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Kicking the ants nest

By Bruce Haigh - posted Tuesday, 26 May 2009


For the past two decades reports produced by the Australian High Commission in Colombo have favoured the Sri Lankan government at the expense of the Tamils in the north and east of the island. The Australian government has been poorly informed on the situation in Sri Lanka. Canberra has sought to demonise the Tamils.

Reports from Australian embassies supporting the status quo are nothing new. For 25 years the Indonesian occupation of East Timor was supported by our embassy in Jakarta and it was with reluctance that support for the Apartheid regime was gradually reduced by the embassy in Pretoria in the late 1970s.

The war in Sri Lanka is a civil war.

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After the ending of British colonial rule, the minority Tamils were progressively marginalised by the Sinhalese in the social, cultural, political and economic life of their country.

Both sides vied with each other in acts of violence. The Sinhalese have long “disappeared” young Tamils off the streets of Colombo. White windowless vans are feared by Tamils. The Sinhalese have murdered Tamil prisoners of war and raped, tortured and killed Tamils in Internally Displaced Camps under their control.

The Tamil Tigers were prone to violence against Sinhalese civilians. The Tamils, like the Palestinians, fought back from a limited military, diplomatic and economic base with skill and ferocity. They sought to maximise power and to do that they needed the support of the Tamil population. When that waivered they used threats, punitive measures and punishment to force support. Those measures were not condoned by anyone in the international community. But in the absence of the diplomatic and international support given to the Sinhalese, the Tamil leadership felt they had no other option than to force compliance and to secure negotiations by military means.

Mutual antipathy between Tamils and Sinhalese turned to hatred over the years, to the point that it is difficult to see reconciliation. Backed and encouraged by the Bush administration, who declared one side in a civil war terrorists; the Sinhalese army has militarily overwhelmed the Tamil Tigers.

There are reports that the Tigers used Tamil women and children as human shields, and they may have done, but that does not excuse the Sri Lankan government from carrying through on what amounts to genocide.

The solution was always for a separate Tamil state. However this outcome will need to be negotiated by third parties as the effect of the horrible crushing of the Tamils will spawn another generation of suicide bombers and guerrilla fighters, just as it has done with the Palestinians.

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Australian diplomacy, which had plenty of opportunity to get it right in Sri Lanka, has failed. It followed rather than led and as a result Australia has no leverage.

The Australian High Commission in Colombo reported developments with the bias and language that Canberra wished to hear. With scant regard to the realities of the situation, the Department of Immigration insisted on the High Commission obtaining Sinhalese police clearances in relation to Tamils applying for refugee status. Thus notified the police and army were then in a position to persecute family members in Sri Lanka.

Reporting by the High Commission in Colombo was so poor that when working on the Refugee Review Tribunal from 1995-2000 I found I could not rely on DFAT reports in arriving at a decision.

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About the Author

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who served in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1972-73 and 1986-88, and in South Africa from 1976-1979

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