Mahinda and Tamil Diaspora’s Olympian competition in London

Commentators who view the world through a human rights lens are unhappy. They believe the Tamil Diaspora successfully blocking Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapakse from addressing the Commonwealth Business Forum in London violated his rights. They also query what right the Diaspora as ‘LTTE supporters’ have to denounce Rajapakse as a war criminal, when the LTTE is accused of similar misdemeanours.

While framing the incidents that occurred in the UK last week within a human rights context is legitimate, there are also other ways of contextualising them. One such is to approach Rajapakse’s agenda during his London visit and the Tamil Diaspora’s protests as competing exercises of power. To be clear: what the actions of the slogan-screaming, flag-waving, gesticulating Tamils demonstrated were a) their will to thwart Rajapakse’s agenda and that of the Commonwealth Secretariat which invited him to the UK and b) in the process reinforce their own message to the international community.

Rajapakse’s agenda was to show his detractors both in Sri Lanka and overseas that his legitimacy, which had suffered because of accusations of war crimes, was still intact. He was trying to do this both by portraying himself as acceptable to British royalty and ingratiating himself with the international community by speaking a language they love – business and economic development.

The reason for this does not require an Einstein to figure out. Many Sri Lankans, of all ethnic stripes, carry colonial baggage and, despite loud denials, perceive the throne as the symbol of a paternalistic power which confers legitimacy to Sri Lanka’s leaders. Therefore, to be seen in the presence of British royalty, would show Rajapakse as acceptable to the monarch and therefore legitimate despite accusations of war crimes and autocratic rule.    

Similarly, Rajapakse hoped to exploit his ‘acceptance’ by British royalty to send a signal to the international community. This is because although accepted by the Commonwealth as its next chair and Sri Lanka named as the venue of the next CHOGM meeting in 2013, there was still no consensus that the country and its president possessed the credentials to host the meeting. The reason is allegations of war crimes directed at Rajapakse and the military.

Rajapakse and his advisors believed that hobnobbing with the queen, head of the Commonwealth would persuade Sri Lanka’s harsher critics within the Commonwealth to take a softer stand. The bonus of course was a possible opportunity for Rajapakse to meet British Prime Minister David Cameron to, hopefully, neutralise the barbs directed by Whitehall at Colombo. While it was clear from the beginning that there would be no official meeting as Whitehall had clearly said so, Rajapakse seemed to think that even a photo op would be good enough to silence critics.  

Sri Lanka’s president hoped to enhance his image as an acceptable leader through his remarks at the Commonwealth Business Forum.

Rajapakse’s visit was therefore the use of diplomacy both as hard power and soft power.

As far as hard power went it would indicate to his enemies – especially the influential Tamil Diaspora in the UK – that he possessed the means to counter Diaspora activity because as Sri Lanka’s head of state he was essentially on par with the British monarch.

By addressing the Commonwealth Business Forum, Rajapakse was hoping to build on shared values, a vehicle whereby soft power is exercised, by referring to promoting free trade and economic development.  The language would also seduce those entertaining the idea that economic development is the panacea for violent societies fragmented by identity conflicts.

Therefore, Rajapakse went to the UK with an agenda and to use his power to influence certain outcomes. For the Tamil Diaspora this meant it had to not only to thwart Rajapakse’s agenda, but substitute it with its own.

While the objective of thwarting the Sri Lankan president’s agenda is understandable, why did the Tamil Diaspora choose the form of outraged street protests to do so? The display of outrage was partly because negotiations with British and Commonwealth authorities to prevent Rajapakse from attending the jubilee had failed. Further, outrage was the natural outpouring of sentiment from people whose brethren in Sri Lanka were killed and stifled from expressing their feelings or thoughts due to draconian control exercised by the Colombo government. Humiliating Rajapakse was to the Tamil Diaspora pay back to Sri Lanka’s president for the humiliation his government was heaping on the Tamils. Finally, outraged protests are good for the cameras.

The Tamil Diaspora’s campaign in the UK to thwart Rajapakse’s agenda has earned rich dividends. Autocratic leaders crave acceptance by association with symbols of legitimacy – the British monarchy, Oxford University – and strengthening themselves using hard and soft power potential of diplomacy. This, the Tamil Diaspora was able to overturn. Even a cursory glance of the British newspapers bear testimony to this.   

One of the arguments against Tamil Diaspora’s UK campaign is its consequences – that it would only enhance Sinhala nationalism within Sri Lanka and retard overall Tamil political aspirations. There is no space to engage the issue in this article, except to say this writer does not agree with the argument at all. Nor does this writer believe that the only way the Tamil Diaspora should engage politically is through public demonstrations as in the UK. Other tactics would suit other contexts – such as the quiet lobbying in the US, UK and Geneva, which the Diaspora adopted so successfully that helped passing the UN Human Rights Council resolution in March.    

Therefore, the argument that the Tamil Diaspora by preventing Rajapakse from speaking at the Commonwealth Business Forum and dogging him in London with protests and spoilt eggs is denial of his rights is not the question. It was a political move by the Tamil Diaspora to prevent Rajapakse from cleansing the public image of himself and his government.

And it was done.