By Deneth Thilakasiri –
President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s eventful political career is marked by a dominant feature: unlike his predecessor, he fulfilled, in the most consistent manner, the most important criterion if one is to succeed in Sri Lankan politics: a firm, well-grounded and unwavering Sinhala Buddhist support base. In the aftermath of the General Election of 2004, the Buddhist clergy, the rural masses, the ethnic Sinhala (and largely Buddhist) educated classes all got together in their unanimous endorsement of Mahinda Rajapaksa, preventing the all-powerful Gaullist Executive of the time from appointing her favoured candidate to the post of Prime Minister. Instead, a man from the rural elite, hailing from the far ends of Sri Lankan provincialism, and not representing the English-speaking, politically influential, rich and cosmopolitan Colombo 7 urban elite, became the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka.
This was unlike the case of the late D.B. Wijetunga’s appointment as President following the assassination of President Premadasa (and the appointment of Ranil Wickramasinghe as Prime Minister at the same occasion is not even worthy of mentioning). This was also not similar to the appointment of Minister Rathnarisi Wickramanayake MP, the then Chief Government Whip, as Prime Minister in the aftermath of ailing Premier Sirima Bandaranaike’s demise. This was the first occasion in post-1948 Sri Lankan history at which the Head of State – herself representing the Colombo 7 elite to the core (with the notable exception of the Vijaya Kumaratunga factor), was forced by a large mass of the Sinhala (and largely Buddhist) citizenry (a ‘majority’ within the majority) to pave the path for the political hubris of their favoured leader – the man they approved as fit to be the national leader. At that point of time, President Rajapaksa was thus the one and only personality who could claim to be a leader with a national scope, who was appreciated and trusted by the majority of the Sri Lankan population.
Issues were clearly articulated by the President in 2006
Once selected presidential candidate for December 2005, candidate Rajapaksa presented the Mahinda Chinthana, his electoral manifesto, which has since then been repeatedly evoked by the President and key personalities in the Government. In terms of its policy orientation, this document is well-suited for Sri Lanka’s present-day needs. Concerning foreign policy, for example, development of better partnerships with emerging states and states of the Global South, firm alignment with NAM, reducing undue external pressure and intervention, maintaining an (arguably) anti-imperialist stance are all necessary elements to promote Sri Lanka in the contemporary international scene. An associated core element is the promotion of Sri Lankan culture abroad, and providing quality services to citizens living abroad. These issues were clearly articulated by the President in 2006, in his speech at the opening of a three-day workshop for serving Foreign Service officers. In that speech, the President was very critical of the country’s foreign affairs establishment, and took issue with the general critique- that of the lethargic nature of diplomats, whose housing and all other expenses are paid by the state, together with a very generous salary and that they give back very little in return for what they get from the state.
It would be of interest to question from the vantage point of today as to whether the words of the President, uttered in October 2006, have had any significant impact on the management of Sri Lanka’s foreign affairs establishment.
The Rajapaksa policy articulation did have an impact during his first term of office. In many missions around the world, a day was designated on which any citizen could show up and talk freely with the head of mission. While this practice seems to continue in a handful of missions, it seems to have been dropped in quite a few others. Apart from minor developments of this nature, it is only realistic to conclude that the Rajapaksa policy, or the Mahinda Chinthana policy framework in terms of the management of the foreign affairs establishment- has not been implemented, and that the good ideals have been restricted to the paper on which they were printed. There is a crucial caveat here that needs emphasis. In terms of actual foreign policy per se, the Rajapaksa administration was successful in reviving Sri Lanka’s long-standing ties with NAM states and emerging powers, strengthening the Indo-Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka-Pakistan, Sino-Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka-Russia and Sri Lanka-Iran partnerships. This revival of existing linkages, often erroneously referred to by the media and social scientists working on Sri Lanka as Sri Lanka’s new-found friends, was very helpful in defending Sri Lanka’s case at international bodies, notably the UN Security Council (through Russia and China’s veto powers) and the UNHRC in Geneva (in the latter, mindfully made appointments for the post of head of mission also helped, quite substantially). The caveat closes here, and the focus in the following is on the general management of the foreign affairs establishment, not only the articulation of actual foreign policy priorities.
Political appointees to foreign affairs
The 1978 Constitution of the Second Republic provides the Head of State the prerogative to make political appointments to positions in the Foreign Service. It has to be noted, regrettably, that some political appointments made by President Rajapaksa have simply been atrocious – to say the least. Before looking at the bad side, one good point about all political appointees under the Rajapaksa administration is that, links and affinities of the appointees to the Executive put aside, they were all professionals in their respective fields. The list of political appointees included retired judges of the Supreme Court, well-known legal professionals, retired senior civil service officers, businesspeople, university professors, and, inevitably, both retired and serving military officials. Given the turbulent times Sri Lanka has had to traverse, the presence of defence officials, or defence attaches in the Foreign Service is a definite must. It is only necessary to reiterate the self-explanatory: that such individuals need to be suitably trained, be essentially multilingual, be well-versed in crafty intelligence gathering, developing close ties with the military high commands of their respective duty station-states and capable of taking steps to limit the work of GTF, TGTE, BTG, NCET and others to the core. How far have these requirements been met, and the extent to which the appointees have been productive so far – are open questions.
Apart from the military folks, the biggest problem in terms of appointments lay in the others, i.e. the non-military professionals. While the high achievements of these individuals in their chosen fields surely deserve recognition, some of them have clearly shown the entire world that they were thoroughly unsuitable to even be allowed to enter through the main entrance to the Republic Building, let alone serve as heads of mission. The most critical cases included, for instance, the previous primary persona in a constitutional monarchy that used to rule over us – an island-state in Western Europe. This person would give voice cuts to the media of that state – in particular to one media outlet with a high global outreach, and demonstrate most pathetically – how inarticulate and ill-suited he was to bear the burden of Sri Lankan diplomacy at a time of war. The second destructive case that can be evoked is that of the Emissary to the world’s superpower. Very lousy, inarticulate, incapable of developing a coherent argument and ardently raising the case for the Sri Lankan state, this gentleman’s efforts to promote Sri Lanka appear to end at receptions, parties where Sri Lankan delicacies are served, some bilateral meetings on trade (with next to no noteworthy impact), cultural events (where children of expats sing songs in Sinhala and dance to popular local tunes), national day and new year’s day events and so on….
While the first case raised in the above paragraph has been dealt with, by filling the post with an appointee who looks promising, the second case continues, given the pangs of personal and family ties. Examples galore, but only these two suffice to raise this issue in this article.
Failed to promote Sri Lankan culture abroad
The second point in which the Rajapaksa administration has pathetically failed is in terms of promoting Sri Lankan culture abroad. By the term culture, I imply the Sinhala language, literature, the arts, music, dance, and all related areas. Apart from musical shows and other events of popular culture organised by diaspora communities abroad, the foreign affairs establishment under the Rajapaksa rule has marked a key deviation from the Mahinda Chinthana policy in failing to promote the above-mentioned cultural dimensions. Consider, for instance the number of academic institutions where Sinhala is taught in foreign countries. A prominent institution in the City of Lights (La Ville-Lumière) teaches Sinhala, but if one raises the issue of who teaches, and the quality of the teaching, those sincerely interesting in promoting Sinhala would easily faint. Many Indian universities have exchange programmes which enable academics to teach Hindi, Tamil and other languages in foreign (especially Western) universities while academics from Western seats of learning regularly spend prolonged periods in India to teach their native languages. Unfortunately, we do not benefit from programmes of that nature. This has led to a situation where individuals who are not native speakers of Sinhala, and do not possess the languages skills required to be occupying permanent positions in Sinhala in high-profile seats of learning, have succeeded in playing petty politics and gaining their tenured permanent positions. A professor or a lecturer in Sinhala does not necessarily need to be a Sri Lankan, or a native Sinhala speaker. What is essential though, is that they speak, read and write excellent Sinhala, possess a deep knowledge of classical and modern literature and language, the intricacies of Sinhala grammar, and a proven track record of high scholarship in areas related to Sinhala language and literature. The likes of the late C.H.B Reynolds represented such a generation of non-Sri Lankan scholars of Sinhala. Today, what we see are individuals who have utilised their sense of tact to prevent the suitable from getting the positions, and grabbing them through their tricky minstrels.
In many other cases, the teaching of Sinhala has categorically witnessed an abrupt end. The School of Oriental and African Studies in London is an institution founded with very strong Ceylon connections. Today, what is the state of teaching Sinhala language and literature there? There used to be a programme that enabled professors and lecturers at Peradeniya to spend a year teaching Sinhala at SOAS. What has become of this programme?
Has the pronouncedly Sinhala Buddhist Rajapaksa administration created any programmes to facilitate the dissemination of the Sinhala language and its rich literature abroad? Has it created exchange programmes and travel grant schemes that allow writers and poets and Sinhala Studies academics to travel the world, engage in high-quality academic endeavours and promote Sinhala? How come we do not have Sri Lankan cultural centres – managed by the Government of Sri Lanka – in key cities including Delhi, Peking, London, Paris and New York? Why does our foreign affairs establishment not have a strong and suitably manned cultural affairs division, with cultural attaches or first/second secretaries in-charge of the promotion of Sri Lankan culture in all key duty stations? Leaving all this behind, how come it has not occurred upon the Rajapaksa administration to open a centre for the Advanced Study of Sinhala, preferably at the University of Colombo – that could serve as a temple of high quality Sinhala scholarship?
Contrary to its stated intentions and unprecedented Sinhala Buddhist power base, the Rajapaksa administration has not been bothered at all to promote neither Sinhala nor Buddhism outside our shores. The so-called commitment to these sectors has largely been a namesake, repeatedly raised in political speeches and popular discourse. Thanks to Anagarika Dammapala, the Mahabodhi Society prevails and members of the Buddhist clergy get to administer temples in many a foreign country. What has the Rajapaksa administration done, in concrete and significant terms, to further develop this structure and promote its work?
There are even more intricate issues when it comes to the promotion of tourism and international trade. When operating in the West, these two areas are closely linked to broader concerns of governance in Sri Lanka, and the manner in which these issues are addressed, partly by the ruling polity, partly by the relevant diplomats, and partly by officials specifically appointed to mange international trade, foreign investment and the promotion of tourism. If a concerted, common effort from all these parties does not occur, none of these areas can witness a lasting take-off.
Rajapaska’s non-urban origin and the foreign affairs
It will be in the best interest of the Rajapaksa administration to review the ways in which it has been managing its foreign affairs establishment. A common critique among the rather Westernised urban elite of Sri Lanka – espoused even by some of its educated members – is that given President Rajapaska’s non-urban origins, he is unable to manage foreign affairs effectively. Every single citizen of Sri Lanka ought to throw thoughts of this nature in the trashcan. Such a judgement is extremely unsophisticated, uncritical and simply baseless, and has its place only in the heads of the dynastic and the terminally grumpy. President Rajapaksa has been approved by the majority of the citizenry as their preferred leader, and as the Mahinda Chinthana policy framework shows, his policies – in the large majority of cases – are not unsuitable – and are indeed quite relevant to Sri Lanka’s contemporary needs. What is going systematically wrong is the manner in which more complex issues of policy implementation are dealt with.
How to handle an efficient foreign affairs establishment amidst long-standing functionalities of outright clientelism, petty favours and near-feudalistic practices of recruiting the well-connected and influential, to the detriment of the best suited and most capable?
This is one timely question worth being seriously raised at President’s House.