by Dr. Rajiva Wijesinha
It was depressing, on my first morning in England this time round, to attend a debate at the House of Commons on Sri Lanka in which the usual suspects revived their attacks on Sri Lanka and its government. However, since unlike them one should look at what is in a half full glass, rather than concentrate on what is missing, it seemed to me that there was also reason for optimism.
In the first place, there were fewer of the suspects than previously. Dismal Andrew Dismore had been defeated, as Joan Ryan had been. It was the latter who thought education in the Vanni was finished when Save the Children withdrew, only to be roundly rebuked by Save the Children itself. Andrew Pelling was gone, and so was Susan Kramer, who had been heavily involved with the hunger striker of MacDonalds fame last year. And even those who remained seemed more subdued, as though they no longer believed in their exaggerations.
Most heartening of all was the response of the new Junior Minister assigned the subject. Sadly, with almost all those there hostile (only 15 of them, it should be added, despite claims that the large attendance was evidence of keen interest in the subject), his tone was apologetic, but he seemed determined to suggest a new dimension to the relationship.
He commented on the reduction in the numbers in the Welfare Centres and made it clear that any inquiry into the conduct of operations was the business of the Sri Lankan government.
If then the British government is, rightly, more concerned about positive measures in the future than dwelling on the past, and if the usual suspects have realized that beating the same drum will serve no purpose, there seemed to me nevertheless some reason for worry in a new dimension was introduced.
This was by Barry Gardiner, perhaps the sharpest of those who were present on the opposition side. He it was who had introduced the idea that Tamils returning to Sri Lanka still faced danger, and later in the debate he asked for a commitment that the British government would work with those elected to the so-called Transnational Government.
The Minister very properly ignored that request and instead noted that the government would listen to everyone. This seems to me perfectly acceptable, but I trust the government will not be dragooned into granting any official status to this Transnational Government.
Apart from the fact that very few people voted in the election, thus making clear the desire of the majority of Tamils in the diaspora to move on, without clinging to the remnants of the LTTE, it would certainly be strange if a friendly government took cognisance of something that purported to exercise authority with regard to parts of a fellow sovereign nation.
That effort by Barry Gardiner struck me as the most insidious of the feelers put out by the opposition. In comparison, their efforts to play the China card, and suggest that Britain needed to be worried about this, seemed childish, and were dealt with very tactfully by the Minister.
The response to the question about GSP +, for the deprival of which many of the Labour MPs present unashamedly took credit, was also reasonable, indicating hope that the Sri Lankan government would be able to retain it. This use of the work retain, rather than regain, suggested a positive approach, which is eminently desirable given the evident desire of elements in the previous government to claim responsibility for Sri Lanka losing GSP +.
Some of this and more came up in meetings I had both with the Minister for Immigration, and at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The latter was attended also by a representative from DFID, the aid branch of the government. While I could understand the current British position that, as a middle income country, we were not a suitable recipient for aid, and while obviously it would be wrong to ask for funds that would be taken away from more needy countries, it seemed necessary to remind the officials present of the squandering in the past of funds designed both for peace building and for humanitarian assistance.
Whilst one appreciated the intentions of the British government, and while certainly some humanitarian agencies had done a good job, it was clear that better monitoring should have been done. In particular the earlier determination, to give vast amounts of money for peace building to agencies that seemed intrinsically opposed to government, was obviously a strategy that the new government needed to rethink.
Whilst obviously old habits and predilections die hard, I felt that new officials in place were prepared to listen, and certainly they acknowledged the need to coordinate with government. Obviously we could not be funded for activities the British government did not wish to promote, but equally obviously funds intended to benefit the Sri Lankan people should not be given for activities which did not fall within the framework of the plans and policies of the elected Sri Lankan government.
Earlier there had been a claim, untenable but perhaps understandable given the approach of the 2002-2003 government, that the internationals held a balance between the Sri Lankan government and a group which, though terrorists, were in negotiation with that government. After the LTTE withdrew from talks however there was no excuse for the failure of our friends to register the primacy of government throughout the country. That message I believe is now well understood throughout.
My view then is that both countries are ready to move forward in terms of our traditional friendships and in accordance with international norms. This optimism was confirmed in a brief discussion with the Prime Minister, whom I happened to meet at a strictly social occasion.
I expressed my gratitude for the fresh approach the Ministerial statement seemed to indicate, and in acknowledging this he drew attention too to the work of Liam Fox, who had been able to inspire confidence in us even at a time when the British government seemed less than sympathetic to our struggle against terrorism.
He ended with the hope that magnanimity would follow victory, a much more heartening appeal to our common values than the blaming and shaming that characterized the approach of earlier officials.