Sunday, January 20, 2019

Diplomats as our image boosters

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka; see also (1) (2) (3)

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Image (not from article) from

So this is what we have come to. Our budding (and some budded) diplomats will, over the coming years, be let loose in the capitals of the world to tell whoever is willing to listen that Sri Lanka is a country like no other. 

In some ways it is truly a country like no other. The way some of our politicians conduct affairs and still others have their hands dipped in even more dubious deals leave more than a lasting stench in the civic nostril.

When one heard the other day about advice proffered by Minister Tilak Marapana to our diplomats in the making, it seemed that something was decidedly wrong. It seemed as though Minister Marapana had switched portfolios and had taken to promoting age-old products such as spices and tea — with or without sympathy — without even a word to us faithful followers of the political gymnastics that our leaders and the lesser political breeds engage in providing the world-weary citizens of our motherland with much-needed delectation.

Unable to believe the story one heard from Sri Lankan diplomatic sources, who would not say whether the news appeared in the print media or it was picked up from one of the numerous electronic media outlets that parade as authentic news sources, one searched vigorously in the local newspapers and websites.

Lo and behold there it was and prominently displayed too.

After a two-week training course, the Foreign Ministry helped by some contribution from the Sri Lanka Press Institute (SLPI), a bunch of probationers and a few who are already serving in the ministry were told all about public diplomacy [JB emphasis] and how to convince the foreign media and others what a wonderful place is Sri Lanka.

In short, some of these trainees will someday play the role of travelling sales persons spreading the good word so that those who will be subject to verbal bombardments from our new breed of diplomats will say ‘hail’ three times and return to sleep dreaming dreams of the sweet voices selling their wares in the market place of ideas and more mundane products.

One media report said the minister has instructed the newcomers on what and how they should propagate the values, virtues and products of our blessed isle.

At first, I thought it was some light-hearted moment to test the mental agility and the sensitivities of our new crop of diplomats. For the report said: “Foreign Minister Tilak Marapana has called on Sri Lankan diplomats to boost the image of Sri Lanka overseas through efficient and effective execution of public diplomacy, utilising its intrinsic brands such as Buddhism, gems, tea, spices, high-end export products and the warmth of traditional Sri Lankan hospitality.”

Oh for heaven sake! Has anybody ever heard of Buddhism being described as a brand? Apart from the denigration of Buddhism and the sacred teachings of the Buddha being lumped together with tea and spices how are our diplomats engaged in public diplomacy expected to “sell” Buddhism? What should it be called — Theravada sugar free, in keeping with medical advice?

And which brand of Buddhism is to be popularised? Would it be the brand that has been spread by the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), for instance? One only hopes that the Buddhism that is to be marketed is not videos of Galagoda-Atte Gnanasara Thera spreading his words of wisdom with fiery intent and choice vocabulary that is nowhere to be found in the teachings of the Buddha.

Or maybe a new brand of Theravada Buddhism whence Sri Lanka’s aspiring leaders are advised to adopt Hitlerite policies and actions that would impose a rigorous authoritarian discipline on the Sri Lankan people.

Is ‘brand Buddhism’ that our travelling salesmen and women are expected to popularise in public discourse the sullied teachings of Gnanasara thera now taking a break from his multiple activities in a prison cell (or is it in a hospital room?).

While this attempt to commercialise Buddhism by the untrained is horrendous enough, there are fundamental issues that need to be explored. Minister Marapana and the ministry he oversees expect these probationers when the time comes to give a turbo-boost to Sri Lanka’s image, which in the last few months has been badly discoloured.

That is the crux of the problem. Sri Lanka’s image suffers because of the antics of our politicians and their hangers-on. Surely Minister Marapana knows of the violence and physical clashes that occurred in the chamber of parliament a couple of months back, even if he was not physically present.

That is not the first time that the parliament chamber has been reduced to a scene of chaos and disgrace. But no previous degradation of the legislature could surpass the despicable conduct and thuggish behaviour of some elected representatives that November day last year.

Within minutes of the havoc starting, images of the chaos were already in cyber space and being aired to different parts of the country. Some minutes later this spectacle was reaching audiences in other parts of the world.

The distressing image of Sri Lanka reaching the world was created by some of our lawmakers who had little consideration about breaking the law or what the world thought of them. Maybe the people could be told how diplomats already based in their respective missions are expected to present a positive image of the country when the chaotic happenings have already appeared on their TV screens thousands of kilometers away?

Perhaps the diplomats are expected to make use of those great visuals and promote our parliament as a must-see place where violence and disgraceful conduct are provided free of charge.

Image-building exercises promoting tea and spices are way outdated.

The basic issue here is that diplomats are being asked to perform tasks when most of the time their roles are being undermined by the political class and the governments elected and defeated.

By the time these probationers are stationed media operations and international interests would have changed. If the minister wants to sell tea among other commodities why he must get diplomats like our former Ambassador to Washington and the former ambassador to Moscow who knew their business.

The task today is increasingly turning out to be to defend the doings of government and the corruption and nepotism that have proliferated in the last couple of decades. But it is not a task that they could or would undertake without consequences.

The problem is that defending government policies is not an easy or comfortable undertaking especially if these diplomats work under heads of missions who fight shy of the media, who do not cultivate the media which can help with polishing Sri Lanka’s image. That cannot be done by trying to promote tea and spices.

If these young diplomats are to play a frontline role at some stage they must be proficient in the English language as they will be serving abroad, and be articulate and confident enough to face the media.

In most western countries there are powerful and articulate diaspora groups who over time have cultivated politicians in their countries of domicile. Those politicians and the media provide important forces in promoting minority causes and anti-Sri Lankan government rhetoric. How is that situation to be confronted and dealt with? Promoting tea is hardly a counter to the political thrust of these diaspora groups who are well organised. Polishing the image must begin in Sri Lanka with conduct worthy of our leaders and legislators.

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