost all prompted by Amnesty International. But I kept on top of the file and replied to each and everyone of them. They never received a form letter, If I had difficulty answering a letter, I sought help from Mr. Bradman Weerakoon, who was President Premadasa’s Advisor on International Affairs, I believe. When I sent him a Telex during the day, I always had a response the following morning by telex sitting on my desk. And I loved his promptness and sincerity..
I may have had about a dozen letters from individuals thanking me for the response and pointing out to me that it was only the Sri Lanka High Commission who made an effort to respond to his or her letter on human right violations in that country. In my work ethic, this I believe was my effort on public relations on a difficult subject which always spelt anger.
My responses to AI Lobbyists in numbers were – 235 letters (1989); 649 (1990); 1223 (1991); 872 (1992); 426 (1993) and 257 (1994). All these responses were typed by me and sent out as a response within three days of receiving the human rights enquiry or complaint. And now you know why I wanted my own typewriter, as it was my workhorse,
And before I conclude, I wish to point out that every year, since I was not given an entertainment allowance, HC Walter Rupasinghe and HC Walter Fernando, helped me out of the humiliating embarrassment by entertaining the media personnel and others who were my contacts on the job, for a dinner once a year at the High Commissioner’s residence. This generosity helped me erase my humiliation because of the cussedness of your Ministry. Quite a few media people paid for my working-lunches at the Press Club.
And, by the way, working for the Sri Lanka Governmnt for five years of my life was when I wore my British University tie day in and day out. I had three of them, and they solicited respect from the Canadian Foreign Ministry personnel. They recognized the ties alright.
And remember, Minister Dr, Harsha De Silva, it is easy to chide the diplomats for their unproductivity. But then it is only fair that you recognize their basic Labour Code needs– give them the tools and they will get on with their jobs. They are only human and they are not trained as magicians. I was lucky as I had my private political library and artifacts collection to tackle my demanding assignments – to look after the Communications, Media Relations, Human Rights and Image Building of Sri Lanka Files.
Asoka Weerasinghe (Mr.)