The issue of Sri Lankan asylum seekers, the role of people smugglers and the policy of the Australian government regarding such asylum seekers, as well as the action by the Sri Lanka government against people smugglers is very much in the news today. The arrival of the Australian Minister of Immigration, Scott Morrison, for the commissioning of the two patrol boats gifted to the Sri Lanka is of much interest in Australia too.
On Wednesday, July 09, the RN Radio of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) had a discussion on the issue on the Sri Lankan refugees and asylum seekers in Australia and the many issues involved, including conditions in the North of Sri Lanka and the Australian policy of immigration control. The program was presented by Philip Adams, with the participation of Dr. Victor Rajakulendran, Chairman, Australian Federation of Tamil Associations, Dr. Dayan Jayatilaka, former Ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva and former Vice President of the UN Human Rights Council, and Dr. Rajiva Wijesinha, Member of Parliament and former Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights in Sri Lanka.
In this column today, I present a substantial report of this radio interaction because of the important issues it raises with regard to Sri Lanka's relations with Australia, and the very interesting thoughts expressed on the issue of Sri Lanka asylum seekers in Australia. It is largely a transcript, but some sections are summarized due to constraints of time and space.
Adams: Immigration Minister Morrison is in Sri Lanka to attend the commissioning ceremony of those two Customs patrol vessels gifted to the Sri Lanka Government by Australia, but there is much to talk about; 150 asylum seekers who continue to be on the high seas and our Customs whistle while their fate is decided by our courts, the Australian government has not only depends on the government of Sri Lanka to stop the boats from leaving Sri Lanka's shores, but is now accused of turning a blind eye to human rights violations in the island nation, where refugee asylum seekers claim to be tortured by Sri Lanka's Criminal Intelligence Department.
Now I'm going to talk to three Sri Lankans to get their responses on accusations of Human Rights violations, people smuggling and the treatment of boat people in and around Australia.
As (Minister) Morrison is discussing matters about asylum seekers, my first is to Dayan: What is the Sri Lankan government likely to do with those who have been returned?
Dayan: Well, we have no evidence that the Sri Lanka government engages in torture or physical ill-treatment of anyone who has been returned, as far as we know. What we can see from Sri Lankan newscasts is that they are processed and the law enforcement authorities try to figure out who it was who got them on the boats, and for what purpose. That is what it looks like for the moment. But at close scrutiny is a good thing, one has to keep an eye on what's going on, and international scrutiny is not a bad thing.
Q: Would you regard the Tamil refugees amongst the number as being in a more difficult situation, let's say diplomatically?
A: I would say that there is a significant degree of alienation and dissatisfaction that many Tamil people feel towards the status quo in Sri Lanka, towards the Sri Lankan state, in the post-war period. But again it would be difficult to say that there is persecution as such, because just the other day, the Deputy President of South Africa, Mr. Cyril Ramaphosa, paid a visit to the island, visited the North, spoke to the elected Chief Minister of the Tamil majority Northern Provincial Council, who had many political criticisms to make of the Government of Sri Lanka. But this visit was on the invitation of the Government of Sri Lanka. So, it's difficult to believe there is persecution in terms of mass arrests...there are no mass arrests, there are no rubber bullets flying, there's no tear gas, there's no demonstrations, no shootings, no martial law... There is disaffection.
So I don't think that the Tamil people are fleeing mass persecution, but I do think they are unhappy, and they take any choice offered by people smugglers to leave the island.
Q: We'll come back to that shortly. Let's now introduce Rajiva. The asylum seekers claiming they'll be tortured..OK. I want to know, is it a crime to leave Sri Lanka without documentation, to leave Sri Lanka?
Rajiva: (You mean) Violate the Immigration and Emigration laws? You are meant to leave through the usual legal process and have your passport stamped. So, technically it is wrong. I don't suppose it is really a crime, in the sense of something that demands great punishment.
But, I think it is particularly important, in the interests of all of us - both Sri Lanka and Australia, and indeed the world in general, to stop what is called people smuggling. Many of these people, as you know, lots of them are Sinhalese, they look for greener pastures, and assume that Australia is greener, God knows why. But in their attempt to get away, they are exploited by a lot of people. I think it is very important to investigate the people involved. I was reading recently that Australia thinks that perhaps some people of the Security Forces are also involved in people smuggling. I think it's vital that we investigate this thoroughly, and be quite hard in terms of punishing those who are exploiting these people by taking a lot of money from them, and putting them into very dangerous circumstances.
But I think it is up to the Sri Lankan Government to try to reduce the cause of disaffection, and indeed to develop situations in which both, Sinhalese and Tamils, don't think that the best way out of Sri Lanka is the sea leading out of it.
Q: I now want to bring in Victor (Rajakulendran) here in Sydney. Victor, What I am hearing here sounds very sweet and reasonable.
A: Of course, that is always the case from Sri Lanka. I first want to address what my friend Dayan has said about Cyril Ramaphosa meeting the North Sri Lanka Chief Wigneswaran. Yesterday, on these same radio waves, Wigneswaran came and gave a statement to George Arvis. It is because life intolerable in Sri Lanka ...the very same army that fought the war and are now subject to international war crimes investigations are still in large numbers, positioned in the North and East; they have taken over every aspect of civilian life, they have taken over fertile lands of the people and are cultivating. They have brought people in large....
Adams: Victor, I think listeners to this program are very familiar with these charges...You don't want these asylum seekers returned to Sri Lanka. Would you be satisfied if they are sent to Manus Island or Nauru?
A: So if that is the Australian policy, that is the only way out for Australia, rather than sending (them back) and violating the the Convention....to the persecutors.
Adams: Our Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said that people in Sri Lanka who are genuinely fleeing persecution could go to India, rather than risk the dangerous journey to Australia.
A: (Victor R) - Yes, many people have started their journey from India to Australia. They have been in Indian refugee camps for years and years, and they have no way of having a livelihood there. People have even spent a generation there. A second generation of kids have come up and they can't find university education there, so...
Adams: That is a problem for refugees around the world, in almost every context...
To Rajiv: As far as I know, the Sri Lankan government has not directly committed on whether Australia has acted lawfully, we have been agonizing over what we are up to, do you see the recent development as lawful?
Rajiv: Well, I think I don't understand the Australian law as well as people in Australia do. But it does seem to me that the Australian government would not willfully do anything illegal. And, of course you have the courts that will make its decision. A legal decision.
I am more interested in what we call the moral question? And I think one of the problems we have here is the clear confusion between economic refugees, the vast majority of whom are indeed economic refugees, and the fact that so many of them, the majority are Sinhalese, suggest that it is not people fearing persecution. I think your foreign minister was very sensible to say if they really did fear persecution and torture, they could go to India.
But the simple fact is that, Mr. Rajakulendran would know it if he came to Sri Lanka, the vast majority of people in the North is not suffering they way they did during the war period.
I go regularly there for reconciliation committee meetings in every Divisional Secretariat, and at the beginning in 2009, 10 and 11, there were many more complaints. There are still complaints and difficulties, and as Dayan said, I don't think we are doing enough to develop human resources, develop employment, and develop entrepreneurship up there. But, certainly the government has done infrastructural development which has made the place much easier to live in. And, as you know, Jaffna actually has a much higher per capita income than elsewhere.
But there is a lot of political resentment and this transfers, particularly amongst the Diaspora to, as it were, a "catch-all" description of everyone who leaves as trying to escape torture, which is just absolutely untrue.
And, I think the investigations both by the Australians and indeed the British, have suggested that where individual cases are cited, the examination of what has happened shows there is no question of torture or abuse. But I think it is up to you all to decide to act in accordance with your laws, and I believe has done exactly that.
Adams: Dayan, as you are aware, we have not made any headway with asylum seekers in any country of origin. Neither have they made any progress in relation to the transit countries - Indonesia, Malaysia. Sri Lanka, it seems, is the only country, which has cooperated with Australia to stem the flow of boats. Why is this, do you think?
Dayan: Clearly, there is a security angle, congruence in the views of the Australian government and the Sri Lanka government. A good bi-lateral relationship. Australia has under this administration and even the previous one, not sought to isolate Sri Lanka. There has been a policy of constructive engagement on the part of Austria, which recognizes that in the Asia- Pacific Region, if one is to make progress on anything in any country, you need a policy of constructive engagement.
The Sri Lankan policy towards helping in controlling this flow is definitely a byproduct of Australia's pragmatic diplomacy towards Sri Lanka.
Many countries could just wash their hands off this, and say, look, if people who are disaffected are leaving the country's shores, so much the better, and there would be much more to go round for those who remain. There have been countries in the third world that have taken that kind of stand. But the Sri Lankan state has not. And I think that is quite positive, quite helpful, and that Australia must encourage it as a model of cooperation.
Adams: As you know Victor, Australia had a very conservative prime minister who is now a born-again progressive, and Sri Lanka's Consul-General in Sydney wrote to the "Australian" that the aforementioned ex-prime minister, Fraser, doesn't help his standing by likening the return of Tamils to Sri Lanka, to handing over Jewish refugees to Nazi Germany. Surely, that is overstating the case by a couple or orders of magnitude?
Victor: I don't think so, even he has also gone to the extent of saying that transferring these asylum seekers is equivalent to piracy in the deep seas. So that was his stand. So he has outrightly criticized how the Australian Government has handled this situation.
Adams: You gentlemen in Colombo, I guess you both find Fraser's comments offensive - Dayan?
Dayan: Well, I've always been an admirer of the independent policies of Malcolm Fraser when he was prime minister, and he has been a conscience for Australia as an elder statesman. .. But, I think he is way over the top on this. He is trivializing in the first place, by these references to Nazi Gertmany. Trivializing the Holocaust. There are no concentration camps; what you have are a succession of elections in the North, which does have a very high concentration of the military, and at every one of those elections the anti-government Tamil National Alliance has won. Whether it was at the provincial council level, parliamentary level or municipal level. I really don't think Nazi Germany is the right parallel. That's over the top, and he's trivializing the entire thing and that kind of rhetoric is not helpful.
Adams: Rajiv, there continues to be a heavy military presence in the North of your country since the ceasefire in 2009. Would you not agree that the response by some of the Tamil community, the anxieties by the Diaspora are valid, when they say they cannot move around freely in the North of your country?
Rajiv: That's complete nonsense. I go up to the North very regularly, and so do many Tamil friends. And there is no problem about moving about there. I think one of the biggest problems is the lack of trust.
You see, while I think Sri Lanka very correctly defeated the terrorist movement in Sri Lanka, and I think most Tamils, including the TNA would now like to settle down to a greater political autonomy, within a united Sri Lanka, there are still elements in the Diaspora that hanker after a separate state. Now, since they also command a lot of money and they send it here, there is a lot of disproportionate influence, and as you know, many of them speak from massive ignorance. They talk about the situation as it obtained earlier on. Therefore, they are trying to create further separatism, which of course makes the security forces more concerned.
I don't think there can be any question, sadly I have to say it, of the security forces being withdrawn. I think there can be much better v cooperation between the elected Chief Minister, the Government, and security forces ......
Adams: Let me offer Victor the right of reply from the Diaspora.
Victor: He was talking about the Chief Minister again. So he implies he should cooperate with the central government. He took the oath, instead of like all the other Tamil elected officials taking the oath from Tamils, he went to the President to take the oath, when he was elected Chief Minister. That is to create a reconciliation mood and cooperate with the President. But he himself is coming now and saying that the Army is ruling the place and he can't take any action in the Northern Provincial Council without interference from the central government.
Adams: As you know Victor, it is now well over a decade of vigorous competition among the major political parties, and some fringe parties too, in this country, to see who could be the toughest on refugees. There has been no agreement. Bob Carr has said this week that (in Sri Lanka) there was no evidence of abuse. Former Tamil Tigers, that is fighters using terrorist means are now being rehabilitated, being gainfully employed, being reintegrated into that community...
Victor said it was important for Carr to read the 108 page report written by Yasmin Sooka, the most respected human rights activist. It (the Darusman Report) is the document written on the direction of the UN Secretary General to get to the root of the war crimes, which said there was ongoing rape, torture and human rights abuse in Sri Lanka.
Rajiva said the Yasmin Sooka report, which was not acceptable, looked at the conditions before peace was restored. It was important for people to look at the evidence. I think Bob Carr was perfectly correct. The Yasmin Sooka report related to the period during the war. It has a lot of condemnation of violence on both sides. I have never heard of the Diaspora being tough on the Tigers, although some Tamil politicians in Sri Lanka are today trying to be more balanced.
Commenting on Chief Minster Wigneswaran, Rajiva said the CM was a decent and moderate person, with whom he believed it would be possible w to work, but unfortunately at times he went into paroxysms of praise of Prabhakaran, the Tiger leader. This may be due to political pressure. But Prabhakaran was a terrorist leader, condemned by the entire world, who killed Tamil people, who practiced ethnic cleansing, who used the peace talks to kill Tamils and assassinate Tamil leaders, including the Tamil Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Dr, Neelan Tiruchelvam who tried to seek a settlement...and many others. He said when people in such positions talk in praise of Prabhakaran, it was not surprising that the security forces feared the rise of such terrorism again.
Adams asked about the Sri Lankan President reportedly enhancing his own power, and whether he is an authoritarian leader, using western terminology.
Dayan said he does have occasional quasi-authoritarian moments, but, this is the man who went against those very close to him and chose to have an election to the Northern Provincial Council, which none of his predecessors were able to do, mainly because the Tigers were around. But even when they could, they didn't do it. But he held this election and the Tamil National Alliance scored 78 per cent. That's a place crawling with the military, they could have rigged the election if they wanted to, but they didn't.
So, I really wouldn't say we are talking about an authoritarian leader. We are talking about a leader who seems to have a free run because the main opposition in the South, the United National Party, has been led by the same person, Ranil Wickremesighe, for 20 years. Now, the Australian Labour Party, as soon as it lost the election, changed its leader.