Sri Lanka

Part of Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 3:52 pm on 2nd May 2007.

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Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Attorney General, Shadow Lord Chancellor and Shadow Secretary of State for Justice, Party Chair, Liberal Democrats 3:52 pm, 2nd May 2007

I do agree. In Northern Ireland, the conversation was sometimes carried on through intermediaries. History shows that conflicts are resolved only by communication, often conducted by people who used to hold high office and who are slightly freer when they leave it. Those people may often not be well known public figures.

In that context, I want to pay a particular tribute to the Norwegian Government. London's Norwegian church is in my constituency, and I have had dealings with the community over many years. The Norwegian Government have been assiduous in offering their services in these matters, and they have done great work. I hope that they and other members of the international community will be given the opportunity to do more in the future. In the past, it has often been people outside Sri Lanka who have been able to facilitate communication and bring people together.

I turn now to the make-up of Sri Lanka, which is understood by everyone here, but not by everyone outside. The Minister told us that the island has a population of about 20 million, of whom about three quarters are Sinhala. Of the rest, about 13 per cent. are Tamil and about 5.5 per cent. are Muslim, with smaller groups making up the total. However, it should be noted that people in the various Sinhala, Tamil or other communities do not all share the same opinion about matters.

Three languages—Sinhalese, Tamil and English—are the most commonly spoken. Nearly two thirds of people are Buddhist, but there are significant Hindi, Muslim, Christian and other communities.

From the early days of independence, Sinhala nationalism became the flavour of the Sri Lankan Government, and Buddhism was given a particular status. We in Britain must not be hypocritical about that, as protestant Anglican Christianity has a similar status here. I consider that to be unhelpful in our modern age, and believe that no denomination or faith should have special status here. The situation in Sri Lanka is certainly not helpful: if there is to be progress, it must be accepted that all peoples, major languages and faiths deserve equal recognition.

I hope that the Sri Lankan Government understand that, although I know that they, like Governments in India, often depend on nationalist votes. However, if Sinhala nationalism can be justified, so can Tamil nationalism. An accommodation between the two sides needs to be reached.