David Lammy on the Tamil protestors' concerns

David Lammy is currently MP for Tottenham and the Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property.

As I write this, the sound of Tamil protestors in Parliament Square is still coming through my office window. The protestors in London have now occupied the area for three days running, joining spontaneous demonstrations that are taking place across the world’s capitals. Good for them. 

In February, I hosted a meeting in Parliament with the British Tamils Forum, with colleagues from the All-Party Group for Tamils. The overwhelming feeling among the people I met was utter desperation. According to the United Nations, up to 150,000 civilians are still trapped in the war zone in the north of Sri Lanka, between Tamil Tiger (LTTE) fighters and advancing government forces – without any means of contacting their families in the Tamil diaspora in Britain or the rest of the world. Several thousand people may already have been killed; thousands more seriously wounded. Those at the meeting – and some of my Tamil constituents – who had heard eyewitness reports described a truly appalling humanitarian situation. 

One issue in particular that concerns the British Tamils Forum is the absence of sustained press coverage of the situation in Sri Lanka. Clearly, it is extremely difficult for foreign journalists to report from northern Sri Lanka at the moment; and within the country itself there are serious questions about how free media really is – with reports of abduction and intimidation of journalists. But along with many others, I have been struck by how little news space the Tamils’ plight has received. As Arundhati Roy wrote last week, “the horror that is unfolding in Sri Lanka becomes possible because of the silence that surrounds it” – in the international press, and Indian news in particular. 

The recent history of Sri Lanka is extremely complex, and tension has existed in the Tamil-dominated regions for decades. According to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, the Tamils have suffered both at the hands of successive Sri Lankan governments and the LTTE – who have, of course, inflicted their own suffering on the rest of the country. Rightly, then, there are serious concerns that the Parliament Square protests may have been taking place under LTTE banners – an organisation banned in the UK since 2000. 

But the protesters outside my window have real and legitimate fears. They are concerned that any military occupation of the north and east – particularly by heavily armed pro-government paramilitary groups which operate there – might leave the Tamil populations to live like second-class citizens. They are worried about dignity and self-respect. The Sri Lankan government has rejected international calls for a ceasefire (including from the Foreign Secretary); while the LTTE continues to refuse to allow civilians caught up in this battle to leave the conflict areas. 

The Parliament Square protest shows that the Tamils are organising beyond the constraints of movements that do not speak for the moderate majority. The Tamils’ internet presence, in particular, has allowed them to achieve a certain sovereignty in cyberspace that belies their lack of representation; and to use globalised communication to broadcast their suffering where they feel the mainstream media has let them down. Their demonstration is an important example of modern popular protest; a vivid display of feeling which is beginning to get people talking about the situation, and get it the coverage it deserves. 

Wherever there is humanitarian disaster or mass human suffering, it must be brought to the world’s attention regardless of the complexities of the politics that caused it to happen. If the world’s media now shines a spotlight on this situation, I hope we might see a surge of petition and protest against – rather than recruits to – the forces of violence in Sri Lanka.