‘We believe in David Cameron. He is God!’ PM mobbed by crowds on visit to Sri Lanka - but can he help?

Carry on in Colombo: Tamils have high expectations from the Prime Minister

Colombo

Sutharshan Uthayaswriyan has walked past the same scruffy acacia tree to get water for his family for the past 23 years. He came to this “welfare village”, to use its euphemistic Sri Lankan government label, when he was seven, after his home was taken over by state forces in 1990. There is no prospect of moving back home for the foreseeable future.

The “village” of Kannaki is effectively part of a refugee camp, a tangle of bamboo and corrugated-iron homes in Vali North on the outskirts of Jaffna, the Tamil capital. But the difference with this camp is that the several hundred people who live here seem to have been forgotten by the outside world, by governments and aid agencies.

Despite the “welfare village” name, these displaced Tamils of northern Sri Lanka receive no state handouts or government help, so instead Mr Uthayaswriyan, now the deputy leader of the village council, and his people have to scratch a living from labouring or other manual work.

The sanitation blocks, which provide one toilet cubicle for every 40 people and where families queue for two-and-a-half hours for clean water every morning, carry blue and white “Unicef 2007” logos, but the UN has not had a presence here since 2009. It is no wonder that Mr Uthayaswriyan saw David Cameron’s visit, the first by a world leader to the camp, as divine intervention. He said: “We believe in David Cameron – he is God, coming to this area. We believe he can make a difference. He is God, and sent by God to us.”

After being ignored for so long, refugees in their own country, Mr Uthayaswriyan and his fellow Tamils have high expectations from the Prime Minister. Mr Cameron has spent the past week in the run-up to Sri Lanka’s hosting of the Commonwealth summit declaring how he is the first head of government to visit the north of Sri Lanka since independence in 1948. There have been promises of “shining a light” on the treatment of the Tamil minority by the Sri Lankan government, secret police and army, of confronting President Mahinda Rajapaksa over allegations of war crimes in the civil war’s final offensive in 2009. When Mr Uthayaswriyan said Mr Cameron had been sent by God, he seemed serious: his people believe the Prime Minister can deliver them back their land.

Mr Cameron was mobbed by villagers when he arrived in his convoy, accompanied by British journalists and, it seemed, several Sri Lankan government agents dressed as poor refugees but who carried iPhones, filming whoever the PM spoke to. One woman who has lived here since she was a child told Mr Cameron she wanted nothing more than to go to her own home. The villagers – perhaps fearing reprisals if they speak  out – do not criticise President Rajapaksa or his government; they just want their land back.

But some Tamils are bolder. At the offices of the Uthayan newspaper, a Tamil-language daily in central Jaffna, the editor and its staff have faced repeated intimidation and violence. Six journalists have been killed since 2001 and another is missing. They are clear that government-backed forces are behind it. Even though more than four years have passed since the end of the civil war, the violence has continued: at 4am on 13 April this year, masked men on motorbikes smashed their way into a room where that day’s newspaper was still rolling off the presses. Bullets were fired, but the seven staff present escaped unharmed. The press was set alight, and today remains out of action. The newspaper uses other facilities but they are slower. Despite this chief editor M V Kaanamylnathan and his team still get the news out, delivering many of their 36,000 daily copies by motorbike. President Rajapaksa’s government expressed irritation in advance at Mr Cameron’s planned trip to the north, but it was his visit to the newspaper that officials were the most resistant to. After an assassination attempt, Mr Kaanamylnathan has lived in the building for six years, only venturing out for medical treatment. The editor showed the Prime Minister graphic poster-sized pictures of the corpses of the six murdered journalists. Bastian George Sahayathas, the newspaper’s marketing manager, was shot at his desk on 2 May 2006.

“Britain has the responsibility to change things and I think it can do that,” said news editor Albert Thevarajan.  Tharumangan Tinesh, a 36-year-old reporter sitting under the posters of his dead colleagues, added: “Our families are a bit scared to send us to work, but we like this field and we are working for the truth. We hope that after Mr Cameron’s visit there will be less harassment.”

Earlier, following talks with the chief minister of the northern province at Jaffna’s library, which was torched by a mob in 1981, Mr Cameron was confronted by up to 200 mainly female Tamil demonstrators brandishing photographs of their missing relatives. The women were thrown aside by Sri Lankan police officers.

Mr Cameron said: “There are some images that are incredibly powerful. Going to the headquarters of a Tamil newspaper here in northern Sri Lanka and seeing pictures of journalists shot and killed on the walls, and hearing stories of journalists who have disappeared long after the war has ended – that will stay with me.

“The fact about this country is that there is a chance of success because the war is over, the terrorism has finished, the fighting is done. Now what’s needed is generosity and magnanimity from the Sri Lankan government to bring the country together.”

The Prime Minister, his officials and British journalists travelled back to Colombo on a small charter aircraft operated by a commercial arm of the Sri Lankan air force. State officials – this time in uniform – sat among the journalists in the cabin. Mr Cameron was running a few minutes late for a face-to-face meeting with President Rajapaksa before both leaders were due to sit down with fellow Commonwealth leaders and Prince Charles for the summit dinner. In the hour-long meeting, Mr Cameron pushed his points “very directly and robustly” on an independent inquiry into war crimes, and on religious and media freedoms.

The Prime Minister, who was accused of treating Sri Lanka like a colony by one Sri Lankan minister this week, quoted Churchill at the President – “in victory, magnanimity” – stressing that Mr Rajapaksa can transform Sri Lanka if he does more on reconciliation with the Tamils. The conversation was “lively” – diplomatic language for a row – and the President reminded Mr Cameron that the Sinhalese faced terror from the Tamil Tigers.

There was a sign of acknowledgement from the President, according to British sources present; Mr Rajapaksa said that, with time, he can deliver progress. Yet, crucially, Mr Cameron came away with no firm commitments. The Prime Minister succeeded in shining a light on the north of Sri Lanka, and now intense international pressure is on Mr Rajapaksa. Mr Cameron will continue to raise the plight of the Tamils at international summits. But, for now, Mr Uthayaswriyan’s hopes of divine intervention appear dimmed.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
fashionHealth concerns and 'pornified' perceptions have made women more conscious at the beach
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Sport
Ojo Onaolapo celebrates winning the bronze medal
commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
Rock band Led Zeppelin in the early 1970s
musicLed Zeppelin to release alternative Stairway To Heaven after 43 years
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmHe was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
Sport
Van Gaal said that his challenge in taking over Bobby Robson's Barcelona team in 1993 has been easier than the task of resurrecting the current United side
footballA colourful discussion on tactics, the merits of the English footballer and rebuilding Manchester United
Life and Style
Sainsbury's could roll the lorries out across its whole fleet if they are successful
tech
Travel
The shipping news: a typical Snoozebox construction
travelSpending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Arts and Entertainment
Smart mover: Peter Bazalgette
filmHow live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences
Environment
Neil Young performing at Hyde Park, London, earlier this month
environment
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Project Coordinator

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: The Organisation: The Green Recrui...

Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

£350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

Embedded Linux Engineer

£40000 - £50000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Embedded Sof...

Senior Hardware Design Engineer - Broadcast

£50000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Working for a m...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz