Humanitarian Issues During the War in Sri Lanka
by Laurie Ferguson
(Werriwa, Australian Labor Party, Parliamentary Secretary for Multicultural Affairs and Settlement Services)
Last week I had approaches from the Sri Lankan acting high commissioner and from a number of people in my electorate. I will be meeting a delegation of Sinhalese tomorrow. I want to say at the outset that—if there is any need to make this clear—I am not an apologist for the Tamil Tigers. As the US Department of State noted:
The LTTE continued to control large sections of the north and east and engaged in politically motivated killings; … disappearances; torture; arbitrary arrest and detention.
During that period they also forcibly enlisted young males predominantly—that was one of the reasons for the fallout within their group between the north and the east—and engaged in a number of murders that nobody would condone. This is all apart from the realities of the 1983 massacres of 3,000 Tamils, which precipitated part of this reaction. Some people defending the Sri Lankan regime say that anyone who is critical and questioning is an apologist, a stooge or a flunky for the Tamil Tigers. That is a superficial analysis and a simplistic position.
I believe there is a need for international oversight of the concluding period of the civil war in Sri Lanka. When I look at the phalanx of people around the world who see a need for this—and I do not agree with the Sri Lankan government or the more chauvinistic Sinhalese elements—I do not think we can say that David Cameron is a fool or that he has not examined the issue when he talks about the need for an inquiry. I do not think we can accuse the European community of that either, when they have basically taken away Sri Lanka’s trade advantages on the issue of human rights.
I do not think that the United States Department of State’s ambassador, Patricia Butenis, quoted in WikiLeaks exposes, is necessarily a simpleton. She noted that there is no historical precedent for a government looking at the actions of its own troops and went on to say that the difficulty in Sri Lanka was exacerbated—this is her view; I am not necessarily her mouthpiece but I will just quote her view in WikiLeaks—by the involvement of President Rajapakse and the elite in Sri Lanka in the conclusion of the civil war, which made it even more difficult to avoid the need for outside oversight. Desmond Tutu talked of:
… a determined effort for accountability for past crimes by all parties to the conflict.
As we have seen, there has been a refusal by, amongst others, the International Crisis Group, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to participate in the government’s own LLRC inquiry.
I say that this is not just an approach by a Tamil diaspora. I have always had the view that it is a lot easier for diasporas around the world to be very radical about events back in their homeland because they are not going to get a bullet in the head, but this is obviously not a campaign totally controlled or manipulated by the diaspora around the world. People have examined the issues and they have come to a conclusion that there is a need to look at abuses on both sides of this conflict.
I have also taken the opportunity to look at the government of Sri Lanka’s response to the European Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights. I have to say that their own words are disconcerting and worrying and only add to the case as far as I am concerned. They go into an attack upon NGOs, saying simply that any NGOs are basically out there to ‘perpetually keep themselves in business’. This is the Sri Lankan government’s approach to NGOs that are critical of what is happening in the country. They also make the point that the expenditure is spent on overheads. If you are going to denigrate NGOs that are trying to help people, it really says something about your own case. When they look at the European Community, the Sri Lankan government’s official response at Brussels talked about an attempt to ‘achieve partisan political objectives’. They are saying that the European Community is motivated by those kinds of sentiments. They say that all of these groups that have refused to participate should come to Sri Lanka, come forward and give evidence to this committee. This is a committee which was appointed by the government and which gave thanks to the President for his ‘directions’, in their own words. That gives rise to real questioning of the degree of independence of the internal inquiry.
I note that there is talk there in criticism of the 18th amendment to the constitution, an amendment which centralises power in the government. There is talk about democracy and about how the President will have to recontest. There is this guarantee that, despite the concerns of people about centralisation of power and appointments in Sri Lanka, all is well because there is democracy. We know that the alternative candidate, General Fonseka, did not have a very nice outcome after that very disputed election. We know—this might be Tamil propaganda, but I think it is very close to the mark—that 27 members of the Rajapakse family have leading positions in the current regime.
I have to say that I also have read the submission of one group that went before this inquiry, the Catholic Church in the Diocese of Mannar. They have a very worrying list of concerns that they conveyed. They spoke of a lack of success in halting extrajudicial disappearances. They talked about continuing detention upon suspicion. I am not for a moment disputing that a significant number of the leadership of the Tigers should basically be brought before courts and tried for their activities, but equally we believe the international community should have the right to examine the actions of military authorities during the conflict. But should these people be held for this period of time, isolated from families and—realistically—from the international community? That church submission talked about the need for permanent housing, the occupation of large parts of the area by the military, the militarisation of the administration in the north and east and the interference in regard to memorial services.
A Sinhalese constituent spoke to me yesterday and I understand that his sentiments are genuine. He sees a need for intermarriage. He sees a need for communities to be together and live in the same areas. He feels that the language law that was passed by the predominantly Sinhala administration was wrong. He does not support the current government. I understand why he believes that it is not necessarily bad for there to be a degree of Sinhala migration to the north and east. I think his sentiments are genuine. However, whether it is transmigration in Irian Jaya or the movement of populations around the world, where you have a defeated minority, there can be problems. I know people will say that, technically, the Tamils were not defeated but the Tigers were defeated, but many Tamils, genuine people like my Sinhala friend, believe that the current migration of people, the renaming of streets in the north with Sinhala names and the creation of Buddhist temples in places where there is not a significant Buddhist population—all these things—are a threat to their identity.
We have to be sensitive in any country, not just Sri Lanka. Where there is a minority and, historically, there have been rather extreme ethnic differences, to see what seems to be a government instigated movement of people to an area must cause alarm. I hear what the Sri Lankan government says about there being building opportunities there and people are going there for employment and Tamils live in Colombo. Maybe there is some truth in all of those things, but there has to be great sensitivity shown when people who have to establish their rights to language and a degree of say in their society face this kind of pressure.
I believe that the evidence is there that the Sri Lankan regime, unfortunately, cannot be trusted to engage in a genuine process of examination of military action that resulted in the killing of innocent civilians in the final period of the war. The report of this internal inquiry gives only two options: they were partisans of the Tigers or people trying to escape from them. This, again, is a judgment in advance; it is not an examination. Obviously some totally innocent civilians were murdered in those last few days. There needs to be an examination of these matters. ~ courtesy: OpenAustralia.org ~