By Bandu de Silva –
So shattering all my expectations Assistant Secretary Nisha Biswal met President Sirisena. That is something she could not achieve on her last visit because the then President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, for whatever reasons, thought of country’s honour and the position he held as Head of State albeit of a pea-nut country, as Rajiv Gandhi indicated to his close associates taking a pea-nut out of the plate in front of him. (This is not a yarn and was told me by a very close Indian friend who was in Rajiv’s inner circle).Simply put, Sri Lanka has accepted that pea-nut status in the international community this time by conceding a meeting for visitor Biswal with the country’s head of state, whom I argued, is no more than an official comparable to a “Desk Officer”, in any Foreign Office establishment or a Director for Asia in our own Foreign Office.
Whether or not they are decision makers is an open question. President Kennedy spoke of the Assistant Secretaries as those who catty out government’s decisions but State Secretary Kissinger addressing a new batch of recruits said they have a role to play in decision making.The latter is closer to the truth in any Foreign Office.
The new Sri Lankan government’s thinking may be different from that of an old codger like me who once dabbled in diplomacy who still believes that there should be no high and low (subordinate) status but equal status among states. Perhaps, the new government believes that even licking the feet of great powers would be ‘dai-ja-bu’, (in order) to quote a Japanese expression, if that serves a purpose. So to hell with Protocol and principles as I would still stress, if Sri Lanka could escape a strongly worded US sponsored resolution in Geneva this time. Not a bad idea if old world wisdom is accepted. Even our Sinhalese folk keep on asking “WANSE KABAL-GANNADA?”
Coming to more detail, from TV photos of the meeting with President, it appeared that Foreign Ministerr Mangala Samaraweera was the kingpin behind the show. His non-adversarial but pacific approach to foreign policy has been critically examined by writers elsewhere. So the outcome was not surprising in respect of this visit. One redeeming factor, however, on the meeting with the President, to judge from photos, was that the occasion lacked the ostentation of a call on the head of state. It looked more or less like a tamasha or photo-carnival, anything but ostentatious as befitting a call on a head of state by a dignitary. In any case, the President is not the decision maker on foreign policy now and he could not be expected to talk out of turn on things that the Prime Minister and the Cabinet would collectively take. The question is then was the meeting with the President arranged by the Foreign Minister Samaraweera to please the insatiable wish of a US Assistant Secretary to satisfy her own ego on one hand, and to demonstrate how far the US has succeeded in bringing this country under its thumb starting with Defence Secretary Kerry’s visit?
Biswal has said nothing important publicly so far (up to the time of writing) except to compliment the new government on ‘re-establishing democracy’ and ‘paving the way for removal of corruption’. These may seem loaded with meaning though not spelt out. The other point she made was to extend support to “Yahapalanaya”.What she meant by that has to be read with the other two observations to have any meaning. So for day one, that is all what we have. Whether or not she would meet the government’s ‘opponents’ (a term I owe to a former Swiss president ) in the north including the former LTTE leader’s wife Anandhi is not clear. If she does at this stage when TNA has not made up its mind on the response to be given to the new Ranil Wickrmesinghe government that could give the northern politicians the opportunity to push for an international investigation. That might be an issue that the US wishes to avoid at the present stage of entertaining new hopes of improved relations with the new government. If Biswal goes north this time too to engage with the Tamil politicians then that would be duplicity on her (read US’s parts.
These are some of my quick observations.