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Oxford alumni of Sri Lanka must speak up about Oxford Union cancellation

Dec 11, 2010 7:10:18 PM- transcurrents.com

By Gnana Moonesinghe

This article is to call to attention the Oxford alumni of Sri Lanka to speak up for their country in the context of the now infamous withdrawal of the invitation to the President of Sri Lanka, to address the Oxford Union.

The President travelled to Britain to honour the invitation to address the Oxford Union but was unceremoniously informed that the invitation was forthwith withdrawn as the organizers had made this unilateral decision on the basis that they could not give adequate security to ward off the Tamil Diaspora if and when they stage a peaceful protest outside the university.

The most pertinent issue here for consideration is, one, that the Tamil Diaspora is a proscribed organization in Britain and two, the concerns of a leading University in Britain that could not garner the support of the local authorities to organize effective security to a visiting President of a friendly nation. This unfortunate incident has aroused national and international interest and has given rise to an intrusive appraisal of Oxford as a learning centre.

Oxford University has always been seen as the premier institution of learning in Britain, where every stone, every pebble, every grain of sand one treads on, opens up pages of the hallowed history of the past; an institution where the teaching of liberal arts flourish, where students drink from the cup of wisdom, their thirst never quenched, they spread out into the four corners of the world to nurture their gathered wisdom and on this foundation to build on further from the life’ s fountain in their own personal experience.

The torch that is lit to train young minds of men and women who enter the portals of its imposing precincts, imposing in its old revered buildings and imposing intellectually from the ‘knowledge’ in the history of the institution, that rests on liberalism and liberal thought, dialogue and debate. Forever, it was hoped they will keep up the constant search for the values of right and wrong, of correct attitudes and behaviour patterns. These remain constant, the dictum which Oxonians follow scrupulously while in the university and after they leave this seat of learning.

The Vice Chancellor in his graduation oration on October 5, 2010 referred to “……the opportunity it provides to meet Oxford alumni and hear their accounts of what this university meant and continues to mean to them, often many years later. Our old members are our real and valuable expression of Oxford in the world.”

This is therefore a good time to exhort the Oxford alumni to bring about some introspection to the events that took place which when couched in colloquialism becomes a ‘slap’ in the face by a group of young cubs from the Oxford Union to the head of a sovereign nation.

This had happened not long after the Vice Chancellor had mentioned in his oration to Oxford’s place in the world and said that, “the future health and prosperity of Oxford as a great university is ultimately connected to its international achievement and ambition.” Here there are two issues for the alumni to consider. One, how will the Sri Lankan alumni of Oxford view this situation as representing the “real and valuable expression of Oxford in the world.”

Second, how will this action portray “the university in international relations?”

One cannot in any seriousness accept that those who extended the invitation to the President feared a proscribed group so much that they were unsure of ranging effectively the law enforcement authorities to provide protection to the invitees. Then it needs to be asked whether the young Oxonians hoping to represent this premier seat of learning had any other agenda in their portmanteau. Even if it were not so, it would seem a simple lesson learnt at the mother’s knee that you do not insult your guest by suddenly withdrawing an already issued invitation, even if he/she were not the Head of State.

In the address quoted here of the Vice Chancellor’s oration, the latter refers to extracts from “The ideas of a University” written by John Henry Newman, formulated a 150 years ago. He quotes that the university is a place “ ….. for the communication and circulation of thought, by means of personally verified and perfected and…. error exposed by the collision of mind with mind … and knowledge with knowledge.”

On the basis of this what better opportunity could have been had, than what would have been available in a face to face, constructive dialogue, with the invitee rather than to a cowardly demonstration behind a barricade and shout slogans which create noise and disturbance but nothing constructive in dialogue to have some clarification on controversial issues. Let us not tie this ‘abrogation’ of the invitation to domestic issues related to the ethnic reconciliation process, to the law and order situation or to the human rights situation before and after the war or the media restrictions within the country. All of these are matters to be resolved and to be resolved urgently but emphatically, not a concern of the Oxford Union or any other extraneous groups.

If there is a desire to solve these matters it has to be done in the domestic arena by the people of this country. If the authorities do not heed there is the people’s verdict to look forward to at the next elections. It is therefore necessary for the alumni to make the essential response to the country’s dignity and not fall by the wayside of political partisanship or apathy to concerns that they may consider extraneous to them personally.

If they fail to respond in their collective reflection how will they measure against the standards of the Oxford ‘culture’? Will they consider the action of the Oxford Union to be an aberration?