Why Sri Lanka’s Tamils Have Occupied Parliament Square
Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 20th April, 2009
Thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils converged spontaneously on Parliament Square in Westminster today, to swell the ongoing demonstration of several hundred, as news came in of Sri Lankan government forces breaking through earth defences to the last stronghold of separatist rebels, the Tamil Tigers, amid fears of massive civilian casualties. As it is, tens of thousands of Tamil civilians have been living (or in many cases dying) in a humanitarian catastrophe that much of the outside world has ignored. Hence the demonstrations in Parliament Square . This situation is particularly relevant to the UK, given Britain’s colonial legacy and its role in creating a unitary state of Ceylon, with an inbuilt Tamil minority, and the presence of a large number of Tamils living in the UK, not least in London.
One of the hunger strikers, Subramanyam Parameswaran, most of whose immediate family has perished in the recent troubles on the island, is continuing without food, and he lies motionless in a tent in the square, though receiving regular medical attention from sympatisers. A high percentage of Sri Lankan Tamils in the UK are doctors and other professional people.
Simon Hughes, MP for North Southwark and Bermondsey, has been working tirelessly on the issue and is due in New York this week, to help present the Tamils’ case to the United Nations. The Prime Minister’s Special Representative, Des Browne MP, has already gone there. Even the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, has declared that he is ‘gravely concerned’ about the situation in Sri Lanka. And yet the Sri Lankan government has turned a deaf ear to pleas from the international media for access to the affected region, to report honestly what is happening, and from humanitarian agencies who rightly fear for the safety and health of the civilian Tamil population effectively caught in a trap. Even more important, there needs to be an immediate and permanent ceasefire and a political, not a military, appoach to the fundamental issues.
The Sri Lankan government believes ‘victory’ is in sight over the Tamil Tigers. As an objective commentator with a first-hand knowledge of the region, I do not endorse violence. But I recognise that the armed struggle in Sri Lanka (as in so many other parts of the world) grew out of generations of frustration among Tamils in Sri Lanka at being treated as second-class citizens. After the 1983 anti-Tamil riots in Colombo (which I witnessed with my own eyes, seeing people being hacked with knives and other makeshift weapons), the situation went from bad to worse. As one Tamil doctor from Bexley told me in Parliament Square this evening, ‘We should have made this demonstration 30 years ago. We were too quiet. We are a reasonable, educated community. Now the young people have shown us how to make our voice heard!’