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Heads up – Embassy 11 – September 2008

Talking tough

Nihal Jayasinghe is well prepared for his role as Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to London. A lawyer by profession, his distinguished legal career has included stints as both prosecutor and judge, starting out as a public prosecutor, before becoming a Judge of the Court of Appeal, a Supreme Court judge and Acting Chief Justice as well as serving on the UN constituted Tribunal in Cambodia.

Diplomacy is a blend of the two, he says: “As a lawyer, you talk; as a judge, you listen; and as a diplomat – you talk and listen. It’s a dialogue!”

Arriving in London as hostilities intensified between government troops and the Tamil Tigers, the High Commissioner opens his dialogue with a clear message: “There is no ethnic strife in Sri Lanka. We have no problem with the Tamil community. Before independence, we fought side by side to liberate the country,” he insists. “But what we have here is a political agenda – the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) are using so-called ‘ethnic strife’ as a pretext for their insurgency.”

Part of the problem for Jayasinghe is that the Tamil community in the UK remains a source of funding for the rebels, despite the organisation being proscribed by the British government.

“The LTTE will say the money is used for rehabilitation or social work, but where is the evidence? There is nothing on the ground. Yet our security forces have destroyed nine ships carrying arms. Where did the money come from?”

Jayasinghe does not object to the LTTE’s demands for independence – “They have every right to express their views in a democracy, just as the Scots do in Scotland,” he says, but adds: “What I find objectionable is taking up arms to achieve their political goals.”

To achieve peace, he says, the organisation’s funding needs to be choked off. Central to the High Commissioner’s mission will be to persuade the British government to take stronger action on the LTTE’s illegal fundraising activities.

He also needs to persuade the local Tamil community to stop funding the LTTE. He accuses the organisation of using threats to coerce British Tamils into donating money to their cause.

But he also says many in the Tamil community in Britain have no intention of returning home and use the war as a way to extend their stay in the country. “So this is something the UK government needs to understand,” he says.

With the 2002 ceasefire agreement now expired, the High Commissioner sees little point in a new one being negotiated. “It’s just not worth it,” he explains. “The simple fact is that the Tamil Tigers used the ceasefire to regroup. In fact, there was never a ceasefire because the LTTE violated it 6,500 times. The Sri Lankan government was magnanimous to talk to the LTTE three times and every time the LTTE let down the government and used it to re-strengthen themselves militarily. Every time there was a ceasefire the Sri Lankan forces were confined to their barracks and every time there was a ceasefire the LTTE thought their Eelam was there for the taking.”

According to Jayasinghe, the only way to end the 35-year war, which has claimed over 65,000 lives, is “to defeat the LTTE militarily and rid the Tamil people of the clutches of the LTTE.”

The British government should also recognise wider implications of a continued war, he says, with organised crime such as drug running becoming institutionalised in rebel-controlled areas.

Although the conflict is confined to the north and the east, the war has had a negative effect on Sri Lanka’s tourist industry. Part of the High Commissioner’s job will be to persuade British tourists to continue visiting his country. Revenues from tourism are desperately needed as the country recovers from the devastating effects of the Asian Tsunami which claimed 55,000 lives.

“A lot of western countries promised funds for reconstruction but many have not delivered,” he says.

With its pristine beaches, multiethnic society and ancient Buddhist culture, the island has a lot to offer, he says.

Jayasinghe also hopes to rediscover what this island has to offer. Fascinated by British history, he intends to make a trip to the Tower of London and Executioner’s Hill – as a visitor, of course.
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HE Mr Nihal Jayasinghe

“I have no objection to the Tamil Tigers demanding their independence. They have every right to express their views in a democracy, just as the Scots do in Scotland. But what I find objectionable is taking up of arms to achieve political goals.”

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