The removal of Tamara Kunanayakam as Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva highlights the fact that the forces moving against some of our political appointees in missions overseas are bigger than first imagined – and signals that the government may be opting to pursue the path of engagement as opposed to antagonism after the disaster that was Geneva. There is a lesson here for political appointees seeking to expand their personal political ideologies at the cost of Sri Lanka’s national interest – there is no space left in post-resolution diplomacy, for that kind of fooling around
By Dharisha Bastians
“An offensive strategy would have permitted us to challenge our opponents, their failure to respect international human rights and humanitarian law, instead of us becoming their victims. We should have been in a position to expose their hypocrisy, their double standards.....There is plenty of evidence to challenge the independence of so-called NGOs campaigning against Sri Lanka. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Reporters without Borders, International Crisis Group, and Freedom House, are directly linked to USAID and the National Endowment for Democracy or NED, which, since the Reagan years, receives millions of dollars to do what the intelligences services cannot do. We could have challenged their status in the United Nations and disarmed them!”
- Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the UN in Geneva, Tamara Kunanayakam, in an interview with Lakbima News on 6 May, 2012.
A little over a week ago, External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris made a phone call to Sri Lanka’s Permanent Mission to the UN in Geneva, to speak with Ambassador Tamara Kunanayakam. News of the phone call and the conversation between the Minister and the ambassador was in the public domain within a matter of hours. Ambassador Kunanayakam was being asked to politely step aside and take up a different posting in either Brazil or Cuba. The Minister phrased the delicate matter by prefacing the news of the transfer with the announcement that President Mahinda Rajapaksa would be visiting Brasilia soon and would require a senior official with expertise about South America to prepare the groundwork for his visit.
Minister Peiris’ phone call was at the time, seen as part of a larger campaign within the Republic Building in Colombo which houses the Ministry of External Affairs, spearheaded by powerful elements within the Ministry including Additional Secretary Kshenuka Seneviratne and Monitoring MP Sajin Vaas Gunewardane to discredit and undermine certain political appointees heading Sri Lanka’s overseas missions. About a month ago, the Ministry called for explanation from Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to France, Dayan Jayatilleke about a series of charges, which the Ministry’s Overseas Administration Division said he could be prosecuted for under the Penal Code, if explanation was not provided. The letter sparked massive controversy and public debate, fuelled largely by Jayatillake’s acolytes and much of the mainstream press which regularly publishes his analyses about Sri Lanka’s foreign policy direction. Jayatillake himself accused certain ‘elements’ within the Foreign Office for trying to ‘white-van’ his reputation before returning to Colombo on 18 April for consultations with President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Minister Peiris. Typically true to form, President Rajapaksa’s meeting with Jayatilleke had been ‘cordial’ according to press reports and the Executive had gently advised his appointee to refrain from making statements about the Ministry publicly and to answer the Overseas Administration Division’s call for explanation as any other serving public official would be compelled to do.
Even as news of Minister Peiris’ phone call to Ambassador Kunanayakam broke, it further reinforced speculation that a powerful section of the Ministry of External Affairs, with the Minister now in tow, was moving against the Mission heads in Geneva and Paris – independent of senior levels of government. Kunanayakam it is now public knowledge, reinforced by her own words during an interview with a weekly English newspaper last week, is a close associate of Jayatilleke and shares his political ideology – a healthy disregard for the “imperialist West” and admiration for socialist regimes in Cuba, Vietnam – and even Venezuela and North Korea. It was believed that the move to oust Kunanayakam and silence Jayatilleke were primarily motivated by the Seneviratne-Vaas Gunewardane nexus at the Ministry, which was angling for the political regime in Colombo to begin adopting a more pro-Western line, in order to beat back the repercussions stemming from the Resolution against Sri Lanka at the UNHRC adopted in March.
But events to follow were to somewhat refute this hypothesis.
Last Friday (4), Ambassador Kunanayakam’s letter to Minister Peiris, decrying his treatment of her and flatly rejecting his cross posting offers, was leaked and appeared in the English language press. The letter was a scathing attack on the Minister and the Ministry and made no bones about the fact that Kunanayakam strongly felt that race was a motivating factor in the decision to transfer her from Geneva, after ‘using’ her as the Tamil face of Sri Lanka during the key UNHRC 19th Session in March. Needless to say the letter embarrassed Minister Peiris who had engaged in a private communication with his Ambassador and furthermore smacked of the attitude of political appointees to diplomatic positions, such as Jayatilleke, who believe in waging their wars against government institutions and senior officials of foreign governments in the public domain.
On Tuesday (8) Ceylon Today exclusively reported in its lead story that Sri Lanka’s current Ambassador to the EU in Brussels, career diplomat Ravinatha Ariyasinha was to replace Ambassador Kunanayakam in Geneva, well ahead of the Universal Periodic Review to be taken up in October and the UNHRC’s organizational meeting and 19th Session of the Special Rapporteurs /Representatives /Independent Experts and Chairpersons of the UNHRC Working Group in June. Hours later, Ambassador Ariyasinha confirmed that he had received his transfer orders from MEA Secretary Karunatillake Amunugama and would take his posting in Geneva in due course.
Kunanayakam has already refused to be cross posted Havana or Brasilia, first in her letter to Minister Peiris, and subsequently reinforced this position in her interview with the local press last weekend. Her fate therefore, hangs in the balance, and in all likelihood, she will refuse to take up another diplomatic posting unless coerced by the President himself for whom she has demonstrated a great deal of respect.
The trajectory of Kunanayakam’s removal makes two things very clear. Firstly that whatever speculation and conspiracy theories were lurking during the Jayatilleke and then Kunanayakam controversies about a Ministry cabal working against political appointees would be somewhat diminished in light of the fact that a key posting, to a station such as Geneva, where Sri Lanka’s toughest diplomatic battles will have to be fought for the foreseeable future, would not be decided upon by a small coterie of the powerful at the Ministry of External Affairs. Such decisions, as analysts and political observers well know, are made almost exclusively at Temple Trees. Therefore, the moves against Jayatilleke and Kunanayakam, whatever cordial breakfasts and private telephone calls may have indicated to the contrary, were sanctioned and likely executed by powers greater than any that wield influence at the Foreign Office.
Secondly, the decision to appoint a career diplomat with proven ability to engage the West, to the critical Geneva station indicates that at some point in the post-resolution dust-up, realization dawned upon the political leadership in Colombo, now possibly being led by wiser counsel than prevailed in the run up to UNHRC 19, that antagonism with the West and with the UN system, was futile and directly in contravention of Sri Lanka’s national interest. With this realization, comes the secondary awareness that Ambassadors like Jayatillake and to a lesser degree, Kunanayakam, are liabilities in Sri Lanka’s overseas diplomatic set up, whose voices raised on behalf of their personal political ideologies were jeopardizing Sri Lanka’s relationships with its traditional liberal democratic allies.
Kunanayakam, in her newspaper interview, heaps praise on Cuba, saying it was an example of a small nation, subject to a US embargo for over 50 years, that has been successful in resisting the constant threat of intervention thanks to the unity of its people and international solidarity. Jayatillake is the foremost voice raised in support of Sri Lanka opening a mission in Caracas, the capital of Venezuela. That intellectuals of the calibre of Jayatillake would view Hugo Chavez’s regime in Venezuela as something Sri Lanka must aspire to, fundamentally undermines everything Sri Lanka has stood for since it inherited a liberal democracy post 1948. That Kunanayakam and Jayatillake view the near-failed state of Cuba, being run for 53 years by two brothers with no iota of hope for the dawn of democracy in the near future, as the way forward for Sri Lanka, is perfectly acceptable from individuals with strong personal opinions, but not so from diplomats representing Sri Lanka’s positions overseas. While cultivating Latin America and socialist regimes elsewhere in the world is perfectly acceptable from a strategic perspective, such alliances cannot take place at the cost of our relationships with countries with which we share democratic values.
Leftism is undoubtedly a romantic concept. Most would agree that the old guard of the Left, of the calibre of Vasudeva Nanayakkara, Tissa Vitharana, DEW Gunesekera, certainly are a principled set of politicians, with admirable worldviews about anti-imperialism, anti-Colonialism and socialism. Yet this is a set of statesmen that cannot garner the popular vote, with their mandates at elections amounting to less than one percent of the total polled. To govern Sri Lanka, by the policies of the Vitharanas, Gunesekeras and Nanayakkaras would be therefore tantamount to thwarting democracy. Similarly, while Jayatillake’s moral high ground on the hypocrisy of the West when it comes to Palestine and even the raw deal meted out to Cuba and Venezuela by the US, finds sympathy with a majority of Sri Lankans, and possibly a majority of the world, Sri Lanka’s foreign policy direction cannot be dictated by his, or anyone elses, personal moral compunctions if it is detrimental to the greater national interest.
If this realization has dawned upon the political leadership in Colombo, then it is no wonder that Kunanayakam has unceremoniously been sidelined and Jayatillake has been placed, rather officially, on notice. The “time and space” for antagonizing the West is definitively, undoubtedly, over.