By Sue Bull
CANBERRA — Tamil activists and supporters from around the world attended the Peace with Justice Conference in Canberra on June 27-28 to discuss solutions to the war in Sri Lanka and the Tamil people's struggle for self-determination. International guests from Malaysia, India, Britain, United States, Sweden, South Africa, New Zealand and Sri Lanka were among the 200 people who attended.
The conference heard that the war in Sri Lanka continues unabated. The situation turned for the worse when the Sri Lankan government launched military offensives, invading and now occupying Jaffna, which is the Tamils' historical city and spiritual home. More than 400,000 people, originally displaced refugees, now live under occupation on the Jaffna peninsula. Restricted access, even for aid workers, and news censorship continues in these areas.
The conference began controversially when Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade officials told the media that they would not attend because the agenda was "biased against the Sri Lankan government". On the second day, a group of Sinhalese government supporters from Melbourne picketed the conference.
By contrast, South African President Nelson Mandela sent a solidarity message. A delegation of five South Africans attended the conference, including Pravin J. Gordhan, a member of parliament and the African National Congress, who spoke about the South African experience of a negotiated settlement.
The conference was able to attract Sri Lankans from all religious and ethnic groups who support the Tamil struggle for self-determination. This included Peer Mohamed, a Malaysian Muslim Tamil activist who argued that while Sri Lanka's Muslims are only 7% of the population, most of them are ethnically Tamil and yet they have often sat on the fence politically. Mohamed said that they too have suffered fierce government repression and that they should unite with other Tamils.
The Reverend S.J. Emmanuel from the Tamil Catholic community gave a moving description of the flight of civilians from Jaffna during the December invasion by government forces. He called on neutral governments to help negotiate a just peace.
The conference was also very receptive to Sunil Ratnapriya from the Nava Sama Samaja Party (New Socialist Party) in Sri Lanka. The NSSP mainly operates in the south and has a largely Sinhalese membership. Since 1975, it has supported the Tamil struggle for self-determination.
Ratnapriya argued that the government has totally alienated the Tamil-speaking communities, and its plans to privatise government assets and step up the war against the Tamils have antagonised many other workers. For example, in a recent electrical strike, some 14,000 workers mobilised against privatisation.
Ratnapriya said that there is growing sentiment among the Sinhalese population that the war is pointless and more of the progressive groups and parties, such as some trade unions and the People's Liberation Front (JVP), have begun to support Tamil self-determination.
Justice Marcus Einfield, in calling for mediated peace talks, criticised the international community for ignoring the Sri Lankan government's denial of human rights.
One of the final speakers, Lawrence Thilakar, a member of the Central Committee of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), noted that his organisation has been calling for peace talks, without the withdrawal of government troops as a precondition, for some time. However, the Sri Lankan government hasn't taken these calls seriously. Not one cabinet minister was assigned to the last series of talks before they collapsed in April 1995.