You could sum up the previous government’s approach to foreign policy in one quote:
“You are only a f*****g High Commissioner. I am a street fighter. I will have you f*****g thrashed.”
That is what Sajin Vass Gunawardena reportedly said to Chris Nonis, then our High Commissioner to the UK. In the ensuing controversy, Mahinda Rajapaksa sided with Sajin. It gives you a rough sense of the priorities.
Another forced error was putting Bandula Jayasekera anywhere public. This rather disagreeable individual was appointed to rather important positions in Canada, briefly the UN and then Australia, with predictable results. Some sample quotes from him: “maybe the Toronto Star is getting money from the Tamil Tigers. Make my day.” (Toronto Star), “I can see you as a bloody prick. So keep off whoever you are” (on Twitter), and then emails full of the stuff here.
As a private citizen, fine, be an asshole, whatever, but a diplomat is supposed to represent the country. The job is more like being a lawyer than a hitman. You don’t see lawyers yelling at judges or other lawyers or the press, that wouldn’t serve their clients. Having people like Bandula and Sajin on the front lines of the foreign service was a real forced error by the government. They were literally creating more problems for the country by being rude. If you sent a trained monkey they would have done better just by virtue of not being able to speak.
At it’s most basic level, diplomacy isn’t that hard. Don’t be an asshole, don’t get emotional and don’t make it personal. You can be defending horrible policies but as long as you’re stating them politely and respectfully, that counts as diplomacy. Countries need to keep lines open even when they disagree and that’s what diplomats do. This does however, take a bit of skill.
Mahinda somehow couldn’t figure that out. He appointed a lot of people who seemed to be die-hard believers but who possessed zero diplomatic and very few social skills. He seemed to miss the point that a good diplomat didn’t need to be a believer, any more than a lawyer needs to be agree with their client’s choices. They just need to be professional and do their job.
Under Mahinda, the professional diplomatic system was completely circumvented by people he personally trusted, going around both the diplomatic service and even political appointees (ie GL Peiris). Sajin Vass somehow seemed to be running foreign affairs without being the Minister, and his solution seemed to be paying foreign PR firms and ‘international advisors‘ millions of dollars to somehow fix things. Meanwhile he’s assaulting our own diplomats. It’s like paying someone a million dollars to fix your toilet and pissing in the bed. The answer is simple, just stop pissing in the bed.
‘Street-fighters’ like Vass and Jayasekara (among others) had no place representing Sri Lanka abroad. Thankfully, they’ve both been recalled/lost their jobs.
Sirisena’s Foreign Policy
Maithripala Sirisena’s foreign policy so far, as practiced through Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera, has done 10x better just by virtue of not being self-destructive. If Mangala can get through the next six months without bitch-slapping someone, we’d still be ahead.
Beyond that, this government is practicing actual diplomacy. On some level, diplomacy is a bunch of naked people standing around talking about clothes. Everybody is violating the shit out of human rights (especially the US) but the ones that don’t talk about it are the ones that stick out. The point seems to not be doing the right thing right now but at least talking about it so that A) things might get better and B) other countries have plausible deniability. Nobody expects nations to be perfect, but they do expect them to at least appear to have adults in charge.
Hence this government has gotten a delay in the UN war crimes report. The whole thing is a farce we could have avoided by implementing the LLRC report four years ago, and by generally talking to the UN, but it is where it is now. This government is able to work with the UN because they talk to them, they don’t deny everything and they’re basically being diplomatic. The country actually looks like it has adults in charge and not ‘street fighters’, AKA children.
A Bit Of History And Back
The reason foreign policy is/was a mess was because that was one pillar the LTTE assiduously tried to knock over. They tried three assassinations which would have changed the course of the war – the Defence Secretary, the Army Commander and the Foreign Minister. Of those, they only managed to kill Lakshman Kadirgamar, the Foreign Minister.
Kadirgamar was highly intelligent, Tamil and a skilled diplomat. He was vital to getting the LTTE banned and he was highly capable of defending Sri Lanka abroad. When he was assassinated there was a real vacuum and Mahinda plugged it the only way he knew how, with cronies. This left the country at a disadvantage.
During the war, the LTTE really tried to manipulate international concern, cynically, to save their own hides. They didn’t have time, but the diaspora has continued that message, blithely ignoring that war crimes were the LTTE’s bread and butter. For years now they’ve been floating the genocide/partition argument without any real response from Sri Lanka. Well meaning people and countries have asked questions and gotten yelled at and called terrorists in response. Even if Sri Lanka was actually in the right, these belligerent denials made us look like a tin-pot dictatorship. By appointing cronies, thugs and dunces, Mahinda somehow made the country look worse than it is.
Samaraweera is no Kadirgamar, but he’s a vast improvement over what we had. Under him and President Sirisena, the country is acknowledging that there were horrors and excesses of war and showing a commitment to addressing them. This more than bellicose posturing serves the interests of Sri Lanka and all of its people. What a relief, that we are no longer putting our dumbest asses forward.