Tamils protest in Geneva to demand a UN investigation into Sri Lankan war crimes. Photo via Tamilnet.
Aran Mylvaganam is a Tamil refugee who fled Sri Lanka as a child. He now lives in Melbourne, where he is active in the Tamil community and the campaign for refugee rights. Green left Weekly's Chris Slee spoke to him about the struggle of the Tamil people for self-determination and Australia's complicity in Sri Lanka's crimes against Tamils.
What is the situation of Tamils in Sri Lanka today?
Tamils live under military occupation. There is one army member for every four Tamils. In some villages the army presence is even heavier – one soldier for every three Tamils.
People are living in fear. There are many reported cases of Tamil women being sexually assaulted.
There is a “Sinhalisation” of Tamil areas. [Settlers from the Sinhala ethnic majority are taking land in the island's predominantly Tamil north and east.] Buddhist temples have been built in every part of the Tamil areas [to cater for the Sinhalese settlers, who are mainly Buddhists].
Tamil fishers have been banned from some areas, while Sinhalese fishers have been brought to the north to fish in areas where Tamils are supposed to be fishing.
The military is intervening in the day to day life of Tamil areas – taking part in many school events, running hotels, controlling the tourism industry and other businesses.
Life is very bad for Tamils, six years after the so-called end of the war. The message coming from the government is that they intend to continue their genocidal agenda.
The presidential election was held in January. Mahinda Rajapaksa was replaced by Maithripala Sirisena. Has this made any difference?
The key people behind the new regime are the new president Sirisena, [his prime minister] Ranil Wickremasinghe, Chandrika Kumaratunga Bandaranaike; and Sarath Fonseka.
Sirisena was part of Rajapaksa’s cabinet for many years. He was the acting defence minister in 2009 when [the regime's mass] killings were taking place. According to the United Nations, more than 70,000 Tamils were murdered by the Sri Lankan military in the final days of the war, under his watch.
Fonseka was the general in charge of the war. He was head of the army. Wickremasinghe is prime minister, and he has been prime minister previously.
Wickremasinghe held ceasefire talks [starting in 2002 with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who carried out a decades-long armed struggle for an independent Tamil state]. But he betrayed the Tamils during the peace talks. While he was prime minister, there were many attacks leading to many deaths of Tamil civilians.
Bandaranaike was in power in the 1990s. She was responsible for many atrocities. Thousands of Tamils were killed and more than 500,000 uprooted from their homes. The military sent helicopters to Tamil areas that dropped leaflets telling people to take refuge in churches and schools - then bombed those churches and schools. It was like the 2009 bombing of “no fire zones” under Rajapaksa.
Under her watch, my school was bombed. My brother and other students were killed.
The genocidal agenda continues under the new regime. There is a silent war against the Tamil people. There are many cases of sexual assault against young Tamil girls. Widows are being sexually harassed by military men. There are many cases of Tamil lands being taken by the military.
For Tamils, it makes no difference whether Rajapaksa or Sirisena is president. The genocidal agenda has been there for over 60 years. It continues under the Sirisena regime.
It is not the individual who happens to be president that is the problem. It is the whole structure. It is the military. It is the ideology of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism that is driving the genocidal agenda.
Parliamentary elections were be held on August 17. Do you think these elections will make any difference?
The Sinhalese parties competed to deny rights to Tamils. Whether [Wickremasinghe's] United National Party or [Sirisena's] Sri Lanka Freedom Party won, they would do nothing for the Tamil people. [The UNP won 106 seats while the SLPF's alliance won 95.]
Two Tamil parties [contested the elections in the predominantly Tamil areas of the north and east of the island of Sri Lanka]. They are debating over who will win freedom for the Tamils.
The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has had a lot of support since they were endorsed by the LTTE in the early 2000s, but they have [recently] been appeasing Western countries and India.
The Tamil National Peoples Front (TNPF), led by Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam, calls for recognition of the existence of two nations, Tamil and Sinhalese, which would be united in a federal arrangement.
This is the maximum they can legally demand, as the Sri Lankan constitution does not allow anyone to call for the division of Sri Lanka and the restoration of the Tamil homeland as a separate state.
The TNPF ran some interesting candidates. For example, Kogilavani, who is running for election in Kilinochi, was an orphan. She was brought up in the Sencholai orphanage run by the LTTE and later became head of the orphanage. [The TNA won 16, while the TNPF won 5% of the vote in the Jaffa district in the north, but didn't win any seats.]
There are many other good candidates who came forward to be a voice for their people.
The United Nations Human Rights Council will be discussing Sri Lanka in September. What will happen there?
According to a leaked document obtained by [British TV station] Channel 4, the UN is likely to endorse a report that, while it may come up with strong findings about what happened in the final days of the war, will endorse a domestic [Sri Lankan] investigation.
This means that justice will be denied to Tamils. It means asking murderers to investigate their own crimes.
Many witnesses will not come forward to tell their stories to a domestic investigation. This includes many Tamil refugees I have spoken to in Australia, in my role with the Tamil Refugee Council. They fear that if they give testimony in Sri Lanka, when they walk out the door Sri Lankan intelligence will make them disappear, or at least harass their family members.
If the UN endorses a domestic investigation it will be betraying the Tamil victims.
What would you like the United Nations to do?
We want an international investigation. Only an international investigation will allow the perpetrators to be brought to justice. They should be tried in the International Criminal Court.
Only an international investigation will ensure that all those who committed war crimes and crimes against humanity are held accountable for what they did.
The Australian government says Sri Lanka is a democracy, that it is now safe for Tamils and therefore it can send asylum seekers back. What is your opinion of Australia’s role?
In the past six years, the Australian government has been responsible for the murder of many Tamil refugees by the Sri Lankan army on their return. More than 2000 Tamils were sent back to Sri Lanka under the Julia Gillard government.
More than 40 Tamils who were recognised as refugees were given negative security assessments [and detained indefinitely].
Tamils were the first people subject to “enhanced screening” – given 15 minutes to tell their story and sent back if they could not convince the authorities. Australia did this despite evidence from human rights groups about what was happening in Sri Lanka under the Rajapaksa regime.
The Australian Federal Police are also providing support to the Sri Lankan military and Sri Lankan intelligence.
Australia has been defending the Sri Lankan government in international platforms such as the UN Human Rights Council. Australia is complicit in genocide.