The unity principle: meeting called by the British Tamils Forum

This is a report of the British Tamils Forum meeting held on 7 July 2017, which was attended by several campaigns and organisations. Part 1 summarises what was said at the meeting. Part 2 outlines the approach of Tamil Solidarity.


Part 1

The British Tamils Forum invited Tamil Solidarity to a consultation meeting at the Ealing Hindu Temple on 7 July. At the time, we did not know the aim of the meeting but we were informed that all organisations had been invited.

Around 40 people attended this invitation-only consultation meeting. With the exception of BTF, only two other political organisations were represented: Tamil Solidarity and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). Other campaigns and charities were present, along with the Tamil Information Centre (TIC) and the World Tamils Historical Society.

Sathiaseelan, a leading member in the Tamil Youth League in the 1970s and a member of BTF chaired the meeting. After a minute’s silence to commemorate those who have lost their lives, five minutes each were given to express the views on what the outcome of the meeting should be, and to introduce the organisation they were representing – their projects, strategy and aims. Sathiaseelan instructed that this session was not to ask questions, or to analyse and criticise other organisations, but just to provide information.

The BTF representative, Sivarasa, said that the aim of the meeting is to unite all the Tamil groups to defeat the Sri Lankan government. He then introduced each speaker – the order of which was decided randomly.

Sutha outlined the history of the BTF, the role it plays and the work it has carried out. He highlighted a leaflet outlining the 10 years of BTF activity. He explained that, since 2009, BTF has been organising the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG–T). He said that BTF does not represent any one political party, and that such a stand would be an obstacle for them to work with all parliamentary representatives to lobby or advocate for the Tamil people’s struggle.

Sutha said that BTF uses the United Nations as a tool to internationalise the Tamil struggle, and that this is only one of their methods. He claimed that the BTF had been decisive in changing the UN’s 2009 position.  He also mentioned the role BTF played in the formation of the TGTE. He concluded by saying that BTF is always willing to work with other organisations and had worked with Tamil Solidarity on trade union work previously.

The TNA representative agreed on the points Sutha made, mentioning again that the BTF lobby of the UN was effective. They agreed with the aim of the meeting: that we could work together on some projects.

Isai and Nadesan spoke on behalf of Tamil Solidarity. Nadesan pointed out that there is no disagreement among us on some of the main aims of each organisation, but it is the strategy and actions that are different. These organisations will exist as long as there is a purpose for them and for whom they represent. It is therefore impossible for only one organisation to exist among the Tamil community. Differences between organisations mean that constructive criticism of their politics is unavoidable. We therefore need to debate and discuss these issues democratically.

Isai outlined Tamil Solidarity activities and its political stand on different issues. She said that Tamil Solidarity is always willing and ready to work with other organisations. However, this should be done on the basis of fighting for the rights of all oppressed people. We prioritise the masses and always orientate towards them. We work very closely with other oppressed communities and have built links with the workers’ trade union movement in UK. It is with these ideas that, although a small campaign with limited resources, Tamil Solidarity has been able to have a bigger impact – for example, in moving a resolution in the European parliament against the GSP+, to register our opposition to it.

There were also several charity organisations, such as Ray of Hope and the Siva Foundation. They commented on the short-term needs of those living in Sri Lanka: for adequate care, food, shelter, healthcare and education for those affected by the ongoing situation. They made the points that the help being provided is not enough and that more funding is required, for which we all have to work together.

The TNA-UK representative Tony Francis indicated that all these differences between organisations are irrelevant and that we only have one common enemy; that we should all come together to support those who are trying to change the constitution and law for our benefit. Other TNA representatives agreed on this.

Charles Antony spoke next. He praised the role Tamil Solidarity played and encouraged it to take more of a leading role in the struggle. He mentioned the Tamils’ long history of struggle, the opportunities missed by the left and the betrayals, and said that such issues need to be discussed. He said that a committee should be formed to do this.

Charles also said that, at the present time, some organisations are disappearing due to a lack of political understanding. In addition, he pointed out that the policies of current Tamil leaders, such as their thinking that Tamils can win their rights by appealing to MPs and parliaments, are actually demobilising people. At the same time, he said that there are other new, progressive groups coming to the fore in the east of Sri Lanka and that we should aim to work with them.

Varatha Kumar, from TIC, agreed with some of the points raised by Tamil Solidarity. He also said that the worldwide refugee crisis is destructive and that organisations should do more to raise awareness and help the refugees.

Sivarasa concluded the meeting by declaring that it is essential that we all come together to form a committee to represent the Tamil community. Both the TNA and Tamils for Conservatives agreed to the proposal instantly. It is to be noted that the Tamils for Conservatives representative is also a leading organiser for the BTF.

Tamil Solidarity argued that such a committee is premature at this stage. It would not genuinely represent the Tamil community, especially as the other political organisations were not present. We also asked: unity on what demands and on what policies?

The BTF maintained that such a committee is a must and that it had to be set up there and then. Tamil Solidarity strongly disagreed, explaining that, as a democratically organised campaign, we could not take such an important decision without first consulting with our members. The proposal was then pushed back to give time for all those present to consult their members.


Part 2

Tamil Solidarity has never shied away from any discussion or public debate. They are vital to clear the disagreements between us and to build a strong fight-back for Tamil-speaking people.

Tamil Solidarity continuously campaigns to build the struggle for our rights by linking up with our real allies. We pay particular attention to making a new generation politically active, developing political understanding, and mobilising people, to give them the confidence to fight for their rights. We do agree that a common programme is vital to unite the struggle. However, this does not mean that we unite together just for the sake of ‘unity’.

Different organisations will continue to exist, representing the various views that are present in society. As we know, the oppressors and oppressed cannot unite together. Working class and poor people’s interests are dramatically opposed to those of the fat-cat 1%. Similarly, Tamil organisations that have different political views cannot artificially forge unity. Rather, any unity has to be based on agreement on fundamental principles.

For example, BTF mentioned in the meeting that it does not represent any British political party or their policies. Yet, most of its leading organisers are Conservative Party (Tory) members. This is not a coincidence. Most BTF meetings are attended by either a Tory Party or right-wing Labour Party figure. Neither Jeremy Corbyn nor John McDonnell – both, in contrast, from Labour’s left wing – have attended their meetings. The BTF does not invite campaigners or groups who are involved in struggles that are taking place in society – such as campaigns against university tuition fees, NHS cutbacks, etc.

The current Labour Party is really two parties in one: the right wing represents establishment interests while the left wing is on the side of workers and poor people. BTF leaders constantly try to promote right-wing politicians and this can only serve to strengthen that wing’s politics within the Tamil community. That obviously has a negative impact upon large sections of the Tamil community, which includes poor workers, the unemployed and refugees looking for an organisation that stands up for them.

Tamil Solidarity works very closely with the workers’ movement in UK. We ally ourselves with the trade unions, which organise six million working people. Anyone claiming to stand for working-class communities should support this important work.

At the same time as campaigning for the right of self-determination of the Tamils in Sri Lanka, we also participate in campaigns alongside those demanding good quality education, healthcare, housing, jobs and pay in UK. We join with trade unionists and other activists pushing back against harsh government and council austerity cutbacks which hit the poorest the hardest.

In contrast to what the BTF thinks, right-wing and left-wing politics cannot come together. We have to choose. Either we stand firm with the struggling masses or we take the side of the 1% and the establishment institutions.

Clearly, this level of political disagreement exists between the key Tamil organisations. This means that there is a need for more open debate and discussion. It also means that forming a committee at this stage would be an abstract action and would not help towards taking our struggle forward.

There needs to be agreement, at the very least around a set of general demands, for any committee to function. The absence of such an agreement was further shown by the number of other Tamil organisations who were not present at the meeting on 7 July.

Although Tamil Solidarity is a small organisation with limited resources, we take part in all meetings, debates and discussions. We will continue to do so. In our view, this debate should be conducted openly and publicly, to include the whole of the Tamil community (young, old, women, men). That would be the best means of working out the way forward for our movement.

It cannot be done from the top down. Organisations cannot work in isolation. We must always orientate our work towards involving as many people as possible. This is the approach and democratic nature of the Tamil Solidarity campaign.