Report on Northern Conference of Tamil Solidarity-Hugh Caffrey

The Northern Conference of Tamil Solidarity took place in Manchester on Saturday 6th February with a dozen members of the Tamil speaking community in attendance, including two from Blackpool. Senan of Tamil Solidarity in London introduced the discussion on the Presidential elections and their aftermath.

The vote in the mostly Tamil speaking North and East of the island had collapsed; tens of thousands of Tamils were in camps or otherwise displaced, and the government’s promise of a fleet of buses to take them to the polls never materialised, although 500 buses were provided to take the President Rajapaksa’s supporters for meeting. In addition the Tamil elite grouped around the TNA had recommended a vote for General Fonseca, the very commander who had butchered the Tamil Tigers and thousands of civilians! These self-proclaimed tribunes of the Tamil people in reality only represent themselves. Their agenda, just as it is for the Sinhala ruling class, is to promote international investment, especially from China and India, who are seeking to develop ‘economic zones’ with virtual slave labour taken from the ‘special’ camps still in existence. There is continued military presence in large parts of the country; human rights campaigners and journalists regularly disappear, with impunity for the para-militaries and senior politicians who are responsible for their deaths. The 8000 votes garnered by the candidate of the United Socialist Party, Siritunga Jaysuriya, who receives death threats daily for his consistent stand against oppression, for human rights and socialism, need to be seen against this background.

A wide-ranging discussion followed covering the role of the media, the fight against racism, the position of Tamils in exile (UK, Canada, Norway etc), where recent elections continue to show a huge demand for the right to self-determination, and the struggle to build independent trade unions in Sri Lanka. Senan stressed the potential power of the trade unions.

There was also a discussion on the tactic of boycotting Sri Lankan goods (e.g. garments imported by Marks and Spencer) to put the Sri Lankan government under pressure. However, this risks alienating Tamil and Sinhala workers who could lose jobs as a result, and there was strong support for the trade union demand that UK companies ensure all their suppliers pay trade union rates, observe health and safety requirements etc.

Christian Bunke, speaking as a committee member of Manchester NUJ who are affiliated to the campaign and sponsored the conference, stressed the importance of links between UK unions and their equivalents in Sri Lanka. The occupational hazards of working as a journalist in Sri Lanka were well-known to his members.

We have much work to do. We have already won affiliation from Manchester NUJ and Salford Trades Council. We will be speaking soon at Manchester Trades Council and we hope that will bring more invitations, and we are targeting other branches. A committee has been elected with reserved places for trade unions who affiliate.

The collection raised over £90. We ended with a short protest outside the conference in Piccadilly Gardens, with Tamil Solidarity members clambering onto the statue of Queen Victoria to symbolise our ultimate victory over imperialism!