Time to move towards commercial diplomacy in a globalized world | Sunday Observer

Time to move towards commercial diplomacy in a globalized world

28 May, 2017
Foreign Minister Ravi Karunanayake
Foreign Minister Ravi Karunanayake

Threatening to expose the ‘notorious creatures’ that have taken over the Central Bank, the new Foreign Minister Ravi Karunanayake said he will look into enhancing commercial diplomacy to usher the country towards economic prosperity, moving away from the present Human Rights centric foreign policy of Sri Lanka.

“I don’t think the government’s foreign policy needs a re-invention of the wheel. It needs to have rectification in certain areas where we have been missing.

There are policy changes to be done, they will not be unilateral changes. We will adopt a policy that is meaningful and ensures a win-win situation for the country,” Minister Karunanayake said, complementing his predecessor Minister Mangala Samaraweera for the outstanding work on the human rights front.

Q. This is the first time you have been entrusted with the Foreign Affairs portfolio, one of the key positions in the Cabinet. Are you happy to move on to a completely new subject from Finance? What will be your initial priorities?

A. As a politician we must be prepared to take on any challenge posed on us and make it a success. Our main focus would be, as expressed by the President and the Prime Minister to put Sri Lanka back on the map.

Make it a vibrant place in the Indian Ocean. We will profess the ‘ friends with all and enemies with none’ policy. We need not be tied to the aspects of Human Rights. It is time to move towards commercial diplomacy, towards a globalised world where borders have shrunk.

There will be an extended national policy. That is where I hope to maximize benefits for the country.

Q. Will you chart a new course from your predecessor re Sri Lanka’s foreign policy ? Will there be a change in the country’s relations with India, China, the US and the West as a whole, in the future?

A. Minister Mangala Samaraweera has done an outstanding job in redeeming Sri Lanka’s image as far as human rights and other similar aspects are concerned. Any misgivings that were there have been brought under control…now I should give leadership to bring in commercial diplomacy to ensure economic prosperity for the country.

We will exploit our geographical location, good offices and renewed friendly relations for the country’s maximum advantage. This portfolio has been held by people of great stature before, such as, Lakshman Kadirgamar, Ranjan Wijeratne and A.C.S.Hameed. It is incumbent upon me to make the best of this opportunity to serve the country, it is a tough task.

Q. Can we expect a changed course under your purview?

A. I don’t think the government’s foreign policy needs a re-invention of the wheel. It needs to have rectification in certain areas where we have been missing. There are policy changes to be done, they will not be unilateral changes. We will adopt a policy that is meaningful and ensures a win-win situation for the country.

Q. At UNHRC Sri Lanka’s interests still hang in the balance. How do you propose to take charge of this area which had been blocking the country’s progress for many years?

A. It is a very sensitive topic, but my opinion is that it has been handled really well by my predecessor. The extremists from all sides will try to exploit opportunities. But, the discerning must address the critical issues and navigate through different interest groups. I will do my utmost to fulfil the task that has been entrusted upon me. What matters is not our individual performance but what we do collectively.

Q. Can we expect a reshuffle of big seats in Sri Lanka’s overseas missions in the coming days?

A. As I said Foreign Affairs is foreign to me so I need some time basically to study the subject. I will answer that question in time to come.

Q. You were named the best Finance Minister for the Asia Pacific region by the prestigious magazine, The Banker. All of a sudden we see the best Finance Minister being moved to a different Ministry. What went wrong?

A. You must ask that from the people who moved me out. I was voted as the best Finance Minister, judging by Sri Lanka’s economic recovery, and the service I rendered to take out Sri Lanka from the doldrums it was in at the time the current government took office.

There is today, a change of approach by multilateral agencies, from their earlier position of forcing things on us, to a friendly engagement, so I believe these things earned me the title by The Banker magazine. The removal is not in my hands, only the delivery is in my hands. I think time will reveal the whole truth.

I guess challenges are nothing new to me, I need a little time to get accustomed to it, I am sure the President and Prime Minister have given me an opportunity to keep moving up and assist to make Sri Lanka a better place.

Q. Do you think you were a victim of a malicious campaign?

A. In Sri Lanka, jealousy is a chronic disease. I was a ‘no-nonsense’ Finance Minister. I wanted to eradicate corruption not just reduce it.

Anyone who stood in the way was treated harshly. Those elements would certainly have been wishing to bring me down.

You would see the people who tried to destroy my credibility, will get exposed before long, and as I said before, I had to take over a Treasury run by a de-motivated staff.

At the end of the day they all stood up to the challenge to make the Treasury a role model. The Treasury staff will vouch for that. The President will take cognition of this fact. I am handing over a very healthy Finance Ministry.

The animosity that is being created is nothing new, politics is not a bed of roses. There are many thorny people that come our way. And, they need to be exposed in order to ensure the country is taken to a safer place.

The removal of one or two such persons will not be a bad thing for democracy. The people we bring in should be people of respect. We should not compromise on that …I may be a victim of such witchcraft .

Q. The Joint Opposition was making a big hue and cry demanding the removal of the Finance Minister, do you think it could have had an impact ?

A. The Opposition can have their say, but we must have our way. I cannot hold them responsible. The sad thing is I know the President and the Prime Minister were trying to do everything necessary to see that things moved smoothly. One or two people were standing in the way. Before long I will name them, so that it would help to make a cleaner and more efficient country.

Q. Do you think some members of the Government conspired against you ?

A. Not only in the government, but within the UNP itself people have done so. I had extremely warm relations with 99% of the Ministers, I am sure they understood I was being tough, but that was to be expected.

We were handed over a live grenade with its pin removed as far as the country’s economy was concerned. It was about to explode on our faces but we tactfully overcame the situation.

I am sure this should not be the price I pay for fulfilling my job. The Joint Opposition’s rhetoric has no basis, you must not slip into these traps.

Q. The opposition is asking why the best Finance Minister has been removed?

A. Obviously such questions will be asked….I am sure there has to be some credible reason for the President and the Prime Minister to take this decision. Everyone knows how hard we labored to get this government into office. I am sure therefore, this decision must have been taken with my interest in mind, more than to satisfy someone.

Q. Is it true that you have set certain conditions to let go the Finance Ministry and take over the Foreign Ministry?

A. I am not a dictator. I am only a collective implementer as a Minister.

If the President and the Prime Minister make a request, it would be indecent and amount to insubordination to reject it. But certainly I had my discussions with them, to express my surprise, it was something unexpected. One must be convinced why such things happen. You must do something politically meaningful for you and for the party you represent.

I have been a hard task master, a loyal party member and a true Sri Lankan. I have held the Trade and Commerce portfolio in previous administrations. We will make a tremendous success at the Foreign Ministry. It will be a completely new approach to take Sri Lanka to the world and bring the world to Sri Lanka.

We will no more be embroiled in human rights issues. Economic prosperity is what we are looking at.

Q. In other words you will be a Finance Minister within the Foreign Ministry ?

A. I would not say that. I have a very good working relationship with Minister Mangala Samaraweera. He is a personal friend, and he has my support. Likewise, I am sure his support will be there for me.

Q. Under you I am sure, Sri Lanka will be looking for more trade centric relations with other countries?

A. I want to ensure our bilateral relations will be made use of to exploit Sri Lanka’s full potential and enhance our trade relations. Our foreign missions which had been lethargic in approach will be revived to meet this expectation. Our foreign policy will revolve round meaningful neighbours.

India is our all time friend, China already has massive investments here, Korea is a rising giant, the US has supported us immensely, Japan is reviving bi-lateral relations and we are thankful to the EU for granting GSP + .

The single biggest success of the government of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had been to win over all these countries. I will maximize the goodwill earned but I believe in going at a much faster pace.

Q. In this backdrop will there be a much invigorated campaign to rally people’s support for the Economic and Technology Cooperative Agreement (ETCA) with India?

A. I would like to comment on that after I have extensive discussions with the President and Prime Minister on the current priorities of the Foreign Ministry. I have been entrusted with the task of re-phasing external affairs towards commercial diplomacy.

I will look at the best available tools to make my mission a success. This is an alien subject as far as I am concerned, so initially, it will be a learning process.

Q. Do you think the controversial Central Bank Bond issue may have been a factor in your transfer ?

A. It was not a subject under my Ministry. As a Minister in the Cabinet, it was easy to put the blame on me. The bond scam investigation will expose the ‘notorious creatures’ who possessed the Central Bank during the Rajapaksa regime and who continue unabated under the current administration. Their nudity has been exposed before the Commission along with the past scams.

A leading figure still carrying on in the Central Bank who collected funds for the MR campaign during the last presidential election and who worked against the Common candidate, is behind this campaign to remove me. I will expose them very soon.

We have a peculiar curse whenever you try to clean up society, the guy who does it is labelled as the corrupt person. I was a victim of such allegations even during my last term in office. This country needs to move away from such acrimonious, virulent, unsubstantiated statements.

Pic by Ruwan de Silva