President’s London Visit: ‘Our Side of the Story’

President’s Secretary Lalith Weeratunga last week summoned a press conference at the old parliament now serving as the presidential secretariat to tell “our side of the story’’ of President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s recent London visit.

As is well known, LTTE supporters succeeded in getting a session of an event organized by the Commonwealth Business Council cancelled as the president was due to make the keynote address there. External Affairs Ministry Monitor Sajin Vas Gunawardene, External Affairs Secretary Karunatillake Amunugama and High Commissioner Chris Nonis were associated with Weeratunga at this briefing called to place what happened in London in the proper perspective in the context of the propaganda mileage the LTTE was able to derive from the cancellation.

What emerged from all that was said there was that the British police (or more specifically the London Metropolitan Police) had been unable to accurately assess the LTTE’s ability to quickly mobilize a big crowd of protestors, not only from the London area and elsewhere in the UK but also from some neighbouring European countries where the Tiger rump counts fairly substantial support. Almost up to the eleventh hour, that is the day before the event, the British authorities had been assuring Lankan officials and the president’s security contingent that the event could go ahead. But thereafter the Commonwealth Business Council, on police advice, decided to cancel the morning session affecting not only President Rajapaksa’s keynote address but also addresses by other Commonwealth leaders as they feared the protest would have caused considerable inconvenience to Londoners engaged in their normal business.

Both Weeratunga and High Commissioner Nonis stressed that the visit was a success with six of the seven events the president was due to participate in London successfully concluded. The British authorities had accorded Rajapaksa top security cover while he was in London to ensure that no untoward incident occurred and courtesies accorded included a short meeting with Prime Minister David Cameron at a Marlborough House event attended by the Queen. That meeting, Nonis said, was held at the room of a senior official of the Commonwealth Secretariat and was attended by four – Rajapaksa accompanied by the high commissioner and Cameron and an aide. Suggestions that the president met the British premier in a crowded reception hall in the company of a number of other guests were not correct, the high commissioner said, adding that some useful ground had been covered. Also, Cameron had apologized to Rajapaksa about the cancellation of that morning’s session of the Commonwealth Business Council. It now remains to be seen if the British police will act against those protestors publicly displaying the flag of an organization banned in the UK – the LTTE – in London. It would not be difficult to identify such flag bearers from available video footage. If the police choose to ignore the matter, it would be a comment on the lack of impartiality in law enforcement in a country that prides itself of being the mother of democracy. Unlike in the UNP – TNA Jaffna May Day event, when there was no arrest of a couple of similar Tiger flag bearers, it is unlikely that they were `plants’ of some security agency to discredit the protest.

Weeratunga countered the suggestion that given what happened earlier when the president was prevented from making an address to the Oxford Union, that he should not have accepted the British invitation to attend the Queen’s diamond jubilee celebration. Most people would go along with his contention that Sri Lanka cannot `funk’ being present at international events merely because of what LTTE supporters may or may not do. If an event is cancelled, as happened in London, then that is a matter for the hosts to handle. Not having made a scheduled speech, which can in any event be distributed among participants, is no big deal although Tiger propagandists tried to make it so.

Let us not forget that LTTE lobbyists failed dismally in trying to prevent Rajapaksa being invited to the jubilee celebrations in the first place. The primary effort having failed, the next best thing they could do was organize protests; and that they can easily do in a country where democratic rights of protest are deeply rooted. Mahinda Rajapaksa is no hate figure in Britain like, say, Idi Amin and it is unlikely that chants and placards alleging war crimes will resonate with people who hear and see them. It will only create some media hype and blowing of propaganda trumpets. If you command resources, and there is ample evidence that the LTTE rump does command ample resources, spending a little money can drum up a crowd who will wave the supplied banners and make the necessary noise. It’s very much a replay of the rent-a-crowd scenes we are familiar with a “buth’’ packet and a bottle of intoxicant producing the necessary result. The protestors from outside the London area were no doubt accommodated in London, supplied their meals and most likely given a few quid spending money. No doubt there are some true aficionados who would spend their own money and expend energy at such circuses but they are not many.

It is a fact that the president’s speech as well as others scheduled for the morning session of the Commonwealth Business Council was cancelled made news both here and abroad. But few here would agree that President Rajapaksa should not have attended the diamond jubilee celebration in the context of what happened at the Oxford Union several months ago. The fact that the next meeting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government (CHOGM) is being held here made it imperative that the president should accept the diamond jubilee invitation which he did. His presence in London made it possible for him to interact with British politicians sympathetic to Sri Lanka at a reception at the high commissioner’s residence hosted by Nonis, have a meeting with Prime Minister David Cameron and demonstrate in characteristic fashion that he was not afraid of LTTE protestors when he brushed aside security concerns, alighted from his car and addressed a group of lion flag waving supporters who had mounted a counter to the LTTE.

Concerns and perceptions here have much more to do with expenses the taxpayers will have to bear hosting CHOGM next year. Given the giant entourages that tend to accompany the president on his overseas visits, people would have also wondered how big the retinue to London was and caviled at the expense if it was as big as some of the earlier junkets. The LTTE stopping a speech should be of less concern to Lankans than Britain’s inability to prevent a proscribed terrorist organization from flaunting its stripes. Realistically, we must be happy that the British parliament was in recess at the time of the visit. If not, the LTTE would surely have engineered something there given the friends it counts in the British Commons.