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International Forum on Sri Lanka at the Oxford Union
"EU must stop preaching and increase aid to Sri Lanka"
– Nirj Deva, MEP

As Sri Lanka comes out of the throes of a 35 year-old conflict, all Sri Lankans are joyous that the war is over. The International Community should stop preaching and extend its full cooperation to the government and the people in ushering in a new era of reconciliation and rapid development. These are the common sentiments expressed by all panellists.

An International Forum on Sri Lanka was held recently (5th June 2009) in the hallowed surroundings of the internationally-famed Oxford Union at the University of Oxford. Themed "Post Conflict Reconstruction & Democratisation of Sri Lanka’s Former Conflict Regions," it featured an eminent panel that were carefully selected to represent all the different stakeholders.

This is the first time a panel of this nature has been assembled to address the Sri Lankan situation in a comprehensive manner. The Forum offered an unparalleled opportunity to present a diverse range of views on the matter by the different stake-holders.

Dr. Sarath Amunugama, Minister of Public Administration and Home Affairs and Deputy Finance Minister of Sri Lanka, was the Chief Guest. The Forum was organised by the Oxford Sri Lanka Society with collaboration of the Oxford Union.

Inaugurating the Forum, Oxford Union President, Corey Dixon welcomed everyone present and thanked the Oxford Sri Lanka Society for organising the event. He then handed over proceedings to Oxford Sri Lanka Society President Dilan Fernando.

Welcoming the large and distinguished gathering, Dilan Fernando welcomed the large gathering present and elaborated that the Sri Lankan problem has always been a very intricate one with many aspects and sides. The distinguished panel has been carefully chosen to represent all the main stakeholders and each of our panelists would present their point of view, hopes and aspirations for the future. He hoped that at the end of the discussion, the audience would be enlightened on the Sri Lankan situation and have a better understanding of the overall issues.

Delivering the Keynote Address, Dr. Sarath Amunugama elaborated on the government’s efforts to rapidly develop the former conflict zones. He stated that not only had the government rescued over 250,000 civilians, it had also provided them with all basic facilities, including shelter, food and healthcare. Steps were in place to resettle all these civilians in their original homes once de-mining and other security measures were completed. The government’s priority was the rapid reconstruction and development of these former conflict regions. The Minister stressed that these efforts would increase the overall GDP by 2% in the next few years, which would be a great achievement in context of the current global financial crisis. He was very optimistic that these goals would be realised and that all Sri Lankans would live in peace, unity and harmony once again.

Nirj Deva, Member of the European Parliament and its Coordinator of the Committee on Overseas Development and Cooperation, lamented on the attitude taken by certain member states. These nations had conveniently forgotten their own recent history. Recalling repressive measures taken by the UK during the Falklands War, he said that it was now highly unfair for Sri Lanka. Moreover, the US$ 4.5 billion pledged in Tokyo by the Co-Chairs should now be made available to Sri Lanka since the fighting had concluded. Everyone should remember that Sri Lanka had to combat brutal and ruthless terrorists, Deva emphasised. He pledged to engage other European nations and help build a consensus on helping Sri Lanka in its reconstruction and democratisation process.

The next speaker was former MP and senior EPDP member S. Thavaraja, representing the Tamil community. He spoke on the sacrifices made by his party members when they renounced violence in 1987 and entered the democratic mainstream. The Tamil Tigers, he said, had made several abortive attempts on the life of their leader Minister Douglas Devananda. Speaking almost exclusively on the area of devolution of power, he detailed at length the pros and cons of the 13th Amendment and expressed a desire for its full implementation. Commenting that most barriers the Tamil community faced had now disappeared, he stressed the importance of having the Tamil community feeling it was an integral part of the nation. His view was all efforts should now be directed in achieving this objective.

Seyed Bazeer, representing the Muslim community, lauded the government’s efforts to end terrorism in Sri Lanka. A London based Solicitor and President of the Sri Lanka Muslim Association of the UK, Bazeer recalled how 80,000 Muslims were evicted forcibly by the Tamil Tigers in 1990 in 24hrs, in an unprecedented step of ethnic cleansing. He went on to state that for the first time in his life, he could go to his hometown in Sri Lanka without any fear and that all Muslims now looked forward to live in peace and harmony once again. This was their long-held dream.

Speaking on behalf of the Tamil Diaspora of London, Mrs. Rajeshwari Balasubramaniam recalled the great tragedies that had befallen all communities during the conflict. Over a hundred thousand had needlessly perished in a mindless war instigated by the Tamil Tigers. A Human Rights Activist, she focussed mainly on the human suffering that had taken place and lamented on the plight of girls forcibly conscripted by the Tamil Tigers. She called on the government to rehabilitate these child soldiers and integrate them into society. Commenting on the inadequacies in IDP camps, she said that the government had done a commendable job under difficult circumstances. She called on the International Community to help the government redress the situation. The hope of the Tamil community was to live together as one with the other communities as equal citizens.

Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha, Secretary to the Ministry of Human Rights and Disaster Management, elaborated on the steps taken to improve the conditions of the IDP camps. He detailed the reasons why International NGOs did not have access to some camps due to the presence of hardcore Tamil Tiger cadres mingling with the civilian population. He enlightened the audience of the level of aid given by the various countries and lamented about the negative attitude and sentiments expressed by certain members of the International Community in giving aid. "Ironically, it is those who make the most noise about conditions in the camps that give the least aid and that too, grudgingly," the Professor observed. Summing up, Prof. Wijesinha expressed the view that all civilians in camps would soon be resettled.

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