More diplomatic doublespeak in our ongoing opera

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It was only last month that our diplomatic foray into the UN Human Rights Council’s 55th session in Geneva turned even more abrasive, as it virtually damned some Western powers for pursuing double standards.

Not that there was no truth in it. But there is an age-old saying, which, if suitably adapted to suit our own political environment, says that those in glass houses should not take off their clothes.

Sad to say, some of those who parade as patriots and saviours of this Resplendent Isle, never mind their past and present, have been reduced to adorning themselves with nothing but fig leaves to cover their own verbal somersaults, believing that the country’s entire citizenry has short memories.

That I am afraid is not so. Like the elephant, the symbol of the party led by the country’s current president, some have long memories, long enough to remember some comments made by the highest in this government at the height of the ongoing Gaza conflict.

I come back to this having read a press release from our High Commission in London. To start with, it disrespectfully refers to attendees from the British Government at the High Commission’s recent Iftar reception as “bureaucrats” when the more acceptable and respectable term would be officials.

The word bureaucrat has earned a rather demeaning and derogatory meaning in the eyes of the larger public, as anyone following the local media would notice. One does not need communication experts to comprehend this surely and to avoid such undiplomatic parlance, especially when referring to senior officials from the host country.

Besides this linguistic slip that was showing, there is something more important that requires elucidation, for it seems to veer from what President Wickremesinghe originally said when he addressed ten Colombo-based envoys from West Asia.

That meeting was called to clear the air after what was surely a diplomatic faux pas that would have isolated Sri Lanka from the Islamic world even more at the height of this Gaza fiasco.

“The High Commissioner briefed the gathering on the initiative of the President of Sri Lanka to raise US$ 1 million to contribute to the requirements for war-affected Gaza children,” the press release said, referring to the Iftar celebration on March 22.

Now, that is what is confusing. Around February 27, the media quoted a release from the presidential secretariat saying that the government was to establish a fund to help the badly affected Gaza children and that the government would donate US$1 million to assist them.

This donation would be made through UN agencies.

It was a proposal made by President Wickremesinghe to the cabinet. It was clear enough that the US$ 1 million fund was a contribution by the government, which had asked all state institutions and ministries to forego any Iftar celebrations and donate the funds to the government’s intention to help the Gaza children.

Apart from the one million dollars in aid from the government, any public contributions would be welcome.

So the government is already committed to granting US$1 million as aid on its own through international agencies. Thus, it would be an error to say that public donations are being welcomed to make up the one million dollar figure.

That would suggest that the government is unable to provide this amount, and curiously so, when noises are emanating from the government and official circles about how Sri Lanka’s foreign reserves have expanded in the last several months, showing healthy signs of economic recovery.

The question is whether the government has changed its mind since it first announced the one-million-dollar donation, which it appeared to have promised about a month earlier.

Our London-based High Commissioner’s appeal for public donations at its Iftar celebration to make up the million-dollar fund, as the release says, seems to suggest a change of heart for one reason or another.

If it is cash-strapped and unable to meet its obligations as it did when it came to the local government elections, it is understandable. The way the president, his ministers, and even officials appear to traverse the globe as though Sri Lanka has free access to the reserves in Fort Knox, it comes as no surprise that the government has no money as it now seems to be seeking public contributions.

That is not all that causes concern. It might be recalled that when President Wickremesinghe met with the West Asian envoys, he said that Sri Lanka would fund a school for the abandoned Gaza children, long at the mercy of a relentless Israeli military juggernaut pursued by a viciously determined Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, determined to wipe Gaza clean of any Palestinian presence.

“We are ready to build a school in Gaza,” the media quoted the president as telling the diplomats, adding that it would be done as soon as peace returns to this territory, which might well be after our elections, if at all.

Now is this one-million-dollar fund for this promised school, which must await Netanyahu’s munificence and an unbelievable change of political heart, or has the school project been abandoned and a new million-dollar fund with public donations been canvassed after the Gaza school offer was viewed in some circles as Sri Lanka’s diplomatic gimmickry?

Is it being offered to quickly cover up a fatal error in foreign policy when it announced the government would send a naval vessel to join the US-led maritime coalition in the Red Sea to counter Houthie military attacks on shipping tied to or connected with Israel, as I asked in the January 14th column?

At that time, we asked who was dictating or guiding the country’s foreign policy, for this was surely a huge foreign policy error of judgement from Sri Lanka’s standpoint. The raison d’être for planning to send our navy out to sea to protect shipping from Houthie attacks had some economic rationale.

But later evidence showed that Sri Lanka was also making money at the same time as our ports were busier than usual.

What is even worse is that this offer of a school appeared more as a foreign policy ploy than a genuine concern for the plight of the Palestinians. Having made that initial error of announcing a naval deployment that would be under US command, the government quickly tried to draw a thin veneer over its crucial mistake by trying to placate the West Asian envoys, some representing extremely rich nations that could easily afford to build more than one school across Gaza.

What is even more intriguing is a comment made by President Wickremesinghe during the discussions with the envoys. He was quoted in the media as saying that “Sri Lanka’s foreign policy now is to maintain closer relations with Arab countries.”

Note the use of the word “now”. Why, what happened to the very close relations Sri Lanka had with the Arab world when Sri Lanka pursued a non-aligned policy for decades and earned respect and influence in the non-aligned world, which included among its founder members Islamic nations such as Indonesia?

Who disturbed and threatened that relationship by allowing Israel to open an “interest” section in the US embassy in Colombo and later open an embassy? Was it not under President J.R. Jayewardene’s UNP government and Minister Lalith Athulathmudali, one of the main architects of the pro-Israeli manoeuvre that antagonised the Arab world just as the UNP’s overall pro-US policy worried neighbouring India and other non-aligned nations?

Also, it was not Gotabaya Rajapaksa who developed very close relations with Israel in more recent times.

So why now? Are we ready to sell our souls for Arab investments and support at the UNHRC?

In its dying days, this government is now ready for any deal, even a Faustian one- as long as it is the nation that is on offer.

(Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who was Assistant Editor of the Hong Kong Standard and worked for Gemini News Service in London. Later, he was Deputy Chief-of-Mission in Bangkok and Deputy High Commissioner in London.)