Sri Lanka at the mercy of a treacherous setup (Part I)
Posted on January 22nd, 2019

By Shamindra Ferdinando Courtesy The Island

Foreign Minister Tilak Marapana, PC, recently urged Sri Lanka Foreign Service (SLFS) to enhance the country’s image overseas through efficient and effective execution of public diplomacy, utilizing its intrinsic brands such as Buddhism, gems, tea, spices, high-end export products and the warmth of traditional Sri Lankan hospitality.

The retired Attorney General was addressing officers of the 2018 intake of the SLFS at a certificate awarding ceremony on January 11, 2019 at the ministry following the conclusion of a two-week long public diplomacy and media relations training programme jointly organized with the collaboration of the Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI).

(Standing) Officers of the 2018 intake of the Sri Lanka Foreign Service and several mid-level officers serving the Ministry with Minister Tilak Marapana. Seated (L-R) CEO of the Sri Lanka Press Institute Kumar Lopez, Foreign Secretary Ravinatha Aryasinha, Minister Tilak Marapana, Director General Public Diplomacy and Spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Saroja Sirisena and Head of the Sri Lanka College of Journalism Shan Wijethunge

One-time TV journalist/anchorman Foreign Secretary Ravinatha Aryasinha was among those serving and retired SLFS officers present.

The following is the Encyclopedia Britannica definition of Public diplomacy, also called people’s diplomacy: Any of various government-sponsored efforts aimed at communicating directly with foreign public. Public diplomacy includes all official efforts to convince targeted sectors of foreign opinion to support or tolerate a government’s strategic objectives. Methods include statements by decision makers, purposeful campaigns conducted by government organizations dedicated to public diplomacy, and efforts to persuade international media to portray official policies favourably to foreign audiences.”

The Foreign Ministry, in a statement issued two days after the event stated that such a professional training programme hadn’t been organized before. The ministry certainly owed the public an explanation as to why those who had served the ministry during a turbulent period were denied the required expertise.

The Foreign Ministry statement, dated January 13, 2019, quoted Marapana as having stressed the importance of depicting Sri Lanka as a civilized nation with people full of loving-kindness who feel for each other and an abundance of talent. “That message has to be given loud and clear,” the Minister said. Marapana urged diplomats to be innovative in this image-building exercise and in changing perceptions about Sri Lanka. The Minister asserted that skills in public diplomacy and media relations would be extremely useful in these endeavours.

In the wake of an abortive bid by President Maithripala Sirisena to sack Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe, Sri Lanka is in deepening turmoil with the UNP still unable to prove its simple majority in parliament, even several weeks after Mahinda Rajapaksa quit the premiership.

Rajapaksa quit the premiership on Dec 15, 2019 soon after the Supreme Court upheld an interim Appeal Court ruling in respect of quo warranto petition filed by 122 lawmakers. The judicial stand humiliated the SLFS. Having had assured foreign governments that President Maithripala Sirisena acted in terms of the Constitution, judicial action stunned the already mauled SLFS. It would be pertinent to mention that Ambassador Aryasinha had to represent the country on more than one occasion at diplomatic functions for want of a legitimate government during the constitutional crisis.

The SLFS cannot depend on public diplomacy or any other specialized programme to save the country if our politicians are determined to ruin the country.

Governor of the Central Bank Dr. Indrajith Coomaraswamy in Nov, 2018 told a P Col (Presidential Commission of Inquiry) that the country was facing a non-virtuous cycle of debt and it was a very fragile situation which could even lead to a debt crisis.

“Of course my colleagues in the debt department have plans and capability to manage it. But it’s the duty of every citizen to act responsibly as regards the government policy,” he told the PCol.

Dr. Coomaraswamy did not mince his words when he emphasized that people should elect MPs who were prudent enough to handle fiscal and monetary matters of the country. “I am not referring to any government, but it’s been the case ever since Independence”, he said.

The CB Governor’s statement, made before the PCol on irregularities at SriLankan Airlines, SriLankan Catering and Mihin Lanka, couldn’t have been made at a better time for those who hoped for a genuine change in the political environment. Unfortunately, the media, pathetically, failed to provide sufficient coverage to, undoubtedly, the most important statement made by a respected public official, in the recent past, on any issue.

Dr. Coomaraswamy questioned the suitability of people’s representatives in parliament.

In addition to parliament, that can be considered perhaps the most corrupt institution in the country, the Provincial Council and Local Government systems, too, are utterly corrupt.

For want of overall political leadership and political will, the Foreign Ministry, obviously suffered over the years. In fact, all key ministries experienced setbacks and debacles due to the pathetic political leadership during the conflict. Unfortunately, nearly a decade after the conclusion of the war, the country appears to be in a far worse situation with political parties pulling in different directions.

All political parties are too sharply divided over various contentious issues, particularly positions, perks, privileges and opportunities.

Can public diplomacy help Sri Lanka as it struggles to cope up with accountability issues and a weakening national economy?

Sri Lanka faces the Geneva gauntlet in March this year with the UK headquartered Global Tamil Forum (GTF) taking up the appointment of wartime General Officer Commanding (GOC) the celebrated Task Force 1, Shavendra Silva, as Army Chief, of Staff with the international community. Last week, the writer explained how the war winning military suffered as a result of Sri Lanka’s pathetic failure to counter unsubstantiated war crimes allegations.

The failure on the part of the Foreign Ministry to inquire into the Mannar mass graves even after Colombo based diplomats and other foreign representatives visited the site late last year, underscored the need for the powers that be to identify priorities and responsibilities.

Marapana’s return to cabinet

MP Marapana received the foreign ministry portfolio in Aug. 2017, over two years after the last parliamentary election. The UNP with President Sirisena’s approval replaced Assistant Leader of the party, Ravi Karunanayake, who had been embroiled in a kickback controversy over treasury bond scams involving disgraced primary dealer Perpetual Treasuries Limited (PTL) perpetrated in Feb 2015 and March 2016.

After the change of government in January 2015, Marapana, accommodated on the UNP National List, received the law and order and prisons reforms portfolio. Marapana received the wrath of some of his cabinet colleagues for strongly defending the controversial Avant Garde Maritime Services (AGMS), the lucrative business owned by former Army Commando Major Nissanka Senadhipathy. Marapana resigned the ministerial portfolio in November 2015, though he continued as an ordinary MP.

Marapana should earn the appreciation of the public for unhesitatingly taking a stand on any controversial issue regardless of the consequences. The Directorate of Military Intelligence (DMI) holds Marapana in high esteem for intervening on its behalf at the time of the Aturugiriya fiasco at the onset of December 2001 UNP-led United National Front (UNF) government.

The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government pursued the AGMS accused of serious offences, including operating an offshore illegal armoury though it was known that the company had provided security to those vessels operated in high seas threatened by pirates. Another ‘yahapalana’ minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakse, PC, too, was attacked by his colleagues for throwing his weight behind the AGMS.

Wijeyadasa Rajapakse never ever contemplated giving up the justice ministry though finally the UNPer was removed in August 2017 on the basis that he interfered in investigations. The President’s Counsel was accused of being the guardian angel of wartime Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the target of several investigations.

Ministerial spats, too, inevitably contributed to the deterioration of the administration. A vital arm of the government-the SLFS was also badly affected.

When it transpired before the P CoI on treasury bond scams that Karunanayake benefited from the PTL owner Arjuna Aloysius, the top UNPer was unceremoniously replaced. Marapana re- entered the cabinet at Karunanayake’s expense. No wonder Karunanayake often flays those on the National List, flaying them for being the bane of the party. Karunanayake, who had always led the party from the front will never forgive Marapana. The National List MP recommended that Karunanayake be prevented from exercising his duties and responsibilities as the Assistant Leader of the ruling party. The recommendation obviously infuriated Karunanayake who lashed out at his National List colleague at every available opportunity. Karunanayake has targeted another influential National List colleague on several occasions.

Karunanayake, who held the finance portfolio in the ‘yahapalana’ government at the time of both treasury bond scams, exchanged portfolios with Mangala Samaraweera in May 2017.

President Sirisena moved out Samaraweera, at that time under heavy fire over co-sponsoring the Oct 2015 Geneva Resolution in spite of the then Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative in Geneva Ambassador Aryasinha opposing the text at the first informal session there.

In spite of the change at the top, the Foreign Ministry followed Samaraweera policies.

The ‘yahapalana’ government was in a mighty hurry to finalize the Geneva Resolution though the accusations directed at the military weren’t proved or at least verified. Sri Lanka never challenged the primary accusation regarding the massacre of 40,000 Tamil civilians on the Vanni east front. The war winning Rajapaksa government simply neglected its responsibility by the armed forces and towards end of its second term, squandered taxpayers money by hiring US and other public relations firms to counter war crimes allegations. In other words, the Rajapaksa administration outsourced the responsibilities of the Foreign Ministry.

The Central Bank, too, played a significant role in the wasteful project meant to influence the US. Having lost the Geneva vote on war crimes thrice during the Rajapaksa administration (second term 2010-2015), Sri Lanka co sponsored an unprecedented resolution against its own in October 2015 under the UNP led ‘yahapalana’ regime.

Sri Lanka created history by being the first country to accept extremely hostile resolution in addition to recommendations meant to undermine the unitary status of the country. Marapana, too, followed the same policies.

Marapana lost the foreign ministry to Dr. Sarath Amunugama in Oct, 2018 though he regained it late Dec 2018 following the judicial intervention forcing the Sirisena-Rajapaksa combine to give up its project.

During the crisis triggered by Wickremesinghe’s sacking, an influential section of the international community openly threw its weight behind the UNP. The diplomatic community went to the extent of visiting the parliament during proceedings held therein. A delegation that included the EU assured Speaker Karu Jayasuriya of its continuous support. Having met the delegation, Speaker Jayasuriya issued a dire warning to Sirisena-Rajapaksa combine.

Those who had backed the US sponsored resolution as part of their overall project to humiliate the Rajapaksa administration are determined on the continuation of the UNP government.

Since those at the helm of political power had caused such vast scale destruction, Marapana should realize that the SLFS can never ever repair damage by adopting public diplomacy strategies alone at this stage. Marapana cannot absolve himself of the responsibility for the current state of affairs even if he quits the government now.

Both the Rajapaksa and the current administrations caused havoc by depriving the foreign service of its rightful place. Had the SLFS received its due place and the politicians sought the expertise of the once proud arm of the State, the country could have handled difficult situations much better.

Contentious issues

The Foreign Minister still owed the country an explanation as to how Sri Lanka’s Ambassador in Washington Prasad Kariyawasam contributed to TNA heavyweight M.A. Sumanthiran’s strategy meant to promote foreign judges in war crimes investigation mechanism.

The writer firmly believes that foreign judges and other experts should be part of the accountability mechanism to ensure public faith in the system. However, those responsible for the Geneva Resolution should re-examine allegations against the backdrop of revelations made in the House of Commons in Oct 2017.

Lord Naseby, on the basis of wartime dispatches (Jan-May, 2009) from the British High Commission in Colombo countered the primary allegation that the military massacred 40,000 civilians in the final phase of the assault on the Vanni east front. The Conservative Party politician made his declaration on the strength of documents (from the British High Commission in Colombo) obtained from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) with the intervention of the UK Information Commissioner’s Office.

The British dispatches estimated the maximum number of dead at 8,000. Wartime British Resident Defence Advisor (RDA) in Colombo Lt. Col. Anton Gash on the basis of information available to him from both parties to the conflict placed the number of LTTE dead at one fourth of 8,000. The British assertion tallied with the still confidential UN survey (Aug 2008-May 2009) carried out in the Vanni region with the help of NGOs, INGOs and government officials based there.

The British revelation obviously sent shock waves through the Sri Lanka government. The British, too, were shaken. The British did everything possible to deny Lord Naseby’s request for information from the FCO made on Nov 06, 2014. Had the British made available the required information immediately, the West would have found it difficult to pressure Sri Lanka over a Geneva Resolution. The House of Commons revelation in respect of war crimes in Oct, 2017 underscored the urgent requirement to re-examine the case.

The UN Secretary General’s spokesman, in response to a query from the writer said that Sri Lanka had an opportunity to appeal for re-examination of accusations. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government squandered a valuable opportunity. The Sirisena-Rajapaksa combine, too, did nothing during 50-day premiership of Rajapaksa. Having regained government and formed a new UNP cabinet on Dec 20, 2018, the administration is yet to do anything on the Geneva issue.

Marapana’s appeal to SLFS to protect Sri Lanka’s interests should be examined against the failure on the part of the political leadership to counter Geneva lies, even after the Lord Naseby created an opportunity.

Marapana should explain what he, in his capacity as the Foreign Minister, has done since August 2017 to counter the Geneva project. When the writer sought Foreign Ministry response over 10 days after the Lord Naseby’s Oct 12, 2017 House of Commons revelation, the following response was received from the Foreign Ministry on Oct 27, 2017: “The Government of Sri Lanka remains committed to national processes aimed at realizing the vision of a reconciled, stable, peaceful and prosperous nation.

Engaging in arguments and debates in the international domain over the number of civilians who may have died at a particular time in the country will not help resolve any issues, in a meaningful manner, locally, except a feel good factor for a few individuals who may think that they have won a debate or scored points over someone or the other.”

The writer secured this response through normal procedure without resorting to the Right to Information Act. It would be interesting to know whether the Ministry cleared the above statement with Marapana before sending it to The Island. The public also have a right to know whether the Foreign Ministry consulted the Attorney General, the Defence Ministry and Army Headquarters as regards Lord Naseby’s revelation. The writer believed one-time Senior Additional Solicitor General Kapila Waidyaratne who held the post of Secretary Ministry of Defence at that time could have done something. Unfortunately, the former Attorney General (Marapana) and former Senior Additional Solicitor General (Kapila Waidyaratne) failed Sri Lanka.

About six weeks after the House of Commons revelation, Marapana side-stepped the issue in our parliament. Marapana assured parliament on Nov 26, 2017 that Lord Naseby’s statement would be used as ‘an ace’ when the time comes and at the right place.

Responding to a question raised by Joint Opposition Leader MP Dinesh Gunawardena, as to why Lord Naseby’s statement was not used especially at the Universal Periodic Review of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Minister Marapana said that the Government would use Lord Naseby’s statement at an appropriate forum.

Marapana said, “We are not saying that we will not use Lord Naseby’s statement. We certainly will use it at the proper time and at appropriate forums. There may be a time when the UNHRC will ask us to conduct investigations into the allegations of war crimes. We will use this statement when such a time comes. Otherwise, our opponents will find counter arguments so we must use it as an ace.”

MP Gunawardena alleged that the Foreign Ministry had not properly made use of Lord Naseby’s statement which categorically proved that the Sri Lanka security forces did not kill 40,000 civilians in the Northern Province during the final phase of the war.

Sri Lanka is yet to exploit Lord Naseby’s statement 14 months after Marapana’s assurance.

The Joint Opposition/Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna loyal to war winning President Mahinda Rajapaksa, too, should take the blame for the current situation. The JO never really pushed the government over the Geneva issue. The JO never took up the Geneva resolution when Mahinda Rajapaksa functioned as the Prime Minister for 50 days (Oct 26-Dec 15, 2018).

Last week, the writer dealt with the Rajapaksa administration’s failure to address the Geneva issue. The article titled ‘A General’s plight’ discussed how the war winning government neglected its responsibilities.

Perhaps, TNA spokesman Sumanthiran’s declaration in June 2016 in Washington is evidence that the Foreign Ministry fully cooperated with a section of the international community and one-time LTTE’s cat’s paw, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) on hybrid war crimes court as recommended in the Geveva Resolution.

Lord Naseby’s challenge couldn’t have taken place at a worse time for those seeking to humiliate Sri Lanka. But, the writer’s understanding is the primary objective of Geneva is not war crimes but creation of an environment here to introduce a new Constitution. (Please refer to the then Human Rights Commissioner Hussein Zeid Raad Al Hussein statement dated June 28, 2016 which can be accessed online)

To be continued on January 23

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