Colombo Telegraph

Tamil Refugees, MH 17 And Palestine

By Laksiri Fernando

Dr. Laksiri Fernando

There are three crises of different magnitudes and implications going on in the international scene these days, of course offshore, but relevant to Sri Lanka. All imply the need to have comprehensive and international perspectives without digging into our own national closets. This need is relevant not only for the Sri Lankans but all those who are concerned and effected by these events and incidents. Our conscience should prick. Let me take these events one by one.

Tamil Refugees at Sea

On 11 June, a boat load of Sri Lankan origin Tamil refugees left Pondicherry, India, seeking greener pastures in Australia, most of them after languishing there since 1983 with their offspring. Some even thought they were heading for New Zealand. There is no doubt that people smugglers were involved. However, this does not diminish the humanitarian aspect of the problem. The refugee camps that they were living in undoubtedly were despicable (evidence: video footage) irrespective of the efforts by people like Samuel Chelvanayakm Chandrahasan or the Indian government. There are limits to what people can do in ad hoc manner on these issues. Permanent solutions are necessary.

This boat was intercepted by the Australian border petrol on high seas off Christmas Island on 29 June following the current Australian government’s military type ‘stop the boats’ policy and now the asylum seekers are kept in a customs vessel allegedly in locked rooms in three groups. The families are reportedly separated. Now the head count says there are 157 asylum seekers, 37 children and 41 women, all children are sick. They have been at sea now for six weeks and three weeks in Australian custody without a solution.

It was just few weeks ago that Australia handed over another boat back to Sri Lankan navy with 41 asylum seekers, 37 Sinhalese. Most of them could be economic refugees or similar but the question begs why they flee in this manner with high risks if the economic conditions are miraculous. Sri Lanka has so far refused to accept the present boat load claiming that it originated in India, not Sri Lanka. UNHCR and the refugee advocates have criticized both Australia and Sri Lanka very strongly for the crisis, one creating it and the other refusing to be humane or follow the international norms. Australia is now asking India to take the boat back. All the present indications are that India might agree to abide if anyone is an Indian citizen, not otherwise. India however points out that their refugee intake is double the amount of Australia.

The refugee advocates have taken recourse to legal measures against the Australian government and the Australian High Court will take up the case again on 5 August with a full bench. So far their ruling has been to safeguard the humanitarian interests of the asylum seekers. The government stance, on the other hand, stands more than adamant and contrasts with what they appear to advocate on the issue of the lives lost as a result of shooting down of a passenger aircraft in Ukraine by pro-Russian rebels.

Shooting Down of MH 17

On 17 July, the Malaysian Airlines Flight MH 17 was shot down (perhaps by accident) by a surface to air missile over the pro-Russian rebel controlled areas of eastern Ukraine. It was on its way from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur with 298 passengers and crew. This has created international outrage and the UN Security Council has adopted a unanimous resolution requiring a full, impartial and international inquiry.

Much of the blame, however, has gone to Russia and President Putin given the recent conflicts between Russia and Ukraine and Russia’s alleged belligerent stance on the conflict. Among the passengers, 193 were Dutch, 27 or 37 Australians and 43 Malaysians. This was the second in a row of air disasters for the Malaysian Airlines, the last being on 3 March which disappeared on its way from KL to Beijing without a trace. Australia has apparently taken an unprecedented leadership on the issue of MH 17 because of 37 Australian victims and perhaps for other political reasons. There is high level of grief both in Australia and in the Netherlands. The Australian Minister of Foreign Affairs has vouched that she ‘would not rest until justice is done’ for the dead passengers, and the perpetrators are punished. Some observers have commented that this ‘humanitarian concern’ was not shown on the issue of the Tamil refugees at sea. There is undoubtedly an imbalance in standards or treatment of people all over the world.

MH 17 disaster is undoubtedly linked to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. In the Ukrainian conflict which erupted last year, Europe is clearly involved like Russia, directly and indirectly. However loud people talk about democracy, some regimes tend to transgress others’ when it comes to self-interest or geopolitics. This is not a reason to reject democracy but to be more vigilant and deepen democracy at international level or relations. An elected pro-Russian president, Victor Yanukovych, was ousted through an (‘democracy’) uprising allegedly supported by European players in February. The Russian response was more crude, intervening militarily, and annexing Crimea, which predominantly an ethnic Russian province. Crimea was also part of Russia before 1953. It was also thereafter that pro-Russian insurgency erupted in eastern Ukraine supported by Russia.

The conflict has all hallmarks of a new evolving Cold War between Russia and Europe with future ramifications going all over the world. The US is not a bystander. Unless both sides learn to sort out their differences and issues through negotiations and compromise, the implications to the global economy and for the international political stability might be drastic. The UN has limitations at present to resolve the issues as it is more of a part of the problem than a solution. It is in this context that the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine is more outrageous.

Crisis in Palestine

On 12 June, three Israeli youth were abducted and then killed allegedly by Hamas or other extremists. That was the trigger for the current escalation of violence and war in Palestine. Immediately thereafter, hundreds of Palestinians were arrested and allegedly tortured as revenge, more than in a process of interrogation. Palestinians as usual retaliated violently. Then there were air attacks from Israel and artillery exchange from both sides. Now the death toll has risen to over 750.

The newest incident as I write this is the shelling of a UN run school in Gaza by the Israeli forces. 15 are already dead and over 200 wounded. It is alleged that the school was used by Hamas insurgents to attack Israel. The UNHRC (still) Chief, Navi Pillay, has accused both Israel and Hamas, more of Israel, for committing war crimes. The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, has called for a ceasefire whatever it is worth.

The present impasse in Palestine is the result of the halfway peace arrangement set up by the Oslo Accords in 1993 without much progress since then to find a final or a better solution. One reason for the lack of progress is the struggle between Fatah and Hamas, Israel taking the full advantage of the situation. Palestine state is still a name or hope than a reality, although there is a ‘government’ or an authority. It is so obvious that two unequal states or authorities cannot exist in this limited space. One state obviously is not a solution. Two states, unless cooperate and share, would not be viable either. A confederation might be a solution, but that requires considerable good will and compromise from both sides.

Israel claims that they have handed over the land but those are converted into fortresses and launching pads against its very existence. The fact of the matter is that land was occupied by Israel illegally since 1967. There is something fundamentally wrong in the way Israel was created in the first place in 1948 by the UN and Super Powers including the Soviet Union. It is not so much of a mistake in the creation of Israel for the Jewish people who were persecuted during the war and before.

The mistake was in the manner of its creation. The UN should have ensured that Israel would not become a monster against the Palestinians. A Monster; that is exactly what has happened and the Western prejudices against the Palestinians or the Jewish lobby in the major capitals particularly in the US has ensured this colossal injustice. It should have been a demilitarized state like Japan, for example. I have travelled to West Bank and Gaza several times in the 1980s and early 1990s and the difference between Israel or the Jewish settlements and the ghetto existence of the Palestinians is unimaginable and unjustified. It is not simply a difference of economic or social resolve between two peoples.

It is unfortunate that people who were persecuted under Fascism have turned into a similar oppressor. No one appears sane in this conflict or any other.


Even a cursory glance at the three crises that we have reviewed would reveal an enormous imbalance of attention, treatment or standards adopted, if I may say, by the international community. The UN is a reflection of this situation. This is not a s reason to jump on the bandwagon to denounce the West or the UN, who are the key players in the ‘international community.’ What about the East? What about our so-called friends of Russia or China?

It is in a way understandable that the West pursue their own interests except where their conscience pricks. Their focused attention to MH 17 disaster might be to finally oust the pro-Russian rebels from eastern Ukraine and consolidate Ukraine as secure buffer zone against Russia. Apart from that, they are genuinely concerned about the disaster as well. Does China or Russia give two hoots to such a disaster? Perhaps not. Putin’s response was lukewarm to the disaster.

Even on the question of refugees, although the present Australian government position is unjustifiable, there are many sections who are sympathetic to refugee predicament. At least legal recourse is available for the refugee advocates.

On the Palestinian question however, the international standards appear fundamentally flawed and perennially mistaken. Equal blame should go to the extremist Palestinian actors. The way the things could be corrected is much more complicated while there is much sympathy and support within the international civil society for the Palestinian cause or for the resolution of the question amicably. The final lesson from all these might be not to take rigid sides on international events or developments, some are closer and others being distant, but to evolve critical views and work always through democratic parameters, decency and sophistication.

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