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British Premier's historic Jaffna visit raises Tamil hopes

Last updated 00:49 GMT 16 Nov 2013

Cameron meets Uthayan journalists in Jaffna

British Prime Minister David Cameron made a historic visit to Jaffna on Friday, during which he met with journalists and staff at the Uthayan newspaper, displaced people at a refugee camp and Tamil political leaders.

Mr. Cameron pointedly left the much vaunted Commonwealth summit just after it was officially launched to travel to Jaffna, having arrived in Colombo the previous night from his visit to India.

He is the first foreign leader since 1948 to visit Jaffna, once Sri Lanka’s second wealthiest city after Colombo, before decades of armed conflict and discriminatory state policies. Jaffna has been under government control since 1995.

The symbolic move boosted Tamil morale in a city gripped by an all pervasive military presence which prevents many from resettling in their army-occupied homes and terrorises political, civil society and media activity.

It also infuriated the Sri Lankan government, particularly his planned visit to the Uthayan, press reports said.

Mr. Cameron flew to Jaffna by military plane, after the Sri Lankan government cancelled all flights to the north earlier this week, to be confronted by what he later described as "incredibly powerful" images.

The first of these came at the outset of his visit, when Mr. Cameron's vehicle and those of accompanying British journalists were mobbed by relatives of people ‘disappeared’ by Sri Lankan security forces in Jaffna, desperate to seek his help in locating the missing.

Mr. Cameron had been meet in the library with Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran, accompanied by Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leader R. Sampanthan and TNA parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran.

Police struggled to hold back hundreds of people waiting for the Premier to arrive, and as his convoy left the library, they broke through the cordon to thrust pictures of their loved ones against vehicle windows,  Britain’s ITV reported. Others pressed photographs and petitions into the hands of the foreign journalists.

See below a video of the chaotic scenes taken by The Telegraph journalists from inside their vehicle.

Saro Sripavan, mother of three, told The Hindu she has been looking for her husband for seven years now.

“He was working as manager in a cooperative society and went missing in 2006. Till date, I have no information about him,” she said, looking at his photograph.

“Every time someone important comes to Jaffna, we all assemble and try to highlight our concern, but ultimately I know only I have to look for my father,” said her son Sripavan Daneesh, who works as a sales executive.

Speaking to Tamil Guardian later in the evening, Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam of the Tamil National Peoples Front (TNPF), reflected on what he had seen at the protest through out the day.

"They [relatives of the disappeared] have lost it all and have nothing else left to lose,"  said Mr. Ponnambalam, "but they still hope, because that is all that they can do and that is what drew them out in such numbers, despite the security forces."

He explained, "the agony and pain that the parents, children and relatives of the disappeared and those surrendered does not end here. What we saw today was a transcendental agony which forms part of their daily existence."

Describing the moment when hundreds of protesters rushed forwards and broke through the police blockade, Mr Ponnambalam said, "even the security forces could not contain their pain."

"Despite so many broken promises by the world and its leaders, these people still come for these protests hoping that one day they will be able to hear about their loved ones whether dead or alive."

Mr. Cameron was also confronted by a state-sponsored demonstration condemning international pressure over Sri Lanka’s war crimes. (See the BBC Political Editor Nick Robinson’s revealing report here).

Cameron inspects bullet holes in Uthayan printing press

Mr. Cameron went on to visit the offices of the Uthayan newspaper, which has been repeatedly attacked by army-backed paramilitaries, and to meet displaced Tamils in a refugee camp, where around 150 families have lived in makeshift accommodation since being displaced 23 years ago.

The residents of the camp at at Chunnaakam, about 10 km from Jaffna town,  were desperate to tell him of the pain they endured during the conflict and ongoing hardships.

See reports by AFP and The Hindu

TNA parliamentarian Sumanthiran helped with translation.  

"The stories I am hearing from the people here are often harrowing," Mr. Cameron tweeted afterwards.

"And also the image, in this camp, of talking to a young woman who came here when she was very young - a child in this camp - and wants nothing more than to go to her own home."

"We are pinning our hopes on him," T. Padmavathy told AFP after the Premier inspected her tiny home, which has no toilet and no running water. She reflected the views of many others, The Hindu said.

“He [Mr. Cameron] will take us back to our home near Kankesanthurai,” said Rasaiah Rasati, 65, who seemed to be brimming with confidence after speaking to the British Prime Minister.

“It has been 23 years since I left my home [due to the war]. Today, they [the army] does not let us anywhere close to our own home,” said Ms. Rasati.

Walking towards another home, Mr. Cameron asked Mr. Sumanthiran: “So basically, the army has taken over their land. They can’t go to court since the courts here won’t render straight justice, right?”

With Mr. Sumanthiran nodding, he said: “This is where we have to apply pressure.”

Photograph: Facebook - David Cameron


At the Uthayan newspaper’s offices, Mr. Cameron met with journalists and staff and saw the printing presses destroyed by arsonists as well as the bullet pockmarked walls.

The Hindu quoted him as telling Uthayan's staff:

 “This is going to make a very lasting impression on me. That is something you don’t forget.

But it’s only when you see it with your own eyes, it really brings home just how much you’re suffering.

M.V. Kaanamylnathan, the paper's editor, told Cameron,

"Everyone is pretending that everything is okay, that Tamils have equal rights but it's not true.... This needs to be told to the international world."

Mr. Cameron later tweeted:


Mr. Cameron also held talks with the newly elected Chief Minister of the Northern Provincial Council, C.V. Wigneswaran and a Tamil National Alliance (TNA) delegation inside Jaffna library whilst the protests by relatives of the disappeared - and the 'rival' state-sponsored demonstration - were happening outside.

David Cameron with the TNA's CV Wigneswaran, the Chief Minister of the Northern Provincial Council. Photograph: Twitter @David_Cameron

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