Sri Lankans, regardless of politics, could not have relished Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake’s unfortunate experience at the Narita International Airport while on a recent unofficial visit to Japan. It is the expectation, if not the assumption, of all Lankans that the prime minister of their country, however small, will receive basic courtesies from any foreign country he visits. That was not the case in this instance and all of us fellow citizen must necessarily be appalled that it happened, of all places in a country with which Sri Lanka enjoys the best relations. Japan, as we all know, has long been our biggest aid donor and, despite her close relations with the US and the European Powers, resisted western efforts to persuade Tokyo to shut off or slowdown aid flows not long ago in an effort to coerce Colombo on the peace front. Who can forget peace envoy Yasushi Akashi’s words then that the poor people of this country must not be made to pay for matters they were not responsible for. Japan at that time broke ranks on this score with the other co-chairs of the peace process and we must not forget that. Japan still remembers the J.R. Jayewardene speech at the San Francisco peace conference at the end of World War 2.
While we may be dismayed by the prime minister’s recent experience, it is also worth our while to turn the lamp inwards and reflect on this problem from the perspective of the other side. It is well known that many of our people live abroad as illegals, having gained illegitimate entry to many affluent countries to better their economic prospects. The long war now ended also opened many doors to Lankans who went off abroad as asylum seekers and political refugees when most of them were in fact economic refugees no different to those setting sail from Negombo or Wennapuwa for Italy or Australia. Just like we in Sri Lanka tightened our systems when the so-called kallathonis were a problem to us, even setting up in the sixties a dedicated military Task Force Anti-Illicit Immigration commanded by then Colonel Sepala Attygalle, other countries too would surely enforce their own safeguards.
Given that Lankans, viewing western pastures as well as those in Japan and South Korea as greener than those at home, often try to enter them illegally, we must not cavil at barriers set up to balk such entry. Many of us do not like to be fingerprinted when applying for a visa to go anywhere. If it is our view that such treatment smacks of that accorded to common criminals, then it is our right not to go to such countries. But biometrics today is a relatively common device employed to more effectively keep track of various people, be they illegal entrants or those who may enter a country lawfully but overstay their welcome usually for reasons of employment. Once they are in, they find it easy to disappear into a crowd and are hard to catch thereafter.
A correspondent to this issue of our newspaper has raised several points connected to the prime minister’s unhappy experience. Among the questions he has asked was whether the PM’s office applied for a visit visa without following the normal practice of the foreign ministry sending what is called in diplomatic parlance a ``third person note’’ to the Japanese Embassy in Colombo. Did the PM’s office merely send Mr. Wickremanayake’s passport to the embassy with a covering letter? He had articulated the possibility, and we stress the possibility, that if a diplomatic visa that would have obviated the problem which occurred was not requested, it could have been a deliberate ploy to facilitate the clearance of those accompanying the premier. The retinue, after all, would never have been issued diplomatic visas but may well have hoped to be waved on as members of the prime minister’s party. We are well aware that the top officials of the premier’s office, most so his official secretary, are persons of the highest rectitude and integrity and would never be party to any such machination. But a glitch somewhere along the line cannot be ruled out. Let us not forget that no less than a Buddhist monk, accompanying another minister participating in the same temple ceremony where the premier was a guest, was sent back post haste as he was not permitted entry to Japan.
As former Ambassador Nanda Godage who had served in Tokyo as a young diplomat said in an article published last week, many of the Mahayana temples in Japan, whose priests do not lead the abstinent lives demanded of the Theravada clergy, have a commercial bent. It is well known that some of our own monks have profited hugely thanks to connections with Japanese temples. While it must be conceded that some monks with such connections have been the conduit of funds from that country for worthwhile social work here, others have undoubtedly benefited personally. Many of them try to extend the patronage of Lankan VIPs to temples they are connected and benefit themselves and it would be useful if elected officials are careful about not freely accepting `all found’ invitations merely because they are extended. There can be wheels within wheels as has been discovered too often in such temple related junkets.
We conclude this comment by agreeing with our correspondent that it is unlikely that the immigration official at the Narita airport would have adopted the same hard line she took with our prime minister had she been dealing with a VIP from a western power. Japan had graciously regretted the incident although the inflexible official had conformed to the rule book. That also is a lesson for us in our dealings with foreign countries. As the folk wisdom of this country has it, just because the stick is strong, we must not beat our adversary until it breaks. It sounds better in the original Sinhala – polla haiya nisa kadenakang gahanna honda ne!