The appalling suggestion by deputy leader of the opposition Julie Bishop that Sri Lankan asylum seekers should be delivered into the hands of the government of Sri Lanka without even looking at their claims has underlined the importance of the newly-formed WA Network for Human Rights in Tamil Eelam and Sri Lanka.
The group was launched on September 1 in Fremantle at a seminar titled "Human rights under attack in Sri Lanka". Nearly 50 participants heard a presentation by Dr Brian Senewiratne, a veteran campaigner for the rights of Sri Lanka’s Tamils and staunch advocate for the right of Tamil self-determination.
Senewiratne comes from Sri Lanka’s majority Sinhalese community and has multiple family ties with the country's ruling elite — his cousin was a former president — but he is famous for staring down the threats and insults thrown at him by government supporters.
Most Australians remain largely unaware of the reality on the ground in Sri Lanka. Furthermore, the Australian government and much of the media have promoted the implausible idea that the so-called "end of the war" in 2009 has significantly improved human rights in the country.
In fact, the reality remains grim. Sri Lankan website Groundviews said an activist, journalist or government critic was "disappeared" every five days between April 1 and July 9 this year. Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka say “at least 43 journalists and media workers were either killed or disappeared” between 2004 and 2010.
Things are even worse in the Tamil homelands of the north and east where the government forces now have free reign to terrorise the civilian population. Senewiratne said the violence and ethnic cleansing against Tamils meets the legal definition of genocide. Fifty thousand civilians were killed in the last month of the war in 2009 and a further 160,000 people remain unaccounted for.
After the war’s end, up to 300,000 Tamil civilians were herded into concentration camps. Most have now been released, but many don't have homes or livelihoods to return to. The region has been completely militarised and Tamil land has been seized for redistribution to Sinhalese colonists.
It’s no surprise that there has been a surge of refugees fleeing Sri Lanka, some even trying to cross the Indian Ocean to Australia without stopping.
The Sri Lankan Navy has been thanked by the Australian government for "stopping the boats" by opening fire on them.
Refugee Rights Action Network WA activist Phil Chilton told the meeting that the genocidal violence of the Sri Lankan government and the determination of the Labor and Liberal parties to "stop the boats" go hand in hand. He also discussed the business and geopolitical interests behind the Australian government's support for the Rajapaksa regime.
Chairperson of the Australian Tamil Congress, Professor Raj Rajeswaran, said his organisation has given extensive presentations to many federal parliamentarians about the situation.
The meeting discussed a campaign to call for a boycott the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, which will take place in Colombo. Canada is threatening not to attend thanks to the pressure of its big and well-organised Tamil community, but Australian PM Julia Gillard has so far ruled out doing the same.
The military defeat of the Tamil Tigers in 2009 has provoked much discussion within the Tamil diaspora about the way forward for their struggle. Network founders Sam Wainwright and PA Subramaniam say they recognised the desperate need for a campaigning initiative open to Tamils and non-Tamils.
Wainwright stressed that the new group would take up the cause of all exploited and oppressed people in Sri Lanka and Tamil Eelam regardless of their ethnicity; but without compromising on the right of the Tamil people to self-determination. It has put out a draft "Charter for Human Rights in Sri Lanka and Tamil Eelam" for which it is gathering supporters.
[For more information email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the WA Network for Human Rights in Tamil Elam and Sri Lanka on Facebook.]