“..It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way…...”
- Charles Dickens’ Classic Novel, A Tale of Two Cities
Tale of Two Cities is a Charles Dickens fictional novel published in 1859 involving two cities, London and Paris during the period of the French Revolution.
There is nothing fictional about the story involving two Sri Lankan Diplomats, one about to retire as Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner (SLHC) to Australia, and concurrently accredited to Fiji, New Zealand, and Solomon Islands. Somasundaram Skandakumar was appointed in August 2015 and is getting ready to relinquish his post after serving his term and return to his homeland, Sri Lanka.
The other Diplomat was appointed in 2008 as Sri Lanka’s envoy to the US and Mexico. He served as ambassador until the US government wanted his removal in 2014 pending charges being brought against him. Ambassador Jaliya Chitran Wickramasuriya stands indicted by the US Federal authorities of perpetrating serious financial crimes: money laundering; tax evasion; wire fraud. In addition this diplomat has also been charged with committing visa fraud in his application to the US authorities to become a permanent resident of the US. He is also considered a fugitive from justice in Sri Lanka.
So what went wrong?
Both were non-career diplomats at the time of their appointment; both were businessmen from the private sector of Sri Lankan commerce and industry with no prior government experience.
By all accounts, Skandakumar excelled during his tenure, put Sri Lanka on the map in the part of the world he served; made connections with industry leaders, politicians, charitable organizations, and sports organizations. He played a major role in Prime Minister Turnbull of Australia visiting Sri Lanka in November 2017. No one raised their eyebrows when Skandakumar was appointed as HighCommissioner in 2015. He had impeccable credentials. Good family background with his father a pre-eminent civil servant who served in the Administrative Services of the Sri Lankan Government. Skandakumar was a cricket star from his high school days at Royal College, then at the University of Ceylon and finally The Tamil Union Cricket Club where he was President in 1998-2000, club’s Centenary year.
In his professional career, Skandakumar started as an executive at one of the British agency houses and rose to the rank of Managing Director at George Stuarts Group and at retirement was the Group Chairman of the Board of Directors. It was therefore no surprise that Skandakumar’s tenure as SL’s High Commissioner for Sri Lanka in Australia was nothing but brilliant.
When Jaliya Wickramasuriya was appointed Consul General to the Sri Lankan Mission in Los Angeles in 2005 no one paid much attention. It was a small office located on Wilshire Blvd and was responsible for mostly signing documents and notarizing affidavits and issuing visas etc. But when Wickramasuriya was appointed in 2008 as Sri Lanka’s envoy to the USA, it sent shock waves within the diplomatic, political and community circles. This office was previously held by Sri Lankan career diplomats and eminent academics and scientists including Jayantha Dhanapala (a former UN under Secretary General),Dr. Warnasena Rasaputram and Dr. Ananda Guruge, to name a few. Wickramasuriya with a high school education and limited business experience in the tea trade was clearly unsuited for the position at the time of his appointment. The only qualification, if you can call that, was his close connection to the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa who appointed him to the position. Wickramasuriya is MR’s cousin.
"In the US, we are being asked what kind of people do we elect to our parliament? What kind of people are we sending as diplomats to Washington DC?"
Wickramasuriya’s appointment came at a crucial time for Sri Lanka, when the country was engaged in a bloody war against Tamil Tigers (LTTE) being watched by the international community with mounting criticisms and allegations of war crimes being committed by the government forces in the prosecution of the war. One is not certain if the MR administration was naïve or could care less about the international community in boldly forging ahead with the appointment of Wickramasuriya to the most vital diplomatic position in Sri Lanka’s international relations and foreign policy. US-sponsored UNHCR resolutions have urged Sri Lanka to conduct independent credible investigation into alleged war crimes committed by Sri Lankan forces against the Tamil community. Wickramasuriya has very little to show by way of any contribution he made to appease the US and UNHCR charges against Sri Lanka. By all accounts, Wickramasuriya appears to have run his tea business from the embassy premises in Washington, DC. He was busy organizing junkets for investor groups and tour operators and agents from the US to Sri Lanka.
With this record of conduct it was only a matter of time that Wickramasuriya’s career had to come spiralling down, crash and burn.
Sri Lankans pride themselves in staking claim to being the first in many achievements. Wickramasuriya’s indictment is unprecedented in international diplomacy. Duly appointed ambassador of a country stands accused of serious crimes committed while in office. It is a dubious distinction that Sri Lanka can do without!
One wonders, if anyone in the present Sri Lankan administration is paying attention to the story of these two diplomats. Shavendra Silva, a former military officer dispatched as Deputy Permanent Secretary to the UN in 2010. Soon after the war ended, several military officers were posted in diplomatic positions around the world including, Germany, Pakistan, Malaysia, Israel, Indonesia, Japan, Australia and Eritrea.
Why not a military officer as a diplomat...?
It’s a valid question. It has to do with one’s mindset. A career diplomat is by education and training a diplomat. The foreign service recruits and trains diplomats to represent a country, establish goodwill and promote trade commerce, and friendly relations among nations.
Take the case of Brigadier Priyanka Fernando attached to SL’s High Commission in the UK. A year ago at the Independence Day celebrations in London, Fernando was captured gesturing slitting of the throat at protesting Tamil residents in front of the High Commission in London.Brigadier Fernando was one who was active during the final phase of the operations by the government forces against the Tamil militants that left hundreds and thousands of combatants and civilians dead or unaccounted for. How can you place a battle hardened military man to a position of diplomacy and expect him to behave like a peace-loving pacifist. One can only surmise that it is the mindset of a military officer thrust into a diplomat’s position. The switch from warfare to diplomacy is not feasible in a short period of time. The silver lining to this incident comes from the action taken by the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry in suspending this officer forthwith.
"Migrants are great goodwill ambassadors of their country of birth rather than diplomats"
Sri Lankans who left the shores of their motherland and settled in Australia, Canada, USA, UK, EU and other parts of the globe have been great goodwill ambassadors to the country of their birth. They excelled in their careers as doctors, lawyers, engineers, IT professionals, accountants, academics, early childhood educators etc. They helped fly the Sri Lankan flag high with pride in the way they conducted themselves in the land that adopted them. These expatriates were the ones who were at the brunt of ridicule levelled against them by neighbours, colleagues in the workplace etc. when Sri Lankan parliamentarians recently widely publicized behaviour like hooligans, thugs and common criminals in parliament. In the US, we are being asked what kind of people do we elect to our parliament? What kind of people are we sending as diplomats to Washington, DC?
One can be certain Sri Lankan expatriates all over the world are being quizzed on those lines about our parliamentarians and about diplomats like Jaliya Chitran Wickramasuriya.
Sri Lankan administration must take note of the fact nations in parts of the world have laws permitting them to exercise universal jurisdiction over certain crimes. War crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide fall within the purview of such jurisdiction. Gen. Augusto Pinochet, former military ruler of Chile’ from 1973 to 1990 was arrested in a London Clinic where he was undergoing medical treatment. His diplomatic status did not deter the authorities from arresting Pinochet who was indicted by a Spanish Court for human rights violations in his native Chile’. He was held for over a year until he was released by the British Government.
It is alleged that Henry Kissinger, a former US National Security Advisor and US Secretary of State runs the risk of being arrested if he travels abroad for crimes against humanity committed in Vietnam and South America.
"Wickramasuriya’s appointment as SL’s envoy to the US sent shock waves within the diplomatic, political and community circles "
In this context and the story of the two diplomats, Sri Lanka is best served leaving diplomacy in the hands of career diplomats from the foreign service. Hawks do not belong in the company of doves. Choices made for diplomatic positions based on nepotism have proved to be a disaster as in the case of Wickramasuriya as ambassador to the US. Sri Lanka must take note that these are crucial times for the exercise of sane foreign policy in its international relations. Sri Lanka’s external relations with India and US cannot be overemphasized. US foreign policy, pivot to Asia is clear and the curtailment of Chinese expansion in the region is at the centre of it. While Sri Lanka is carving out segments of its territory and vital commercial hubs and resources handing it over on a platter to China, one cannot expect India and the US to stand by idly.
Sri Lanka just celebrated it’s seventy first anniversary of independence. We are reminded of the questions Dickens posed in his Tale of Two Cities.
For Sri Lanka, one begins to wonder which were the best of times..which were the worst of times..? Is our nation in the age of wisdom – or is it the age of foolishness? Was it the season of light then and season of darkness now? A spring of hope then, a winter of despair now?
We had everything before us then.. we have nothing before us now. We were all going direct to Heaven, or are we all going direct the other way?