What Would Kevin Do?


When John Howard won the 2004 federal election one of the things he did not do was arrest the leader of the Opposition. Unfortunately, for the taxi drivers of Sydney and the many Labor luminaries who would later feature in his tell-all book, Mark Latham was allowed to roam free. He remains at large, occasionally reappearing clad in track pants and writing op-eds in the Australian Financial Review.

Similarly, when some Australian journalists exposed a few inconvenient and embarrassing facts about the Howard government, such as the detention of Cornelia Rau and the deportation of Vivien Solon, the government did not respond by harassing or assassinating the journalists. When the Howard government intervened in the Northern Territory, it did so, arguably, for the benefit of Indigenous Australians. The NT Intervention may have been misguided but the presence of Australian troops there did not result in the disappearance of any civilians.

Things are different in Sri Lanka. The Rajapakse Government has arrested the Leader of the Opposition and on its watch numerous incidents of violence and persecution have been perpetrated against civilians. This is galling for expatriate Sri Lankans, both Tamil and Sinhalese, but the Sri Lankan Government has absolutely no shame or embarrassment about any of these crimes and improprieties.

When asked about atrocities against women being committed by soldiers in the refugee camps, a Sri Lankan government official responded, in a perfect Oxbridge accent, that there were also "plenty of blue-eyed children in Vavuniya". In other words, he deflected a question about violence against women with a reference to relationships elsewhere in the country between foreign NGO staff and local women.

That’s the level of sincerity and oversight we’re talking about as far as basic human rights are concerned. It’s a bit like an elephant trying to achieve invisibility by closing its own eyes — we can all still see the elephant. There are credible reports of human rights abuses against Tamil refugees in Sri Lanka and against Sinhalese journalists and activists.

Quite frankly, both the Sinhalese and the Tamils have good reason to leave Sri Lanka. People should not have to put up with this type of behaviour from a government, no matter where in the world it is located. I’m not sure what Kevin Rudd is thinking. If the Sri Lankan Government has locked up General Sarath Fonseka, the man who won them the war against the Tamil Tigers, what are they going to do to the people they were fighting against?

An increasingly brutal war has left both sides traumatised and polarised. And those institutions charged with security — the military and the police — committed crimes against civilians that often went unpunished. These are the institutions that now have power over Sinhalese and Tamil civilians. Quite frankly, if we in Australia wouldn’t trust them with our children, why would we ask other people to trust them with theirs?

Left to their own devices ordinary Sinhalese and Tamils could live together quite peaceably. But Sri Lanka’s political elite has something to gain by fostering racial and religious disharmony.

Discriminating against Tamils means that people don’t ask about the tremendous income inequality between Sri Lankans. They won’t ask where all the aid money went or why it is that the children of Sri Lanka’s ruling elite live a privileged jet-setting lifestyle while the children of ordinary Sri Lankans are barely scraping by. They won’t ask about rural poverty or an increasing level of lawlessness and government thugs who appear to be above the law. These are real problems and they have not disappeared in the aftermath of the war.

So Sri Lankans are left with a government which may be complicit in human rights violations. They are also left with security forces who have more or less institutionalised criminal conduct. An army that got used to harassing civilians isn’t going to stop doing so just because armed opposition has disappeared. So the Tamils become the targets for persecution and the journalists who ask difficult questions face a similar situation.

Kevin Rudd should be intelligent enough to differentiate between right and wrong. What Australia needs is principled and intelligent decision-making on asylum seekers. This is not going to come from Australia’s other leadership contender, a man who seems to do little but run around in lycra and make inflammatory comments. What Australia does not need is a leader who retreats in the face of any opposition. It is one thing for Kevin Rudd to aspire to be a leader by consensus — but cowardice is another matter.

A lot of ordinary Sri Lankans are now scared for their safety and may well flee by boat. To not even hear them out is gutless and immoral. Rudd’s latest policy shift on asylum seekers delivers a punishment to the group who are fleeing persecution — and it is tantamount to endorsing the criminals that they are running from.

What is even more frightening is that the situation in Sri Lanka pales in comparison to that in Afghanistan. It’s hard to believe that this is the same government that is considering bringing in a Bill of Rights. But then, a Bill of Rights can be a symbol without any substance. Just ask a Sri Lankan.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.