Sri Lanka: Deliver on promises first, and then welcome refugees back

February 24, 2017
Lionel Bopage.

Visiting Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has urged Sri Lankans held in immigration detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru to come home. “Come back. All is forgiven,” he said in Canberra on February 15 after talks with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Even though they had broken the law in trying to flee to Australia he insisted they would not face prosecution if they returned.

“They left Sri Lanka illegally. They are welcome to return to Sri Lanka and we won’t prosecute them, so they can come back to Sri Lanka, and we will have them, but remember, they broke the law in coming to Australia, attempting to come to Australia.”

Tamils from Sri Lanka, along with Iranians and Afghans, are the largest national groups among more than 2000 asylum seekers held in immigration detention on Nauru and Manus Island.

Sri Lankan commentator Lionel Bopage released this response to Wickremesinghe.

* * *

The current Prime-minister of Sri Lanka Ranil Wickremsinghe’s comments on refugees fly in the face of the facts.

Despite the relaxation of the social and political environment under the new regime led by President Maithripala Sirisena and the Prime Minister, the repressive machinery and logistical approach of the governance system towards its political critics and opponents have not changed.

This is evident from a number of incidents that have taken place in Sri Lanka recently, giving the impression that the current regime may have started resorting to old repressive strategies and tactics. For example, the killing of two university students in Jaffna; continuing police torture island-wide; a lax approach to investigations of the criminal activities of the previous regime; continued repression of trade union and student protests; the abduction of the leader of the telecommunication trade union; and the creeping closure of the democratic space gained after the elections.

There is also evidence of several cases where the returning asylum seekers were arrested and subjected to ill treatment. Voices critical of the current regime are again being reinterpreted as supporting a separatist agenda. The reconciliation agenda of the current Sri Lankan regime and its efforts toward that end are yet to be demonstrated in practice, despite the rhetoric of its representatives at overseas forums such as the United Nations.

By his statement, Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister has concurred with the Australian regime's repression of the asylum seekers and their off-shore detention in Nauru and Manus Island, while Australia' refugee policy is being subjected to intense and severe criticism by the United Nations.

Until the impunity given to perpetrators of human rights abuses is rescinded, the organs of the state are reformed, the mindset of many working for the state who see dissent as unpatriotic is changed and the rule of law becomes paramount, then and only then can the prime minister welcome refugees safely back to the country.

Otherwise the current government will also be seen in the cold light of history like other previous governments — of 1970, 1977 and 1994, among others — who promised much in terms of good governance and reconciliation but in the end made democratic spaces in Sri Lanka even narrower.

While supportive of the current government’s reform and reconciliation agenda, I am at the same time sceptical, given the past history of the United National Party and other members of the coalition, including the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, as reflected in the government’s inability and or hesitance to deliver the reforms promised during the presidential and parliamentary elections, in any concrete manner.

The Prime Minister of Sri Lanka and the government need to deliver their promises first, then welcome back refugees.

[Lionel Bopage was jailed twice and tortured for his role as a leader of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (People's Liberation Front), a mass liberation movement in Sri Lanka in the 1970s and 1980s. He was eventually forced into political exile and now lives in Melbourne, where he continues to be an outspoken defender of the right of national self-determination for the Tamil people. His biography, The Lionel Bopage Story by Michael Colin Cooke, is available from Resistance Books.]

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