Columns - From the Sidelines

Britannia waives the rules - selectively

FROM THE SIDELINES By Lasanda Kurukulasuriya

The ripples caused by the sudden cancellation of President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s scheduled Oxford Union address are yet to subside. The usual deadpan, poker-faced denials were duly issued by the British High Commission in Colombo, asserting there was no British government involvement in the fiasco. The British authorities could not have been unaware of the trouble that was brewing and that it related to arrangements connected with a visit by a Commonwealth head of state, but they chose to avert their eyes. The media and the general public in Sri Lanka however were not deluded as to the unambiguous and pointed nature of the snub. The question is whether the Ministry of External Affairs is aware of it, even at this late stage.

External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris declared in parliament that it was the president who insisted on going, in spite of the expected protests. But was it not the job of people at External Affairs to advise him against the move, based on an accurate reading of the signals - of which there were many? Isn’t protecting the country’s interests abroad, what they are paid to do? The story would seem to echo that of the ‘emperor’s new clothes,’ in which none of the fawning courtiers surrounding the monarch was prepared to tell him that he was in fact parading the street naked, telling him instead that he looked magnificent. And the emperor in his vanity believed them.

Many questions remain yet unanswered regarding this whole sorry episode. According to a press statement from the Oxford University Sri Lanka Society (co-organizers of the event), the Oxford Union’s Hilary Term President James Langman visited Rajapaksa to apologize on behalf of the Union. (This was not widely publicized so it may have appeared to some that no apology was tendered to the president). Where did the Oxford Union’s Michaelmas Term President James Kingston disappear? It was he who extended the original invitation (which one might add, if revisited, sounds rather too obsequious in tone for something coming from the Oxford Union). And it was he apparently who made the unilateral decision to cancel the event. The cancellation statement was issued by the Oxford Union’s Press Officer, and the apology contained in it was directed to the Union’s members, not to Rajapaksa. The Sri Lanka Society contradicted the assertions in this statement that cited security concerns, and said the police had in fact expressed confidence regarding their ability to handle the demonstrations. The Society alleged there was an “an unseen force” behind the cancellation.

The Oxford incident is not an isolated blip in the course of recent Sri Lanka – UK relations, but appears to be one in a series of calculated snubs administered by the British in recent years. In August last year there was the mysterious episode of Angayatkanni Krishnapillai, a Sri Lankan passport holder who travelled to UK from Sri Lanka without a visa. She was chaperoned to the airport by a British High Commission official and had been issued a letter by UK Border Agency addressed to the airline. Sri Lanka’s Controller of Immigration was reported to have indicated there was a breach of immigration procedure in the case and that he should have been informed by the High Commission.

The following month Sri Lanka’s then Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohona was twice refused a visa to travel to Britain, with no reasons given. Kohona was on his way to assume his new post as Permanent Representative at the United Nations. It was reported around the same time that Attorney General Mohan Peiris too had trouble obtaining a visa to travel to Britain. It was not clear exactly what happened.

On February 24 this year, Britain’s then Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his Foreign Secretary David Miliband addressed a conference in London of the Global Tamil Forum, a group known to be a faction of the rump-LTTE in its new avatar (post-war). The meeting was also addressed by William Hague who is now Britain’s Foreign Secretary. It was held within the British parliamentary complex. Referring to the politicians’ participation in this event, a visiting British official was later quoted as saying that British ministers and officials regularly engage with expatriate Sri Lankans “from all communities,” to encourage them to support peace efforts. This disingenuous statement seems to be trotted out repeatedly to explain the extremely cozy relationship that seems to prevail between the Sri Lanka-bashing sections of the British Tamil diaspora and Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Can the numbers of non-Tamil Sri Lankan constituents in UK (to whom this statement pretends to give equal prominence) possibly command anything like the same attention from British politicians as the 300,000 strong vote base of the Tamil diaspora in that country?

Not long after that event David Miliband delivered a long homily to Sri Lanka on how it should solve its problems. Funnily Minister Keheliya Rambukwella detected a sinister connection between the timing of this ‘special video statement’ by Miliband and Sri Lanka’s general elections that were just a few days away (April 8). He said it was intended to disparage the government by harping on human rights issues. But the minister just got his elections mixed up – it was the upcoming British elections of May 6 that Miliband had in mind.

Wikileaks has now blown the lid off the hypocrisy of western powers in their dealings with the rest of the world. In the process it has obligingly confirmed to us what many suspected of Britain: that its Sri Lanka policy is largely determined by cynical, self-serving calculations relating to electoral gains to be had by pandering to the vocal, pro-LTTE sections of its expatriate Tamil community. There is nothing to indicate that there will be much difference between the previous Labour government’s attitude towards Sri Lanka and that of the Conservatives. Does External Affairs even realize it has a problem here? There seems to be an elephant in the room, and it’s not Karu Jayasuriya as the government seems to think.

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