Lanka-UK ties plunge to sub-zero level

Govt. refuses to release explosive Cameron letter
By Our Diplomatic Editor

The Government is refusing to release a letter sent by British Prime Minister David Cameron to President Mahinda Rajapaksa following the President’s second-term inauguration a month ago. This comes amidst reports that a private visit by British Defence Secretary Liam Fox this week was shot down at the eleventh hour due to pressure from the Tamil Diaspora in Britain and Dr. Fox’s Cabinet colleagues.

The Presidential Secretariat’s Policy Research and Information Unit which handles such letters said, "our office does not have the message sent by the Prime Minister of UK" and suggested this newspaper try the Ministry of External Affairs. The PRIU did, however, point out that the message from the Queen of England has already been released to the media.

The External Affairs Ministry Public Communication Director Bandula Jayasekera referred us to the Protocol Division of the Ministry. Protocol Chief A. L. Ratnapala then confirmed there was a message sent by the British premier but that he did not have the authority to release it and to check back with Mr. Jayasekera who then said that he had not received the message to be released to the media.
According to diplomatic circles, the Cameron letter was "unprecedented" in that it contained "unsolicited advice on good governance in Sri Lanka" together with felicitations for a second term in office.

The secrecy surrounding the message came in the backdrop of a further dip in Britain-Sri Lanka relations following President Rajapaksa's visit to London earlier this month to address a meeting at the Oxford Union and its sudden cancellation amidst street demonstrations by the Tamil Diaspora. The Sri Lankan Government was to take up with the British Foreign Office the matter of demonstrators waving the flag of a banned organisation (LTTE) during the protests.

The unexpected postponement of British Defence Secretary Fox's scheduled visit to Colombo to deliver the Fifth Lakshman Kadirgamar Memorial lecture yesterday aggravated the fragile relations between the two Commonwealth countries.

Dr. Fox's proposed visit was termed a private one but the Sunday Times learns that he had obtained prior approval from the British Foreign Office for the visit before accepting the invitation from the Lakshman Kadirgamar Foundation. He was to speak on the subject of International Security.

Britain’s Guardian newspaper said that Dr. Fox's visit was put off because of Foreign Office concerns while other British media reported that the concerns stemmed from Britain giving 'mixed signals' to a country Britain had placed on the rack on allegations of human rights abuses.

The British Defence Ministry, however, insisted that Dr. Fox’s visit was postponed and he would deliver the lecture early next year in Sri Lanka. The Ministry added that the visit next year would be upgraded to an official visit.

Analysts here pointed out that the upgrading of the visit to a more high profile one was a move to quell speculation that Dr. Fox succumbed to political pressure at home to put off his visit suddenly.

A spokesman for the British Defence Ministry gave the official reason as, "Dr. Fox has postponed his private visit to Sri Lanka due to an extension to his scheduled official visit to the Gulf". He is currently in the United Arab Emirates.

The Lakshman Kadirgamar Foundation was informed of the decision to postpone the visit by the External Affairs Ministry around midnight Thursday. Dr. Fox's office had informed the Sri Lanka High Commission in London of the decision that evening.

Dr. Fox's visit to honour the late Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar with whom he had interacted when Dr. Fox was a junior minister in the British Foreign Office came at a time when cracks in the bi-lateral relations between Sri Lanka and Britain widened following the Sri Lankan President's visit to Britain earlier this month. His agreement to visit was however made prior to the Sri Lankan President's visit.

Dr. Fox was the only British political leader who met President Rajapaksa during that visit, but in his private capacity as other members of the British Government refused to grant the visiting Head of State and of Government an appointment. The British Government was at pains to describe the President's visit as a 'private one' and afforded him 'appropriate diplomatic security'.

This week, President Rajapaksa refused to receive a farewell call from the outgoing British High Commissioner Peter Hayes until hours before the diplomat left. He was invited for breakfast on the day he left Sri Lanka.

In diplomatic cirlces the current freeze in relations is seen as the worst since former President Ranasinghe Premadasa declared then British High Commissioner David Gladstone persona-non-grata for intefering in the local electoral process.

The already shaky relations between the two countries stems mainly from then British Foreign Secretary David Miliband's visit to Colombo soon after the crushing of the LTTE in May 2009 and comments made by him on the treatment of civilians during the last stages of the military offensive followed by the denial of GSP Plus duty concessions by the European Union (backed by Britain) and the recent 'cold shoulder' President Rajapaksa received when he visited Britain.

Meanwhile Sri Lankan High Commission officials in London will this week meet with British anti-terrorism officials over the issue of display of LTTE flags in London and the protest during the President’s visit.

They have also sought an appointment with the British Foreign Office over the issue and are awaiting an appointment.

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