Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Commonwealth

Reconciliation in Fiji

This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday February 24 2013


In 2005, amid much controversy, the government of Fiji proposed a Reconciliation and Unity Commission with power to recommend compensation for victims of the 2000 coup, and amnesty for its perpetrators.

What was the need for reconciliation? As in many other conflict zones covered in this series, we see a background of ethnic strife exacerbated by colonialism. Fiji was a British colony for almost a century until 1970, when independence within the Commonwealth was granted.

Between 1879 and 1916 the British brought in girmits, indentured labourers from India, to work on the sugar plantations. Later, Gujerati and Punjabi immigrants arrived as free settlers. Indo-Fijians number 313,798 (37.6%) (2007 census) out of a total of 827,900 people.

1987 Coups

There were two military coups in 1987. The first coup, in which Prime Minister Timoci Bavadra was ousted, took place on May 14. A second coup on September 28 ended the Fijian Monarchy, deposing Elizabeth II. A republic was declared on October 7. The Governor General was replaced by a non-executive president. Both coups were led by Lieutenant Colonel Sitiveni Rabuka. Rabuka cited ethnic Fijian concerns about discrimination in favour of Indo-Fijians. The elections in April 1987 resulted in the replacement of the indigenous government of Sir Kamisese Mara, Prime Minister with a multi-ethnic coalition supported mostly by Indo-Fijians.

1990 Constitution

Rabuka himself became prime minister in 1992, following elections held under the new 1990 constitution. The offices of president and prime minister, along with two-thirds of the Senate, a substantial majority of the House of Representatives were reserved for indigenous Fijians. GARD (Group Against Racial Discrimination) was formed to oppose the unilaterally imposed constitution and to restore the 1970 constitution. Rabuka established the Constitutional Review Commission, which in 1997 led to a new Constitution.

Speight’s Coup 2000

The May 1999 election resulted in a decisive victory for the People’s Coalition, a multiracial grouping that was dominated by the predominantly Indo-Fijian Labour Party, but which also included indigenous Fijians. Mahendra Chaudhry had become the country’s first Indo-Fijian Prime Minister. A group led by George Speight, a businessman who had been declared bankrupt, entered the Parliament buildings on May 19, 2000, and disaffected elements of the Fijian population rallied to his cause. Claims have been made that Fijian nationalism may have been nothing more than a political ploy to attract supporters to what was, in reality, a personal grab for money and power on the part of Speight and his co-conspirators. Several of his accomplices were undischarged bankrupts. Chaudhry claimed the true purpose was to loot the treasury. A military administration took office on May 29. Commodore Frank Bainimarama assumed executive power and 2,000 soldiers went on a rampage.

The High Court ordered the reinstatement of the constitution, and in September 2001, a general election was held. New Prime Minister Qarase found pretexts for not implementing the power-sharing provisions of the Constitution.

2006 Coup

Bainimarama handed down a list of demands to Qarase after the Reconciliation and Unity bill was put forward to parliament, part of which would have offered pardons to participants in the 2000 coup attempt. He gave Qarase an ultimatum date of December 4 to accede to these demands or to resign from his post. Qarase adamantly refused to either concede or resign and on December 5, parliament was dissolved.

Fiji today?

Fiji was fully suspended from the Commonwealth in 2009. CMAG concluded Fiji could not be reinstated until it had restored democracy by holding elections and addressed pressing human rights and legal issues. Fiji has had a chequered relationship with the Commonwealth. It was expelled in 1987 after two military coups, but was re-admitted ten years later when democracy was restored. It was also suspended in 2000 for 18 months. The only other country to be fully suspended in the Commonwealth’s history was Nigeria.

Fiji has been under military rule since 2006. Since the government’s abrogation of Fiji’s Constitution in April 2009, the government has ruled by decree and enforced Public Emergency Regulations that limit basic freedoms. For a country of its size, Fiji has large armed forces. A significant number of Fijians have served in the lucrative security sector in Iraq.

Human Rights Watch called on the government to cease curtailing the rights of Fiji Islanders. The Fiji Trades Union Congress, in a submission to the country’s constitutional commission, has called on the government to hand over control to an interim administration three months before elections scheduled for 2014.

The country, with a current population of 900,000, depends heavily on tourism, but tourists will hardly want to visit a country in crisis. The US has threatened to suspend aid – Fiji is one of the world’s largest per capita recipients of aid – and its neighbors, Australia and New Zealand, are likely to impose sanctions, including a travel ban.


– See more at:


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?


Numbers from Thin Air

The hosting of CHOGM (the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting) by Sri Lanka in Colombo from November 15 to 17 has given an opportunity for Sri Lanka’s human rights record to be condemned yet again. As part of this, Amnesty International has raised the issue of war crimes towards the end of the war against the LTTE Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam).

I have noticed some discussion of this on Facebook. As I have done a special study of the topic, I was particularly interested in what was said about  the number of civilians killed at war’s end.

As a specimen comment, I will take this one by one Nick Gilbert. Nick says:

“My understanding was…” “Forty thousand I picked out of thin air…”

It is always difficult to get a definitive figure in these situations.


Well Nick, you don’t need to just make figures up to suit your argument. Read the IDAG-S report.

I have had a very long telephone conversation with the author of the report and I am convinced that he is not a government shill. If you don’t want to take the trouble to read it, I will help you by mentioning a few salient points from the report:

Although Eelam War IV has been described as a war without witnesses, the authors of this report had managed, through thorough research, to assemble a logical and well-argued package, with convincing substantiating evidence, which casts doubt on some of the calculations being peddled.

After careful consideration, the IDAG-S concluded that the civilian death toll was probably between 15,000 and 18,000. This itself has been challenged by Professor Rajiva Wijesinha, who points out that “only 6000 injured were taken off by the ICRC ships over four months, along with bystanders, suggesting that the figure of the dead would have been less.” The 18,000 figure includes civilians killed by the LTTE, the IDAG-S says, although “it is probable that more were hit by government fire than by the LTTE, the latter’s ‘work’ in this sphere was not small”.

The IDAG-S estimate is, despite the ire of some critics, somewhat higher than some other calculations made by Tamils, who are by no means supporters of the government.

Dr Rajasingham Narendran talked to IDPs who had fled the last No-Fire Zone in April 2009 and later with IDPs at Menik Farm and elsewhere.  His estimate of deaths – “including LTTE cadres, forced labour and civilians — were very likely around 10,000 and did not exceed 15,000 at most”.

Dr Muttukrishna Sarvananthan of the Point Pedro Institute said “[approximately] 12,000 [without counting armed Tiger personnel] “.

Dr. Noel Nadesan: ““roughly 16,000 including LTTE, natural, and civilians”.

Data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal, data “primarily based on figures released by the pro-LTTE Website Tamil Net”, put the casualty figure for civilians inside Mullaithivu at 2,972 until 5 April 2009.

13 March 2009, UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay issued a press release saying “as many as 2,800 civilians may have been killed”.

There is a strong case for accountability and recognition of the loss of life. The current situation does not hold out much hope for genuine reconciliation. Naming and shaming on the basis of exaggerated numbers is not the way to persuade the Sinhalese community to recognise the loss of life amongst the Vanni Tamils.  Bludgeoning them with inflated numbers could lead to a backlash.

In Sri Lanka’s case, controversial estimates of civilian deaths were introduced not as irrefutable facts, but as circumstantial evidence to lay the foundation for an international investigation and ultimately regime change. For all its faults, which are legion, the regime was democratically elected, and, according to a Gallup poll, is supported by over 90% of the population (including Tamils).

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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