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Has Liam Fox been dragged into a morass created by Sri Lankan politicians?

Dec 18, 2010 8:09:44 PM- transcurrents.com

by Namini Wijedasa

Relations between the United Kingdom and Sri Lanka are at their lowest point in recent times and may worsen if the underlying cause of this growing estrangement is not addressed, foreign policy analysts say.

Their warning comes amidst a conspicuously last minute “postponement” of a visit to Sri Lanka by UK Defence Secretary Liam Fox-apparently over an urgent commitment that arose during a tour of the United Arab Emirates. Fox confirmed months ago that he would deliver the 2010 Lakshman Kadirgamar Memorial Lecture and last week sent ahead his personal assistant Werrity, to finalise

Earlier this month, President Mahinda Rajapaksa suffered an unprecedented embarrassment when the Oxford Union unilaterally cancelled his scheduled address a few hours before the event. While this was dressed up locally to garner public support for the president, there is no gainsaying that it was internationally an awkward diplomatic situation. The UK government noticeably washed its hands off President Rajapaksa’s visit, leaving the police to warn the Oxford Union of a possible threat to his security.

But what is the problem?

Ties between the UK and Sri Lanka started deteriorating during the Rajapaksa regime’s war with the LTTE. It was worsened by former Foreign Secretary David Miliband’s overbearing policy towards Sri Lanka. Leaked US diplomatic cables have since revealed that some of Miliband’s actions were motivated by a desire to win the support of expatriate Tamils living in key Labour marginal seats.

Still, Miliband is now out of power and diplomatic observers say there is little logical explanation for the continued rapid decline in UK-Sri Lanka relations. “Whether relations are strained or not, the perception (of strain) itself is an issue,” added a senior Sri Lankan diplomat, requesting anonymity.

For some, the collapse of UK-Sri Lanka ties is a result of our political shift towards nationalism. For MPs like Wimal Weerawansa, it is the painting of Britain as a conspiratorial, meddling imperialist that sells.

Fox was last week hailed for defying the UK government in confirming his visit to Sri Lanka-until he dropped out. This soon led to a further vilification of Britain that will likely keep Fox away for even longer.

Earlier, External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris told parliament that the president was brave enough to visit the UK for the Oxford Union address that humiliatingly never took place. These spins are attractive locally but hardly contribute towards strengthening foreign relations.

Confidential interviews conducted by LAKBIMAnEWS to determine the official Sri Lankan position yielded two points. First, the government has always been receptive to any suggestions from “our friends abroad” on ways and means to further the best interests of all Sri Lankans. Proof of this was progress in resettling internally displaced persons, rehabilitating child combatants and the progressive release of LTTE detainees.


“The constraint our authorities face is our partners in London for their part have not precisely articulated the matters that are irritating or perplexing them which have led to current issues in our relationship,” said the senior diplomat. “If those could be spelt out in whatever appropriate means, either through formal or informal channels, given our background of receptivity this government could see what could be taken aboard.”

“If a gap has opened, we could try to bridge it,” he insisted. “Without the essential clarity, one is stymied from doing so. This is the conundrum we face. We want to strengthen all relationships, explore and broaden our horizons of friendship.”

Dangerous local politicking

And yet, how does one forge relationships and broaden horizons when there is so much domestic politicking on sensitive international relations? Many analysts felt that Liam Fox has now been dragged into a morass created by Sri Lankan politicians who survive by trumping up bad international ties to prop up the president and his regime.

Two weeks ago, not long after the Oxford Union debacle, another senior diplomat warned this reporter that there was great danger in Sri Lanka painting Liam Fox as the country’s sole friend in the British government.

This was after Fox became the only UK politician to meet President Rajapaksa on his London visit, although his office took pains to stress that it was a private discussion.

“Liam Fox is now being identified by the Tamil diaspora as a Sri Lankan agent and is targeted for criticism,” this diplomat said back then. “It is only a matter of time before Liam Fox also gets cold feet and this is not a pretty picture diplomatically.”

Prophetic words, yes. But they also mean there are enlightened individuals lost within the system who could help improve Sri Lanka’s standing in the world provided they are given the space. Instead, it is the likes of Sajin de Vass Gunewardena that advise the president on foreign affairs and organise his visits abroad. A special post was recently created for Gunewardena: ‘Monitoring MP to the Ministry of External Affairs’.

Damage control

The question now is whether both governments will formally accept that UK-Sri Lanka relations need mending. Or will Sri Lanka-given its propensity to follow the counsel of nationalist sycophants over the voice of saner counsel-prefer to spew popular rhetoric on how Britain is a disruptive enemy state wanting to destroy our noble nation.

Sri Lanka still feels that the UK was a spoke in the wheel during the last battle against the LTTE. There are sufficient people to back and promote this position. Nevertheless, one David Miliband doesn’t make a summer. Britain did apply pressure on Sri Lanka on human rights grounds and much of this may have been prompted by the pro-LTTE Tamil diaspora.

But the UK was also at the forefront of supporting Sri Lanka’s campaign to ban the LTTE within the European Union. This happened under President Rajapaksa during a time when the Tigers were still in talks with the government.

“The UK went to the extent of convincing recalcitrant Europeans like the Scandinavians to agree to a ban on the LTTE as a means of exerting sufficient pressure on that movement,” said an authoritative source who did not want to be identified. “In fact, the US and UK acted together to lobby the Scandinavians, with the former even using a special envoy for the purpose.”

“Secondly, the British government could have motivated the UN Security Council to take up Sri Lanka’s situation during the United Nations General Assembly had it wanted to,” he said. He strongly felt there must have been some foreign relations management deficit for relations between the UK and Sri Lanka to now sink so low.

One of the problems (from Sri Lanka’s side) is the Rajapaksa government’s equation for local fame based on this statistical coefficient: International unpopularity has proportionate value to popularity at home. “In other words, the more unpopular you are in the West, the more popular you are here,” commented a state source, again requesting anonymity. “Working diplomatically to that coefficient is a real problem.”

But the choice is clear. Do we help the Weerawansa sorts with their political careers or do we salvage what is left of our relations with the West?

Ambiguous at best, muddled at worst

UK would need to sort out its mixed-up policy-whatever that may be-towards Sri Lanka. At least Sri Lanka is convincing in its unbridled nationalism. In contrast, Britain’s problem with Sri Lanka remains a mystery. Ambiguous at best, muddled at worst.

Is it a war crimes inquiry the UK wants? Are they irritated about Sri Lanka’s new international alliances? Is it something to do with the prevailing state of human rights? Is it the domestic rhetoric in Sri Lanka that rankles? If that is the case, doesn’t Britain spew domestic rhetoric of its own with regards to Sri Lanka and to other nations?

Or is Britain just confused about how to tackle pro-LTTE diaspora groups who, buoyed by their recent successes, are intensely lobbying the UK government to sideline the Sri Lankan government.

Sri Lanka’s position on the diaspora cannot be too clear. The UK needs to encourage the diaspora to play a constructive role rather than a destructive one. It also needs to do more to recognise the abhorrence of the Tamil Tigers, and to get the diaspora to accept that.

If the UK fails to recognise that the pro-LTTE diaspora wishes nothing but ill for Sri Lanka-and if British politicians are to be guided by Tamil voters supportive of the Tigers-we might as well pound that last nail into the coffin now. ~ courtesy: Lakbima nEWS ~