UNP Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya, becoming increasingly visible in the face of a presidential election expected early next year, has in a statement we have published today accused the administration of attempting to ``destroy the professional diplomatic corps of this country.’’ We have time and again adverted to some of the issues he has raised in these columns and some that he has not dwelt upon. These include the urgent necessity of taking a long hard look at our existing overseas missions with a view to closing some whose existence will not bear examination in any cost-benefit study and downsizing others loaded with passengers liberally paid by the public exchequer. Our missions have for too long been a gravy train for many who can be best described as ``political catchers.’’
Coincidentally, Jayasuriya’s statement to the Sunday papers arrived a couple of days before the Colombo foreign office officially announced that High Commissioner Romesh Jayasinghe, a career diplomat heading the Sri Lanka mission in New Delhi, will be the new Foreign Secretary. This, as well as some other posting that were announced, deserve applause. But the pot of milk was not without its spot of dung. Four administration loyalists with little to commend by way of diplomatic skills and distinguished only by their connections to the political power center were the majority in the list of seven. Despite continuing criticism about using the overseas mission to reward friends, relatives and hangers-on, the caravan obviously marches on stone deaf to public opinion. It must be said in fairness that the incumbent administration is doing nothing new in using the country’s diplomatic missions as a massive pork barrel to dish out patronage to its friends, supporters and, often, kinsmen and women. All its predecessors sadly were equally guilty, some more and others less so.
Even though the UNP today, with its ranks depleted by defections, presents a sorry picture to its supporters as well as the country at large, the Karu Jayasuriya statement obviously signals that some of those serving our missions, hurt by an economy drive including reduction of housing and education allowances as well as medical benefits, have sought the assistance of the main opposition party to air their grievances. A lot that is usually said in the budget debate emerged in the statement. It said that the president, wearing his hat as finance minister, had recently presented a cabinet memorandum ``to slash the salaries of officers of the Sri Lanka Foreign Service.’’ We do not know how correct this allegation is; but Jayasuriya is not somebody who would normally place his signature on a scrap of unsubstantiated information and officially place it in the public domain. While it could be easily said that ``your party was no better,’’ the UNP’s deputy leader has made the very valid point that while the foreign ministry’s economy drive is getting into top gear, ``the administration has not showed any restraint with regard to the ongoing appointment of its loyalists, family and friends and many other political stooges to plum diplomatic positions, often over an above the approved cadre provisions.’’ Whether Jayasuriya did anything about that last bit as Minister of Public Administration, he should know.
There is also the junketing that goes apace with Mr. Rohitha Bogollagama well in line to become one of our most expensive foreign minister we have had in the relatively short time he has been in office. Voted funds for his official travel are quickly depleted and on top of that he has a penchant for taking his family along on his trips, the most recent being to Kenya where they were treated to a visit to a national park. President Rajapaksa must take a lot of the blame for the profligacy of some of his ministers because a good example does not come from the top. He too has a weakness for taking large entourages on some of his visits abroad and he is slow in cracking the whip on recalcitrant ministers. Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga, in a recent speech indicated that with the kind of majority the president is likely to win at a premature parliamentary election next year, the obscene number of cabinet ministers the taxpayer has to now support will be pushed to the past tense in the not so distant future. Most people will agree that the president, with what was often considered an unwinnable war victory under his belt, will romp home comfortably in the big elections next year. In fact, some are already talking of a two thirds parliamentary majority which President J.R. Jayewardene, sometimes described as the twentieth century fox, decreed will never be possible under proportional representation can be the rabbit the Medamulana magician will pull out of his top hat. But we hasten to warn that while a stable parliamentary majority is important for the wellbeing of the country, absolute majorities can often mean absolute tyranny. Students of contemporary political history agree that the two worst governments this country had in the post-Independence period were Mrs. Bandaranaike’s of 1970 where she had a two thirds majority, and JRJ’s of 1977 where he had five sixths; hence the bahubootha constitution if we may borrow Chandrika Kumaratunga’s inimitable language, which she used herself to maximum advantage.
The JVP, much more than the UNP, has been using the parliamentary platform to do the job that opposition MPs are paid to do – keep the government on its toes and as far as possible on the straight and narrow. Karu Jayasuriya has recently begun issuing statements on matters of public importance and this is all to the good. Whether this means that the green party now busy trying to forge a grand alliance for the big fight next year is thinking of Jayasuriya as the candidate (or sacrificial lamb some might say), we do not know. Nevertheless such statements on matters of public importance, hopefully followed up aggressively in parliament, are most welcome and can improve the standards of governance in this country that have sadly been on a downward roll in recent years.