ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, March 18, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 42
Columns - Thoughts from London

Thanks Mr. Blair but where have we heard it before?

By Neville de Silva

Tony Blair: Any commitment by him might not be worth a penny

So prime minister Tony Blair, who has declared his own war on terror, says that “terrorism and violence can never be the way to achieve a negotiated solution.” Replying to a question at prime minister’s question time in the Commons, Mr. Blair put his faith in the Norwegian brokered ceasefire and the subsequent peace process.

There is nothing new in Britain’s reiteration of the need to continue the ceasefire as the foundation on which to lay the building blocks that would lead to a political settlement. Every country which has taken a public stand on the Sri Lanka conflict has opted for a negotiated solution.

It would be a courageous nation that would come out and say beat the hell out of the Tigers and encourage military action. They would not want the world to see them as war mongers as they would inevitably be labelled by the growing assemblage of peaceniks and assorted NGOs surviving on handouts from the very countries that preach peace to us but turn a Nelsonian eye at the major powers that seem not to care a jot for what Britain or the entire European Union thinks on their internal politics.

Russian action against the Chechens and internal dissenters draws only a pro forma protest – and that too generally muted – from the great defenders of human rights because Moscow is once again returning to the international stage as a major player. So Germany, which said it would cut off aid to Colombo and urged others to do so with Britain’s Hilary Benn following the German lead like a faithful spaniel, knows only too well what would happen to her economy if Vladimir Putin decides to turn off the energy taps once more.

This reaction from Tony Blair neither adds nor diminishes from Britain’s stand since the Norwegians became embroiled in the conflict thinking perhaps that they would have more success here than they did in the Israeli-Palestinian one. What did intrigue me however is another remark that Blair made in his reply to Labour MP Keith Vaz.

A news agency report quoted Blair as saying this. “We’ve said to them (meaning the Sri Lanka government) we will do all that we can to help…….” that prefaced his comment about the 2002 agreement known as the CFA. The question is whether this is a new commitment or initiative by the British government or is a repeat of the same old rhetoric about helping an old friend with whom it has had historical ties and all that spiel?

Personally I find it hard to believe that there has been a sea change in British policy. When Blair talks of “all that we can to help” he does not really mean all. What he really means is we’ll do something to help you people like sending former Northern Ireland secretary Murphy to come and have a look at what is going on and tell you all about how we solved that problem.

That problem, by the way, is not solved despite all the blather one gets from the British on a triumphalist’s ego trip. Well the problem remains, if one asks Rev. Ian Paisley who is certainly not ready to accommodate any from Sinn Fein in a Northern Ireland administration.

What Mr. Blair means – and he’s due to leave office in a couple of months and any commitment by him might not be worth a penny – is that we will stick our oar in so that we will not be left out of the equation whatever happens in the future. In the meantime we’ll give you chaps a bellyful of Northern Ireland talk.

The critical question is what policy would he and his party adopt at home that will facilitate the peace effort and bring the LTTE to the negotiating table. Surely it cannot be lost on Mr. Blair and the foreign office mandarins who are fed by their diplomats in Colombo, that it was the LTTE that walked out of the talks.

Unless the foreign office and its diplomats based here are hiding things from Downing Street – and such things have been known to happen – the LTTE once walked out because the government delegation did not have a minister and thought it was below their dignity to negotiate with lowly outsiders.

On the last occasion it was over the closure of the A9 highway. One would have thought that the sane thing to do is enthuse or pressure the party that is paying lip service to peace talks but finds some reason – or rather excuse – to pull out of them. If Britain is genuine in its efforts of help there is one major decision it could take. It should stop LTTE fund-raising and public events that are going on openly with the British authorities looking on without batting an eyelid.

Leave aside helping Sri Lanka. If Britain has any respect for its own laws then it would and should have moved swiftly to crack down on what is not merely raising funds but doing so by coercing their own Tamil people, many of whom do not want to contribute because they just cannot afford to.

Let us pose one question to the British. Would they allow al Qaeda or another Islamic extremist group to raise funds in the UK or openly hold events that support or popularise them? Foreign minister Rohitha Bogollagama made specific reference to the fundraising issue when he was in London recently and foreign secretary Margaret Beckett promised to take steps to curb this.

Since the days of Lakshman Kadirgamar who raised this issue whenever he was in London, we have had many promises from this same British government. Why should it be any different now? Firstly promises from the foreign office do not mean much because this issue comes under the purview of the home office and that institution does not seem to know whether it is coming or going.

But it is not the mess in the home office that is preventing a policy decision. It is the influence of Labour Party MPs and some ministers that is halting any tough legal action. The answer lies in British domestic politics. Some of these Labour MPs depend on the Tamil vote to creep into parliament. Now the tide is turning against Labour. The last opinion poll put the opposition Conservatives about 10 percentage points ahead of Labour and in any popularity contest between Conservative leader David Cameron and Blair’s likely successor Gordon Brown the difference is even greater.

In any forthcoming election Labour MPs such as Gareth Thomas, minister for international aid would likely get a thumping without the Tamil vote. So they go out of their way to ensure that this vote remains with them. I would not be surprised at all if this same Gareth Thomas had a hand in the letter his minister Hilary Benn wrote to the Sri Lanka government several weeks ago threatening to stop debt relief which this newspaper carried on its front page.

Besides fund raising, events in which LTTE leader Prabhakaran’s 18-foot cutouts are on display at Hyde Park in violation of Britain’s own anti-terrorism laws go unchallenged by the police. The police say they have no instructions from the home office. If Lord Nelson was blind in both eyes he would still have noticed those cutouts but not the Labour government which promises to do all to help Sri Lanka.
There is a kind of symbiotic relationship between Tamil Labour Party councillors from London boroughs and their local Labour MPs or candidates. So, acts of impunity that violate Britain’s own laws are allowed to happen for domestic political reasons.

The Gareth Thomas referred to above, once spoke at the local branch of the Pungudativu Welfare Society during which he urged all Tamils to collectively draft a petition against the Sri Lanka government which he promised to place before his government. He did not expect this to make the news. But a Tamil website carried the story. I sent him an e-mail with 10 questions since I wanted to make sure he was correctly reported.

His political secretary e-mailed me that her minister said more than that and only some comments seemed to have been reported.
So I replied asking her to let me know what other comments or observations he made and whether what was reported was accurate because they had not been denied. I got a similar reply back with some extraneous remarks but no answers to the questions. There is a pithy Sinhala saying that encapsulates the Gareth Thomas response- “koheda yanne – malle pol”.

When Rohitha Bogollagama, as investment promotion minister met Gareth Thomas last year on a visit to London, the British minister seemed to be more interested in military logistics and policy, for his inquiries were more to elicit where the soldiers were located in the eastern province, how far they had advanced, how long they expected to remain and when the operations would end etc ,etc.
Perhaps he wanted to pass it on to the Pungudativu Welfare Society! There are a few Labour and Liberal MPs whose sole information on Sri Lanka seems to emanate from such unreliable and one-sided sources.

The British government that preaches to others on respect for the law might do well to respect its own laws and act on them. Otherwise such homilies sound as empty at Eliot’s hollow men. Tailpiece Addressing London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Minister Bogollagama referring to the LTTE said it is “known worldwide to have pioneered the lethal art of suicide attacks against civilians.”

That is factually wrong of course. The Hisbollah did so several years earlier. Also the LTTE did not assassinate Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. He was no longer prime minister then. When addressing such prestigious institutes with have an array of experts it is important that such slips are not allowed to spoil an otherwise valuable presentation.

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