Foreign Ministry: Home for the aged and school for scoundrels

Your editorial ĎForeign Ministry: Home for the Aged and School for Scoundrelsí was amazing reading.

Recently when I was told that there are 20 staff members at the Sri Lankan Mission in Ottawa, I was flabbergasted. My immediate reaction was "What the heck are all those people doing? Is there enough office space to accommodate all these numbers at 333 Laurier Ave West? Is there enough work for all of them to do an honest seven hours of work a day?" Beyond these paid employees in Ottawa, there are a few more in the Consular Office in Toronto.. What bothers me is the cost of running the Ottawa Mission and the Consular Office in Toronto. The rent of the office space and thatís no peanuts, salaries, accommodation for the staff, entertainment allowances, travel, and other contingencies running the offices must be costing the tax payer a mountain of rupees amounting to scores of millions each month. This is decadence, a crime, this is being sick to the core riding on a poor manís back. It would be interesting for the public to demand from the Foreign Ministry a breakdown of the division of labour at the Ottawa Mission, and whether to have a staff of 20 is justified.

I also understand that the local recruits at the Ottawa Mission have been let go to accommodate staff being sent from Colombo to fill these positions as "local recruits". I recall when Sri Lankaís Foreign Ministry knuckles were rapped by Canadian External Affairs for this cheat and sneakiness about 20 years ago. With that dressing down by the Canadians that embarrassing exercise of falsifying "local recruits" was stopped. The Foreign Minister and his Ministry donít seem to learn from their embarrassing mistakes from the past..

Recruiting staff locally is not necessarily a bad thing. It certainly injects new energy and a promise of an honest dayís work. I recall when I was appointed by the late President Premadasa to a senior staff position at the Ottawa Mission in June 1989, the diplomatic officers at the Foreign Ministry werenít happy, and had my appointment questioned in parliament by C. V. Gunaratne. I donít think Sri Lanka did badly with my appointment as she got back a rupees worth of honest work for every rupee that I was paid as salary.

During that period we had a staff of 11 people at the Mission and it was run competently by two excellent non-career diplomats. And I recall High Commissioner Walter Rupesinghe having difficulty to get funds to recruit an additional secretary locally for the Mission. Nor did the Foreign Ministry provide me, as the Director of Communications, an entertainment allowance nor funds to get a membership in the Press Club. So I was embarrassed unable to reciprocate the invitations from my counterparts at other foreign Missions, and also some media personnel who had invited me for lunches at the Press Club. Every year I had to request High Commissionerís Walter Rupesinghe and Walter Fernando to help me out by inviting the media personnel for a dinner at the official residence. They were generous to accede to my request having understood my predicament. It blows my mind to know that if there werenít necessary funds in the early 90s, how come they have the funds now to have a staff of 20 people at the Ottawa Mission!.

As a local recruit I offered my assistance to High Commissioners Walter Rupesinghe and Walter Fernando without a note of a grumble, when the call for assistance went beyond my job description of Communications. I assisted in the Trade Office portfolio for 11 months until the Canadians decided to give visas to the successor of the Tamil Trade Officer who stayed back as a refugee. When the Attache was in a three month back log to pay 137 retirees their pensions even after being paid to do constant overtime, I was requested to take over those files and the payments were kept up to date, with the assistance of a junior staff member, until I left the Mission in June 1994. Of course, the Attache didnít like that decision by High Commissioner Rupesinghe, as he lost his cash cow on his overtime venture. I was asked to assist in Consular work when the Consular Officer was not on duty, and also put in place a records management system for the consular section, when the Consular Officer was seconded to the UN for three months. This certainly helped to minimize the annoying letters that the High Commissioner received almost every day from Sri Lankans who had applied for passports. There were several other special assignments that I gladly assisted the High Commissioners when called for. All were executed with pride and honesty for the countryís President who believed in me.

As for Communications, I walked into this office which had been staffed by officers for years sent from Colombo, and still had no guidelines or benchmarks for guidance. So I had an open field to help the country and build its image that had been sullied by the Canadian-Eelamists, by giving public talks on Sri Lankaís culture, and talks in schools, producing nine half-hour TV shows for the Cable Television about Sri Lankan values and culture, training three High School students from Vancouver who were representing Sri Lanka in the country wide Schoolsí Junior Commonwealth of Nations. They walked away with the top prize for the best country presentation, and so forth. All this done by a local recruit. I am still waiting to see the continuation of my efforts by my successors - letters to editors, public talks, visiting schools to talk about Sri Lanka, advising graduate students at Universities on their theses topics on Sri Lankaís ethnic issue and culture, et cetera.

So it defies my imagination as to why they have to get rid of local recruits, whom I am sure have been doing an honest job of work, and sneakily staff these "local recruits" positions with staff sent from Sri Lanka. I wonder whether the Canadian Foreign Affairs Ministry is aware of this, and if so would they rap the knuckles of the Sri Lankaís Foreign Ministry one more time!.
Asoka Weerasinghe
Former Director of Communications
Sri Lanka High Commission in Ottawa
Ottawa, Canada