Sri Lanka

Part of Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 3:13 pm on 2nd May 2007.

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Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 3:13 pm, 2nd May 2007

I congratulate the Minister on his calm and balanced introduction to the debate. We have had a good start to a debate on a subject that evokes passions. It is important to debate it in the House.

Sri Lanka is a beautiful island with a population of approximately 19.5 million people and it has been my pleasure to visit it. It is rightly a popular tourist destination—it has more than 600 miles of beaches, with resorts on the west, south and east coasts. It also contains deep jungle and mountain slopes, where high quality Ceylon tea is grown.

Sri Lanka has an ancient and historic civilisation, some of which I have explored through ruined cities and buildings such as palaces, dagobars and Buddhist temples throughout the island. I am conscious of the substantial archaeological interest in various sites, including Anuradhapura, Mihintale, Polonnaruwa, Sigirya, Dambulla and Kandy, where the glory of the island's past can be witnessed at first hand.

I have been welcomed by the friendly people of Sri Lanka when I have visited. It is therefore especially sad, given its natural richness, that the troubles and deep divisions persist on that beautiful island. I note that the Minister visited in February. As he said, the problems have been going on for far too long. The dispute in Sri Lanka does not get as much international attention as it deserves when compared with Darfur, Somalia or Burma. That is a travesty, given the long-standing nature of the conflict.

Its recent history began in 1975, when a Tamil, Vellupillai Prabhakaran, began to form an extremist wing, which is now known as the Tamil Tigers—the LTTE. The Foreign Office estimates that, since that conflict began, nearly 70,000 people have been killed and perhaps more than a million people have been displaced. It is a major conflict in anybody's terms. In recent times, the conflict and death rates have escalated. In answer to a written parliamentary question from me earlier this year, the Minister said that there were 1,000 civilian deaths last year and 40 this January alone. I also note that some 64,857 internally displaced persons are in the process of being resettled. That is expected to happen by the end of July.

The conflict has brought untold misery to many more throughout the country who have been injured, displaced or lost loved ones. The international community should make renewed efforts to inject momentum into the peace process. As the Minister repeated several times, a political solution, agreed by all the parties involved in the dispute, is the only lasting answer to the problem.

To begin to resolve the conflict, both sides must recognise that that will not happen by military means. As the United Kingdom Government discovered in Northern Ireland, there must be a political solution. There will never be a military solution to the Sri Lankan problem.

Given the deeply ingrained feelings of mistrust on both sides, resolution is not an easy prospect, as the Minister said. Yet we should not stop trying. It should be our purpose today to discuss what we can do to facilitate the end of the violence in that beautiful country.

There is almost daily violence between the armed forces of the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE. On Friday, three Sri Lankan navy personnel were killed by members of the LTTE in a gun battle in Trincomalee on the east coast. On Thursday, Sri Lankan army troops launched an attack on the rebel mortar position in the north-west of the country, where clashes the previous day left 23 combatants dead. The sad truth is that similar incidents happen every day and will probably continue to happen unless something is done to stop them.

As the Minister said, only five years ago the position appeared a great deal more positive, when the 2002 peace agreement brokered by the Norwegian-led peace envoy was signed on 2 February. Both parties agreed to

"recognise the importance of bringing an end to hostilities and improving the living conditions for all inhabitants affected by the conflict... bringing an end to the hostilities is also seen... as a means of establishing a positive atmosphere in which further steps towards negotiations on a lasting solution can be taken."

Unfortunately, from that high water mark, it is clear that a solution in Sri Lanka is in desperate need of a positive atmosphere, demonstrated by the working of that peace accord.

I greatly welcome and appreciate the efforts of the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mr. Murphy, who is present today. He visited the country in November and met not only members of the Sri Lankan Government but non-governmental organisations and senior members of the LTTE. His wealth of knowledge of how the Northern Ireland peace solution evolved should be invaluable to both sides of the conflict. I welcome the friendly way in which he felt able to discuss that matter with me. It has been a considerable help in understanding the problems of Sri Lanka.

I believe that the example of Northern Ireland is particularly pertinent when considering a solution in Sri Lanka. For a long time, the IRA pursued a violent military campaign to try to force the British Government to concede to its demands, yet it finally realised that the British Government and the British people would not buckle to its tactics. Thankfully, we have now seen an end to the IRA's campaign of violence. The LTTE and others should take their lead from the IRA and involve themselves in the political process. The simple reality is that no Government can or should give in to the demands of those who would kill and maim innocent civilians. The use of violence to make one's voice heard is unacceptable in a civilised society.

Independent reports of bombings, shootings, the recruitment of child soldiers by the LTTE have resulted, as we heard today, in the organisation becoming proscribed by the EU, the US, Australia and India. The LTTE seeks to justify its actions because it claims that it faces discrimination from the Sri Lankan Government, while also claiming that it is denied the right to an independent homeland. However, there is never justification for a campaign of aggression on the scale that we have seen.

Let me turn briefly to deal with the role that the Sri Lankan Government could play in this conflict. The Government are internationally recognised as the democratically elected Administration of the country. Equally, it cannot be said that the Sri Lankan Government have played no part in exacerbating the conflict. I think that the Sri Lankan Government's decision to close the main A9 road to Jaffna and leave it closed for such a long time was unhelpful and I know that many right hon. and hon. Members, including myself, called on the Government to open that road during the period that it was closed.

What makes the Sri Lankan Government's decisions unacceptable is that they have refused access to international aid agencies, which bring much-needed humanitarian relief to the people of that troubled north-east region. I know that the Minister met the Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka and doubtless made that point to him. I also met him when he came here in early March and made precisely that point.

Political representation for the Tamil minority in Sri Lankan politics is another issue that needs serious consideration. If Sri Lanka is to be capable of creating a long-term and peaceful solution to its problems, engagement in an inclusive political process is essential.

The Tamil community has claimed for a long time that it faced discrimination by the Sinhalese establishment. It complains that it has been and continues to be marginalised and stopped from reaching positions of power. I believe that the Government of Sri Lanka should take that very seriously and should make every effort to rectify it and foster a lasting sense of understanding between the Sri Lankan Government and the Tamil population that will ultimately lead to peace. It must be made clear that the Tamil people will be allowed to share power and that their political involvement will be welcomed.

The best way for the Sri Lankan Government to defeat insurrection is to offer the Tamil people a peaceful and meaningful democratically accountable role in the Sri Lankan Parliament. Those affected by the conflict must be desperate for an alternative that will end violence, yet while no realistic alternative exists, the LTTE will continue to gain support from their populations. The Sri Lankan Government should seek to win hearts and minds in order to cut off support to that base and the extremists.

I welcome the actions of the Sri Lankan Government's security forces, including paramilitaries, but they must be careful that they are not seen to be abusing human rights. In that respect, I welcome the independent group of eminent persons, which Mr. Love mentioned, so ably chaired by the respected Indian judge, Mr. Bhagwati, as well as Sir Nigel Rodley and an EU representative. The work that this independent acceptable group could do would be commendable.

The international community is rightly concerned that the Sri Lankan Government have not necessarily addressed serious human rights abuses, including torture, being perpetrated by the LTTE against civilians. The Minister recognised today that the LTTE is accused by UNICEF and others of having recruited more than 6,500 children for its armed campaign. That is quite unacceptable. As the Minister told me in a written parliamentary answer:

"Officials regularly make clear that the use of child soldiers in Sri Lanka cannot be tolerated."—[ Hansard, 9 October 2006; Vol. 450, c. 453-54W.]

I was very pleased to hear him restate that again today.

Similarly, the LTTE continues to make allegations against the Government. It recently accused them of killing 10 Indian fishermen who had strayed into Sri Lankan territorial waters. The Tamil Nadu state Government in India, however, confirmed that the LTTE was responsible for killing the Indian fishermen. Clearly, there is a certain amount of spinning and false propaganda.

How is it funded? I am sure that hon. Members will be aware that the weapons used by the LTTE have increased in sophistication. Indeed, it recently acquired a light aircraft with a range of 600 miles in which it was able to carry out a series of air strikes across the country, damaging an oil depot owned by Royal Dutch Shell and the Indian Oil Corporation. The LTTE hit the main airport in Colombo earlier this week and the flights of three international airlines—Cathay Pacific, Singapore and Emirates airlines—have been suspended. Evidence suggests that some of air raids were assisted by Canadian-trained Tamil engineers. With an economy that is heavily reliant on the tourist industry, the aims of the LTTE are obvious. It seeks to cripple the island's economy with its acts, harming the entire island's economic well-being.

Where does LTTE funding come from? The US State Department's annual country terrorism report, published on Monday, suggests that the LTTE finances itself from the Tamil diaspora based in North America, Europe and Australia, as well as by imposing "local taxes" on businesses operating in the areas of Sri Lanka that it controls.

As I said in my intervention, a chief fund raiser of the LTTE, Karunakaran Kandasamy, was arrested last week in the United States under charges of raising funds to support terrorism and fomenting terrorism in the United States. The assistant director of the FBI said:

"Karuna hasn't merely supported the LTTE cause, he has orchestrated support in the US."

In a similar case yesterday, the Australian federal police arrested two men under suspicion of diverting funds intended to go to victims of the 2004 Boxing day tsunami to the LTTE in order to buy arms.

In addition to those two cases, numerous others demonstrate that the LTTE has a sophisticated and complex international fundraising network. The Minister was right in his response to some of his Back Benchers that we would need to be incredibly careful about de-proscribing the LTTE as a terrorist organisation. I hope that the Minister who replies to the debate will be able to tell the House what efforts the British Government are making to work with the international community to root out those who would raise money for the LTTE and other terrorist groups.