Oxford University Sri Lanka Society on “The Cancellation of the Second Address of H.E. Mahinda Rajapaksa, President of Sri Lanka at the Oxford Union.”

 James Langman (President-Hilary Term, Oxford Union) and OU Sri Lanka Society representatives meet HE the President Mahinda Rajapaksa on 2nd December 2010. The OU Sri Lanka Society makes a special presentation to HE the President.
From left to right
: Dilan Fernando (President – Oxford University Sri Lanka Society), James Langman (President – Hilary Term, Oxford Union), HE the President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Dr. Kremlin Wickramasinghe (Secretary – Oxford University Sri Lanka Society). Pic by Sudath Silva

Preamble: Memo by Michael Roberts, 8 December 2010

I often attended the lectures and discussions at the Oxford Union Society when I was at the university from 1962-65. I also am a Life Member of the Oxford Union Society though I have rarely visited its portals for decades. I enclose the Memorandum of the Oxford University Sri Lanka Society with its enclosures as a contribution to the debate surrounding the cancellation of President Mahinda Rajapakse’s invitation to speak at its forum.
The cancellation has been interpreted by patriotic Sri Lankans and even those aligned with the government (for e. g. SL Gunasekera) as a debacle that dishonoured the President and country; and both the SL High Commission and the President have been criticised for pursuing what these commentators deem to be an erroneous course in accepting such an invitation at this point of time.

 For my part I hold that states and state patriots are far too prone to value reputation and honour in the yardsticks they employ in assessing state interests. That goal, to me, is low priority. When I recently penned an essay inquiring the SL state should worry about Sri Lankans sneaking abroad illegally and help Australia to police the seas in circumstances when such migrants are a long-term boon to the economy, I was told by a senior navy officer that the failure to do so was a blight on the Navy’s honour. To me such an argument is a misplaced focus on small pennies to the detriment of large pounds. Tamashas and country honour do not count high in my scheme of priorities.

 Nor do I share the moral outrage about the denial of free speech that is expressed by the office bearers of the Oxford University Sri Lanka Society and other spokespersons who press this line of argument (such as the relatively uncommitted Dr. Ratnajeevan Hoole). My position is cynical and realistic: power politics and machinations do not abide by principles. So what transpired in England recently does not surprise me. However, the Oxford University Sri Lanka Society’s  memo is of public relevance in providing watchers with information that has to be sifted in evaluating the manoeuvres that surrounded the event and the cancellation. Above all,  it confirms what we know full well: the Tamil lobby in UK is powerful and well organised; it has a few key British allies; and its ultra-nationalism is impelled by profound sentiments of bitterness at the LTTE’s resounding defeat in ways that do not, and perhaps cannot, examine its own premises or the history of the LTTE’s own lapses in the manner revealed by such Tamils as Drs Rajasingham Narendran (of London) and Noel Nadesan (of Melbourne) – both of whom are, predictably, labelled as “traitors” in the same manner as Neelan Tiruchelvam who was assassinated by the LTTE on this ground. This should remind us that vengeance arising from bitterness is as deadly as it is one-sided. Why some British citizens support these pressures and believe every rumour and tale conveyed by believing Tamils is another question, one on which my empirical information is limited.

Note that the Oxford Union has different presidents each term and it would seem that James Langman, President for Hilary Term, has taken a different course to that of James Kingston, President, Michaelmas Term, or has attempted to mend bridges.


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The cancellation of the Second Address of H.E. Mahinda Rajapaksa, President of Sri Lanka at the Oxford Union, 4 December 2010

H.E. Mahinda Rajapaksa was invited by James Kingston, Michaelmas Term President of the Oxford Union to address its members for a second time by a letter dated 8th September 2010.

 The cancellation of the Second Address of H.E. Mahinda Rajapaksa, President of Sri Lanka at the Oxford Union.
Posted on December 4th, 2010

 Press Statement – Oxford University Sri Lanka Society

The Oxford University Sri Lanka Society is shocked and outraged at the eleventh hour cancellation of the Second Address of H.E. Mahinda Rajapaksa, President of Sri Lanka at the Oxford Union by its President James Kingston. We consider it a slur not only on Sri Lanka but also on the long cherished ideals of freedom of speech and liberty in the United Kingdom. It is reprehensible and utterly irresponsible that this was done only after President Rajapaksa had arrived in the United Kingdom and forever will be a black day in the annals of the Oxford Union.

 The invitation by the Oxford Union:

 H.E. Mahinda Rajapaksa was invited by James Kingston, Michaelmas Term President of the Oxford Union to address its members for a second time by a letter dated 8th September 2010 (see Annex 1). This was in conjunction with the Oxford University Sri Lanka Society as joint organizers. As is evident, the Oxford Union was very enthusiastic to host President Rajapaksa. James Kingston states in his invitation that “your extraordinary leadership has seen the momentous achievement of a final and total victory against the forces for so long threatening the peace and stability of your people. Your successful conclusion of this 30 year military conflict ranks as one of the most significant acts seen by the world in recent years.” Further, it was planned to present an award to President Rajapaksa to mark the very special occasion of being the only Head of State to have addressed the Oxford Union twice.

 Role of the Oxford Union and the Oxford University Sri Lanka Society:

 The OU Sri Lanka Society was joint organizer of the event. Our role included the organization of the Sri Lankan side of the event. This included inviting distinguished guests including diplomats, inviting other Sri Lankan guests and organizing peripheral events in Oxford (including the Felicitation Ceremony).
 The Oxford Union was primary host and had sole authority over the cocktail reception, address of President Rajapaksa and the subsequent dinner.

Elaborate arrangements by the OU Sri Lanka Society:

Elaborate arrangements were made by the Oxford University Sri Lanka Society to felicitate HE the President in a grand and dignified manner. Among those who had confirmed their participation included: 

  • 12 Ambassadors/High Commissioners (India, Pakistan, Argentina, Algeria, Belize, Mongolia, Barbados, Indonesia, Bahamas, St. Lucia, Papua New Guinea & Sierra Leone)
  • Hon. John Boyce, Cabinet Minister of Barbados
  • 5 Diplomatic Representatives (China, Poland, Philippines, South Africa, Bhutan) 
  • His Worship John Goddard, the Lord Mayor of Oxford
  • Mr. John Harwood, the Vice Lord Lieutenant of Oxfordshire (representative of HM the Queen)

The Vice Chancellor of the University of Oxford, Prof. Andrew Hamilton was to receive President Rajapaksa before his address at the Oxford Union. 
Further, a Felicitation ceremony was organized by the Society where the Sri Lankan community in the UK 

Involvement of the SL High Commission in the UK:

All aspects of the Second Address of H.E. the President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the related events were minutely discussed and agreed upon during several meetings between James Kingston, representatives of the Sri Lanka High Commission in the UK and representatives of the Oxford University Sri Lanka Society. 
A delegation of the Sri Lanka High Commission led by Mr. P.M. Amza (Deputy High Commissioner) visited Oxford on 12th October 2010 and had detailed discussions with James Kingston and representatives of the OU Sri Lanka Society at the Oxford Union. 
This was followed with the arrival of the Presidential Advance Team on 22nd October 2010 and once again, all arrangements were minutely examined.
Thus, all arrangements at our end were finalized around 5 weeks before HE the President arrived in the UK.

Examination of the critical issues: 

All issues related to the visit were minutely discussed with the relevant authorities including the SL High Commission. Protests were anticipated, remedial action planned and strategies implemented.
Routine meetings were also held between James Kingston and representatives of the Oxford University Sri Lanka Society. At no time, during any of these numerous meetings, did James Kingston ever raise the possibility of a cancellation. On the contrary, he was always very enthusiastic about the event. Further, the OU Sri Lanka Society has organized events with 5 previous Presidents of the Oxford Union and had an extremely good working relationship with the Union. As this type of eleventh hour cancellation has never happened in the annals of the 187-year history of the Oxford Union and its officers act with great integrity, it was never deemed even a remote possibility.

 Campaign of intimidation:

 It is now apparent that heavy pressure was brought to bear on James Kingston after it became known that the H.E. the President was invited again. A relentless e-mail campaign was unleashed whereby Kingston’s details were posted on websites and interested parties were asked to vent their anger by writing to him. It must be said, however, that this happened even during the First Address of H.E. the President and was therefore, expected.

 The arrival of the President and the sudden turn of events:

 H.E. the President accepted this invitation and arrived in the United Kingdom on the 29th of November 2010 (Monday).  Signs of trouble first appeared on the afternoon of the 30th of November 2010, when the OU Sri Lanka Society contacted by an alarmed James Kingston.  Representatives of the OU Sri Lanka Society immediately contacted officials of the Sri Lanka High Commission and senior figures in the Presidential delegation. An urgent meeting was hastily arranged in Oxford with members of the OU Sri Lanka Society, the Sri Lanka High Commission, the Oxford Union, the Thames Valley Police and the University Marshalls attending. At this meeting, Supt. Amanda Pearson (Oxford Commander) clearly and unambiguously stated several times that the Thames Valley Police had developed a comprehensive policing operation in advance of the President’s visit and were fully prepared and very confident of handling the situation. Despite these assurances by the Police, James Kingston, very surprisingly decided to cancel the event, underlining the tremendous pressure brought to bear. It must be emphasised that the President of the Oxford Union does have the power to cancel an event on his own.

 Founding principles of the Oxford Union imperiled:

 The cancellation leaves an indelible stain on an institution that British Premier Harold Macmillan once described as the “the last bastion of free speech in the Western world.” On its website, it is stated that “the Oxford Union believes first and foremost in freedom of speech: nothing more, nothing less.” It now seems that the very foundations of the Oxford Union have been imperiled by unseen forces by exerting pressure on its President. By this action, HE President Rajapaksa’s right to be heard has been denied.

 President’s message of reconciliation silenced:

 It was known that H.E. President Rajapaksa would use this address to call for reconciliation of Sri Lankans in all parts of the world and invite all Sri Lankans in the UK to join in the new task of nation building. The address was aimed to heal old wounds and look to the future as a nation where all communities could live together in peace and amity. It is indeed very unfortunate that this crucial message has been silenced. It is further regrettable that members of the Oxford Union were denied the opportunity to interact with HE President Rajapaksa as in 2008

 Contradictory statements by the Oxford Union and Police:

 The public statement issued by the Oxford Union citing security fears is belied by a statement issued by the Thames Valley Police stating that it did not advice the Union to cancel the event and it was completely the decision of the Union (see Annex 2). In fact, Oxford Commander Supt. Amanda Pearson had stated several times that measures had been put into place and the Police were very confident bout handling the situation, despite some expected disruptions. Thus, one can infer that there was an unseen force behind the cancellation

 Cancellation was a unilateral decision:

 It is fair to say that the cancellation was not a collective decision by the Oxford Union but rather, one of its President. The decision has caused ripples within the organisation.
 Although a joint organizer, the Oxford University Sri Lanka Society was completely helpless in this matter as the right of cancellation lay only with the President of the Oxford Union. Our strong objections were simply not considered.

Oxford Union issues apology and invites President Rajapaksa again:

 It is highly commendable that James Langman (President-Hilary Term of the Oxford Union) visited President Rajapaksa on the 2nd of December and offered his sincere apologies to President Rajapaksa. Representatives of the Oxford University Sri Lanka Society were also present. A very cordial discussion followed with the President. He talked about President’s address in 2008 being one of the highlights of the Term and how Oxford Union members were eagerly waiting to hear him again. James Langman invited the President to address the Oxford Union on 5th December 2010. HE the President Rajapaksa politely turned it down citing commitments back home. The President then hosted the delegation to lunch.
 The Oxford University Sri Lanka Society then presented a Special Award to President Rajapaksa for Extraordinary Service to Sri Lanka (see attached photograph).

 Exploitation of the situation by interested parties:

 Various rumours have been rapidly spread regarding the cancellation. Various groups with vested interests have given differing interpretations. It must be emphasized that all Sri Lankans must stand together as one at times like these. Petty moves such as these only serve to strengthen the hands of those unseen forces behind the cancellation and damage Sri Lanka’s prospects of reconciliation and moving forward.

 The position of the Oxford University Sri Lanka Society:

 The Oxford University Sri Lanka Society (as joint-organisers) condemns the cancellation by James Kingston (despite the assurances given by the Police) in the strongest possible terms. We strongly feel his conduct in this matter is highly unbecoming of a President of the Oxford Union and has called on him to resign. As host, he has a great responsibility to his guest who has travelled thousands of miles to honour his commitment. We also appreciate the assurances given by the Thames Valley Police regarding policing this event. It is very unfortunate that these assurances were not taken on board.
 By yielding, both the reputation of the Oxford Union as well as the United Kingdom (as a land known for free speech and liberty) has been sullied.
 Oxford University Sri Lanka Society
4th December 2010.
Special Presentation to the President

James Langman (President-Hilary Term, Oxford Union) and OU Sri Lanka Society representatives meet HE the President Mahinda Rajapaksa on 2nd December 2010. The OU Sri Lanka Society makes a special presentation to HE the President.
From left to right: Dilan Fernando (President – Oxford University Sri Lanka Society), James Langman (President – Hilary Term, Oxford Union), HE the President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Dr. Kremlin Wickramasinghe (Secretary – Oxford University Sri Lanka Society). Pic by Sudath Silva

Annex 1 -The invitation by the Oxford Union:


Annex 2-Thames Valley Police  did not advice the Union to cancel the event

From: Adderley Alice <alice.adderley@thamesvalley.pnn.police.uk>
Date: Thu, Dec 2, 2010 at 1:20 PM
Subject: FW: Sri Lanka
Hi Daniel, as I said on the phone, the visit was not cancelled on the advice of Thames Valley Police, it was the Oxford Union who rescinded the invitation and you would need to speak to them for further information. However, I can give you the following statement:
Thames Valley Police had developed a comprehensive policing operation in advance of the President of Sri Lanka’s visit to the City and the Oxford Union.
This was aimed at facilitating those who wished to peacefully protest, as well as providing an appropriate level of security to the president and his entourage whilst in the City.
Oxford Commander, Supt Amanda Pearson, said: “We were expecting a large number of protesters to gather in the city that would have clearly caused a disruption to the city centre of Oxford.
“We did have plans in place to deal with, and facilitate, large numbers of people gathering in the Cornmarket area of Oxford. We are now not expecting a large scale protest so would recommend that the community of Oxford go on with their day as usual.”
 Best wishes Alice
 Alice Adderley, Communications Officer
Thames Valley Police HQ
Oxford Road, Kidlington



Filed under Sinhala-Tamil Relations

2 responses to “Oxford University Sri Lanka Society on “The Cancellation of the Second Address of H.E. Mahinda Rajapaksa, President of Sri Lanka at the Oxford Union.”

  1. Renton

    This is the unedited version of the Back to Basics column that appeared in the Daily News in Sri Lanka on December 08, 2010.

    Back to Basics
    By Renton de Alwis

    Mending our ways for our own sake

    Last week’s Oxford Union fiasco to me was a sad attempt by a segment of our Diaspora and other interest groups of taking yet another step in the wrong direction. Those who claim to care to see a peaceful and united Sri Lanka, must be ashamed of the slap in the face you gave me and my many other peace loving brethren, who only wish to see us live as one happy and peaceful nation, where understanding must prevail over terror and divisiveness must be replaced with harmony and tolerance of each other. It was an incident, in my mind, we do not deserve at this time when we are seeking a new way forward.

    Open discussion

    Having heard and read in full the speech our Head of State made on the earlier occasion, when he was invited to address what is described as this ultimate forum for free debate, I do not believe that he had accepted a second invitation, to indulge in discussion that would be a celebration of the military victories over the LTTE or to hurt our Tamil brethren here or of the Diaspora living out there, by revisiting a past, that is both painful and sad. It is a past, that we must only learn lessons from and move on to fresh vistas and desirable heights.

    I am prepared to give the benefit of my doubt, to the thought that the opportunity for the second address was taken, to share a vision for that way forward with the rest of the world. There are analysts who presented varied opinions as for its timing and context. Yet, in my mind free and open discussion of issues can not take place, if every platform available for that is not taken advantage of.

    Civic duties

    I remember as a school boy, how, still fresh from of our post-colonial ties, we learnt in our ‘civics’ lesson (a subject that was later unfortunately renamed political science) of the value of free speech and interaction for the sustenance of democratic institutions. I remember having dreams of me, getting on top of that ‘soap box’ at London’s Hyde Park to shout out loud. My teacher had told us that it is where anyone from anywhere, regardless of position, race, cast or creed, was able to speak on anything under the sun. We were taught that there was such respect for freedom of expression and that there was a deep sense of longing among the British to dispose of their civic duties.

    Where else

    I was impressed with the message of welcome the Oxford Union’s President James Kingston had for the new comers to the OU which said “From our foundation in 1823 the Oxford Union has stood devoted to the ideals of free speech, intellectual exchange and student democracy that continue to make us the world-class institution we are today. Time and again we have stood at the forefront of national debate, helping to shape the ideals and oratorical skills of generations of students and future leaders.”

    It went on to say “Where else can a student debate alongside Cabinet Ministers, Senators, newspaper editors and award-winning novelists? Where else can one freely question world leaders like Hamid Karzai, challenge David Cameron in an open forum, have dinner with Richard Dawkins, meet General Petraeus, or hear a live set from Incubus, as our members did last year? We strive to bring our members face to face with the best, the brightest, and the most influential from all across the worlds of politics, music, drama, fashion, and intellectual life”.

    Equal opportunities

    Like many of you, my readers, I am yet another simpleton citizen of Mother Lanka, who longs to see us as a nation where kindness and tolerance will reign and a conflict free environment will bring us all prosperity. I yearn, like most of you, for all of us to live in harmony, sharing equal opportunities treating each other with dignity and honour, celebrating each other’s differences seeking a unity within the diversity that has been and must be in us. Along the way, we were divided, ruled, taken advantage of, wounded and hurt by others as well as our own. I, like most of you wish that we can forgive and forget our follies in the past, learn lessons and move on to build a desirable Sri Lanka. A Sri Lanka where we can be free of fear, have equal opportunities for all, be tolerant of each other, bringing hope and smiles back for all our citizens.

    Waited for Godot

    I am not naïve to think that this is an easy road ahead. I also am not naïve to think that because we were able to defeat the brute terrorist outfit that was the LTTE, will ensure greater understanding between the Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim, Burgher, Malay and other races of our country and that they will be able to live happily ever after. But I know that we, like the good British playwright Samuel Becket brought out in his play ‘Waiting for Godot’, waited for Godot for far too long, hoping that our ‘leaders’ will cease to be mere politicians and opportunists will be replaced by the well-meaning and caring. We lived in hope for far too long, dreaming of days when we can all be free of fear and corruption, treat each other with dignity and honour, and get away from divisiveness to being unified, living together in this land in true human bondage.

    Be engaging

    Like you, I know that the hard road ahead to achieve all of this would need resolve, commitment, involvement and lots of hard work. If we were to leave it merely in the hands of the overflowing cabinet of ministers, the elected and the not so elected representatives who form our legislatures, and other monolithic institutions with the view that “it is their business to deliver us”, that indeed will be the way towards certain failure. Each of us at this critical time in our history has our bit to do. That bit, in my mind is not merely to be critical, but to be engaging, creating productive discussion, being constructively critical and while doing that, lending our hearts and dirtying our hands on the task. This is time when we must focus and focus hard on the tasks ahead, regardless of party lines, dogmatic positions and blind loyalty.

    Lend heart and shoulder

    I am not at all naïve to think that all is well in our midst. There is much that is wrong and needs fixing. But I see that there is effort at wanting to fix them. In the midst of the political game-play that goes on, there is also a deep seated desire and resolve we can count on. Many calls have been made and many invitations made for all our people to chip in and lend each of our hearts and shoulders to the task. And that most definitely includes our Diaspora of all races. Some may, attribute them to empty words, but I would want to hope that they are genuine and sincere.

    If we are to seek a common future of peaceful coexistence with opportunity, dignity and honour, leaving our hurt behind, no matter how hard and painful it is, will be a good first step. There is so much to be done. Let us please do it together. Patience and tolerance are both sound virtues.

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