Prime Minister David Cameron shook the blood-stained hand of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity. When Labour leader Ed Miliband criticised David Cameron in Parliament for attending the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Sri Lanka he was basically crying over spilt milk. At least for this reason New Labour should be renamed ‘Late’ Labour.
Miliband seems to have set “a new record for opportunism” – Labour only really started to talk about CHOGM once the meeting was taking place and protesters, Channel 4 and others brought the trampling of democratic rights to the fore. Worse – Labour was actually in power when the genocidal slaughter took place in Sri Lanka in 2009.When hundreds of thousands of Tamil-speaking people took to the streets in London demanding action they were grossly ignored – and not a peep from the then government while an estimated 70,000 Tamils were being slaughtered. And worse again – just after the massacre it was Labour that agreed to CHOGM in Sri Lanka.
Despite accusing Ed Miliband of knowing nothing about foreign affairs, he “barely gets out of Islington”, Cameron has nothing to brag about. The Conservative propaganda revolves around two key points. Cameron claims he helped to ‘shine a light’ on the Sri Lankan regime by taking the British media with him. And he now threatens to call for a war crimes inquiry.
Cameron’s claim that only his visit to Sri Lanka could force the regime to allow the British media in, is ridiculous. The very consideration that the free media would not be allowed into the country unless accompanied by the PM sufficiently reveals the character of the regime. There is also plenty of evidence proving that war crimes were committed by the Rajapaksa regime. The most recent is the Callum Macrae No Fire Zone documentary broadcast by Channel 4 weeks before CHOGM.
No one can deny that the prime minister’s visit to Sri Lanka brought media attention. Courageous women whose loved ones have been ‘disappeared’ since the war risked everything to use his visit to raise their plight. The point, however, is that this has resulted in no substantial gains for those demanding justice and rights. His ‘shine’ seems to provide a rather feeble beam.
Nonetheless Cameron did manage to get attention when he proposed a time limit for the regime’s promised internal inquiry – and insisted that international action would be required if Rajapaksa has not delivered by March. This has been one of the key demands of Tamil activists who are seeking justice. Though it is a small gesture, yet to be acted upon (if ever), even this little shift was forced first and foremost by pressure from protests.
A few months back Tamil Solidarity launched a strong campaign(1) among the Tamil community in Britain with the slogan of ‘not a single vote or not a single penny for the Conservatives’. This was triggered by a letter from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to a branch of Unison, an affiliate of Tamil Solidarity, saying all that was needed was for visitors to CHOGM to ‘urge’ the regime, acknowledged by the UN human rights envoy as increasingly-authoritarian, to respect human rights. The Conservative party risked closing the door to ever getting the Tamils’ vote due to his decision to take part in CHIGM.
However, a communication sent around by the PM’s press office on 18 November stated that Cameron told Rajapaksa that “if these investigations are not begun properly by March then I will use our position on the UN Human Rights Council to call for an international inquiry”. Does this mean that the time limit for the Sri Lankan government to conduct its sham inquiry has been extended?
It won’t be difficult for the Sri Lankan regime to come out with some sort of inquiry like that of its bogus Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). The LLRC recommendations go nowhere near providing justice for Tamils and even then the government has not acted on the recommendations of the body it initiated. Then the ‘condemnation’ could be limited to a strong resolution in the UNHRC in March.
But campaigns such as Tamil Solidarity refuse to fall into these traps. Campaigners argued from the start that any inquiry should be conducted by a “people’s tribunal consisting of representatives accountable to working class and poor people from all communities, chosen by them and observed by international trade union and human rights organisations. Only such a body could be truly free of the influence of the Sri Lankan government and their international collaborators”.
While China holds a veto in the UN – and India has a final say in these matters – hopes of getting the UN to investigate the Rajapaksa regime is grim. Both these governments funded and supported the genocidal slaughter in 2009 and have helped him to cover up ever since. They also now invest heavily in Sri Lanka.
The real reason behind the western shift towards a critical stance was revealed by Cameron in comments in the parliament when he asked: “How do we advance free trade if we are not there… How can we do that from 4,000 miles away?” Western interests in the South Asian region stand in contradiction to increasing Chinese influence. Incredibly even the Financial Times argued for a boycott of CHIGOM by Cameron.
Breaking the Sri Lankan regime is increasingly linked to breaking the Chinese influence. But Tamil Solidarity constantly argued that even this contradiction which is worsening in the region, will not push developments beyond regime change – or towards an acceptable political solution.
Any genuine attempt to bring justice to Tamils will have to be linked to the core of the problem – the actual causes that started the war in the first place – which remains unsolved. Without meeting the national aspirations of the Tamil masses, a fair resolution will not be possible. To this end every pro-big business government fails.
It is why building a mass movement of the oppressed Tamils along with other oppressed masses within Sri Lanka, India, in the region and across the world is vital. This objective should take precedence in every aspect of Tamil activism. Cameron’s attempt to divert the Tamil masses into developing illusions in the ‘inert’ UN is a trap that will harm this objective.
Furthermore Tamils in Britain are also in the forefront of the Tory-led attack on our services and education. The young generation of Tamils who are coming out of universities now will find themselves jobless, poor and will be forced to stay in their parents’ homes and to depend on them for survival. And all this is taking place while Labour puts up no fight.
In Labour-led Waltham Forest, where there are over 3,000 Tamil families, traditionally Labour voters, there has been an appeal for a community centre for years. There is not a single place where they could gather, share community experiences. None of the establishment political parties has any genuine interest in defending either poor people in Britain or the oppressed internationally. This is why Tamil Solidarity urges the Tamils to link up with those who fight back. This is why our ‘Join a union’ campaign was launched and the link with the trade union movement is promoted.
This is also the reason why Tamil Solidarity argues that initiatives such as the RMT union-led Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) should be welcomed and should ask for Tamil participation.
Through uniting like this we will grow in strength – strong enough to challenge the western interests as well as the brutal regional and Sri Lankan governments. Cameron and the entire establishment’s interests stand diametrically opposed to this strategy.
The defence of the Tamils’ interests in Sri Lanka is linked to the defence of the interests of Tamils and other working people in Britain. In fact Cameron proved this point, by making it in the opposite way, when he tried to attack Miliband. He accused the Labour leader of being “too weak to stand up for Len McCluskey – too weak to stand up for Britain abroad”.Len McCluskey is the general secretary of Unite the Union. In other words, Cameron was asking Labour to ‘break the backbone of the working class in Britain and at the same time push for free trade interests internationally’- to which we are sure Labour will comply.