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UK's tough message to Sri Lanka

2013 Nov 07

By Neville Ladduwahetty

At a media meeting with Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi, Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron is reported to have stated that he plans to have:"some very tough conversations with the Sri Lankan government… I‘m not happy with what they’ve done following the conflict and we’ll have some very frank conversations to make those points" (Daily Mirror, October 31, 2013). This was followed up by UK Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Hugo Swire in a statement to the House of Commons where he had said: "When visiting Sri Lanka for Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) we will take a tough message to the Sri Lankan Government that they need to make concrete progress on human rights, reconciliation and political settlement" (Daily Mirror, November 2, 2013). Continuing, the report stated: "During the CHOGM the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and I will see the situation on the ground in Sri Lanka and deliver clear massages to the Sri Lankan Government that concrete progress is needed on human rights" (Ibid).

It is apparent from the foregoing that the British government has already made up its mind on the situation in Sri Lanka long before its representatives "see the situation on the ground". The need to indulge in tough talk without the need for a prior first- hand assessment as a matter of curtsey and for giving the benefit of doubt, is obviously motivated by compulsions of domestic politics back home. It is shameful that democracy today has deteriorated to such abysmal levels where the need to harvest votes at any cost has compelled political parties to indulge in practices where diplomatic restraint and the need to give the other side a "sporting chance" is sacrificed for political gain, even at a cost to a country’s national interests and in the case of U.K., to its special role as the originator of the very concept of the Commonwealth and its ideals.


The Conservatives and Labour parties have been the victims of Tamil diaspora influence by way of votes and money. The current balance between these two parties is so tenuous that every influence counts. It is this background that has compelled successive U.K. Governments to cater to parochial interests of the Tamil diaspora in order to finance election campaigns even if their vote banks are relatively insignificant. However, this dynamic could change if Scotland votes for independence and Scottish Labour ceases to be represented in the British Parliament. Such an outcome would alter the current balance between the Conservatives and Labour in favour of the Conservatives in an English Parliament; a situation that would free England to pursue its politics without the need to engage in tough talk to placate puerile interests of new immigrants at the expense of the interests of the hosts.

In the case of India, these compulsions have reached such proportions that she is prepared to sacrifice the larger geopolitical and strategic interests as a regional power of the whole Indian nation in order to harvest the Tamil Nadu votes judging from its uncertainty as to its participation at the forthcoming CHOGM. The dilemma faced by India is how to balance participation in the CHOGM proceedings without jeopardizing its national interests while also showcasing its participation in a manner that reflects disapproval of the current regime in Sri Lanka in a manner that would satisfy the pretentious politics of the Tamil Nadu politician who by day vociferously express their concern for the Tamils of Sri Lanka and by night rob them of their livelihood by poaching in Sri Lanka’s territorial waters.

The Prime Minister of Canada on the other hand has decided not to participate in the CHOGM, despite the fact that Queen Elizabeth II is the Head of State and Head of the Commonwealth, due to pressures and influences brought to bear by the Tamil diaspora in Canada. Under the circumstances, nonparticipation is tantamount to snub Canada’s own Head of State and Head of an institution that is meant to be a carryover of the former British Empire. If the reason for nonparticipation is because Sri Lanka is the venue and as an expression of disapproval of the current regime, Canada’s decision would make sense if she decides to leave the Commonwealth at least until so long as Sri Lanka’s President and Head of State is its Chairman for the next two years.

The need for the formation of coalition governments is what projects parochial influences to the forefront. If parochial compulsions are to determine whether or not to participate in the forthcoming CHOGM, would their absence not amount to undermining opportunities to revisit the goals and objectives of the Commonwealth and modify them to fit present circumstances? If the reason for tough talk or non-participation is due to the state of human rights in Sri Lanka, objective introspection would reveal that the state of affairs in Sri Lanka is not that different to what exists in former colonies in Asia and Africa. The common thread that binds former colonies is the struggle to cope with the legacies left behind by colonial powers such as Britain. Ironically, the very pressures successive U.K. Governments are experiencing in its domestic politics is from a remnant of this very legacy – the Tamil diaspora.


Sri Lanka’s national question is a legacy of the policy of "Divide and Rule" where influential ethno-religious and socio-religious minorities were artificially created and majorities were marginalized. This policy was common to most of the former colonies in Asia and Africa and further compounded by arbitrary boundaries that even today assign the same tribe to separate countries in Africa. What has taken root over centuries is expected to be corrected in decades while maintaining high standards of Democracy, Human Rights and Rule of Law. While it is the desire of former colonies to live by these ideals for their own sake and in a form that best suits their respective cultures, the situation on the ground reflect the pitfalls experienced on their journey which often end up in violence of a sort that did not exist prior to the arrival of the colonizers.

There has to be accountability for the past. And it cannot be in the form of tough messages whether by Britain or by India. What Sri Lanka is struggling with is how to rebalance the aspirations of emerging generations with fresh priorities while being compelled to be governed by a political legacy in the form of the 13th Amendment imposed by India. Just as much as Britain wants to talk tough, India insists that Sri Lanka implement the 13th Amendment following intervention in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs in violation of International instruments to which they shamelessly subscribe. Notwithstanding the fact the 13th Amendment is not acceptable to the overwhelming majority in Sri Lanka the sticking point for India is still, according to The Indian Express is for the "implementation of the 13th Amendment of the Sri Lankan Constitution for equal rights to Tamil citizens" (Sunday Island, November 3, 2013).

Since the Northern Provincial Council is empowered to exercise all the powers devolved under the 13th Amendment to the same degree as exercised by the other 8 Provincial Councils – no more no less, it is beyond comprehension how India could possibly maintain that Tamil citizens DO NOT have equal rights with the rest. The only explanation for the prevailing misguided impression has to be either ignorance, or as victims of misinformation perpetrated by parties interested in discrediting Sri Lanka. Whatever the case may be, compelling whole populations to live under a political arrangement that is not of their free choosing is not only undemocratic, but also morally wrong because it violates the universally recognized right of national self-determination of a whole Peoples.


The Commonwealth is supposed to uphold values of Democracy, Human Rights and Rule of Law. The situation in respect of these values has to vary considerably from time to time among its 53 members. Consequently, assessments are often driven by compulsions based on political expediencies. In the case of U.K., India and Canada such expediencies are driven by parochial influences of minorities at the expense of the national interests of the national majorities in their countries. The reality on the ground is an erosion of representative Democracy.

Considering the traumas of centuries old legacies left behind as a result of the injustices perpetrated by colonial policies of divide and rule where artificially created minorities were privileged and majorities marginalized, where crimes against humanity that included slavery were committed during their colonial rule, the situation in former colonies reflects the struggles they undergo and the challenges they have to overcome, often at great cost in blood and treasure to correct the wrongs perpetrated by their colonizers.

Under the circumstances, the forthcoming CHOGM should be an occasion to acknowledge that any deficits in respect of Democracy and/or Human Rights needs to be a shared responsibility between former colonies and their colonizers because the present is not free of the past. In the case of Canada, Australia and New Zeeland CHOGM should be an occasion to acknowledge the crimes they have committed against the Indigenous Peoples in their respective countries. Similarly, India should be held accountable for compelling a whole nation to live under a political system thrust on Sri Lanka by force to satisfy the parochial interests of Tamil Nadu; one of India’s coalition partners in Congress. Only then would CHOGM become an occasion for catharsis, healing and reconciliation so necessary in many members of the British Commonwealth of Nations.

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