Toe-curling diplomacy

We witness a cringe-making performance on the part of our politicians whenever an envoy or a politician from a powerful country lands here. Without caring two hoots about protocol, like a bunch of overgrown schoolchildren, they try to ingratiate themselves with the visiting dignitary. They do so in respect of some Colombo-based foreign diplomats as well.

The shameful practice of Sri Lankan leaders tugging their forelock to self-important foreign diplomats is not of recent origin. Even President J. R. Jayewardene, described as one of Sri Lanka’s political colossuses, having totally mishandled the ethnic issue and done precious little to douse the flames of 1983 communal violence, chose to suffer many indignities at the hands of the then Indian High Commissioner J. N. Dixit.

Dixit acted as if he had been a viceroy and kept JRJ virtually under his thumb; the latter took it all lying down while bragging that with his executive powers all that he could not achieve was to make a man a woman and vice versa! There have, of course, been some instances where Sri Lankan leaders asserted themselves, rightly or wrongly, in dealing with some foreign diplomats.

JRJ had a junior US diplomat sent back over some snide comments the latter had made about a domestic issue. (The US contemplated a diplomatic tit for tat but subsequently thought better of it.) The late President Ranasinghe Premadasa declared British High Commissioner David Gladstone persona non grata for visiting a polling centre and complaining of election malpractice. President Maithripala Sirisena has recently faulted his predecessor cum bete noire, Mahinda Rajapaksa, for having treated British Foreign Secretary David Miliband and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner in a degrading manner and made them eat manioc in Embilipitiya in 2009. (The President has, however, stopped short of saying that Miliband and Kouchner rushed here in a bid to stop the war and save Prabhakaran!)

But, overall, it is toe-curling to see our political leaders and top bureaucrats fall over themselves to please foreign notables. President Rajapaksa during his first term drew heavy flak for rushing to India House at short notice for a discussion with the then Indian envoy and a local politician on a domestic political issue. President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga once went out of her way to attend a World Bank meeting in the US only to be harangued by a female executive who should have been denied the pleasure of having a head of state as part of her captive audience and waxing eloquent on good fiscal management etc.

In medieval Europe, rich landowners enjoyed droit du seigneur (‘right of the lord’) and they exercised unbridled powers to the extent of spending the first night with the bride of any one of his vassals. Thankfully, this right is no longer extant in that part of the world, but if what we witness on the diplomatic front is anything to go by a different version thereof is apparently being practised by the political leaders there and their envoys. Or, it is that the politicians of the developing countries have, of their own volition, reduced themselves to vassals?

A former Sri Lankan diplomat points out, in an article, on this page today, that Indian political leaders did not fall over themselves to receive US Permanent Representative to the UN Samantha Power in New Delhi. She was welcomed by Joint Secretary Sujata Mehta. India does so not because it is a big country but because it respects the protocol of diplomatic visits. The size of a country or its economic status does not matter in diplomacy provided its leaders have the strength of character to conduct themselves with dignity as equals among their foreign counterparts and are sticklers for protocol.

Let the Sri Lankan politicians and diplomats be urged to remember that they are neither below nor above their counterparts in other parts of the world and have to respect diplomatic protocol when receiving and meeting foreign dignitaries. They must be neither aggressive nor servile; they should be friendly and mindful of standard diplomatic practices without being moved by blandishments.


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