On Wednesday 29th April in Parliament Square, around 2000 people congregated to protest over the plight of Tamils in Sri Lanka. They held a myriad of placards and chanted loudly as riot vans circled the crowd. Subramanyam Parameswaran, on hunger strike for 25 days now, was prominently featured in the literature being handed out to onlookers.
Nearby, a handful of Gurkhas cheered and posed for photographers after successfully lobbying MPs to vote against government proposals on the settlement of Gurkhas. They stood quietly in their distinctive hats with supporters holding just a couple flags bearing the insignia of the famous brigade. The contrasts between the campaigns could not be more startling.
Tamils in the UK are calling for the British government to help clear the way for UN observers to monitor alleged human rights abuses against the Tamil population and to help broker ceasefires and peace settlements between the two sides. After many years, the struggle between the Buddhist-Sinhalese government of Sri Lanka and the Hindu-Tamil minority in the North of the country has resulted in thousands of deaths on both sides.
The issue is clouded considerably by the involvement of the Tamil Tigers (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam or LTTE), who took up arms against the Sri Lankan government in the seventies. They have gained notoriety as the first organisation to use suicide bombing, and have so far remained the most prolific proponents of this tool of war.
The protesters have distanced themselves from the LTTE, with an anti-war message and a focus on human rights. They held placards saying “Two State Solution” and “DFID Stop Aid to Sri Lanka” and chanted:
Freedom for Sri Lanka
Stop the War
Stop the War
We fight for
Leading a humanitarian agenda in Sri Lanka holds the possibility of the UK government having to commit considerable resources, engage in uphill lobbying at the UN security council and risk alienating the government of a sovereign state. However, some progress has been made. The Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, recently returned from Sri Lanka and made this statement to the Commons on 30th April 2009:
I returned this morning from a visit to Sir Lanka with the French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner…
…In our discussions with the President and the Foreign Minister, Foreign Minister Kouchner and I made it clear that the protection of civilians must be paramount. We emphasised that if the LTTE had any heart at all, it would let the civilians leave the conflict zone. As G8 Foreign Ministers said in their statement on 25 April, we were also very clear that the time for the conflict to end is now.
We were briefed in detail by the Sri Lankan authorities on their humanitarian relief efforts outside the conflict zone. We welcomed this exchange of information, the extensive work that was under way and the commitments that the Government of Sri Lanka made. Nevertheless, some of what we were told was in contradiction to the information given to us by the international humanitarian agencies…
We therefore in the course of our visit returned again and again in our talks to five specific points in respect of the humanitarian situation: first, the need for visas to be issued swiftly to international humanitarian staff; secondly, the subject of travel permits for staff working on approved projects inside Sri Lanka; thirdly, the need for full access to IDPs as soon as they have crossed the front line and the monitoring of all stages of screening; fourthly, the need for a proper resettlement programme with specific deadlines to fulfil the Government’s commitment to have 80 per cent. of IDPs resettled by year’s end; and, fifthly, to allow the distribution of sufficient food and medicine to meet the needs of civilians trapped in the conflict zone. We were promised intensive follow-up by the Sri Lankan Government and we will continue to engage with them on all these issues.
At present, the Sri Lankan Government are engaged in a war without witness in the north of the country. Civilians have fled the terror of the LTTE, but are afraid of what awaits them at the hands of the Government and unsure whether they will ever be allowed home…
…I will be visiting New York on 11 May for UN Security Council business and will pursue further UN involvement in the crisis. I will be discussing with Secretary Clinton tonight, as well as with other like-minded colleagues, how we can work more closely together to find a way to bring the fighting to a stop.
…The Government there must win the peace as well as the war. That will be the continuing focus of this Government’s activity, hand in hand with international partners, in the days and weeks ahead.”
The Gurkhas, on the other hand, were cheering outside the doors of Westminster Palace after a group of MPs supported their claims for the right to residence in the UK. The soldiers are asking for a relaxation of the rules on settlement in the UK for those who have served in UK armed forces Gurkha units. 27 Labour rebels joined opposition parties to vote for a Liberal Democrat motion to give all Gurkhas equal rights of residence.
Although the motion was not binding on the Government, the defeat came as a humiliating reverse for Gordon Brown and a dramatic boost for the troops from the Himalayan kingdom of Nepal, who have pursued their demand for the right to settle through the courts over several years.
The Gurkha Justice Campaign has been considerably bolstered by the support of the actress Joanna Lumley and the backing of British tabloids, who have lauded the contribution of Gurkhas to British security.