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The Expensive Tragicomedy that is Lankan Foreign Policy

| by Tisaranee Gunasekara

“Be very credulous; be very persevering; reject all past experience, and do not listen to reason.”
Advice given to those who seek healing through magnetization

( February 8, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Neither convincing, nor interesting, it falls between several stools. The moustachioed president who flashes a wide grin in the most inappropriate places and waves his hand (conspicuously clasping a gold-talisman) as he looks around for the next word; his brother, the defence secretary, whose attempt at presenting a benign mien is as convincing as a barracuda at its Sunday-pleasantest; the glib bureaucrats performing the most amazing verbal-gyrations to keep up with their political masters – the 28-minute documentary ‘Sri Lanka: Reconciling and Rebuilding’ evokes the vision of a far away tropical land misruled by an oriental version of Charlie Chaplin’s dictator.

The documentary, which was shown to a group of American politicians and officials and aired primetime on the NBC Network, has very little to say about either reconciliation or rebuilding. The only ‘rebuilding’ mentioned is that of the Jaffna Railway Station; nothing is said about attending to the ordinary needs of war-destroyed communities, homes, schools or hospitals (probably because this has never been a Rajapaksa priority). The repeated mention of Tiger-atrocities and the menace implicit in Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s assertion that any rehabilitated ex-Tiger can be a Tiger-at-heart indicate that official thinking is suffused with hatred and paranoia rather than forgiveness and trust. Admiring mention is made of the Chinese-built ‘gleaming new port in Colombo’, but the Beijing Connection it implies is hardly likely to appeal to (or frighten) any American, official or unofficial. The documentary fails to showcase even the country’s undeniable natural beauty and its rich historic heritage.
By trying to appeal to multiple audiences and by succumbing to the Rajapaksa notions of what is convincing (such as starring the two Rajapaksa Siblings as the main dramatis personae), the documentary fails on every count. In the end, like so many of the Rajapaksa-ventures, it wastes a colossal amount of national wealth without serving the national – or even the Rajapaksa - cause; its sole beneficiaries must be a handful of Americans.

The indubitably expensive decision to air this misfiring-production on NBC is particularly baffling, since Sri Lanka is – and will remain - a ‘non-issue’ for the general American public. Even if the film is aired on every single American network, hour after tedious hour, the likelihood of a wave of pro-Lankan feeling sweeping the American public off its indifferent feet and pressurising Washington to cut Colombo some slack is less than nonexistent.

The film was produced by the American PR firm, Thomson Advisory Group (TAG). TAG was hired by the Central Bank at a mammoth fee to lobby US lawmakers on behalf of the Rajapaksa government. The hiring of the firm is in itself a quite a tale, and one which is symbolic of Rajapaksa modus operandi. The firm was reportedly recommended to the Lankan Embassy (headed by a Rajapaksa-kinsman) by Lankan-born Thilak Mohan Siriwardana. Mr. Siriwardana, a registered limo-driver, is the personal chauffer of TAG Chairman Robert Thompson. In return for this favour, TAG is reportedly paying Mr. Siriwardana a monthly ‘finder’s fee’ of US$7,000 (mentioned in its books as a consultant’s fee, to circumvent American regulations).

TAG’s gratitude to its Chairman’s chauffer for netting it a lucrative client (who commands the wealth of a nation) is understandable. The organisation is not of the top-drawer among American PR firms. According to an American public service website, in 2013, the total lobbying income of TAG was a paltry US$120,000; it also had four reported clients in that year . So Sri Lanka is supposedly spending US$ 66,000 a month on an unrated PR firm, recommended by the personal chauffer of the firm’s chairman!

That is how International Relations, Medamulana-style, works in practice.

Threats and Bribes

Threats and bribes form a key component of Rajapaksa governance. For instance, according to a Wikileaks Cable, on April 25th 2007, President Rajapaksa informed MTV talk-show host Sri Ranga “in front of a witness that Defence Secretary Gothabhaya Rajapaksa was incensed by Ranga’s handling of the abduction issue…. The President whose son is a close friend of Ranga’s insisted that Ranga leave the country, offering him the post of DCM in Oslo as an inducement. Should he fail to accept the offer of exile, Rajapaksa reportedly told him Devananda would have him killed.”

Initially lies and deception worked quite well with the international community . But when the regime’s credibility started wearing thin, the Siblings resorted to applying the carrot-and-stick method in the international arena as well. The manner in which the Rajapaksas neutralised Australia and New Zealand is no secret. The Siblings’ attempts to use the same modality to win American and British governments have been a resounding failure, unsurprisingly. Colombo cannot blackmail Washington or London with boat-people or market-closures (and the Beijing-card seems to be losing its potency even in Delhi); nor does it posses the vast stores of oil-wealth necessary to win over official America or Britain, as, for example, Muammar Gaddafi did.

The comic outcome of the Rajapaksa attempt to neutralise the Cameron administration by winning over British parliamentarians is symbolic of the Siblings’ total incapacity to manage the world, now that they are bereft of the Pirapaharan/Tiger justification. In the run up to the Commonwealth, the British media revealed that “Sri Lankan High Commission in London has privately boasted that it now has 14 MPs prepared to publicly defend the regime… One Conservative MP has told…how he has been offered ‘whatever he wants’ from the Sri Lankan government, including luxury holidays…. Another Conservative MP said that he had an ‘open invitation’ and that the Sri Lankan government had said ‘You can have whatever you want’”.

So who did the Lankan High Commission in London net, by playing Fairy-Godfather? The ultra-right winger Ian Paisley Jr, infamous as Britain’s most expensive parliamentarian, after he topped the House of Commons expenses table . (Perhaps Gotabhaya Rajapaksa will find in him a kindred soul given his notorious statement that the Police “should shoot dissident republicans on sight”!)

The antediluvian Ian Paisley fils is not the most execrable of Rajapaksas’ hired friends. That dishonour belongs to Aidan Burley, whose sole claim to fame was the Nazi-themed stag party he organised in 2011 (an internal inquiry called the party ‘stupid and offensive). The bad odour created by this politico-moral transgression was such that Mr. Burley has decided not to contest the next election . This is the political-untouchable the Rajapaksas hosted on several expensive visits, believing in his capacity to influence British foreign policy!

To be fair, even the most competent team of diplomats and the most prestigious PR firms may not be able to do very much for the Rajapaksas, given their tendency towards fatuity. First the Siblings create unnecessary problems for themselves - by uttering outrageous lies, making extravagant claims and giving and dishonouring solemn undertakings. Then they waste billions of public funds trying to win over the international actors they deceived/annoyed.

Under Rajapaksa Rule, foreign policy has become a cornucopia for family and friends, an ever-expanding white elephant for the people and a searing embarrassment for the country.

This advice was supposedly offered by a follower of Franz Mesmer to those seeking healing through magnetization – quoted in Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World – Science as a Candle in the Dark
For instance, TAG is not even mentioned in the prestigious O’Dwyer’s list of top ranking American PR firms. http://www.odwyerpr.com/pr_firm_rankings/independents.htm

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