By Arujuna Sivananthan –
Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons is a spectacle to behold. Each Wednesday when Parliament is sitting the Prime Minister answers questions asked by MPs in the main chamber. It is theatre full of “histrionics and cacophony”, yet it reinforces everything that is great about British democracy.
However, on the 14th of January the mood was sombre following the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris.
John Whittingdale, the Conservative MP for Maldon asked the following question: Is my right hon. Friend aware that in the past 12 months, more than 60 journalists have been killed in the course of their work, including those at Charlie Hebdo last week? Just five weeks ago, I and several other Members of Parliament attended the signing in Paris of a declaration by representatives of every European country, recognising the vital role of journalists in a free society and pledging to do everything possible to protect their safety. Will my right hon. Friend reaffirm that commitment today?
The Prime Minister’s answer was lucid: “I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work he does in supporting the freedom of the press and I certainly reiterate what he says today. This most struck me when I visited Jaffna, in northern Sri Lanka, and went to see a newspaper office that had been shot up, bombed and burned. That brings home what journalists in other countries have for years faced in bringing the truth and putting it in front of the people, which is a vital part of a free democratic system…”
As much as the Charlie Hebdo atrocity shocked us all, David Cameron reinforced in one sentence the egregious violence Tamil journalists have endured and continue to do at the hands of successive Sinhala dominated Sri Lankan regimes.
#JeSuisCharlie spoke the same as #JeSuisTamil.
#JeSuisTamil echoed again on the 28th of January from the Commons.
Robert Halfon, the Conservative Member for Parliament for Harlow pointed out that; “Over the past 10 years, 370 journalists have been killed in Sri Lanka. Of those 370 cases, only 10% resulted in convictions. If Sri Lanka wants to improve its human rights record, it needs to set that straight and ensure that those very people whose mission is to denounce and investigate, to unearth and to expose, are safe enough to allow them to continue as the peaceful policemen of this world. “Je suis Charlie” applies as much in Sri Lanka as in Paris.”
Most of the journalists killed were Tamil of course.
He went on to assert; “There are not many Tamils in my constituency; I wish there were. I am taking part in the debate because I am from the Jewish faith and believe that it is my duty to help races and nations that have suffered genocide. I believe that there has been a genocide of the Tamils. I define genocide as scientific murder. The Tamils have for decades been demonised and marginalised. They have been imprisoned in camps and annihilated. I commend the UNHCR for its renewed efforts to appraise the situation of the Tamil community in Sri Lanka, especially after last month’s regime change.”
The debate was titled ‘Tamils in Sri Lanka’ and was called by Lee Scott, Conservative MP for Illford North and Chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Tamils (APPG-T). The motion was made and proposed by a government minister and Conservative MP for Croydon Central Gavin Barwell, a government whip and late treasurer of the (APPG-T) –government ministers cannot be members of APPGs’.
Lee Scott opened the debate by apologising to the global Tamil community with the words; “On behalf of everyone, whatever our political party, we should offer an apology to the Tamil community of Sri Lanka for what has happened over the years. Many people, including Government and Opposition Members, said that atrocities were taking place. Sadly, however well meaning people were and however much they wanted to act, those words were not listened to, and many thousands of innocent lives were lost, which should never have happened. The House of Commons as a whole—although I can speak only for myself, not the whole House—should say sorry for that, although we cannot replace the lives that have been lost.”
All those present concurred and the message was unequivocal!
- The new Sri Lankan government must comply with the OISL inquiry’s findings, which is due to be published at the 28th session of the UNHRC.
- Tamils had endured genocide and continue to suffer intolerable discrimination.
- This new Sri Lankan regime is no different to the previous –many took pride in arrogantly boasting how they plotted the most heinous atrocity of the 21st century during the presidential election campaign.
- There exists no provision within the Sri Lankan constitution to investigate war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide; and, it does not allow for retrospective legislation.
- Sri Lanka must sign the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which 123 countries including the UK are a signatory to, and,
- Tamils must be granted their right to self-determination.
And, if Sri Lanka refused to cooperate, reform and become a good global citizen that Her Majesty’s Government, in concert with her allies, use every tool in its inventory to bring about this change including:
1. Veto the IMF loan that Sri Lanka is seeking to change the composition and term structure of its external debt; noting that the UK, her European Allies and the United States are together are its major shareholders; and,
2. Implement the recommendation of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee and withdraw the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP).
The latter when juxtaposed with the assertion made allegedly by senior government figures, emanating from the Colombo press, that Sri Lanka was close to having the more favourable GSP+ plus concession it lost restored seems fanciful.
Ten years ago, foreign minister Mangala Samaraweera may have found some purchase in floating the canard that all British Tamils are tigers.
However, much has changed since then:
- Almost one in seven doctors in the English National Health Service are British Tamils with English medical faculties minting many many hundreds of new Tamil doctors a year.
- In the Square Mile, the heart of London’s financial centre and a bastion of privilege, many British Tamils who have surged to stratospheric levels.
- Those who fled Sri Lanka as refugees run very successful commercial enterprises, adding over twenty billion pounds to Britain’s economy –a sum that exceeds two-thirds of Sri Lanka’s total GDP- while employing tens of thousands of British workers.
- Also, several of them are large donors to UK political parties, serve them in various capacities; and, therefore it is difficult to portray them as being nihilistic terrorists.
However, when the political establishment measures the contribution British Tamils will make to the UK, they do not judge them by simply by where they are today, but where they will be in a decade henceforth –manifold times more affluent, influential, and formidable in their advocacy.
And, unlike the Tamil activists of yesteryear, those who are picking up the cudgel now are educated in England’s Great Public Schools such as Eton College, Westminster and City of London Schools; or, its excellent Grammar (selective) Schools from Barnet to Kent. Take firsts or double starred firsts from Oxbridge or Britain’s other great universities, and bring unprecedented networks and resources to bear.
At every level in all spectra, Sri Lanka will be countered. We will not go away till we get justice for the victims of most heinous atrocity of the 21st century, and, an equitable political solution for our own blood.
As we remember and pay tribute to the greatest of all Britons, who saved the world from tyranny and ended the holocaust, on the 50th anniversary of his passing; for British Tamils the outcome of these presidential elections is; “…not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” – Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill, KG, OM, CH, TD, DL, FRS, RA.
*Dr Arujuna Sivananthan is the Chairman of the British Tamil Conservatives, affiliated to the Conservative Party