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Britain and Sri Lanka: best friends forever?

Amidst mounting criticism from an array of voices, the British Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary continue to insist that they will be attending the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo next month, with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office going to extensive lengths to defend this decision. Calls for a boycott are gathering momentum, including an explicit promise of support from Douglas Alexander, the Shadow Foreign Secretary. Meanwhile the Indian Prime Minister is said to be reconsidering his attendance as protest grows in Tamil Nadu, including protests against Britain. But Britain’s decision to stand apart from a growing swell of domestic and international opinion on CHOGM is not unexpected. Over the past four years, and despite the now incontrovertible evidence of Sri Lanka’s grave and persistent crimes against the Tamil population, Britain’s relations with Colombo have remained remarkably affable and cosy. The Foreign Affairs Select Committee has rightly criticised this soft peddling as both ‘timid’ and ‘inconsistent.’  In short unless there is a decisive shift in engagement with Sri Lanka, not only will the UK continue to lose standing internationally, but it creeps towards joining China, as an unimposing and dependable ally of Sri Lanka.

The Prime Minister, the former Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt and the British High Commissioner in Colombo John Rankin have repeatedly stated that the summit would be used to send ‘strong messages’ to Sri Lanka. The Foreign Office meanwhile claims that constructive engagement with Sri Lanka is the only way to address its brutal treatment of the Tamils. For Sri Lanka however, hosting the CHOGM and then taking over as Chair of the Commonwealth are not opportunities for ‘constructive engagement’ or listening to ‘strong messages.’ Quite the reverse. As several Sri Lankan leaders and officials have made repeatedly clear, Sri Lanka intends to use the Commonwealth to counter growing international focus on its war crimes and on-going repression in the Tamil homeland. Hosting CHOGM and its subsequent role as Chair will allow Colombo to strut about the international stage, silencing its international and domestic critics as it does so. Whatever the British Prime Minster says or doesn’t say during CHOGM, his attendance itself is a boon to the Sri Lankan state, gifting it the international legitimacy and diplomatic recognition it so desperately needs.

Alistair Burt and others have also suggested that Britain had to attend the summit in Colombo to avoid causing a split in the Commonwealth, particularly one perceived as pitting the ‘white Colonial powers’ against an ex-colony. However, these considerations did not prevent Britain from taking a strong ethical stand on Zimbabwe, also an ex colony, and clashing with several African states whilst doing so. In this context it is worth noting, that during the early 1980’s one of Sri Lanka’s foremost allies in its war against the LTTE was Apartheid South Africa. Sri Lanka received extensive military training and equipment from the Apartheid regime, including the infamous Buffel armoured personnel carriers that are still in use today. Perhaps British and other delegates to CHOGM will see these emblems of Apartheid while on Sinhala military led ‘tours’ of the Tamil areas. Meanwhile given that Prime Minister Singh’s attendance is still uncertain and reports that several African states led by Kenya may boycott, it would appear that only Britain is anxious to avoid a ‘black’ and ‘white’ Commonwealth split on Sri Lanka.

Yet alongside this fastidious commitment to the Commonwealth’s unity, Britain also revealed a cut in Commonwealth funding. This follows Canada’s decision to review its financial contribution. But Canada’s position is clear and consistent. It is of a piece with Prime Minister Harper’s commendable stance to boycott CHOGM because of Sri Lanka’s clear violation of Commonwealth values. In contrast Britain is hopelessly muddled. On the one hand Britain wants to deliver a stern warning to Sri Lanka, but on the other hand it will not follow Prime Minister Harper’s example and send the strongest possible message by boycotting the summit. Then Britain claims it must attend the CHOGM in Colombo because it wants to maintain the unity of the Commonwealth, but is nevertheless happy to undermine the Commonwealth by cutting its funding. Inconsistent and timid indeed!

Colombo’s CHOGM will doubtless be a tamasha of Sinhala triumphalism; a diplomatic spectacle that Sri Lanka hopes will whitewash its heinous crimes and normalise its on-going campaign to secure total Sinhala dominance over the Tamil people and homeland. Having rushed to accept Colombo’s invitation, Prime Minister Cameron and Foreign Secretary Hague must now play their parts in Rajapaksa’s parade. In short while shoring up Sri Lanka’s international prestige, the decision to attend is sure to bring nothing but unease and embarrassment for Britain. But perhaps these are the things good friends and allies suffer for each other?