Sri Lanka

Part of Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 5:03 pm on 2nd May 2007.

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Photo of Shailesh Vara Shailesh Vara Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons 5:03 pm, 2nd May 2007

It is a great privilege and pleasure to follow Keith Vaz.

I am very pleased that the House has taken the opportunity to debate such an important subject. With so many conflicts around the world, and with our own armed forces engaged in so many places overseas, it is sometimes easy to overlook the ongoing difficulties in countries such as Sri Lanka. I compliment those on both Front Benches for taking such a conciliatory tone in their speeches, and concluding that there must be dialogue and a ceasefire. Although Mr. Murphy is not present at the moment, I want to say what a pleasure it was to listen to such an authoritative contribution as his.

The difficulties in Sri Lanka have arisen for a number of reasons, not the least of them being the ethnic, cultural and religious divisions between the Tamil and Singhalese communities. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam or LTTE is fighting for an independent homeland for the Tamil people. Tension between the Tamil and Sinhalese people has existed for many years, but a full-scale conflict has developed since the early 1980s, with armed groups operating in the north-east of the island, the area mainly populated by the Tamil minority. As we have heard, in the past 20 years some 70,000 people have been killed in the conflict and many more have been maimed and injured; almost 1 million people have been displaced from their homes. There remains the ever-present threat to many ordinary citizens of kidnap and murder, both of which have been a continuous feature of the conflict.

It is important to remember that atrocities have been committed by both sides. When in 1983 riots resulted in the death of 2,000 Tamils, it was suggested by many that some of the blame lay with the Sri Lankan authorities. On the other hand, the LTTE has long recognised that fear and devastation can be caused by suicide bombers. It has used that deadly tactic on many occasions, maiming and killing hundreds of people—often innocent people.

However, despite all the terror one thing is clear: both sides have demonstrated a capacity for peace. They did so when both sides approached the Norwegians to negotiate a ceasefire in February 2002. Unfortunately, that ceasefire now lies in tatters and the resumption of hostilities on both sides has led to some 4,000 people being killed over the past two years. There have been particularly worrying developments in the past few weeks; there is a real danger that Sri Lanka might end up in a state of civil war. Recent military pushes by the Sri Lankan army have led to the recapture of much of the Tamil-occupied land in the north and east of the island and, encouraged by its success, the army might well be preparing for another major offensive.

It is noteworthy that on Monday 23 April The Irish News reported:

"Sri Lankan Officials ordered Norway's Ambassador, who is trying to mediate a resumption of peace negotiations, to cancel a trip to the Tamil Tiger rebels' northern strongholds for security reasons."

The report went on to speculate that that was likely to mean that a major military push by Government forces was imminent.

Many contributors to the debate have spoken of the ban on the LTTE acting as a barrier to dialogue. Nevertheless, it is encouraging that some of the main people involved in the peace negotiations—the Norwegians—are engaged in dialogue with the LTTE and the Government. We must take comfort and heart from that.