Getting the balance right – David Cameron and foreign relations

Soon after David Cameron had left Sri Lanka, the Sunday Times in England published a satirical piece about his visit. It accused him of behaving like a public school prefect and treating the Sri Lankan President like a fag, a junior schoolboy who was at his beck and call.

Cameron’s was certainly a brilliant performance, full of British bravado. Having decided, correctly in my view, that he would attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, he had to contend with the anger of those who have in effect been running British policy with regard to Sri Lanka, which has been deeply negative about our success in overcoming terrorism in this country. He had therefore to put in an aggressive performance to keep them happy, and this he certainly did.

I do not mean only the extremist members of the diaspora, who have been enormously successful in lobbying British politicians where it matters. Having concentrated their attentions initially on Labour, and obtained brilliant results through David Miliband, they were quick to switch in 2010 when the Conservatives won, while the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry floundered, and did not even bother to appoint a High Commissioner to England for a lengthy period.

But the efforts of the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam and others of that ilk have been helped by a built in bias in the British Foreign Ministry, which we have not been able to correct. I believe that we had a good chance when John Rankin was appointed High Commissioner, because he has been much less prejudiced than his predecessors, but we fluffed it, and have not built up the confidence that was needed.

I refer to bias because, way back in 2009, I recall those looking after Sri Lanka telling me in London that we should be talking to the TGTE. I found this outrageous and told them so. Earlier I had fully agreed that, after defeating the Tigers, we should be talking to the Tamils, but I had meant the Tamils in Sri Lanka (the failure of the government to do this straight away was a disaster, for which we must take the blame and the consequences, but that is another story). For the British to belittle the Tamils of Sri Lanka and concentrate on those in Britain and elsewhere, who had been funding the Tigers, was deeply insulting, and made it clear that their priorities were electoral advantage in their own countries, not the welfare of the Tamils in Sri Lanka.

David Miliband had made this clear, as we found in Wikileaks. Unfortunately the response I could make, or Dayan Jayatilleka or Tamara Kunanayagam, is not such as our Foreign Ministry establishment can manage. Not only do they not have the language skills, they do not also have the committed vision that will enable them to deal firmly with moral double dealing by foreigners. And though government may think that they can always call on us when disaster looms, I fear that our shelf life is now over, since the commitment to Tamils that we believed the President believed in (and which his rapid reconstruction and resettlement of the North testifies to) has now been diluted by the agendas of many of those in whom he reposes confidence.

I am sorry about this, but I can also understand what may seem paranoia to the British. A European friend described the British approach as that of a skilful matador goading a bull to frenzy and clumsiness, and perhaps that is the most plausible explanation of what has been going on. The article in the Sunday Times indicated this when it noted that ‘for 26 years the murderous, maniacal Tamil Tigers waged war in Sri Lanka — assassinations, suicide attacks, using children as hostages, planting bombs. And they were able to do so thanks to the money that flooded in largely from the UK — via the Tamil diaspora in, mostly, London.

For decades we turned a blind eye to the relentless fundraising for these terrorists — and the Tamil Tigers were themselves only proscribed as a terrorist organisation (rather than lauded as freedom fighters) in 2001, a year, incidentally, when we all opened our eyes to terrorism.’

It concluded with the rebuke to Cameron that, ‘maybe after ticking off this gentleman for the way he runs his country, a short apology from Cameron might not go amiss’ but that was an ideal perspective, ignoring the realpolitik of the manner in which powerful countries run their foreign policy. It was no coincidence that, when we had finally delivered our people from terrorism, there were no congratulations from the British.

That seems to have stunned our decision makers. After all, though the British now see the Secretary of Defence as the villain of the piece, he was naïve enough way back in 2009 to have virtually accepted the Western plan for the Tigers to surrender to the West, and for Prabhakaran to have been taken away for appropriate debriefing. It was only the President who, more perceptive through instinct than those who see themselves as more professional in their attitudes, put a stop to that little game.

So when the British continued to persecute us, bringing a resolution in Geneva that they reported to the House of Commons was about War Crimes (though the charming Charge in Colombo tried to assure me it was about ensuring that we resettled and rehabilitated quickly, which of course we have done), our security establishment began to worry. Things got worse after the disaster of the President’s visit to England at the end of 2010 – though again the problem there was those in the Foreign Ministry who encouraged his attendance contrary to the advice given by our High Commission in England. So the result is slowness too about what we should be doing to promote Reconciliation.

Unfortunately Cameron’s very legitimate concerns about this were overshadowed by his obsession with war crimes, which fits in with the agenda, not only of the extreme elements in the diaspora who still want a separate state, but also of those who seek regime change in this country. But given what the British have been up to, not only in the distant past but even more recently in Iraq and Libya and Syria, with funding of extremist groups to destabilize regimes they dislike, it is difficult to take British moral fervor seriously. Had they instead, like India, or even Australia, made clear their distaste for the monstrous, while urging greater attention to the needs of Tamils as well as Human Rights in general, and prompt remedial action when abuses occurred, they would have been more convincing.

But if we must regret Cameron’s sanctimoniousness, while still keeping his ties with (former???) terrorists, as the Sunday Times article suggests, we need to also recognize the seriousness of the threats he made. Unfortunately our Foreign Ministry will continue to believe that everything is under control, as they have so egregiously suggested to the President over the years. And those who are enjoying themselves under the present dispensation will back them up, claiming that we need fear nothing now in Geneva since many of our old friends are back on the Council.

Such complacency is idiotic. Many of our friends were on the Council in 2012 when we lost so badly. Unfortunately the Ministry, and its adherents who are close to the President, will simply not seek the advice of the only Sri Lankan capable now of dealing with the threat that looms over us. This is Dayan Jayatilleka, but the extremists who were deeply upset by his support for the 13th Amendment have succeeded in destroying him. Those extremists are certainly not keen to destroy Sri Lanka, but they have been aided and abetted by those in the Foreign Ministry who will continue to do well even when there is regime change, as was clear by their fervent adulation of the forces that had succeeded with the resolution against us in 2012.

They will continue to do us down by denigration of India, and in this regard I fear that the Indian Prime Minister has played into their hands by not coming to CHOGM, contrary to the advice of his Foreign Ministry. Cameron would certainly not have behaved the way he did had Manmohan Singh been here, and the latter could have given the more important message about working productively with the Tamils of Sri Lanka in an acceptable manner. But India, torn by both electoral considerations and efforts to bring it into the new Cold War as an active participant, is in a state of transition that means we need to do much more to promote the stability the region needs.

In this regard we need also to work more sensitively with other like minded nations, but again we fluffed this in not paying due attention to the tremendous support offered us by South Africa to get out of the trap that is being snared for us. The answer to Cameron was Jacob Zuma, but with a foreign ministry that has no idea of how to work with Africans, we will fail to move forward on what he has suggested either.

Cameron’s performance was a wake up call, but of our decision makers I suspect only the President will understand its significance. And once again those around him will doubtless lull him into complacency, knowing that they will survive any onslaught, even if he and our security establishment will suffer.

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