Foreign Funds, Friends and Foes: Fostering Foreign Friends

My exploration of foreign-funded projects, and what can be their corrosively corrupting effect, was interrupted when I was asked to deliver some remarks on a recent publication on ‘Foreign Policy Perspectives for Sri Lanka in 2020.’ This timely publication has been edited by former Ambassador Sarath Wijesinghe and his son Amila, with advice by former Ambassador Laksiri Mendis.

I began my presentation, however, by asking for a moment of silence in memory of someone else who had tried, a decade back, to bring out a similar publication. This was Ranjith Guneratne, a career diplomat, who sadly died a year or so back while he was our Consul General in Frankfort. 

Earlier, he was Ambassador in Lebanon, where he hosted me while I was travelling there, and proved articulate and intelligent when I was hosted to dinner by Ruth Flint, the former Swiss Ambassador here who had become a great friend.

Ranjith was distinguished in the service not only for his analytical skills, for the service has many individuals full of ideas, but for being willing and anxious to exercise these publicly. Proof of this assertion was apparent to me in the fact that none of his colleagues was willing to contribute to the book he tried to bring out, based on the conflict, but also intended as a blueprint for foreign policy planning in the aftermath. 

Or almost none, for the honourable exception was Ravinatha Aryasinha, now our Foreign Secretary, whose appointment to that position was one of the few good things Maithripala Sirisena did in his tenure of the Presidency.

The importance of having Ravinatha in that position is even more obvious now that we have Dinesh Gunawardena as our Foreign Minister. I know Dinesh will not mind my saying that foreign policy is not his forte, because I qualify that by saying that, unlike some who would claim it was theirs who have served in that position, he is a man of great integrity and absolute commitment to the interests of his country.

Such a man requires professional expertise from the public servants working for him, and this he has in full measure, not just from Ravinatha now, but also from Mr. Lenagala, who is admirably qualified to be in charge of multilateral relations, which means the UN too. I should note incidentally that one reason the present administration seems hamstrung is the lack of capable public servants able to conceptualise and ensure productive decision-making on the part of Ministers.

Unlike with the last Cabinet, I believe many of those now holding ministerial positions wish to do the right thing, but whereas their pronouncements have been admirable there has been little action. 

Given their lack of close knowledge of the subjects they are in charge of, they need administrators to show them how to move forward quickly. But that we do not have, so for instance the public service and the educational reforms the President wants and needs are in limbo at present.

In the case of the Foreign Ministry that is not the case, and I can only hope that Dinesh will channel the intelligence and creativity of his support team into developing an action plan to secure our position in the world, strengthening our relationships with friends, dissuading our enemies from attacking us and trying to make them see situations involving us from our perspectives.

We must also use our unique position in the world to strengthen those organisations to which we belong, SAARC, BIMSTEC, IORA and the Group of 17 which I persuaded Mahinda Rajapaksa to chair, only to find it treated with contumely by those to whom he entrusted multilateral relations.

The set of articles Ranjith put together would prove invaluable for this, though sadly the Foreign Ministry cannot now trace the manuscript he provided, only to have it killed by the Minister passing it on to young Asanga Abeyagoonasekera to assess. 

Asanga is a nice enough chap, and did well to hold important positions under both the Rajapaksa and the Sirisena presidencies, but the idea of him adjudicating with regard to writings by experts such as Prof. Amal Jayawardena and Dayan Jayatilleka is quite ridiculous.

Sarath Wijesinghe’s book

I hope that the Ministry will recover from Ranjith’s widow what articles are still available, and also study Sarath Wijesinghe’s book, together with the presentations made at the different discussions Sarath has arranged in this connection. 

George Cook for instance, though now retired from the Foreign Service, had some interesting ideas in his presentation on the occasion at which I spoke, in particular his recommendation that, while we try to work with everyone, we should develop our links with those we can consider fast friends.

The most obvious example of a committed friend to us is China, and we would do well therefore to build on current links, and in particular increase our footprint in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. 

So too it is clear that Russia has never swerved from its commitment to our interests, and the recent speech of its Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, is a model that we would do well to study, in particular its forthright critique of hypocrisy and its condemnation of country specific resolutions, such as we have suffered from.

But in addition to these two giants, we must in line with our traditional foreign policy, as developed by Mr and Mrs Bandaranaike and reinforced by Lakshman Kadirgamar, remain non-aligned and work hand in hand with India, our nearest neighbour, and on so many occasions our fast friend. In this regard, I have to note though that I found Sarath’s book disappointing.

Some contributors were critical of the hostility India evinced towards us in the eighties. The criticism is understandable, but so too was the hostility, because it arose from J.R. Jayewardene’s adventurism, trying to ally with the United States in essence against India, which was then allied with the Soviet Union. 

I should note that the United States, which by then had taken over Diego Garcia and did not particularly want or need Trincomalee, which JR wanted to give them, did advise against alienating India, but JR was on his own trip by then, with disastrous consequences.

But after the disaster of India’s rescue of Prabhakaran in 1987, India abided by its commitments, which led to Prabhakaran’s unremitting hostility and the killing of Rajiv Gandhi. This contributed in turn to India’s solid support for us over the next couple of decades, maintained despite political pressures from within India.

One article in Sarath’s book initially struck me as obsequious and unnecessary, since it is a hagiography of Basil Rajapaksa. But though much in it is irrelevant, it does record his role, as part of the troika set up during Mahinda Rajapaksa’s first presidency, to ensure Indo-Sri Lankan cooperation. 

And the narrative makes clear that he contributed much, to what proved an excellent relationship that enabled us to prosecute the war against the LTTE with full confidence that India would help us derail the efforts of some other countries to stop our military victory over terrorism.

Summary recall of Dayan

All that is well and good. But what the book is lacking in is analysis of what went wrong in the years that followed. From the high point of 2009, when the Indian Ambassador in Geneva supported Dayan Jayatilleka in negotiations with regard to the Special Session some Western Nations had summoned to crucify us, relations declined until less than three years later India voted against us in the first of the resolutions the United States put forward to lay us low.

I have argued that the Rajapaksa Government blundered repeatedly with regard to Geneva, beginning with the summary recall of Dayan after his great triumph, which has been the subject of international study, and exacerbating this by replacing him with Kshenuka Seneviratne. 

She made no effort to develop, let alone maintain the relationship with India. As an Indian journalist put it, she did not communicate with them, except to ask for their votes when support was needed.

But there is evidence too, that she both belittled India and also dealt secretly with our critics. Tamara Kunanayakam, when she was sent to Geneva after Kshenuka was finally replaced, found correspondence with the US Ambassador about a resolution planned against us in September 2011 which Kshenuka had not reported to Colombo. 

When Tamara managed to rebuild a coalition of support that led to the resolution being dropped, the aggressive American Ambassador told her that they would get us next time.

That happened, not least because Mahinda Rajapaksa, having removed Kshenuka from Geneva, put her in charge of multilateral relations. From that position, with a little help from her friend Sajin Gunawardena, she blocked Tamara at every turn. 

Thus, when the President told Tamara to come to Colombo to discuss what to do about the September 2011 resolution, G.L. Peiris, subservient as he was to the dreadful duo, tried to prevent Tamara seeing the President.

Mahinda Rajapaksa’s innocence with regard to what was going on in the Foreign Ministry is apparent from the fact that he did see Tamara, and gave her instructions which enabled her to triumph. But next time round she was not so lucky and could not consult him before the March 2012 onslaught, when Kshenuka and Sajin got together a massive crowd to go to Geneva and run riot.

India, which had pledged to support us, felt let down by the Sri Lankan tactics and changed its mind. That, and what followed, is what Sarath should have ensured was studied.

By Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha

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