By Gordon Weiss –
The federal Coalition’s account of its recent mission to Sri Lanka is jarring when contrasted with a new report from the International Crisis Group, and with recent UN reports. With the boat people bogeyman running amok over Australia’s electoral landscape, and Australia due to scrutinise Sri Lanka’s record on postwar reconciliation and allegations of war crimes next month at the UN Human Rights Council, a fuller account is necessary.
Where the Coalition saw orderly transition from war, yesterday’s ICG report, Sri Lanka’s Authoritarian Turn: The Need for International Action, describes a country where the dismantling of the rule of law threatens peace. While the Coalition thought a boat voyage a greater danger to life than any factor in Sri Lanka, the ICG confirms a steady drumbeat of extrajudicial killings, abductions and enforced disappearances.
The Coalition group concluded that Sri Lankan refugees were overwhelmingly economic migrants. Yet just two months ago the UN Refugee Agency, which sets the bar for refugee status, listed those who might qualify. These include those connected with former Tamil Tiger fighters, opposition politicians and supporters, journalists, human rights activists, witnesses to crimes, those seeking legal redress or, possibly, women, children and gays.
So what is going on in Sri Lanka?
Most observers thought the Tamil Tigers, an ultra-violent guerilla organisation, were indestructible. When crushed in May 2009 after almost three decades of fighting, the world applauded. The popularly-elected President Mahinda Rajapaksa promised reconciliation between the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils.
After all, according to the UN, perhaps 40,000 Tamil civilians had been killed in the final few months, mostly by government forces, and overwhelming evidence of war crimes has since emerged. Reconciliation in the form of a political settlement was urgent to cement a lasting peace.
But the contrary has happened. ICG says that the concentration of power in the hands of the President’s family and the military, and the obstruction of a political deal for minorities, could destabilise Sri Lanka again. So were opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman Julie Bishop and immigration spokesman Scott Morrison prudently pursuing Australia’s core interests when they reported being heartened by what they saw?
The detailed picture painted by the ICG and reflected in a report two weeks ago from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is relentlessly grim. Sri Lanka is gripped by creeping despotism. The ruling family franchises out economic spoils. The island is imbued with an ethno-nationalist ideology that repudiates the place of Tamils and Muslims, who comprise a quarter of all Sri Lankans, and intimidates the many Sinhalese who oppose an authoritarian security state.
Police and proxy thugs bust up and fire on student and citizen demonstrations, and ransack opposition offices. Rajapaksa’s brother Gotabhaya controls the army and police (and analysts contend he controls the flow of refugee boats too). Anti-government websites are blocked, China-style. The targeting of journalists has cowed the press into submission. According to former regime stalwart and now dissenter, the diplomat Dayan Jayatilleka, the army is effectively an occupation force. Equipped with police powers, the huge Sri Lankan military has despoiled its legitimate security role. It squats on Tamil land, stifles their participation in their local economy, and menaces the population.
Meanwhile, according to the ICG, the Rajapaksa government is systematically dismantling Sri Lanka’s democratic institutions. A 2010 constitutional amendment, ushered through a supine parliament presided over by another Rajapaksa brother, neutered independent oversight bodies. The President now manages the checks and balances himself.
Last month, in a ploy he characterised as “devolutionary”, the President signalled his intention to weaken local government, the one forum where minorities have a measure of say over daily regional life. When Sri Lanka’s Chief Justice brought down a ruling this year that impeded headlong regime efforts to centralise control the President replaced her. Empowered by the overt ethno-nationalism of the Rajapaksa clan, attacks on churches, mosques and minority businesses have spiked. Last month a group called the Buddhist Power Force burned effigies of Allah.
Sri Lanka’s treatment of minorities enrages India’s 60 million Tamils. Exasperated by the Rajapaksa government, India will almost certainly vote against Sri Lanka in the UN Human Rights Council this March.
Boat people flee from adversity. Sri Lanka has endured three deadly 20th-century revolts – two of them undertaken by Sinhalese, one by the Tamils – that probably killed well over 200,000 citizens since 1971. These revolts arose from precisely the same anti-democratic, bloody and unjust policies now being rolled out in Sri Lanka. On this Morrison was right: Only a change of government will stop Sri Lankan boat arrivals.
To protect our long-term interests, as well as stability, Australia should support a Sri Lankan government intent on restoring Sri Lanka’s democratic traditions. For if another bloody civil conflict erupts – the fourth in 40 years — how will Australians handle the boat people who will surely follow?
This article appeared on February 22nd in the The Australian