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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2737

Does Sri Lanka Understand What Public Diplomacy Means? Not Quite So! This is Diplomacy 101

Daya Gamage – US Bureau Asian Tribune

Washington, D.C. 04 August (Asiantribune.com): The head of state and government in Sri Lanka Mahinda Rajapaksa, as this writer is aware up close and personal, is a great communicator from the grass-root remote village he hails to the highest echelons of political power not forgetting his dealings with the diplomatic community stationed in Colombo in yester year. He knew when to make his submissions, when to adjust them and when to retreat to silence to make his own judgment and analyses for future use.

He knew how major diplomatic missions in Sri Lanka operated in his long experience as a public figure when he reminded his country’s ambassadors stationed overseas at specially summoned session in Colombo in September 2006 the importance of public diplomacy saying:”…Look at the foreign diplomats serving in our country today. Their attendance is not confined to evening parties. They also establish contacts with persons of different social levels at social clubs and obtain whatever information that is useful to their countries.”

President Rajapaksa further stressed the importance of public diplomacy: “I am aware that in the performance of your duties your practice so far has been to carry out the traditional activities of an ambassador in representing a country. However, my understanding of diplomacy is obtaining maximum benefit for one’s country through discussions and bargaining among countries and groups representing countries.”

In fact he wanted overseas diplomatic posts to move away from being visa issuance posts.

The Asian Tribune, last November 6 wrote, “Rabid left-wing liberal Democrats in the U.S. Congress…..are easily susceptible to the ‘fairytales’, ‘distortions, ‘misinterpretations’, ‘fantasies’ and ‘slanders’ of the Tamil Tiger professionals domiciled in the United States in the absence or lethargy of those who are in public diplomacy in Sri Lanka’s Foreign Ministry.”

Exactly seven months later on July 01, on the floor of the United States House of Representatives, the chairman of the Subcommittee on Middle East and South Asia of the most powerful Foreign Affairs Committee Garry Ackerman accused the Rajapaksa government of giving a ‘free reign to Sinhalese nationalist’ in this manner:

“Hundreds of Sri Lankans have been detained under newly strengthened emergency regulations. The expansion of emergency powers, the wide-spread use of extra-judicial killings and disappearances by the government and free reign given by the government to Sinhalese nationalists only accelerates Sri Lanka’s descent into chaos and drift away from democracy.”

Democratic Congressman Frank Pallone, who is also a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and chairman of the House Sri Lanka Caucus, in his submission on the same day that discussed the ‘Sri Lanka issue’ almost likened Sri Lanka, whose government is headed by Mahinda Rajapaksa, to the Darfur Region in Sudan or to anarchy-ridden Somalia to sound that the ‘Sri Lanka issue’ is nothing but a free for all between two ethnic communities namely Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority. He used the term “two-decade ethnic conflict” in his submission to the House on July 1.

The State Department’s Steven Mann presented a very balanced scenario about the Sri Lanka situation but it is not the State Department that decides when it comes to the appropriation of socio-economic assistance to Sri Lanka under the 1976 Foreign Assistance Act but the American lawmakers.

The ‘Asian Tribune’ June 10, 2006 reminded: “For more than a decade, the LTTE (Tamil Liberation Tigers of Sri Lanka) has tirelessly working, lobbying western diplomatic representatives in Sri Lanka through its proxies and through professionals in western nations to gain international recognition and legitimating to establish territorial autonomy over the ‘Tamil Homeland’. The Tigers have been using their ‘well-oiled propaganda machinery’, as Sri Lanka ambassador to the United States Bernard Goonetilleke recently confessed, and their strategic overseas public diplomacy campaign, which the Sri Lanka Foreign Ministry or its diplomatic missions in Washington, London, Bonn or Paris cannot match, to get the western nations, most notably the United States, to accept that they are the ‘sole representatives of the Tamil people’”.

A senior Sri Lankan diplomat once attached to the country’s mission in Washington was at odd with this writer whenever the ‘overseas public diplomacy’ issue emerged.

The 101 of Public Diplomacy is well summarized by the Center on Public Diplomacy of the University of Southern California (USC) in this manner:

“Unlike standard diplomacy, which might be described as the ways in which government leaders communicate with each other at the highest levels, public diplomacy focuses on the way in which a country (or multi-lateral organization such as the United Nations), acting deliberately or inadvertently, through both official and private individuals and institutions, communicates with citizens in other societies. But like standard diplomacy, it starts from the premise that dialogue, rather than a sales pitch, is often central to achieving the goals of foreign policy. To be effective, public diplomacy must be seen as two-way street. It involves not only shaping the message(s) that a country wishes to present abroad, but also analyzing and understanding the ways that the message is interpreted by diverse societies and developing tools of listening and conversation as well as the tools of persuasion.”

If Sri Lanka’s Foreign Ministry and its overseas diplomats have gone beyond this Public Diplomacy 101 lesson, the transportation of 350-odd ethnic Tamils from Colombo to the north wouldn’t have been interpreted as ‘ethnic cleansing’ pitching the Sri Lanka in the defensive to explain to the international community that it was not so. But the diplomacy did not reach to the level to negate the atmosphere created by Tamil Tiger propagandists for decades to erase from the mind of everyone that it was the Tamil Tigers who undertook ‘ethnic cleansing’ in the late eighties and early nineties removing Sinhalese and Muslims from the north and the east of Sri Lanka.

A Sri Lanka Tamil front organization in the United States, following its public demonstration before the Capitol Hill in Washington on July 23, handed over a memorandum to American lawmakers reminding that the “the forced eviction of 375 Tamils from the capital of Colombo…carried out by police and soldiers of the government in a nighttime raid on areas of Colombo populated by the Tamil ethnic minority was the latest chapter of a brutal civil war.”

The USC interpretation of public diplomacy is: “It involves not only shaping the message(s) that a country wishes to present abroad, but also analyzing and understanding the ways that the message is interpreted by diverse societies and developing tools of listening and conversation as well as the tools of persuasion.”

In Sri Lanka’s overseas public diplomacy, it has neither given a message that it wished to present abroad nor has analyzed and understood the message the Tamil Tiger outfit has communicated to the international community for the interpretation ‘by a diverse societies’- in this case the U.S. House of Representatives – which gave rise, to the satisfaction of the Tamil Tiger lobby, for Congressman Garry Ackerman to declare that the “Sri Lanka government has given free reign to Sinhalese nationalist.”

Despite State Department’s Steven Mann dismissed the Congressmen’s proposal that the Bush White House should appoint a special envoy to closely monitor the human rights situation in Sri Lanka at the July 1 hearing before the House Subcommittee on Middle East and South Asia, Congressman Frank Pallone insisted that the U.S. should step up its involvement in Sri Lanka to prevent the society being dragged to a genocidal situation.

What a picture Mr. Pallone is painting, and not so different to that of the presentation of the Tamil Tiger front organizations and lobbyists in the United States!

The latter is aware that fewer ethnic Tamils live under the grip of the LTTE in the north of Sri Lanka. But the former (Pallone) is unaware of that fact and that Tamils are leaving the Tiger-controlled areas toward the south to live among the majority Sinhalese. The message has neither being given nor Sri Lanka’s foreign office and its overseas diplomats have not monitored the Tiger messages that have been interpreted by U.S. lawmakers who hold the responsibility in appropriating funds for overseas socio-economic development programs under the 1976 Foreign Assistance Act.

It was the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee Patrick Leahy who influenced the State Department to suspend the Millennium Challenge Account grant to Sri Lanka early this year.

The U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy in its 1991 report states: “Public Diplomacy – the open exchange of ideas and information – is an inherent characteristic of democratic societies. Its global mission is central to foreign policy. And it remains indispensable to national interests, ideas and leadership role in the world.”

Forget about the ‘leadership role’, Sri Lanka needs to assimilate what is said in the previous paragraph.

And the most interesting interpretation about public diplomacy came from a German diplomat: “When one speaks of public diplomacy this side of the Atlantic, as a rule one is not solely referring to the general public and to the pragmatic issue of how one can win their support and sympathy….Diplomats are thus called upon to view their function less as exclusively targeting political functionaries and elected members, bigwigs and multiplicators, but also proclaiming the policies of their home countries to the general
Public abroad and presenting them in a favorable light.” – Dr. Albert Spiegel, Head of the Federal Foreign Office Cultural Relations and Education Policy.

When State Department’s Richard Boucher proclaimed in Colombo at a press briefing that a solution to Sri Lanka’s issue should include a ‘Homeland’ for the Tamils, the LTTE lobby had, for decades, convinced the international community, which included State Department officials and American lawmakers, that in awarding majority of parliamentary seats to the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), the major minority Tamil party of Sri Lanka, in the 1977 general elections, the people of the east and the north endorsed the 1976 TULF Vadukkodai Resolution which sought a mandate for a separate independent state of Tamil Homeland.

If one poses the question to Congressmen Ackerman or Pallone, they will say that at the 1977 parliamentary elections Tamils in the North and the East gave a mandate for a separate independent state which the LTTE is now fighting for.

What is lacking here is that Sri Lanka’s foreign office and its overseas diplomatic cadre have not analyze the way the Tamil Tiger lobby message is interpreted by American diplomats and lawmakers giving rise for them to believe that in fact the majority of Tamil minority in Sri Lanka is in favor of a separate independent Tamil state. For a less settlement, they will be satisfied with a federal system, is what the American lawmakers and State Department diplomats believe although Steven Mann said that the U.S. was not prescribing any solution to Sri Lanka’s crisis.

Here’s what happened in 1977:

The territory of Eelam as identified by the TULF consists of 4 administrative districts in the Northern Province and of 3 administrative districts in the Eastern Province. The total population of these 7 districts (1981 census) was 2.09 million of which Tamils constituted 1.36 million or 65% of this population. (Now in 2007 it is much less as little above 50% of Tamils are domiciled in the south living among majority Sinhalese).

In the Eastern Province, however, the Tamil population consists of a minority of less than 41%. In the 3 districts of this province, Tamils predominate in the Batticaloa District with 71% but are in a minority in Trincomalee District with 34% and a still smaller minority in the Amparai District with only 20%.

The support received by the TULF in its call for a separate state may be gauged by the percentage of votes cast for the TULF in the general election of 1977 in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. The percentage of TULF voted in the 7 districts was as follows:

Jaffna District 71.81%
Mannar District 51.44%
Vavuniya District 58.82%
Mullaitivu District 52.16%
Trinco District 27.18%
Batticaloa District 32.14%
Amparai District 20.25%

Relating these voting percentages to the total population in each district, it can be inferred that only 48% of voters in the Northern and Eastern Provinces pledged support to the TULF in its call for a separate state.

In the Eastern Province which consists of Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Amparai, the idea of a separate state appears to have been viewed with less favor. Tamils constitute 41% of the population of this province but the TULF received on 26% of the votes cast in the province. A very large number of Tamils in the Eastern Province has rejected the idea of a separate state. In the 3 districts that constitute this province, 68% of the population of the Batticaloa District, 73% of the population of the Amparai District has voted against the TULF and its proposal for a separate state.

Let this submission be ended with the interpretation of public diplomacy by the University of Southern California:

“Unlike standard diplomacy, which might be described as the ways in which government leaders communicate with each other at the highest levels, public diplomacy focuses on the way in which a country (or multi-lateral organization such as the United Nations), acting deliberately or inadvertently, through both official and private individuals and institutions, communicates with citizens in other societies. But like standard diplomacy, it starts from the premise that dialogue, rather than a sales pitch, is often central to achieving the goals of foreign policy. To be effective, public diplomacy must be seen as two-way street. It involves not only shaping the message(s) that a country wishes to present abroad, but also analyzing and understanding the ways that the message is interpreted by diverse societies and developing tools of listening and conversation as well as the tools of persuasion.”

Sri Lanka’s foreign office and its overseas diplomats are doing a great service to their nation and its president if the above interpretation is taken seriously. What President Mahinda Rajapaksa said when he addressed the diplomatic corps was that it is not enough to match Tamil Tiger overseas propaganda and their public diplomacy efforts but to defeat their efforts to build Sri Lanka’s image abroad that are closely tied to trade, investment and economic assistance.

Sri Lanka learned the hard way when it received the news that the US Millennium Grant was suspended early this year. And, that was the cost of a failed overseas public diplomacy of Sri Lanka which has allowed the Tamil Tiger front organizations and its professionals to project that the LTTE took up arms for the defense of the minority Tamils and that it is the sole representative of the Tamil people.

This propaganda is so imbibed in the State Department and American lawmakers that they do not even mention about other minority Tamil political movements that are within the democratic framework in Sri Lanka and who have a stake in the governance of the country. What is mentioned is “two sides (GSL and LTTE) should resume talks.”

“Bearing in mind that the armed struggle as a measure of self-defense and as a means of the realization of the Tamils the right to self-determination arose only after the failure of the 40 years of non-violent struggle, and a response to the absence of means to resolve the conflict peacefully” was one of the statements in the declaration by Tamil Americans and Friends of Tamil who held a demonstration opposite the Capitol Hill in Washington on June 23, 2007 that undoubtedly will attract the American lawmakers in the absence of Government of Sri Lanka’s public diplomacy efforts. It did when Richard Boucher declared ‘Homeland’ for the Tamils last year.

- Asian Tribune -

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