Optics of State visits

Wednesday, 12 February 2020 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

In politics, optics matter. The way a politician is perceived becomes even more important when they are seen to be representative of Sri Lanka as a whole. This was in full view during the recent State visit of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to India, during which public commentary on some members of the delegation, to an extent, overshadowed the actual developments during the visit. 

This is not a new development. A State visit is a time when not just the politicians, but the Government and Sri Lanka is also represented. Therefore there is a great deal of polish, decorum, and protocol, expected to be followed by the members of the delegation. 

The advent of social media and memes in particular highlight such situations more. United People’s Freedom Alliance Parliamentarian and strong supporter of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) Prasanna Ranaweera bore the brunt of the publicity backlash from the Indian State visit, which served to highlight his egregious behaviour in Parliament during the constitutional crisis. Many inventive captions were added to photographs of Ranaweera during the State visit, and much hilarity ensued. Some criticism was also directed at Rajapaksa’s son Yoshitha Rajapaksa accompanying the delegation.     

Of course, this is not the first time that a Sri Lankan delegation on a foreign visit has received a mixed reception from the public. In September 2015, former President Maithripala Sirisena was roundly criticised for taking his son to the United Nations General Assembly in New York. There were many other examples over the years of bad decisions made by Governments of all hues, but at the core of these criticisms is the reality that these trips are funded through public funds, and the hardworking taxpayer does not take kindly to displays of excess. 

This is made worse by the fact that Sri Lanka does not have a transparent process of declaring how much these trips cost the taxpayer, and what contribution is actually made by some of the accompanying delegates. In other countries, such as the UK, there are proactive disclosures of information from the Foreign Office, even giving details of which hotel delegates stayed at, and how much their meals cost. This kind of accountability has been missing in Sri Lanka for a long time, and would be readily welcomed by many.   

Public ire is also heightened by the fact that frequent trips to foreign countries are still accessible only to a comparatively small number of Sri Lankans. Despite the country’s upper middle income status, economic constraints still mean most middle class people usually travel only for work or education needs. Even though a growing segment of Sri Lankans do engage in relatively frequent trips for pleasure, these are also hampered by the restrictions placed on the Sri Lankan passport by numerous countries. 

In fact, even to go to India, Sri Lanka’s closest neighbour, Sri Lankans have to get a visa, while Indians have visa on arrival. Little attention has been paid by the Government or the Foreign Relations Ministry to the maladies that plague Sri Lanka’s passport, and even though more than a decade has passed since the end of the conflict, Sri Lankans still struggle to travel to many destinations countries of similar economic status can access. Perhaps if the Government works on improving access, they will find their own travels will be more kindly viewed by the public.