Lost Credibility of Sri Lanka


Lalith Athulathmudal

Jayantha Dhanapala

by Kosala G. Tantula

Washington DC

During a recent visit to Sri Lanka I had the opportunity to read two enlightening articles related to Sri Lankan foreign policy written by two eminent former diplomats of Sri Lanka viz. Messrs. Jayantha Dhanapala and K. Godage (I believe this is the same gentleman we used to call Nanda Godage when he was No. 2 at the embassy in Washingon DC).

Although I am no foreign policy expert, over the years I have taken a keen interest in issues related to international affairs and have been fortunate to listen to many scholars and prominent world leaders at prestigious institutions such as the Commonwealth Society in the UK, the Asia Society, Brookings and Heritage Institutions among others in the USA and to work with some of them on matters of international interest. Further, as the CFO of the now defunct Association for Peace in Sri Lanka, and in several related capacities, I have also met and worked with a number of Lankan leaders and diplomats of stature.

What the above gentlemen have tried to express overall, I believe, is the truth and should be an eye-opener. Since independence Sri Lanka has not had a foreign policy coherently developed to advance the fundamental continuing interests of the nation across the world community. Instead it has wavered from one extreme to the other with whoever may come to power. Initially, as could be expected, a more pro-Western approach was taken even though identifying with the Non-aligned Nations of the 1960s only to swing to a pro-Soviet stance. The 1970s saw a return to pro-western policies to swing back again to the current pursuit of anti-Western positions.

As a result Sri Lanka has lost credibility in the international community around the world. Reasons for this unfortunate situation are many but I will leave it to the scholars and diplomats (who have had hands on experience) to analyze these issues. I will merely submit in simple layman’s language a few reasons I have observed and experienced for this sad situation. In other words I will explain how and why Sri Lanka has lost its credibility.

1) Absence of an enlightened top leadership:

Absence of an enlightened top leadership severely curtails the possibility of a credible foreign policy. Although Sri Lanka has had many academically and culturally well qualified leaders at its helm, it has so far not produced a single visionary leader of the caliber of Nelson Mandela, Lee Kuan Yew or even Mohammad Mahathir. In view of the inherent disadvantages due to the size of his City state, Lee never directly antagonized the western world although, as can be expected, he had a few brush-ups. Realizing the racial and educational limitations he faced in moving directly forward, Mandela turned to be a seeker of reconciliation, rather than dramatically attempting to sideline the former power structure. Mahathir, although initially making a big hue & cry against the West realized his mistakes and watered down almost all his stances. In contrast, it is not difficult to see that Lankan leaders have taken stances that have undermined the credibility of the country in international circles.

2) Lack of an integrated Sri Lankan program to develop civil servants and politicians trained in International diplomacy and capable of serving as trusted advisors for the nation’s top political leadership:

Any nation would be handicapped in the development of a coherent foreign policy by the lack of civil servants, who have had in-depth education, training and practical experience in international affairs to advise the national leadership on the development and execution of foreign policy. The relationship of an effective advisor to a national political leader is always sensitive and problematic, making the existence of an institute appropriate for the development of a foreign policy reflecting the long term interests of a nation in international community all the more important.

A coherent foreign policy based on the long term interests reflects cultural and economic interests that exist over time and independently of any political leader. Nations look to a single political leader in foreign affairs at their peril. To this day, Sri Lanka’s political base has not produced a politician with dual capacities of a politician and a diplomat. The two who came closest were Messrs. Lalith Athulathmudal & Lakshman Kardigamar. Both of them, prior to their becoming politicians, have had academic backgrounds in Sri Lanka plus overseas and more importantly have had hands on experience working overseas in different capacities. Unfortunately, before they could attain their objectives both become victims of their own convictions. Academic scholarship alone, however brilliant, without hands on exposure will not make a good External Affairs leader.

3) The well trained diplomat, unfortunately, is becoming a thing of the past and mediocrity is becoming the fashion of the day:

The current crop of ambassadors, with a few exceptions, has not helped in the development of a credible foreign policy; in fact, they have made it the laughing stock of the world. Excessive political interference combined with short-sighted policies such as ‘Sinhala Only’ have ruined the fairly well trained Sri Lankan Diplomatic Service of the past.

It is not always necessary to appoint a diplomat as the head of a diplomatic posting. There have been many instances of effective political appointees performing very well even under much harder circumstances, like late Mr. Neville Kanakaratne. These were men of widely recognized personal character, but more importantly, they were backed by a support staff of qualified diplomats, like Mr. Elmo Joseph. There have been many capable support staff, but unfortunately since 1977 they have been prevented from exercising their talents by their political bosses. Prior to 1977, generally speaking, one could be certain that the head of a mission was a person of distinction.

When one looks back at the Sri Lankan image overseas in the past, the current image appears to be reaching new lows. During the Sirima Bandaranaike administration although the country’s foreign policy image ebbed low, there were efficient ambassadors of a high caliber to defend Lanka’s image. After that the deterioration started and except for a few, like the versatile Jayantha Dhanapala and savvy Susantha de Alwis, we have not seen capable heads of mission in the most important posting of Washington DC or at other world-wide posts. Standards have deteriorated to a level below mediocrity. One has to think seriously to remedy this situation.

4) Missed opportunities, especially post-civil war:

Since gaining independence Sri Lanka has missed many opportunities to develop a credible foreign policy. Initially, in the fifties, immediately after gaining independence, foreign policy was not a priority. Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, gained independence without much of an effort and priorities tended to be more domestic. But in the sixties Sri Lanka by aligning with the Soviet bloc lost a golden opportunity to be a truly non-aligned nation, although Sri Lanka even served as host for a world-wide summit of non-aligned nations. In the 1970s with its enlightened liberalization policy Sri Lanka had another opportunity but that also was blown away by the appointment of not so diplomatically savvy individuals to major posts.

Then came the most important opportunity after the 30 year civil-war in 2009. However flawed the execution of the war may have been, Sri Lanka was well served by the commitment to the suppression of terrorism. Although with critical assistance from several allied countries and a capable Army Commander Sri Lanka was able to secure the country’s military goals, civilian progress regretfully, went off track with the administration focusing on petty personal vendettas and failing to focus on important issues such as reconciliation with the vanquished and accommodation with Sri Lanka’s diaspora and other international parties that have much to contribute to the development of Sri Lanka’s future.

This is where the top leadership lacked vision and lost credibility and as a result a commander-in-chief who could have built a legacy of a Statesman ended up as a loser not once but twice. By following a lop-sided foreign policy, embracing authoritarian world leaders instead of following middle of the road democratic leaders, Sri Lanka missed another opportunity to develop international credibility.

5) Inexperienced and untrained political appointees cannot secure the range of benefits and advantages available to Sri Lanka through the international community:

Inexperienced and untrained political appointees who have no background to understand either the local conditions in their postings and grasp the dynamics of a fast changing world or the potential strengths of the growing power of the Sri Lankan diaspora lack credibility and cannot fully develop the advantages that can be secured for Sri Lanka through the international community. Unlike the trained young diplomat of the past who built experience by coming up through the ranks with regular rotation, current political appointees have demonstrated their inability to rise above promoting the agendas of their political bosses rather than executing a credible foreign policy.

They have failed to employ the assistance of the independent thinking local Sri Lankan diaspora, seeking assistance from their own political stooges. The majority of the Lankan diaspora living in advanced democratic societies consist of educated, intelligent, rationally thinking individuals who have overcome clannish mentalities long ago. They do not think of others as Sinhala, Tamil or Muslim but as citizens of their respective countries with a Sri Lankan origin. I remember very well how late Lalith Athulathmudali encouraged the diaspora to join in networking in support of Sri Lanka, traveling across the United States conducting Seminars on Sri Lanka. Later Jayantha Dhanapala did the same, working with the Sri Lankan community in USA to raise awareness of the current situation in Sri Lanka and the late Lakshman Kardiragamer with the assistance of the diaspora, addressed one audience after the other analytically assessing and explaining the then existing situation. Understanding the importance of developing this kind of independent commitment to Sri Lanka is severely lacking in current political appointees. I also regretfully remember how the current Minister of External Affairs G. L. Peiris, during a meeting in North Carolina of an organized group from the diaspora offered support but found no interest in following up on the support offered (of course to be fair to Prof. Peiris, his title and the political responsibilities changed) but that is where organized diplomatic support should fill in.

Unfortunately the current political appointees now seem to resort to cheap gimmicks such as transporting a planeload of the diaspora to a newly opened airport or hiring foreign Public Relations firms at an excessive cost to the Sri Lankan citizens. As a coordinator of Association of Peace in Sri Lanka I remember very vividly how, in the late eighties during Ambassador Jayantha Dhanapala’s time the Sri Lankan professionals in the USA collected $ 30,000 (equivalent of about $ 250,000 today) to insert the first newspaper advertisement here in Washington DC to educate the American public of the real happenings in Sri Lanka. This kind of activity by the Lankan community in USA ultimately led to the LTTE being declared a terrorist organization in America. It did not cost Sri Lankan citizens living in Sri Lanka one penny.

6) Failure of the administration to obtain the services of many highly talented and educated individuals spread across the globe, mainly due to petty politics, undermines Sri Lanka’s inability to win credibility:

The present administration has not made an effort to reach out for their services but has spent an enormous amount of money hiring expensive PR firms both in UK & USA. While these are well respected and recognized firms, those in the international community know the reality of overcharging in these kinds of relationships and, as in any community, those taken advantage of lose respect of others. It is also true that often those billing the hours within these firms are juniors, individuals who have not had much experience and cannot be classified having the quality Sri Lanka deserves. Many in the diaspora know enough to doubt the return on those investments and find their will to contribute in support of the administration diminished with Sri Lanka being the loser.

Instead had Sri Lanka utilized the services of some of the professional individuals with standing in their adopted countries across the globe, we would not have lost twice in Geneva or may even have saved the life of the maid who was beheaded in the Middle-East. Certainly many minor issues could be handled better and perhaps could have avoided the negative publicity by involving local Lankans in the alleged revelation of the existence of a lost journalist in France, where factually incorrect statements were made when left to a visiting Srilankan politician. More importantly, capable, educated and reasonably independent ambassadors can be more authentic when facing issues of international importance and also save the country much need foreign exchange by curtailing unnecessary travel costs of the Lankan officials.

7) Nepotism in recent appointments due to prevailing political insecurities in Sri Lanka is another factor effecting credibility:

When the world, viz. the host governments and the international community, realize the relationships of the diplomats and their political god fathers, the words of such appointees fail to carry much weight and in fact will be considered with suspicion. It is needles to mention that in the present inter connected world, word spreads fast. Sri Lanka has produced many capable diplomats and I am certain many young ones are waiting in the wings. The current administration has completely sidelined them giving preference to nepotism and henchmen. If the current crop of diplomats is lacking in communication skills and credible efficient performance, either the services of experienced diplomats who have reached retirement age should be recalled and extended or a new bunch trained expeditiously.

8) Immaturity and the insecurity of the political leadership has resulted in highly partisan differentiation and characterization of individuals and countries as friends and foes, eroding the respect and confidence in personal and international relationships:

True friends are those who help in a crisis and also offer constructive criticism of irrational or self-defeating behavior. Foes are those who show a sweet face on the surface but work only for their own benefit. Effective political representatives are those who are "foes" of no one, with open communication with their opponents that leaves room for "strange bedfellows", with everyone recognizing the importance of ‘saying thank you".

Pre-civil war Sri Lanka was helped by many countries including India, America, Pakistan and China. America was among one of the first countries to recognize LTTE as a terrorist organization. America’s experience and dislike of terrorism, heightened by 9/11, resulted in critical assistance being provided when terrorism came to Sri Lanka. It is no secret that America not only assisted in breaking the terrorist financial network but also provided the required intelligence to blow up terrorist supply vessels.

But to my knowledge up to this moment our administration has not openly thanked America although it has openly thanked many other countries. There are many other European and Latin American countries which have helped Sri Lanka who deserve a word of thanks from Sri Lanka. There is nothing wrong in thanking any country in particular, but it is obviously important to thank all the countries which helped in any way without being selective. In an imperfect world America is still the most reasonable and powerful country in the world (and in my opinion will be for a very long time) with long established ties to Sri Lanka and has been a friend of Sri Lanka.

America is Sri Lanka’s biggest trading partner. Emerging China has found it important to have cordial relations with America and even countries like Vietnam & Myanmar have established friendly relationships. One would think a beautiful but a tiny country without many natural resources like Sri Lanka would maintain a cordial relationship with not only America but with as many countries as possible. Simple rule of politeness can go a long way when a country truly follows a policy of ‘Non-Alignment’. If one is to assume Sri Lanka’s foreign policy is based on Non-alignment, it should be pure non-alignment and not something half baked. An irrational, non-coherent foreign policy will make enemies of friends to Sri Lanka’s detriment.

9) Hostile actions and comments of some politicians and their media apparatus do not assist in building a credible foreign policy, in fact they destroy it.

Comments made by senior administration officials have often lacked objectivity and fairness. If what is meant by ‘diplomacy’ refers to meaningful and tactful management of international relations, Sri Lanka’s ‘Post-War Diplomacy’ has been a disaster. After 2009 there have been a rash of vulgar comments against western countries, towards officials of those countries and toward international organizations not only by the illiterate members of the administration but by the so called educated. There have been many more post-war muck ups and bungling not worth even mentioning. Promises made by top leaders to leaders of prominent international organizations and countries have been broken. Under such circumstances can a credible foreign policy be maintained?

There are many other issues which have contributed to Sri Lanka’s loss of credibility in the international community. Because the world of today is becoming the village of tomorrow, there can be little room for illegal manipulation which results in a country losing international respect and credibility. Lack of time and space restricts me from detailing them.

What Sri Lanka currently needs is fresh independent thinking to survive and compete in a fast changing world. Almost all developed countries make periodical reviews of their foreign policies and personnel for corrective action. From my point of view to regain its lost credibility, Sri Lanka needs is a fresh crop of enlightened administrators, irrespective of where they come from - the governing administration or from the rest of the country. It is not so much the individuals that matters but the dignity of the country as a whole. For the country to be successful, an enlightened set of individuals will be required. A prosperous, peaceful Sri Lanka, respected by the international community, will be one less problem for the world and another ‘small step-up’ towards a credibly developed world. This is not beyond reach.

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