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Denial is not effective

By Bruce Haigh - posted Monday, 16 November 2009


One positive thing to emerge from the stand-off with Sri Lankan asylum seekers in Indonesia is that it has forced the Australian Foreign Minister, Stephen Smith, to confront the source of the problem. In a flying visit to Colombo he urged the Sri Lankan government to crack down on people smugglers and offered assistance to re-build the country after the disastrous 30-year civil war.

All a bit rich when it was Sri Lankan government forces who caused most of the damage and instead of negotiating with the Tamil minority bankrupted the country in order to crush them, that being the sole aim of the of the use of military force and the continued detention of 300,000 Tamils in military run camps, seven months after the cessation of hostilities.

People smugglers arise in respect to demand. They are an end product as a result of internal repression. There are no people smugglers operating out of Australia. The minor reform of refugee policy, has not led to an exodus of people from China, Vietnam or India. It is the push factor in operation with people from Sri Lanka, Sudan, Somalia and Afghanistan that is creating the need for people smuggler operations.

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Smith’s visit to Sri Lanka will achieve little, particularly a visit of such short duration. Despite the polite words, the inward looking jingoistic Sri Lankan government will have been offended. Smith’s visit was all about domestic politics; trying to get the Sri Lankan government to co-operate in solving an Australian political issue.

Politicians of the major parties do not welcome advice from visiting academics, UN officials and others on what reforms Australia should undertake with respect to Aboriginal Australians. They should not expect a self-centred fly-in fly-out to be any better received in Sri Lanka. Smith did not visit the camps nor seek to make any other humanitarian gesture towards displaced Tamils.

Through one-eyed diplomacy Australia has created the dilemma it is now faced with. For 30 years it backed one side in an increasingly bitter civil war. It never once called for negotiations, backed a Commonwealth, UN, or the only initiative which did develop, that of the Norwegian government.

The consequence was the crushing of the Tamils, under an agenda amounting to genocide, which has led them to seek an escape from persecution.

Successive Australian governments have gone along with the western hysteria of labelling all dissident groups terrorists. The Sri Lankan government seized on this and sold the pup that all Tamil soldiers were terrorists, mainly because of Tamil suicide bombers targeting civilians in Colombo and other centres. They did not label themselves as terrorists for commando and other military raids on Tamil homes and the extra judicial killings of young Tamils picked off the streets of Colombo. These activities became tit for tat. So why did the Australian government take sides?

The Sri Lankan High Commission in Australia should be requested to stop its harassment of Australian citizens of Tamil origin and of other abuses of diplomatic privilege centred on justifying and defending genocide.

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Australian agencies particularly the AFP, should cease giving weight to the dubious claims and statements of Sri Lankan government and Sinhalese operative, Rohan Gunaratna, self styled expert on terrorism with a vested interest in denigrating Tamils from his own country. He demonstrates little understanding on the causes of terrorism.

The Australian government has created a problem throughout the region by dealing uncritically with corrupt regimes with the notable and laudable exception of Fiji. Despite democratic trappings the government of Sri Lanka is no better than the government of Fiji. Australia needs to inject some consistency and realism into the conduct of its foreign policy.

Australia appears to have learnt nothing from East Timor. Denial is no solution to the repression of people, sooner or later the boil will burst and the consequences will have to be dealt with.

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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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