By Westminster Insider
At 22:44Z or Zulu Time (Time Zone: UTC, longitude: zero degrees/Prime Meridian) on the 4th of February a brilliant young doctor Thusiyan Nandakumar, the Tamil Guardian editor forwarded the infamous video clip of Sri Lanka’s now ex defence attaché, gesturing a throat slitting motion to protestors outside the Sri Lankan High Commission in London to the Chairman and Secretary of the British Tamil Conservatives (BTC), Dr Arujuna Sivananthan and Gajan Rajasekaran respectively. Both are ex senior investment bankers with businesses of their own. The former has a passion for owning and racing horses while the later is the grandson the late Muttaihpillai, Sri Lanka’s largest landlord prior to the nationalisation of private estates..
At 08:47Z on the 5th Arujuna requested Senthil and Raj to immediately raise the issue with Labour MPs and Sir Ed Davey, Senthil’s local MP, though the latter is a Liberal Democrat. Despite being a Labour stalwart, he maintains a cordial relationship with Sir Ed. Also, Sir Ed’s predecessor as the was the Conservative MP James Berry, the former Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Tamils (APPG-T), one of the biggest in the House of Common with almost 20 per cent of elected MPs being members of it.
Gajan in the meantime briefed the present Chair of the APPG-T, Paul Scully, the Conservative MP for Sutton, who got to work on a letter to Rt Hon Boris Johnson PC MP, the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affaires on the defence attaché’s grave breach of the Vienna Convention and calling for his expulsion. Paul hand delivered the letter to Boris.
British Tamils are one of the largest donor communities to the Conservative Party and through the BTC run the most active campaigning group. Also, there are over 370,000 registered Tamil voters in London making it a bigger Tamil city than all of Jaffna district. Most live in marginal constituencies that any party wishing to form a majority government needs to win. Also as a two-term mayor of London, Boris Johnson was acutely aware of their issue.
A leading British Tamil lawyer, Arun Gananathan at the top human rights law firm Birnberg Pierce provided the legal context behind the egregious violation of the Vienna Convention and the very winnable case for a judicial review in the High Court if no action was taken.
At 09:23Z the South Asia department at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) under whose purview Sri Lanka falls was informed and so were friends at 10 Downing Street placed in very close proximity to the highest political level, who promptly accelerated the issue with the former.
The video published by Tamil Guardian had by now gone viral!
Joan Ryan MP and Siobhain McDonagh MP, both ministers in Tony Blair’s Labour government, by 14:45Z on the 5th had written to Boris Johnson at Senthil’s behest. This was followed by a letter from the Rt Hon Theresa Villiers PC MP, the former Conservative Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
Letter after letter from MPs of all parties followed with Hazel Weinberg, the coordinator of the APPG-T liaising.
Under UNHRC resolutions 30-1 and 34-1, Sri Lanka is obliged to thoroughly vet all military personal posted abroad. It was apparent in a briefing note produced by the International Truth Justice Project on the 5th that there were serious omissions in the vetting of the attaché. Also, Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) sub contracts the vetting process to a local NGO. Grave flaws were identified in the way the NGO does this, placing Sri Lanka in breach of the commitments it has made to the international community through UNHRC resolutions 30-1 and 34-1. Both were placed in front of the FCO.
London has been the scene for hostile foreign governments using kinetic action (lethal force) against its dissidents. The most notorious of these being the recent poisoning using radioactive Polonium 210 of Russian dissident Alexander Litivinenko. During the cold war agents from Warsaw Pact countries were also involved in using of lethal force on the streets of London. Therefore, Her Majesty’s Government (HMG) takes such matters extremely seriously and will not countenance such acts against those resident in the UK and Her Majesty’s subjects!
On instigation from the highest political level in the UK the FCO instructed James Dauris, the British High Commissioner in Colombo to lodge a strong official protest. A face-saving solution was proffered. The MFA would withdraw the attaché the following week, though he was to be suspended from his post immediately. Also, Ranil Jayawardene, a raw new MP and Chair of the APPG for Sri Lanka -an inactive and very small parliamentary group- was nominated as the HMG’s trade representative.
It was apparent that an instant withdrawing of the attaché would have a deleterious impact on the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe coalition in the upcoming local government polls. Also by casting the impression that it was Sri Lanka’s government that took the initiative, despite acting under serve duress, it could project a liberal, progressive image and accrue all the credit for behaving as a responsible member of the international community.
All this was premised on the basis that Sirisena would act rationally.
On the 6th morning when he made his decision to “reinstate” the attaché it was to the sheer disbelief of everyone involved, not least of all those who engineered this face-saving solution. It also left the FCO and HMG very short on options, particularly when ministers of the ruling coalition chimed in support of the attaché with their jingoistic rhetoric.
Letting a head of state of a banana republic like Sri Lanka get away with such contemptable behaviour was not an option. Despite the self-importance Sri Lankan politicians attach to themselves, in the context of the regimes that constantly challenge the UK’s security Sri Lanka is a veritable minnow.
There was also a very real sense that the Rajapaksa’s would not have dared venture where Sirisena did.
By the eve of the 6th, several MPs in the House of Commons directly approached the Hon Mark Field, Minister of State at the FCO with responsibility for Sri Lanka and challenged him. His response was unequivocal; the FCO was looking at the matter “urgently” and “seriously”. The FCO too communicated that the matter was being “taken very seriously at the highest level” and would be resolved soon.
The reality, though was that Sirisena’s act and vitriolic diatribe that poured from the UNP benches was nothing more than posturing to Sri Lankan voters ahead of the local elections. The reality was that Sri Lanka’s had buckled under the very serious pressure that had been brought to bear.
On the 20th of February in response to an oral question in the Commons, the Hon Mark Field MP, made HMG’s position very clear when he stated:
“I reassure the hon. Gentleman that the UK takes this incident very seriously. When I spoke recently to Foreign Minister Marapana, he left me in no doubt that the Sri Lankan Government were treating it with the seriousness that it deserves. They have informed the UK Government that they have ordered the defence attaché to return to Colombo from London with immediate effect for consultations while the incident is thoroughly investigated.. I hope that the UK and Sri Lanka bilateral relationship will remain strong and co-operative.”