|The decision by British Defence Secretary Liam
Fox to postpone a visit to Sri Lanka for the
Lakshman Kadirgamar memorial lecture was because he
apparently caved in to pressure from the British
Foreign office and Foreign Secretary William Hague,
if we are to believe media reports from the United
It is no secret that Sri Lanka’s relations with
Britain are at a new low.
It could be compared with the crisis nearly 20 years
ago when then President Ranasinghe Premadasa
expelled the British High Commissioner in Colombo,
That is because of the recent fiasco related to
President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s visit to the United
Kingdom to address the students of the University of
Oxford. After travelling to Britain, the President
had to cancel the lecture and return because of the
potential for ugly protests by LTTE sympathisers.
The British authorities were not enthusiastic about
curtailing these protests.
Protestors at the Heathrow Airport were allowed
to display T-shirts and banners proclaiming support
for the LTTE which technically is still a proscribed
terrorist organisation in Britain.
When questioned about this glaring anomaly, the
pathetic excuse proffered by the British authorities
was that this was a matter solely for the police and
that if an offence had been committed it was the
police who should have acted and the government had
no influence over it. Of course, British bobbies who
were at the scenes of the protests did act: they
looked the other way!
That entire incident was a reflection on the British
government’s attitude towards Sri Lanka.
There is no need to sugar-coat the obvious.
Britain is still smarting at President Rajapaksa’s
gumption to defy its pleas to halt the mid-2009
offensive against the LTTE.
It had decided to ‘teach him a lesson’ - and this
is the manner in which they chose to do it, a
diplomatic snub to try and embarrass the President.
It is in this context that British Defence Secretary
Fox was planning to visit Sri Lanka.
He too, like President Rajapaksa when he visited
Britain, was scheduled to have a private visit. It
has been made clear that neither the British
government nor the government of Sri Lanka were to
pay for his expenses.
And, surprise, surprise, the British Foreign office
was reported to be ‘furious’. Had Fox visited
Colombo, it would be tantamount to a slap in the
face for Whitehall.
So, once again the pressure machine went to work.
Opposition Labour MP Jim Murphy was to table five
questions in parliament stating that “Liam Fox has
to be clear exactly what he is trying to achieve
with this visit”.
Shadow Foreign Secretary Yvette Cooper was to then
ride the infamous war crimes hobby horse, asking in
the Commons whether Fox would “take the message as a
member of the UK government about the importance of
a credible investigation into alleged war crimes,
and will he also press for an international element
to the investigation?”
It was against such a backdrop that it was
announced late on Thursday - literally and
metaphorically at the eleventh hour - that Fox would
be ‘postponing’ his visit to Sri Lanka.
The official reason given for the ‘postponement’ of
Fox’s visit is interesting. A spokesman for Fox said
that “the postponement was due to ‘an extension to
his scheduled official visit to the Gulf’ and it
would go ahead next year
Of course, that was diplomatic jargon for a virtual
Few will be naïve enough to believe that such
‘extensions’ to official visits are penciled in at
the last minute especially when Fox had already
committed to visiting Colombo and when there is no
immediate and unforeseen crisis that has suddenly
erupted in the Gulf!
Fox of course has always been a friend of Sri Lanka.
In 1996, when he was Parliamentary Under-Secretary
of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, he
brokered an accord between then President Chandrika
Kumaratunga and Opposition Leader Ranil
Wickremasinghe, where they agreed to adopt a
bi-partisan approach in efforts to seek a solution
to Sri Lanka’s ethnic question.
A medical doctor by training Fox is now, however,
As such he is subjected to electoral pressures.
As Defence Secretary of the United Kingdom his is no
longer a low-profile role.
Whether he likes it or not, he is part and parcel of
the public face of the United Kingdom.
That is why he was coaxed, cajoled and convinced
into calling off his Colombo visit.
We in Sri Lanka do understand his personal
But this latest turn of events brings forth another
question: do British citizens including its Defence
Secretary really enjoy the freedom of expression and
the freedom of association that they so ardently
lecture on less fortunate nations?
Had the late Lakshman Kadirgamar, the gentleman who
Fox was supposed to have honoured this weekend been
around, he would have chuckled and diplomatically
said, ‘the answer is obvious, isn’t it, old chap?’!