Created: Wednesday, 21 August 2013
'Sri Lanka has made more gains post-conflict than Northern Ireland'
Northern Ireland parliamentarian for North Antrim from Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) Ian Paisley Jr said that Sri Lanka has made more measurable gains post-conflict than Northern Ireland. That is what he has seen on the ground, and British politicians should recognise it and stop the suffocation of a country by its past and help Sri Lanka to move forward to a better future. He made these strong comments with passion at Westminister Hall, UK Parliament during the debate on ‘Sri Lanka and the United Nations responsibility to protect’ from 9.30am to 11.00am on Tuesday 08 January 2013.
Debate was moved by Siobhain McDonagh Labour MP for Mitcham and Morden, South London who is an ardent supporter of Eelamist separatist ideology. However when she started the debate with high hopes in the second day of the parliament sitting in the new year targeting Sri Lanka to influence the British Government not only boycotting the next CHOGM Summit in Sri Lanka but also to sabotage it. But her evil dreams were shattered slowly by slowly when Ian Paisley MP progressed his speech.
Mr Paisley Jr was well supported by Conservative party government MPs James Wharton from Stockton South and Aidan Burley from Cannock Chase in the debate. Siobhain McDonagh’s anti Sri Lanka arguments were also backed by few parliamentarians those who are regular participants of pro Tamil Tiger propaganda campaigns.
Ian Paisley MP said: “On my journey to the House this morning, I drove through the memorial gates near the Mall. The words “Sri Lanka” are carved in granite on those gates to remind us that the Indian subcontinent, during the two great world wars, gave 5 million volunteers to this nation to defend freedom. When we hear the aggression from Argentina over the Falklands this week, we are reminded that the only country that stood with us in the international community in the original attempt to take back the Falklands was Sri Lanka. When a country that has supported us in the past comes under pressure, we should not kick it in the teeth. We stretch out the hand of forbearance and say, “We will help you through the difficult, post-conflict situation that you are clearly in. We will give you our experience and our help. We will not give you our hatred and our anger.” That is an important lesson that we, in a nation part of which is in a post-conflict situation, should recognise.
I have visited Sri Lanka on a number of occasions, both as a private individual and with constituents who had business there, as well as on a cross-party parliamentary trip. My experience was very different from what I have heard from propagandists not in Sri Lanka. The people on the ground gave a very different message from the out-of-touch one that I have heard from the self-appointed Diaspora, both in Canada and here in the United Kingdom.
I have visited Jaffna, the most disputed part of Sri Lanka in the north. There I saw new housing settlements, with Tamils living in them. I had tea with some of those families, whose interests are fishing and farming. They did not talk to me about the past, even though they had opportunity to do so. Indeed, when I raised the past—I was with them on my own—they wanted to talk about their future, their children and their new housing settlements, which were supported by money given by our country through the EU to help rebuild their country. They wanted to talk about moving forward. I have met both Tamil and Sinhalese families, and their united wish was to present a picture of hope for their country, not a picture of division. It was a community that wanted to move forward. They did not want to hear the international community talking about what happened in the past; they wanted the international community to help them to move to a better future.
On one occasion, two of my guides were a Tamil gentleman and a Sinhalese gentleman who had been at war with each other. At the end of my visit, in tears they embraced each other and they spoke about how they were now new brothers in a new land. Whenever I raised with them issues that I had heard in the propaganda in the United Kingdom, they could not understand them. They said that they bore no resemblance to their reality on the ground. In many aspects, Sri Lanka has made more measurable gains post-conflict than Northern Ireland. That is what I have seen on the ground, and we should recognise it and stop the suffocation of a country by its past and help Sri Lanka to move forward to a better future.
I took a day out and spent it with the leader of Tamil National Alliance, Mr Sampanthan. I spoke to him and his party colleagues at length, and I waited for him because I wanted to hear from him at first hand, without his being pushed or prodded into some of the difficult issues about the past. He did not raise with me the issue of the disappeared; he did not take time to raise with me the issue of war crimes; he did not take time to talk about routine torture, in his country, of his people. He had a politician with him from this nation and he did not want to talk about those things. In fact, he actively applauded the Government, whom he opposes. He applauded them on their investment in the country—in parts of the north—and he said that the most effective thing that many of his people required was practical help to get bicycles and other tools to help them to work and run their country. That was the message of the man who is leading the opposition.
If people took the time to speak to the active politicians on the ground who are representatives of their community, they might have a slightly different perspective than that in some of the propaganda that we have seen and heard. I urge the Minister to appeal publicly today to Sampanthan to stop his boycott of the political process, to lead his people and his party, and to join with other parties in the parliamentary select committee of Sri Lanka to find a political solution to the problems. We learnt the lesson the hard way.
People find a political solution by engaging in politics, not by asking for a boycott or for the international community to do their work for them—they do it themselves. I appeal to our Government to say to Sampanthan, “Lead your people and do not boycott the process any longer.” Politics, not a boycott, will work. The international community will not solve Sri Lanka’s problems. It will be the people of Sri Lanka, living in Sri Lanka, who will fix the problems of Sri Lanka, and we should actively encourage them in that. The biggest mistake that this Government could make would be to send the message to Sri Lanka that they were going to pull out of the Commonwealth talks later this year and punish a country that needs help, not more persecution.
Conservative MP James Wharton who has been to Sri Lanka many times said from his personal experiences that it worries him how much misinformation is out about what is happening on the ground in Sri Lanka. He quoted from the comment made by Ilford North Labour MP Lee Scott who follows matters in Sri Lanka keenly, has a different position to him was absolutely right to say that we must not forget the past, but we must not misinterpret or misrepresent it either.
James Wharton MP said: It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley), who speaks passionately, with experience of post-conflict life and of rebuilding communities after a very difficult period. He gives us all cause to pause and to reflect on what the debate is really about. There was a great deal that I wanted to say, but as I have a very short time, I will significantly cut down my comments.
I have been to Sri Lanka a number of times, and the visits are all declared in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I have gone there with colleagues, some of whom are here today. What worries me is how much misinformation is out there about what is happening on the ground. My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North (Mr Scott), who follows matters in Sri Lanka keenly, has a different position to mine, but it is a genuinely felt one. He was absolutely right to say that we must not forget the past, but we must not misinterpret or misrepresent it either.
A problem that Sri Lanka has faced in the debate in the western world, in this Parliament, in the media and in other places across the globe is that, for a variety of reasons, too many people try to change what happened in the past, to change the accepted facts of what went on. The reality is that a lot of what we see is not based on facts or in reality. I have raised the point before in the House that even the Darusman report, which preceded the UN report that has led to the debate today, specifically states, in paragraph 53:
“This account should not be taken as proven facts, and any effort to determine specific liabilities would require a higher threshold.”
It is made clear that the report establishes a narrative that can be used to work forwards but that none of the data—for example, on the numbers of casualties—should be quoted as specific figures. The facts on the ground regarding the provision of food and medical supplies are starkly different to some of the evidence given by unnamed sources to the expert committee that put together the report.
I am conscious of the time, so I just want to draw the House’s attention to a few areas in which progress is being made in Sri Lanka. Most of the 300,000 internally displaced persons have now been resettled. I visited Menik farm, one of the welfare camps set up to house the huge numbers of people displaced by conflict in January of last year. There were about 6,000 people left, and the camp has now closed and the people have gone home. They have been able to do so because demining operations have proceeded at an amazing pace, with more than 900,000 mines and unexploded ordnance having been cleared, primarily by the Sri Lankan army but also by the HALO Trust with support from UK aid, and I congratulate the UK on its contribution.
More than 120,000 houses have been constructed in the north and the east, nearly 600 child soldiers have been rehabilitated and more than 10,000 adult combatants have been rehabilitated or reintegrated into Sri Lankan society. Some 900 Tamil speakers have been recruited into the police force in the north and east, and that is important in building trust in a community that does not have historic trust in its Government and the organisations that represent it. Investment is key, as is infrastructure, so that the economy can grow and people can improve their lives.
When I went to Sri Lanka with the charity International Alert, we visited a group of young Tamil people in the Vanni, and they talked about jobs and employment prospects, about what they were going to do and what they wanted to do. They talked about the challenges that they faced at home and about how they wanted to get education and the cost of education. They talked about the same things that young people in colleges in my constituency talk to me about; they share some of the same problems. They wanted to look forward and go forward.
The tone of debate in the House too often worries me, because we focus on what we can do to punish the Government of Sri Lanka, whether by the removal of the generalised system of preferences or the UK’s pulling out of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting. Such things will not damage the Government of Sri Lanka; they will damage progress towards peace and the prosperity of the people who live in Sri Lanka. The tone of the debate here needs to change. We need to work constructively with the Government of Sri Lanka to put pressure where it is due and, where we can, to deliver improvement.
Recalling his personal experiences Conservative MP for Cannock Chase, Aidan Burley who visited Sri Lanka on a eight day trip last year said that he has detailed his trip because he strongly believe that people can only speak authoritatively and honestly about a subject if they have first-hand experience, seeing things with their own eyes and forming their own impressions, rather than just watching a Channel 4 documentary. He further requested Siobhain McDonagh and other MPs to go to Sri Lanka and speak to the people of Sri Lanka, not to the people of Mitcham and Morden, and listen to what they have to say. Mr Burley stated that he found a country at peace with itself. That is what we should be debating and supporting: helping Sri Lanka to build a better future for itself, rather than letting extremists in the UK divide it.
He also asked Siobhain McDonagh when she last visited Sri Lanka because she has mentioned lots of second-hand evidence in her speech, but when did she last visit Sri Lanka and see for herself—at first hand—some of the things that she is alleging are happening there.
MP McDonagh replied that she has never been to Sri Lanka, but she respect the views of the UN special envoy to Sri Lanka, the UN, the Canadian Government, the Australian Government, the US Government, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
Siobhain McDonagh, Labour MP for Mitcham and Morden said: Are all of those organisations bogus? Do we not believe anything that any of them say?
MP Aidan Burley (Cannock Chase) (Con): The hon. Lady mentions the fact that lots of people visit Sri Lanka. May I ask her when she last visited Sri Lanka? She has mentioned lots of second-hand evidence in her speech so far, but when did she last visit Sri Lanka and see for herself—at first hand—some of the things that she is alleging are happening there?
Many speakers this morning have started by declaring whether they have visited Sir Lanka, and I intervened on the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) to ask whether she has done so, because I visited Sri Lanka in July 2012 and spent eight days travelling all over the country. I did not just fly into Colombo; I went to the north, the east and the south. I went to Jaffna and Kilinochchi, Trincomalee, Kandy and Hambantota. I went to all the rural areas, not just to the towns and cities.
I went to the Jaffna teaching hospital and discussed the lack of medical equipment with some of the doctors. I went to the chamber of commerce and discussed inward investment with business leaders. I visited resettlement projects in Ariyalai and mine clearing in Kilinochchi with the HALO Trust, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (James Wharton) mentioned, is partly funded through the Department for International Development.
I met the President in Kandy. I also met, Mr Sampanthan, a leader of the opposition, for several hours in Trincomalee—I recognise the comments of the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley)—and I remember him telling us that he wanted a bicycle for every one of his people, which is his main priority.
I have detailed my trip because I strongly believe that people can only speak authoritatively and honestly about a subject if they have first-hand experience, seeing things with their own eyes and forming their own impressions, rather than just watching a Channel 4 documentary. After all, would a person buy a house just because someone told them it was nice, or would they want to see the property first hand? Would a person move to an area just because someone said it was a nice place to live, or would they want to visit the area first?
Everywhere I went on my eight-day trip to Sri Lanka last year, I saw the same thing first hand: Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims living harmoniously with each other, getting on with their lives and rebuilding their country. I saw the different communities and faiths living beside one another after their horrendous civil war. I saw Sinhalese boys and Tamil girls playing together in the playgrounds of the schools that we visited. That is why I wanted to speak in this debate. The UK should be helping Sri Lanka, our former colony, to rebuild itself. British politicians should understand Sri Lanka’s reconciliation and help it to demine, so that communities can move back to their own lands. I saw that happening with my own eyes; I saw the minefields being cleared through the HALO Trust, and I saw houses being rebuilt and crops being grown on the old minefields. That is constructive. We saw HSBC and Marks and Spencer in Sri Lanka. I learnt that the software that runs the UK stock market is based in Sri Lanka.
All that is positive—it is about jobs and livelihoods—and we should be having a debate on encouraging trade to Sri Lanka. British politicians should be leading business trips and delegations of British companies to Sri Lanka to encourage Sri Lankan and British businesses to work together. Britain has the second-highest number of tourists to Sri Lanka—a country that desperately needs tourists’ pounds. I do not believe this debate will help that rebuilding process; it is a negative debate that perpetuates old myths and stereotypes and is based on narrow interest groups in the UK that have their own agendas.