Kath Noble

Wise up, Simon Hughes!

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on August 22, 2007

 An interview with Simon Hughes MP in which he tries to explain why he is one of the Government’s most outspoken critics in the UK.

Simon Hughes is a Member of Parliament and President of the Liberal Democrat Party in the UK, and he is outspoken on the situation in Sri Lanka.  He played an important role in the establishment of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Tamils in April, and also in the debate on Sri Lanka that took place in the House of Commons in May. I went to interview him at his office in Westminster.

He talks at length and in as little detail as he can get away with. I’d read that he’d been here, which seemed like a good start for someone who speaks as passionately about the situation as he does, so I asked him about it. He settled into his chair and focused his eyes on a point about a foot in front of his face, definitely not in my direction, and out came the first salvo of rhetoric. He wanted to avoid talking about his time here, it seemed, so he launched into a long story about how he had become interested in Sri Lanka.

I have heard this before, I thought, having read the text of the debate in the House. But I hadn’t. ‘My interest stems from…being a fan of the Commonwealth, a fan of cricket, and somebody who spent quite a lot of his student days in international communities in London…where there were also Sri Lankans,’ he said.

I’m always slightly suspicious of British people, particularly white middle class British people, saying they are fans of the Commonwealth. Isn’t it somewhat strange to have a soft spot for the leftovers of our oppression of half the world by military might? As for cricket, well, I like rugby, but that doesn’t mean I’m thinking of starting a campaign in support of Maoris in New Zealand, as he has for Tamils in Sri Lanka. He went on: ‘One of my interests has always been human rights…and also political and constitutional settlements for communities where there are more than one racial or ethnic group.’

It isn’t the story he told in the House. On that occasion, he said, ‘Soon after I was elected, some Tamils came to see me. They wanted, as proud people in national groups who do not have autonomy do, to have the pride of running their own place.’ That was in the mid 1980s.

In fact, he sought throughout the interview to avoid any impression of influence on him by Sri Lankans, saying that there were ‘such a small number’ in his constituency, in contrast with the ‘significant numbers’ he claimed to represent when he spoke in the House. He has somewhat of a history with the LTTE. Eelam House was set up in his constituency in the late 1990s by the leader of the LTTE in London, Shanthan. It has since closed, and Shanthan has recently been arrested by the British Police and charged with offences associated with his membership of the LTTE. Simon Hughes said, ‘I would go and talk to them and support them, and I have continued to work with them.’ Eliza Packiadevi Mann, one of the Liberal Democrat councillors in his constituency, is a Sri Lankan, and it has been reported that she is under investigation in connection with the case against Shanthan. Simon Hughes regularly speaks at rallies with Ms. Mann, most recently in Trafalgar Square in July, at which TamilNet reported a resolution was passed reaffirming the allegiance of the participants to the struggle for Eelam.

He made no comment on the matter to me. Whatever, I’m sure he has a mind of his own.

He came to the point about his visit to Sri Lanka. There has only been one and it was of about a week, back in January 1999. ‘It was to try to look for ways which I could suggest might be ways forward to advance the peace process,’ he said. People here have been wrestling with the problem for years, but he thought he’d be able to come up with a new and winning proposal in a few days. It seems a bit ambitious to me.

Simon Hughes said in the House that he understood why some Tamils had decided to turn to terrorism in the shape of the LTTE. ‘If you have nothing to lose then violence is an option,’ he told me. He doesn’t understand why some Muslims have chosen the course of violence set out by al Qaeda. I asked why one and not the other. ‘I don’t see them as linked in any way,’ he said. ‘The LTTE,’ he went on, ‘Well, it’s the same…for any group in a country which is seeking to argue for a change of status in the country. So it’d be the same in India for the Sikhs…or the Kashmiris in India or Pakistan…or the Kurds in Turkey…or the people in Western Sahara in Morocco.’

He doesn’t admit it, but he must have made a judgement about the justification for the violence of these groups and found it to have greater value than that advanced by al Qaeda. It’s a minority thing, I think.

I have very little patience for people who insist that the situation here is like all kinds of other circumstances elsewhere. It just isn’t. Being British, I am particularly bothered by references to Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and it wasn’t long before Simon Hughes had a go at that parallel as well. His point was that nationalist sentiments are not going to go away, and therefore an accommodation has to be reached. I suppose he thinks Osama bin Laden might change his mind, given time.

Simon Hughes thinks he can see the solution. The Government and the LTTE must agree on autonomy in defined areas to be decided on the basis of a free vote amongst Tamils. It is a very uncluttered view, with no annoying practical problems related to reality.

I asked him about Muslims. How do they fit into his campaigning for Tamils? I assumed he’d have some idea about the history of Muslims and the LTTE. After a bit of bluster, in which he thought it important to tell me that most Sinhalese were Buddhist, and that he felt it was ‘not helpful’ to give any kind of foremost place to Buddhism, he came to the point about Tamils. ‘Obviously, most Tamils, or many Tamils, are Christians,’ he said. I held my breath, meanly letting him drop himself still further into the soup. ‘But there is a significant Muslim community, and then there are the Burgher people, and…there are Sikhs as well.’ By the end of the sentence, the uncertainty was showing on his face, but he ploughed on, ‘In a way, it’s got to be a country, like India, where people of all faiths participate. Now, to an extent they do.  Obviously the cricket team has had Tamils in it as well as Sinhala players.’

He had missed the point completely, and in the process said something plainly stupid. I couldn’t help but interrupt the last bit. The cricket team simply cannot be the prime example of Tamils participating that he can think of, so this must surely be a deliberate attempt to denigrate Sri Lanka.

I don’t believe that Simon Hughes hasn’t heard of, for example, Lakshman Kadirgamar or Neelan Thiruchelvam, if only thanks to the LTTE.  ‘Or the Government,’ I ventured. ‘Yes,’ came the rather uncertain reply, and then off on another tangent, ‘India is a wonderful example…they’ve just had a Muslim president and now they’ve got a – gender is not an issue because all of the South Asian countries, by virtue of their dynastic politics, have had female leaders at one time or another.’ How wonderful that India had the man who worked on their nuclear missile programme as President, but let’s not get distracted from the fact that Simon Hughes doesn’t know the first thing about Sri Lanka.

I bet he’ll be kicking himself if he reads this, like the kid who couldn’t quite remember the colour of Rudolf’s nose in the school Christmas quiz. The thing is that this is serious and he clearly hasn’t a clue.

I would have gone on to ask about Karuna, or maybe Douglas Devananda and Anandasangaree, but he’d started off on another subject that sounded quite promising: ‘It was a mistake [for the LTTE] to urge the boycott at the last elections because if there hadn’t been a boycott then it probably would have been a different presidential outcome, and then it might have been different politics.’ He hasn’t met Mahinda Rajapaksa, but he is sure that things would be better if Ranil Wickramasinghe were President.

One of his colleagues seemed to think Mahinda Rajapaksa was responsible for the failure of the ceasefire when he spoke in the House, saying that the LTTE were very involved in talks with Ranil Wickramasinghe and that it was only after the election of Mahinda Rajapaksa that things started to go downhill. I asked if he agreed. Simon Hughes wasn’t sure, ‘but if you’re the President, and if you’re the Government, you have the power of initiative, you have the greatest responsibility, you have to rise above sectoral, partisan, ethnic and political interests’. Rise above bombs too, I imagine. I’m sure he isn’t a pure pacifist, so maybe he doesn’t remember what happened as well as the rest of us, but there wasn’t time to find out. ‘I’m not blaming it all on the Government,’ he’d said earlier. It sounded like it to me. ‘And if the human rights violations are as severe as they are, then I think there are questions to be answered by the President, by the Attorney General, and by senior ministers, because clearly it’s happening under their watch,’ he concluded.

Simon Hughes is keen to get the British Government more involved in implementing his solution in Sri Lanka. He says, ‘Britain has a responsibility because we were the colonial power, and we are a Commonwealth friend.’

I felt myself getting annoyed again. ‘I sense we don’t give it enough priority as an international dispute. There are lots of parts of the world we’ve become involved in, like Iraq. Yes, you could say Britain has a historic interest in Iraq, because we too were there a hundred years ago,’ he continued. Well, that’s a new one on me, although I suppose we always knew it wasn’t about Weapons of Mass Destruction. ‘I think [the British Government] should be working much harder within the European Union, who are influential, and the Commonwealth, who could be influential,’ he said.

He is pushing for the ban on the LTTE to be lifted in the UK. When he spoke to me, he claimed to be ‘slightly equivocal’, but that’s not what he has said elsewhere. ‘I have had concerns about the process by which we ban or proscribe organisations. We have a poor process here, I’ve argued, generally. We look at organisations all together. We don’t look at them separately. We should look at them each separately,’ he said. He essentially wants to separate the LTTE from the likes of al Qaeda so that there is a chance that MPs could vote against a ban on the LTTE while voting for a ban on al Qaeda. At the moment, the Government provides a list of organisations that are to be proscribed, and MPs have to vote for or against the whole lot. But as he said in the House, ‘I am sure that the UK and the EU as a whole would benefit from the unbanning of the LTTE.’

I left with a heavy heart. Simon Hughes is a senior member of a mainstream political party in the UK and he has taken up a campaign in support of which he cannot present a coherent argument because he is simply unaware of the basic facts about the situation in Sri Lanka. 

I humbly suggest that he should stop and think.

This article was published on the cover of the Midweek Review on August 22nd, 2007. The internet version can be accessed here.

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