Undiplomatic revenge

Sri Lanka and its former colonial master, the United Kingdom, do not appear to be enjoying the best of relations these days. A diplomatic cold war is being staged, and the UK seems to be taking to the role of loser not with a stiff upper lip, but rather more like a typical ‘whingeing Pommie’.

We have commented editorially in these columns about the irony of the Attorney General of Sri Lanka being summoned to the British High Commission in Colombo for an interview, before being granted a visa for a visit to the UK, while notorious drug lord ‘Kudu Lal’ had the privilege of being escorted to the tarmac of the airport by the equally notorious Minister, with ticket, passport and visa, the latter obviously courtesy of the same High Commission.

In November 2007, we had the infamous ‘Karuna’ episode, where ex-Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) eastern leader Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan visited the UK, and was tried in that country for the immigration offence of travelling on forged documents. On that occasion, the British claimed, during Muralitharan’s trial, that the Sri Lankan government was a co-conspirator in providing him with forged documents, an allegation that Colombo has strenuously denied.

The latest in this series of events was last week, when the British High Commission went to extraordinary lengths to ensure that a female passenger bound for the UK was allowed to emplane at the Katunayake Airport, despite having no valid visa.

Prima facie, this appeared to be a clear violation of Sri Lankan immigration laws, and Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama summoned the British High Commissioner to call for an explanation. The High Commission not only provided an explanation, but released details of that explanation to the media-and this is the same office which stated that it ‘doesn’t comment on individual cases’, when inquiries were made regarding the visa issues of Kudu Lal and that of the Attorney General!

The explanation itself is even more astounding. The passenger in question, the High Commission said, “had been removed from Britain under immigration procedures and had later challenged her removal, and after the court of appeal ruling in her favour, she had to be returned to Britain.” Therefore, the High Commission said, “there is discretion within British legislation to allow the visa requirements to be waived in certain cases.”

This explanation is all well and good- except that it studiously ignores the fact the passenger was in Sri Lanka, and therefore, no matter what discretion is conferred by British legislation, Sri Lankan laws would apply to her and would take precedence. The British argument, at best, is supercilious; at worst, it is a calculated attempt to deliberately embarrass the Sri Lankan government.
The British High Commission cares not a whit about Sri Lanka’s laws and immigration procedures that were arguably flouted, and states only of “visa requirements being waived in certain cases”. Sadly, the High Commission seems to have forgotten that Britain no longer rules the waves and waives the rules, and that countries such as Sri Lanka are sovereign nations which can and do act on their own.

In the context of this series of incidents, we see a disturbing trend: there appears to be virtual harassment of visa seekers to the UK; there also appears to be concerted attempts to embarrass Colombo through these events.

Those in diplomatic circles say that is tit-for-tat. This is the manner in which our old colonial master is getting even with us for the dressing down its Foreign Secretary David Miliband got, when he, along with French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, tried to intervene in the last stages of Sri Lanka’s conflict with the LTTE.

Miliband and Kouchner were summoned to the presidential retreat in Embilipitiya - and not to the corridors of power in Colombo - to be told that the battle with the LTTE was Sri Lanka’s internal affair, and that, there would be no compromise on the efforts to eliminate the Tigers. Miliband in particular, was reportedly given an earful by Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa on that occasion.

The Miliband-Kouchner endeavour in Sri Lanka was clearly a diplomatic faux pas. Now, unable to stomach the humiliation that it yielded, Britain seems to be resorting to rather undiplomatic ways and means of getting even with Colombo, and it is extremely unlikely that Colombo will yield to such tactics and go softly on related issues. So, this diplomatic tug-of-war is likely to drag on for some more time.

This is indeed a sad state of affairs, because the halcyon days of British-Sri Lanka relations were not so long ago, when that country assisted Sri Lanka with the Victoria project, and both Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher visited Colombo as honoured guests. From that apex, relations have sunk to a nadir, simply because Britain believes it should champion some of the causes espoused by the LTTE, despite the Tigers being a banned terrorist organisation.

This is in stark contrast to the attitude of countries such as India, Japan, Thailand and Malaysia, which have recognised the significance of Sri Lanka’s military victory over the LTTE and given Colombo every support that they could afford, especially in the post-war scenario, where ‘mopping up’ operations against the LTTE are now in progress. They have been friends in need and friends indeed.
Britain too, may still dare to call itself Sri Lanka’s friend; but with friends like these, who needs enemies?