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Tamil student calls off Parliament Square hunger strike

[guardian.co.uk, Thursday, 30 April 2009 18:23 No Comment]

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A Tamil who has been on a three-week hunger strike in Parliament Square called off his protest today after the foreign secretary wrote to him explaining the "strenuous efforts" the British government was making to secure a ceasefire in Sri Lanka.

 

Parameswaram Subramaniam, a 28-year-old student, stopped eating on 6 April to draw attention to the plight of the Tamil civilians caught in the fighting between government troops and Tamil Tigers in the north of the island. He is understood to have lost 10 members of his family in the conflict, including his mother and many brothers and sisters.

 

The protester had said he would starve himself to death unless five conditions were met: the declaration of an immediate and permanent ceasefire; the provision of food and medical aid to the civilians caught in the "safe zone" between the two sides; a meeting between the UN, the British government and Tamil representatives; a reversal of the UK’s decision to classify the Tamil Tigers as terrorist group; and a UN-backed referendum on an independent Tamil state in Sri Lanka.

 

While it is not clear whether David Miliband mentioned any of those conditions in the personal letter his representatives delivered to Subramaniam’s tent early this morning, his intervention persuaded the hunger striker to abandon his protest.

 

Just before 12.30pm today, Subramaniam, wearing a suit and striped tie, was wheeled into an ambulance and taken to a London hospital.

 

A spokeswoman for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office said she could not comment on the specific contents of the letter as they were private.

 

But she added: "The letter explains the strenuous efforts that the UK has been undertaking to push for a ceasefire and ease the suffering among the civilians caught up the conflict, not least through the foreign secretary’s visit to Sri Lanka [earlier this week] … [It] also underlines how protests by the Tamil community have helped raise awareness of the situation in Sri Lanka, how further loss of life would only add to the present tragedy, and looks forward to a future political role for the Tamil community in Sri Lanka."

Although Subramaniam left the tent around which hundreds of Tamil demonstrators have gathered every day for the last few weeks, his supporters said he would renew his protest if Miliband failed to deliver on the promise he had apparently made in the letter.

 

"[Subramaniam] said if nothing had happened in two weeks, he would begin the hunger strike again," said one.

 

Virendra Sharma, the Labour MP for Ealing Southall and chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Tamils, described today’s events as "very positive". He said he had visited Subramaniam last night and found him in good spirits and drinking water.

 

"I feel very strongly that this will give the right signal to everyone that the Tamil community is co-operating with the international community and giving it every opportunity to resolve the issue," he said.

 

"The loss of his life would have been a great loss to the world community. We must now put pressure on the Sri Lankan government to have an immediate ceasefire and to let the NGOs and the media move around freely. We must come back around the table to find a peaceful solution."

 

Earlier today, a Sri Lankan newspaper report suggested that Miliband and the Sri Lankan defence secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, had argued over the safety of civilians in the area held by the Tamil Tigers during the British foreign secretary’s visit to the island yesterday.

 

According to the story, Miliband told Rajapaksa that Britain had credible information that civilians were being harmed by the army’s firing. Rajapaksa responded by warning Britain against being "duped" by the Tiger’s "disinformation campaign".

 

When Miliband – who was in Sri Lanka with his French counterpart, Bernard Kouchner, to push for a humanitarian truce in the war with the Tamil rebels – said his claim was based on credible information from sources in the rebel-held no-fire zone, Rajapaksa was "apparently annoyed", according to the report.

 

"The defence secretary said anyone who knew the LTTE [Tamil Tigers] would not believe that any reliable information would emanate from that area under its jackboot," it said.

[Full Coverage]

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