By Col. R. Hariharan
President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s key note speech at the Commonwealth Economic Forum organised by the Commonwealth Business Council (CBC) and the City of London today was called off by the organisers “due to pressure of pro-LTTE elements in London” as the Sri Lanka High Commission claimed. Though the Scotland Yard was ready to provide assured security, the CBC “decided it was not in their interest to stage the event” according to media reports. However, CBC website merely said: “After careful consideration, the morning sessions of the Forum… will not take place.”
The President is visiting UK to attend the Diamond Jubilee celebrations of Queen Elizabeth’s reign. The cancellation of his CBC speech is reminiscent of his disastrous December 2010 visit. On that occasion his address at the Oxford Union Debating Society was cancelled by the organisers in the last minute for security reasons in the face of mounting protest from Tamil Diaspora organisations and human rights activists. The protesters wanted international action against the President for alleged war crimes by Sri Lanka army during the final stage of Eelam War.
However, President Rajapaksa and Mrs Rajapaksa participated in a number of other events organised on the occasion; these included the thanks giving service at the St. Paul Cathedral in London, the welcome ceremony for heads of state organized in the Buckingham palace and a lunch for the Queen organised at the Commonwealth Secretariat. There were protesters as well as counter protesters outside the hotel where he was staying.
Before the President leaves UK on the next leg of his visit to Rome, Tamil campaign groups in the UK – Global Tamil Forum (GTF) and the Tamils Against Genocide (TAG) – appear determined to launch legal efforts to highlight the responsibility of the President in the alleged human rights excesses committed in Sri Lanka.
The GTF in a letter to the Home Secretary sought the withdrawal of visas of two police officers in the President’s retinue as it was planning to prosecute them under the convention against torture. On the other hand, the TAG has written to the Metropolitan Police making a formal complaint against the President for alleged involvement in war crimes and requesting an investigation. As the President enjoys absolute immunity from prosecution, the move was clearly to embarrass him.
Timed to cause maximum damage on the occasion was a story splashed in The Guardian that dramatically described the two-week ordeal of torture of a Sri Lankan Tamil asylum seeker at the hands of Sri Lankan authorities after UK deported him last year. This story coincides with the forcible deportation of Sri Lankan Tamil asylum seekers by British authorities which has been on the increase.
The continuing woes of President Rajapaksa in handling allegations of gross human rights violations remind me of the ending of Hollywood director Mark Robson’s 1956 classic ‘The Harder They Fall.’ This last movie of veteran actor Humphrey Bogart based on the sleazy world of rigged prize fighting, is said to have had two endings.
Sportswriter Eddie Willis (Humphrey Bogart), who abets crooked boxing promotion, is troubled by his conscience in the end and demands that boxing be banned altogether. In the other ending, Eddie merely insists that there be a federal investigation of the prize fighting business.
The video version is said to contain the “harder” ending, while many television prints ended with the “softer” option. In the case of Rajapaksa’s human rights woes, Tamil Diaspora and human rights INGOs appear to have opted for the “harder” ending – promoted by Channel 4 videos and want Rajapaksa and company to be hauled up before the International Criminal Court, no less.
On the other hand, the majority of countries who voted for the UNHRC resolution asking Sri Lanka to be more accountable for its conduct and investigate the human rights allegations, appear to have opted for the “softer” ending, leaving Sri Lanka the option to impartially investigate the allegations.
In the context of Rajapaksa’s dilemma, a memorable dialogue in the movie by Nick Benko –the crooked boxing promoter – comes to my mind. He tells: “The people, Eddie, the people! Don’t tell me about the people, Eddie. The people sit in front of their little TVs with their bellies full of beer and fall asleep. What do the people know, Eddie? Don’t tell me about the people, Eddie!”
Unfortunately for the President, the people seem to know what they are talking about. There is no alternative for thorough and impartial investigation of all allegations – whether they are home grown or international. That seems to be the only answer. Otherwise, the “soft” option could turn “hard” and Rajapaksa’s future visits to the UK – say for the Olympic Games may well end up in yet another action replay.
Rajapaksa’s reluctance to squarely face the allegations of human rights excesses and take follow up action is not understandable. He is required only to follow the advice he dished out at the UN Day of Vesak Celebrations in Bangkok on June 2. On the occasion he said the teachings of the Buddha are relevant today as they were twenty six centuries ago. If the leaders of our modern world are to embrace this advice, many of today’s conflicts, both domestic and international, could be resolved for the benefit of mankind.
He added: “Justice and the Rule of Law are not alien concepts for those of us who from our childhood are nurtured by the doctrine of Buddha. These are, therefore not concepts that need to be preached to the converted.” All the so-called detractors of Sri Lanka are asking for is justice and rule of law. So what is the problem?
Sri Lanka’s problems are not going to be solved by cosmetic action like deporting two Channel 4 journalists from Colombo or organising counter protests. More serious action is required as time for introspection seems to be running out.
Col. R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, served as the head of intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka 1987-90.He is associated with the South Asia Analysis Group and the Chennai Centre for China Studies. E- mail:[email protected] Website: www.colhariharan.org