Fox’s predicament

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 Kingdom.
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, David Gladstone.
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 cancellation.
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, a politician.
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 predicament.
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?’!