By D.B.S. Jeyaraj
Journalists James Harding and Ben Macintyre of the UK “Times” were about to leave the Dorchester Hotel in London on December 1st 2010 when an aide of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa came down hastily to the lobby and contacted them.
“President Rajapaksa wants to see you urgently. Can you come please?” asked the Presidential emissary.
Both journalists had just completed an hour long interview with the Sri Lankan President at his suite in the Hotel and taken their leave. Now they were being summoned again.
When the obliging British scribes from “Times” went up again they found an impatient Rajapaksa waiting for them in the corridor. In striking contrast to his demeanour earlier when being interviewed the Sri Lankan president now seemed “angry and crestfallen”.
Rajapaksa informed Harding and Macintyre that the President of the Oxford Union Society –James Kingston – had just informed him that the address scheduled for the following day (dec 2nd) had been cancelled.
The reason given for the abrupt cancellation was that protests were being planned by Tamil political activists and that the Oxford union could not guarantee President Rajapaksa’s safety. “I think he (James Kingston) has been threatened by these fellows,” snapped the Lankan president.
President Rajapaksas mood was understandable. The Sri Lankan leader had arrived in Britain with a large entourage for the main purpose of addressing Oxford’s prestigious Oxford Union. Now the union had cancelled it unilaterally at very short notice.
It was definitely a political snub for the man who had successfully defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) militarily in Sri Lanka. In an ironic twist supporters of the LTTE in Britain had struck back by compelling the Oxford union to backtrack on an extended invitation.
The unilateral cancellation was indeed a political embarrassment for President Rajapaksa. He had been riding the crest of a victorious wave in recent times. Now he was being forced to eat humble “kola kenda” by the Oxford union which had unilaterally cancelled the scheduled speech
Shabby treatment was being meted out to Sri Lanka’s popular head of state who had come all the way to Britain to address the Oxford union. Apart from the insulting conduct of the union the issue was also a denial of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s freedom of expression.
The bitter irony was that the right of free speech was being denied to the President by the Oxford union society which had been described by a former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan as “the last bastion of free speech in the western world”
What had led to this sorry situation?
An explanatory statement was issued in this respect by the Oxford Union Society press officer Alastair Walker . It stated as follows –
“Earlier this year, The Oxford Union invited the current President of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa, to address our members at a date convenient to him. The Union has a policy of inviting a broad range of prominent politicians and heads of state from around the world and the invitation to Mr. Rajapaksa was made within the context of this policy”.
“Since the invitation was first accepted by Mr. Rajapaksa, the Union has consulted extensively with Thames Valley Police as well as the Sri Lankan High Commission in London on security arrangements for the President’s visit. Due to security concerns surrounding Mr. Rajapaksa’s visit which have recently been brought to our attention by the police, the Union has regretfully found that the talk is no longer practicable and has had to cancel his address”
“This decision was not taken lightly and the Union deeply regrets the cancellation. The Union has a long tradition of hosting prominent speakers and upholding the principles of free speech. However, due to the sheer scale of the expected protests, we do not feel that the talk can reasonably and safely go ahead as planned”.
“The Union holds a politically neutral stance with regards to speakers and the decision was not made in relation to any aspect of Mr. Rajapaksa’s political position, the policies of his administration or any allegations against his government”.
“As the President of Sri Lanka for the last five years, the Union felt that Mr. Rajapaksa would provide a unique insight into the political climate of the region in his speech. The Union wishes to apologise to our members for this unfortunate cancellation.”
The scheduled event for December 2nd had originally been planned for November 8th but was postponed due to a request made by the President himself.
November had been quite hectic for Rajapaksa who had a tight schedule including that of taking oaths again as Executive President, forming a new cabinet, presenting the budget and meeting with visiting dignitaries like Pakistan’s Asif Zardari and India’s SM Krishna.
It was against this backdrop of a busy program that President Rajapaksa had sought a postponement for December. This however caused much controversy due to speculation that the Sri Lankan head of state was reluctant to visit Britain for fear of being arrested as an alleged war criminal.
There were many stories in sections of the media that moves were afoot to invoke the principle of universal jurisdiction and charge the Sri Lankan President for war crimes allegedly committed by the Sri Lankan armed forces during the final stages of the war against the LTTE in May 2009.
Pro –LTTE elements in the global Tamil Diaspora went into a media frenzy and regaled various media organs with stories of how Rajapaksa had backed out of coming to Britain due to fear of being arrested as a war criminal. Had he arrived in Britain in November as originally planned he would have suffered the fate of former Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet, it was said.
This had its fall –out in Sri Lanka too with many articles appearing in the Colombo media about the pros and cons of the possibility of the universal jurisdiction principle being invoked successfully against the President. This led to a feeling among certain circles in Sri Lanka that the President should not risk “arrest” at this juncture by going to Britian.
It was also speculated in sections of the media that Rajapaksa had bought time by postponing his trip to London. It was said that he would utilise the time gained to obtain concrete guarantees of immunity from prosecution from the British government. If such guarantees were provided he would go in December.Otherwise he would simply stay put in Lanka it was felt.
Those who opined that the President had caved into threats of possible arrest in Britain had not understood who Mahinda from Medamulana was. The president is a man who seldom retreats from a challenge. He was certainly not going to keep away from Britain for fear of possible arrest.
Apart from the necessity to demonstrate his personal and political courage there was another reason to go too. The invitation from Oxford was something the President did not want to reject. He had already addressed the union once in 2008. Now he was being invited to speak again and Rajapaksa was in no mood to miss this opportunity because of the antics by pro-LTTE elements of the Tamil Diaspora.
An invitation to address the Oxford Union Society generally known as the Oxford Union is regarded as a highly prestigious honour. The Oxford union society is different from the Oxford Union Students Union (OUSU) the accredited student representative body of Oxford university. The OUSU has around 20,000 members.
Oxford Union Debating Chamber ~ pic: Rajiv Dabas
The Oxford Union society on the other hand is an unincorporated association comprising past and present students at the university. The Oxford union is largely composed of students at Oxford and is reputed for oratory and debating. Formed in 1823 ,it is the second oldest University union in Britain (Cambridge is older)
Being elected President of the Oxford Union society is considered to be a great achievement amidst Ox-bridge circles. Interestingly Sri Lanka has had four Oxford union presidents in the past. Three were males and one female.
The first to be elected from Sri Lanka was Lalith Athulathmudali an old Royalist. He was elected in 1958. Lalith was followed by Lakshman Kadirgamar an old Trinitian.He was elected in 1959.
An old Thomian was elected President in 1983. He was Hilali Noordeen. Three years later in 1986 the first Sri Lankan woman was elected President. She was Jeyasundari Wilson an old girl of Methodist College Colombo.
Of the four Sri Lankan Oxford union Presidents One was Sinhala, Two Tamil and one Muslim. Likewise the religious breakdown was one Buddhist, Two Christians and One Muslim or Islamic.
A poignant incident involving Sri Lanka and the Oxford Union occurred in 1959. SWRD Bandaranaike prime minister of then Ceylon had been invited to address the union in September 1959.
Two days prior to his departure from Colombo, Bandaranaike was shot by a Buddhist monk Ven Talduwe Somarama Thero and passed away a day later. Laksman Kadirgamar had to stand in for SWRD.
Many distinguished personalities have addressed the Oxford union in the past. Such an invitation is deemed an honour. Some of those who have done so include Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, the Dalai Lama, Mother Theresa, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Robert Kennedy, Henry Kissinger, John Mccain, David Lange, Pervez Musharraf, Stephen Hawking, Richard Dawkin, Cherie Booth and Gerry Adams.
In that context , it was but natural for President Rajapaksa to go to Britain. For one thing he had to prove a point to the Diaspora as well as his domestic constituency by going to Britain despite the Damoclean sword of universal jurisdiction hanging over him. Secondly he wanted the laurel and kudos of addressing the prestigious Oxford union.
When it became known that President Rajapaksa was to leave for Britain on November 29th and address the Oxford union on December 2nd , overseas LTTE circles were flabbergasted. They had simply believed their own propaganda and thought that Mahinda had been scared away permanently.
Another attribute of the pro-tiger elements among the Tamil Diaspora is its capacity to generate heat than shed light on matters. This column has often criticised these elements as “vocal warriors”. They are for the most part members of NATO which means NO ACTION TALK ONLY.
The furore over invoking principles of universal jurisdiction and getting Mahinda Rajapaksa arrested too was a case of too much babbling. There were news items galore that action was being planned or being formulated in this respect but very little concrete action seemed to be taken.
Common sense decrees it that action of this type would be done discreetly but in this case there was too much talk and little action. It was a case of all gas and no solid.
Thus when news broke that Mahinda was coming to London the LTTE lobby was taken by surprise. According to an informed Tamil source absolutely nothing had been done to initiate judicial proceedings against him. Besides the visit was indeed a defiant challenge to the tiger Diaspora. Also the scheduled address at Oxford was regarded as a brazen affront.
It was in such an environment that LTTE and pro-LTTE elements in the Diaspora particularly those in Britain galvanised themselves into action. It was too late apparently for initiating constructive legal action against the President but there was always the option of mass action and agitational propaganda.
A glimpse of what lay in store for the President at Oxford was seen when the President arrived in London by a chartered flight.About 300 – 350 Tamil activists with placards mobbed the Heathrow airport demonstrating against his arrival.
Given the prevailing weather condition in London it was indeed remarkable that hundreds of demonstrators could turn up at the Air port. Many of them had placards and flags with the LTTE emblem of a roaring tiger. The pro-tiger elements say that this is the Tamil Eelam national flag and not that of the LTTE. Of course this deceives no one except the younger generation of Tamils without any knowledge of related history
The President was whisked away through a special entrance/exit for VVIP’s in order to avoid the noisy demonstrators. The demonstrators of course had their “Andy Warhollian” 15 minutes of fame and got widespread media coverage.
British Tamil political activists then launched a widespread campaign to protest against the invitation extended by the Oxford Union to President Rajapakse to speak in Oxford.
Several Tamil organizations from Western nations engaged in an intensified campaign against the scheduled talk. Worldwide Appeals were made to the British Government in general and the Oxford union in particular
Numerous letters, petitions,emails,faxes were sent and telephone calls made to authorities and office –bearers at Oxford .
A massive demonstration was also planned at Oxford on December 2nd the day on which President Rajapaksa was to make his speech.
Thousands of demonstrators planned to converge at Oxford throughout the day and conduct the protest campaign.
Efforts were underway to pepper the walls of Oxford with anti- Mahinda posters. Leaflets criticising the Tamil civilian massacres were to be distributed. Demonstrators also planned to block all “paths” leading to the venue where the President was scheduled to speak
Special buses had been arranged in different parts of Britain to transport demonstrators to Oxford.
The highlight of the protest demonstration was to be the presence of several Sinhala activists protesting the unjust treatment meted out to former Army commander Gen.Sarath Fonseka.
It is learnt that several non – Tamil human rights organizations and activists were also planning to participate in the demonstration. One such organization was “Act Now” headed by Tim Martin who had been on a hunger strike in May 2009
The protest campaign had been planned and coordinated by the British Tamil Forum (BTF) which is part of the Global Tamil Forum (GTF). The global LTTE youth wing TYO or the Tamil Youth Organization provided the required manpower.
Hundreds of activists from the European mainland were also planning to cross the English channel and demonstrate in Oxford.
The political environment underwent an emotional transformation after the British TV “Channel – Four” showed further footage on alleged brutal cold –blooded execution of prisoners by soldiers.
In another video clip circulated widely on the web gruesome images of a naked woman were shown. It was alleged that the girl was “Isaipiriya” a woman announcer on the TV run by the LTTE in the Wanni.
The State had earlier announced that she had been killed in the fighting.
Allegations were made that a senior LTTE commander “Colonel” Ramesh was one of those being killed in cold blood. While the govt had announced earlier that “Col” Ramesh was killed in battle,Tamil sources charged that “Col” Ramesh had surrendered to the armed forces. A video clip shown on the internet had Ramesh pleading with his “Sinhala” captors in uniform.
The controversy surrounding these TV images and related charges had electrified the atmosphere and fuelled the resentment in Tamil circles towards President Rajapaksa’s scheduled talk in Oxford. It appeared that thousands of Tamils would converge at Oxford on D-day and demonstrate strongly.
The sustained propaganda against the Sri Lankan government over alleged war crimes in mainstream British TV and newspapers had its impact in Oxford too. There was much interest now in Oxford circles about the forthcoming event.
There were two schools of thought among students. One school was against the whole idea of allowing the Sri Lankan President to address the union. These sections were convinced that Rajapaksa was guilty of war crimes and should not be given an opportunity to address the union.They also indicated that they would launch massive demonstrations against Rajapaksa if the union went ahead with the talk.
The other school of thought wanted President Rajapaksa to be afforded the right of free speech. Adherents of this school wanted him to address the union but had plans of bombarding him with hostile questions after the speech. It had been planned to probe him in particular about alleged repression of university students in a spirit of undergraduate solidarity.
It could be seen therefore that there was considerable opposition to the President’s union address within the precincts of Oxford itself. While the proposed protests of Tamil activists captured media spotlight there was also a comparatively quiet transformation of the academic atmosphere within Oxford too in relation to president Rajapaksa.The mood was turning hostile.
Given this escalation of a hostile mood British law –enforcement authorities had huge security concerns over the scheduled talk. One move being contemplated was to cordon off a certain area and forbid traffic through certain roads. But this was not welcomed in the upper echelons of the Police who did not want to be accused of restricting free speech in the august Oxford environment
There were also bitter memories of past experience. The British police had encountered the “agitational activism” of Tamil youths in 2009 when demonstrations against the war were being held continuously. Given the highly emotional mood prevalent in Tamil circles due to media publicity about alleged war crimes it was feared that attempts to restrict or ban demonstrations could bring about violent repercussions.
Another move contemplated was to request President Rajapaksa to refrain from going ahead in the interests of his own security. He was advised to adopt a cautious approach. But to President Rajapaksa it was a matter of political prestige. He could not afford to climb down. Besides it went against the grain of Medamulana Mahinda to be cowed down by threat of danger.
So President Rajapaksa remained firm. According to a Sri Lankan official “they were highly impressed by the President’s determination to go ahead with the talk despite the opposition”. He was also ready to field hostile questions and put forward his opinion. At no point of time was the President prepared to relent on this issue. It was a case of taking the bull by its horns for the laird of Girawapattu.
Some Sri Lankan officials interacting with British officials urged a ban on protest demonstrations. But this request was turned down as being not possible in a democratic country respecting freedom of expression.
In such a situation the only other option for law –enforcement agencies was to put pressure on Oxford Union society itself. Union office bearers were appraised of the volatile situation. They were advised that going ahead with the lecture may result in serious violence and that the union could be held responsible for such an eventuality.
Citing Police intelligence reports,officers of Thames Valley Police informed the Oxford Union office-bearers that a massive protest had been planned in the heart of Oxford with about 5-10,000 people participating. If held it would have been the single biggest protest demonstration in recent times and the stately University town could be paralysed. Police also “advised” that the demonstration could turn violent thereby causing danger to Oxford and its inhabitants.
Police also advised that large numbers of protestors could infiltrate the Oxford union audience and target the Sri Lankan president. This too could turn ugly and pose a security risk to Mahinda Rajapaksa.In such a situation the Police was duty bound to take extreme steps.This in turn could render the pre-dominantly Student audience vulnerable.
The Oxford union office bearers also found the Tamil lobby in Britain conduct an intensive campaign against them . The Standing committee responsible for governance was broached directly.Passionate requests were made to cancel the speech of a “notorious war criminal”. Several non – Tamil students at Oxford also exerted pressure on the standing committee to call the talk off.
With large segments of the student community also urging a ban on Rajapaksa’s address the union found itself dithering in a Hamlet like dilemma.After much intra-union discussion and soul searching the beleaguered Oxford Union office-bearers “decided” to call off the talk and avoid a potentially explosive situation. The union is governed in these matters by an elected standing committee.
The Oxford Union Society took the unusual step of unilaterally cancelling President Rajapaksas address without consulting him. The cancellation was conveyed to him formally on December 1st. It was an unexpected blow to the President who had not expected the “last bastion of free speech in the western world” to deny him of that right so arbitrarily and suddenly.
There are however quite a few instances of free speech being denied by the Oxford union.In 1998 British ultra-right leader John Tyndall was invited for a debate. It was opposed vociferously by a section of the student population. This opposition along with Police “advice” resulted in the debate being cancelled.
The controversial historian and holocaust denier David Irving was invited to speak at a debate on censorship in 200. A coordinated campaign against this was conducted by Leftists, anti-fascists and Jewish community activists. It was spearheaded by elected officials of the Oxford University Students union.The debate was finally cancelled but Irving spoke at another debate later in 2007.
The well-known Euthanasia campaigner Dr.Philip Nitschke was invited for a debate on the topic of assisted suicide. After Dr. Nitschke accepted the invitation a second missive was sent by post to him withdrawing the earlier invitation. Apparently a strong lobby disagreeing with Dr. Nitschke had “persuaded” the union to withdraw the invitation. Dr. Nitschke described the act as colossal censorship and went on a lecture spree protesting against it.
In November 2007 the Oxford union invited holocaust denying historian David Irving and British National party leader Nick Griffin for a union forum on free speech. There was however much oppiosition to this from the Oxford University Students union. Massive sit –in campaigns were organized and would be attendees were prevented from going for the forum. There was widespread “rowdy” behaviour and finally two small debates were held in separate rooms with Irving and Griffin participating separately.
It could be seen therefore that there have been incidents where the right of free expression has been denied to persons by the “last bastion of free speech in the western world”. It is indeed sad that the Oxford Union unilaterally cancelled the invitation to President Rajapaksa due to intimidation and fear of possible violence.
Despite the disappointment the President remained unfazed. He instructed Presidential secretary Lalith Weeratunga to draft a statement on certain lines. The presidential statement said – “For security reasons the speech by His Excellency President Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka at the Oxford Union, the home of free speech, has been cancelled. This is a decision that has been made unilaterally by the Oxford Union, reportedly as a result of pressure applied by pro-LTTE activists”.
The President was quoted as saying “I am very sorry this has had to be cancelled but I will continue to seek venues in the UK and elsewhere where I can talk about my future vision for Sri Lanka.I will also continue in my efforts to unite all the people of our country whether they live in Sri Lanka or overseas.As a united country we have a great future. If we allow divisions to dominate we will not realise our true potential. We have had thirty years of division and conflict. We must now secure peace and harmony for all Sri Lankans.”
The LTTE elements in the Diaspora were elated by the cancellation. There was much jubilation in the ranks of Eelam. With the planned Oxford protest being unnecessary the pro-tiger lobby decided to change course. The Oxford Union decision strengthened and emboldened Tamil activists.
A demonstration was staged opposite the Dorchester Hotel in Park lane where the President was staying. While demonstrators braved the weather, waving placards and shouting slogans. While this was on numerous telephone calls were made to the plush Dorchester Hotel asking to speak to the “war criminal Rajapaksa”. Several other nuisance calls were also made warning the Hotel not to become a safe haven for “war criminals”.
Another demonstration was launched outside the Sri Lankan High Commission premises in London when it became known that an official reception was being held in President Rajapaksas honour. Apparently most of the invitees were Sinhala with a sprinkling of Tamils and Muslims. With demonstrators encircling the High Commission the Police had to intervene and obtain safe passage for the guests.
According to a Sri Lankan official the President remained calm and collected while the demonstration was going on. He did not display any outward sign of bitterness or rancour . He also told guests of his plans to bring about national reconciliation and ethnic unity through some measures of political reform. The demonstrators erupted into a loud “Bronx cheer” when the Presidents motorcade left amidst tight security. A few snowballs were thrown.
Despite the disappointment over the aborted Oxford talk the Presidents London visit did prove fruitful in other respects. Rajapaksa met Defence secretary Liam Fox in a “private” meeting where he informed the long standing friend of Sri Lanka about the power – sharing proposals he had in mind. The President also met some British Parliamentarians and the Commonwealth Secretary-General.
Meanwhile there were stories in the Tamil media about legal action being initiated against Major-General Chagi Gallage head of the President’s security division who had accompanied Rajapaksa to London. Gallage had been co-commander of 59 division during the last days of the war it was said. Since the President had sovereign immunity the British Tamil Forum was trying to get a British court to move against Gallage accusing him of war crimes it was said
Whatever the conduct of the tiger and pro-tiger elements of the Diaspora, President Rajapaksa is to be praised for reaching statesmanlike heights in the aftermath of the unilateral cancellation. A lesser man could have erupted into bitter, caustic sentiments but the president to his credit remained graceful under pressure. His immediate statement was admirably magnanimous and highly commendable.
Houses of Parliament from Westminster Bridge ~ by UK Parliament
There is no doubt that the unilateral cancellation has caused political embarrassment to the President. There is reason to suspect that certain elements in the British corridors of power may have utilised the Tamil Diaspora protests as an instrument to inflict a calculated snub to the President for reasons of their own.
There is also no denying that the irresponsible acts of the tiger and pro-tiger Diaspora is cause for provocation. The bulk of Sri Lankan Tamils are in Sri Lanka trying to re-build their shattered lives and get on with life. Diaspora antics are in no way helpful to them.
Also it was indeed galling to see demonstrators with tiger flags protesting against alleged war crimes of Rajapaksa and the military. The crimes against humanity committed by the LTTE against Tamil civilians in the last stages of the war were atrocious. It was hypocritical for tiger elements to portray themselves as champions of human rights and seek justice after perpetrating so much of horror and injustice against the Tamil people.
Media organs of the Tamil Diaspora gloat of a great victory in getting President Rajapaksa’s Oxford talk cancelled. The “triumphalism” expressed is having its effect on Sinhala hardliners in Sri Lanka. Wimal weerawansa is up to his old tactics of demonstrating against the British High Commission.. The unfair attack initiated by Dinesh Gun wardenon UNP Parliamentarian Jayalath Jayawardena deserves condemnation. The hardening of attitudes and flexing of muscles does not augur well for the future.
The Tamil Diaspora whether pro-tiger or not does have the democratic right of engaging in non –violent protest or dissent. But the multi-crore questions posed before tiger and pro-tiger elements in the Diaspora is this – How have the suffering Tamils in Sri Lanka gained by the cancellation of the President’s talk in Oxford? Why are you celebrating it as a victory without any concern for consequences? Is not the need of the hour national reconciliation and ethnic amity?
Let it be remembered that Mahinda Rajapaksa is the elected President of Sri Lanka. Any insult to him will be regarded as an affront to the people of Sri Lanka whether Sinhala,Tamil, Muslim or Burgher. The people would naturally rally around the President at a time like this.
This was visible when the President touched down at Katunayake on Friday December 3rd. Large crowds led by government politicians gathered to welcome him. Priests from the Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic and Christian faiths were there to bless him. The President seemed tired but was not downhearted by the debacle he suffered at the hands of the Oxford union
Mr.Kamalesh Sharma, Commonwealth Secretary-General met President Mahinda Rajapaksa in London on 03 Dec ~ www.president.gov.lk – Pix By:Sudath Silva
In this situation this column once again commends President Rajapaksa for the statesmanlike statement issued. This column understands his pain and disappointment in being “so near and yet so far”. It requests the President to treat this incident as a pinprick and get on with the task of Nation building where all the children of Sri Lanka would enjoy equal rights, peace and economic prosperity.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at email@example.com