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The extraordinary courage of President Mahinda Rajapaksa

Jan 26, 2011 3:39:37 PM- transcurrents.com

BY Dr.Carlo Fonseka

One of the defects of my character is timidity. That must be why I have inordinate admiration for leaders with so much courage. Even as well-informed and intellectually sophisticated commentators on international affairs have been warning us, we are living in dangerous times. Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka perceives nothing less than ‘a global psywar against Sri Lanka’. Mr. Izeth Hussain senses ‘considerable British displeasure over the way the government is handling the ethnic problem’.

At a time like this it took extraordinary physical, intellectual and moral courage for President Rajapaksha to set foot on hostile British soil to address the world from a platform in the University of Oxford. (With strategic prescience he had ventured into dangerous territory with a small army of handpicked loyalists. No doubt he judged that attempting to beard the lion in his den could be a very hazardous exercise).

Invitation to Oxford

Having vanquished the most ruthless and diabolical terrorist group in modern history whose atrocities included decimation of the quintessence of Tamil intelligence and culture, President Rajapaksha had no disabilities to plead. So he had readily accepted the invitation to speak at Oxford. I am sure he would have told the world how he had pulled off the allegedly impossible: namely, liquidation of the most blood-thirsty, maniacal, well-funded and internationally hyped up terrorist group the world has known. He would have explained to the world why he was impelled to do so. And, I believe, he would have adumbrated what his homegrown plan is for redeeming the dignity, honor and well-being of the Tamils of Sri Lanka. But that was not to be.

Those innocents who sincerely believe that Oxford is the sanctuary of free thought were manifestly dismayed by the unilateral cancellation of the invitation to speak due to intense pressure from political activists. They seem to regard the Oxford episode as a diplomatic blunder and a political debacle. My perception is different. I think President Rajapaksha grabbed the invitation to speak at Oxford as an opportunity to enact a political scene on a world stage and make a few points dramatically.

First: with a sense of pardonable pride he would have told the world that he had achieved something that was widely believed to be impossible.

Second: by accepting the invitation to speak at Oxford, he made the point that he had nothing to hide about the liquidation of terrorism.

Third: by setting foot in the UK, he demonstrated that he dared legal arrest for alleged war crimes.

Fourth: by venturing upon hostile territory he conveyed the message that he cannot be intimidated by a ‘global psywar’.

Fifth: by accepting the invitation he demonstrated his ability to walk tall on a world stage with his nose in the air.

The matter that calls for explanation is how people associated with so prestigious an institution as Oxford University could have unilaterally and summarily cancelled an event involving a Head of State. I suggest the following explanation for your critical consideration.

Ancient History

Everybody knows that the University of Oxford is one of the oldest, best and most famous centers of learning in the world. Its beginnings have been traced to 720 AC, but it became firmly established only in the 12th century AC. From its beginnings up to the time of the Reformation in the 16th century Oxford was governed by the Roman Catholic Papacy. Catholic monks and friars of various denominations were the masters and scholars. Today people believe that Oxford is a sanctuary of free thought and speech. But that is not what its early history reveals. As it happened Roger Bacon (1214 – 1292) was Oxford’s first science man of repute. He was imprisoned for ten years by the religious authorities for doing experiments they disapproved of. Any deviation from strict Roman Catholic orthodoxy was simply not tolerated.

After the Reformation and the birth of Protestantism, Oxford came to be governed not by the Pope in Rome, but by the English Crown. Notoriously, however, during the five year reign of the ardently Roman Catholic Queen Mary Tudor, 270 Protestants were burnt to death for heresy. Then during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558 – 1603) some 30 Oxford Catholics were killed for refusing to recognize the Queen as the spiritual head of the Church. Queen Elizabeth made sure that what was taught at Oxford was politically acceptable to the rulers. (Perhaps the present authorities at Oxford who cancelled the invitation to President Rajapaksha feared that he might say things that would be unacceptable to the present rulers).

Recent History

Coming to the 20th century, the two world wars greatly affected Oxford University. It is on record that in 1914 there were 1400 undergraduates in Oxford and only 369 in 1918. A vast number of bright young students and teachers had been killed in World War I. Bertrand Russell, who was a pacifist, was appalled by the slaughter of these innocents and blamed it partly on the defective education system in the country which included Eton and Oxford University. Here is what he said: "… Eton and Oxford set a certain stamp upon a man’s mind just as a Jesuit College does… In almost all who have been through them, they produced a worship of ‘Good form’ which is as destructive to life and thought as the medieval Church. ‘Good form’ is quite compatible with a superficial open-mindedness, a readiness to hear all sides, and a certain urbanity towards opponents.

But it is not compatible with fundamental open-mindedness, or with any inward readiness to give weight to the other side. Its essence is the assumption that what is most important is a certain kind of behavior, a behavior which minimizes friction between equals and delicately impresses inferiors with a conviction of their own crudity. As a political weapon for preserving the privileges of the rich in a snobbish democracy it is unsurpassable. As a means of producing an agreeable social milieu for those who have money with no strong beliefs or unusual desires it has some merit.

In every other respect, it is abominable". (In the light of the above identification and description of Oxford’s educational philosophy by Russell who surely knew what he was talking about, what happened to President Rajapaksha in this shameful episode makes sense).


Contrary to popular belief in our country, Oxford is certainly not a sanctuary of free thought. In discussing this matter further it is necessary to be clear what is meant by ‘free thought’. There are two senses in which the phrase is used, one narrow and the other wide. In the narrow sense, a free thinker is one who does not believe in any organized religion. Unlike in the earlier centuries, free thought in this sense is now widely tolerated in the UK. Free thought in the wider sense is another matter. Thought Is not really free if people are liable to penalties of one sort or another for holding certain beliefs. For example, to this day in England under the blasphemy laws, it is illegal to express disbelief in the Christian religion, though in practice the law is not implemented. That is why the great English exponent of popular science and biologist Professor Richard Dawkins of Oxford University has become both famous and rich by writing the bestselling book titled ‘God Delusion’.

Bertrand Russell cites three specific instances in his own life to demonstrate that there has been no real freedom of thought in England in recent times. One is that the Courts intervened to prevent him from being brought up without being taught any religion as required by the last will of his free-thinking father. The second is that the Liberal Party refused to accept him as a parliamentary candidate because he was an open nonbeliever.

The third is his dismissal from his lectureship in Cambridge because of his pacifist views in World War I. It may be noted in passing that Cambridge University itself came into existence in the early 13th century when a group of scholars from Oxford left it after a controversial dispute with the people of the town of Oxford. So much for Oxbridge being a haven of free thought!


All in all, the Oxford episode has not been a debacle or disaster. Given Oxford’s history what came to pass was neither wholly surprising nor altogether unpredictable. In my estimate one invaluable consequence accrued from this experience: President Rajapaksha emerged as a man of supreme courage. It is salutary to remember, however, that so much courage can be a dangerous thing.

As Ernest Hemingway said: "If people bring so much courage to this world, the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break, it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these, it will kill you too, but there will be no special hurry". Because I am none of those I am going on merrily – on seventy eight.