Politicians Off The Mark On Sri Lanka


In the frantic environment of an election race, there is always one favourite that starts at Black Caviar odds.

You can bet the house that misrepresentations, deceptions, fabrications and unashamed lies will begin to flow like a mountain stream in spring. There is a pathological need among our elected officials for the slightest advantage, and often they do whatever it takes to crib a centimetre or two over an opponent. Once it succeeds, often due to sloppy media work, there’s no stopping them.

It is both instructive, and disturbing, to see the manner in which the federal election campaign has begun, with a flood of misleading information being fed into the public record by such high-profile political leaders as Foreign Affairs Minister Bob Carr, Foreign Affairs spokesperson and deputy Coalition leader, Julie Bishop and Coalition Immigration spokesperson, Scott Morrison.

Bishop, Morrison and Coalition Customs spokesperson, Michael Keenan, went to Sri Lanka on a "fact-finding mission" last week. They came back with glowing reports of life there, not least for Tamils whom they said, contrary to so many independent reports, were living peacefully now that the war was over.

Bishop said she saw or heard no evidence of the persecution of Tamils during her visit with Tamil MPs and others in the north, where most Tamils live. Morrison told a press conference upon his return people who talked about persecution of Tamils were talking in the past. He said things had changed markedly from the days of white van disappearances and torture chambers. Get up to date, he urged critics of the Rajapaksa regime.

According to the Tamil National Alliance MP, Sivagnanam Sritharan, the trio were brought up to date in a 90-minute meeting in his office in the northern town of Kilinochchi last Monday week.

Sritharan later told a Canadian Tamil radio show, an interview broadcast at 3CR in Melbourne last Wednesday, he had informed them that Sri Lankan intelligence officers had raided his office two weeks earlier and jailed two of his staff members, who remain behind bars. He said he gave Bishop documents about the raid. "The Australians asked us why Tamil refugees are choosing to come to Australia. We made it very clear that our people do not have peace. They live in fear," Sritharan said.

"Even for me as a politican I am facing challenges to exercise my rights. Therefore it is very difficult for an average Tamil to live here. Hence, they choose to go to Australia, a country that will save lives, that respects human rights."

A returned Tamil refugee, Krishnan Prttheepan, from Batticaloa in eastern Sri Lanka, told the ABC’s 7.30 report in December all about this fear. He said he had claimed political asylum because the Sri Lankan government suspected him of being linked to the now-defunct Tamil Tigers.

"I took the risk of dying in the sea because I know I will die here. But even if I reached Australia and died there, that would be better than dying here in Sri Lanka," he told reporter Michael Edwards.

Sritharan also revealed why villagers in the Mullaitivu district, who were visited by Bishop and Morrison, were so reticent to speak to them. "There was military presence everywhere. You could see Sri Lankan intelligence people standing nearby holding mobile phones. People were very scared and stayed back. You could see in their faces they were frightened. We told the Australians this is the reality for Tamils in Sri Lanka," he said.

Bishop and co went to Sri Lanka with one objective; to promote an inhumane policy that includes sending all refugees back, regardless of asylum claims. It’s a bit like the editor of a tabloid newspaper who writes his front-page headline at morning conference and says to a reporter: "Go get me a story to fit it."

They appeared determined to find the facts to fit their story, which is that all Sinhalese and Tamil refugees are economic migrants, not desperate people fleeing from danger. Sell this one to the Australian public and they would have carte blanche to be as callous and heartless as they plan to be once in office.

Carr is no different. He went to Sri Lanka in December with an election in mind and the objective of getting help to stop the boats. Using the "whatever-it-takes" two-step, he danced cheek-to-cheek with the dictatorial leader of a regime accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity and on-going persecution of Tamils. Then he had the temerity to tell Australian TV that he believed it was safe to return Tamil refugees to Sri Lanka, a mere six weeks after the Australian delegate to the UN Human Rights Council told Sri Lanka to "reduce and eliminate all cases of abuse, torture or mistreatment by police and security forces … and all cases of abductions and disappearances."

The latest Human Rights Watch report on Sri Lanka for 2012 describes the regime as a brutal, recalcitrant denier of democratic rights that tortures its own citizens. "Overly-broad detention powers remained in place," says the report. "Several thousand people continued to be detained without charge or trial. State security forces committed arbitrary arrests and torture against Tamils. Tamils who returned to Sri Lanka, including deported asylum seekers, reported being detained. A number reported being tortured by the Central Intelligence Department and other security forces."

Independent evidence, no matter how compelling, does not count with the likes of Carr, Bishop and Morrison.

Indeed, nothing counts for them on refugee issues, except repeating the mantra of "economic migrants" and "queue-jumping illegals" often enough to gain public acceptance for their cruel policies.

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.