Monday, August 15, 2011

US ConGen Chennai: "Dirty and Dark" Tamil Remark Lands US Diplomat in Very Hot Water

The Times of India recently reported that a US diplomat was caught in a very public row over her insensitive and thoughtless remark about Tamils during a speech at a local university in Chennai, India. 

"I was on a 24-hour train trip from Delhi to Orissa. But after 72 hours, the train still did not reach the destination... and my skin became dirty and dark like the Tamilians," US vice-consul Maureen Chao said in a speech at the SRM University on Friday. Chao also said, "Some 20 years ago, I was a student and had an opportunity to do a semester abroad. I chose India, fascinated by its culture and religion. I was amazed at the graciousness of the people."

Oh dear. I wish she did a rehearsal before she went to that talk. She could have started with "Some years ago ....." and we won't be talking about this today.

There is seldom a Take 2 in diplomatic life. 

The "dark and dirty" remark was first reported on Friday, August 12.  On Saturday, August 13, the U.S. Consulate General in Chennai issued its quick reaction statement:
Yesterday at a Study Abroad Orientation Program at SRM University, Vice Consul Maureen Chao gave a speech describing positive memories from her own study abroad experiences in India 23 years ago. During the speech Ms. Chao made an inappropriate comment. Ms. Chao deeply regrets if her unfortunate remarks offended anyone, as that was certainly not her intent.

As Secretary Clinton recently noted, the U.S.-India partnership is based on our shared values of democracy, liberty, and respect for religious and cultural diversity. The U.S. Consulate in Chennai and the U.S. Mission in India are committed to upholding these shared values.

I should note that this incident has overshadowed the arrival of the new Consul General Jennifer McIntyre who assumed her duties in Chennai on August 3, 2011. I expect that the new CG will make the rounds of introducing herself to the officials in her consular district.  But instead of more substantial conversations and building new relationships, she now has to start her tour with a round of apologies.

Also on August 13, Reddiff carried the news that the Tamil Nadu government on Saturday condemned the 'dark and dirty' remark, alleging that it smacked of racism and was an affront to all Tamilians.

On August 14, the Times of India reported that PMK founder S Ramadoss demanded that the Union government expel the US diplomat for her controversial comments on Tamils.
"Its highly condemnable. While Tamils have been excelling in many fields, including Information Technology and surprise many including Americans, a US official saying this cannot be tolerated," Ramadoss said in a statement.

"People like her should not be allowed to stay in Tamil Nadu. The ministry of foreign affairs should call her in person to express its opposition and expel her immediately from the country," he said.

According to ConGen Chennai's website, Maureen Chao is a Vice Consul with the U.S. Consulate General Chennai. She earned a Bachelor degree in International Studies, a Master degree in Education, and a Ph.D. in Higher Education Administration. She was a Fulbright Fellow in Vietnam, conducting research in education. Prior to joining the State Department she worked with international education programs for fifteen years, as well as in the social services field with foster children, refugees and immigrants and low-income/homeless populations.

Presumably, she is on her first tour assignment in Chennai.

U.S. diplomats are on 24/7, 365 days a year.  Even the lowest ranked, most junior  U.S. diplomat is a representative of the United States Government.The press, and host country nationals in fact, will have high expectations even on the newest vice-consul.  If there is a lesson to this, it is that no matter how junior a diplomat the individual might be, what he/she says and does reflect on the United States. The press, local or otherwise, will not make allowances that this is a diplomat's first assignment or whether or not he/she had lessons in public affairs and public diplomacy. 

In a very competitive service, entry level officers often try to set themselves apart from the pack. Most volunteer for additional assignments, others use their portfolio assignments to stand out; in a pack of highly educated, talented newbies, they mostly want to be memorable to their bosses. But it can sometimes backfire.

In the last several years, there has also been a pushed for new officers to be out there. Even "newbies" on their first tours in consular sections are being asked to conduct consular public diplomacy outreach with radio, television and the print media.  The State Department culture often presumes that a Foreign Service Officer, a generalist can do just about anything, whether they are trained for it or not.  Some officers are indeed talented in dealing with the general public and the media; but others are not so.

In another life -- in at least one consular section, I have seen a Consul General tasked entry level officers with extremely limited press training to go out and deal with the media in the section's public outreach. And it was not optional. The result was a group of new officers who desperately wanted to excel on something they were set to fail. For those naturally talented or PD-coned, the task was manageable; if you have the knack for it, you can get by by the skin of your teeth. For those who are non-PD coned, or those with no substantial experience dealing with foreign publics--some not always friendly to the United States, it was often like amateur hour.  Why would a senior manager do something like this? Rumor had it that the Consul General was trying to impress somebody from his/her home bureau with an "innovative" program for new officers which carry no training cost. It was a shitty program but the junior officers were too afraid to complain or demand appropriate training.

I am not saying this was the case with Ms. Chao.  But entry level officers who are on overseas assignment for the first time ought not deal with the foreign public/media without specific guidance/training from post's Public Affairs Officer. Some sections where bosses are not too addled with the illness known as promotiontitis, the officers get to do murder boards before they show up for public engagements. Despite what the name implies, a murder board does not involve actual murder and gets its origin from the U.S. Army's extensive training system; it simulates the actual presentation where the audience (usually colleagues) engaged in a role play including asking difficult and gotcha questions that the target group is likely to ask.  It is a practice session that not only allows newbies to make mistakes in a learning environment; if handled effectively with appropriate feedback, it also help the new officers improve their persuasion, presentation and public speaking skills.

More importantly, it minimizes very public undiplomatic gaffes. See link below on murder boards.

On Friday, there were about three articles on this incident. By late Sunday there were over a hundred articles on the same incident. Ms. Chao, as far as I can tell, may be the only entry level diplomat in memory to appear in the same news montage as former President Richard Nixon, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, current Vice President Joe Biden and SC Gov Nikki Haley. See below a video by NewsX, a 24-hour rolling news television show rated as one of India's most watched English news channel.

Related item:
The Murder Board: The Ultimate Practice Presentation | by Larry Tracy (PDF)

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