Uditha Devapriya, in The Island, 11 December 2021,reviewing Rajiva Wijesinha’s Representing Sri Lanka (S. Godage & Brothers, 2021, 189 pp. Rs. 750) …. where the title is “Downhill All The Way”
Since then, Dr Wijesinha has kept himself busy writing more books. This is his most recent. An account of his travels as a representative of the country, it makes for compelling reading. I am still not sure whether I am capable of reviewing another written work of his, but this is one I couldn’t resist reading through, poring over, and yes, writing on.
The book itself is different and unique. In his preface, Dr Wijesinha informs us that while he wrote much on his unofficial jaunts across the world, an account of his official travels, those undertaken between 2007 and 2014, was missing and thus needed. The result is a melange of anecdotes and analysis, a deconstruction of how we won the diplomatic war at Geneva and New York and how we lost it. For general readers as well as for students of international politics, diplomacy, even travel, it is at once instructive, enriching, and sobering.
Representing Sri Lanka begins somewhere in 2006, a year before the author was appointed as the head of the Sri Lankan Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process. Mindful of the allegations being thrown at us by Western powers, the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration had established the Secretariat with the express purpose of countering them. Among those machinations, one stood out in particular: a resolution sponsored by the British about which our then Ambassador in Geneva, Sarala Fernando, could do nothing. Dr Wijesinha compares this resolution to a “Sword of Damocles”, an insidious ploy through which Western interests could pressurise and punish us at any given moment.
By then Eelam War IV was in full swing. Staffed by political appointees, many of whom did little to merit their positions, the country’s Foreign Service desperately needed individuals who could respond to what Western governments and NGOs were saying about us. To that end, the British resolution needed to be countered and defeated.
It was with that objective in view that the Rajapaksa regime appointed two individuals who were to win the diplomatic war. Dr Wijesinha recounts how these individuals did their work well, and how they were ignominiously betrayed and let down later on.
The first of them was Dr Wijesinha himself. Commencing his jaunts in Geneva, he found himself reckoning with a wide group of NGO officials, envoys, and journalists, all of them hostile to the government. To counter them, he frequently brought up the point that the government was a democratically elected outfit fighting an armed insurrection.
In his book, he carefully distinguishes between the few who understood this and the many who did not. Yet whether arguing with those hostile to us or finding common ground with those sympathetic to us, he followed the same strategy: briefing everyone on the situation in the country. This was a strategy that Colombo would abandon later on.
However ridiculous they may have been, the allegations being thrown at us required swift responses. This Dr Wijesinha ensured, in person or through his staff. Often these allegations bordered on the absurd: at one point he recalls being asked by “the astonishingly silly young lady” Nicholas Sarkozy hired as a Deputy at the French Foreign Ministry “if we had stopped using child soldiers.” Complicating matters further, NGOs continued to be given a prominent place at international forums, undermining the democratic credentials of the State. When Dr Wijesinha managed to convince officials of granting the Sri Lankan government a bigger role at these forums, he had to incur much hostility from NGOs.
Dr Wijesinha is blunt and rather pugnacious in his descriptions of some of these NGOs; at one point he even alleges that one of their officials may have been involved in intelligence work against Sri Lanka. There are times when he lets go of all decorum and resorts to the more colourful adjectives in the dictionary: remembering the local head of one NGO outfit, for instance, he calls him a “rascal.” At other times, though, he reverts to a more diplomatic demeanour: after an altercation in Geneva with a personal friend and political foe, he visits her to rekindle their old friendship. These anecdotes blend into the larger narrative, bringing out a human interest angle to what could have been a typical diplomat’s memoir.
That it desists from turning into a conventional memoir is probably the best thing about the book. To that end Dr Wijesinha summons colourful descriptions of the places and regions he visits, from runaway hotels to historical monuments.
An intrepid traveller, he makes the best of where he is, meeting old friends and reviving old friendships. He strikes a balance between official and unofficial jaunts, keeping us transfixed to both. While these never even once transcend the bigger narrative, they provide a welcome distraction from the rigours of official duties, as much to the reader as to the author himself.
As the head of the Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process, Dr Wijesinha had to face considerable pressure from countries that had determined to halt the war being waged in Sri Lanka. Given the odds against us, it was nothing short of a miracle that we managed to rally up a broad resistance against the 2009 UNHRC Resolution, defeating some of the most powerful states in the world. Though he refrains from claiming credit for what happened, it is clear that Dr Wijesinha was exactly where the country needed him to be.
Yet as subsequent events would testify, the triumph was not sustained. The victory we achieved in 2009, where we managed to muster a majority against the UNHCR resolution in the aftermath of the war, deteriorated to a crippling defeat three years later, when the US sponsored and passed a resolution against us. While Dr Wijesinha strikes a deeply regretful note about the train of events that led from the one to the other, he views the whole affair as inevitable. The problem, he contends, had to do with our Foreign Service.
It was a disaster waiting to unravel. From what Dr Wijesinha recounts, we can point at five reasons for why it happened. Firstly, the J. R. Jayewardene administration had bequeathed a breed of diplomats “who thought the Cubans uncivilized and the Africans unreliable.” Dr Wijesinha expresses shock and disgust when recalling some of these officials: dining with Sri Lanka’s then representative in New York, for instance, he finds it difficult to keep back his astonishment when told, sotto voce, that the Cubans are unreliable. These diplomats made it impossible to keep to a consistent foreign policy, or for that matter any policy.
Secondly, this reinforced a reluctance to respond to Western allegations about the war, a dismal no-care attitude to which Dr Wijesinha’s proactive approach became the solitary exception. Thirdly, these trends dovetailed with what he calls a “machang culture”, whereby even NGO interests who made dubious claims about the war could call their friends in high places and complain about officials questioning their credentials.
Fourthly, and perhaps more seriously, towards the end of the second Mahinda Rajapaksa government, nepotism took hold of the Foreign Service. A direct outcome of the machang culture, it ended up turning officials into mouthpieces for insidious agendas. At this point, Dr Wijesinha minces no words in explaining how two particularly shady figures in the Service, whom the reader will recognise at once, manipulated the Foreign Minister and Attorney-General.*** Fifthly, this brand of nepotism had the effect of fostering a culture of helplessness and timidity among the few good individuals who stayed back.
Nothing epitomised these developments better than the removal of the man responsible for the 2009 diplomatic victory. Dr Wijesinha is justifiably nostalgic in his recollections of Dayan Jayatilleka. The second of the two protagonists in his drama, Dr Jayatilleka worked with the right people to uphold a positive image of the country. That this ploy succeeded tells us just how much the reversal of such strategies after 2009 cost the country.
In that sense, the author is right in considering Dr Jayatilleka’s removal as “the silliest thing Mahinda Rajapaksa did.” In effect, it marked the beginning of the end.
Reading through the book, one feels that the heroes of these encounters have not been given their due. Dr Wijesinha tries to rescue them from anonymity, giving them credit where credit is due and noting their contributions. Indeed, he is only too right in his view that while Sri Lanka’s diplomatic war has been praised and written about internationally, it has not got the attention it deserves locally. To be sure, the war ended somewhere in Nandikadal. But far from allowing it to rest it there, the world tried again and again to ensure that Sri Lanka’s government would be punished for ending it in defiance of their strictures. It was here that the diplomatic war became crucial, a point not many have appreciated.
Writing as a diplomat, an ex-government MP, and a liberal ideologue, Dr Wijesinha brings all these narratives together, telling us where we went wrong in the hopes of showing us what we can improve on. A liberal of the old school, he is rather incensed about how his political convictions have been co-opted by certain people in pursuit of agendas detrimental to the country’s interests. Here he underscores his dissatisfaction about how, in the Global South, liberalism has become a front for “doctrinaire neoliberalism.”
Towards the end of the book he devotes a chapter to this theme, titled “The death of liberal Sri Lanka.” It’s not a little tongue-in-cheek: he is referring not to what liberals in the country dread, namely the rise of their bête noire, the Rajapaksas, but rather the death of liberalism among liberal ranks. Dr Wijesinha is at his bitterest here, when castigating those who have turned Sri Lanka’s liberal movement into a reflection of what it used to be. While striking a personal note, he suggests that this has had and continues to have a bearing on the island’s image internationally, a point that needs to be addressed at once.
Sri Lankans can be justifiably proud of being heirs to a diplomatic tradition that won us a place in the world. Yet this is a tradition in need of those who can pass it on to the next few generations. Without those who can take it forward, the country runs the risk of losing its voice in international forums. To this end, Rajiva Wijesinha’s book highlights where we went wrong, in the hope of building up “a coherent and productive foreign policy.” Such a policy has become the need of the hour. We can no longer afford to ignore it.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org