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As Others See Us: The View from Sri Lanka

[MISC, Monday, 22 July 2013 08:20 No Comment]

(Herald Scotland) He’s adored by breakaway movements across the globe and – publicly or privately – loathed by their enemies.

He’s adored by breakaway movements across the globe and – publicly or privately – loathed by their enemies.

An international statesman, he has inspired demands for freedom plebiscites, most recently in Catalunya after telling Spain rulers "to let the people decide".

Meet David Cameron, world separatist pin-up.

The British prime minister may seem an unlikely nationalist hero on these shores.

But internationally his Edinburgh Agreement with Scottish counterpart Alex Salmond is often seen as Britain "allowing" Scots a vote on their destiny.

And that, in many places, is simply revolutionary.

Take Sri Lanka. Its government back in 2009 defeated a go-it-alone statelet in the Tamil-dominated north of the island after a war that lasted a quarter of a century and cost perhaps 100,000 lives.

Now the bitterly divided island state is trying to figure out some kind of long-term fix. Some have mooted devolution. This delights mainstream Tamil opinion. And horrifies some in Sinhalese-dominated government circles in the capital, Colombo.

Suren Surendiran speaks for the Global Tamil Forum, an international diaspora organisation set up after the war and describing itself as backing a "non-violent" negotiated settlement on the island.

London-based, he says educated Tamils see Scottish parallels.

"The Scottish history has many similarities to the Tamil nation’s history in the island of Sri Lanka," he said. "The fact that the British government accepts that the Scottish people must be given the opportunity to vote in a free and fair referendum to choose how they want to be governed, proves that democracy is valued and practised in real life respecting the fundamental rights of every person who lives within the Scottish borders.

"The same is all that the Tamils are demanding."

The Sinhalese majority in Sri Lanka, of course, would take a different view of Scotland and what is seen as David Cameron’s referendum. Especially amid clamour for a devo settlement in the north of the island.

Cue an astonishingly angry editorial in the Daily News, Colombo’s state English-language newspaper that dates back to days when then Ceylon was a corner of the British Empire.

The leader column, printed earlier this month, might be better described as a rant.

Judge for yourselves: "In these parts they used to say that nobody but mad dogs and Englishmen would go out in the noonday sun," said the paper, not quite accurately quoting Noel Coward.

"It appears only eccentric English Tories and their henchmen could think of something that would have ‘tragic consequences’ possibly, and then proceed to promote it as a ‘political solution’.

"Cameron and [his predecessor Gordon] Brown both say that Scotland opting out of the union wouldn’t be good for the Scottish or the English.

"Well, if as they say the consequences are going to be tragic for everybody who’s British why ask the Scots alone to decide their fate — and that of the English? Well, that may be called democracy and the realisation of the Scots’ right to self-determination, including the Scots’ right to self-destruct — tragically — along with the British?

"Speaking of mad dogs, sorry, eccentric English politicians, it’s important to remember that the Scot devolution model is what’s recommended for Sri Lanka by some of the local NGO elite.

"David Cameron says that he will campaign tooth and nail to ensure that the Scots remain in the union therefore averting what he called ‘the tragic consequences.’

"Why Cameron didn’t save himself the trouble by not calling for the referendum in the first place is not something that seems to have crossed the minds of Cameron’s like-minded and brilliant British democrats."

You’ll have got the gist. But for good measure the Daily News sums up by suggesting the only thing worth importing from Scotland is whisky.

Next year’s referendum is a truly global event, regardless of its outcome.

Not because it is taking place in Scotland but because it is taking place in Britain. And Westminster – and I am sorry for labouring this point in these articles – still enjoys a remarkable international brand as the mother of parliaments. Despots hate our vote.

But it is also a global event because it is being seen as a test of devolution. Far from all devolved nations or territories go on to vote for independence. Some international policy wonks worry that our indyref may scare some traditionally centrist states – such as Sri Lanka – away from trying a dose of autonomy.

"Devolution is really handy to have in our toolbox when we look for solutions to conflict situations," one an retired foreign diplomat told me recently. "The Scottish referendum may make the devolution option a harder sell in some parts of the world."

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