Saturday, March 06, 2010

Sri Lanka, Britain spar again over Tigers

By Amantha Perera - Tensions between Sri Lanka and Britain may have calmed down somewhat after the civil conflict ended in this South Asian country last year, but are rising again after the government accused London of aiding the defeated Tamil Tigers to regroup internationally.

The latest tensions were sparked by British Foreign Secretary David Miliband’s attendance at the Global Tamil Forum (GTF), held on Feb. 24 in London.

The Sri Lankan government did not take lightly the fact that Miliband spoke to the forum, which is considered a grouping of support networks and sympathisers of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), as the Tamil Tiger rebels are called.

For about two years before the Sri Lankan government militarily defeated the Tamil rebels in May 2009, ties had been strained between Britain and its former colony. The government had seen Britain as one of the staunchest critics of the conduct of the war, which had drawn international concern.

At one point, pro-nationalist groups supporting President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s drive against the separatist LTTE, which fought for decades for a homeland for minority Tamils in this majority Sinhalese nation, accused the British government of having a colonialist-era attitude and worse, of using diplomatic arm-twisting tactics.

On Mar. 1, protesters gathered near the British High Commission, located in one of Colombo’s most expensive neighbourhoods, to vent their anger on what they saw as continued meddling by the British on Sri Lanka’s internal affairs.

About 200 protesters aligned with the National Freedom Front (NFF) shouted anti-Miliband slogans and derided Prime Minister Brown. They were led by former member of parliament Wimal Weeravansha, a key supporter of Rajapaksa.

"What the British government is trying to do (by its support to the GTF) is to revive Tiger terrorism, and by extension, it is supporting the division of this nation," Weeravansha told the protesters.

He handed over a petition signed by the protesters to the High Commission. "This is not a democratic act, supporting the division of a country," Weeravansha said. "We ask the British public not to support such moves."

Hours before the GTF meeting, Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama summoned Mark Gooding the Acting British High Commissioner in Colombo to the Foreign Ministry to convey the message that Miliband should not go ahead with attending the event.

"The Foreign Minister in this context emphasised that Foreign Secretary Miliband, by participating at today’s GTF Meeting in London, would unfortunately lend credibility to an organisation which is propagating the separatist agenda of the LTTE, and would be acting in a manner inimical to the national interest of Sri Lanka and its legitimate government," the Foreign Ministry later said of Bogollagama’s meeting with the British diplomat.

In his address to the GTF delegates, Miliband said that "the foundation of the Global Tamil Forum, the inauguration of its international work, is an important moment for politics and above all politics in Sri Lanka, because there is no substitute for political voice in asserting political rights."

The GTF delegates also met with British Prime Minister Brown.

The British government has tried to show that Miliband’s address was part of its wide-ranging efforts to foster national reconciliation in this South Asian island nation at the end of decades of a sectarian war that cost over 70,000 lives.

The British High Commission in Colombo said that Miliband emphasised the need for national unity in Sri Lanka in his speech. "It is for all Sri Lanka’s people to decide what that solution should look like. The United Kingdom firmly believes that the only way to achieve lasting and equitable peace in Sri Lanka is through genuine national reconciliation,’’ it said in a Feb. 24 statement.

But these have not gone far to allay fears that the British are moving behind the scenes to undermine the Rajapaksa government, which faces elections for the parliament on Apr. 8.

The NFF leader Weeravansha also warned that the protests would spread across the country. "If the British government wants to maintain cordial relations with Sri Lanka, it should respect our sovereignty and stop these kinds of vicious acts," he argued.

This week’s protests come during a politically charged atmosphere in Colombo. The island went through a bruising presidential election in January where Rajapaksa successfully staved off a challenge by his former army commander, Sarath Fonseka.

Two weeks after the Jan. 26 election, Fonseka was arrested by military police. The arrest initially sparked off protests by pro-Fonseka groups that later died down.

But the political climate is unlikely to stay calm as the country heads for a parliamentary election on Apr. 8.

Even before the allegations against Miliband and the British government, complaints have been rising against ‘foreign powers’ trying to influence national politics. The Fonseka campaign, for instance, was accused of receiving funds from foreign donors, although no substantive evidence has been presented.

Before the latest spat between Sri Lanka and Britain, the former reacted angrily in February when the European Union decided to suspend a concessionary tariff scheme that gave imports from Sri Lanka an annual tax break of over 100 million U.S. dollars.

The EU decided to suspend Generalised System of Preference (GSP) Plus scheme based on its findings that Sri Lanka was in contravention of human rights conventions. The Sri Lankan government’s response was that it appreciated the benefits derived from the concessions, but was not ready to compromise its sovereignty.

© Inter Press Service

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