“Why reconciliation in Sri Lanka matters to the UK”
A response to UK State Minister Mark Field
I have just completed reading your Op-ed article titled ‘Why reconciliation in Sri Lanka matters to UK’ in a Sri Lankan newspaper, and decided to respond due to some glaring contradictions between what Britain preaches to others and what it does in practice.
Some of the contents therein I wish to highlight are:
a) The pace of progress on a number of key issues remains much slower than we hoped for
b) Finding the truth is fundamental
c) Prevention of Terrorism Act is something I am regularly asked by the diaspora and others in the UK
d) Some ask why any of this should matter to the UK. There are also those who like to represent the Geneva resolution in particular as interference by the international community in Sri Lanka’s domestic affairs. This is unfortunate and unfair.
Despite the many issues such as Iraq and Libya that comes to my mind, I shall limit my comments to three points.
British forces arrived in Northern Ireland on August 14, 1969, supposedly to maintain the peace. The government of Ted Heath agreed to the request of by Northern Ireland’s Unionist Prime Minister Brian Faulkner to introduce internment, in other words, the power to imprison indefinitely without charge or trial. Announcing the decree, Faulkner said, “The main target of the present operation is the IRA. I ask those who will quite sincerely consider the use of internal powers as evil, to answer honestly, this question. Is it more of an evil than to allow the perpetrators of these outrages to remain at liberty?
On August 9, 1971, Operation Demetrius was launched to arrest and intern suspected IRA terrorists. During its enforcement, an incident took place in the town of Bellymurphy, a poor housing estate in Belfast. 11 unarmed men and women were shot dead by Crown Forces between August 9 and 11, 1971. Unlike the massacre in Derry in February 1972, this incident was mostly suppressed, and little material is available in the public domain. General Sir Michael Jackson, a former Chief of General Staff, in his autobiography states those killed were Republican gunmen, strongly denied by Catholic families in the documentary ‘The Bellamy Precedent’ produced by Channel 4. 45 years later in 2016, the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland recommended an inquest as one of a series of ‘legacy inquests’ related to 56 incidents. The inquests have been delayed due to funding not approved by the Northern Ireland Executive. A former first minister deferred a bid for extra funding for inquests into historical killings in Northern Ireland. She subsequently confirmed she had used her influence in the devolved power-sharing executive to hold back finance for a backlog of inquests connected to the conflict. The High Court said, “Her decision to refuse to put a funding paper on the Executive basis was unlawful and procedurally flawed.”
On January 30, 1972, members of the 1st Battalion, Parachute Regiment shot 28 unarmed civilians. 14 died in the incident. The Widgery Tribunal report termed the soldiers shooting “bordering on the reckless” and was branded as a whitewash. The report of the subsequent Saville Commission constituted in 1998 was released 12 years later in 2010. The report further concluded that the killings were both “unjustified” and “unjustifiable.” It found that all those shot were unarmed, that none was posing a serious threat, that no bombs were thrown, and that soldiers “knowingly put forward false accounts” to justify their firing. Former Prime Minister David Cameron closed the entire Northern Ireland chapter with a “we are deeply sorry” apology in Parliament.
The Chagos Archipelago or Chagos Islands are a group of seven atolls comprising more than 60 individual tropical islands in the Indian Ocean. Before granting independence to Mauritius in 1968, Britain, in November 1965 excised the entire archipelago and created British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) after paying Mauritius a paltry sum of GBP 3 million. Between 1968 and 1973, over 1,500 islanders were forcibly removed and scattered over Mauritius, Seychelles and West Sussex in Britain. The largest of the islands, Diego Garcia, was leased to the USA to build a military base. In return, Britain received a GBP 7.6 million discount for the Polaris nuclear missiles it purchased from the USA in 1968. British citizenship was granted to those forcibly removed and their children, but was not given to future generations making them second class citizens. They are also banned from returning to Diego Garcia, home to a top-secret US military base. According to a recent BBC report, Sir Anerood Jugnauth, 88, father of present Prime Minister and the only surviving participant of Mauritius Constitution Conference of 1965 has told BBC, “It was real blackmail.” He further claimed then British Prime Minister Harold Wilson had told: “if you don’t agree to what I am proposing (about Chagos Islands) then forget about independence.” After years of bilateral negotiations, Mauritius finally escalated the issue to the UN General Assembly. By a recorded vote of 94 in favour, 15 against and 65 abstentions, UNGA voted to refer the matter to ICJ to ascertain whether the decolonization of Mauritius had been carried out lawfully, given the Archipelago’s subsequent separation. A verdict is expected next year. Meanwhile, Britain has stated, it would not agree to have a bilateral dispute submitted for judicial settlement and called for the draft resolution to be withdrawn. It also said it would not consider resettlement of displaced persons in the disputed islands.
The questions arising from your comments are:
a) What are the reasons and justifications for the implementation of Operation Demetrius (internment of suspected terrorists) jointly by Britain and Northern Ireland?
b) ‘Finding the truth being fundamental,’ what is the reason for the slow pace in finding the truth of those guilty of shooting civilians in Bellymurphy in 1971, and in Derry in 1972? Would Britain also agree to a team of international investigators, lawyers, prosecutors and judges to expedite investigations?
c) Was a “We are deeply sorry” apology a suitable closure to the atrocities and tragedies which took place in Northern Ireland?
d) Notwithstanding Britain’s need to appease the diaspora, does a nation who implemented a draconian policy of interning suspected terrorists have the moral right to question terrorism prevention regulations of other countries?
e) Why does Britain reject the involvement of ICJ in the dispute with Mauritius over Chagos islands? Further, why are Chagos people desiring to return to their land of birth debarred from doing so? Is this British sense of fairness?
To conclude, the Geneva Resolution may have been rammed through with the co-sponsorship of the government of Sri Lanka. Nevertheless, the slow pace of progress is chiefly due to the government’s inability to convince a majority of Sri Lankans in accepting the resolution. Whether it would work for or against reconciliation is yet to be seen.
Many of my compatriots and I would be delighted if you would share your thought with us.