18 May, 2022


Public Diplomacy – New Foreign Ministry Initiative

By Rajeewa Jayaweera

Rajeewa Jayaweera

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in collaboration with the Sri Lanka Press Institute, recently conducted a two-week intensive training course in Public Diplomacy and Media Relations for the 2018 intake of Foreign Service officers (SLOS) and some others who had joined in recent years. The program included interactive sessions with both local and foreign media experts and covered key areas in Public Diplomacy of writing news releases, conducting press conferences, giving public interviews and the effective use of social media. 

Not since the days of Lakshman Kadirgamar, undoubtedly the best Foreign Minister Sri Lanka ever had, has such a progressive initiative been undertaken. He, together with a few able and competent officials engaged foreign media expertly. LTTE Supremo Prabhakaran during an address on Maaveerar Remembrance Day in the late 1990s complained of GoSL undertaking a vicious media campaign against the LTTE, a clear indication, the Foreign Office was hitting where it hurt. The present Foreign SecretaryRavinatha Aryasinha was the Director-General in charge of Publicity at the time.  

This writer’s father, a 1954 batch Foreign Service Officer served as Ambassador to West Germany from 1985 to 1988. Deutsche Welle, one of the two leading German public broadcasters invited him to a public discussion with the then LTTE leader in the county and a former German Ambassador to Sri Lanka. The one-hour program was moderated by a leading German news anchor, was conducted in English, broadcast live, and simultaneously translated into the German language. The LTTE Rep. in his preamble claimed he represented 18% of 14.8 million Sri Lankans (1981 census). My father countered by stating, he as Ambassador represented 14.8 million Sri Lankans whereas the LTTE Rep., with no electoral mandate and representation in parliament represented no one other than a few thousand-armed men and women. He stated, the Sri Lankan Tamil community amounted to 12% and not 18% of the population and were not connected to the 6% Tamil community of Indian origin. He further pointed out, over 50% of the Sri Lankan Tamil population lived outside the LTTE controlled area and freely exercised their franchise during elections, a right denied by the LTTE to those living in the North. These assertions were not disputed. It was an excellent opportunity to communicate GoSL’s standpoint direct to the German public who had never heard of these details previously. Such opportunities had to be utilized to maximum effect without being squandered.       

Professor Alan K. Henrikson, Director of Diplomatic Studies at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University in Massachusetts, USA, defined public diplomacy as the conduct of international relations by governments through public communications, media and through dealings with a wide range of nongovernmental entities (political parties, corporations, trade associations, labor unions, educational institutions, religious organizations, ethnic groups, and so on including influential individuals) for the purpose of influencing the politics and actions of other governments.

In the 20th century, nations and their overseas representatives (embassies) depended on more traditional methods such as personal contacts, skillfully drafted media (press) releases, newsletters and the use of carefully cultivated media contacts for the publication of opinion pieces with a view towards influencing public opinion. 

Former US President John F Kennedy was perhaps one of the pioneers of public diplomacy. With Executive Order 10924 and Congressional approval, he established the Peace Corps in 1961 consisting of American volunteers. They were typically college graduates. The act declared the program’s purpose as; ‘To promote world peace and friendship through a Peace Corps, which shall make available to interested countries and areas men and women of the United States qualified for service abroad and willing to serve, under conditions of hardship if necessary, to help the peoples of such countries and areas in meeting their needs for trained manpower.’

With the dawn of the 21st century and the advent of the internet, the information highway, Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms, the dissemination of news and information has increased exponentially, almost at lightning speed. It has also enabled intelligent users of social media besides foreign governments, embassies, and NGOs to penetrate deep into societies with their respective narratives. Social media is an excellent tool to influence public opinion, especially the internet savvy younger generations. They are often the swing vote in elections, and their voting could be influenced and manipulated through concerted social media campaigns. 

Sri Lanka has been notoriously laid back in its dissemination of information abroad. It failed miserably in countering the sophisticated LTTE propaganda machine. The reasons are many. Outside the Kadirgamar years, little or no efforts were made in the conduct of public diplomacy.   

In this backdrop, the revamping and rebranding of the outdated Publicity Division into the Public Diplomacy Division headed by a Director General is a step in the right direction.  While commending the Foreign Ministry for its new initiative, let us wish the new division, it’s Director General and newly trained officers all success in their endeavors.

The recently trained young career officers, assuming they possess the requisite communication skills besides aptitude for public speaking, would in the medium to long term develop into meaningful spokespersons for the country and eventually as its Ambassadors if so appointed. They need to understand; their training has but has just begun. They have been equipped but with the basics. Regular refresher programs and training in sophisticated communication equipment are a must. They also need to acquire the necessary etiquettes and social graces of the diplomatic world as they go along. Despite the fact some consider such niceties unnecessary, Sri Lanka is a small country, and its diplomats must use every opportunity and avenue to stand out and to be taken notice. Such nuances are an added advantage. Once posted, they need to be adequately resourced and empowered to put their training into practice. Maneuvering through jealous superiors and not forgetting clueless political appointees will bring its own challenges.

However, there exists the issue of the conduct of Public diplomacy in short to medium term. The way our missions are currently manned does not give much hope. 

As this writer recollects, the Yahapalana government, at its inception, announced its intention of a 60% to 40% mix of career and political Ambassadors. Four years on, a quick survey revealed less than 40% of missions are headed by career SLFS officers. Furthermore, many embassies are staffed by diplomatic officers from outside the foreign service.

To name a few, the mission in London has 3 SLFS officers out of 9 diplomatic staff. Berlin 2 out of 4, Paris 2 out of 8, Washington 5 out of 7, Tokyo 1 out of 4, Moscow 1 out of 6, Beijing 2 out of 7 and Delhi 4 out of 6. The Trade and Defense positions in missions are handled by staff from the Commerce Dept. and armed forces. They are not political appointees. 

Whereas the Head of Mission in London is a career diplomat, missions in Berlin, Paris, Tokyo, Moscow, Beijing, and Delhi are headed by political appointees. The Ambassador’s post in Washington has been vacant since August 2017. The SLFS Ambassador nominated almost six months ago is still languishing in the Foreign Ministry without being given the green light to proceed.

Political appointees are relatives of politicians or those who have rendered varying types of services to politicians. The political Heads of Mission face no difficulty in receiving approval from the Committee on High Posts as its members too are politicians and need to keep options open for their own nominees at a future date.

The Public Diplomacy Division in Colombo will no doubt set the agenda and prepare the necessary information for dissemination by overseas missions. However, it is those based overseas in Sri Lankan missions that need to develop databases of contacts among government officials, industry leaders, NGOs, political parties, media groups, other interest groups besides important members of the general public in their respective territories. When our diplomats engage with members of the public through social media, they must follow the guidelines set out by the Foreign Ministry. Any other way will lead to chaos. It would require trained personnel.

Regrettably, the focus of most of our embassies, especially those headed by political appointees is the Sri Lankan diaspora, a culture which began with the Rajapaksa administration in 2005 and accelerated after 2010.                         

It would be pertinent to ask, how does the Foreign Minister and Foreign Secretary propose to address the issue of the conduct of Public Diplomacy in short to medium term, given the large number of untrained political appointees, currently manning Sri Lankan missions abroad?

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Latest comments

  • 2

    Where to start? The German interview, consider…
    ‘It was an excellent opportunity to communicate GoSL’s standpoint direct to the German public who had never heard of these details previously.’
    Alas, those Germans who mattered already knew of the post-independence jostling by our Sinhalese political leaders, playing to the communal gallery in their quest for power. Decent Tamil politicians were marginalised, and it was only a matter of time before younger, impatient hotheads took matters into their own hands. The die was cast for the inevitable misery that was to follow. Yes, the interested world followed the unfolding disaster from the 50’s to 1958, and then on a catastrophic scale in 1983. From then it was an uphill task to convince anyone that our Sinhalese governments were spotless and lilywhite. Disastrous as the violence was, the rest of the world understood fully what happens when a dog is kicked down and cornered. They listened open-mouthed when JR said I am not worried about the opinion of the Jaffna (Tamil) people now…cannot think of them….about their lives… The more you put pressure in the north, the happier the Sinhala people will be… really, if I starve the Tamils, Sinhala people will be happy…
    That was the damage that Lakshman Kadirgamar did his best to repair. It will be a long hike to get us back to the days of the LK Foreign Ministry. Not as long as we continue with appointments like the bone-headed Sajin de Vass Gunawardhena, and the most undiplomatic Brigadier Priyanka Fernando.
    Intake to the FM is already deprived of the brightest young things that have chosen to take their talents elsewhere. But, hope springs eternal, so the last thing I would want to do is dishearten the new recruits. I wish each of them well, and may they be spared the blight of political interference that has recently afflicted our FM.

    • 1

      Lakshman Kadirgamar went out of the way convince the world that that Sinhalese were so good that they never wanted do anything against the Tamils. He was a better Sinhalese than the Sinhalese them selves. He never spoke of the injustice caused to the Tamils. When 1000 people are on one side and a single person oppose them, he/she become conspicuous and recognized. Similar to Subramnia Swamy in India. This is amplified by the fact that he did his best to ‘repair’ what JR said against the Tamils and to cap it all he married a Sinhala women. There is nothing wrong in Sinhalese man marring a Tamil woman and vise versa. But a man like KADIRGAMAR doing so, meant much more than a MARRIAGE. A stepping stone to be a PRIME MINISTER which failed miserably.

  • 0

    Dear Rajeewa Jayaweera.
    I appreciate your efforts so much. As you are aware under the command of Ranil/Chandrika/Mangala the Foreign Ministry officials are behaving in a very harmful manner to the country. I cannot believe the way they tackled the Lord Nesbi initiative. I know of no other person who is devoting time in monitoring the ongoings and reporting to the public like you. Please continue in your current efforts for the sake of the country and our countrymen who sacrificed their lives for our freedom. Ranil government has well and truly screwed us for the benefit of Tamil votes.
    The present Minister is a silver lining in clouds you reckon?


    • 1


      “As you are aware under the command of Ranil/Chandrika/Mangala the Foreign Ministry officials are behaving in a very harmful manner to the country.”

      Not really.
      We saw our diplomats carrying Bags for the brats abroad, ‘Porter Ambassador’ ASP Liyanage did a marvellous job for the semi retired king and country, ….

      Two or three diplomats are/were on the run.
      One military attache facing charges in your old motherland.
      Perhaps the new Ambassador to Russia will be involved in the potential purchase of M17 helicopters, … and possible commissions of millions of tax free unearned rubles.

      Rajeewa Jayaweera’s efforts are paying off,
      “We may well need Sri Lanka’s friendship again soon over Brexit” : Lord Naseby
      5 February 2019

      It appears it is still a white man’s burden.

      Lord Naseby must get the Queen to Knight Rajeewa Jayaweera for carrying the sedan for the colonial master. Would you like to be Lord’s Footman?

      • 0

        “Lord Naseby must the Queen to Knight………..”
        Ask him to include yourself and other asylum seekers for washing dishes for the Brits!!!

  • 0

    “Not since the days of Lakshman Kadirgamar, undoubtedly the best Foreign Minister Sri Lanka ever had,” _ Rajeeva
    Dear any Tamil who surrender the rights of the Tamils and work for Buddhist Sinhala Fundamentalists violence is best for you. That is why Sinhala Buddhist Fundamentalists killed Kadirkamar because he aimed for PM post. We all know Karuna Amman was the best when he betrayed LTTE and involved with white van abductions and murder of number of Tamil politicians and human rights activists. Even though he attacked Daladha Maligawa and killed 600 Sinhalese policeman he was given fake passport to travel UK and when he came back gave minister post to celebrate his successful attack of Lord Buddha.
    You don’t write about Lasantha or Thayabudin murderers because they are the murderers.

  • 3

    Oh what a holy shit. Our embassies before serving the foriegners, should know how to serve the natives living in those countries. All of them are packed with stooges of the politicians, and only their aim is to make as much as possible while the sun shines. A driver working in the embassy makes more money than the embassidor by dumbious ways taking the country men into ransom. When one walks into the embassy to get a passport extension or to do the paper works to send a dead body, or any other works, they put so many hurdles, when the money is shown things move smoothly. Why foriegn ministry is not taking any actions about these. If they set up a hot line,, there are thousands of people ready, willing and waiting to put their complaints and grevinces to nail these bad eggs. Other issue is all those foriegn embassies are harassing the Sri Lankans when they go for visa, and their visa fees are way exorbitant. Of course there are bad ones who over stay, that doesn’t mean the majority of them are bad, and it’s the duty of the foreign ministry to take up these issues with those embassies. See Malaysian visa fee was on time SLR 500, it went up to SLR 6000, and again gone upto SLR 16000. At times the ticket fare from Colombo to Kuala Lumpur is less than that. Also in their consulate in Melbourne, Australia it’s only A$ 8 and Malaysian Embassy in Seoul, Korea is also charging the same amount. Most of the embassies in Colombo recover their operating cost plus profit too from visa fees. They have an outfit called VHS who is doing the visa processing for most the embassies, and they are sucking the blood and looting the Sri Lankan by charging sky high fess. Why the foriegn ministry is sleeping on this?

  • 2

    Boy oh boy. You really have a talent to make a fool out of your self. Dude your foreign services includes Jaliya , Udanga ,DJ and the idiot from Qatar.Is that enough to rest my case. There was some progress made in Geneva and now MS has screwed to the point the issues will be taken up again in coming sessions. Lying has been an inborn talent of Lankan politicians and diplomats. The world bodies are tired of your BS. Didnt you support saving the war time criminals in your previous articles???? The only success Lanka had was purely circumstantial due to post 9/11 change in world/western perception and in general not wanting any separatist to succeed . Kadir was just smart enough to not make issues worse.(like the rest). MR recently admitted to war crimes conducted by soldiers and wanted to see them punished ????? But in another interview he claimed younger kid of Prabha too is a terrorist???? He also blamed Modi for his own stupidity. Did Modi request MR to have early elections????As some one said intelligence has limits but stupidity ??

    • 2

      Thank You for the short list. We must not forget the ‘gone but not forgotten’ stars of the service. Sajin de Vass G and his moll Kshenuka-ka-ka who sent the Tea Doctor into early retirement and the paddikam-carrier Brigadier Priyanka-ka-ka-ka who stood bravely, one man, against the unwashed hordes at the Battle of Hyde Park. My learned friend said that to call him a diplomat was like calling a pig a journalist.
      By the way, Sajin also hit on the bright idea of hiring Imaad Zuberi to press our governments’ case in Washington.
      Here is how the website foreignpolicy.com reported the case:
      While he remained unregistered, the lobbyists hired by Beltway and initially funded by money sent to Zuberi set about the work of influencing Washington. They made hundreds of contacts with government officials, think tanks, and journalists, and arranged meetings on Capitol Hill when their client was in town. On July 14, 2014, for example, Vass Gunawardena and his delegation met with Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.) in the afternoon to discuss the U.S. relationship with Sri Lanka. A staffer in Tonko’s office said that they had a meet and greet with the Sri Lankan delegation and discussed the country’s strategic importance to U.S. policymakers.
      And here is how the website foreignpolicy.com reported the ensuing hospitality:
      That night Vass Gunawardena entertained members of Congress and staffers at Morton’s Steakhouse on Connecticut Avenue, which boasts that its patio “overlooks Washington’s infamous K Street Corridor, while the dining room caters to DC’s powerful elite.” Congressional ethics rules, which severely restrict the amount most outside interests can spend on food and drink for lawmakers and staff, exempt foreign embassies and their representatives — and the Sri Lankan official’s party of 15 made the most of it.

  • 0

    Thank You so much Koha. There is so much of shit heads around I find it difficult to store all of them in my ageing data base.Now that you mentioned I remember a receipt after dinning was published in the independent news papers.

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