By Ash Pemberton –
When Tamil asylum seeker Dayan Anthony was deported back to Sri Lanka by the Australian government last month, his immediate arrest and interrogation did little to allay fears he would not face harassment from authorities.
His subsequent government-arranged press conference appeared to be staged for the benefit of the Sri Lankan and Australian governments.
After 14 hours in custody and flanked by government officials, Anthony said: “Sri Lanka has become the safest place on the Earth after the LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam] was wiped out from the country. I did not face any type of harassment at the hands of Sri Lankan authorities after I returned to the country.”
Such a statement is incredible given the many reports of human rights abuses by the Sri Lankan government, especially after the its victory over the LTTE that ended the civil war in 2009.
The LTTE was the main armed group fighting for an independent state in the north and east of the island, known as Tamil Eelam, and had created infrastructure for government and services in the area. Despite the LTTE’s human rights abuses and use of terrorism, many Tamils saw it as the defender of their interests against the brutality of the Sri Lankan government.
Amnesty International’s submission to the UN Universal Periodic Review, released in April, detailed arbitrary detentions, torture, enforced disappearances of Tamils and government opponents. The report also showed the ongoing impunity of security forces in committing these crimes.
It detailed the widespread use of detention without trial against “suspected members of armed groups … against their family members and colleagues, outspoken critics and other perceived political opponents of the government, including journalists”.
This detention can last years and most are eventually released due to lack of evidence.
Torture of prisoners remains “common and widespread”, said Amnesty, and cases of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings by security forces continue to be reported.
These abuses follow on from end of the decades-long armed conflict between Tamil independence forces — of which the LTTE became the largest group — and the Sri Lankan government. The government’s final onslaught in 2009 saw up to 50,000 Tamils killed as the Sri Lankan army bombed civilian areas.
Following the end of the war, government forces engaged in further collective punishment of Tamils by holding up to 300,000 in concentration camps. There were reports of widespread torture and rape, and mass executions of those suspected to be linked to the LTTE.
Those lucky enough to be released found many Tamil areas heavily occupied by the military. The government implemented a program of Sinhalese migration to break up Tamil communities, leaving many war victims displaced.
Day-to-day persecution of Tamils remains despite the government’s crushing of resistance. Tamilnet.com provided an example on July 30, saying former Tamil fighters released from prison faced harassment from the military in Vanni for their refusal to collaborate with the military.
Tamilnet.com also said on July 26 that paramilitary forces in Vaakarai aligned with the ruling United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) threatened Tamils would be driven out if they did not vote for the UPFA in provincial elections.
Tamil political prisoners also face harsher treatment, with the defence secretary ordering their transfer to the notorious Boosa prison in Galle, Tamilnet.com said on July 25. The government has reneged on its promise to release details of all Tamil prisoners, with claims of secret detention camps holding Tamil prisoners of war.
While there has been some international criticism of the Sri Lankan government, it has sought to deflect this through its “Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission” (LLRC), composed of government-appointed officials, ostensibly to investigate claims of human rights abuses during the war.
However, its report largely exonerated the government and talked up “reconciliation” between the two sides.
Academic RM Karthick said at jdslanka.org on June 18: “The real message of the devisors of the LLRC seems to be that Tamils have learnt a lesson and must reconcile to the fact that they are a minority at the tender mercies of the state, not a nationality, and that the there is no imagination beyond the unitary Sri Lanka.”
However, the underlying cause of the conflict — ethnic discrimination — still remains.
The conflict stemmed from racism against Tamils by the Sinhalese majority that arose in the early 20th century when the ruling British colonists spread racist ideas as a way to divide the workers movement, Asia Left Observer said in June last year. This racism bloomed into institutionalised discrimination when Sinhalese chauvinists took control of the country after it gained independence in 1948.
Sinhalese was eventually declared the sole national language and Tamils were discriminated against in terms of access to resources, services and jobs.
After decades of peaceful campaigning against discrimination, the 1970s saw the emergence of armed Tamil groups. These were mainly led by frustrated youths who saw no other way to oppose growing repression.
The LTTE became the dominant group in the 1980s when it organised the killings of leaders of rival Tamil groups, especially targeting those with progressive politics. Asia Left Observer said: “Their objective of a separate Tamil state became the sole proclaimed objective, separating it from the question of the rights demanded by Tamils and mortgaging any democratic resolution of the civil war.”
With Tamil resistance now shattered, the Sri Lankan government is pressing its advantage to crack down on any dissenters. Australia should be assisting those fleeing this situation as a basic act of human decency, not using them as political footballs to assist racist regimes at home and abroad.