Report to the Executive Committee of the Liberal Party of Sri Lanka On a visit to Liverpool to attend the Conference of the Liberal Democratic Party of Britain – 18th to 22nd September 2010.

Liverpool Pier Head

The visit to Liverpool had been arranged by the International Affairs Department of the British Liberal Democratic Party for the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats. It was funded by the Westminster Foundation, a cross-party organization intended to promote democracy internationally.

As Chairman currently of CALD, I led the delegation which included representatives of all 9 Asian member parties. In addition to attendance at Conference events and fringe meetins, briefings had been arranged for us with significant individuals, including two Lib-Dem Cabinet members (Vince Cable and Chris Huhne) and their Junior Minister in the Foreign Office (Jeremy Browne), the former leader Paddy Ashdown, and the Head of the Committee on Development Assistance in the House of Commons (Malcolm Bruce). Two of these I had known before, including the Minister for Energy, who was a contemporary at university. Malcolm Bruce had visited Sri Lanka as part of the delegation led by Des Browne which had been sent by the last government, and had in an interview made clear that conditions in Sri Lanka were much better than had been reported in Britain beforehand.

We also attended the International Reception, and were introduced to the Deputy Prime Minister, who spent some time with me as well as with the Acting High Commissioner for Sri Lanka, and who seemed as interested in a new relationship with Sri Lanka as the Prime Minister had been when I met him a few months back. This may not be the case with the Deputy Liberal Leader, Simon Hughes, who had been harshly critical of Sri Lanka previously, but I was able to talk to him at length in a private meeting, and have sent him much material which will I hope convince him that the statements in his current motion on Sri Lanka are erroneous. I was also able to correct some misapprehensions amongst other delegates, including an MEP I had not known earlier. I should note that most criticism, on the part of the Liberals at least, as opposed to more politically biased Labour Party members, was due to a lack of information. The Actg High Commissioner is doing much to correct this by constant engagement with all those willing to listen, and this is certainly the case with the Liberal Democrats.

On the last evening I was invited to a dinner at which I sat next to Jeremy Browne, the Lib-Dem Junior Minister at the Foreign Office. We had met two or three times earlier, as arranged for CALD, so we could speak fairly freely. I suggested to him that Britain should get over the previous FCO policy on Sri Lanka and instead engage actively with our Defence Ministry since the counter-terrorism tactics we had adopted should be seen as exemplary, and might indeed help the British and other forces in Afghanistan. I mentioned to him the differences in opinion about Sri Lanka between the British Ministry of Defence and the FCO under David Miliband, and referred him to a study I had initiated in this regard with the support of the forces in Sri Lanka. I hope this will at least have planted a seed in his mind.

My participation at the Conference was also as Chair of CALD, and this meant I had to raise other Asian issues too. I believe this was helpful however, because it made clear how satisfactory our own situation is, as compared for instance with that in Burma, or even Cambodia. I also presided over the presentation of Honorary Individual Membership of CALD to Aung San Suu Kyi, with the participation of Liberal International officials. Though this event did not get much publicity at the Conference, it has been highlighted in Liberal news outlets.

The general meetings I attended included one on Human Rights in the context of the war on terror, which had startling revelations about British policy during this period. Particularly startling revelations were made by Craig Murray, the former British Amnbassador to Uzbekhistan, the last diplomat to be dismissed, after David Gladstone who was High Commissioner in Sri Lanka. A study of his revelations would allow for interesting comparisons, and make clear the unacceptable position of the former Foreign Minister – though this should be done in the context of positive approaches to the current administration, which has admirably tried to address the issue through a formal inquiry.

In conclusion I believe we should be able to work together very happily with the current British government, in terms of party to party cooperation as well as through government contacts. There is greater genuine idealism in this government, I believe not only in the Liberal Democratic Party, combined with determination to find win-win situations rather than the confrontational approach of the past. Much greater cooperation with regard to investment and economic development too should be possible.