29 September, 2020

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A Tale Of Two Diplomats

By Sanmugam Kanaga-Ratnam –

..It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way……” ~ from Charles Dickens’ Classic Novel, A Tale of Two Cities

Somasundaram Skandakumar

A Tale of Two Cities is a Charles Dickens fictional novel published in 1859 involving two cities, London and Paris during the period of the French Revolution.

There is nothing fictional about the story involving two Sri Lankan Diplomats, one about to retire as the High Commissioner for Sri Lanka to Australia, and concurrently accredited to Fiji, New Zealand, and Solomon Islands. Somasundaram Skandakumar was appointed in August 2015 and is getting ready to relinquish his post after serving his term and return back to his homeland, Sri Lanka.

The other Diplomat was appointed in 2008 as Sri Lankan Ambassador to the US and Mexico. He served as ambassador until the US government wanted his removal in 2014 pending charges being brought against him. Ambassador Jaliya Chitran Wickramasuriya stands indicted by the US Federal authorities of perpetrating serious financial crimes: money laundering; tax evasion; wire fraud. In addition this diplomat has also been charged with committing visa fraud in his application to the US authorities to become a permanent resident of the US. He is also considered a fugitive from justice in Sri Lanka.

So what went wrong?

Jaliya Wickramasuriya

Both were non-career diplomats at the time of their appointment; both were businessmen from the private sector of Sri Lankan commerce and industry with no prior government experience.

By all accounts, Somasundaram Skandakumar excelled during his tenure, put Sri Lanka on the map in the part of the world he served; made connections with industry leaders, politicians, charitable organizations, and sports organizations. He played a major role in Prime Minister Turnbull of Australia visiting Sri Lanka in November 2017. No one raised their eyebrows when Skandakumar was appointed as High Commissioner in 2015. He had impeccable credentials. Good family background with his father a preeminent civil servant who served in the Administrative Services of the Sri Lankan Government. Skandakumar was a cricket star from his high school days at Royal College, then at the University of Ceylon and finally The Tamil Union Cricket Club where he was President in 1998-2000, club’s Centenary year. 

In his professional career, Skandakumar started as an executive at one of the British agency houses and rose to the rank of Managing Director at George Stuarts Group and at retirement was the Group Chairman of the Board of Directors.

It was therefore no surprise that Skandakumar’s tenure as High Commissioner for Sri Lanka in Australia was nothing but brilliant.

When Jaliya Wickramasuriya was appointed Consul General to the Sri Lankan Mission in Los Angeles in 2005 no one paid much attention. Sri Lanka mission in Los Angeles was a small office located on Wilshire Blvd. This office was responsible for mostly signing documents and notarizing affidavits and issuing visas etc. But when Wickramasuriya was appointed in 2008 as the Ambassador to Sri Lanka in the US it sent shock waves within the diplomatic, political and community circles.  This office was previously held by Sri Lankan career diplomats and eminent academics and scientists including Jayantha Dhanapala (a former UN under Secretary General), Warnasena Rasaputra, Dr. Ananda Guruge, to name a few. Wickramasuriya with a high school education and limited business experience in the tea trade was clearly unsuited for the position at the time of his appointment. The only qualification, if you can call that, was his close connection to the then President Mahinda Rajapakse who appointed him to the position. Wickramasuriya is former President Rajapakse’s cousin Kamala Rajapakse’s son. 

Wickramasuriya’s appointment came at a crucial time for Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka was engaged in a bloody war against Tamil Tigers (LTTE) being watched by the international community with mounting criticisms and allegations of war crimes being committed by the government forces in the prosecution of the war. One is not certain if the Rajapakse administration was naïve or could care less about the international community in boldly forging ahead with the appointment of Wickramasuriya to the most vital diplomatic position in Sri Lanka’s international relations and foreign policy. US sponsored UNHCR resolutions have urged Sri Lanka to conduct independent credible investigation into alleged war crimes committed by Sri Lankan forces against the Tamil community. Wickramasuriya has very little to show by way of any contribution he made to appease the US and UNHCR charges against Sri Lanka. By all accounts, Wickramasuriya appears to have run his tea business from the embassy premises in Washington, DC. He was busy organizing junkets for investor groups and tour operators and agents from the US to Sri Lanka.

With this record of conduct it was only a matter of time that Wickramasuriya’s  career had to come spiraling down, crash and burn.

Sri Lankans pride themselves in staking claim to being the first in many achievements. Wickramasuriya’s indictment is unprecedented in international diplomacy. Duly appointed ambassador of a country stands accused of serious crimes committed while in office. It is a dubious distinction that Sri Lanka can do without!

One wonders, if anyone in the present Sri Lankan administration is paying attention to the story of these two diplomats. Shavendra Silva, a former military officer dispatched as Deputy Permanent Secretary to the UN in 2010. Soon after the war ended, several military officers were posted in diplomatic positions around the world including, Germany, Pakistan, Malaysia, Israel, Indonesia, Japan, Australia and Eritrea. 

One may ask, why not a military officer as a diplomat?

It’s a valid question. It has to do with one’s mindset. A career diplomat is by education and training a diplomat. The foreign service recruits and trains diplomats to represent a country, establish goodwill and promote trade commerce, and friendly relations between nations.

Take the case of Brigadier Priyanka Fernando attached to the Sri Lankan High Commission in the United Kingdom. A year ago at the Independence Day celebrations in London, Fernando was captured gesturing slitting of the throat at protesting Tamil residents in front of the High Commission in London. Brigadier Fernando was one who was active during the final phase of the operations by the government forces against the Tamil militants that left hundreds and thousands of combatants and civilians dead or unaccounted for. How can you place a battle hardened military man to a position of diplomacy and expect him to behave like a peace loving pacifist.  One can only surmise that it is the mindset of a military officer thrust into a diplomat’s position. The switch from warfare to diplomacy is not feasible in a short period of time. The silver lining to this incident comes from the action taken by the Sri Lanka Foreign Ministry in suspending this officer forthwith.

Sri Lankans who left the shores of their motherland and settled in Australia, Canada, USA,UK, European Union and other parts of the globe have been great goodwill ambassadors to the country of their birth. They excelled in their careers as doctors, lawyers, engineers, IT professionals, accountants, academics, early childhood educators etc. They helped fly the Sri Lanka flag high with pride in the way they conducted themselves in the land that adopted them. These expatriates were the one’s who were at the brunt of ridicule leveled against them by neighbors, colleagues in the workplace etc. when Sri Lankan parliamentarians recently widely publicized behavior like hooligans, thugs and common criminals in parliament. In the US, we are being asked what kind of people we elect to our parliament? What kind of people we are sending as diplomats to Washington, DC?

One can be certain Sri Lankan expatriates all over the world are being quizzed on those lines about our parliamentarians and about diplomats like Wickramasuriya.

Sri Lankan administration must take note of the fact nations in parts of the world have laws permitting them to exercise universal jurisdiction over certain crimes. War crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide fall within the purview of such jurisdiction. General Pinochet, former military ruler of Chile’ from 1973 to 1990 was arrested in a London Clinic where he was receiving medical treatment. His diplomatic status did not deter the authorities from arresting Pinochet who was indicted by a Spanish Court for human rights violations in his native Chile’. He was held for over a year until he was released by the British Government. 

It is alleged that Henry Kissinger, a former US National Security Advisor and US Secretary of State runs the risk of being arrested if he travels abroad for crimes against humanity committed in Vietnam and South America.

In this context and the story of the two diplomats, Sri Lanka is best served leaving diplomacy in the hands of career diplomats from the foreign service. Hawks do not belong in the company of doves. Choices made for diplomatic positions based on nepotism has proved to be a disaster as in the case of Wickramasuriya as ambassador to the US. Sri Lanka must take note that these are crucial times for the exercise of sane foreign policy in its international relations. Sri Lanka’s external relations with India and US cannot be overemphasized. US foreign policy, pivot to Asia is clear and the curtailment of Chinese expansion in the region is at the center of it.  While Sri Lanka is carving out segments of its territory and vital commercial hubs and resources handing it over on a platter to China, one cannot expect India and the US to stand by idly.

Sri Lanka just celebrated it’s seventy first anniversary of independence. We are reminded of the questions Dickens posed in his Tale of Two Cities.

For Sri Lanka, one begins to wonder which were the best of times..which were the worst of times..? 

Is Sri Lanka in the in the age of wisdom – or is it the age of foolishness?

Was it the season of light then and season of darkness now?

A spring of hope then, a winter of despair now?

We had everything before us then.. we have nothing before us now

We were all going direct to Heaven.. or are we all going direct the other way?

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Latest comments

  • 23
    2

    When utter fools and pigs are running the country, do you expect, they would send sensible people to represent the country?

    • 8
      0

      Silva,
      .
      I think not just elected govt, but also srilankan expatriates could pass their views about such appointments.
      :
      Like for example, srilanken americans did not even care about the appointement of JALIYA… until all is ruined by him. May well be RAJAKSHE rascals never allowed others to involve. Those srilanken americans are decent people.. that dont give damn to get on with Rajakashe circles. Anyways, had they been proactive in that matter, things would not have ended up the way it is… now Jaliya W is caught by US prosecution.

      • 7
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        “Sri Lankans who left the shores of their motherland and settled in Australia, Canada, USA,UK, European Union and other parts of the globe have been great goodwill ambassadors to the country of their birth. They excelled in their careers as doctors, lawyers, engineers, IT professionals, accountants, academics, early childhood educators etc. They helped fly the Sri Lanka flag high with pride in the way they conducted themselves in the land that adopted them.”

        In fairness to all the expats ………this in most parts is very true ……… but for the record ………… we also have two prominent Lankans who ended up in jail

        Sanjay Kumar …….. the former CEO of Computer Associates (Who was nicely set up by Charles Wang …… he should have seen it coming but greed and hubris got in the way)

        Raj Rajaratnam of Galleon hedge fund (who is certainly guilty of insider-trading but by no means the only one engaged in insider-trading ………… perhaps the only prominent person prosecuted during the aftermath of the GFC …….. there were much bigger fish who should have ended up in gaol ……….. but his “sub-continental looks” made him an easy scapegoat.)

        If you look different and VERY successful ……. somewhere down the line they’ll get ye to pay for it ……… unless you live an “apologetic life;” Oprah Winfrey is a classic example.

        Obama was the first “Black” president ……… but he was half-White …….. when a real spade’s spade like James Brown becomes the president ………… you can count me as a true-believer …………

        • 0
          0

          Aye-up! James himself confirmed that ‘Brown stated that he also had Chinese and Native American ancestry; his father was of mixed African-American and Native American descent, whilst his mother was of mixed African-American and Chinese descent. Some spade!

          • 3
            0

            SP,

            Spade is an “attitude/identity” ……….. than racial blood lines.

            Well, we are all mixed somewhere “down the line” ……… all those passionate ancient nights ……… what I meant was the up-bringing, out-look, how people are “trained” by/from birth to fit in to a time and a space ……..

            Obama had an exclusive “White” upbringing and ol’ James had a quintessential “Black” upbringing ………. Obama’s half-White-ness and the White upbringing made him more palatable and got him elected …….

            Jesse Jackson a “quintessential Black” didn’t have a look in

            “Upbringing” …….. in the movie “The Jerk” Steve Martin is brought up by a Black family …….. and had all the traits that ol’ Obama’s White-upbringing trained him to suppress ……

            Things are not so pedantic ……… there are other things at play …………..

          • 3
            0

            “Buddy is Superspade. If you melted down James Brown and Arthur Conley and Otis Redding into one enormous spade, you’d have Buddy…he is the quintessence of all R&B amassed in one super talented human being. His singing is just superb, his drumming is just the best. He’s the superman.” — Mike Bloomfield on Buddy Miles


            I used “Spade” as above …….. a term of endearment ………

    • 8
      0

      In the day of CBK admin under late Mr Kadirgamar was the last we saw the appointments worked going by credentials.
      :
      BP Rajakshe faced lifted as no other OPENING the door his kith and kin to end up in Diplomatic positions.
      Gamini Corea , Bernard Gunathilaka or the like edcuated diplomat gave a name to lanken politics having represented the country – decently.

      Why lanken in general fail to identify their own mistakes, but repeat the previous mistakes is beyond comprehension. Just because RAJAPAKSHE was an idiot, lanken representatives for outside world must not necessarily be coming from the same ranks. People could protest but thugs never left space intelligent men to mediate in the affairs. That was the case with all the false appointments.

  • 15
    0

    This is not merely in diplomatic service. As soon as MR came to power, he gave all higher post in all government departments as he and his family like. Do you know what happened to Sri Lankan air line? still running on lost. some officials get millions in salary? Do you know what happened in Sri Lankan Universities. Many fake Phd are appointed in many post. some VCs are appointed on political order, All public administration are like this in Sri Lanka, still many want him back in power to loot public money. Whither Sri lanka?

  • 8
    1

    What you think the answers are going to be to your questions???? Though this one is difficult to defend you still will see Rabid followers coming out howling colonialism, “foul play”, anti western bull shit, Partiality, we poor Lankans , diaspora—–etc—-etc. When you have such morons and a person like MS as president , is this a surprise ????? Can Jaliya be worse than a President who repeatedly violates constitution and wants to shield all criminal. This is the reason, I had always estimated MR as cunning but not smart( like Trump), as dumb followers of his like to project. When you know this being the most strategically important diplomatic position for Rajapaksa family you should have picked a carrier diplomat like Kadir (expert in spinning) if not a habitual liar as in GLP or anyone other than this clown. But as expected MR went with his family members.But there are more filling the post Ex.Qatar guy, DJ and plenty more.

  • 5
    0

    Few words about George Steuarts where Skanda had served as Managing Director before his stint. During MR regime GR, applied his arm twisting tactics to get rid of the majority share holders by threats and intimidation , where few left country to save there lives from this monster. In there absence GR nominated his own people to the board with intention of total take over. Fortunately for the owners and the company (one of the oldest company to have survived and doing fairly well by divesting capital in other sectors) MR had other ideas of his own to have early elections. Skanda will know all the details. This is how Rajapaksas pay back for the service rendered.

  • 6
    0

    Rajapaksas picked military personal as diplomats for their own self interest. By this , they were shielding them from war crimes, giving them diplomatic immunity, ensure “not to spill the beans”/divulge their family crimes and having them posted as under officers in pretext , to closely monitor the activities and interactions of diplomatic personals with locals. . But when it came to the most vital position , MR went with his usual nepotism. Americans are well known to do extensive research on weaknesses of a targeted individual. The rule is every human being has some thing vulnerable to hide. They never hurry or do things haphazard. They usually spread the net and patiently wait for the individual to dug his own grave (ask Manafort or Flake) In case of Jaliya , he him self helped without requesting. Why do you think MR was so angry and upset when he first heard the news. I hear when told , there was customary barrage of foul language .

  • 5
    0

    Mr. Sanmugam Kanga Ratnam: Good analysis. For your information, we were never going to heaven, but for the last seven decades and more, we were going the other way ans still going… No doubt, this “Going the other way” has to be stopped and directed towards that “Heaven”. Uphill task, but worth the efforts and the risks. You said: ” In the US, we are asked what kind of people we elect to our Parliament”. Very timely question. An example to prove ” we are going the other way” is the recently (few days) concluded elections to the Sri Lanka Cricket Board (SLCB). As publicly announced by our match winning ex captain (now a Minister) Arjuna Ranatunga, all “Sponsored” and “Backed” by another “Gambler” a “Parliamentarian” a “Deputy Speaker”, entered through the “Back Door” (National List) secured “Majority” votes and captured power. Among those “elected” are “Investigated” by Cricket Council for “MATCH FIXING” and “MONEY LAUNDERING”. Do you see how “we are going the other way”. Realizing this “going the other way”, some “Real Professionals” still remaining in the country have taken a step forward to bring us that “SPRING” time and we wish it would follow through to “Summer” times of “COMFORTS”, you enjoy in US. Cheers.

  • 7
    0

    In SL, merit no longer counts in ANY appointment. Diplomatic posting are no different.
    Retired and serving Uniformed Service personnel have been rewarded.
    There will be skeletons in every Lankan Diplomat’s cupboard.
    .
    Sanmugam Kanaga-Ratnam singles out the former Ambassador to US, Jaliya Wickremasuriya.
    How about the, almost parallel, former Ambassador to Russia Udayanga Weeratunga?
    Or the present Ambassador to Qatar, ASP Liyanage?
    And on and on.

    • 7
      0

      Sanmugan Kanaga-Ratnam has written well. But I searched vainly for mention of another arch villain who with one thundering slap made a laughing stock of our diplomatic service and the Foreign Ministry who runs it. What enlightened idiot appointed the shit Sajin de Vass Gunawardena to ‘monitor’ this eminent service?

      Political appointees are first and foremost beholden to their political masters. Their over-riding use is as bag carriers and facilitators.

      Our diplomats show hidden talent; whether looting schools, or ransacking fixtures and fittings from diplomatic residences, we’ve got them.

      Go lie for me Sri Lanka…..

  • 6
    0

    A great article which clearly identify who are the real patriots and who are the fake patriots of this island. Real patriots love their land, love their parents and they respect the law, respect the justice, respect the human culture. In contrary to this fake patriots don’t love their land (see Gota, Basil, Chandrika they bargain bribe such give me president I will become Srilankan, otherwise I will love American citizen). They don’t bother about their country, their parents, they don’t respect the law (eg. Mahinda, Sirisena, Gota), Bribery is their norm, they don’t repect justice.
    Unfortunately, Sinhalese masses have no choice other than to chose their leadership from these fake patriots even though it is a common sense to differentiate between real and fake.

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