By Rajiva Wijesinha –
A Presidency Under Threat – Public Relations
Much has been reported recently about the various Public Relations firms government – or rather elements in government, since it seems that there has been no Cabinet approval for these ventures – have hired to raise our profile in countries which seem hostile to us. There have been a host of such firms in the United States, and one in Britain. The first lot were almost all arranged through our Embassy in Washington, whilst Bell Pottinger, which also works in the United States though it is essentially a British firm, was arranged by Nivard Ajith Cabraal, the Governor of the Central Bank. More recently it seems Mr Cabraal has also been instrumental in arranging yet another firm in America.
The reports are very critical of those who make these arrangements, but I believe there is need of some discrimination here. I cannot defend the earlier agencies in America, for I found the only two I was introduced to, way back when I headed the Peace Secretariat, to be both naïve and incompetent. One of them had a young Sri Lankan who seemed to have initiated the relationship, but he was almost as ignorant as the large American he brought with him. Given the manner in which our Embassy in Washington conducted business, that being the operative word it seems, I believe there should be thorough investigation of what happened.
It is also worth noting that our relations with the United States deteriorated significantly during this period. Hiring of such firms began in the time of the Bush administration, which was relatively positive about us. The excessive expenditure then that our Ambassador in Washington was incurring was culpably unnecessary. More bizarrely, when the Obama administration took over, he continued to work with agencies that had good Republican connections.
The Ministry of External Affairs is also I think culpable in not having protested about all this, but given the close relationship of the Ambassador to the President, I presume it takes guts to point out squandering of resources in such instances. This is another reason the President should be careful about appointing to high positions people whom those who should monitor such actions think have total impunity. But I suspect the President would think twice about such appointments if the problems that would arise are pointed out to him, so it is a pity that neither the Ministry nor the Parliament Committee on High Posts has done this.
While I deeply regret then the antics in Washington, and think the criticisms made of those selections are valid and should be pursued further, I must point out that Bell Pottinger is a firm of high repute, and I found them extremely competent in the period in which they worked with government. This was indeed through the Governor of the Central Bank, and he arranged weekly meetings at the Bank at which situation reports were presented, and ideas as to improving relations discussed.
This was a far more professional approach than the hit and miss tactics in Washington, but sadly it proved ineffective for a couple of reasons. One was that the Secretary to the Ministry of External Affairs was not well, and often could not attend. Given Sri Lankan systems – or the lack of them – he did not appoint someone with authority to liaise and keep him briefed. This was in contrast to what the Governor did in that, though he could almost never attend, Deputy Governor Ranee Jayamaha was almost always there, and was clearly with full understanding of what was needed.
And I gather that Bell Pottinger indeed proved its worth, for it arranged many meetings for the Governor and helped him to prepare presentations that were impressive. It was certainly not his fault that his efforts to attract Foreign Direct Investment have not been as successful as the country requires, for unfortunately he had no control over the Board of Investment and other agencies that continued to impose bureaucratic, and sometimes financial, constraints.
With regard to external relations, the situation was much worse, in that nothing Bell Pottinger said had any impact. This was most obvious when it strongly advised against the President visiting Britain in late 2010 to address the Oxford Union. That episode marked the turn of the tide for us, for before that our prestige had been high, following the defeat of the LTTE and the corresponding diplomatic victory in Geneva in May 2009. But after the President had to leave Britain with his tail between his legs, following the cancellation by the Oxford Union of its invitation – and what was presented as the hasty departure before that of his Chief of Security, through fear of possible arrest of War Crimes charges – we were never able to raise our heads again in places where decisions regarding international standing are made.
No inquiry has been held into this fiasco, even though, in addition to Bell Pottinger, our High Commission in London advised against the visit. Even the normally phlegmatic Nihal Jayasinghe, the High Commissioner then, wrote formally about the matter, and his competent Deputy Mr Amza was immensely articulate about the possible dangers. But he was ignored, and more significantly, Bell Pottinger was soon afterwards got rid of. I cannot believe that this was on the advice of the Governor, whom they had served so well, but obviously he was not influential enough to counter objections from more powerful advisers of the President. Meanwhile the panjandrums at the Ministry of External Affairs did not intervene with regard to the stream of useless public relations firms that our Ambassador in Washington was playing with.
Given this track record, I see no reason to prejudge the intervention of the Governor with regard to a new firm in the United States. I would assume he has chosen sensibly, and he will ensure that liaison is systematic. But all this begs the question about the need for such massive expense, given that we did very well without such interventions during the period of conflict.
Romesh Jaysinghe in Delhi, and Dayan Jayatilleka in Geneva, and Mr Palihakkara in New York showed that professionalism could counter adverse propaganda effectively. Unfortunately the Ministry of External Affairs got rid of Dayan. Later its groupies were to suggest that he was not professional, whereas professionalism is not a function of where one comes from, it is to be judged by the capacity to conceptualize and deploy resources systematically in pursuit of one’s responsibilities. But the Israeli lobby and the anti-devolution lobby, led it seems by the Secretary of Defence, despite all the good work Dayan had done for him, fulfilled their own predilections with no care for the welfare of the country. And so they set in place in Geneva a ramp down which we have slid with increasing velocity over the last few years.
Is it not too late to change things? I fear so, for the positive moves we saw in the last few months have not been followed up, and it is not likely that we can regain the momentum which the international probe has arrogated to itself. We have finally now set up an internal inquiry, and appointed advisers who would give it credibility and ensure follow up, but there has been no formal meeting as yet between the Panel of Inquiry and the advisers. Meanwhile it is increasingly clear that the job needs to be divided up, given the Restorative Justice aspect of the Disappearances question, but there seems no capacity to conceptualize about this.
There is no hint either that government will take advantage of the opportunity presented by the Third Narrative that two very positive Non-Governmental Organizations, Marga and CHA, have developed. The way forward lies in a comprehensive programme to address the issues they have raised, but this needs a dedicated body, perhaps involving the more knowledgeable of the LLRC members along with the Task Force that is implementing some of its recommendations.
And, most importantly, we are not moving on establishing a strong relationship with India. The new government there has shown the way, but we have no mechanism to improve relations with the Northern Provincial Council, despite the tools it has placed at our disposal such as the Northern Education Sector Review. And there is no sign of the President talking to Mr Sambandan, who remains his best hope for a negotiated settlement, but who is apparently soon to be replaced by Mr Senathiraja – again a moderate with whom discussions could be fruitful, but we have to bear in mind the very different preconceptions he will bring to bear.
Unless we do something about all these matters, even the best Public Relations firm, even if handled professionally, will not be able to help us. The pity is that necessary and desirable solutions would be so easy. But, as Tarzie Vittachi once put it, with regard to the mess JR Jayewardene was creating, if there is no will to move forward, there is no hope. The tragedy in this case is that the President has often indicated the will, it is that he does not have instruments who will fulfil that will, given their own agendas.