Sri Lanka

Part of Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 5:20 pm on 2nd May 2007.

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Photo of Joan Ruddock Joan Ruddock Labour, Lewisham, Deptford 5:20 pm, 2nd May 2007

I bring to this debate no expertise, and I have not been fortunate enough to have a holiday in Sri Lanka. However, I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend Keith Vaz, who has set up the all-party group, and I hope and trust that I will be able to participate in it.

Like many other hon. Members who have spoken in the debate, a very significant number of my constituents arrived in this country as asylum seekers and refugees from Sri Lanka. They now belong to the Tamil community that thrives in Lewisham, and in my constituency of Lewisham, Deptford in particular. As others have said, the families are settled British citizens, and they bring a great sense of commerce and endeavour to our communities. They run not only petrol stations but convenience shops, and play various roles in the NHS and the IT industry. Members of the Tamil community make an extremely valued contribution, and I very much support their work. They also bring a sense of culture to my area, which I especially enjoy. I should like to mention Vani fine arts, where young children are taught to play the sitar. It is the most wonderful experience to be at one of their concerts.

However, the Tamil community has a great and continuing sense of grievance, and members of it have made me aware of that for the two decades that I have represented the area in this House. In that time, I have seen blood-curdling films of the terrible atrocities committed against Tamils in Sri Lanka, and I have sometimes felt completely unable to suggest any way out of that terrible conflict.

My feeling about the situation in Sri Lanka was the same as that I felt about Northern Ireland for many years. As a mere politician, I felt that I could not propose a way forward, but the breakthrough that came in 2002 was a great relief to the Tamils in this country. Sri Lanka is a place of great diversity, and the news that a peace process was under way was appreciated by people of many faiths.

For quite a while, no political meetings were held in my constituency to discuss the situation in Sri Lanka. On looking back, and having read the excellent paper produced by the Library, it is clear that Sri Lanka has a history of absolute discrimination, with the minority being oppressed by the majority ever since independence. That oppression is so deep-rooted that, as with our experience with Northern Ireland, the beginning of a peace process is not seen as likely to produce a result in a short time. If the Sri Lankan Government had been more determined and committed to the peace process, or if the LTTE had shown more flexibility, it is possible that more success could have been achieved.

I was therefore very distressed and alarmed when last summer the Tamil community in my area asked for another political meeting to discuss the appalling outbreaks of violence that had taken place. I went to that meeting and heard about the many grievances that people had. I also heard the horror stories about what people in Jaffna had suffered. There was a lack of food and medicine in the city, and people who previously had been entirely self-sufficient were now relying on people from Britain to get to them the drugs, money and so on that they needed. It is a matter of enormous concern to me, as it is to all Members who have contributed today, that the violence has continued to escalate and to add to the terrible toll of previous decades.

It would appear that the hardliners on both sides are now in the ascendancy. I have been reading the catalogue of events that took place between January and April. The army has made significant progress in the east. Many towns and villages that were controlled by the LTTE are apparently now under the administration of the Karuna faction, which Human Rights Watch has alleged continues to recruit child soldiers, like its erstwhile allies in the LTTE. Defence expenditure, in a country that can hardly afford it, reportedly rose by 30 per cent. in 2006. The LTTE's capacity to retaliate has not entirely diminished, either. In recent weeks, as we have heard, it has shown that it has acquired some air capability by launching two aircraft attacks.

I shall repeat what many colleagues have said today. Recent estimates suggest that about 4,000 more people have been killed in Sri Lanka since late 2005, bringing the total killed since the outbreak of the civil war to 68,000. In addition, many people have suffered injuries that will affect the rest of their lives, and tens of thousands of people have been displaced from their homes and are no longer able to carry on a normal existence.

We are all grateful for the Norwegian-led peace efforts and I pay tribute to them. It is incredibly important that the Norwegians stay in Sri Lanka and that they do not take sides. It is also important that both sides in the conflict—the Government and the LTTE—have said that they would be willing to return to negotiations, although in truth we do not see that there is much prospect of that at the moment. That is why we all encourage the efforts of the UK Government, and particularly those of my right hon. Friend Mr. Murphy.

I want to ask Ministers some questions that have been put to me by my constituents. I asked one in a formal parliamentary question last year about aid following the tsunami. In October, I received a detailed reply from my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for International Development about the amount of aid and where and on what it was to be disbursed. I hope that in his winding-up speech he will tell us how that aid was distributed. As others have said, it is critically important for us to know that the aid was distributed fairly to the people most in need and that aid destined for Tamil areas was not impeded by the Government or the LTTE. I hope my hon. Friend can give us some assurance about that.

A point made by one my constituents was that we should not supply aid at all in the prevailing situation in Sri Lanka. I disagree with that view, so I hope that my hon. Friend can tell the House why it is important that we continue to give aid and that the aid is—we hope—used effectively.