By Rajeewa Jayaweera –
The latest news from the Foreign Relations Ministry relates to the sudden recall of High Commissioner Manisha Gunasekera, Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to the UK since October 2018.
High Commissioner Gunasekera joined the Sri Lanka Foreign Service in 1996. She has among other posts, served as Ambassador of Sri Lanka in the Republic of Korea; Deputy Permanent Representative, Sri Lanka’s Permanent Mission to the UN in Geneva; Director General (East Asia and Pacific), Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Sri Lanka; Director General (Donor Coordination), Ministry of Economic Development of Sri Lanka; Counsellor, Embassy of Sri Lanka in Japan; and Second Secretary, Embassy of Sri Lanka in France.
Gunasekera holds a BA (Hons.) degree in English from the University of Delhi. She also holds a Master’s Degree in International Political Economy and Development from the International Institute of Social Studies in the Hague, a Master’s Degree in Women’s Studies from the University of Colombo and a Postgraduate Diploma in European Studies from Sciences Po, Paris. She is a past pupil of Musaeus College, Colombo.
To the ordinary observer, the High Commissioner, unlike her recent predecessors, has engaged in considerable public diplomacy since assuming duties in London. Local media reports have regularly published news of her engagements with a variety of British politicians, opinion makers and influencers, so vital in the conduct of diplomacy. She has also established good relations with the Sri Lankan diaspora.
After a drought of many years of Heads of Mission in London poorly skilled in public relations, her appointment was like a breath of fresh air.
The new regime has recalled all non-career High Commissioners and Ambassadors (political appointees) since assuming office in mid-November 2019.
However, the sudden recall to Colombo of a High Commissioner, a career foreign service officer appointed less than 15 months previously, has left many bewildered. An official explanation for the transfer has not bee provided.
Nevertheless, the story currently doing the rounds relates to an episode during Gunasekera’s tenure as Ambassador in Korea.
In August 2016, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa had visited South Korea on a private visit at the invitation of a private charity organization.
A government circular specifies the level of assistance and facilities to be afforded by overseas missions for official visitors. Notwithstanding the circular, it is an established policy for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Colombo to reinforce the circular with specific instructions. On occasion, officials outside the Foreign Office also issue directives to foreign missions.
In terms of protocol, the Head of State tops the VVIP/VIP list, followed by the Prime Minister, former Heads of State, Speaker, Attorney General, and Cabinet Ministers. The Leader of Opposition enjoys the rank of a cabinet minister.
An episode had taken place during the Yahapalana government when UNP Parliamentarian Mangala Samaraweera, an authority unto himself, was the Foreign Minister. He had supposedly instructed Ambassador Gunasekera in Seoul not to afford assistance and facilitate arrangements for the former President. The instructions purportedly had the blessings of other higher-ups in the government.
If correct, it is a direct contravention of the established procedure with total disregard to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s status of a former Head of State.
Political appointees serve at the will and pleasure of their godfathers in power.
However, career diplomats need to be more circumspect. They need to act wisely and consider all options.