Another FP blunder: Lanka loses BIMSTEC Secretariat

By Our Diplomatic Correspondent

Sri Lanka’s foreign policy was dealt another major blow when its diplomatic bid to have the BIMSTEC or the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi Sectoral Technical and Economic Co-operation secretariat established in Colombo was out-voted and the offer bid went to Bangladesh instead.

Sri Lanka had launched a major diplomatic campaign to have the BIMSTEC secretariat established in Colombo, but lost in a secret ballot among BIMSTEC member-states. The secretariat will now be established in Dhaka, the Bangladesh capital. The regional grouping comprises India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Bhutan and Nepal -- countries that face the Bay of Bengal area.

External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris failed to turn up at the BMISTEC Ministerial meeting in the Myanmar capital of Naypyidaw on January 22, though scheduled to attend the meeting where the vote was taken. Bangladesh was represented by its articulate Foreign Minister Dipu Moni, the absent Dr. Peiris’ counterpart. The result -- Sri Lanka lost its stepped up diplomatic efforts to have the BIMSTEC secretariat established in Colombo.

Since President Mahinda Rajapaksa chaired the BIMSTEC ministerial meeting in Colombo in November last year, Sri Lanka showed a keen interest in setting up the secretariat in Colombo. The Government lobbied the member countries. Bangladesh, which was a strong contender, in terms of a package offered by Sri Lanka during the ministerial meeting last year, was asked to nominate the secretary general whilst allowing Colombo to house the secretariat. Member countries had consented to the move, EAM sources said yesterday.

EAM officials briefed visiting delegates last year of Government’s plans to have a purpose-built BIMSTEC secretariat in Colombo. It was to house the office of this regional grouping as well as an auditorium amongst other facilities.

At the ministerial meeting in Naypyidaw, a formal decision was to be made on the venue for the secretariat. Instead of taking part in the event, lobbying the member countries to stick to their promises, Dr. Peiris had accompanied President Rajapaksa on his private visit to the United States. President Rajapaksa was in Houston from January 19 for medical reasons and returned to Sri Lanka last Thursday.

It is not immediately clear whether Dr. Peiris told President Rajapaksa of the importance of the BIMSTEC meeting. An EAM official said he could have attended the event and later flown to Houston if his presence was required.

In the absence of Dr. Peiris, Bangladesh Foreign Minister Dipu Moni lobbied his counterparts that Dhaka would be the ideal location. Ministers voted in a secret ballot with three voting in favour of Bangladesh and two for Sri Lanka.

As a result, the meeting decided that Sri Lanka will nominate the first secretary general, but lose the hosting of the secretariat. Now, another Joint Working Group meeting is to be held in Dhaka to finalise matters related to the establishment of the secretariat which will become operational this year.

Sri Lanka was represented at the event by the newly appointed Deputy Foreign Minister,Neomal Perera. Since he is relatively new to the field, EAM officials say, it was not possible to conduct intense lobbying to win member support. “This is particularly disappointing since most BIMSTEC member countries had close relations with Sri Lanka,” one official said.

This is the latest in a string of blunders by the EAM at a political level. Last week, the Sunday Times exclusively revealed how Sri Lanka’s acting High Commissioner in Britain, P.M. Amza was called to the Commonwealth Secretariat to be told of its displeasure over remarks made by Dr. Peiris. The External Affairs Minister had told a Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) branch meeting in Beliatta that Queen Elizabeth would visit Hambantota for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM). Officially, no such decision has been made and the Secretariat, responsible for such arrangements pointed out that Buckingham Palace had no knowledge of any such plans.

Earlier, Dr. Peiris termed the panel appointed by UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon to probe accountability issues in Sri Lanka during the end of the separatist war in May 2009 as “illegal.” However, he declared later that visas would be issued for the panel to visit Colombo and testify before the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission.

President Rajapaksa’s ill-fated visit to Britain last December was also blamed partly on the External Affairs Minister not advising the President on the pitfalls of such a visit. There was also a diplomatic faux pas last year when Dr. Peiris was on a five-day official visit to China. Sri Lanka Embassy officials had approached Chinese authorities to ask that hospitality for him be extended by a further two days so he could visit several other places of tourist interest. However, the request was politely turned down by the Chinese authorities.

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