By Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka
“Our nation–Tamil Eelam! “Our leader–Prabhakaran!” shrieked the demonstrators brandishing Tiger flags outside the Sri Lankan High Commission in London on the 70th Independence Day of our country. Defense Attaché, Brigadier Priyankara Fernando, can be seen on video, watching the demonstration.
What does the Brigadier see? The Tiger flag, with the crossed rifle-butts and the stylized bullets. The flag of the terrorist enemy that he fought, and was trained to fight. He reacts, not by hurling abuse or throwing something, but by making a gesture. It was gesture with two moves. He taps his shoulder patch, showing that he belonged to the Sri Lankan military. Then he makes a lethal fighting gesture, but only a gesture.
His reaction was utterly unacceptable as a diplomatic officer. He should have been reprimanded by his High Commissioner. Perhaps even recalled for consultations. But he should not have been immediately suspended and the announcement of the suspension posted on the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry’s website.
The Foreign Ministry has just rewarded those who demonstrated with Tiger flags, i.e. the pro-Tiger, if not LTTE mob, outside our High Commission, by suspending the military officer. The Foreign Ministry statement has not a single word of remonstration about the Tiger demonstrators, nor a word of understanding about the extenuating circumstances triggering the emotional response of the officer.
Would a mob of demonstrators chanting al Qaeda or ISIS/ISIL slogans and brandishing al Qaeda or ISIS/ISIL banners chanting slogans glorifying Osama bin Laden as their leader, be allowed outside a US Embassy if on the 4th of July? In the very unlikely event that such a grotesque exhibition of fanaticism is allowed by the Metropolitan Police, and a member of the Embassy staff had reacted in disgust with a forceful gesture, would he have been immediately suspended and the announcement posted on the US State Department website?
What if, nine years after the US Civil War, a Union (Northern) officer stepped out of a US embassy in Paris or London and was confronted on the Fourth of July by demonstrators waving Confederate flags?
What if nine years after WW2, an Allied officer—US, UK, Soviet or French—were confronted by demonstrators with Nazi flags outside their embassies, waving the Swastika and thrusting their arms out in the familiar Seig Heilfascist salute to Hitler in their faces with complete impunity? There would doubtless have been an incident far more violent than a gesture of lethality. The Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry is not meant to stand with the Sinhalese against the Tamils or vice versa. But it is certainly meant to stand with the Sri Lankan state against the Tigers. Without Tiger banners, a Tamil demonstrator against the government or even the Sri Lankan state, is a legitimate demonstrator who happens to be a Tamil. But a Tamil demonstrator who chooses to brandish a Tiger flag and chant Prabhakaran’s name is a fascist, a separatist and a supporter of terrorism.
This incident was not about Sinhalese and Tamils. Brigadier Fernando was not making a racist i.e. an anti-Tamil gesture. He was making an anti-Tiger gesture: a violent gesture towards a monstrously violent movement.
The Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry cannot be a neutral umpire between a Sri Lankan military officer and such fascists—and still less can it punish the military officer while not lodging a protest with the British government about the character of the demonstration.
If the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry, a key component of the Sri Lankan State, reacts with such unseemly lack of restraint and haste against an officer of this country’s military against a mob of fanatical fascist-separatists, especially when that officer has not engaged in an act of harmful violence, then who and what does? Who and what does the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry stand for, and with?
The biggest indictment of what the UNP of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe has done to our independence and sovereignty in this 70th year as an independent nation was best expressed by our first Prime Minister DS Senanayaka’s grandson Vasantha Senanayaka, speaking on the occasion of the commemoration of FR Senanayaka some weeks ago. He said that speaking as the State Minister of Foreign Affairs, he has reason to believe that this country’s foreign policy is decided upon externally, by foreign powers.
State Minister Vasantha Senanayaka has just been proven right. Not only did we make the unprecedented gesture of having as the chief guest on our 70th Independence Day celebrations, members of the British Royalty, which oppressed us and from which we emancipated ourselves 70 years ago, we have just followed it up, days later, by persecuting an officer of our armed forces who fought to liberate us all from terrorism and to reunify our state and whose emotional gesture against a fascist enemy in defense of his country’s self-respect warrants reprimand but not arbitrary punishment.
Who in the Foreign Ministry or outside it decided to promptly suspend Brigadier Priyankara Fernando? Whose interests does it represent?
The Foreign Ministry has just taken sides—the side of the Tiger demonstrators, and against the Sri Lankan military officer. We too must take sides, but the right one. Do we agree with the Ministry that the military officer’s gesture was worse than that of the hostile Tiger mob? Or do we think, as I do, that the Brigadier’s response to the Tiger provocation should be viewed, though not with approval, but with some understanding and sensitivity on our part? On which side do we stand?
President Sirisena has indicated a reshuffle in the aftermath of February 10th. He must either take the Foreign Ministry away from the UNP and vest it in the SLFP (perhaps in himself) or give it to a patriotic UNP gentleman such as State Minister Vasantha Senanayaka. For our part, I would say that Brigadier Fernando’s understandable if misplaced gesture is far better put into effect with a ballot paper on February 10th than with a finger. If we do our duty, then members of the armed forces would not feel the need to make such intemperate gestures.