Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Canada

Sri Lanka’s PR Part1

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Wednesday September 3 2014

Colman's Column3

One often reads horror stories about Sri Lanka in the foreign press. Despite the vast amounts of money paid to foreign public relations firms, these stories are never effectively countered. There was a recent example in the Calgary Herald.

Black July

Sri Lankans will not need to be reminded of the horrors of Black July 1983 but my foreign readers may not know the significance of the term. Many Tamils had felt that Sinhalese dominated governments had discriminated against the Tamil minority. Over many years, there had been incidents where ill-disciplined police or military had carried out savage reprisals, rather in the manner of the Black and Tans in Ireland, on innocent Tamils. July 1983 was a paradigm shift in terror. The LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) killed thirteen soldiers of the Sri Lanka Army. Anti-Tamil riots ensued and lasted for ten days with property destroyed and up to 3,000 people killed and 200,000 displaced.

From President Jayewardene’s residence, shops could be seen going up in flames but no curfew was called and police disappeared from the streets. Marauding gangs armed with axes and cans of petrol went around Colombo with electoral rolls identifying Tamil homes and businesses. The occupants were doused in petrol and set alight.

A Norwegian woman tourist recalled seeing a mob setting fire to a bus with about 20 Tamils inside it. Those who climbed out the windows were pushed back in and the doors were sealed while they burned alive, screaming horribly. In another incident, a mob chopped two Tamil girls aged 18 and 11 with knives; the younger girl was beheaded with an axe, the older one raped by 20 men and then doused in petrol.

These horrific events left an indelible mark on the Tamil psyche. Atrocities were perpetrated on innocent Tamils all over the country and many fled to the north for refuge. Those who could afford it fled abroad, from where they provided ongoing financial support for the LTTE.

The Memory Lingers On

According to the Calgary Herald, one family in particular is still enduring horrific suffering because of those events of 31 years ago. In an article by Manisha Krishnan dated August 25 2014, Ryan de Hoedt claims that his family has been troubled since Black July because they gave shelter to Tamils from the murderous mobs. He has, reportedly, been trying to get his sister out of Sri Lanka and into Canada because he fears for her life.

He says that his grandmother used their house to shelter Tamils, hiding them in closets and under beds and this “fuelled suspicions of an association with the Tamil Tigers.” He claims that his father lost his job because of this and police bullied his parents and brother.

Carmen Cheung, a lawyer with the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association told the Calgary Herald: “Here is a man who is trying to help his sister get out of what appears to be an incredibly dangerous situation”.

Sheltering Tamils

De Hoedt’s family are Burghers. Many Sinhalese and Burghers and Muslims took great personal risks to protect Tamils who were being victimized and brutally killed. The article does not give his sister’s name or age. Ryan himself was eleven years old at the time of Black July. I suspect that his sister was even younger. I find it difficult to believe that a Burgher woman living in Sri Lanka in 2014 would be in “an incredibly dangerous situation” because of her tangential involvement when she was a small child in incidents that happened 31 years ago.

I personally know Sinhalese people who sheltered Tamils in 1983. They may have been in danger then from the bloodthirsty mob itself and their courageous action is to be commended. I doubt if they feel any sense of danger of recrimination 31 years on.

Responses

I canvassed opinion about the Calgary Herald article among my many Sri Lankan contacts, in Sri Lanka and abroad. One, who is a Sinhalese Christian, told me: “There were many people like my family who helped Tamils in Sri Lanka during and after the 1983 riots. There are people I know who represent Tamils in human rights cases. Some of them are my friends. No authority has ever attacked them. …. The writer of this article is delusional. Maybe she has got the country wrong or she is a downright liar.”

Another respondent referred me to an article on Munchhausen’s Syndrome: “a psychiatric factitious disorder wherein those affected feign disease, illness, or psychological trauma to draw attention, sympathy, or reassurance to themselves”.

Here is a selection of other responses: “sounds like a lot of de Bull to me”. “Not really believing what I’m reading.” “I saw it but am at something of a loss. Doesn’t quite make sense”. “Good grief. Why would she be in any danger?” “A sob story if ever there was one”. “It all sounds very strange”.

My list of contacts included many who have been strongly critical of the Sri Lankan government- in print as well as privately.

Some respondents wrote at more length:

“I met a Sinhalese guy back in around 2008 who was trying to get refugee status here in Australia on humanitarian grounds…His story was that his family owned a successful business that had some branches in the North-East, and during the ceasefire the LTTE extorted money from them. After the war started again in 2006, he alleged that the govt started harassing and threatening him and his family because the LTTE had forced them to ‘donate’ money … When I asked him if it was true, he seemed very reticent and mumbled ‘Yes’ after thinking about it. I met his lawyer as well … he was advising the guy to tell the Immigration Dept that he was tortured and he told him to be convincing about it in his body language. The fellow cut off all contact with me shortly afterwards and I haven’t heard from him since.”

Another Riot

Some of my respondents seized upon another aspect of Manisha Krishnan’s article. “A few years ago, said de Hoedt, her tenants were implicated in a riot and she was charged with harbouring terrorists. She lost her job and was stalked by soldiers and villagers, who cut off her hair, beat her and repeatedly attempted to rape her.” My contacts reacted thus: “Sounds more like they have some kind of land dispute or something like that.” What riot? What terrorists? Sounds like a cooked up sob story.”

Visa Applications

According to Manisha Krishnan’s article, Ryan de Hoedt: “claims her seven attempts to obtain a visitor’s visa to Canada and a permanent residency application made through her parents on humanitarian grounds were all rejected”. Two things are being mixed up here. Was she refused a visitor’s visa seven times? Application for permanent residency is a totally different thing and should not be included in the same sentence. The rejections were not the fault of the Sri Lanka government. The article does not tell us why the Canadian government rejected seven applications. The article does say: “She didn’t apply for refugee status because she was afraid to leave the country, which is one of the requirements.” Why was she afraid to leave Sri Lanka when her brother claims she is in mortal danger if she stays?

Human Smuggling

Ryan de Hoedt has lost his own Canadian passport. In April 2013, he was caught in Japan trying to help his sister to enter Canada using false documents. Although at one point de Hoedt says his sister was afraid to leave Sri Lanka, she did meet her brother in Malaysia and got involved with a human smuggling gang who took the sister’s Sri Lankan passport. They ordered de Hoedt to meet them in Laos where they were to provide the sister with a fake Canadian passport. Ryan and his sister were stopped while boarding a flight in Tokyo’s Narita Airport and the sister was sent back to Sri Lanka.

One of my respondents said: “Maybe if they had resorted to legal means more thoroughly they could have gotten the chance. But since they messed up they are cooking up vivid stories and putting the country’s reputation at risk! But if there is such local problem of harassment it must be duly investigated by local authorities.”

I hesitated to write this article in case it might put de Hoedt’s sister in more danger. “The police warned her they would kill her the next time she did something,” said de Hoedt. However, I have done no more than repeat what de Hoedt himself has placed in the public domain through the Calgary Herald.

I searched the BCCLA web site for Ryan de Hoedt but got this response: “Apologies, but no results were found for the requested archive.”

The full article can be read here:

http://www.calgaryherald.com/news/calgary/Calgary+runs+afoul+trying+rescue+sister+Lanka/10145368/story.html

I wrote to Manisha Krishnan giving her an opportunity to comment on what I have written here. At the time of submitting my copy, she had not replied. I will take up this issue again next week and will report her response if she has made one. I would also be interested to see comments from the Sri Lanka police.

Should Britain Be Expelled from the Commonwealth?

This article was published in the Sunday Island on September 24, 2011.

 

There has been opposition from western human rights groups to Sri Lanka’s bid to host the Commonwealth Games in Hambantota. Canadian PM, Stephen Harper says he will not attend the Commonwealth conference if it is held in Sri Lanka. This has been taken even further by some who have called for Sri Lanka to be expelled from the Commonwealth. We might take as a specimen charge Siobhain McDonagh’s speech in the House of Commons on 24 March 2009. “As the Sri Lankan Government have not been willing to end the conflict, I would like my Government to call for their suspension from the Commonwealth.”

 

 

On 15 September 2011, she again spoke in a Commons debate to condemn Sri Lanka. It would be instructive to read the exchanges, although the amount of smugness and self-congratulation and mutual back-scratching from MPs of all parties might induce projectile vomiting.

 

 

McDonagh has referred to the democratically elected president of Sri Lanka (who according to a recent Gallup poll is supported by “more than nine out of ten Sri Lankans) as “a probable war crimes suspect”. Elsewhere she has referred to Sri Lanka as a “failing dictatorship”. She boasted: “the leadership of my right hon. Friend Mr Brown brought an end to GSP Plus…voted against the IMF’s $2.5 billion deal with Sri Lanka, and prevented it from hosting a Commonwealth summit. Britain must not lose that lead.”

 

 

Ms McDonagh is Labour MP for Mitcham and Morden in the London borough of Merton (an area in which I resided for ten years). She likes to present an image of left-wing libertarianism and sell herself as a champion of human rights. However, her voting record in the House of Commons tells a different story. Siobhain McDonagh voted very strongly for the Iraq invasion, very strongly against an investigation into the Iraq war, very strongly for Labour’s anti-terrorism laws, very strongly for introducing ID cards, very strongly for a stricter asylum system. So her libertarianism and concern for human rights seems very selective.

 

 

She started out as clerical officer in Balham in the Department of Health and Social Security, for whom I also used to work (although I was at a slightly more senior level and at a less disreputable and more efficient office).

 

 

She was first elected to parliament in 1997, after being selected through an all-woman short-list. This method of selection was declared illegal in January 1996, as it breached sex discrimination laws, but she did not withdraw. McDonagh attracted criticism in April 2000 for using public money to send party political information to her constituents. Tory John Redwood said, “she should have found out by now that free post is not there for self-promotion”. She spent an average of £32,000 per year on postage.

 

 

She made a speech in Parliament saying she makes “no apology for concentrating on local issues”. Unfortunately, local issues includes Sri Lanka because of the large number of Tamils in the constituency. Hers is by no means a safe Labour seat. She won it from Conservative Dame Angela Rumbold on her third attempt. It would require a 16.4% swing for her to lose it. McDonagh had a majority of 13,666 in 2010. A Tamil with Muslim support, Rathy Alagaratnam, was an independent who ran against her in 2010 and 2005. McDonagh’s parliamentary work-rate is not impressive. She is below average for the number of times she has spoken in debates, and for her written questions. She is well below average for the number of times she has voted in the Commons.

 

 

The veteran parliamentary analyst, Andrew Roth is somewhat dismissive of McDonagh’s intellectual capacity: “Low-profiled Blairite superloyalist. Persuasive, articulate, prefers Cosmopolitan to New Statesman“.

 

 

After the 2005 election, she served as PPS to Defence Secretary John Reid. From May 2006 to June 2007 she was PPS to the Home Secretary. Gordon Brown made her Assistant Whip in 2007 but she was sacked (while being interviewed on Channel 4) for plotting to overthrow Brown.

 

 

The Wimbledon Guardian, which I fondly remember as being full of rapes and perverts (how unlike the Wimbledon I knew and loved) reported that McDonagh was given a petition signed by 196 residents at Morden’s Civic Centre on October 10 2008. “Representatives from the British Tamils Forum met Siobhain McDonagh to ask for support in tackling human rights abuses. They asked her to join the All Party Parliamentary Group for Tamils, a group of MPs campaigning to highlight the ongoing conflict in Sri Lanka.”

 

 

The subtext is that McDonagh recognised that the support of pro-LTTE campaigners might be useful to her in her constituency. She has taken a great interest in the human rights of Sri Lankan Tamils. “As is the case for many MPs, barely a week goes by without me meeting constituents who have family members back home in the Tamil region of Sri Lanka.” When Tamils protested outside Parliament, the Wimbledon Guardian reported: “The demonstrators include many from Mitcham’s large Tamil community”. Subramaniyam Paramestvaran, a 28-year-old student from Mitcham, went on hunger strike. When a 19-year-old Tamil threw himself into the Thames to protest against “genocide”, McDonagh told the Wimbledon Guardian that the demonstration reflected “the frustration of young, hardworking men who see their friends dying and getting injured in their own country”. On 16 June 2011, she made representations against “the deportation by the UK Border Agency of my constituent Mr Jenach Gopinath back to Sri Lanka, whose Government are suspected of war crimes against Tamils, including the killing of 40,000 Tamil citizens. Later today, a plane chartered by the UKBA will deport 40 asylum-seeking Commonwealth citizens of Tamil ethnicity back to Sri Lanka”. During the same debate she said: “Few could not have been moved by the terrible pictures on Channel 4 of imprisoned Tamil soldiers being shot in cold blood”.

 

 

On 21 October 2005, in a debate on a Armed Forces (Parliamentary Approval for Participation in Armed Conflict) Bill, she said: “Yes, some of us feel bad about Iraq; some were even in the Government when that decision was made. I think that deposing a murderous tyrant such as Saddam Hussein and introducing democracy to that part of the world was the right thing to do. I know that some people disagree. However, we cannot start changing the law for every future conflict because we feel guilty about how we behaved in the last one. We cannot constrain our troops by telling them, ‘You fight now—we’ll decide whether you were right to fight later.’ We cannot tie their hands behind their backs. We have to stop thinking about ourselves and start thinking about the brave men and women in Mitcham and Morden and elsewhere”.

 

 

“Yes, some of us feel bad about Iraq; some were even in the Government when that decision was made.” That seems to distance herself from any direct personal responsibility.

 

 

How about deposing that murderous tyrant Prabhakaran? What about the Sri Lankan soldiers who fought in good faith?

 

 

Wikipedia says: “She is a vocal critic of Sri Lanka. Issues pertaining to the Sri Lanka Tamil diaspora are the most visible in her public image.” In a Commons debate on Sri Lanka on 5 February at 2.41 p.m. she said “the Sri Lankan government should realise that they need to be as magnanimous as other failing dictatorships have been; and that until they are, they will not have peace on their island.” She called for Sri Lanka to be suspended from the Commonwealth.

 

 

The Commonwealth started out as a replacement for the British Empire which could be marketed in a high-minded way as an ethical rather than exploitative association. Initially it consisted solely previous British colonies, but now it includes former Belgian colony Rwanda and former Portuguese colony Mozambique. Some former British colonies have been suspended or have resigned. Pakistan resigned in 1972 but rejoined in 1989 and was suspended in 2007. Nigeria was suspended from 1995-1999. Zimbabwe withdrew in 2003 but Britain aimed to tempt it back by 2011. In 1961 South Africa left when it became a republic but rejoined in 1994. Fiji was expelled in 1987 following the second coup of the year. Sierra Leone was suspended after the military coup in 1997.

 

 

On 20 October 1991, the Harare Declaration reaffirmed the principles laid out in the Singapore Declaration twenty years before. The Harare principles require all members of the Commonwealth, old and new, to abide by certain political principles, including democracy and respect for human rights. These can be enforced upon current members.

 

 

To McDonagh, it is acceptable for the UK to invade another sovereign state and depose its leader, but it is not acceptable for an elected government in Sri Lanka to take on the terrorists within its own sovereign boundaries. It is acceptable to demand an investigation into Sri Lanka’s alleged war crimes but not acceptable for the UK’s war crimes to be investigated.

 

 

Sri Lanka, whatever its faults, is hardly a “failing dictatorship”. A recent Gallup poll showed that “more than nine out of ten” Sri Lankans supported the government. In the UK, the electorate gave its verdict on McDonagh’s party but the Conservative party could not get a working majority and there are severe rifts in the governing coalition. McDonagh declared: “We cannot constrain our troops by telling them, ‘You fight now—we’ll decide whether you were right to fight later.’ We cannot tie their hands behind their backs.”

 

 

In the light of the UK’s illegal invasion of another sovereign nation and in the light of Sir William Gage’s report ion war crimes perpetrated by British soldiers, is there case for Britain being expelled from the Commonwealth?

 

O Canada!

harper

 

In April, Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister, John Baird, said “Canada didn’t get involved in the Commonwealth to accommodate evil; we came to combat it. We are deeply disappointed that Sri Lanka appears poised to take on this leadership role”.  At one time it seemed that Canada would not be represented at the CHOGM in Colombo in November because of PM Stephen Harper’s criticisms of Sri Lanka’s human rights record. Baird said that the Commonwealth was failing its greatest test by letting Sri Lanka host the November summit. “We’re tremendously concerned about the deteriorating and authoritative trend of the government in Sri Lanka”. He might also have said that he was concerned about the large numbers of Tamils living, voting and donating in Canada.

Douglas Adams, creator of A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, wrote that if the USA often behaved like a teenage hooligan, Canada was an intelligent woman in her mid-30s. There was once a rather condescending game: “Name ten famous Canadians”. Huffington Post has a feature on important Canadians which attracted this comment: “The worse is those top 50 or top 25 lists of Canadian inventions. A Swedish inventor, who  taught in Canada, and then moved to the US, where he invented something, counts as a Canadian, just because he briefly spent some time teaching in Canada.” Wikipedia’s list of noteworthy Canadians includes European monarchs who once had jurisdiction over parts of the territory now known as Canada.  More ludicrous still there is a list of “famous” fictional Canadians.

robbie robertson

 

leonard_cohen_1208796c

joni

Neil-Young-1

In all fairness now, there are Canadians of real stature. Canada is the land of The Band – or at least Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel. How could we forget Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, and Neil Young? Many distinguished Canucks go south. JK Galbraith managed the difficult task of writing elegantly about economics. He was six foot eight and Canadian but was US ambassador to India. Marshall “the medium is the message” McLuhan did not write so elegantly but came up with some memorable phrases – “Most of our assumptions have outlived their uselessness”. He also said:”I don’t necessarily agree with everything I say”.

jk galbraithmcluhan

Canada still retains some of its reputation as a country in North America which is not the USA and which is relatively decent. There are no signs of Mexico achieving even this faint-praise status. However, Canada’s role as a boring but decent human rights champion was always somewhat illusory. In 2012 three UN expert committees rated Canada’s performance on meeting rights commitments — and found it wanting. An Amnesty International report found “a range” of “ongoing and serious human rights challenges,” especially for indigenous peoples. Those “challenges” have been “ongoing” from the time the white settlers first encountered the indigenous population. According to Reverend Kevin Daniel Annett, there was a “Canadian Holocaust” which killed 25 million people. Annett claims that over 50,000 aboriginal children are still missing and unaccounted for.

Canadian prosperity has long been tied to the existence of an “extractive frontier” where population densities were very low, and natural resources were abundant, untapped and essentially free. Inexpensive access to new lands depended upon a policy of keeping Aboriginal peoples separate and unequal, with neither the rights nor the power to demand full value for their labour and materials – or the land which was stolen from them.

Canada is today more than ever confronted by the resource curse. There are large deposits of bitumen under a forest in Alberta and oil companies invested $160 billion to exploit them. The Projects approved so far could excavate a forest area six times the size of New York City. The expected market in the US has been disappointing and the Canadian government has been looking to China. Three notoriously untransparent and environmentally-unfriendly state-owned Chinese oil companies have spent more than $20 billion buying oil sand rights in Alberta.

A secret document leaked to CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) said: “To succeed we will need to pursue political relationships in tandem with economic interests even where political interests or values may not align.” That means “get the cash and forget about the environment and human rights”.

The Economist is not normally thought of as left wing or bleeding-heart. It describes Canadian PM Stephen Harper as a bully with a determined habit of rule-breaking. Political analyst, Lawrence Martin, says that Harper has broken “new ground in the subverting of the democratic process.”

Environmental protection laws, such as the Fisheries Act, have been rewritten to favour the oil companies. National park funding has been cut by 20 percent. CBC has suffered cutbacks as punishment for criticism of Harper.

The leaked document makes little reference to Canada’s traditional peacemaking role or to providing aid in disasters. Canada used to be represented by a highly respected diplomatic corps. Harper appointed the head of his security detail to be ambassador to Jordan. When he first came to office Harper said: “I think Canadians want us to promote our trade relations worldwide and we do that. But I don’t think Canadians want us to sell out important Canadian values, our belief in democracy, freedom, human rights. They don’t want to sell that out to the almighty dollar. Six years later, foreign policy is little more than a tool to give Canada profit or access to China.

According to the Sunday Observer dated August 18, representatives of Canada were in Sri Lanka on an advance visit to inspect the arrangements for the forthcoming CHOGM 2013. It seems that Harper himself will not personally defile himself by attending but will be sending Baird.

He that fracks tar sands will be defiled.

Reconciliation in Canada

And yet where in your history books is the tale

Of the genocide basic to this country’s birth?
–Buffy St. Marie

Readers of this series may be surprised to learn that Canada has a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Canada has the image of a civilised beacon for human rights. In Transparency International’s latest Corruption Perception Index Canada comes in at a saintly number nine compared to UK’s 17, USA’s 19 and Sri Lanka’s 79. Canada is never shy of berating Sri Lanka on human rights.

Why does Canada need a Truth and Reconciliation Commission? Actually, the TRC is focused on a specific issue rather than on human rights in general. In June 2008, the Canadian government undertook an effort to understand the history, abuses and intergenerational impact of the Indian Residential School (IRS) system that operated in Canada for over 100 years.

The IRS system consisted of a nation-wide network of church- and state-run schools focused on separating  indigenous (First Nation, Inuit, and Métis)  children from their cultural heritage. From 1920 into the 1960s, attendance was mandatory for aboriginal children aged 7 to 15. Priests and Indian Agents forcibly removed many children from their families and sent them to the schools. It is estimated that more than 150,000 children went through these schools.

Children were severely punished if they used their native language. Food and medical services were inadequate. Overcrowding contributed to the spread of disease. The mortality rate for residential school students was 40%. Children were often subjected to severe physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.

One theory suggested that the name of Canada came from the Spanish cá nada,  meaning there is nothing there. There may have been no gold or silver but there were people. Scientists believe  that bones and artefacts prove  First Nations people have lived in what is now Canada for more than  12,000 years.

Canadian prosperity has long been tied to the existence of an “extractive frontier” where population densities were very low, and natural resources were abundant, untapped and essentially free. Inexpensive access to new lands depended upon a policy of keeping Aboriginal peoples separate and unequal, with neither the rights nor the power to demand full value for their labour and materials – or the land which was stolen from them.

 

According to Reverend Kevin Daniel Annett, there was a “Canadian Holocaust” and mainstream Christian churches were and are complicit in it. Annett claims  that the total number of aboriginals killed in the Canadian genocide by the British Crown is approximately 25 million people. Annett claims that over 50,000 aboriginal children are still missing and unaccounted for from the residential schools operated by the Catholic and other churches on behalf of the British Crown. Many believe that Annett is a charlatan or a madman. (He does bear a remarkable resemblance to mad poet Robert Lowell!).

How do the descendents of those people who occupied Canada 12,000 years ago fare today? The effects of the forced introduction of European culture and values, the dispossession of Aboriginal lands, and the imposition of alien modes of governance are still felt today. Underlying the problems of poverty, poor health and substance abuse is a loss of identity and helplessness from having their values oppressed and their rights ignored.

As of the 2006 census, there were 1,172,790 Aboriginal people in Canada, or 3.8% of the national population. In 1995, 55.6% of Aboriginal people living in Canadian cities were poor. 52.1% of all Aboriginal children were poor in 2003. First Nations people experienced a disproportionate burden of many infectious diseases. Similarly, the tuberculosis rate among First Nations people remained eight to ten times that seen in the Canadian population as a whole. Only 56.9% of homes were considered adequate in 1999­.

In 2012 three UN expert committees rated Canada’s  performance on meeting rights commitments — and found it wanting. An Amnesty International report found “a range” of “ongoing and serious human rights challenges,” especially for indigenous peoples. There was a disproportionate number of missing or murdered indigenous women on Vancouver’s downtown East Side from 1997-2002, and their cases did not receive equal treatment by police. AI says that UN recommendations have too often been ignored, and the implementation process is so “cloaked in secrecy” that most Canadians have no idea whether the government plans to act on them. Meghan Rhoad, women’s rights researcher for Human Rights Watch said that “the epidemic of violence against indigenous women and girls in Canada is a national problem and it demands a national enquiry.”

An interviewer who met Annett described his “unexpected demeanour and the intelligent clarity of his words”.  She  asked him what he wanted. “A war crimes trial. Returning the children’s remains, first of all, for a proper burial”.

Rather similar to what Canada wants from Sri Lanka. Canada has had longer to think about it.

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