(Excerpts From the “Sunday Times” Political Column of February 11th 2018)
Just this week, a completely unrelated incident was to highlight the sharp and heightening divisions within Sirisena’s coalition. It came after Britain’s High Commissioner to Sri Lanka James Dauris lodged a strong protest with the Foreign Ministry in Colombo over the conduct of Brigadier Priyantha Fernando, the Sri Lanka Defence Attache in the High Commission in London.
A group displaying flags of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was demonstrating on February 4 outside the mission premises in Hyde Park Gardens. Videos of how these demonstrators also threw the Sri Lanka national flags on the ground and trampled them have gone viral. They lay as floor mats when they moved around. They also carried photographs of the slain leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. Some even had it printed on the front side of their T-shirts. This was on the 70th anniversary of Independence. Brigadier Fernando, who was among High Commission officials present outside watching the goings on, had made gestures with his finger around his neck that mimicked throat slitting.
In his interactions with the Foreign Office in Colombo, Dauris had hinted imperially at the likelihood of Brigadier Fernando being declared persona non grata and deported to Colombo. This was if no action was taken against him, including his recall. British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was being pressured by expatriate Tamil groups and British parliamentarians supporting them. Though it is seven decades since Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) received Independence from British colonial rule, some things have changed and others have not. Whitehall seemed interested in continuing to give orders to Colombo.
Britain banned the LTTE 17 long years ago calling it a “terrorist group”, along with the rest of the European Union nations in the aftermath of the assassination of the then Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar. The British Government turned a Nelsonian-eye at the protestors carrying not only the flag of that banned organisation, but portraits of the slain LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran during protests. These acts are offences under the ban. London argues it is freedom of expression.
One wonders whether the same “freedom” would apply if protestors were marching the London streets with ISIS flags on long poles or whether they would end up en masse to languish in the Belmarsh prison. In 2016 British Prime Minister Theresa May told British troops “we are on your side” and “no lawyers will be able to chase British soldiers with ‘vexatious’ claims of human rights offences. She declared that “human rights could be suspended in the battlefield.” That is exactly what she did.
A clear case of what is sauce for the goose is not sauce for the gander. Since Independence, many a British High Commissioner to Sri Lanka have been men of great humanity and humility. They have acted with the full knowledge that Sri Lanka is a sovereign nation. Alas, some others seem to appear different, just unable to kick their imperial attitudes despite masking themselves as friends of the natives.
Not that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London has changed its approach to former colonies or their citizens. It is more a case of some of their men feigning diplomacy to arm twist. A sad lament came from a senior minister conversant with matters of foreign policy. He declared “our bane is trade, aid and political support from them. We have to stomach a little bit of arrogant colonialism every now and then though it is not a declared policy of their Government. We are not to follow what they do but only what they tell us.”
This is by no means to say that the reported conduct of Brigadier Fernando, an officer of the Sri Lanka Army, was in any way right. For a member of a disciplined force, it brings disrepute to his organisation and gives credence to weird stories. Discipline is the bedrock of any military organisation. After engaging in a near three-decade-long war, through lessons learnt, the Army has become a respected, disciplined and professional force for militarily defeating Tiger guerrillas. The United Nations have recognised this role and given them peace keeping assignments in trouble spots around the world. More countries have opened out training opportunities.
It is a known fact that the British Government had put on hold hundreds if not thousands of asylum applications from Sri Lankans. It has declared that “things are normal now” and told asylum seekers to “go back to your country.” That position is true but such conduct could easily be misunderstood as the Army’s attitude towards civilians, particularly Tamils. However, the biggest blunder over this incident is imposing punishment on the officer without so much as an inquiry. Ironically, there are still big bureaucrats who ask “how high” if they are told to jump by a diplomat of a big power. Even in militarily most advanced countries like the United States or Israel, the complaint against a military officer over violating Rules of Engagement (ROE) or other forms of misconduct are inquired into before punishment is meted out. It goes without saying that it is one of the principles of natural justice.
The comedy of errors that followed after the Dauris protest and veiled warnings highlights this syndrome clearly. After he received the British High Commissioner’s complaint, Foreign Secretary Prasad Kariyawasam contacted the Defence Secretary Kapila Waidyaratne. The latter, as is clear, is in charge of the Sri Lanka Army at the bureaucratic level. The Foreign Secretary is learnt to have insisted that his defence counterpart issue a suspension order on Brigadier Fernando. Defence Secretary Waidyaratne later explained to President Sirisena that he had asked for the conduct of an inquiry first but the Foreign Secretary had insisted on the suspension before that.
The Foreign Ministry also hurriedly distributed a news release. This is what it said:
“Alleged incident involving the Minister Counsellor (Defence) attached to the Sri Lanka High Commission in London
“Authorities in Sri Lanka have taken serious note of videos being circulated on social and web-based media of an alleged incident involving the Minister Counsellor (Defence) attached to the Sri Lanka High Commission in London behaving in an offensive manner.
“In this connection, instructions have been sent to Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner in London today, 6 February 2018, to suspend the Minister Counsellor (Defence) from work, with immediate effect. Authorities in Sri Lanka including the Sri Lanka Army will initiate inquiries on the incident immediately.
“Ministry of Foreign Affairs
“6 February 2018 “
The actions of the Foreign Ministry infuriated President Sirisena. He asked Presidential Secretary Austin Fernando for information and summoned Foreign Secretary Kariyawasam to his residence at Paget Road and questioned him why he decided to seek a suspension order on Brigadier Fernando without an inquiry. A source familiar with the dialogue revealed that Sirisena used some strong language to underscore his disapproval. When queried on whose authority he chose to issue the suspension order, President Sirisena learnt that he had obtained it from the Defence Secretary after Premier Wickremesinghe had approved the move. This angered the President further.
He noted that as Minister of Defence, the Sri Lanka Army was one of his subjects. He should first have been consulted before any action was taken. Sirisena said he was now ordering the Foreign Secretary to immediately send a directive revoking his own order and show it to him promptly thereafter. If he was unable to do so, Sirisena asserted, he should bring along with him his letter of resignation from the post of Foreign Secretary. Kariyawasam assured that he would send the revocation order immediately and copy it to the President. Then a Foreign Ministry statement declared that the suspension order on Brigadier Fernando has been withdrawn but claimed an investigation was under way. However, on Thursday, the Commander of the Army Lt Gen Mahesh Senanayake told the media there would be no action against the Army officer.
That the Premier gave a directive on a matter relating to the Ministry of Defence, a subject constitutionally vested with the President, without formally informing him, was cause for serious concern for Sirisena. That he did not mince words over this with his own Foreign Secretary, as expected, brought issues to newer levels of acrimony. On Thursday, at the last rites of the Ven. Bellanwila Wimalarathana Thera, though seated next to each other, Sirisena and Wickremesinghe exchanged few words.