Foreign Minister Bob Carr has led the charge to comfort Sri Lanka in the wake of UN allegations (pdf) over the killing of at least 40,000 Tamil civilians at the end of the civil war in 2009, going so far as to provide Australian guidance to the Rajapaksa regime in preparing for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in November.
The decision by the Commonwealth to give Sri Lanka the high-profile meeting was controversial from the start. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is refusing to attend unless the Sri Lankan government properly investigates the mass murder of Tamil civilians in 2009.
Now it looks increasingly inappropriate, after the Sri Lankan military and police fired on hundreds of villagers last week. They were protesting the contamination of their water supply by a major corporation that sells rubber gloves worldwide, including to Australia.
At least three people were killed and dozens were admitted to hospital with head and chest injuries, many in a critical condition, from bullets and blunt instruments believed to have been wielded by soldiers. People who fled to a church to escape the military onslaught were hunted down and several were shot. Journalists covering the protest were also attacked.
The attack on the villagers from Weliweriya has prompted an outcry across the country, mainly because these people are from the Sinhalese majority in the south of the country and not Tamils, who regularly suffer persecution at the hands of the military in the north but get little media attention.
Former Sri Lanka Army officer, now opposition MP, Karu Jayasuriya, said in a media statement on Lanka News Web:
“We are shocked about the suppressive behaviour of a few individuals of the forces, by which innocent lives were lost and people were assaulted badly (and at) harassing people who sought refuge in a catholic church and shooting and threatening them in the precincts of the church.”
Jayasuriya also pointed to the issue of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting and, for a supporter of the military, was unusually candid:
“A massive damage has been done internationally due to this incident. Where there are allegations against the army regarding many incidents in the north, incidents of this nature occurring in the south will pave the way for the (Tamil) diaspora and the international community to point a finger at the administration of the country.
“This will create an opportunity for their accusations regarding the breakdown of good governance and democracy. Incidents of this nature on the eve of the Commonwealth conference will severely damage the reputation of this country.”
Australia has rejected the call to boycott CHOGM.The Coalition has said it will attend if elected to government on 7 September.
”Any suggestion of a boycott would be counter-productive. It would simply isolate the country and render it defiant of international opinion,” Carr told the ABC Lateline program on 26 April.
“Our challenge is to keep the pressure on to see there are further improvements.”
Former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, also speaking to Lateline, called on Australia to boycott CHOGM, citing human rights violations. Carr said he had seen no evidence of abuse. The Australian Government has given more than $226 million in aid to the Rajapaksa government since the end of the civil war in 2009.
Critics of Carr’s support for Sri Lanka, accused by the UN of war crimes and crimes against humanity, say it is based on the Australian Government’s need for co-operation to stem the flow of asylum seeker boats from the country.
The killing of the unarmed protesters at Weliweriya is the latest in a series of events in Sri Lanka that have prompted serious questions over its suitability to host the Commonwealth’s most important, and most visible, gathering.
The government-orchestrated removal of the chief justice earlier this year reverberated through the international legal community, prompting a written report by high-profile Australian barrister Geoffrey Robertson for the English Bar Human Rights Committee that included a demand for a boycott of CHOGM. “Governments which respect the rule of law should not attend,” Robertson wrote.
The Bar Association of Sri Lanka called on the government to launch an independent inquiry into the Weliweriya killings and suggested that responsibility for the attack may belong at high levels of command. “It is our view that this action which is manifestly a planned action, is motivated by the desire to suppress the legitimate right to dissent and to protest ,” it said in a statement.
“We see this action as the culmination of a series of attacks by the police on students, trade unions and even lawyers. It is unlikely that an extraordinary action such as calling the army to disperse a protesting crowd would have been taken without orders from the highest level.”
While there have been widespread calls for an independent inquiry, the government response has been through the army, which has announced it will investigate the killings through a board of inquiry.
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