Diplomacy Factor in Reviving Economy | Daily News

Diplomacy Factor in Reviving Economy

State Minister of Foreign Affairs Tharaka Balasuriya. Pictures by Sudath Nishantha
State Minister of Foreign Affairs Tharaka Balasuriya. Pictures by Sudath Nishantha

Q: The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is crucial when it comes to reviving our economy. In order for us to get assistance from the international community, especially the IMF, we need to win their confidence. How is the Foreign Affairs Ministry going to accomplish this?

A: Winning the confidence of the international community cannot be done overnight. Since the 1950s Sri Lanka has carried out a policy of non-alignment and friendship to everyone and enmity to none. Sometimes there are ups and downs in relationships, maybe because of economic issues. This is only natural. But we have been closely working with the international community. During the troubled period last year, a lot of friendly nations came forward to help us out. We received humanitarian aid, and I must say that India helped us out in a big way. This is not just India, but other countries as well. We have had joint commissions and other diplomatic mechanisms where we engaged with the international community. At the senior level there have been international visits. Last year we had visits from foreign ministers from many countries. The President has been going for these international conferences and there are side meetings with respective partners. We have many strong links with the international community. It is a constant dialogue and we value this dialogue and the inputs we have received from friendly nations. This is something that has not been done overnight, but throughout a period of time. We are confident that these processes will strengthen our ties with the international community.

Q: What are your plans to bring in dollars to the country? Will you be partnering with the Tourism Ministry?

A: We are partnering with the Tourism Ministry to promote tourism. We had a meeting recently with the Tourist Board staff and periodical meetings with Tourist Board officials. We have established a monitoring mechanism on 14 points. For example, our Ambassadors are encouraged to give a certain number of press interviews and a certain amount of electronic media interviews to find influences in those countries, and then connect them with the Tourist Board. Then the Tourist Board can promote them, to establish connections with travel agents in those countries and our country. Each Ambassador is given 14 points to work on. But we actively follow these points with the countries who are bringing tourism to us. We also have country specific plans that are developed by the Tourist Board. We feel that we are helping the Tourist Board in a big way in bringing in tourism. There are also international tourist promotional events which the Tourist Board cannot take part in. The participation is at an embassy level. Our ambassadors take part in these key meetings. All the large ones the Tourist Board takes part in. But the smaller ones where the Tourist Board does not take part, the Ambassadors take part, and that contributes towards tourism in Sri Lanka.

Q: How are you going to promote Sri Lanka’s image abroad?

A: We have had a discussion with the Minister of Tourism in order to build up our image. Because in the minds of most people are the Aragalaya and people swimming in the President’s swimming pool and the queues. When people come here they must see that what is actually happening in the country is not only what is only portrayed in the international media. But I would say that more has to be done. But this is not only by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Because we have a very restricted budget. More has to be done in order to improve Sri Lanka’s image. Also word of mouth is also another important thing, because we have tourists now coming into the country. When these people go back to their countries, they must convey the message of normalcy in Sri Lanka. We are confident that these measures will improve the image of Sri Lanka abroad.

Q: How are you going to strengthen bilateral and multilateral ties with the countries in the region and in the West, we need their support?

A: We have joint commissions at different levels. I think the bilateral ties with us and other countries are quite strong. If you look at our ties in the region with India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, all of these countries have come to our aid at one time or the other. If you go beyond that, for example, countries like Thailand, we are looking at an FTA with Thailand. More integration with these countries will help strengthen Sri Lanka’s ties. At the multi-lateral level we have been very active in the multilateral fora, including being a member of SAARC in the region, I must say. Being an active member in the multilateral organisations and international community will help us improve our relations.

Q: What is the role of our missions abroad?

A: It is a multi-faceted role. What we feel at this juncture, the most important role is economic diplomacy. In order for us to come out of the situation which the country is in, we are looking more at economic diplomacy. We are concentrating mainly on tourism, foreign employment and investments. So we work very much in close conjunction with other organisations. It could be the BOI, it could be the Export Development Board or it could be the Ministry of Tourism. That does not mean that we have forgotten about political diplomacy. While carrying out political diplomacy we want to pay special attention to economic diplomacy.

Q: Last November there was a shocking story in the news. Apparently 90 Sri Lankan housemaids have become the victims of human trafficking in Oman. This issue comes under your Ministry. How do you plan to make sure that this never happens again? What kind of rules do you want to introduce as most of these maids have gone through improper channels?

A: I can’t say that it will never happen again. Once the economic situation deteriorates, a lot of people are planning to work overseas. Different people follow different methods. The problem seems to be more persistent in Dubai and Oman. Not in all the countries. This is because a lot of Sri Lankans go there on visit visas. And then these bogus agencies say that they will find employment. But once they go there, our people are surprised to find that there is no employment. Once they land there, they start looking for employment. We are working very closely with the Ministry of Labour in order to overcome this situation. Most of these missions, they do have a labour officer. But there are other types of illegal immigrants also. For example, those 303 people who tried to go to Canada through Burma. Their ship broke and they were stranded in Vietnam. There are so many stories of people trying to cross illegally through the borders of Lithuania and Latvia. So our ambassadors are closely monitoring the situation. Our advice is to go through proper channels and not to leave the country through illegal means. Because then there is no record. It is only when they get into distress that we are notified. These situations are very difficult. We encourage people to go overseas and find employment, but make sure you have a job when you go there. Do not break the rules but go through the proper channels. However, the problem is that when the economic situation deteriorates people do not follow the rules and they take these risks. Because they are going to support their families. It is only when these people are stranded that we are notified that such an event has taken place. If they adhere to the rules the problem can be minimized.

Q: What are the challenges and difficulties that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is faced with while trying to carry out its duties?

A: In dollar terms our budget used to be in 2018, 56 million dollars. Now it is reduced to 24 million dollars. The bulk of our payments goes in US dollars. It is a period where there has been increasing cost. Our full cadre requirement is over 277. But there are only about 178 people who are working with us. We are short of people. We have a very restricted amount of money. Those are some of the main obstacles we have. The work of our senior officials of the Foreign Ministry has doubled up. They also get involved in other areas. They work as a team. I think everyone in the Foreign Ministry has to work extra during this period. The last recruitment which was done, was in 2018. We have had the first examination for the batch of 40. The second examination is set for January. We are hopeful that when that examination is done, these 40 career diplomats will be taken into the diplomatic service. It is not only the Foreign Ministry that is affected by this economic crisis. Everybody is affected by it. We have to do what we can with the resources we have. Most ministries are faced with this same situation. The bulk of our payments goes in US dollars. In terms of rupees maybe it has increased. When there is a 70 percent depreciation in the rupee, in dollar terms our amounts have come down. Our dollar expenses have gone up, but the dollar budget has come down.

Q: Would you like to comment on the international stage? What are the most crucial events that have an adverse impact on Sri Lanka?

A: The international stage is an integrated platform. The war in Ukraine has an impact all over the world. But what we really hope for is that there will be stability in Europe, and that the war in Europe will come to an end, and there will be some sort of a settlement. International events definitely have an impact on Sri Lanka.

Q: There is a resolution against Sri Lanka in the UN Human Rights Council. How are you going to tackle this issue?

A: We will tackle it with the openness which we have shown and with the commitments we have given. Our Government has been very open about what it wants to do and what it can do. The foreign minister stated that we need to revise the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). We have revised the PTA and as a result of that some long standing prisoners were released. We want to follow with a new act/bill altogether. The Counter Terrorism Bill to be in line with the international standards. We want to establish the overseas Sri Lankan office. We want the Tamil Community to feel that they are a part of this country. We want to establish a Truth and Reconciliation mechanism. There are other measures which the President is initiating. He has held an All Party Conference on the issue of the devolution of power. I feel that the devolution of power should not be restricted to the periphery. It should also be at the centre. We want the Tamils to feel that Sri Lanka is their homeland. There should be a devolution of power from the centre too. Then everyone feels that they are part of the country. All these measures are very positive measures. I see that there is an appetite for change. It seems that people are coming towards a political consensus pertaining to the issues I just spoke about. The Aragalaya has made people realize that changes need to be made, both economically and politically. The majority community should not take advantage of the minority community. I am optimistic that we can work these things out.

Q: There is a large Sri Lankan Diaspora abroad. How are you going to engage them and get their assistance towards the development of Sri Lanka?

A: We are setting up an overseas Sri Lankan office. We want to engage with the diaspora. We want to ensure that they feel that they are a part of our country. I think if you look at the diaspora, most of them have an affinity towards Sri Lanka. When you look at a match between Australia and Sri Lanka in Australia, you see the Sri Lankans carrying the Sri Lankan flag. Not Sri Lankans carrying the Australian flag, even though they might be Australian citizens or permanent residents. But we want to work with the Tamil Diaspora. I remember we had a diaspora delegation from Canada. And the majority were Tamils. One gentleman said that he is coming to Sri Lanka after 36 years. He said that as soon as he landed in the country he felt completely at home. So in order for that to happen, we need to ensure that they feel a part of Sri Lankan culture and heritage. I feel that the overseas Sri Lankan office will provide this form of platform for them to engage. We have planned to do many exciting things with this overseas Sri Lankan office. Let’s say there is a Tamil boy who is going to university in Canada. After he graduates he wants to take a year off to teach English in a small school in Mullaitivu. So there must be a mechanism for people like him to come and engage in Sri Lanka. We must try to reach out to the second and the third generations. The first generation may have a strong affinity to Sri Lankans. But the second and third generation, they may have married foreigners, and their children might not have the same affinity. That affinity goes away a little by little. We need to see how we can connect with the second and third generation. 

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