By ALA Azeez
In a series of political appointments made by the Sri Lankan government in the past few months even as the economic crisis was looming large, the latest one pertains to the diplomatic position of Consul General at Milan, Italy.
As of writing, the foreign ministry, under mounting public pressure, has clarified via its latest press release, that the person concerned “will not be appointed the consul general in Milan”.
This follows foreign minister’s earlier remark that it was only a proposal. A careful reading of the ministry’s press release gives the impression that the possibility remains still open, of the person being politically appointed to another overseas mission of Sri Lanka.
Several political appointments made since the crisis began to show early signs of gripping the nation, have nonetheless gone unnoticed.
Non-ambassadorial political appointments to diplomatic missions escaped even a minimum degree of scrutiny with potential diplomats picked straight from the streets of Colombo, so to say. There were seemingly no qualifications or criteria required other than being politically connected or being close to the ruling elites.
It is most striking that the question of political appointment to a diplomatic mission has come up when the whole nation is caught in the middle of a catastrophic economic crisis and public protests against the government are mounting by the day, led primarily by non-partisan youth.
The youth look visibly agitated holding posters that warn the government ‘you are messing with the wrong generation’. It is not only the wrong generation for the government to ‘mess with’. It is already a ‘wronged’ generation too. They feel wronged in the sense that they fear their future has been robbed by the ruling elites.
This generation understands far better than the older ones the domestic- foreign nexus in the government’s mismanagement of the economy and its undermining of the national interest. The latter, in their understanding, extends to multiple deals the government has allegedly entered, which are not open to public or parliamentary scrutiny.
It also extends to the mismanagement of foreign service and diplomatic representations abroad. They loathe the justifications trotted out for acts or omissions using familiar foreign policy constructs in a distorted or deceitful manner.
In this perverse practice of foreign policy, commitment to finding “home-grown solutions” of the 2009-2014 era has transformed itself into a new slogan of implementing “locally designed and executed mechanisms.” Empty jargon and rhetoric abound, but only prevarication remains when it comes to positive action.
The use of the term “strategic” for instance has become threadbare. It goes on like this: We won’t sell strategic assets. But if we do ‘sell’ a state asset, it is because it is not a ‘strategic asset’. If we don’t ‘sell’, that means the asset is a ‘strategic’ one.
It is ironic that the foreign policy has come to such a pass that the prospect of ‘selling’ should determine whether or not an asset is a strategic one. The term ‘selling’ is used in its broadest meaning which includes renting, leasing, free-holding, equities and other forms of possession and control.
In the pursuit of Sri Lanka’s foreign policy and economic objectives, it appears that the idea of “selling” has become the established norm. ‘Not selling’ is only an exception to the rule. There is conceivably no other country in the world, which conducts its foreign and economic policy with the idea of ‘selling’ as its operating principle.
The speculation about the latest political appointment has come at a time when the new governor of the Central Bank is appealing to Sri Lankan diaspora to contribute a minimum amount of US dollar 300 each to designated bank accounts. He has pledged that the funds realized would only be used for importation of essential items into the country.
Earlier on, some current and former foreign service officers posted similar messages on social media platforms. Sri Lankan migrants were encouraged to remit their traditional new year donations intended for their relatives, directly into latters’ bank accounts in Sri Lanka. A considerable number of Sri Lankan migrants nowadays send their remittances to their families back home using hawala or undiyal arrangements, which fetches them higher rates than officially offered by Sri Lankan banks.
It remains to be seen how Sri Lanka’s migrant community is responding to these urgent calls for assistance. The discernible trend today, however, is that demonstrations are being staged by Sri Lankan migrants in front of the country’s missions abroad, as well as in different cities of host countries, echoing the same demands as heard loud on the streets of Sri Lanka.
It is self-evident, nevertheless, that Sri Lanka’s migrant community, a strong support-base relied upon by the government more heavily in recent times, is now becoming increasingly aloof from the country’s overseas missions.
It was only weeks ago, that noting the fast-declining foreign reserves, Sri Lanka’s political leaders had reportedly placed urgent calls to leaders of some Middle East countries. Financial support was sought presumably to cushion off the effects of the fuel crisis which was then fast emerging. Besides, Sri Lanka’s foreign minister G.L. Peiris convened meetings with ambassadors and diplomats of countries accredited to Colombo, in particular Arab diplomats ahead of Ramadan, keeping in view the need for financial assistance.
In a further measure aimed to reduce the pressure on the declining foreign reserves, the foreign ministry announced over the past months, plans to close down some of Sri Lanka’s missions abroad. It is not clear what criteria was applied and if any other missions have been identified for possible closure.
Further, there are no indications from the foreign ministry as to whether it has considered scrapping non-ambassadorial diplomatic positions held by political appointees as a clear and pragmatic measure of cost- saving for the dollar- strapped nation.
It is against this dismal backdrop that the news of political appointment to the Consulate General of Sri Lanka, came as a shock to most Sri Lankans reeling from multiple crises. In a vain attempt to stave off public criticism, foreign minister Peiris was quick to issue a clarification indicating it was only a proposal and not an appointment. One may wonder how many such proposals have been made regarding political appointment to diplomatic positions in the manner minister Peiris has mentioned.
Sri Lanka’s foreign minister, in his wisdom, appears to have thought that calling it a proposal, not an appointment, would cool public tempers. It is bizarre that he seems to believe that making a proposal for political appointment was ordinarily acceptable, and especially so at this time of economic emergency. Quite the contrary: the current economic crisis calls for dispensing with the practice of making proposals for political appointments in the first place.
It is pertinent to note that especially since 2019, owing to the overweening nature of the executive presidency, the practice of proposing or making political appointments to diplomatic missions has become an entrenched culture. This has weakened the professional foreign service with a lack of sustained, substantive exposure to a wide range of diplomatic activity which their colleagues in the foreign services of South Asia and in other regions routinely receive. Serious capacity constraints have ensued within the foreign service, risking the effective pursuit of foreign policy priories and objectives, owing mainly to political meddling.
The foreign service itself is to be partly blamed for its own predicament. It has long tolerated a handful of its members actively seeking, at the expense of more deserving officers, political patronage for out-of-turn postings, cross-postings and ambassadorial positions. A few seniors even aided and abetted bad decision making including on economic matters because they believed in the ‘proximity-to-power’ principle.
Politicization has the effect of squeezing out the professional core of a foreign office. A foreign service, weakened from within and outside, is a fertile ground for external manipulation and exploitation. Vested interests only creep in where the professional core of a foreign service is eroded.
The crisis of credibility in Sri Lanka’s diplomatic representation that a combination of unchecked politicization, distorted use of foreign policy constructs, rhetoric and lack of coherent planning and scenario-mapping has brought about is a neglected crisis domestically. The international community, however, is all too aware of it because it can see how it plays out in the external theatre with far reaching implications for Sri Lanka.
The protesting public at the Galle Face and in the other parts of the country are demanding peacefully for a radical transformation of Sri Lanka’s political culture and its governance structures. The main focus of this growing people’s movement remains on the abolition of the executive presidency. Sri Lanka’s foreign policy and diplomatic mechanisms are part and parcel of these governance structures currently under public stricture.
It is common knowledge that the power of presidency to appoint ambassadors and other diplomatic agents, as well as secretaries to ministries has so far escaped any constitutional ‘checks and balances’. Neither the 17th amendment nor the 19th amendment to the constitution dealt with this all-important matter, thereby leaving it entirely in the hands of the executive to make appointments without any objective criteria or scrutiny.
The committee on high posts of Sri Lanka’s parliament which routinely rubber-stamps appointments of ambassadors and secretaries to ministries has lost even the semblance of oversight authority it had, following the adoption of the 20th amendment to the constitution.
As the whole nation remains gripped in a catastrophic economic crisis, it is time now to reflect to what extent this unchecked practice of making political appointments to diplomatic missions has cost the dollar—strapped country by way of diversion of foreign exchange to maintain political appointees abroad.
It is also timely to ponder seriously how and to what extent the disastrous mix of distorted use of foreign policy constructs, rhetoric and lack of coherent planning and scenario—mapping has vitiated Sri Lanka’s external environment resulting in the loss of economic opportunities for the country and its people.
The long-neglected crisis of credibility in Sri Lanka’s diplomatic representation remains therefore as a contributory factor to the economic crisis the country is so perilously fraught with today.