‘Sheer scale’ of expected protests compels Oxford Union to cancel Rajapakse event

[TamilNet, Wednesday, 01 December 2010, 19:02 GMT]
The Oxford Union Wednesday said it was cancelling Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse’s address planned for Thursday. "Due to the sheer scale of the expected protests, we do not feel that the talk can reasonably and safely go ahead," the organisation, an independent debating society which is not part of the University of Oxford, said. Thousands of people were expected to protest Thursday in the university town to express their outrage at the event, organised despite growing international outrage over the Rajapakse administration’s war crimes and ongoing repression. Last week Tamil societies from sixteen British universities wrote to the Oxford Union protesting the invitation. On Monday hundreds of people demonstrated at Heathrow airport as Rajapakse’s plane landed.

Before the cancellation was announced, Thames Valley Police had planned to close several roads in the city centre between 1300 and 2300 GMT, the BBC reported.

Thousands of people were expected to travel to the university town amid growing outrage and anger at the event. Last week, British parliamentarians were amongst those urging for public protests.

A statement from the Oxford Union said: "Due to security concerns surrounding Mr Rajapaksa's visit which have recently been brought to our attention by the police, the union has regretfully found the talk is no longer practicable and has had to cancel his address.”

In 2007, amid similar outrage over the Oxford Union’s invitation to Holocaust denier David Irving and British far right leader Nick Griffin triggered protests. The event was disrupted when angry students surge into the venue and resumed when they were later persuaded to leave.

President Rajapaksa Tuesday issued a statement regretting the decision taken by the Oxford Union, which he lamented as "the home of free speech".

"I am very sorry this has had to be cancelled but I will continue to seek venues in the UK and elsewhere where I can talk about my future vision for Sri Lanka,” The Guardian newspaper quoted him as saying.

Announcing the cancellation, the Oxford Union defended its invitation: "The union holds a politically neutral stance with regards to speakers and the decision was not made in relation to any aspect of Mr Rajapaksa's political position, the policies of his administration or any allegations against his government," the statement said.

Nonetheless, amid the storm of controversy, the Oxford Union sought to explain its invitation: “[we] felt that Mr. Rajapaksa would provide a unique insight into the political climate of the region in his speech.”

The Union also invoked the principle of free speech in its defence: "This decision [to cancel] was not taken lightly and the union deeply regrets the cancellation. The union has a long tradition of hosting prominent speakers and upholding the principles of free speech."

However, in a joint letter last month to the Oxford Union, sixteen Tamil university societies questioned the society’s extension of ‘free speech’ to a leader who was crushing that very right at home.

“The Oxford Union in the past faced criticism for inviting other controversial speakers also known for their racist views. However, President Rajapakse is in a different position from [far right leader] Nick Griffin or [Holocaust denier] David Irving,” the letter, issued by the Tamil Youth Organisation, said.

“These previous speakers live in countries with a free and independent media and the rule of law. They could not therefore use the Oxford Union as a means of propagating unchallenged, noxious views or indeed as a platform for a campaign of concealment.

“However, President Rajapakse has crushed free speech in his own country and done his best to conceal from international attention the grave crimes committed in the Tamil speaking areas.”

The university Tamil societies are those of Cambridge, Nottingham, King’s College London, Kingston, Cardiff, St. Georges, Westminister, Hertfordshire, Southampton, Queen Mary, Middlesex, Brunel, Greenwich, Imperial College, Central London, and City.

Responding to letters of protest it had also been receiving Monday, the University of Oxford said:

“The Oxford Union is an independent debating society. Although most of its members are current or former Oxford students, it is not part of the University of Oxford. It has its own funding sources and premises, and the University does not have jurisdiction over its events.”


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