Dissecting a debate in the House of Commons
Sri Lanka, LTTE and British Parliament by Prof. Ravindra Fernando. Published by Vijitha Yapa Publications.
A month or so back I was asked to launch Ravindra Fernando’s latest book, an account of the debate that took place on May 2, 2007 in the British House of Commons regarding the current situation in Sri Lanka. I suspect I was asked because more distinguished invitees were not available, but fortunately the British High Commissioner also turned up and spoke so I suspect Prof. Fernando was quite happy.
I was however happy to oblige, because I had been impressed by Prof. Fernando’s earlier book, on the Sathasivam case. I also thought he deserved all support because, as an intellectual who is a leading parliamentary candidate for the UNP at a time when all other intellectuals have fled, he merits every encouragement. If and when, under a more responsible leader, the UNP reverts to the respectable role of a loyal opposition, supporting the government in the context of physical threats but providing intelligent critiques of inappropriate policies and practices, intelligent thinkers will be essential to replace the current herd of knee jerk maulers.
Prof. Fernando certainly lives up to his reputation in this book, which gives a clear account of what took place in the House of Commons, and the reasons behind it. In a context in which the President’s not so loyal opposition, in our Parliament and outside, claims that the whole world hates Sri Lanka, Prof. Fernando has shown both the reasons for the House of Commons debate, and the balanced manner in which it was conducted.
Understandably, given that many of those who took part represent urban constituencies with large numbers of Tamils, they had to respond to the concerns of their constituents as to human rights and humanitarian issues in Sri Lanka affecting the Tamil community. Certainly, given the manner in which Tamils who left Sri Lanka in the eighties had been treated by the then government, it is understandable that they feel righteously resentful.
Reading the account of what was said, it is clear that some of them believe that the pictures they saw of the state-sponsored violence of those days relates to today, but that makes it all the more important that government decision makers reading this book take steps to correct such misapprehensions.
Meanwhile, almost all British Parliamentarians strongly condemned terrorism. Government speakers such as Kim Howells, the Minister of State and for the Middle East, made it clear that the responsibility of the LTTE for violent acts over the years was well documented - “It is a proscribed organisation under the Terrorism Act 2000. The EU listed the LTTE as a terrorist organisation in May 2006. We have repeatedly urged the LTTE to move away from the path of violence. In the absence of a full renunciation of terrorism in deed and word, there can be no question of reconsidering its proscribed status. LTTE involvement in killings, torture, detention of civilians and denial of freedom of speech is a reality. The LTTE does not tolerate any expression of opposition and its continuing recruitment of child soldiers is a matter of great concern.”
He also made clear the contribution of the current British government to curtailing the fund raising of the LTTE - “The ability of the LTTE to raise funds overseas helps to sustain its ability to carry out violent acts and reduces the incentive to move away from the path of violence. LTTE fundraising activity in the United Kingdom encourages war, not peace. It will not be tolerated, and I have recently met our security authorities to discuss how we can counter the bullying, threats and acts of fraud that are used regularly to extract money from the Tamil population and others in the country.”
Sometimes Sri Lankans feel that British justice is far too slow, and that the authorities there should move more quickly to stop the LTTE’s criminal activities. This is an understandable complaint, just as we should understand the complaints of those Britishers who think our justice system is too slow and that we should have taken action much earlier on some human rights cases. But the fact is that we, like the British, use their system of justice in which the accused are assumed innocent unless proven guilty, and therefore delays are inevitable. Conversely, we should be grateful that the British, like the French and Americans and Australians, have taken some admirable steps to curtail LTTE fundraising, whereas many European countries are still far too slow.
And while the Labour government was tough on the LTTE, the Conservatives, traditionally stronger on law and order issues, were even more definite in their criticisms.
At the same time, in reading Prof Fernando’s account, we should also be mindful of the genuine concerns that were expressed. In some cases, as with the constant assertion that the government was responsible for the closing of the A 9, with consequent humanitarian problems, we should blame not the British parliamentarians who believed what they said, but those who had sown misinformation.
And since there is no point in getting angry with the LTTE (though we should worry about those commentators in the mainstream who do not look at the facts), we should recognize that the answer is ensuring dissemination of correct information.
The fact that it was the LTTE that did not give the required guarantees to enable the ICRC to function more regularly at Omanthai (until finally persuaded to do so a couple of months back), the fact that they threatened the ICRC and stopped civilian and supply movements under their aegis (despite which the Commissioner General of Essential Services has maintained a steady supply of goods to Jaffna), the fact that scarcities and exorbitant prices occurred in February precisely because of an LTTE attack on a food ship, need to be publicized by the government. And at the same time a debate such as this reinforces the point that the government, reasonably good though its record already is, must always strive to do better.
Prof. Fernando’s measured account will help to diffuse some tensions that arose when the debate first occurred and it was assumed that this was unwarranted interference by Britishers. After all, with Sri Lankan constituents, it is understandable that British MPs should want to debate the situation. The book will help to make clear the relatively balanced discussion, whilst highlighting areas in which there were misconceptions that must be cleared.
As the British High Commissioner said at the launch in Colombo, Britain continues to ban the LTTE and, while assistance with the peace process will continue, it is based on the sovereignty and unity of Sri Lanka. It is up to us to take advantage of this commitment without allowing those who seek the division of Sri Lanka to benefit from inaccuracies and an adversarial approach.