Tavish Scott: Human rights are of secondary concern in Sri Lanka

Tavish Scott MSP. Picture: Jane Barlow
Tavish Scott MSP. Picture: Jane Barlow
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Travelling at 25mph, my feet were four inches from the Colombo tarmac. My tuk tuk flew along as trucks, old Leyland buses and police cars roared past.

In case you did not know, a tuk tuk is a glorified scooter with passengers. Asian cities are rife with them. They are both an entertaining and terrifying way to travel. Foreign Office advice is not to – but I did.

Twenty years ago, I visited Sri Lanka at war. Soldiers and road blocks were common. Tamil Tigers were fighting for independence in a war that would last 30 years. Parents used different buses to the same destination to avoid bombings that could destroy a family.

Peace was intermittent. International negotiations stalled. So Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government decided to end the conflict for good. A full military campaign was waged. The Tamil Tigers were forced into the Jaffna peninsula in the north. The war was brutal.

Atrocities were committed, including women and children used as human shields. This happened as the fight to end Sri Lanka’s civil war reached its conclusion. But end it did. The Tigers’ leader was killed and peace now reigns over this stunningly beautiful island.

Colombo just hosted a conference of Commonwealth parliamentarians, of which I was one. MPs were taken to Jaffna to see reconstruction. A total of 1,300 soldiers are clearing landmines in a painstaking exercise through jungle and swamp – but it will take 30 years to rid Sri Lanka of this deadly inheritance.

President Rajapaksa established a reconciliation commission to investigate the last days of the war with 265 recommendations made, but opposition politicians say many have not been enacted. It is thought that between 9,000 and 30,000 civilians died in the last three months of the war. The US state department has demanded that war criminals are prosecuted.

I asked local people. Their message was simple – live through 30 years of conflict and one’s yearning for peace is absolute. They want democracy with a decent opposition, yet the Rajapaksa regime is credited with ending the war.

But the Chinese have a different view to the West – and are investing heavily on highways, an airport and a huge harbour. The main conference theatre in Colombo is a bird’s nest modelled on Beijing’s Olympic stadium. Russia, India and Iran are also major donors.

Today, the UK does not invest development funds in Sri Lanka but helps with essential mine clearing, yet we still give overseas aid to India. Why? A group of Sri Lankan businessmen explained: British-Indian trade. Trade is politics. The Sri Lankan transport minister has just ordered 3,000 new air-conditioned buses from China to replace old Leyland and Tata coaches.

Why did India’s Tata not win the contract? Because the Indian parliament criticised the lack of action in investigating human rights in Sri Lanka after the war. Politics and trade are always connected. Realpolitik reigns.

• Tavish Scott is Liberal Democrat MSP for Shetland