by Rajeewa Jayaweera
A relatively minor episode which took place outside the High Commission of Sri Lanka in London on February 04, blown out of proportion, has ended in the unconditional surrender by GoSL to Britain’s diktat.
During the customary Independence Day ceremony taking place inside the High Commission premises in London, another event was taking place outside the Chancery Building at 13, Hyde Park Gardens. Members of LTTE front organizations Tamil Solidarity, The Tamil Youth Organization and Tamil Coordinating Committee aka TCC currently proscribed in the List of Designated persons under Regulation 4 (7) of the United Nations Regulation No. 1 of 2012 were holding their annual demonstration outside, carrying cutouts of Prabhakaran and Tiger flags with crossed rifle butts. They were chanting ‘Our Nation, Tamil Eelam,’ ‘Our Leader, Prabhakaran’ and ‘We Want, Justice.’ Readers may view a short video clip of the protestors by following https://youtu.be/sYtHp0xKkYg . Desecration of the national flag too has been reported.
Brigadier Priyanka Fernando, Defense Attaché attached to the High Commission who was attending the function stepped out, possibly to observe the goings-on. A senior officer of the Sri Lankan army, attired in dress uniform, was perhaps too much to bear for the demonstrators. The ensuing verbal exchange ended with Fernando tapping on his shoulder flash (of the national flag) and gesticulating by drawing two fingers across his throat. The gesture was filmed and immediately uploaded on British Tamil Conservatives Twitter feed and streamed to foreign missions in Colombo of nations who sponsored Geneva Resolutions 30/1 and 34/1 and NGO stakeholders of the resolution. It interpreted the Brigadier’s gesticulation as a throat-slitting gesture.
Much has been written about this episode and repetition is unnecessary. Suffice to state the Prime Minister directed the suspension of the Brigadier. The President ordered the suspension rescinded on the following day. Meanwhile, the British High Commissioner in Colombo lodged an official protest. Tamil diaspora organizations in London pressurized the British establishment to revoke Fernando’s diplomatic credentials and declare him Persona non-grata (PNG).
On Wednesday, February 7, High Commissioner Amari Wijewardene hosted a diplomatic reception at her Residence to celebrate the 70th Independence Anniversary. Mark Field, MP, and Foreign & Commonwealth Office Minister for Asia & Pacific represented the British government. According to a confidential source, Field, during his address, had stated, “British – Sri Lanka relationship was now continuing to strengthen.” He did not refer to the incident which had taken place outside the High Commission three days previously. Another source, on condition of anonymity stated, Field had privately assured some concerned VIPs attending the function, Sri Lanka’s Defense Attaché would not have his Diplomatic status revoked, and UK was not considering his expulsion from the UK.
Two weeks later, Clive Efford, Labor MP for Eltham raised the issue in the House of Commons. He questioned; “Has the Secretary of State had the chance to speak to the Sri Lankan ambassador regarding his (her) Defense Attaché Brigadier Priyanka Fernando and his behavior on February 4, when he made throat-slitting gestures to Tamil protesters? If somebody else incited hatred in that way on our streets, they would be interviewed by the police. Will the Minister make arrangements for Brigadier Priyanka Fernando to be interviewed by the police about that crime?
Mark Field responded: “I reassure the Hon. Gentleman that the UK takes this incident very seriously. When I spoke recently to Foreign Minister Marapana, he left me in no doubt that the Sri Lankan Government were treating it with the seriousness that it deserves. They have informed ?the UK Government that they have ordered the Defense Attaché to return to Colombo from London with immediate effect for consultations while the incident is thoroughly investigated. I hope that the UK and Sri Lanka bilateral relationship will remain strong and co-operative.”
In less than two weeks, Tamil diaspora pressure had successfully managed to compel the British government to make a 180-degree turn.
While this drama was unfolding, Sri Lanka was gripped with Local Government election fever and the government virtually paralyzed with politicians away from their offices on the campaign trail. The paralysis continued for two weeks after election day. Foreign Office mandarins in Colombo meanwhile did what they are best known for – to do nothing. The Foreign Secretary and his team, despite years of training and experience, failed to come up with strategies and options for consideration by the country’s leaders. Whether our clueless leaders would have made use of such initiatives is another matter.
Brigadier Fernando’s gesticulations on February 04 was inappropriate.
That said this issue is no longer about Fernando or any one individual. It is a matter involving two sovereign states and need be dealt with accordingly. GoSL cannot continue to surrender the nation’s sovereignty and give into demands of other countries for whatever reasons, may it be to appease Tamil diaspora in their countries for electoral gains or otherwise in a supine manner.
The handling of this issue from the beginning is akin to a tragi-comedy. A well-trained and experienced High Commissioner, together with an equally well-trained deputy would have swung into action immediately and undertaken damage control measures through high-level contacts they are expected to cultivate, besides providing the Foreign Ministry in Colombo with a situation assessment and recommendations on how best to overcome the situation with the least possible damage. The case in London is different. The High Commissioner, a political appointee, related to the Prime Minister did nothing of the sort. Details of some hilarious sounding correspondence were reported in the Thoughts from London column in last Sunday in another Sunday newspaper by veteran journalist Neville de Silva (political officers may be letter writers, but High Commissioners may not and should not sign blind). It is no secret; she is supposedly not on talking terms with her Deputy High Commissioner, a career diplomat known for his competence. She has resigned effective March 31. LTTE sympathizers in the Tamil diaspora community, already gung-ho of having got rid of the Defense Attaché have been given added ammunition to claim they have also got rid of the High Commissioner as well, due to her ill-timed resignation.
Fernando’s initial suspension was more a knee-jerk reaction than part of a well thought out plan of action. Even though the President rescinded the suspension order, he has fallen silent and gone along with the Brigadier’s subsequent recall. He has proved correct, those who believed from the outset, his directive to rescind the suspension order to be politically motivated and a pre-election stunt for electoral gain.
Rescinding the initial recall order and doing nothing thereafter helped neither UK nor Sri Lanka in managing the fallout. It only aggravated matters and kept the issue in the forefront.
Without suspending the Brigadier, he could have been summoned to Colombo, and an inquiry held behind closed doors for several weeks, allowing the issue to cool down. An Inquiry Report based on Fernando’s version of events (links to his interview given to Rivira newspaper and an English translation are provided at the end of this piece) but containing all the right words and noises, with legal advice from a reputed British law firm could have been prepared. The Army commander could have then reported inquiry findings to the President. Finding a) No grounds to believe the Brigadier had intended any harm to protestors b) Fernando’s interpretation of his gesticulations c) He regretted the incident, he could have recommended the Brigadier’s return to his post in London.
Disputes between nations are never resolved strictly based on righteousness. Negotiations need always take into consideration, nuances of domestic politics, need to satisfy public opinion in countries involved and to preserve bilateral relations.
Britain for centuries has practiced diplomacy combined with duplicity and might have even appreciated such an option to resolve an unpleasant and arduous situation. Such an offer would be acceptable to most nations including those with elements of Tamil diaspora. In doing so, GoSL would also have, in a manner of speaking, ‘put the ball in Britain’s court.’
Notwithstanding such an initiative, should the issue persist, it could be left to the British authorities to declare Fernando PNG and expel him from the UK. Such an act must necessarily follow with a reciprocal gesture from Sri Lanka by expelling the British Defense Attaché in Colombo.
Brigadier Fernando has now been recalled and has returned to Colombo. The army commander in his wisdom justified the recall “for his own safety.” He possibly is unaware of the obligations of host countries as defined in the Vienna Convention to ensure the safety of all accredited diplomats in the country. What the future holds in store for him is not known.
The primary cause of the initial blow hot blow cold reaction followed by the servile recall of the Brigadier is the absence of a strong and determined political leadership. Decisiveness is vital to meet foreign policy challenges and to effectively counter the propaganda machine of Tamil diaspora (some are LTTE front organizations) abroad who still espouse separatism and a deep-rooted hatred towards the Sinhalese. They will leverage the power they derive from electoral systems in their new-found homelands, especially in the UK.
Sri Lanka must also take up with British authorities of the issues on desecration of Sri Lanka’s national flag as well as displaying cutouts of Prabhakaran and Tiger Flags. Under the UK Terrorism Act 2000: “A Person in public space commits an offense if he (a) wears an item of clothing, or (b) wears, carries or displays an article, in such a way or in such circumstances as to arouse reasonable suspicion that he is a member or a supporter of a Proscribed Organization.”
Minor and even more far-reaching disputes between states are handled bearing in mind, the need to avoid damaging bilateral relations based on the principle of mutual respect. Regrettably, it is a virtue not understood by our leaders top down beginning with President Pallewatte Gamaralalage Maithripala Yapa Sirisena.
Exceptions of the likes of State Minister for Foreign Affairs Wasantha Senanayake who recently dared to state; “Sri Lanka’s foreign policy is made elsewhere,” are few.
My article last Sunday titled ‘Minister Kabir Hashim’s hogwash’ contained an inadvertent error. The Presidential Commission’s mandate to investigate wrongdoings at SriLankan Airlines and Mihin Lanka is during period 01 January 2006 to 31 January 2018 and not 01 January 2018 as stated by mistake. Therefore, the Commissioners can investigate reasons for the majority of Board members requesting the resignation of the CEO if they decide to do so. The error is regretted.