Britain Mourns While Sri Lanka Groans

May 28 2017 - It was a week of tragedy and farce. Here in the UK death came suddenly and unexpectedly one night last week. The country went into mourning as the single biggest suicide bomb attack in the UK brought home a reality. Home grown terrorism is as alive here as transnational terrorism which has taken root in continental Europe.

For Sri Lankans who have lived through nearly three decades of terrorism, blood-letting and gory violence and mayhem, it seemed like déjà vu many times over. In my years of journalism in Sri Lanka I have visited many scenes of terrorist attacks and killings from the massacre of worshippers and monks at the Sri Maha Bodhi in Anuradhapura to the indiscriminate shooting of Buddhist monks and samaneras at Aranthalawa, the shooting, hacking and dismemberment of farmers and their families in north central/ eastern province villages, to the bombing of the CTO, the Pettah bus depot and the explosions inside a passenger a train close to the Dehiwala station and other scenes of unbelievable gore.

Newly appointed Foreign Minister Ravi Karunanayake

Newly appointed Foreign Minister Ravi Karunanayake

I have also reported on the gruesome killings of state officials, journalists and others in the late 1980s including several personal friends and escaped an attempt on my life too.

The type of terrorism perpetrated by youth born and bred in the UK or others who sought refuge here is rather new but not to Sri Lankans who have lived through years of daily fear not knowing when they and their families left home in the morning whether they would ever return home safe.

While most Sri Lankans will condole with the families of those killed and wounded in Manchester, their groaning and moaning today have little to do with that dastardly incident. It has all to do with the acute stomach cramps they unexpectedly underwent last week. What with our medicine men, some with black cloth tied across their mouths occupying space on the pavements instead of in the hospitals where they should have rightly been and so were unavailable to treat the needy, it was a torrid time for many people.

We now know what caused the indescribable pain. It was the consequence of a nation-wide outburst of side-splitting laughter. It spread faster than the dengue fever that a yahapalanaya administration, more interested in sorting out their duty-free vehicle permits, is still trying to eradicate.

It spread like a rash when news broke of the cabinet reshuffle which had gripped the country with great expectation for weeks. Would they rid the country of those who have been in the public eye for various shenanigans that are too well known to require reiteration here.

Having grappled day and night on how to shuffle the pack the great minds of the palanites came up with such a classic solution that even the irresistible Don Trump might wish to emulate. On hearing of the final solution Sri Lankans burst into paroxysms of laughter at what almost immediately earned the sobriquet the “Great Hoax”.

When some years ago an advertising copy writer, perhaps jokingly, called Sri Lanka the “Wonder of Asia” he little realised what prescient powers he possessed. If the copy writer still follows the haps and mishaps in what he called a wondrous land he too would add to this comic interlude that has at least brought momentary laughter to a people suffering under the multiple indignities and corruption they are forced to live under.

What better illustration of this farce than the appointment of the new foreign minister. Everybody and their kussi ammas knew that our great president who was last heard of exploring the wonders of Australia wanted to get rid of Ravi Karunanayake from the finance ministry under pressure or by choice.

He might be the wonder man of the Asia-Pacific region for “The Banker” magazine which had probably run out of nominees, but to President Sirisena and his motley crew a long time slogan had been “Ravi must go”. It is also known that Sirisena had sounded several ministers including one or two I know, for the job.

But they turned it down just as Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s reported approach to at least four persons including I am told former high commissioner to Malaysia Rosie Senanayake for the post of High Commissioner in London were turned down just as those who Sirisena sounded for the finance ministry turned down the offer.

This reshuffle seems like the man they wanted out of the job was not being removed but provided with pre-Christmas goodies. Where in the world would you find a foreign minister given functions that have little or nothing to do with foreign affairs such as running lotteries.

It surely requires a tour de force of the imagination that institutions such as lotteries boards, mahapola scholarship funds and ancillary aspects of the plantations industries are connected with foreign affairs unless it is somebody’s dark humour to demean the foreign ministry.

If media reports that Ravi Karunanayake demanded – or is being presented with additional duties because of his exemplary performance as finance minister, whatever others might say I think it is eminently relevant that he be allocated such money-losing institutions like SriLankan Airlines which investors run away from at the first mention of the name of the national career.

It has also been reported that the new foreign minister – wonder of the Asia-Pacific – now handling (or perhaps manhandling as it could well turn out to be) a new ministry would also find the Securities Exchange under his belt which of course is a highly appropriate thing to have.

But why the Socratic thinkers who worked out such magic formula to appease the deities or whoever demanded that the pack be shuffled to remove some of the cards and card sharpers, did not gift Foreign Minister Karunanayake with overseeing the Treasury Bonds really is a cause for great worry. In fact he should have had the Central Bank attached to the foreign minister portfolio.

Those who are laughing their sides out at the Foreign Minister overseeing the lotteries boards have missed the point entirely. The fact is that he can now make use of the country’s diplomatic missions scattered around the world to sell the lottery tickets as one Sri Lankan jokingly (I hope) said the other day.

We know of course that little productive work is done in several of these missions. Capable and experienced officers are languishing in them because they have no work or no important work is assigned.

In his travels round the world Karunanayake would have realised this. It might be said for the now reassigned Mangala Samaraweera he knew what was happening in some of our missions but his hands seemed to have been tied.

Now Karunanayake can make use of officials sent to our missions to stand on the streets of their respective capitals and hawk lottery tickets. I mean they can earn their keep by doing something more lucrative than, for instance, being deployed to cut the grass in residency lawns.

It is reported that Foreign Minister-elect had asked for an immediate report on the composition of our missions even before he set foot in his Republic Square office.

Apparently it is Prime Minister Wickremesinghe who has asked for the report. Surely in his frequent travels abroad Wickremesinghe who is fast earning the reputation of the most travelled PM in the shortest time, must know some of those who are heading our embassies, high commissioners and consulates.

Karunanayake will soon find some of them cosying up to him making requests for extensions of service for them or their junior officers who they have taken to their bosom. These things have happened in the past and will happen in the future as relationships with the minister are built or strengthened.

One wonders of course why our leaders want to know about our ambassadors and high commissioners. After all they are the very people who appointed them making some strange choices that should never have happened.

All they need to do is look at the cvs of our great diplomats that should be available with the high posts committee in parliament. How some of them got through that committee is another of the wonders of Asia. One always wondered what educational and professional qualifications some of them had.

One supposes that like so many of our elected (and non-elected) representatives they may not have gone beyond the GCE ‘O’ Level – that is if they got that far.

It appears that the report is also to look into other diplomatic and non-diplomatic staff in our missions. That would really require a thorough study not a cover up to appointments made and extensions of service given to undeserving persons sometimes two or three extensions in the same posting as has happened several times.

This deprives others deserving of overseas postings being sent out, a practice the minister should stop before it turns into a bigger joke. Among other issues perhaps the PM is trying to identify dual citizens and non-Sri Lankan citizens holding office or in various positions in our missions. That should reveal some very interesting facts and should not buried for the sake of protecting people.

It was said many months ago that Singapore would help restructure our foreign ministry. As far as I know Singapore does not recruit foreign nationals as confidential secretaries to their heads of missions because it is a sensitive position. I know this well from my personal interactions with high ranking Singaporean diplomats.

How could foreign nationals be permitted to handle confidential correspondence between a head of mission and the foreign ministry or between missions unless of course nothing confidential ever passes from the mission to the ministry?

There will surely be requests and appeals to the new foreign minister from lackeys, unqualified and unsuitable friends and relatives to be posted to our foreign missions. One hopes that he will not fall prey to this demeaning the quality of some of our missions still further.

This government is well known for appointing commissions and committees to inquire into various issues and calling for reports at the drop of a hat. Some of the reports of these appointed bodies seem to end up in the attic of forgotten things without the public ever seeing them.

If the report of our foreign missions now called for is to serve any purpose and the public is to be made aware of it, this report should not end up the same way. There are sizeable Sri Lankan communities in most countries where we have missions. It is not enough that these communities to be asked to help Sri Lanka and appeals are made for them to return to what was once their home if they are ignored when it comes to making use of their knowledge and experience in writing the report. After all they are people who interact with the missions on official business.

If they are denied such opportunities then Sri Lankans will have to resort to their right to information which this government made into law. So the report must be available for public scrutiny.

This story was originally published by The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka

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