The conduct of [now suspended] Brigadier Priyanka Fernando, Defence Attaché of the High Commission of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka to the United Kingdom has already made viral headlines not only in the UK and Sri Lanka, but also across the world. The Brigadier’s ‘throat-slitting’ intervention, intended at Tamil nationalist/secessionist protesters who were protesting on the National Day of Sri Lanka, has resulted in many a debate on social media and beyond. While what happened was unfortunate, this incident sheds light upon crucial issues of relevance to post-war Sri Lanka, which are equally important to the worldwide Sri Lankan community. This article is intended at making sense, albeit parsimoniously, of the Brigadier’s intervention and the wider issues it sheds light upon.
Context and Pretext
This incident took place in London, once the capital of the British Empire, a monstrous structure built on murder, destruction, confiscation of land, waterways and bodies. The imperial project was one of creating division where there was none, aggravating division where there was some, and in ensuring a regular flow of profit and plenty to the coloniser’s hands. This historical backdrop needs to be constantly kept in mind when reflecting upon what happened at the doorstep of Sri Lanka House, formerly
Ceylon House, at Hyde Park Gardens on National Day 2018. In the present-day context, the stealth of the imperial prowess continues to be felt in many places across the ex-Empire, through neocolonial and neoliberal politics and diplomacy. Why, for instance, should a British company be given the multi-million-pound contract to print biometric Sri Lankan passports? This decision was taken at the highest levels of power in Colombo, at the behest and persuasion of British authorities. Despite reports from within relevant government departments in Colombo that an upgrade to state-owned facilities would suffice to print biometric passports, [at a cost much lesser than that that incurred by the deal with the British company], Sri Lanka’s top leaders decided to look away and do as they were asked and pressured. By the British. The point I wish to make here is that when it is of advantage to British interests, Britain continues to wield tremendous power over Sri Lanka, to the level of influencing cabinet decisions and more.
In other words, Sri Lanka’s present-day relationship with Britain has many problematic aspects, which successive Sri Lankan governments have silently and somewhat sheepishly tolerated.
It is very important to contextualise the Brigadier’s intervention in this backdrop of highly questionable UK-Sri Lanka relations, which are essentially exploitative, thoroughly asymmetrical and from the point of view of a Sri Lankan, outright ‘humiliating’. The fault here is not only with the British, but a significant amount of it falls upon the government of Sri Lanka.
The Sri Lankan armed forces, originally a creation of the British to protect British interests in the island and in the region, have extremely close ties to Britain. Many senior officers have been trained at Sandhurst and at other British military bases. Specific structures such as the now defunct Royal Ulster Constabulary and its successor, the Police Service of Northern Ireland, have long had very close ties and exchanges with Sri Lankan forces and law enforcement bodies. It is therefore relatively justifiable to claim that much of the training structures, approaches and practices in military formations in Sri Lanka are influenced by British military training, approaches, and practices. The military uniforms of Sri Lanka may today bear the Sri Lankan national flag, but we should never lose sight of the fact that the military is a structure originally created by the coloniser, for the coloniser. As we gained dominion status and kept the Queen’s official photograph on the wall and put up the photos of our anglicised oligarchy right below the Queen’s photo, and as we subsequently removed the Queen’s photo altogether and replaced it with photos of our own oligarchical brown ‘queens’ and ‘kings’, the armed forces have been evolving to respond to national security needs. Today, and despite their British roots, our armed forces have become a central institution at the heart of national identity for the large majority of Sri Lankans. Armed forces equal patriotism. This leads to the following equation:
Pro-armed forces at all times = patriotic
Critical of armed forces, regularly or occasionally = unpatriotic
During the thirty-year civil war and in the post-war years, this equation has come to define how Sri Lankans talk about the Sri Lankan armed forces. To many, the armed forces and servicewo/men are absolute heroines and heroes. The fact that the military in itself was a colonial construct, and therefore inherently carries oppressive dimensions that should be discussed, challenged and reformed, if not preferably ‘de-colonised’ in accordance with Sri Lanka’s present-day needs, is a conversation that is near-completely eclipsed.
To a minority of others [at the far end of Tamil nationalism], the armed forces are composed of criminals.
It is these two perspectives that we come across, time and again, when Sri Lankans discuss the behaviour of the Brigadier on National Day 2018 (It is important to reiterate at this point that this article focuses only on how Sri Lankans – and not non-nationals who interpret the incident to suit their own institutional, political and financial agendas – view the Brigadier’s intervention).
To some commentators, the Brigadier represents an absolute national hero. To others, the Brigadier represents a shame, an embarrassment, and his behaviour is indicative of the behaviour of our armed forces.
In the following, I will attempt at engaging in a reading that does not fit into this explanatory binary. In so doing, I will try to address a number of aspects of this incident that have received comparatively less attention.
Diplomatic Dimensions: Many Questions Unanswered
The incident took place on National Day, in front of the Sri Lankan High Commission at Hyde Park Gardens. At this point, I would request readers to watch and re-watch the many video clips of the protest and the incident in question, which are freely available right across social media. You would notice that the buildings on Hyde Park Gardens are not detached. This means that there is no enclosed front yard or security gates in front of Sri Lanka House. The Met Police is more than aware of the fact that Tamil demonstrations would be held on Sri Lanka’s National Day. Given the precedents of such protests [such as protests during President Rajapaksa’s visits to London while in office], there is absolutely no doubt that all relevant British authorities were perfectly aware of the nature and magnitude of Tamil nationalist, or to be precise, pro-LTTE anti-Sri Lanka protests.
When permitting the protest at Hyde Park Gardens, it appears that a major error has been committed by British authorities, which could well amount to a substantive breach of diplomatic protocol and basic diplomatic courtesy. After all, Sri Lanka is not some third state. It is a place the British forcibly entered, violating the protocols of local kingdoms and protectorates, plundering, looting, raping and exploiting. It is a place that was a Crown Colony and then a Dominion State. Sri Lanka is a member state of the Commonwealth, and currently has an extremely and unquestioningly [or to go by the book this writer has read, ‘dangerously’] pro-UK government in power. Sri Lanka is a place with multiple ties to Britain at so many levels.
On the National Day of such a country, and knowing full well that the protests can be intense, the British authorities allowed the protestors to come very close to the doorsteps of the High Commission. The protest was taking place literally right in front of the High Commission. Had it been a small-scale protest over a specific issue, that may have been permissible. However, knowing that the this would be a sizeable protest on Sri Lanka’s National Day, British law enforcement still allowed the protesters to come very close to the entrance of the High Commission. The videos also quite clearly demonstrate that there was very little uniformed police presence at the protest and in front of the High Commission.
In Colombo, if a mass demonstration of hundreds of people against British colonisation were to be held, it is very likely that Sri Lankan authorities would ensure that the protesters do not get anywhere near the compound of the British High Commission.
Reports stated that the British High Commissioner to Colombo had lodged a strong protest (over the Brigadier’s intervention) to the Sri Lankan Ministry of External Affairs.
When addressing this diplomatic protest from the UK High Commissioner, it is important that all Sri Lankans be promptly informed whether our Ministry raised the issue of the proximity of the protest to the High Commission.
It is important for all Sri Lankans to know whether our High Commissioner in London and all relevant staff at Sri Lanka House approached British authorities promptly prior to National Day, and requested that the protest be moved to one end of Hyde Park Gardens, either to the Brooke Street end or to the Clarendon Place end. One of these two sides should have been made out-of-bounds to protesters, in order to ensure the circulation of vehicles to and from the High Commission, to ensure the safety of diplomatic and all other High Commission staff, and as an act of basic courtesy to the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, on her National day.
Prior to the swift decision to suspend the Brigadier, it would have been necessary raise the following question: what steps were taken by our High Commissioner in London, and officials in charge of protocol in preparation for National Day, to approach all relevant British authorities, discuss the Tamil nationalist protest, and call for preventive measures such as a substantive security distance between the protesters and the High Commission premises?
In answering this question:
a) If the relevant officials had not taken adequate action prior to National Day to request necessary support from British authorities – it is those officials, and not the Brigadier, who should be suspended and recalled with immediate effect.
b) If all of the above-mentioned measures and more were taken, but the British authorities were not forthcoming in their cooperation with the High Commission – Colombo has no obligation to be in a hurry to take action on the British High Commissioner’s ‘strong protest’ over the Brigadier’s intervention. On the contrary, it would be an opportunity for Colombo to trigger a frank diplomatic dialogue with the UK on the unhealthily asymmetric and imbalanced nature of the UK-Sri Lanka relationship.
Beyond a binary discourse
That the Brigadier’s behaviour per se is unacceptable is a given.
The Defence Attaché, a senior diplomatic official of the rank of Minister-Councillor, should not have remained in front of the protest in the first place. The Brigadier is a combat veteran, and putting him on the frontline on a day of this nature also risks jeopardising his own security. Who took that decision? Why was a top-level diplomat out on the street? are questions that need answers.
Suspending and recalling the Brigadier can be interpreted as a damage control, if not containment strategy. It could help counter the negative publicity and to contain the pressure on Sri Lankan authorities from British politicians and other lobbies. It also prevents British authorities from taking any coercive and undiplomatic steps targeting the Brigadier. President Sirisena’s decision to revoke the suspension is, very simply, all but an election gimmick. It is extremely doubtful if this decision was motivated by a genuine focus on addressing asymmetric UK-Sri Lanka relations, or in rationally extrapolating the incident based on a national sovereignty/security-cum-foreign policy perspective. It would be myopic to expect an informed policy position of that nature from a national leader whose servile disposition towards British royalty and authorities is well-known.
Putting the blame for this incident solely on the Brigadier, and perceiving the Brigadier with contempt are the worst mistakes Sri Lankans could collectively commit.
Shift towards a post-war outlook: essential
Post-war, Sri Lanka has national security needs that are somewhat different from war-time national security needs. In the present scenario, there is a necessity for Sri Lankans to openly discuss – with no pressure, financing, or underhand of any foreign power – the oppressive dimensions of institutions, ideologies and power structures. A pertinent place to start off with is the armed forces. The ethnonational divide in the composition of the forces is more than substantial. Gender justice within the forces is a topic that continues to be insufficiently addressed. The same goes for any discussion of the colonial roots of the forces, and the question of ‘to whose benefit’ the forces were created and maintained. Discussions into this question could help constructively address many outstanding issues, such as problems in the treatment of ex-servicewo/men and in redefining the role of the armed forces in post-war Sri Lanka.
In terms of national-level conversations, it is necessary to begin a new post-war reflection on national security, ethnonationalism/s and patriotism. During the war, the LTTE was the quintessential enemy. Post war, it is crucial to constantly remember the fact that in the final reading, Tamil secessionism, its symbolism and insignia were the creation of successive Sri Lankan governments. Patriotic Sri Lankans condemning Tiger flag-holding Sri Lankans protesting in Western cities on National Day ought to remember the erroneous political decisions that created fertile ground for Tamil secessionism flourish. Policymakers should be particularly conscious of this reality, because it is precisely in a reflection along these lines that we can find effective ways of containing Tamil secessionist tendencies inside and outside Sri Lanka in the post-war phase. Until the root causes that continue to give reason to some people to protest hoisting Tiger flags are adequately assessed and understood, a path to reconciliation will remain all but a mirage.
It is also necessary to acknowledge the fact that some Sri Lankans, or citizens of other countries of Sri Lankan descent, are Tamil nationalists, and that some of them continue to uphold a secessionist line. What matters is how the re-emergence of such secessionism can be contained. Through carefully managed policy decisions, Sri Lankan authorities can work towards effectively reducing and nullifying the number of arguments Tamil secessionists can hold against the Sri Lankan government.
Dynamic, ‘Independent’ and national interest-focused foreign policy: an absolute priority
The Brigadier’s intervention and the circumstances surrounding it, the reaction of the UK government and Colombo’s response are all clearly suggestive of the fact that Sri Lanka is in dire need of rethinking its foreign policy. As one commentator rightly notes, there is a need for a proactive foreign policy agenda. Instead, what we have today is a foreign policy that somewhat passively tolerates external transgressions, adopts a servile approach towards big powers, and is therefore stuck in a policy ethos of compliance to external coercion. This needs to change, in favour of a foreign policy based on national interest, mutually beneficial cooperation and challenging asymmetries.
Our relationship with Britain requires substantive re-visiting. Our positions, in terms of national security issues, military cooperation, immigration and entry requirements, trade cooperation and all other fronts require robust negotiating focused on the national interest. In terms of decision-making and bureaucratic cultures within the foreign policy apparatus, there is a need for increased dynamism, and especially in developing a foreign policy ethos that is well and truly grounded in Sri Lanka, but effectively deals with the world in the most cosmopolitan manner.
The bottom line is that a sentiment of eurocentrism, of viewing ‘the west as best’, persists right throughout governmental bodies, from the Office of the President to the foreign policy apparatus, the military and other government bodies. The day on which we collectively begin a conversation on addressing this issue (one of the most disturbing manifestations of the colonial hangover that hovers over us), we can begin to move towards a truly Sri Lankan foreign policy agenda that sets a precedent to other states in the global South.
*Dr Chamindra Weerawardhana (@fremancourt) is a political analyst and gender justice activist, and Network Chair of Sibéal, the Irish Feminist and Gender Studies Network.