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'It is time for the Lankan govt to reach out to Tamils'

July 31, 2009 15:28 IST

Canada's conservative Member of Parliament Deepak Obhrai, who's also Parliamentary Secretary to Minister for Foreign Affairs Lawrence Canon, was on an official visit to Lanka from July 5 to July 7 to visit refugee camps and ensure that Canadian aid is reaching the Tamil refugees there.

In a telephonic interview from Phuket, Thailand, where he's currently attending the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Foreign Ministers' Conference, Obhrai tells's Ajit Jain about his visit and the direction of the Sri Lankan government's foreign policy.

What was the main objective of your visit to Sri Lanka?

Canada has contributed heavily towards the rehabilitation of Lankan refugees, so I visited the internally displaced persons'  camps to find out what the government has done so far for the repatriation of these refugees. Most importantly, I also wanted to find out what the government of Sri Lanka is doing to reach out to the local Tamil community for the reconciliation process.

What has been Canada's contribution towards helping the Lankan refugees?

Canada has been engaged with Sri Lanka for a long time. Canon has already announced $7.1 million aid for helping refugees. So, it was important to see what was happening on the ground, whether aid was reaching the refugees or not. 

The Sri Lankan government gave me the permission to visit IDP camps. I also talked to the local authorities -- military and civilians. I informed the Sri Lankan authorities that the Tamil Diaspora (in Canada) would like to contribute towards the resettlement of the refugees and rebuilding of the areas heavily damaged during the conflict. The government welcomed that and assured that they would set up some mechanism to ensure that the process of reconstruction of those areas commences soon.

I also saw the work the Sri Lankan government is doing to help the refugees. I have earlier visited IDP camps in Dar-e-Salam, Kenya and elsewhere and based on my visits to IDP camps, I would say that no matter what you do, it is still a refugee camp. The sooner these people go home the better it is.

What was the response of the Sri Lankan authorities to your suggestion?

They said yes, but at the same time they explained that there are still lots of heavily mined areas, and it was dangerous to allow people to go back unless those areas are de-mined. In fact, an Indian team of experts with de-mining equipment will visit Sri Lanka to help the government. 

Did you meet the foreign minister of Sri Lanka?

Yes, I had lengthy discussions with Foreign Minister Roitha Bogollama and also Foreign Secretary Dr Palitha Kohona. 

I met Minister for Rehabilitation Rishard Badurdeen, who had himself been displaced by the LTTE and has lived in an IDP camp. He also discussed the rehabilitation and repatriation process.

During my meeting with Bogollama, we discussed the important issue of how the government of Sri Lanka would now reach out to the Tamil community for the reconciliation process. He pointed out that till now, there was a war going on and they were preoccupied with the war. 

Now that the war has ended, the Lankan government can work for the peace process. In many areas, where the government was not able to do anything, it is time for them to reach out to Tamils. The foreign minister assured me that they would do that.

Are there any concrete signs that the Sri Lankan government is in fact moving in that direction?

They have made a statement and we will see how that process moves forward. I was informed by the Sri Lankan foreign minister that they have had meetings with the Tamil Diaspora as well, including people from Canada.

Did you meet any Tamil Canadians while you were in Sri Lanka?

I am going to be very candid with you. The issue is not with Canadian Tamils. The issue is with Tamils in Sri Lanka. The ultimate political solution has to come in consultation with the Tamils in Sri Lanka and not Tamils in Canada. While I appreciate the concerns of Tamils living in Canada and their willingness to contribute towards rebuilding of Tamil areas, I do not personally believe that Sri Lankans who live outside the country are the ones who will be instrumental in the direct political settlement in Sri Lanka. 

Did you meet people from the Tamil community at the IDP camps?

I would say that they are people who are just caught in the fighting.  It is most important that these people go home.  I also visited a hospital that is being run by Indians and  talked to the doctors there. 

The Canadian government is in favour of the Sri Lankan government allowing the IDPs to repatriate as soon as possible.

Yes, I have suggested that these people should be allowed to leave the IDP camps, allowed to go home.  Of course, those areas are heavily mined.  I did indicate to  the Sri Lankan authorities that there's a desire on the part of Sri Lankans in Canada to be more active, but I would clearly state that they cannot be involved in the political process.

But the Canadian foreign affairs minister has repeatedly made statements in support of the human rights of the Tamil people. Also, representatives of the foreign media have not been allowed inside Sri Lanka?

We discussed the reconciliation process and the Lankan politicians said that the process is going to move forward. The protection of all citizens is the responsibility of all citizens here as well, and that includes Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese.
I must make it clear we have to engage with the government of Sri Lanka. We have historical ties with the Sri Lankan government. 

Ajit Jain