The Betrayal of Sri Lanka

Meredith Doig / 25 August 2014

Former Australian Deputy High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, Bruce Haigh, argues that those who want to return Sri Lankan asylum seekers are turning a blind eye to the plight of the Tamils.

AUSTRALIAN politics is a cartel, a virtual one-party state, guided by the principles laid down by the Dear Leader, John Howard, OM. Both of the major political parties have signed, in the presence of the Dear Leader, the manifesto of core values, which includes a policy of reviling a class of refugees known as Boat People: that is people who arrive by leaky boats as opposed to aeroplane, cruise ship or private yacht. When confronted with people arriving on leaky boats the Dear Leader decreed that: ‘We will decide who comes here and when.’ This was written in stone and indeed became the guiding principle on Leaky Boat refugee policy for the Cartel (who were the ‘we’ was never spelt out, but presumably it was the Dear Leader, with disciples Philip Ruddock and Peter Reith).

To maintain an appearance of choice for the consumer of politics both parties within the Cartel play a game called the Limbo Dance, in which participants are awarded points for the lowest they can go under a pole without their body touching the ground.

Recently Julie Bishop and Scott Morrison from the Coalition House of Representatives and Bob Carr from the Labor Senate managed to go very low in a competition held in Sri Lanka. As a result, they were declared joint winners, although several of the judges, including the Dear Leader, thought Bishop and Morrison had gone lower than Carr.

A variant of the dance occurs when the Boat People are required to perform on arrival: to jump over a pole that is progressively raised, sometimes while they are in the middle of a jump. This causes great merriment amongst the Limbo Dancers and judges.

Carr recently went to Sri Lanka with the aim of preventing persecuted Tamils leaving the island state by boat. To achieve this he entreated the President to accept Australian taxpayer dollars, believed to be $45 million, to get his tried and true police, public servants and sailors to use the money to stop the boats. One, or some of them, took the money and organised for boats to come to Australia. Carr said nothing. How could he? He had been deceived and so had we. Some were even unkind and biased enough to suggest that the Sri Lankan boat organisers were close to President Rajapaksa, who, according to those who know him, is close to perfection.

Having done the Limbo Rock all around the north of Sri Lanka, Bishop and Morrison gave the impression that they were going to buy a nice little time share in tranquil Mullaitivu. Writing in ‘On Line Opinion’, Bishop said that 20,000 kilometres of new high-quality roads and 18,000 kilometres of rural access roads had been constructed in the north since 2009. Not bad for a cash strapped state. What she failed to mention was why the roads have been built. The answer is for security. In case the loathed Tamils should try once again to throw off the yoke of oppression, and to assist members of the Sinhalese military to settle on former Tamil land. How did she seek to test these figures provided by the Sri Lankan government? She informs us that: “... former Tamil Tigers intend  to  use  their  salaries  to  establish  small  business.”  What salaries? They are not allowed to work. We are informed that a school, which once had 38 students, has been rebuilt and now has 2,000 students. Who are they, settler Sinhalese or impoverished Tamil children who have to beg and scrabble to try and put food on the table and who certainly do not get the free school lunches to which she refers?

She appears to be regurgitating her brief. “It is essential that former LTTE members and supporters integrate back into society... The relationship has been shattered by the long years of conflict and will take many years to rebuild.” Yeah, and the Australians beat the Turks at Gallipoli. She should read an unbiased account of the history of Sri Lanka. What pushed Sri Lanka into a civil war was the shattering of the relationship by the Sinhalese early after Sri Lanka gained independence from the British. But she won’t.

Finally, as some sort of clincher, she says that 6,000 Tamils recently returned voluntarily from India. Does she know that Tamils from Sri Lanka in India are treated as second class citizens? Many are in refugee camps that leave much to be desired. They have no chance of gaining Indian citizenship and even were they to do so, the complex social structure, which is still very much in place, would make it hard to rise above poverty.

The visit to Sri Lanka of the three wise Australian politicians was all about stopping the flow of Sri Lankan Boat People, mainly Tamil, who daily suffer physical and psychological harm and humiliation. If they were genuine they might have offered to broker a proper peace with the prospect of real reconciliation.

Yet their visit had all the gravitas of an 1880 Congressional inspection of an Indian Reservation.

I have seen all this before. It is reminiscent of visits to South Africa by Australian politicians at the height of Apartheid. Politicians had an agenda, sometimes purely racist. They didn't want blacks to get majority rule, but they wanted to play sport with South Africa, particularly cricket and rugby, and they wanted to resume trade with South Africa. They would be finessed by Department of Information officials, shown blacks in model housing estates, schools and clinics, wined and dined, told that blacks were not yet ready for responsibility and shown how white South Africa was doing more than any of its critics alleged for the welfare of blacks. Back home, they went to pass on the good message and shout down left wing critics in Parliament.

Morrison has said that Coalition policy will be to turn back boats and send all refugees, including Tamils, back to their homelands. That ignores the fact that there are legitimate reasons for Tamils to flee Sri Lanka.

Lawyers, including the Human Rights Law Centre, advise that the policies enunciated by Morrison would be in breach of Australian and International law.

In a recent press release, Michelle Rowland, the Labor Member for Greenway,  talks of returned  Tamil asylum  seekers  being exposed to the risk of torture, persecution and arbitrary detention which places Australia in violation of refoulement obligations and in  breach of  the Convention and laws  relating to  racial discrimination.

She also notes that the United States is unimpressed with Sri Lanka’s inability to comply with the terms of its own investigation into the murder of Tamils at the end of the war. The US indicated it would bring a procedural resolution against Sri Lanka at the March session of UNHCR.

Ed Husic, the Federal Member for Chifley made similar points to Michelle Rowland in a speech to Parliament at the beginning of February.

In an election year the motivation is ‘whatever it takes’ to win the election, with all sides of politics entering a bidding war over the bodies of Tamils in order to gain seats. And this against Carr’s mealy mouthed words over Australian support for human rights worldwide.

It is not even as if Australia is in good company. The United States, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom have all been more constructively critical of continuing human rights abuses in Sri Lanka than Australia.

Sivagnanam Shritharan, a Tamil leader who met with Bishop and Morrison for several hours in Sri Lanka said the comments made by them both on their return to Australia bore no relation to what had transpired during their conversation on the Island. He advised them of on-going abuse and intimidation which they denied on the ABC.

Trevor Grant of the Tamil Refugee Council says Sritharan advised him that they came with closed minds; that their only focus seemed to be a fixation on turning back boats. Grant said Sritharan had stressed Tamils were fleeing to Australia because of fear for their lives and the future. They do not accept any words uttered on their behalf or about their state of mind by the Sri Lankan government.

Grant said that Sritharan had told them that in India there were over 200,000 refugees still living in refugee camps. Tamil refugees seek to go to countries in Europe, North America and Australia, because of the certainties created by the rule of law -- despite the best endeavours of some we certainly hope that it prevails in Australia.

Sritharan told Grant that the Tamil people in the north were too scared to speak to Bishop and Morrison because intelligence people were scattered about who were monitoring the situation.

Again, this is reminiscent of South Africa. When faced with a black who told it as it was, conservative Australian politicians invariably dismissed the presentation on the basis that their interlocutor was an ‘angry radical’. We haven’t matured much or moved very far.

This article was published in the Australian Rationalist, June 2013.


Bruce Haigh was the Australian Deputy High Commissioner to Sri Lanka.

All the more reason.

Sign up & stay informed with our daily digest.