By Sara Dissanayake –
The recent incident involving the throat-slit gesture made by Defense Attaché Brigadier Priyanka Fernando in response to the Eelamist protesters in London has, rightly so, stirred much controversy. Developments following the incident also sparked ample debate, prompting the public to take sides under the prevailing circumstances.
Instead, this incident compels me to shed light on another grave issue that continues to undermine Sri Lanka’s national integrity: the hypocrisy of the British state and its law enforcement. Needless to state, this is nothing new. Over the years we have repeatedly encountered diplomatic hypocrisy exerted to Sri Lanka, when it comes to the Tamil cause. With the conclusion of the war, this seems to have amplified. We are all too familiar with how the West typically responds to terrorism in other parts of the world. At this point, we reluctantly accept that double-standards, political opportunism and muddled diplomacy seem to be the signature traits of a world power. Having said that, it is imperative not to shy away from vocalising the issue, in every instance reality hits our face.
In the wake of the aforesaid incident, few British Members of Parliament with vested interests were quick to issue a letter of condemnation, urging Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary, to withdraw Brigadier’s diplomatic papers and expel him from the UK. I refer to the letter dated 5 February, signed by Labour Party’s Joan Ryan MP and Siobhain McDonagh MP, Vice Chair and Senior Vice Chair of All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Tamils, respectively. Conservative Party’s Paul Scully MP who is the Chairman of APPG for Tamils followed suit the next day. In the interim, the special branch of the Metropolitan Police is reportedly interviewing the complainants, with a view to press charges against the Brigadier. Furthermore, James Dauris, the British High Commissioner to Sri Lanka lodged a strong official protest with Sri Lanka’s Ministry of External Affairs. The entire ‘holier than thou’ political tamasha is rather flabbergasting, albeit carried out at the expense of holding the country’s rule of law in contempt. Sadly, the involved parties are either oblivious to the existing counter-terror laws of their own land, or they have no regard for the law in general.
While it is not a criminal offense in the UK to call for the creation of an independent state, need I not remind that the LTTE has been proscribed in the UK under the Terrorism Act 2000. Section 13 clearly stipulates that “A Person in public space commits an offense if he (a) wears an item of clothing, or (b) wears, carries or displays an article, in such a way or in such circumstances as to arouse reasonable suspicion that he is a member or a supporter of a proscribed organisation”. Photographs and video footages of the protest in question depict participants brandishing the notorious LTTE flag chanting “Our Leader Prabhakaran” in the presence of police personnel. Some are seen wearing a black customised sweatshirt with the slain leader’s photo in the front, with an Eelam map printed on the back.
Apologist would argue that flying flags does not necessarily constitute as supporting and glorifying terrorist acts, but such naïve logic does not hold water. Peaceful protests demanding an end to land grab, information on the missing persons and the right to self-determination are indeed acceptable within the law. However, when that message is exemplified by voluntarily and strategically flying a designated terrorist flag, along with publically accepting a megalomania who sanctioned brutal and indiscriminate terrorist acts as their leader- this surely elevates the issue to a whole new level. If this is not called supporting a proscribed organisation, I fail to comprehend what is. It is beyond comprehension how such flagrant violation of the anti-terror law is systematically turned a blind eye. Not only is the criminal activity overlooked, but talk about the pot calling the kettle black: the focus is shifted to removing Sri Lankan diplomatic personnel for offensive behaviour.
The British law enforcement employs selective application when executing their legal provisions, as each case concerned is supposedly ‘circumstantial’. Back in 2004, a man was convicted in Scotland under Terrorism Act 2000, when he was spotted wearing the ring inscribed with the initials of the Ulster Volunteer Force on his wedding finger. In 2015, the Metropolitan police was slammed for failing to arrest a man was walking in Westminster draped in a supposed Islamic State (IS) flag, with his small child who was also waving the flag. He was questioned on the spot, but evaded arrest on the grounds that the police was not able to establish that the man was direct support of IS. Conversely, two pro-Palestinian protestors were arrested in 2015 for offenses under Section 13 of the same anti-terror act, for flying the Hezbollah flag in London. Similarly in 2017, the Metropolitan Police gave an advance warning of arrests if anyone carries the Hezbollah flag at an anti-Balfour march in central London.
Once upon a time in April 2009, the UK police issued repeated requests for LTTE flags to be removed during the protests in support of the Tamil cause. Subsequently, two protestors were held on suspicion of carrying the said flag, which was later seized by the police. Since then however, the British law enforcement seems to have conveniently forgotten that the Tigers are a proscribed terrorist organisation. The Tigers flag has been making an appearance in every anti-Sri Lanka demonstrations in the past decade, and regardless of the occasional official protests made by the Sri Lankan High Commission, there have not been any attempts by the police to arrest or convict people displaying the flags in public. Ergo, the British state is effectually aiding and abetting terrorism in her own territory by disregarding its own anti-terror laws. At the same time, such ‘à la carte’ application of the law unfortunately signifies a diplomatic defeat for the Sri Lankan state.
What we can essentially take away from this incident is that Sri Lanka needs to take a more proactive approach in engaging with the UK. The inaction of the British law enforcement against flagrant pro-LTTE activism is likely to continue, given the inherent hypocrisy of superpower politics. We cannot expect either the Eelamists or the British state to change its approach: the tiger cannot change its stripes, both literally and figuratively in this case. Nonetheless, the fact that the British government is able to brazenly ignore its own anti-terror laws vis-à-vis the LTTE speaks volumes of her regard to Sri Lanka as a sovereign nation. The recent invitation of Prince Edward to Sri Lanka for the Independence Day Celebrations may have ticked a diplomatic to-do list in an failed attempt to appease its colonial masters, but it merely served to showcase the asymmetrical dynamics of UK-Lanka relations.
Sri Lanka can benefit more from proactively shedding its colonial past and adopting an independent foreign policy that is not driven primarily by external circumstances and appeasement. Yearning for superficial recognition by the international community and excessive economic dependence on the West has stripped Sri Lanka of her independence in the truest form. While professionalism of government officials are of utmost importance, at the same time, this incident should serve as an eye-opener to realise, once again, that Sri Lanka needs to stand up more firmly to assert her integrity and national interests. Let the vision for ‘A Country Enriched’ not be limited to socio-economic growth, but also to include a reformation of its foreign policy dynamics to emerge as robust nation with dignity and self-respect.
*The author is a Research Fellow at the School of Law and Government, Dublin City University, Ireland and a Senior Fellow at the Institute of National Security Studies, Sri Lanka.