Has Life In Sri Lanka Really Normalised?


Political alarm over the spike in boat people arrivals last week prompted the Rudd Government’s momentous announcement that they would suspend processing for Afghan and Sri Lankan asylum seekers. 

The Government justified the halt in processing Sri Lankan asylum seekers on the grounds that the security situation in Sri Lanka is "normalising". The implication was that things are getting so normal, Tamil fears of persecution should subside.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Post-conflict Sri Lanka is marked by a dangerous descent into authoritarianism. The end of the civil war has heralded a new phase of Tamil marginalisation.

There are still, according to Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith, more than 90,000 Tamil civilians detained in military-run internment camps. In November 2009, the Sri Lankan Government promised these camps would be closed by the end of January.

A further 11,000–14,000 Tamils — including over 500 children (pdf) who are suspected of being former LTTE combatants — are being held in undisclosed areas. Non-government organisations and the international media are denied unrestricted access to both types of camps. With no transparent register, even those released cannot be measured against the total number detained by the state.

If incarceration by the government wasn’t enough, the latest US State Department report, released in March 2010, reveals even more physical insecurity facing the Tamil population.

According to the report, the overwhelming majority of victims of human rights violations in Sri Lanka — such as extrajudicial killings and disappearances — were young male Tamils. The report further noted that Tamils throughout the country reported frequent harassment by security forces, paramilitary groups and others believed to be working with the awareness and assistance of the government. This harassment included torture, kidnapping, hostage-taking, and extortion. This militarisation is not subsiding with the end of the war: The Times reported expanded military cantonments throughout the former conflict zone last week.

Moreover, the Sri Lankan Government has refused to consider any form of accountability for human rights violations, fostering the impunity that causes victims and witnesses to fear for their lives. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay has repeatedly criticised the Sri Lankan government for failing to examine allegations (pdf) of crimes committed in the war’s last stages. These extend to the shelling of hospitals, the use of cluster bombs and execution murders of unarmed prisoners. Former UN spokesman in Sri Lanka, Australian Gordon Weiss, estimated that up to 40,000 Tamil civilians had been killed in the war’s final throes. With the Sri Lankan Government refusing to cooperate, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon is apparently convening an expert panel to investigate such violations.

Importantly, the abuse of human rights in post-conflict Sri Lanka is not just limited to Tamils. The militarisation of society has been used to curb the civil rights of all Sri Lankans. Despite victory in the war, Sri Lanka continues to be governed as under a state of emergency — sweeping military and police powers are being used to detain individuals without charge.

Recently, dissenting Sinhala journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda was abducted, allegedly with state-backing, and has yet to be seen. Over the past four years, Reporters without Borders have documented at least 34 cases of media workers being murdered and even more instances of abduction and assaults. Most of the deaths were attributed to state-backed paramilitaries.

Even allies of the ruling Rajapakse regime are not immune. General Sarath Fonseka, the military architect of the war victory, was court martialled on obscure charges after his presidential candidacy posed a threat to Rajapakse’s dominance.

In such an environment, holding elections is itself no assurance of democratic governance. The Rajapakse regime — which swept to victory in last week’s parliamentary poll — is heavily clan-based with family members of the President holding key ministries and public administration roles. The election itself only generated 55 per cent voter turnout overall and 18 per cent in the Tamil-dominated North according to the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence.

Furthermore, thousands of Tamil IDPs in internment camps were denied the ability to vote due to administration errors. Even Sri Lanka’s former Chief Justice Sarath Silva has warned of the country’s descent into a Burma-style dictatorship. The election was marked by some 286 complaints of election violence and widespread charges of vote-rigging, thuggery and electoral fraud.

This context of corruption and mismanagement should be heeded by those who claim that economic development is poised to stabilise Sri Lanka.

Leaving aside the fact that development in itself is irrelevant to an ethnic conflict anchored on political rights, there is scant evidence that sufficiently robust governance structures exist in Sri Lanka to facilitate economic recovery. The Australian revealed in December that nearly $537 million in international tsunami aid for Sri Lanka was unaccounted for — and that more than $686 million has been spent on projects unrelated to the disaster.

While the resumption of simple normalities in the absence of open war is no doubt welcomed by those who endured the brutalities of the civil war, Sri Lanka is not on a trajectory toward reconciliation and political equality. The Tamil community is resolute in demanding a measure of self-governance — an unremarkable position with wide international support. Yet the victorious Rajapakse regime has ruled that out, rejecting self-rule and any measures to reassure Tamils of their collective identity within a unified Sri Lankan compact.

The US State Department report points out that Tamils continue to suffer systematic discrimination in university education, employment, housing and other matters controlled by the state.

Even Sri Lanka’s 2009 representative to the UN, Dr Dayan Jayatilleka, has characterised the present political climate as one in which "the Southern hawks, the Sri Lankan equivalent of the neoconservative populists, think that a Sinhala solution can be imposed upon the Tamils." The ongoing military occupation of the Tamil-majority North East bears this out. This virtual garrisoning is evidence not of a securitisation measure but of an agenda to intimidate Tamils into submission with the ensuing demographic change intended to irreparably damage their collective identity.

Not every Tamil has a claim to asylum in Australia and due process in processing asylum applications should be vigilantly maintained. But the simple fact is that until Tamils feel safe both individually and collectively in Sri Lanka, Rudd’s new policy is unlikely to deter asylum seekers, a stance validated by human rights activists in Sri Lanka itself such as Lakshan Dias. For those fleeing persecution, months of mandatory detention are preferable to the fear of physical violence and a pessimistic future.

What is more likely to reduce the flow of boats to Australian shores is meaningful progress towards political reform in Sri Lanka. As Chris Patten, former European Commissioner for External Relations, and now Co-Chairman of the International Crisis Group has argued, "international leverage, correctly applied, could help expand this small window for change, leading to the democratisation and demilitarisation the country desperately needs."

In February the European Union suspended Sri Lanka’s preferential trade status because of the island’s human rights record, specifically in respect of three UN conventions — the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention against Torture and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Rather than a haphazard and cynical policy towards asylum seekers, a more principled engagement with the Sri Lankan state is in Australia’s strategic interest — both to stop the boats and to promote human rights in the South East Asian region.

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