Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: Sri Lankan Tamils

MOPE – a Tale of Two Diasporas

This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday April 28 2016

Colman's Column3

Susan Sontag: Perhaps too much value is assigned to memory, not enough to thinking.

Shedding Blood in Every Generation

Four years ago, I posted a lengthy article on Groundviews which was prompted by a statement in May 2011 by MDMK chief Vaiko in Tamil Nadu. He said that the war for Eelam was not over; Prabhakaran was not dead and would emerge from hiding at the right time. According to Victor Rajakulendran, the LTTE remained a shining example, a “good history,” for all Sri Lankan Tamils to follow. For a very small number of Irish people the leaders of the Easter 1916 Rising remain a shining example. In her new book, The Seven, about the seven members of the Military Council who made the decision to rebel in Dublin, Irish historian Ruth Dudley Edwards, concludes: “By courting death for a cause that had no popular support, were the Seven different to Bobby Sands and his comrades who committed suicide by starvation? Or from the jihadis who these days joyously sacrifice themselves in suicide bombings? They shared a sense of their own absolute moral superiority as well as an ambition to achieve some kind of immortality”.

Choosing Martyrdom

Ruth Dudley Edwards quotes words of Yeats written in 1939:

Some had no thought of victory

But had gone out to die

That Ireland’s mind might be greater,

Her heart mount up on high;

And yet who knows what’s yet to come?

For Patrick Pearse had said

That in every generation

Must Ireland’s blood be shed.


In my Groundviews article, I asked: “Did Prabhakaran ever ask those who are shown in the horrific Channel 4 images if they wanted to be martyrs? Was there a referendum on martyrdom, a focus group?”


Unhappy Land of Heroes

Liam Kennedy, Emeritus Professor of Economic History at Queen’s University, Belfast, recently published a collection of essays entitled Unhappy the Land. That phrase comes from Bertolt Brecht: “Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes”. The subtitle to Professor Kennedy’s book is The Most Oppressed People Ever, the Irish? The acronym MOPE has been used a lot since Kennedy first introduced it in what Ruth Dudley Edwards called “a good essay at the very end of a book containing lots of boring economic history”. Professor Kennedy writes: “It is hard to overestimate the role of self-delusion in in Irish history, whether as a force animating colonial ‘reformers’ in the seventeenth century or Sinn Fein activists in the twentieth”. Self-delusion is not confined to the Irish.


Unhappy Land?

Did Ireland suffer from exceptional disadvantages? Kennedy thinks not  “…the island of Ireland, when viewed comparatively, was favourably circumstanced in terms of soil, climate and biological conditions”. Professor Kennedy contends that no major war was fought on Irish soil after the seventeenth century. With the exceptions of Switzerland and Iceland, “it is difficult to think of any major European society which has enjoyed the degree of isolation Ireland enjoyed from the immediate depredations of war”. During the last three centuries, there have been no major invasions of Ireland. Unlike most Europeans, the Irish have never experienced military conscription. “During the most brutal century that Europe has ever known – the twentieth- Ireland escaped relatively unscathed”.

Some might point out the number of Irishmen who perished in the First World War. About 210,000 Irishmen, all volunteers, served in the British forces during World War One and 35,000 of them died. Others might draw attention to the deformation to the Irish psyche caused by being next door to England and being subsumed into the oppressive British Empire.

A Happy Land?



As an economic historian, Professor Kennedy confidently states that Ireland was among the fastest growing economies in Europe at the time of the Easter Rising. Apart from slow growth in particular sub-periods such as 1932-38 and 1951-59, “Over the twentieth century as a whole, the growth performance of the Irish economy has been close to the western European average and well ahead of eastern Europe. The Irish Republic and Northern Ireland today rank among the richest regions in the world in terms of income per head”.

Professor Kennedy also challenges received wisdom that the introduction of the Penal Laws at the end of the seventeenth century repressed the religious rights of the majority Catholic population of Ireland. Kennedy contends that after 1715, the Penal Laws were fiercer on the statute book than in practice. By the 1790s, Catholics and dissenters in Ireland enjoyed freedom of worship, Catholic churches and dissenters’ chapels dotted the Irish countryside and a state-subsidised national seminary for Catholic priests was founded at Maynooth. At the same time, there was vigorous persecution of religious dissent on the European mainland.

The nineteenth century saw the uninterrupted progress of the Catholic Church in Ireland as it developed a vast infrastructure of churches, presbyteries, convents, monasteries, bishops’ palaces. Perhaps most important was clerical control of the school system with funding from the British state. Clerical education and clerical appointments were free of state control. As a child, I used to enjoy the rousing hymn Faith of our Fathers. Whatever the words of that hymn might claim, Irish people, from the 1740s, were able to worship without fear of “dungeon, fire and sword”. Kennedy says that at a deep level “there was the image-world of Christianity and its symbolic representation of pain, sorrow and exile – universals of the human predicament – which could be exploited selectively to colour the Irish collective experience”. Patrick Pearse was a master of this. After Ireland became independent the church’s power reached totalitarian proportions.


Emigration has been seen as a downside, a drain on the economy, depriving the nation of its bright ambitious young. Professor Kennedy sees a positive side. The Irish have unlimited freedom of exit and have enjoyed privileged access to two of the highest-wage economies in the world – North America and Britain.

Large-scale emigration began after the Famine and it did not take long for the victims to become victimisers. The New York riots of 1863 (as featured in Scorsese’s film The Gangs of New York) were called the Draft Riots because of protests against conscription into the Union army in the Civil War. In fact, they were race riots carried out by Irish immigrants, the children of the Famine, who feared competition in the labour market from emancipated black slaves. At least 119 were killed in an orgy of lynching and arson.

One of the Seven, Tom Clarke, lived in America and revelled in the atmosphere of grievance and heroic struggle that Irish Americans propagated. He expressed a virulent hatred for blacks. As Ruth Dudley Edwards puts it: “Irish Americans would take the narrative of exceptional Irish victimhood to extreme levels of narcissism, self-pity and absurdity and feed it back to republicans in Ireland in what became a malign circle”.

The Politics of Grievance

Sound familiar? In the same way, genuine grievances of Tamils living in in Sri Lanka get subsumed in the exaggerated claims of genocide uttered by sections of the Tamil diaspora.

Professor Kennedy does not deny that Ireland suffered injustice. “It would be an act of denial… to fail to acknowledge that Irish history is replete with instances of persecution, of evictions, of famines. These form part of a European historical experience that was, time out of mind, brutal, bloody and oppressive. One does not have to go all the way with Hobbes to conclude: the past is not a pleasant place”.

However, he sees the ever-present danger of keeping historical resentments alive. “The library of past and present wrongs, including those of an economic nature, were articulated in a continuous present tense that seemed to give historical depth and legitimacy to newly-minted notions of nationalism”.

Bosnia provides a warning. The horrors of the 1990s came “out of a hate-filled history of victimhood. The sadism of the moment was clouded by the rhetoric of the centuries”. Let us not dwell on self-delusion about “800 years of oppression” or deal with perceived grievance by more bloodshed.


Easter 1916 Part Three


This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday April 7 2016


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Martyrdom and Separatism

Four years ago, I posted an article on Groundviews in which I explored the theme of martyrdom in the militant separatism of Irish rebels at the beginning of the 20th century and of the LTTE from the 1970s. I posted the article again on Facebook recently to mark the centenary of the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916. One commenter on Facebook said that she could not see the point of the article. I told her that it had been addressed to a Sri Lankan audience and was warning of the dangers of Sri Lankan Tamils elevating Prabhakaran to the status of a martyr for the cause of Tami nationalism. She responded that my article was “intellectually flawed” because it did not deal with the “800 years of oppression” that preceded the 1916 Rising.

She presumed to know that her long-dead Irish grandfather would take pity on me for my lack of respect for those who “Fought against subjugation of brutal British rule for centuries”. Professor Liam Kennedy has coined an acronym to cover this kind of thinking – MOPE (Most Oppressed People Ever). I will deal in a separate article with MOPE in relation to the Diasporas of the Irish and of Sri Lankan Tamils.

Imperial Oppression

How oppressed was Ireland in 1916? The leader of the Home Rule party in the Westminster parliament, John Redmond, in a speech of 1915, claimed that by 1900 the struggle over land was effectively won. Many historians since have claimed  conditions were improving in Ireland by 1916. The writer Sean O’Faolain, who had made bombs for the revolution, later wrote that by 1916, the historical grievances justifying armed violence, had become a “purely emotional impulse”.

An economist of today, David McWilliams, wrote recently, “sometimes we get dewy-eyed about the reality of the Irish state”. McWilliams claims that in 1913, Ireland was one of the richest countries in Europe, with income per head matching that of Sweden, Norway and Finland. 75 years after the Rising, Irish income per head was half the income of the Scandinavians. McWilliams asserts: “The Empire project enriched all of Britain and Ireland. In the later part of the 19th century both Irish and English tradesmen got richer together”. During the Famine, Irish carpenters and fitters earned about 90% of what their English counterparts did. In the decades leading up to 1913, both English and Irish tradesmen saw rapid increases in their wages. Wages of unskilled Irish workers and farm labourers rose rapidly after the Famine. The various Land Acts from 1870 to 1909 began the mass transfer of land from the Anglo-Irish aristocracy to the local farmers. The Irish stock market doubled in the late Victorian era. Large-scale sanitation and infrastructural projects were undertaken such as bringing clean water to Dublin from Roundwood Reservoir.

Although it was a hotbed of rebel activity, Cork did well out of the British Empire. Haulbowline Island in Cork Harbour was a major British naval base and defence against Napoleon. Cork exported salted beef, pork and butter to the West Indies and fed the British navy. The unrivalled ability of Cork Harbour to shelter the biggest fleets assembled during the American War of Independence and, later, during the Napoleonic Wars was a major factor in the expansion of the provisions trade in Cork.

Did the Revolution Improve Social Justice?

There were undoubtedly social injustices in the Ireland of 1916. Horace Plunkett of the Cooperative movement produced statistics to show the extent of urban poverty. The death rate for Ireland in 1917 was 16.8 per 1,000 of the population compared to 14.4 for England and Wales. In Ireland there were 2.2 deaths per 1,000 from TB; in England and Wales it was 1.62.Todd Andrews, veteran Irish republican born in 1901, wrote in his autobiography Dublin Made Me about the bleak existence of those at the “bottom of the heap”. “Even those who had regular work were seldom above the poverty line and very many were below it…when I was child, every mother of young children lived in constant dread and sometimes real terror of sickness”.

Mabel Fitzgerald wrote to her former employer, George Bernard Shaw, that she was bringing up her son to speak Irish and to adopt “the sound traditional hatred of England and all her ways”. Shaw responded: “You must be a wicked devil to load a child’s innocent soul with old hatreds and rancours that Ireland is sick of”. He said she should be telling her son “that the English are far more oppressed than any folk he has ever seen in Ireland by the same forces that have oppressed Ireland in the past”.

I remember when Cork was dirt poor. Ancient black-shawled women, like one might see in Greece, Sicily or Portugal, moved like shadows in the warrens of alleyways that climbed the steep streets. Beggars sat on St Patrick’s Bridge. However, this was long after the Imperial oppressor had been ejected.

Apart from those around James Connolly, not many of those who fomented the 1916 Rising were much concerned about social conditions. The writings of Pearse are concerned with a more spiritual Ireland. Likewise, Standish O’Grady used the legendary figure of Cuchulainn “to galvanise the weakened generations of Ireland into an awareness of their heroic masculinity”.

My father, Jeremiah O’Leary, was still in the womb of Hannah Noonan O’Leary when the rebels took over the GPO. He was born on 29 June 1916, two months after the Rising (because Easter is a movable feast, the actual date of the Rising was April 24). Economic circumstances forced him to go to England to find work when in his twenties. His younger brother joined him. My father joined the British Army when the Second World War broke out. Independence precipitated a massive flight of people from Ireland. In the 1950s, 450,000 Irish people emigrated to England alone. The Irish-born population there peaked at over 700,000 in 1971.

A Motley Crew

Many of those involved in the Easter Rising had advanced views. People ran away together to found communist communes in Donegal. The lesbianism of many key figures went unconcealed. Roger Casement was a homosexual as was Eoin O’Duffy, who went on to lead the fascist Blueshirts. Rosamond Jacobs was an enthusiast for Freud’s writing. Some were strongly Anglophobe even though many were from English stock. They were rebelling against their own heritage as much as social conditions or imperialism. Although many of these middle class revolutionaries were bent on self-transformation, the Irish revolution moved from artistic, social and sexual experimentation to repressive conservatism.



Kevin O’Higgins asserted in the Dáil in March 1923: “We were the most conservative-minded revolutionaries that ever put through a successful revolution”. De Valera wrote to Mary MacSwiney: “Every instinct of mine would indicate that I was meant to be a dyed-in-the-wool Tory, or even a bishop, rather than the leader of a revolution”.


Countess Markievicz boldly stated “the Catholic church is one of the greatest influences for evil in the world” and found it “incomprehensible how any sane person of any intelligence could be a Catholic”. In spite of this, her revolution established a state which was dominated by the regressive and reactionary ideas of the Irish Catholic church. The economy was ruined and the state even begrudged paying pensions to those who were wounded in the fight  for freedom. Some met a worse fate and were executed by former comrades. The material questions around which republicans had organised, including trade union militancy, land seizures and the establishment of soviets, became embarrassing for the national leadership. As historian Tom Garvin put it: “whenever social protest began seriously to threaten the interest of men of substance, republicanism ostentatiously dissociated itself from agitation”.


Next week – more about MOPE in Ireland and Sri Lanka





Only in Sri Lanka

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This article was published in Ceylon Today on Wednesday January 8.

Professor Kingsley de Silva famously wrote that the Sinhalese were a majority with a minority complex, while Sri Lankan Tamils were a minority with a majority complex. I always have in my mind Ralph Waldo Emerson’s aphorism: “All generalisations are dangerous, including this one”.  As a guest in this country, I would be wary about generalising about Sinhalese on an anecdotal basis. I will cautiously limit myself to saying that I have observed in some Sinhalese a masochist pride in the sheer awfulness of Sri Lanka. For them it is almost a mark of honour that no other country can match the thuggishness and corruption of Sri Lankan politicians. The masochist sometimes expresses a vicarious nostalgia for the British Empire, sometimes a longing for a benevolent despot like Le Kuan Yew to subjugate them.

Let me take one example of these passive-aggressive masochists who always think that the UK and the US things do things better.

I got into a “discussion” on Facebook with a cadre, whom I will call SJ, from the masochistic tendency. SJ was  exercised by the recent news that a stage had collapsed in Colombo, injuring many New Year revellers. SJ fulminated: “Imagine if this happened in the US? In SL of course it’s part of the usual circus.”

I pointed out to SJ that a similar accident happened in London on 20 December 2013. Seventy-six people were hurt when ornate plasterwork at the Apollo theatre fell during a production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

I mentioned the Hillsborough disaster, which occurred in 1989.  Ninety-six people died because of the crush at a football match in Sheffield. Before the kick-off, a bottleneck had developed outside the ground with more fans arriving than could enter the Leppings Lane Stand. People who had been refused entry could not leave the area because of the crush behind them but remained as an obstruction. The police, to avoid deaths outside the ground, opened a set of gates, intended as an exit, which caused a rush of supporters through the gate into the stadium.

A huge crush built up at the front of the terrace, where people were being pressed up against the fencing by the weight of the crowd behind them. People entering were unaware of the problems at the fence. The sheer weight of bodies had broken the crush barriers on the terraces. Desperate fans tearing at the fencing caused later holes in the perimeter.


Most of the deaths were caused by compressive asphyxia. The pitch quickly started to fill with the bodies of the dead and people sweating and gasping for breath and injured by crushing. Only one ambulance made it on to the pitch in the immediate aftermath of the crush. The police, held a fleet of ambulances outside the ground, so medical help did not reach the injured.

Dozens of fans might have lived with proper treatment. Post-mortem examinations showed they might have had heart, lung or blood circulation function for some time after being pulled from the crush. Placing any fans who were merely unconscious on their backs would have obstructed their airways. Kevin Williams, 15, was lifted from the pen at 3.28pm and laid on the pitch, alive but weak. Pathologists now believe that broken bones in Kevin’s neck caused his airways to swell; a simple rubber tube down his throat would have saved him. Dr Bill Kirkup revealed recently that 41 people were living beyond the time suggested by the original coroner

Only 14 of the 96 fatalities ever arrived at a hospital. The final death toll reached 96 in March 1993, when Tony Bland was taken off a life support machine after four years in a vegetative state. Andrew Devine, eight years after he was also rendered vegetative at the age of 22, became aware of his surroundings and started communicating with his family. He is still alive.

SJ was not impressed. He still wanted to think that things are worse in Sri Lanka. “why why and why Padraig do you need to give examples like Hillsborough? You live in SL…a couple of weeks back a train engine went walkabout for a long distance on its own. NO ACCOUNTABILITY! Nothing? In Britain ministers resign when some mishap happens.”

I am afraid that is a myth. UK Ministers generally stay in their jobs at least until the next reshuffle, however incompetent they have proved to be. Michael Howard was unwilling even to consider stepping down as Home Secretary over the Whitemoor and Parkhurst jail breaks. James Prior hung on to his post as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in 1983, when more than 30 IRA inmates escaped from the Maze prison. Norman Lamont failed to resign as Chancellor in 1992, when Britain ignominiously left the Exchange Rate Mechanism after a day of financial chaos.

Following the Hillsborough disaster, Lord Justice Taylor conducted an inquiry, which sat for 31 days. The Taylor Report found that the main reason for the disaster was the failure of police control. Taylor described senior officers as “defensive and evasive witnesses” who refused to accept any responsibility for error. “[T]he police case was to blame the fans for being late and drunk, and to blame the Club for failing to monitor the pens. … Such an unrealistic approach gives cause for anxiety as to whether lessons have been learnt. It would have been more seemly and encouraging for the future if responsibility had been faced.” Cabinet documents revealed Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher warned the Home Secretary against welcoming the report because its “broad thrust” constituted a “devastating criticism of the police”.

SJ might respond that UK governance was better because there was a thorough investigation. Impunity would prevent such an inquiry in Sri Lanka. Maybe so. However, twenty-four years later the Hillsborough matter is still not settled. Jon Stoddart, Assistant Chief Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police is leading Operation Resolve, a criminal investigation into the disaster. The Sheffield Telegraph reported on 20 December 2013 that David Duckenfield, who was overseeing policing at the stadium, now retired from South Yorkshire Police, would be interviewed early in 2014.   Around 500 police officers have been interviewed so far, with eight officers ‘declining’ to be questioned. Original inquests into the deaths were found to be flawed, the verdicts of accidental death quashed and fresh inquests will be held in 2014. A separate investigation into the conduct of police in the aftermath of the disaster is looking at whether statements from police officers on the day were changed. One unnamed ambulance worker’s reference to access to the pitch being ‘pitifully inadequate’ was removed.

Deputy Chairwoman of The Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC), Deborah Glass said: “Hillsborough has had a history of inquiries by the police and others, many completed quickly, coming to flawed conclusions. Our investigations need to deliver the last, definitive account.” The IPCC said it has uncovered evidence to suggest that the statements of 74 more officers might have been changed, and that fans’ witness accounts could have been altered.

Families of the dead accused West Yorkshire Police chief constable Sir Norman Bettison of spreading ‘black propaganda’ to force the blame on to innocent supporters. He resigned in October 2012 amidst allegations that he was involved in the implementation of a cover-up of police errors. He remains the subject of an IPCC investigation. According to Police Review magazine, he told his staff to monitor Wikipedia – to stop users posting rude comments about him. He took exception to being described as a “greedy, vain moron”.

Which Sri Lankan ministers should resign, then, because a stage collapsed at the Hilton or a train wandered off? I agree that not many of them would be missed. I do not condone the systemic flaws in Sri Lanka. However, SJ  manages to use a few accidents  as the basis of an attack on the government: “Are we failing to see the obvious truth about Rajapaksa governance for the same reason we failed to look through those outlandish Rajapaksa lies about ‘Humanitarian Operations’ and ‘Welfare Villages’.” That seems a bit of a painful stretch to me. The  Hilton incident was indeed unfortunate but what did have to do with the government? What is even sadder is the infantile delusion that things must be better elsewhere. This invited comments from some that perhaps he should try elsewhere and see how he likes it. Others told him to man up and try and change things in the real world rather than whingeing on the internet.

Another commenter on Facebook responded: “Ten years ago we could not even DREAM of SL being where it is today, so what is to say Ten years from now that the society we want cannot be achieved?”

It will not be achieved by passively dreaming about how much better other countries order matters.

Sri Lanka’s displaced people Part 1

This was posted on August 8 2019

Concentration camps or welfare camps?


Whenever I write about the situation in Sri Lanka, I try to approach the subject in a calm and rational manner. My only bias is in favour of this beautiful country, which I have chosen as my home, achieving the peace and harmony that has eluded it for so long. In spite of, or perhaps because of, my even-handed approach, comments on my articles tend to fall into three categories.

The very same article (whose main theme was western ignorance and hypocrisy) drew comments from Sri Lankans along these lines:

  • Most commended me for my professional and unbiased approach.
  • Some accused me of bigotry against Tamils and of being in the pay of the government.
  • Others accused me of being an LTTE propagandist because I mentioned discrimination against Tamils as a possible factor in thirty years of mayhem.

Former Chief Justice, Sarath N. Silva, who is Sinhalese, fears that the continuing confinement of Tamils in camps in the north may lay the foundation for a new war, since comparable discrimination against and persecution of Tamil civilians played a major role in starting the war, which has just ended. Silva said the confinement of civilians in these camps insults the soldiers who risked, and in many cases lost, their lives to free the civilians from the LTTE, and makes a mockery of celebrations of the end of the war.

Some Sinhalese argue vehemently that there is not and has not been any discrimination against Sri Lankan Tamils. A surprising proponent of this point of view is Gayathri Jude, an Australian who recently visited Sri Lanka. “To say that Tamils are being persecuted in Sri Lanka is bunkum,” she said. This was surprising because the speaker is not Sinhalese and is the daughter of Tamil Tiger leader Velupillai Kumaru Pancharatnam, better known by his nom de guerre, George Master.

George Master was in the custody of the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) when his daughter in Australia decided to visit Sri Lanka in hopes of seeing him. “When I announced plans to visit Sri Lanka, they [Tamil friends and family in Australia] warned me that the police will not only kill me, but my husband and two children as well. If not, we will be tortured, they warned. So, I returned to Sri Lanka with a great degree of fear. I now realize the extent of the false propaganda spread by the LTTE [Tamil Tigers] to mislead the international community and tarnish Sri Lanka’s image. “My father said that he is being treated well by the police”.

IDP camps in Sri Lanka

It is perhaps foolhardy of me to attempt to deal with the topic of the camps in northern Sri Lanka, as this subject has generated a great deal of vituperation. I will set out here various points of view and leave it to the reader to draw conclusions. Once again, I must stress that I have no axe to grind here except where it concerns dispelling mistaken impressions in the west where knee-jerk opinions are expressed on the basis of reports by what Sri Lankan writers call ”parachute journalists”. As a foreigner myself I believe I am qualified to do this.

For example, some foreign critics seem to believe that all Sri Lankan Tamils were deliberately confined by the government to a narrow strip of beach in the extreme north of the country where they were subjected to heavy artillery and then kept in extermination camps. The reality was that 70% of Tamils live outside the north and are not segregated; many are prosperous and influential. The north is largely mono-ethnic because the Tigers engaged in ethnic cleansing to drive out Sinhalese and Muslims.

Estimates vary about how many internally displaced people (IDPs) are in the IDP camps in Sri Lanka. The Center for Policy Alternatives (CPA) presented a petition to the government saying that 300,000 civilians who escaped the battlefields of the island’s civil war are being detained illegally in 40 centres.

Dr Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, of the CPA, wrote in Lanka Monthly Digest (LMD):”Would tardiness and a failure to expedite decongestion at the camps through voluntary return compound the security situation? Will not decongestion make life considerably more bearable for those who remain and the management of the camps much easier?”

International criticism

NGOs such as Human Rights Watch have been strongly critical of the government’s decision to keep civilians in these camps. More extreme sections of the Tamil Diaspora have accused the government of having a genocidal agenda and have described the camps as being designed for the purpose of exterminating Tamils.

Some international commentators have picked up this theme, preferring to ignore the government’s case.

Just to take one example of international criticism: David Begg, leader of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, taking time off from defending his members against pay cuts and redundancies as the Irish economy goes rapidly downhill, has taken an interest in far-away Sri Lanka. He has written two letters to the Irish foreign minister urging him to intervene in Sri Lanka. The gist of his message was: ”We also know that around 300,000 Tamils remain interned without trial in so called ˜welfare centres that are concentration camps in all but name. Contrary to international law, there is no freedom of movement of the displaced and there is not enough water, food and sanitation. There have been reports saying that more than 1000 people are dying in the camps every week. As it is almost impossible for independent organisations or international press to enter the camps we do not know what is really happening there. The Sri Lankan government bears the entire responsibility for the atrocious situation in the camps.”

Some see a sinister aspect, beyond mere hypocrisy and delusion, to the agenda of some foreign critics. For example, L. Jayasooriya writes that Robert Blake, former US ambassador to Colombo and currently Under Secretary to Hillary Clinton, ”spent his entire energy, effort and time to undermine Sri-Lanka by planning, plotting and scheming with the traitors in our land to destabilize our country.”

Jayasooriya continues: ”Little Sri Lanka militarily defeated all plans by America and her allies to save the LTTE hierarchy so that they could use the LTTE first to de-stabilize Sri-Lanka and divide the country and then lever Tamil Nadu out of the Indian federation to remove for ever India being a threat to the living standards of the West. India also wanted the LTTE hierarchy but for a different purpose, namely to annex Sri Lanka at some date in the future.”

”The Japanese government has decided to open training facilities to teach and train youth how to live in peace and that it is most likely that Sri Lanka will also benefit. The plan he said already has two slots for Sri Lanka and he thinks that Sri Lanka will be accommodated. Soon after that America said that she has an exchange programme  for the same purpose. With these two programmes the hard core LTTE cadres which may be several hundreds could be moulded to fit into a grand plan to de-stabilize either Sri Lanka or Tamil Nadu the type of which has never been attempted before by the CIA or MI5 or RAW. Now they say that we are violating human rights by keeping the IDPs far too long in the camps and they want to assist us in screening them.”

In a poll conducted by LMD, over 70% of respondents agreed that double standards were applied by western nations when they tried to intervene in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs. 75 per cent supported the government’s decision to seek aid from nations such as Libya and Iran.

Concentration camps?

Language is corrupted and confused by politics and war. The Vietnam War gave us ”pacification” which meant destroying villages and livelihoods and spraying toxic pesticides in order to cut off support and destroy potential havens for the Vietcong. More recently, we have had ”collateral damage”, which, in grim reality, means dead babies and young children with amputated limbs. I have just encountered a neologism that was new to me “ in Pakistan, prisoners were ”processed in the traditional manner”, which means torture. The victorious Vietnamese set up ”re-education camps”.

In the north of Sri Lanka, there are large numbers of civilians in what the Sri Lanka government calls ”welfare camps” or ”relief centres”. Foreign critics have called these camps ”concentration camps”.

Let it not be forgotten that the concept of the concentration camp was invented, not by the Nazis, but by the British Empire.

Recalcitrant Boers were incarcerated in South Africa in British concentration camps. The poor diet and inadequate hygiene led to endemic contagious diseases such as measles, typhoid and dysentery. A report after the war estimated that 27,927 Boers (of whom 22,074 were children under 16) and 14,154 black Africans had died of starvation, disease and exposure in the camps. About 25% of the Boer inmates and 12% of the black Africans died (although recent research suggests that the black African deaths were underestimated and may have actually been around 20,000). 4,619 Boers were interned in Bermuda, compared to Bermuda’s total population of around 17,000; at least 34 Boers are known to have died during the journey to Bermuda.

Michael Collins, hero of the Irish fight for independence (although he was killed at a tender age by rival Irishmen), was imprisoned at the Frongoch concentration camp in Wales. The prisoners were very poorly treated and Frongoch became a breeding ground for Irish revolutionaries. Internment camps were set up by the British in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, holding without trial many civilians unconnected with the IRA. Internment only succeeded in bringing down the Heath government and gaining more recruits for the IRA.

During the 1940s, the British, with the help of German POWs, built internment camps in Cyprus for up to 30,000 Jewish detainees. They consisted almost entirely of Holocaust survivors who were being prevented from reaching Palestine. Funds for maintenance of the camps were taken from taxes collected from the Jewish population of Palestine.

For the duration of World War II, many people passed through internment camps at Knockaloe and Douglas on the Isle of Man. The internees included enemy aliens from the Axis Powers, principally Germany and Italy. Initially, refugees who had fled from Germany were also included, as were suspected British Nazi sympathizers such as British Union of Fascists leader, Oswald Mosley. The British government rounded up 74,000 German, Austrian and Italian aliens. Within six months the 112 alien tribunals had individually summoned and examined 64,000 aliens, and the vast majority was released, having been found to be ”friendly aliens”. Among the aliens were 28,000 Jews fleeing the Nazis (the Amadeus String Quartet was formed in one of these internment camps). In Britain, internees were housed in camps and prisons. Some camps had tents rather than buildings with internees sleeping directly on the ground. Men and women were separated and most contact with the outside world was denied. A number of prominent Britons including writer H. G. Wells campaigned against the internment of refugees.

Recently, several elderly Kenyans delivered a letter to 10 Downing Street asking for justice for their castration and rape in the Kenyan Gulag during the Kenyan fight for independence. According to Caroline Elkins, up to 320,000 Kikuyu, ”nearly a third of the population”,may have passed through the more than 50 camps, a figure which does not include the people, mostly women and children, held behind barbed wire in the fortified resettlement villages. One British colonial officer described the labour camps thus: “Short rations, overwork, brutality, humiliating and disgusting treatment and flogging – all in violation of the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights.” Cholera swept through the camps. Official medical reports were ignored, and the British lied about conditions in the camps.

The USA used the term ”War Relocation Camps” to describe the facilities into which 110,000 US citizens of Japanese origin were herded during World War II.

In Canada in January 1942, a “protected” 100-mile-wide strip up the Pacific coast was created, and any men of Japanese descent between the ages of 18 and 45 were removed and taken to internment camps and forced labor. Ian MacKenzie MP said: ”Let our slogan be for British Columbia: ”˜No Japs from the Rockies to the seas.’” Most of the 21,500 people of Japanese descent who lived in British Columbia were naturalized or native-born citizens. Some were decorated war heroes who had served with the Canadian forces in the First World War. Those unwilling to live in internment camps or relocation centres faced the possibility of deportation to Japan. In early March, all ethnic Japanese people were ordered out of the protected area, and a daytime-only curfew was imposed on them. Some of those brought inland were kept in animal stalls in Vancouver for months. The authorities then moved them to ten camps in or near inland British Columbia towns, sometimes separating husbands from their wives and families.

I recall as a child in Ireland in the 1950s seeing graffiti on walls demanding ”End internment now”. My father explained to me that the Republic’s government was still holding, without trial, political prisoners. During the Second World War (which in another of those peculiar neologisms was called ”The Emergency”) the Irish government amended the constitution to allow emergency powers which included internment without trial of those who had committed a crime or even might be likely to. The IRA leadership were mostly imprisoned at the internment camp at the Curragh, where they were treated increasingly harshly. (Allied personnel were treated rather better as can be seen in the movie The Brylcreem Boys starring Gabriel Byrne).

Let us not forget the camp at Guantanamo. Although President Obama has announced that it will be closed it has also been announced that the administration should continue to claim the right to hold some Guantanamo inmates indefinitely as ”combatants” under the ”laws of war”, without charging them either in criminal courts or in military commissions.

Global refugee situation

The UN Refugee Agency reported that there were around 16 million refugees and 26 million IDPs in the world at the end of 2008 and that the number of IDPs is growing faster than the number of refugees because the majority of conflicts today are within individual countries rather than between nations. While the UN agency’s mandate is to “lead and co-ordinate international action to protect refugees and resolve refugee problems worldwide”, in recent years it has been increasingly tasked under the UN’s humanitarian reform process with assisting IDPs.

How is Sri Lanka coping with its internally displaced people following

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