Sri Lanka: Australian complicity in genocide

November 14, 2009

National Party leader Senator Barnaby Joyce has sought political capital by promoting an even harder line than the Rudd government on Tamil refugees. "Send the Oceanic Viking to Colombo and you will have made a strong statement", Joyce told the Nine Network on November 8 about the 78 Tamil people refusing to leave the Australian custom ship to be imprisoned in Indonesia's Tanjung Pinang Detention Centre.

"If we are going to have people in detention from Sri Lanka, then how about we have them in detention in Sri Lanka."

Joyce ignored the fact that there are already 250,000 Tamils in detention in Sri Lanka — in concentration camps where they are subjected to arbitrary killings and disappearances, rape, torture, malnutrition, disease and inadequate shelter.

It is these human rights abuses that are causing Tamils to flee. The November 9 Sydney Morning Heraldsaid most Tamil refugees are going to India. Some estimated the numbers of Tamils arriving in India this year at 3700 already, despite India's heavy navy patrols that seek to keep the desperate asylum seekers out.

Foreign minister Stephen Smith rejected Joyce's advice. But he did use a one-day visit to Sri Lanka on November 9 to sign an agreement with the Sri Lankan regime to "address the problem at its source".

Smith wasn't talking about the concentration camps or the entrenched oppression of Tamil people by the Sri Lankan state, but about tackling the problem of "people smugglers".

"People smugglers" help facilitate the passage of those, like many Tamils in Sri Lanka, who are desperate to seek asylum elsewhere.

Ironically, while the government and media portray those facilitating passage for Tamils seeking to leave Sri Lanka as terrible criminals, the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall has been accompanied by the celebration of "people smugglers" from a different time and place.

It seems "people smuggling" is justified if you oppose the regime desperate people seek to flee, but a great crime if you side with that regime — as the Rudd government has done with Sri Lanka.

In fact, the agreement Smith signed with the Sri Lankan government actually commits Australia to assisting the persecution of Tamils.

The agreement encourages the Sri Lankan regime to use draconian measures to prevent Tamils from leaving the island.

Smith told a press conference in Colombo with his Sri Lankan counterpart, Rohitha Bogollagama: "We face a heightened challenge from the criminal syndicates behind people-smuggling and we need to up our efforts to combat that, and that's what our agreement is about today.

"Australia and Sri Lanka have in the past cooperated very well over people smuggling matters, including cooperation at the police, customs and naval level but I believe we can do even more together."

The background to the situation is the systematic discrimination suffered by the Tamil people in Sri Lanka. Since independence in 1948, the Sri Lankan state has been dominated by the majority Sinhala ethnic group.

Faced with systematic violence, an armed struggle by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam for an independent Tamil homeland on the island's north and east resulted in a nearly three-decade-long civil war. In May this year, the Sri Lankan Army finally crushed the LTTE — and Tamil civilians bore the brunt of the carnage.

The end of the war has not brought "peace", much less justice, to the Tamil people. The 250,000 Tamil face nightmare conditions detained behind barbed wire in violation of international law in the internment camps, referred to by the regime as "welfare villages".

Furthermore, those who have been "resettled" from the camps have been kept under virtual house arrest, imprisoned in other camps or dumped in remote war-devastated locations.

Rice-growing land in historic Tamil areas in the north and east has been resettled with Sinhalese transmigrants from the south. Inside and outside the camps, Tamils continue to be subjected to extrajudicial killings and abductions, torture and rape. said on November 11 that the Sri Lankan government was planning to remove the last legal vestiges of autonomy for Tamil people in the north and east. It reported that Tamil legal circles said this was aimed at "grabbing the lands of Tamils without legal hurdles".

One Tamil academic described the process as "systematic structural genocide after militarily crushing the Tamils".

Rather than join voices such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and Amnesty International in criticising Sri Lanka's abuses against Tamil civilians, Smith pledged $11 million from the Australian government in aid to the Sri Lankan government.

Smith said: "Australia welcomes the end of the conflict situation that prevailed for over two-and-a-half decades in some parts of Sri Lanka. Our two countries will actively work for the reconstruction and rehabilitation of Sri Lanka's northern and eastern provinces [Tamil Eelam], to facilitate the return of displaced civilians to their homes in conditions of dignity, peace and freedom.

"Australia therefore pledges to strongly support the resettlement and reconstruction programs being led by the Sri Lankan government."

Despite Sri Lankan claims to the contrary, very few Tamils have been released from the camps. The $11 million pledged, like the $38 million in aid Australia has already given Sri Lanka after the military defeat of the LTTE in May, is likely to end up funding these camps.

Australian aid is likely to be spent on helping maintain the conditions Tamil civilians are desperate to flee.

The Sri Lankan government has denied there are "push factors" driving Tamils to flee. Instead, Sri Lankan officials have claimed fleeing Tamils are "economic refugees" and that many of them are LTTE "terrorists".

Sri Lanka's ambassador to the United Nations, Palitha Kohona, told the ABC's Lateline on November 11 that, rather than "push factors", what existed were "pull factors" — the "magnetic attraction" of a more prosperous life in a rich nation.

Kohona denied Tamils were mistreated. He alleged many Tamil refugees were LTTE fighters.

In a November 8 interview on Channel Ten, Sri Lankan high commissioner to Australia Senaka Walgampaya pushed the same line: "As far as we can see, all the people who are seeking asylum in Australia are seeking to come here for a better life. Also, most of them have their friends and relatives here … they are coming here to join up with them.

"They are making use of the post-conflict situation in Sri Lanka to make that excuse to seek asylum in Australia.

"Sri Lanka suspects a lot of these people are fugitives from justice, so in that event they have to be brought to justice."

In a November 11 opinion piece in the Australian, Amanda Hodge said Smith responded to these allegations with "rhetoric that pandered to the Sri Lankan view that most asylum-seekers are Tamil Tigers seeking to reinvigorate the separatist struggle from distant shores".

Hodge said such rhetoric "bore the whiff of appeasement".

Author David Feith pointed out in the October 30 Age: "The Australian Government's response has been to pledge to send Australian police to Sri Lanka to help the Government there clamp down on the exodus of asylum seekers.

"This is after the Australian Government sent its deputy chief of the navy, Rear Admiral Davyd Thomas, to Colombo in June 2009 to urge that young Tamils be prevented from coming to Australia."

The situation in Sri Lanka is likely to increase refugee numbers. Increasing government violence against journalists and dissidents in the south creates the possibility that more Sinhalese refugees will also try to reach Australia.

Jehan Perreira, a Sinhalese human rights activist and executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, told Radio Australia on November 10: "Until the Government comes up with the political solution, at least a political proposal that meets the aspirations of Tamils to be equal citizens, to have some power in the areas in which they are a majority, I think Tamils will want to leave Sri Lanka."

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