On 8th of January Tamil Solidarity in Greater Manchester organised a rally at the office of Ivan Lewis MP, Under Secretary at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office with responsibility for Sri Lanka.
People came forward to stand in front of Ivan Lewis’ office for an hour with placards, despite horrific freezing weather. We explained to people passing what the Tamil people are facing in Sri Lanka. We also gave out leaflets for the Tamil Solidarity Northern Conference which is on 6th of February in Manchester City centre.
The placards Tamil Solidarity stood with said:
- Shut down the camps
- No to special detention camps
- Close the death camps now
- Democratic rights for all
- Support independent trade unions
- No support for warmongers
- Withdraw troops from Tamil Speaking areas
- Defend the right to self determination
- Grant asylum to 254 Merak Refugees
Tamil Solidarity supporters then met with Ivan Lewis and raised our concerns. We brought up the military camps in the North and East of Sri Lanka and the plight of the Tamil refugees facing starvation in Merak (Indonesia). We stated that the SL government has created virtual militarised zones, with no access to journalists or the NGOs. The MP agreed that the regime was ‘pretty tyrannical’ but said he was pleased that the closure of the camps is going ahead faster than anticipated. According to the SL government, all camps should be shut by the end of January but it is by no means clear that they will be. We also raised the special camps kept in secret locations where about 15,000 young people as young as 8 years old are kept, possibly with a view to their use as a source of very cheap labour in the proposed new economic zones. Tissa Vitharana, the SL government Minister of Science and Technology has admitted that he visited one of these camps and had seen 8 year olds and many other very young prisoners. Vitharana claims he was appalled by it, but continues to support the SL government! Mr Lewis promised to look into and get back to us about the camps and the economic zones.
We challenged the assessment of the British government’s “special envoy to Sri Lanka”, Des Browne, that SL is safe for all ethnic groups and that asylum seekers can safely be returned there. This is a country where journalists and human rights campaigners, whether Tamil or not, routinely disappear, and responsibility for the murder, exactly a year ago, of Lasantha Wickremetunge, editor of the Sunday Leader, has been publicly claimed by Labour Minister Mervyn Silva without any action being taken against him.
We also raised the issue of the ‘boat people’ sequestered in Merak harbour, Indonesia, as a result of the actions of another ‘Labour’ government in Australia which had the Indonesian navy intercept and forcibly detain asylum seekers attempting to reach Australia despite the fact that Indonesia is not a signatory to the United Nations Convention on Human Rights. We pointed out that Mr Lewis should be able to appeal to fellow social democrats to allow these Tamils, starved and deprived of medical attention, to be processed as asylum seekers in Australia. He promised to get back to us on this also.
Finally Lawrence spoke movingly about what it means for his family members in North Jaffna to be subjected to a 6pm curfew, and to be prevented by the military from earning a living fishing. He pointed out that the brutality of the occupying army would provoke many Tamil youth to take up violence if only to defend family members and that this could lead to an increase in support for armed action. Mr Lewis promised to look into the situation in North Jaffna and report back.
We await Ivan Lewis’ report in the next weeks. In the meantime we are considering other forms of protest and building for our Northern Conference on 6th February, which will take place from 12-4pm at the Methodist Central Hall, on Oldham Street in Manchester city centre – all welcome.