By Nanda Wanninayaka
I don’t know what REALLY happened with the Sri Lankan employee who worked at the Swiss Embassy in Colombo. Nobody will ever know, would they? The embassy says one of their local employees was kidnapped, detained and was questioned for good two hours and then let go. But the Government of Sri Lanka says that there is no clue about such an incident after their thorough investigations. We know that our Criminal Investigation Department (CID) is not the FBI nor the Scotland Yard, but the victim has to assist the CID to continue their investigations to bring the culprits to the book. But it looks extremely impossible with the way the things go and if the said employee and her family are taken out of the embassy to board a plane to Switzerland, this would become an extreme diplomatic incident that can damage the relationship between the two countries.
Without going any further with this, I would write down how my students and I were treated by foreign missions in Sri Lanka when we wanted to travel to certain countries.
- My first travel abroad was to China (assisted by a US project) in the year 2000. Once I went to the Chinese embassy the Chinese employee at the embassy told me that my destination in China was not to a hotel but some government office. I had to reiterate that the destination was correct before he granted to process the visa application. (Apparently, the place I stayed in China was a government building related to some scientific affairs and there were enough star-class rooms and a restaurant to entertain 1000 odd visitors from different parts of the world. (I think all these embassy people follow the espionage missions’ “Suspect Everyone” method when granting visas.
- My second trip was to Egypt in 2000 to attend a regional event organized by the same organization that organized the above-mentioned event in China. The Egyptian embassy man at the gate didn’t even open the door but talked to me in a very rude manner as if I was some criminal. But the visa was approved later. (In most cases, it is these minor staffers who tarnish the names of their countries but we cannot believe that the higher officials are unaware of these.)
- My third overseas tour was to the USA and the visa was provided with the help of the US State Department and I had no problem at all in getting my visa as Ms. Chulie de Silva (a local official at the American Center) who knew about my work assisted me getting it. But I was detained for some time as the immigration officer in the New York Airport kept asking about a document I never knew I had in my possession. I was asked to find it in my luggage and I had to open up all the stuff in my luggage but it was not to be found. Later I found it among the documents I already handed over to the officer and he sincerely apologized for his mistake.
- My next visit was to Italy with 3 young students of Horizon Academy – Mahawilachchiya and the Sri Lankan visa officer in the Italian Embassy did not even give us visa application forms to proceed with visas. His argument was that I would not return and will stay in Italy as many other Sri Lankans do. This was a ridiculous argument because I had already been to the USA by then and if I wanted, to be an illegal immigrant, the USA must have been the best option. I never want to become an illegal immigrant even during the most trying conditions I faced in Sri Lanka. The 3 kids had obtained passports and even had bought warm clothes to wear during that cold season in Italy. If the visa officer’s concern was the three kids’ security, I could easily arrange a chaperone for them to travel. But he was arrogant and did not even provide us the visa applications. So, the three kids lost their chance of traveling to Italy with all the expenses paid by the sponsors.
- I visited Japan twice and at the interview for the visa, I never saw the Sri Lankan visa officer but could only hear her voice as she spoke to the interviewee from behind some screen where she could see me and I couldn’t see her. I don’t know why they do it. Do they treat all Sri Lankans like rogues?
- Two students and a lady teacher from my organization (Horizon Lanka Foundation) were invited by a Delhi-based Indian organization to do a presentation and we submitted the visa applications at the last minute as one of the students could not find the money needed to buy the flight ticket. (The expenses were to be reimbursed upon arrival to India.) But the Indian visa center that has been outsourced the visa process was very helpful and did not let our team down. They ensured they get the visas without any trouble. So my team could visit India without me having to travel with them.
- I planned to visit Ecuador two years ago to volunteer as a teacher of English and after I submitted all the documents properly to the visa center. The Ecuadorian visa was to be obtained on arrival in Ecuador. For some reason, the organization that sponsored my trip had selected a flight route to Ecuador via Amsterdam, Holland. After submitting my papers, the visa center that dealt with the so-called “Schengen” visas turned down my request and handed me over a letter saying that I would disappear in the Amsterdam airport and seek a job in the Netherlands!!! I needed a transit visa in Amsterdam only for 3-4 hours till I caught the next flight to Ecuador. The other friend of mine who went to Ecuador via the same route for the same purpose around a few weeks ago was a Tamil guy from Batticaloa and he said, “Most of the embassy officials are Tamils in Sri Lanka and they favor only Tamils. This might be the reason for the denial of your transit visa.” Till that, I thought this was only a rumor but I understood it was a lot more than just a rumor.
- I was to send a female student with a female teacher from Horizon Academy – Mahawilachchiya to South Africa for a conference. Since the invitation letter from the event organizers came from a Gmail account, not an account with the organization’s domain, the South African High Commission in Colombo hesitated to grant them visas. Fair enough. Still, the local and the South African High Commission officers were very supportive and gave us the visas at the last moment but the lady teacher from our organization hesitated to go since it was her overseas tour and was not comfortable at the 11th hour. That was our fault, not theirs. I can say that the South African High Commission in Colombo was the best foreign mission I have dealt with so far and they are very efficient and people-friendly.
If you can remember, most of the embassies in Sri Lanka treated the local people like trash until recent times. We had to be in long ques in the hot sun or torrential rains outside the embassies without any shelter. The government of Sri Lanka did nothing until some people raised the issue in the local newspapers. Now the treatments are better and still, there is a lot to change in this regard.
So, I wrote this to tell you how foreign missions treat Sri Lankans and we should make use of the present issue with the Swiss embassy to make things right. The late president Mr. Ranasinghe Premadasa had an issue with H. E. Mr. David Gladstone, the British High Commissioner to Sri Lanka by interfering into internal issues and he was ordered to leave Sri Lanka. I don’t say the same should happen in the light of the present diplomatic incident but the West has to learn a lesson too when interfering with the internal issues. Instead, we should try solving this type of incident amicably without risking too much.