Nero Is Fiddling in Milan: Sri Lanka’s Neglected Crisis of Diplomatic Representation – Part One

This is the first in a series of two articles.

Viewpoint by ALA Azeez

ROME (IDN) — 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. [IDN-InDepthNews – 18 April 2022]

Image: Consulate General of Sri Lanka in Milan. Credit: Ministry of Foreign Affairs – Sri Lanka

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