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4.30 pm

Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): It is a great privilege, Madam Deputy Speaker, to be called to speak in this debate, which is on a very important subject. It would be possible to take the Panglossian view that the affairs of Sri Lanka have no impact on us and are a matter of local concern for that country on which we can turn our backs, but that would be not only immoral, but blinkered. I therefore welcome this debate and I congratulate the Minister on the tone in which he opened it. I was particularly moved by the speech made by the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), whom I wish every success in his work. I was also impressed by the tone struck by my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), who spoke for the Opposition.

What always concerns me in such debates is where we should strike the balance between what it is right and proper for the British Parliament to say and where matters must be left to local populations to determine for themselves. I am thinking, for example, of the parallel debate about Kashmir—a matter that I am convinced must be left to the Pakistani and Indian Governments to resolve for themselves, and on which it is wrong for us to start prescribing solutions. I am nervous about some of what has been said in this debate so far today. I am not even sure that the Liberal
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Democrats are right to have gone as far as they have done in prescribing a solution. The people of Sri Lanka must have the opportunity to determine for themselves what they want to happen.

In that context, I fully support the calls that have been made for dialogue, which is clearly an important part of the process, as we saw in Northern Ireland. This period has, however, been an extraordinarily violent one in Sri Lanka’s history. There have been some 4,000 dead since 2005 and 70,000 or so dead since the violence began in 1983. To put that in context, leaving Iraq on one side, about 7,000 deaths a year occur in the world because of terrorist-related activities. One can see how big an issue the violence is in international terms.

I intervened on the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) to inquire about the LTTE’s commitment to democracy. Perhaps I did not explain myself clearly. I have severe reservations about whether the LTTE is seriously committed to a democratic process. Its leader is on the record as wanting to establish a one-party independent Tamil state without democratic elections. I see in the LTTE an organisation that is led by a very dangerous individual whose techniques and ruthlessness have caused great concern. Although I share the views expressed by all hon. and right hon. Members in saying that dialogue is important, I question whether the LTTE is an organisation that is capable of holding such dialogue. I hope that I am wrong; I would like to be so. In an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold, I pointed out that our deputy high commissioner in Sri Lanka will tomorrow be engaging in dialogue with the political wing of the LTTE. I hope that that dialogue is profitable and constructive, but I worry about what we are dealing with in the LTTE. It is a sophisticated and well-equipped organisation, uniquely so for a terrorist organisation—and I regard it as a terrorist organisation that can fight on land, on sea and in the air, although it is wrong to describe it as having an air force; I think that there is one light aircraft —[ Interruption. ] I am told that there are five aircraft, but they have significantly enhanced its fighting capabilities.

Unless the conflict in Sri Lanka is dealt with, not only will it place an intolerable burden on the people of that war-torn country, but there will be a danger that the LTTE’s techniques will act as an inspiration for other so-called freedom fighters elsewhere in the world and other terrorist groups.

I am also nervous about the suggestion made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold about the role of the Indian Government in the dispute. We have been very careful about involving India in this matter. I have in my hands a map from the Tamil Nadu Liberation Front. It is a map of greater Tamil Nadu, which of course takes into its compass most of the southern states of India, as well as north and east Sri Lanka. We remember what happened last time India involved itself, in a military sense, in the affairs of Sri Lanka—it led to the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): The hon. Gentleman is aware, though, that there are 60 million Tamil people living in south India, and there are also large numbers of refugees from Sri Lanka living in
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India. India therefore has an involvement whether it wishes to or not, because it has to take account of its neighbour.

Peter Luff: Of course, that is a geopolitical point with which one cannot argue. However, India has to play its cards with great care. It will find it difficult, for similar reasons to those that often make it difficult for Britain to intervene in post-colonial situations. In a way, the dispute has its roots in the British colonial handling of this troubled island.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: We all recognise that India’s involvement in this problem is very sensitive, as well as what happened in the past when it became involved militarily. Nevertheless, as the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) pointed out, there is a big Tamil population in Tamil Nadu, and there is a suspicion that a lot of support of one kind or another, particularly financial, comes from that state. If we are to try to defeat this terrorist problem, it is important that the international community should include the Indian Government in discussions and intelligence-sharing.

Peter Luff: I am sure that my hon. Friend is right. I sincerely hope that that process is already happening.

Fundraising is an important issue for the LTTE. Two Tamil fundraisers were recently prosecuted in Australia, which is causing great controversy in the Tamil community there. The purposes of their fundraising activity must be properly established by due judicial process in Australia. It is unhelpful to see people who are, I am sure, perfectly honourable Tamil nationalists attacking the Australian Government for daring to challenge those people’s fundraising activities. When I think of the recent protests in Paris and Zurich by Tamil communities in France and Switzerland, I worry about the presumption that anyone who dares to attack the LTTE is in some sense attacking the Tamil people. I do not see that connection. Similarly, those who dared to attack Sinn Fein were not attacking the Catholic cause in Northern Ireland.

The fact is that violence is always wrong morally, and also politically, because it never produces the outcome that one seeks. When we attack the LTTE for its violence, we are doing so for sound reasons. It is in the Tamil people’s own interests that the LTTE abandon its violence. I entirely agree with the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey that the blame is far from being on one side. I have here the Human Rights Watch report on human rights in Sri Lanka, which graphically details the shortcomings of the LTTE and of the Sri Lankan Government.

Keith Vaz: If an organisation remains proscribed and isolated, how can it participate in a dialogue that could bring peace to Sri Lanka?

Peter Luff: That is a conundrum. I have to say that I support the Government in allowing the organisation to remain proscribed. It is difficult to see how an organisation that takes part in such abhorrently violent activities—for example, it uses child soldiers as part of its campaign of violence—can be anything other than proscribed. The LTTE has an opportunity to
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demonstrate a much greater understanding of the challenges that that poses to Governments such as ours. I would welcome it were the Government able to lift that restriction, but I do not see how they can in the current environment.

Justine Greening (Putney) (Con): The key point is the trend in the escalation in violence. One can make a comparison with the IRA and Sinn Fein, which became far more formally linked in with the peace process in Ireland after taking clear steps to show that they were withdrawing from their previously violent past.

Peter Luff: We are in a chicken-and-egg situation. I fully understand my hon. Friend’s point. It is always difficult to decide who should make the first move in a dialogue for peace.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: My intervention on the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy) about proscription was important. The Sri Lankan Government encouraged him to talk to senior representatives of LTTE and the Tamil community. If such peace negotiations can take place in Sri Lanka, it is much easier. When organisations are not proscribed, it is easier for a peace process to take place.

Peter Luff: I note my hon. Friend’s comment, which speaks for itself.

I do not want Sri Lanka to become a political issue in the United Kingdom through the presence of a significant diaspora. That diaspora is here because of the violence. Its members have been driven away from their island and are effectively refugees from that dreadful violence. It is a wonderful community, which does a huge amount for us. Estimates of its size vary between 150,000 and 200,000. Reference has been made to the work its members offer on petrol station forecourts, but they do much more than that. A phenomenally high proportion of the Tamil community—some 2,500—work as doctors in the national health service. They do a great deal for us and we should be grateful to them.

Mr. Lee Scott (Ilford, North) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the most important messages that we can send today is that there must be a ceasefire? Innocent people who have not done anything to anyone are being killed on a daily basis and that must stop now.

Peter Luff: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. It is vital that both sides take courageous steps to achieve the ceasefire that we all crave. I have no axe to grind, except that when I hear of a death in the name of politics I am angry. I worry that today we have heard criticism of the Sri Lankan Government for closing roads to the north and east of the country, thus inhibiting reconstruction after the dreadful tsunami. My reading of the behaviour of the LTTE in those areas is that it, too, inhibits reconstruction. It suits such a group to keep people in some subjugation and blame others for their misfortune. That is a familiar technique of tyrants through the ages. Although I deplore any action by the Sri Lankan Government that makes
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reconstruction more difficult, the LTTE inhibits the process, and that may suit its political objectives.

I want to emphasise my concern about human rights more broadly in Sri Lanka. I referred to the Human Rights Watch document, which—as far as I can see—sets out objectively and fairly the problems on both sides. It is a powerful account. I note that the Archbishop of Canterbury is visiting Sri Lanka next week. The Christian community in that country suffers considerable persecution at the hands of the Government.

The current edition of the Foreign Office human rights report mentions Sri Lanka’s anti-conversion laws and moves

Things may have moved on since the report was written. It continues by saying that

are highlighted. That is an especially worrying example of human rights abuses in Sri Lanka that are firmly at the door of the Sri Lankan Government. For even-handedness, we must understand that there are problems on both sides.

We must be careful about imposing—or being seen to or wishing to impose—specific solutions to any internal conflict in a sovereign state from these Benches in the United Kingdom. However, we need to convey a clear message that terror begets only terror, and violence begets violence. That is an iron rule of politics and history. In a world hungry for peace, as we all are now, it is my view that if the LTTE could bring itself to renounce its terrorist activities and take the first brave steps to peace, it would find that respectability would follow remarkably quickly on the heels of such a brave and right decision.

4.45 pm

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff) because of his great interest in sub-continent matters. It always interesting to hear what he has to say about countries other than India, in which he has a particular interest. I did not agree with everything in his contribution and in my contribution I will explain where I disagree. What is significant, however, is that for the first time we are debating these issues in Parliament today.

Had it not been the eve of local elections in other parts of the country—other than London—the Chamber would probably not have a majority of London Members in their places. I realise that many members of the Tamil community live within London and the M25 area, but they also live in other parts of the country—Leicester being one where many members of the Tamil community have settled.

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I want to pay a special tribute to the Minister for the Middle East. This date was originally chosen for a discussion between him and more than 60 MPs who had shown an interest in Sri Lankan issues, particularly in what is happening to the Tamil community. I think that he was surprised at the level of interest and he decided, of his own volition, to put to the Leader of the House the view that there should be a debate today. That has proved to be a much better way of dealing with these matters—having an open debate involving as many MPs as possible on the Floor of the House.

The Minister is, in my view, a special and exceptional Foreign Office Minister—not the usual type that we get. He is prepared—I have seen him operate—to listen to views without necessarily taking the Foreign Office line. On this issue, he has been particularly concerned to listen to the views of hon. Members, to understand them and to relate them to his own experience when he visited Sri Lanka. I thank him for his special interest. His remit is so large, as he has to look after at least a third of the world—he would probably say the most interesting third of the world. On the two issues where I have engaged with him—Yemen and Sri Lanka—he has been very forthright and listened very carefully to what I said. I thank him for his interest in what is happening there.

I also pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy). In all my discussions with members of the British Tamil community, I have found that they are full of praise for the work that he has done. As we heard today, he has not taken sides on the issues, but has focused the British Government on a particular problem. I am grateful—and I think that we are all grateful—for the fact that he has brought to bear his vast experience of Northern Ireland, which must have been just as complicated as the situation in Sri Lanka.

Apart from his day job, which he mentioned, he has allowed himself to go over to Sri Lanka in order to be the eyes and ears of our Prime Minister and to report back on these issues. I hope that we can formalise his role. He may not want that, but I think that it would be a good idea if the Government looked to formalise his role so that it was no longer just on an ad hoc basis. He could be given formal envoy status, which would allow him to play the role that we all would like to see this Parliament get involved with.

On Monday, we established the House’s first ever all-party Tamil group. I was privileged to be elected chair of the group; the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) was elected vice-chair; the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling) was elected secretary; the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer) was elected treasurer, as was the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson), in his absence in Scotland. That shows that it really is an all-party group, because all parties are represented in this cause.

The group was determined not to be just like any other all-party group. We were determined to take the issue forward, and on that basis we agreed three things. First, at the end of September a delegation of all party members should visit Sri Lanka, particularly areas under the control of the Tamil Tigers, to engage in a
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dialogue in a positive and constructive way. We also agreed to invite the chief negotiator for the Tamil Tigers to visit the United Kingdom and to come to Parliament so that we could hear his views on what is happening.

The third thing that we agreed was to hold a summit meeting here in July at which all the various parties could participate as a means of exploring how to take the issue forward. Although we have not had a debate of this kind in the House before, listening to the experience of so many right hon. Members and hon. Members reminds me that we have had many such discussions outside Parliament. It really is time to make progress, rather than simply discussing these issues from time to time as we do now.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Mr. Khan) pointed out that we are also concerned with the Tamil community here, and that that is what drives us. Many of us are interested in foreign affairs, but what drives us as constituency MPs is our constituents coming to see us in our surgeries, at public meetings and at various projects in our constituencies to point out the contribution that the British Tamil community has made. When my hon. Friend mentioned the Tooting Tamils, I thought that that made them sound so British that they could be a local football club. They are as British as you and I, Madam Deputy Speaker, and they make a full contribution to this country. They contribute to the economy and to the national health service, as the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire pointed out. Almost 2,500 Tamils work in the NHS, not just as GPs and other doctors; one of the leading pre-natal surgeons is based in a hospital in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting.

The British Tamils have become first-class contributors, and they therefore deserve to have us debate these issues in the House. For the reasons mentioned earlier by the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey, they are constantly aware of what is happening to their friends and relatives in Sri Lanka. That is why they deserve to hear these issues discussed, and to have them taken forward, rather than just discussed in the usual parliamentary way.

I was present at a very useful meeting that the British Tamil forum had with our Home Secretary, who reminded us of the phrase—I cannot remember who said it originally, but I am sure that someone here will know—“One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”. I am sure that it was not the Home Secretary’s phrase; he was merely reminding us of it. This was in the context of a discussion on how to lift the ban. I firmly believe that the ban on the Tamil Tigers—certainly as regards the way in which they operate in this country—should be lifted as soon as possible.

The proscription by the Government of various organisations in 2001 happened because of certain events that were occurring worldwide at the time, and we reacted by imposing that ban on a number of organisations, including a Sikh organisation that operated from my constituency. I know that Governments sometimes have to react in a knee-jerk manner, but six years have now passed and it is time to reconsider the ban and to look at ways in which we can help to ensure that the dialogue proceeds.

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