The Oxford fiasco and beyond

Monday, 6 December 2010 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

Asian Tribune: Call it a result of hubris, blinding, stupefying hubris. The Oxford fiasco need not have happened, if President Rajapaksa did not have an insatiable appetite for such inane encomiums as ‘The Leader who Conquered the World’; or if his ministers, officials and other hangers-on were a little less inclined to lie, cheat and exaggerate in order to please their Lord and Master.

Unfortunately the President needs regular ego-boosters and to fulfil this need, his acolytes are willing to go to any lengths (including into the realm of pure fantasy): The Oxford/British rebuff was the outcome.

President Rajapaksa and his administration are not popular outside of Beijing, Islamabad and Male. Several recent incidents point to this less than palatable truth. For instance, when President Rajapaksa held a lavish reception at the Waldorf Astoria this September for world leaders attending the UN General Assembly, the hall was filled with members of his jumbo delegation, Sri Lankan-Americans and only a handful of foreign dignitaries.

It was a massive and spontaneous snub, from which the correct conclusion should have been drawn. Either make yourself more acceptable to that part of the international community interested in Sri Lanka; or stop trying to play a role on the world or even the regional stage (and be content with shuttling among China, Iran, Pakistan and the Maldives, with occasional visits to India, to relieve the tedium).

One cannot scream invectives at the West, literally from rooftops, organise unruly demonstration outside Western embassies and act like a tin-pot dictator in a fit of temper or sulks and still expect to be treated as a welcome visitor in Washington, London, Paris or Berlin.

Imagine a neighbour who has gained status and wealth lately in life and go to embarrassing lengths to display both. Wouldn’t he and his family become the laughing stock of the neighbourhood? Would anyone take him seriously or accord him any genuine respect?

Wouldn’t this ridicule become worse, if this same neighbour is inclined to make exaggerated claims about his own virtues and his standing in society? President Rajapaksa is behaving like that man, and bringing both himself and Sri Lanka into disrepute in consequence.

According to media reports, the invitation from the Oxford Union was not a singular honour bestowed on the President, as his fawning propagandists claimed, time and again. The Oxford Union is organising a series of lectures by foreign leaders and the invitation to President Rajapaksa came as a part of this general initiative.

Whether the expensive public relations firm hired by the administration, Bell-Pottinger, engaged in any lobbying to obtain for the President an early slot is unknown; what the lobbying firm, the Lankan mission in London and above all our Foreign Ministry should have known was that this was not the right time to visit the UK, for a number of very obvious reasons. Relations between Colombo and London are not warm.

London has repeatedly demanded that the Rajapaksa administration agree to an independent international investigation into possible war crimes. Colombo has dismissed these requests, in a dismissive manner. Having done so, it cannot expect London to go out of its way to welcome President Rajapaksa (who is not on a State visit) or to mount a huge and expensive security operation to enable him to keep a private engagement at a non-State institution (the Oxford Union).

Channel 4 and Bell Pottinger

“We are very weak in our propaganda,” President Rajapaksa is said to have lamented in his interview with The Times. Indubitably; but the primary fault lies with the product which is being marketed rather than in the calibre of propagandists or the efficacy of their methods.

The Sinhala South may be willing to suspend basic commonsense and accept an obvious lie – that the Eelam War was won in a ‘humanitarian operation’ which caused ‘zero-civilian casualties’; or that our soldiers went to war with a gun in one hand and the UN Charter on Human Rights in the other, as the President once claimed.

But the rest of the world will not believe, and cannot be expected to believe, such obvious and inane untruths. Such tall tales cannot be rendered credible by even the best of propagandists – or by one of the most expensive lobbying firms in the world!

The other extravagant claims that the President insists on making about Sri Lanka, his administration and himself are equally unconvincing. The President’s personal style does not help either, such as his propensity for self-aggrandisement, his lust for praise and his ostentatious mode of living and travelling.

These inherent flaws in the ‘product’ itself and the consequent absence of credibility can be understood best by the manner in which The Times reported its London encounter with President Rajapaksa.

The piece was titled ‘Sri Lanka never killed any civilians as such – Rajapaksa’ and began in a manner which indicated that the President has failed to convince, despite his charm offensive: “The most telling moments in the Times interview with President Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka came after it was over. For almost an hour in a suite in the Dorchester, Mr. Rajapaksa had painted a picture of his government and country that was as white and spotless as his traditional garb... His large entourage, ranged on sofas around the room, nodded in rapt agreement at every word the President said. Then just as we were about to leave an emissary was sent to the lobby to summon us back. Mr. Rajapaksa looking both angry and crestfallen, met us in the corridor, to declare that the President of the Oxford Union no longer wanted him to give a speech today… ‘I think he has been threatened by these fellows’ snapped Mr. Rajapaksa a man, one suspects, not used to being disinvited” (The Times – 2 December 2010).

Protests by sections of the Tamil Diaspora may not have been the only reason the Oxford Union cancelled President Rajapaksa’s speech, unilaterally. The latest Channel 4 ‘war crimes’ video (a longer version of the earlier ‘war crimes’ video) may have had something to do with it. The second video, according to media reports, is even more damning than the first one: “The new video seems to show the same incident but rather than stopping after the execution of a second bound man, it continues and the camera pans left to reveal the naked and dead bodies of at least seven women, with accompanying dialogue from onlookers who make lewd and callous comments which seems to suggest strongly that sexual assaults have taken place before the death of the women” (UN: Sri Lanka ‘war crimes’ video needs investigation – Channel 4 – 1 December 2010).

The official response of the Sri Lankan High Commission in London to the new video is basically dismissive. Its main argument is that the Government of Sri Lanka investigated the first video and found it to be a fake. Unfortunately the regime’s ‘investigations’ do not carry much credibility internationally, given its past record. Moreover, a significant part of the international community, including UN experts, believes the first video to be authentic. Channel 4 has forwarded the new video to the UN Secretary General’s Advisory Committee on the Lankan ‘war crimes’ issue.

“The UN has told Channel 4 News that the Sri Lanka apparent execution video broadcast on Tuesday, deserves further investigation. The UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Professor Christof Haynes, said: ‘It is shocking indeed and clearly deserves more investigation’…” (ibid).

Avoiding avoidable debacles

The Oxford debacle was avoidable, and could have been avoided, if the Rajapaksa administration learnt from the IIFA debacle. The Indian International Film Awards was held in Sri Lanka with the intention of attracting the crème de la crème of the Indian film industry.

No expense was spared (the cost of the entire exercise was said to be close to a billion rupees). This was to be the show of the year, showcasing the achievements of President Rajapaksa and heralding the advent of his eldest son into the international scene. Instead it became one of the most extravagant and embarrassing fiascos of recent times.

Due to pressure from Tamil Nadu in general and its powerful film industry in particular, most of the Bollywood stars (including the actor-organisers of the show) decided to stay away. Even the actors who did turn up avoided the official function organised by the President, on the flimsiest of excuses. The entire effort backfired, because the regime underestimated the cultural influence of the Tamil Nadu film industry.

The Oxford fiasco was thus an unavoidable one, because sections of the Tamil Diaspora made no secret about its determination to mount protests against the Rajapaksa visit. Nor was the Oxford Union engagement imperative from a Lankan point of view. It was more of an ego-booster for the President, as the official propaganda-hype indicated.

‘The Leader who Conquered the World’ is one of the favourite encomiums of Rajapaksa propagandists; speaking at the Oxford Union, a second time around, would have been a significant ‘boost’ to this inane claim. Plus it was a chance for a whole lot of acolytes to visit London at public expense, because, according to media reports, a jumbo delegation of around 100 accompanied the President, though this was strictly a private visit.

Last month Sri Lanka was snubbed by Nepal when Kathmandu denied Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris’ boast in Parliament about Nepali leaders requesting President Rajapaksa to help them sort out their political problems. A few days later, American media exposed the claim made by a Lankan Consul about meeting and briefing President Obama to be a lie. If this is the way we interact with the world, ere long, we will become a global laughing stock.

Having won the Eelam War, the Rajapaksas believe that every other problem and crisis can be overcome by using the same approach. They seem to regard every challenge as a war and every enemy as a terrorist. So the regime has a ‘development war,’ ‘wheat terrorism’ and ‘climate terrorism’. Unfortunately these methods will not work either with the West or with the Tamil Diaspora.

The only way the Rajapaksas can win-over the West and silence the Diaspora is by making a serious effort to improve the human rights climate in Sri Lanka and to find a political solution to the ethnic problem. And as the Oxford fiasco demonstrated, the President, for all his angry rhetoric, wants to be accepted by the West, to visit Western capitals, to hobnob with Western leaders and other public notables.

For all his shrill invective, it seems as if he is still in thrall (psychologically) to our former colonial masters. Why else would he be so proud of his Oxford Union invitation, even though it is an invitation which will be extended to all other world leaders?

The Ruling Coalition engineered a huge reception for President Rajapaksa at the Katunayake Air Port as a salve for his bruised ego. In the meantime, the regime has accused Dr. Jayalath Jayawardene of being involved in the anti-Rajapaksa protests (despite his denials Dr. Jayawardene was manhandled in Parliament by several ministers, eager to show their fealty to the President) and wants to expel him from parliament for violating the 6th Amendment.

If this proposal is implemented, it will set a deadly precedent. That way the regime will have one more powerful weapon to be used to silence and incapacitate the opposition whenever it shows any sign of life.