President Mahinda Rajapaksa had to cloak his arrival in London by taking security measures unprecedented since the end of the civil war and retreat by cutting short his stay.
At 06:00 PM (British Summer Time) on the 3rd of June, Scotland Yard informed Tamil activists that Rajapaksa will not arrive on Sri Lankan Airlines flight UL503 at terminal 4 of London’s Heathrow airport (LHR) but the next day instead. Organisers of the demonstration at LHR knew both the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and BAA, the operator of LHR had granted Rajapaksa VIP clearance, and, therefore, were unlikely to intercept him at the terminal. Nevertheless, they went ahead with it to send a message that countenancing Rajapaksa on British soil was not acceptable. Over seven hundred activists converged on LHR and mounted one of the biggest demonstrations inside an airport terminal. To their surprise Scotland Yard firearms officers encouraged them saying they too would do the same if their families had suffered like Tamils.
At 06:30 AM on the 4th June Scotland Yard informed activists that Rajapaksa had departed Colombo. However, they did not reveal his time of arrival. Later that morning they reported that he was residing at the Hilton Hotel in Park Lane. Activists had been granted permission by Scotland Yard to mount a protest outside the Dorchester Hotel between 13:00 and 19:00 hours on the 4th, but changed it to the Hilton. The stage was set for another confrontation.
A stage managed pro-Rajapaksa demonstration was bussed in at 01:00 in the afternoon numbering approximately one hundred people who unfurled their lion flags. Only three diaspora activists were present. However as time ebbed away, their number grew peaking at over 3,000 with their red and gold roaring tiger flags fluttering in the summer breeze. Shouts of ‘Jayawewa’ were drowned by ‘Rajapakse war criminal’ or ‘our nation Tamil Eelam’ as both groups faced-off each other across Park Lane. Scotland Yard received their first complaint from the Sri Lankan delegation on the tiger flags at 03;00 PM. They received several more but refused to act. Activists claimed that it was the Tamil national flag and not that of the banned Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.
The Hilton was still offering rooms for 389 pounds per night. Some activists paused for a moment to book rooms at the hotel and further disrupt Rajapakse’s stay. Others walked past High Commission staff and his minders to quench their thirst at Gavin at Windows, the Michelin starred restaurant and bar at the top of the Hilton, which offers one of the best views of London.
Despite demonstrations on the 3rd and 4th being large, it was not the set piece event. This was going to be a massive demonstration in front of the Mansion House on the 6th between 8:00 in the morning till 1:00 PM, where Rajapaksa was due to deliver his speech at the first session of the Diamond Jubilee Economic Forum. In addition to the diaspora being mobilised in the United Kingdom (UK), twenty bus loads of demonstrators were being brought in from afar as Switzerland and France. It threatened to bring traffic in the City of London to a halt.
Concerned senior commanders at both Scotland Yard and the City of London Police urged the Commonwealth Business Council (CBC), the organisers, to cancel the first session of the Forum.
They feared that neither of them in the midst of jubilee celebrations had sufficient resources to police it. The CBC obliged, posting the following comment on its website: “After careful consideration the morning sessions of the Forum on Wednesday 6th of June have been cancelled and will not take place. The event will therefore commence with lunch at 1300hrs followed by the originally planned afternoon sessions beginning at 1400hrs”. But, it was not just policing which prompted the cancellation. Activists had contacted the CBC with a view to buying tickets to the event and disrupting Rajapaksa’s speech from within the Mansion House. The CBC informed them that individual tickets were 945 pounds but were willing to do a ‘group deal’ for a company.
At 05:00 in the evening on the 5th of June, activists were invited to a meeting with a Scotland Yard team led by a chief superintendent at the police control centre in Pratt Walk. They requested shifting the Mansion House demonstration to the Hilton following the cancellation of the Rajapaksa speech and offered to grant permission for it from 08:00 in the morning till 5 in the evening. They also said that there would be ‘no need’ to demonstrate after that time for ‘another two months’. The message was that Rajapaksa had once again been forced to cut short his visit to London and was leaving on the eve of the 6th – he was expected to leave on the 7th – and, that he was due back for the Olympics.
A huge mobilisation had taken place involving all UK based Tamil television and radio stations, newspapers, websites, social media, hundreds of text messages and emails. Organisers were expecting fifteen to twenty thousand protestors. However, news of the cancellation resulted in some loss of momentum. Eight thousand protestors gathered outside the Mansion House. Stewards and police organised them into a long column to the beat of pounding drums and chants of ‘we want justice’ for a march which took them through the Strand, Trafalgar square, through Pall Mall to Marlborough House where the Commonwealth Secretary General was hosting a lunch for visiting heads of government and the Queen. All the way effigies of Rajapaksa, some hanging from gallows, were set alight or pounded with shoes.
Also, a large crowd began gathering on the green in front of the Hilton and at noon were joined by protestors from Marlborough House. Chants of ‘Rajapaksa go home’ and ‘Rajapaksa terrorist’ echoed among others. As passions stirred, the huge crowd surged ahead breaking the first barrier. A single police line was soon reinforced by two others. Community liaison officers rushed to the green to cool tempers. They made it clear that blocking off Park Lane was not an option. It would cause traffic in the West London to come to a standstill. They sought to diffuse the situation by assuring the crowd that they were welcome to pelt Rajapaksa’s vehicle with any missile they could get their hands on without risk of apprehension. At 5:15 in the evening a police outrider in a pre-arranged signal to the crowd blocked off Park Lane in front of the Hilton. Crowds surged to the front of the green once again grabbing anything they could. 15 minutes later two black Range Rovers pulled up in front of the Hilton. Rajapaksa and his wife mounted the first with his police close protection team in the second. The motorcade drove slowly past the crowed which was the cue to pound his vehicle with eggs, stones and other debris. Once out of sight, the crowds began to disperse. After the area was cleared the Chief Inspector policing the site, community liaison officers and organisers met for a debriefing at which all parties expressed their gratitude for each other’s cooperation. For a man supposed to wield absolute power in Sri Lanka, this was no doubt a humiliation. However, the fault was not his. This is a catastrophic failure on the part of the Sri Lankan High Commission in the UK. High Commissioner Nonis and Minister Councillor Pathmanathan must shoulder all the blame. Pathmanathan, a Tamil, whose role was to keep his finger on the pulse of the diaspora utterly failed to gauge its mood. Nonis and Pathmanathan were also oblivious to the extent which the British establishment would go to leave Rajapaksa ‘out to dry’. The press coverage was an unmitigated disaster with the mainstream media choosing to focus on allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity of Rajapaksa’s army. After this, it is difficult to see how either of their positions remain tenable.
Birnberg Pierce & Partners is a firm of lawyers specialising in human rights that represent Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and had been used by the Global Tamil Forum to seek a warrant for the arrest of General Gallage. Once again the Global Tamil Forum instructed the firm to apply for warrants to arrest two deputy inspectors general of police in Rajapaksa’s entourage. It is perhaps this which prompted Rajapaksa to cut short his stay. Rajapaksa and his entourage should not expect the same degree of refrain from activists when he returns for the Olympics. Organisers said now that the jubilee was over “all options are back on the table”. The diaspora would welcome the opportunity to disrupt the Olympics and especially the opening ceremony, if he chooses to attend it, to focus attention on the allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity made against his army.