In search of a proper Foreign Minister

RAJEEWA JAYAWEERA (Island Opinion Page)
TW endorses and appreciates the author’s choice(s) to be SL’s FM

article_imageDr Sudath Gunasekera, in his opinion piece published in these columns on August 07 has stated the case of the need for a new Minister of Foreign Affairs and has proposed former civil servant and politician Dr Sarath Amunugama.

The required attributes to hold the position, as described by Gunasekera, though not complete, cannot be faulted.

Amunugama, no doubt, is one of the more able politicians found among the current lot. Nevertheless, he is tainted due to his association with the Rajapaksa regime. Having such a person representing and defending Sri Lanka in global forums during these difficult times, is counterproductive. One could argue, President Sirisena too is tainted with the same brush. However, whereas the President was the people’s choice, Amunugama who is a National List MP, is not.

Not too many years ago, there was an uproar when former Chairman of SriLankan Airlines rerouted a flight scheduled to operate from Kuala Lumpur to Colombo via Singapore. Three passengers boarded the unscheduled flight in Singapore. They were Minister Amunugama, then Chairman of SriLankan Airlines and his spouse. The diversion cost to the loss making national carrier was substantial and was carried out on the minister’s behalf, even though all criticism was directed to the airline’s Chairman. Abraham Lincoln’s adage “Nearly all men can stand adversity. But if you want to test a man’s character, give him power” comes to mind. More recently, the minister concerned submitted a budgetary request of Rs 35 million for a new ministerial vehicle. In Sri Lanka, family connections and old boy networks mean everything. With the unraveling of numerous family connections in the Central Bank bond scam currently under investigation, close business ties of the minister’s family members with types similar to Arjun Aloysius is yet another factor.

Of the 14 Foreign Ministers since July 1977 (three of them appointed twice), other than erstwhile Lakshman Kadirgamar, all others, who were politicians can be described as misfits. Kadirgamar, the only successful foreign minister appointed by former President CBK in 1994, was a newcomer to politics.

The search for a capable individual, with the required credentials and high level of integrity need be broadened beyond the current crop of self-serving politicians. He or she need be highly experienced in bilateral and multilateral diplomacy.

Two names worth consideration are Jayantha Dhanapala and HMGS Palihakkara. Veteran career diplomats of the Sri Lanka Foreign Service with over thirty years of experience respectively, both served the country with distinction.

Dhanapala has held posts of Permeant Representative to UN offices in Geneva and New York. He was ambassador to USA besides postings in the key capitals of London, Beijing and Delhi. He was Secretary to Ministry of State for Foreign Affairs during Premadasa presidency. Dhanapala served as Secretary General of the Peace Secretariat, tasked with coordinating the peace process during a part of President CBK’s term of office. He also served in the UN for five years as the Under- Secretary General for Disarmament in Secretary General Kofi Annan’s team. President Sirisena appointed Dhanapala as Senior Advisor on Foreign Relations (he served pro bono) in January 2015.

Palihakkara too has held posts of Permanent Representative to UN offices in Geneva and New York. He defended the country at the UN during the final months of the civil war. He has served in several capitals in the world and in Thailand as Ambassador. Palihakkara functioned as Director General of the Peace Secretariat followed with a stint as Foreign Secretary prior to retirement from SLFS. He was a member of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), perhaps the only bipartisan and non-political committee appointed by former President Rajapaksa. President Sirisena, in January 2015, appointed him Governor of Northern Province.

In terms of the age factor, Palihakkara aged 70 is younger than Dhanapala and Amunugama, both aged 78. In the event a younger person with required prerequisites not being found, Sri Lanka would do well to consider one of the two ablest diplomats in recent times for the post of Foreign Minister. The nation might strike gold as was the case with Lakshman Kadirgamar (based on Kadirgamar’s performance, Gunasekera opines old boys of Trinity College make good foreign ministers. Dhanapala too is an old boy of Trinity!)

The national list, besides accommodating those from minority communities is meant to facilitate the government to co-opt into high political office, persons with exceptional expertise and experience, found outside political parties.

Over to you, Mr. President!