by Gordon Weiss
SRI Lankan government warnings that half the Tamils seeking asylum in Australia have links to terrorists are dangerous, mendacious and self-serving.
The Tamil Tigers were the most ruthless, tactically efficient, destructive, and committed terrorist organisation in the world. Between 1990 and 2000, Tiger operatives using suicidal tactics killed thousands of innocent Sri Lankans. Their presence was an abomination, and a by-word for violence and fear among ordinary citizens.
Despite Sri Lankan government claims that it decisively defeated the Tamil Tigers in May 2009, they continue to suggest that the Tigers remain a danger. Yet analysis of the defeat of the Tigers, their methods, those in the Tamil diaspora that supported them, and the massive securitisation of the Sri Lankan state, contradicts that view. To internationalise violence by, for example, hijacking aircraft, would be pure folly to any narrow nationalist cause in 2010. For Tamil Sri Lankans who once supported the Tigers, there is no "military option" left to support. The Tamil Tiger is extinct.
The Tigers were a response to perceived state repression. This is true of all national liberation groups, many of which, like the Tigers, undercut sympathy for their cause by killing innocent people. In 1956, contrary to the constitution left by the British and agreed to by Sri Lanka's leaders, the Sinhala Only Act was passed. As incendiary in operation as its title suggests, this law compelled, for example, Tamils to seek judicial redress in the Sinhala language instead of English or Tamil. Things have never been the same since. In 1983, an orchestrated mob pogrom killed some 2000-3000 Tamils across the island. Within a year, the Tamil Tigers had mushroomed from a rabble of 50 men into an army of thousands who sought revenge.
In Australia, both the Tamil and Sinhalese communities include extremist elements. Both have organisations that have promoted radical politics and intolerant solutions to the ethnic divide that bedevils Sri Lanka. For example, Sinhalese-language programs on SBS are said (by Australian Sinhalese) to promote an extreme nationalist view of Sri Lanka that by definition excludes Sri Lankan Tamil claims to the island as also their home. This kind of nationalist narrative, nurtured from generation to generation in a new country (that often leaves emigre communities quite out of step with developments in their own countries) is true of all radical groups who now have deep roots in Australia, be they Kurds, Burmese, Palestinians, Armenians, or Croats.
Hundreds of thousands of Australians have direct memories of the murder of their family and friends in foreign lands. Rarely do they use this soil for the explicit manufacture of terrorism. But within these communities, identity and historical grievance remains a matter of the deepest pain, even as these Australians remain law-abiding citizens, grateful for the equitable justice this country has provided. Occasionally, such as with the Australian-Serb Dragan Vasiljkovic, who returned home during Yugoslavia's wars and allegedly killed and terrorised Croats, one will carry those memories to an extreme. But these are aberrations.
One must then ask why, with the fanciful claim that as many as half of all Tamil boatpeople have "links" to the Tigers, does the government of Sri Lanka seek to trigger alarm bells in our ears? What interest do they have in claims of links between al-Qa'ida and the Tamil Tigers? Why, as reported in recent days, do they incite Australians worried about illegal immigration with the suggestion that boatpeople are "taking advantage" of our asylum laws? And why do they play on Australia's poor understanding of this distant war by reducing the causes of their conflict to just the emergence and destruction of the Tamil Tigers?
The answer lies in another little understood creature that is far from extinct. From an easygoing island paradise in 1948, Sri Lanka has been transformed into one of the most militarised societies in Asia. Its government is dominated by racist ideologues who promote the notion of the Sinhalese as a "chosen people" (the words of their first prime minister). Government death squads have snatched thousands of people from the streets over the years.
The country's highest court has explicitly rejected the role of international human rights instruments in Sri Lanka's affairs. And the government continues to deny that it killed civilians during the recent war, that there were battlefield executions, that it bombed hospitals, or that there is anything wrong with the sham democratic machinery of the state. The repressive creature of extreme nationalism is alive and well in Sri Lanka.
The UNHCR reported recently that there was a vast improvement in Sri Lanka, and hence it has raised the bar for refugee status for a large number of people. But this is so after any war. The refugee agency also noted that large numbers of Tamils still have grounds to fear persecution. By way of an example, the government of Sri Lanka has yet to make good on the three key points of an agreement it made with the UN Secretary-General in May 2009.
It still holds tens of thousands of civilians in internment camps. It shows no sign of instituting a political process to redress the half-century-old grievances of the Tamils, and thus remove the causes for any future conflict. And it shows no sign of seriously investigating allegations that both sides committed war crimes.
It broke every guarantee that it gave Ban Ki-moon not to use heavy weapons in civilian areas. Its interests lie in repression, not confession, and it has no interest in potential witnesses reaching these shores.
(Gordon Weiss was UN spokesperson in Sri Lanka during the war. He is the author of forthcoming The Cage; The Fight for Sri Lanka and the Last Days of the Tamil Tigers, Pan Macmillan.THis article appeared in "The Australian")