By Rajeewa Jayaweera –
The latest news from the Foreign Relations Ministry relates to the sudden recall of High Commissioner Manisha Gunasekera, Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to the UK since October 2018.
High Commissioner Gunasekera joined the Sri Lanka Foreign Service in 1996. She has among other posts, served as Ambassador of Sri Lanka in the Republic of Korea; Deputy Permanent Representative, Sri Lanka’s Permanent Mission to the UN in Geneva; Director General (East Asia and Pacific), Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Sri Lanka; Director General (Donor Coordination), Ministry of Economic Development of Sri Lanka; Counsellor, Embassy of Sri Lanka in Japan; and Second Secretary, Embassy of Sri Lanka in France.
Gunasekera holds a BA (Hons.) degree in English from the University of Delhi. She also holds a Master’s Degree in International Political Economy and Development from the International Institute of Social Studies in the Hague, a Master’s Degree in Women’s Studies from the University of Colombo and a Postgraduate Diploma in European Studies from Sciences Po, Paris. She is a past pupil of Musaeus College, Colombo.
To the ordinary observer, the High Commissioner, unlike her recent predecessors, has engaged in considerable public diplomacy since assuming duties in London. Local media reports have regularly published news of her engagements with a variety of British politicians, opinion makers and influencers, so vital in the conduct of diplomacy. She has also established good relations with the Sri Lankan diaspora.
After a drought of many years of Heads of Mission in London poorly skilled in public relations, her appointment was like a breath of fresh air.
The new regime has recalled all non-career High Commissioners and Ambassadors (political appointees) since assuming office in mid-November 2019.
However, the sudden recall to Colombo of a High Commissioner, a career foreign service officer appointed less than 15 months previously, has left many bewildered. An official explanation for the transfer has not bee provided.
Nevertheless, the story currently doing the rounds relates to an episode during Gunasekera’s tenure as Ambassador in Korea.
In August 2016, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa had visited South Korea on a private visit at the invitation of a private charity organization.
A government circular specifies the level of assistance and facilities to be afforded by overseas missions for official visitors. Notwithstanding the circular, it is an established policy for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Colombo to reinforce the circular with specific instructions. On occasion, officials outside the Foreign Office also issue directives to foreign missions.
In terms of protocol, the Head of State tops the VVIP/VIP list, followed by the Prime Minister, former Heads of State, Speaker, Attorney General, and Cabinet Ministers. The Leader of Opposition enjoys the rank of a cabinet minister.
An episode had taken place during the Yahapalana government when UNP Parliamentarian Mangala Samaraweera, an authority unto himself, was the Foreign Minister. He had supposedly instructed Ambassador Gunasekera in Seoul not to afford assistance and facilitate arrangements for the former President. The instructions purportedly had the blessings of other higher-ups in the government.
If correct, it is a direct contravention of the established procedure with total disregard to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s status of a former Head of State.
Political appointees serve at the will and pleasure of their godfathers in power.
However, career diplomats need to be more circumspect. They need to act wisely and consider all options.
In this instance, it is unknown if Gunasekera pointed out to the Foreign Minister, the breach of protocol by not facilitating the visit of a former President. Other options, too, were available. A polite request for written instructions was one. Informing her immediate supervisor, the Foreign Secretary, is another. Such communications help in establishing, the concerned officer complied after complaining of the unsuitability of such directives.
It is undignified to highlight political differences between the ruling and opposition parties outside the shores of the island. It amounts to looking up and spitting on oneself.
The High Commissioner’s critics accuse her of having discouraged the South Korean Foreign Office from providing VIP arrangements. Nevertheless, the former Head of State was received warmly and treated with honors due to a former Head of State of a friendly nation. A meeting with the South Korean Prime Minister, lower in rank only to the President in that country
was also granted.
The Mayor of Seoul had hosted a dinner in honor of former President Rajapaksa and his entourage. He has supposedly commented, foreign envoys usually spared no efforts in obtaining appointments and arranging engagements for visiting dignitaries. However, in this instance, he had pointed out, the concerned envoy had done the opposite.
Early signs of a witch hunt and trouble brewing came by way of a salvo fired by Pirithuru Hela Urumaya leader Udaya Gammanpila. During a recent PHU media briefing, he condemned the two-state solution advocated on page 53 of the British Conservative Party manifesto. He accused the Sri Lanka High Commission in London of being asleep for eight days without an appropriate response. He demanded to know if High Commission officials were asleep or in a supportive slumber for separatists. The PHU leader could have easily picked up the phone and verified from his SLPPA colleague, Foreign Relations Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, without making a public spectacle.
Logically speaking, no career officer or public servant would make such career ruining decisions on his or her initiative without instructions.
Regardless of complaints of detractors, it would have been only fair to hold an inquiry and allow Gunasekera to explain herself and give her side of the story.
The input of the then Foreign Secretary would have proved vital. Three officials, an outgoing, incoming, and interim appointee, had occupied the position in the run-up to and during the visit. Did Gunasekera request the validation of the irregular directive from one or more of them?
On face value, both former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and High Commissioner Gunasekera have suffered injustices. Unfortunately, the repercussions for the career diplomat is far more severe than for the former President.
The productivity of diplomats on three year assignments peaks in the second year, having spent the first year settling down and developing contacts. The country too is the looser by recalling the envoy, 15 months into her term.
Meritocracy is the declared policy of the new government ushered in by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on November 18, 2019. It is a laudable proposition so desperately needed due to decades of appointing friends, relations, boot polishers and baggage carriers without requisite job knowledge, by politicians.
That said, the government must also protect public servants from politically-based irregular directives and political witch hunts. Towards this end, this administration could initiate a drive against issuing politically motivated improper instructions to civil servants.
Politicians will always defend and protect each other, as observed over the years. Public Servants, on the other hand, must fend for themselves.
Public Servants must, therefore, be more cautious and find ways and means of documenting irregular instructions, especially those politically motivated and with financial implications.
High Commissioner Gunasekera has been de-posted w.e.f. February 1, 2020. Ms. Saroja Sirisena, the current Ambassador to Austria, another career diplomat, is tipped to be her replacement.