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Lanka's diplomatic nightmare in Washington


Jaliya Wickramasuriya

Former tea taster with O'Levels as ambassador

Jaliya has no income tax file in Sri Lanka

High Posts Committee

convened during prorogation to stamp approval

DSG Kodagoda declines deputy ambassadorship

By Ranjith Jayasundera

The ongoing sob-story of Sri Lanka's dilapidated foreign service has taken another turn for the worst with the appointment of a presidential hanger-on to the most coveted diplomatic post there is today, Head of Mission, Washington DC.

In its sharpest yet slap on the face of the many neglected career diplomats in its pay, the Foreign Ministry has appointed one of President Mahinda Rajapakse's cousins - (no, he does not run out of cousins) - 'businessman' Jaliya Wickramasuriya to head our diplomatic mission in the United States.

This move has largely put a stop to the debate on whether or not the Rajapakse government actually cared for Sri Lanka's reputation abroad more than it does about pleasing its cronies. Wickramasuriya's background (pre-Chinthana) is one largely removed from politics and diplomacy.

The 48 year old businessman, after completing his O' and A' Levels at Nalanda College, moved on to begin a career in tea tasting at MJF Exports, Colombo, where he worked for 17 years before moving to become General Manager, Standard Trading Company.

In 1999, Jaliya Wickramasuriya migrated to the USA, and has since made a comfortable, honest living for himself running the family export company, Ceylon Royal Teas. Although known to be a polite and genial man by nature, there is little in the first cousin's curriculum vitae to suggest that he would be qualified to hold Sri Lanka's highest ranking diplomatic post. After all, here was a man succeeding the likes of Jayantha Dhanapala, Devinda Subasinghe and Bernard Goonetilleke.

US stance

The need for effective diplomatic representation in the US is greater today - largely thanks to this government's doing - than it has ever been. In the last year alone, the United States has suspended military aid, debarred Sri Lanka of financial aid from the Millennium Challenge Account, commissioned a scathing report on the country's human rights abuses and most recently, moved a bill in Congress towards deploying an international human rights monitoring mission on the island.

Given the circumstances, tea -  high noon or otherwise - is certainly not the answer. An effective Sri Lankan ambassador in Washington should be equipped to cite the Geneva Conventions from memory with the steps our military is taking to avoid their violation.

He should be able to look a State or Justice Department official in the eye and confidently explain the sensible reasons (whether or not there were any) for the government's expulsion of SriLankan Airlines CEO Peter Hill and ICES Chief Dr. Rama Mani from the island, whilst at the same time being able to justify Sri Lanka's voracious opposition to former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans' Right to Protect (R2P) concept.

Our ambassador needs to have the steel and tactful wit to take on the LTTE's finest advocates and enablers, such as lawyer Bruce Fein without cowering behind slander articles on the Defence Ministry web site and the kept press, which is the current government's strategy.

Yet even before leaving Sri Lanka to assume his post, Wickramasuriya was to afford us a taste of what is likely to come under his watch. In an interview with the Asian Tribune, reproduced in the Daily News, he gushed like a school girl having met a rock star at a concert on his encounter with US Ambassador to Colombo, Robert Blake Jr.

Thrilled to bits

Perhaps nervous about the task that lies ahead, the Ambassador Designate was thrilled to bits that his American counterpart had offered to "be in touch with him even on a daily basis." Given that Wickramasuriya has for the past two years served as Consul General to Sri Lanka's mission in Los Angeles, the ease with which he is awed by diplomatic life is slightly frightening.

Wickramasuriya was thrilled to bits also because Blake had invited him to the US Independence Day celebrations on July 4, and he had gone so far as to say that the dinner was one of his "most memorable moments to be with such a great American diplomat."

It goes without saying that such giddy astonishment has never before been displayed by a ranking Sri Lankan ambassador towards a foreign counterpart, and would leave a bitter taste in the mouths of former ambassadors such as Jayantha Dhanapala and Bernard Goonetilleke were they to see the depths to which their replacement has stooped.

It would not be pleasant for Sri Lanka to bear the repercussions of placing as modest a man as this into a room with State Secretaries such as Henry Kissinger, Madeline Albright or for that matter Condoleezza Rice and expecting to boost their image of Sri Lanka. 

If the Ambassador Designate's account of his meetings with Robert Blake are anything to go by, it is unlikely that he would return with much apart from their autographs. To appoint Wickramasuriya to the United States also serves as a rejoinder to that country by showing Washington how important they are to our government.

George W. Bush and Condoleezza Rice have seen it fit to send to Sri Lanka Robert Blake, who is a graduate not just from Harvard University but also of Johns Hopkins with 23 years of experience in the Foreign Service. It may perhaps confuse the US that Mahinda Rajapakse has chosen to reciprocate by sending them a tea taster who never had any formal education even in English language or literature.

Covert move

The Americans aside, opposition MPs on the parliamentary High Posts Committee which is mandated to vet designees for such critical postings  would have likely torn Jaliya Wickramasuriya to pieces had he been placed before them for review. The government was no doubt well aware of this when they covertly convened a meeting of the committee on May 30 whilst parliament was still prorogued, leaving many of the opposition members of the committee in the dark.

It was at this meeting, attended by just five of the committee's 30 appointed members, all of whom were government ministers, that the committee ratified the appointment of Jaliya Wickramasuriya as Sri Lanka's ambassador to Washington DC. Those present were Prime Minister Wickremanayake, and Ministers Dinesh Gunawardena, Susil Premajayanth, Viswa Warnapala and Reshard Bathiudeen.

Once parliament reconvened, former foreign minister Mangala Samaraweera was to inquire from Prime Minister (and High Posts Committee Chairman) Ratnasiri Wickremanayake as to whether it was legal for the High Posts Committee to be convened and sit whilst parliament was under prorogation.

Surprisingly enough it wasn't the Prime Minister who answered Samaraweera, but 'acting' Parliamentary Secretary General Dhammika Kitulgoda, who has now for months been shamelessly refreshing his acting appointment as Secretary General by the President every fortnight.

Kitulgoda's defence of the government in this instance is just one more example of why the implementation of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution is so critical to Sri Lanka's governance. For the country to survive without turning into a banana republic, it has to be implemented fully with the appointment of the Constitutional Council.

Discrepancies

Be that as it may there are also discrepancies within Wickramasuriya's declaration of assets submitted to the High Posts Committee. The Ambassador admits to owning three vehicles in the United States (worth US$60,000, US$50,000 and US$18,000 respectively) and houses in Homagama and McDonough, Georgia.

Yet he has claimed that he only has US$3,820 in cash assets between himself and his wife. The Sunday Leader has learned that Wickramasuriya's Georgia home has a 2005 market value of US$291,300. Placing this atop his US $128,000 vehicle collection, it is difficult to believe that his cash assets are so limited.

Had what passed off for the High Posts Committee not convened under the cover of darkness to rubber stamp packing off the President's cousin to Washington, the opposition members of the committee would almost certainly taken issue with Wickramasuriya's declaration of assets, as well as his somewhat stretched resum‚.

Without any concrete achievements to present, the document relies on flowery language. Jaliya has claimed to have had "accomplishments" in such fields as "promotion of bilateral political ties, trade promotion, technical promotion, foreign direct investment promotion, tourism promotion and image building."

His penultimate accomplishment, his CV told parliament, is "consolidation of strength of the Sri Lankan diaspora." It seems to be on Wickramasuriya's watch of the Sri Lankan diaspora and 'promotion' of trade, foreign direct investment and tourism that our image abroad has gone to the dogs.

Not paying tax

More scrupulous members of parliament may have also raised the question of alleged tax anomalies. The Inland Revenue Department has provided Wickramasuriya with a letter stating that he is "not liable to income tax" this year and more importantly that "there is no income tax file" for him in the department.

Given that Wickramasuriya by his own admission to parliament worked in Sri Lanka from 1978 until 1999, for a good 21 years, and in the process saved up enough funds to migrate his family to the United States, it would be interesting to know how he did this without having paid even one cent of income tax.

The Sunday Leader was unable to recover income tax or social security records for Jaliya Wickramasuriya in the United States although such records were easily available for the President's other American imports such as Basil and Gotabaya Rajapakse and Dullas Alahapperuma. The question thus arises as to whether the 48 year old first cousin has ever paid a cent of income tax to any government, and if not, why, given that today he has amassed over Rs.45 million in declared assets alone?

Yet the government's method of slipping Jaliya under the radar to Washington DC is just one of many instances wherein it has chosen unqualified hangers on with no proven record in any field except political bottom-licking to represent Sri Lanka abroad. In fact, apart from such silly, little hangers-on of no consequence such as the President's Consul General in  Toronto - Bandula Jayasekera , sent out under the Bogollagama Foreign Ministry, Wickramasuriya is one of the least qualified - even though he has been picked for the most crucial post.

Ministry rejoinder

The Foreign Ministry just last week sent a rejoinder to the Sunday Times over an article exposing the ongoing chaos in diplomatic postings. The Ministry was kind enough to list out all the "non career diplomats appointed as heads of mission" during President Rajapakse's time in office.

They have sent a university professor to Thailand, a journalist cum lecturer to Geneva, a senior doctor to Malaysia, a former foreign secretary to New York and a retired Supreme Court judge to the United Kingdom. Therefore its is clear that even among non career diplomats are some gems who are sometimes far superior and more confident and competent to represent their country than even so called career diplomats.

The fault lies with asinine governments that do not review each case on its own merits and tend for political expediency to throw mud at exceptionally qualified and more than suitable diplomats whether political appointments or otherwise and in doing so expose themselves to similar mud slinging sooner rather than later.  

According to the Foreign Ministry a total of four President's Counsel have also been sent as heads of mission to the Philippines, Australia, Saudi Arabia and Italy. The Ministry had conveniently left out one of the President's other cousins, Udayanga Weeratunga; our Ambassador to Russia and key player in the controversial 2006 MiG-27 deal.

In the middle of all these professionals, all of whom have some qualification, be it from law school or university, the Ministry slipped in the name of "businessman" Jaliya Wickramasuriya, with little else to say. "The profile of these non-career heads of mission clearly demonstrate the criteria of selection as well as their credentials and professional endowments," they say.

Despite the apparently vigorous selection process, after appointing Wickramasuriya, the government was to ask respected Deputy Solicitor General Yasantha Kodagoda to take up the post of deputy head of mission under Wickramasuriya.

Trying times

Wickramasuriya was to do all the 'real' work such as liaising with US officials and lobbying members of Congress, State and Justice Departments on matters of interest to Sri Lanka since they wanted a technically qualified person to undertake the work, whilst the President's cousin enjoyed the limelight. The Deputy Solicitor General was wise enough to turn down the offer for 'personal reasons.'

The months ahead will indeed be trying times for the government in the sphere of international relations. Our political relations with India remain tense, and the EU is by all indications set to deny the GSP+ duty concessions to the government.

The pro-LTTE diaspora elements are already hard at work lobbying supporters of presidential hopefuls John McCain and Barack Obama towards their cause and against what they call the 'Sinhala' government.

Given the level of responsibility now placed on Jaliya Wickramasuriya's shoulders - being tasked both with learning the fine art of diplomacy and repairing Sri Lanka's battered image in the West - it is quite possible that he will find that the top echelons of the foreign service are not exactly 'his' cup of tea.


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