The Oxford Union sparked outrage last week after cancelling a visit by the President of Sri Lanka at the eleventh hour. Mr Rajapaksa was due to address Union members on Thursday of eighth week on national reconstruction and reconciliation.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa had already arrived in the UK when the Union called off the talk, citing “security reasons”.
High levels of protest from pro-Tamil activists had been anticipated for weeks by Union officials and police. In a statement on their website, the Union said that “due to the sheer scale of the expected protests, we do not feel that the talk can reasonably and safely go ahead as planned”.
In spite of fears, the Thames Valley Police issued a statement saying they had developed “a comprehensive policing operation … to facilitate those who wished to protest peacefully as well as provide an appropriate level of security to the president and his entourage”.
Superintendent Amanda Pearson, Commander of the Oxford area, said that the talk would have clearly caused a disruption to the city centre of Oxford but that Thames Valley Police “did have plans in place to deal with, and facilitate, large numbers of people gathering”.
The decision has caught the attention of the Sri Lankan media, with some reports suggesting that the British High Commission had a hand in the cancellation. In a press conference in London, the Sri Lankan external affairs minister, Professor G.L. Peiris called it “a sign of Britain’s moral weakness”.
Minister for Media Keheliya Rambukwella called the incident “a scar on the Oxford Union and the British government”. The BBC reported this week that demonstrators tried to storm the British High Commission in Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo over the Tamil protests that took place in London during President Rajapaka’s visit.
The Oxford Union stated that it holds a politically neutral stance with regard to speakers and that “the decision was not made in relation to any aspect of Mr Rajapaksa’s political position”.
The Sri Lankan President was met upon arrival at London’s Heathrow airport by hundreds of Tamil Tiger protesters who condemned the Union’s decision to host the talk and this week, Sri Lanka were the subject of the latest Wikileaks cables as it emerged that a US envoy believed that President Rajapaksa bore responsibility for an alleged massacre of Tamils in May 2009.
Oxford Sri Lankan Society, who helped to organise the event, condemned the cancellation, calling it a “unilateral decision” taken by the then Union President James Kingston, and describing his conduct “as ‘highly unbecoming”.
The society has worked in conjunction with the Union on speaker events successfully in the past, and had confirmed twelve ambassadors, five diplomats and the Lord Mayor of Oxford as guests for the event.
Dilan Fernando, President of the Oxford Sri Lankan Society, said that “the most embarrassing thing was the way in which it was cancelled”. He emphasised that Mr Rajapaksa had travelled thousands of miles and claimed that the Union President had a duty to “honour his commitment”.
Mr Rajapaksa expressed regret at the cancellation of the visit, which would have made him the first head of state ever to address the Union twice. He first visited the Union in 2008, during the Sri Lankan Civil War between the government and Tamil separatist groups.
James Langman, the Union President for Hilary term, reportedly travelled to London to apologise in person for the decision, extending an invitation for Mr Rajapaksa to speak just a few days later, once Langman’s official term as president had begun.
The Sri Lankan President politely declined but said in a statement that he would “continue to seek venues in Britain and elsewhere where he can talk about his future vision for Sri Lanka”.
The Oxford Union insisted in its statement that “the decision was not taken lightly” and expressed “deep regret” for having to cancel the visit.
The Oxford Union has a history of inviting controversial figures to speak and emphasises that all views must have a platform. In 2007, the Union came under fire for inviting British National Party leader Nick Griffin and holocaust denier David Irving to speak at a free speech event.