Dec 6, 2012

Bruce Haigh: it’s just not cricket playing with oppressive Sri Lanka

Australia is complicit in a corrupt government's oppression of its people, claims former diplomat Bruce Haigh. He makes the case why Sri Lankan asylum seekers should not be returned home.

Who would have thought that in the space of 17 years, Australia could have gone from being a leading champion in the worldwide fight to end the racial discrimination of apartheid to siding with the corrupt and venal government of Sri Lanka in the genocide of Tamils. Australia has former prime minister John Howard to thank, with the raw racism and political expediency embodied in "we will decide who comes here", the policy of turning back the boats, mandatory detention and temporary protection visas -- all directed against asylum seekers. Unfortunately Labor prime ministers Rudd and Gillard embraced at first the essence, and now the substance of his policies. Acting on the word of the victorious Sinhalese government, which has shown no inclination to seek reconciliation with the vanquished Tamil minority at the end of a 28-year-old civil war, the Australian government is sending back to Sri Lanka asylum seekers without any assessment of their claims to be refugees. They are being termed economic opportunists, apparently on the basis of the town, village or area that they come from in Sri Lanka. Over the past few days former members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have been returned. Assuming, for one moment, that asylum seekers from Sri Lanka are "economic refugees", there must be something dreadfully wrong with their economic circumstances to drive them onto boats for a lengthy and perilous sea journey to Australia. The alleged siren calls of avaricious people smugglers cuts no ice with those familiar with their circumstances except some federal politicians and public servants. A survey conducted by Essential Research found only 5% of respondents believed Gillard principled on the issue of asylum seekers and 8% with respect to Abbott. On the other hand 39% saw Gillard as playing politics and 42% saw Abbott as similarly engaged. The fact is that asylum seekers arriving from Sri Lanka by boat are not economic refugees; if they are Tamil they are fleeing the country because they are members of an oppressed minority and if they are Sinhalese they are fleeing because they have run afoul of an oppressive state. Over 40 Sri Lankan journalists have been killed in the past 10 years for seeking to expose issues of corruption in government and the unlawful abduction and killing of Tamils and other opponents of the regime. Sri Lanka is at the bottom of the international pile when it comes to press freedom and the rights of minorities. The crushing of the Tamil separatists was bankrolled by the Chinese, who have built a large naval base on the west coast of Sri Lanka with the capacity to threaten sea lanes in the Indian Ocean. They are in the process of turning Sri Lanka into a vassal state and lining pockets along the way to do so. Sri Lanka would be bankrupt were it not for the Chinese, who have as their price internal stability. A program to eliminate the Tamils will not bring that about. Australia has become complicit in the genocide of Sri Lanka's Tamil minority. Asylum seekers that arrive in Australia are being given no opportunity to make a statement of claims. Acting on the advice of the Sri Lankan government, they are being returned to Sri Lanka on the basis that they have no claims. Any claim they make is regarded as spurious. On November 30, 50 were woken at 3am at the Northern Immigration Centre in Darwin, taken to an "interview session", where their claims were rejected, and then put on a charter flight back to Sri Lanka. Their bags had been packed in their absence. On arrival all were detained and sent to Negombo Prison, where returnees are regularly mistreated and beaten. Another 500 men are awaiting return at NIDC. On Friday the deportation of another 56 men was halted by Ian Rintoul of the Refugee Action Coalition and Dr Bala Vigneswaran of the Australian Tamil Congress, who sought and gained an urgent injunction of the High Court. Yet in a dramatic move yesterday, the government agreed to screen-in the men and avoid the High Court. Six hundred Sri Lankan asylum seekers have been removed from Australia since August. Refugee advocates refer to what is occurring to the asylum seekers as refoulement. Refoulement is against Australian and international law. It occurs when a state or organisation returns an asylum seeker or refugee to a place, "… where his [sic] life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion". The avoidance of refoulemont is a basic tenet of refugee law. Australian lawyers and people of conscience should be up in arms. How low have political imperatives driven both major parties as they scrabble for votes at the bottom of the barrel? The issue for Australians to ponder is this, the object of cruel political expediency may be people without citizenship at the moment, but how long will it be before some among us might be declared a threat to state security and targeted and persecuted for perceived political gain? Given what is occurring at the moment it is not much of a jump. The Sri Lankan cricket team will be touring Australia from December 6 to January 28. The season kicks off in Canberra and includes tests in Hobart, Melbourne and Sydney, plus one-day games. There was a time when Australia boycotted sport, in particular cricket with countries that abused human rights, including South Africa and Zimbabwe. Why are we playing cricket with Sri Lanka? *Bruce Haigh is a former diplomat and political commentator. He served in Sri Lanka and was a member of the Refugee Review Tribunal.

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24 thoughts on “Bruce Haigh: it’s just not cricket playing with oppressive Sri Lanka

  1. pritu

    Thank you Mr Haigh. The plight of the Sri Lankan Tamils is every bit as apalling as that suffered by non-white South Africans under Apartheid. Every Australian should read Oondatjie’s “Anil’s Ghost” to get what it feels like to be in that country. Why are we playing test cricket with such an apalling country’s team?

  2. Tom Makin

    it’s difficult to get the balance right. Mark Davis from SBS did a report on Sri Lankan boat people and interviewed them. from the report, all those who appeared in it were not under threat and wanted to get to Oz for a better life. even the former commando of the Tamil Tiger said that it is safe there but he is sadden that many young people are leaving. there was allegations by human rights group about disappearance of people, do we know where they disappeared to? to Oz or Canada or was it state sanctioned oppression or non-state sanctioned corruption?

    certainly Oz needs to play by the rule and give asylum seekers fair assessment process. but one needs to be careful how the interview and assessment process is conducted. the best way is to let them tell their own story and judge from it. certain way questioning could give the non-genuine refugees ideas to concoct a story to pass the vetting process. having assistance from lawyers might lead to sympathetic advocates who help them to construct stories to meet the criteria, such as the case of hirsi ali, why even help her in the first place? the fraudster makes condi rice look credible.

    improper procedure could lead to encouragement of more economic migrants to come. and it’s not just drowning or political issue one needs to worry about, when you create incentive for many to come they will exhaust the resources which should be directed to genuine refugees overseas desperate for a resettlement offer. but unfair procedure could end up harming those who have valid claims.

  3. Bob the builder

    Well said. Even Maggie Thatcher was pressured by hunger-strikers in Ireland, but in today’s complacent, resentful Australia, hunger-strikers are barely reported, except as being some sort of an irritating inconvenience.
    We seem to have become so lazy – or so certain of our irrelevance as citizens – that we barely respond to illegal wars, mistreatment of the most vulnerable and other shameful injustices perpetrated in our name.

  4. Siva

    Yes I did see the SBS programme, However these people were interviewed in front and on the supervisation of the Sinhalese Sri Lankan aremd forces and the police. Many peole interviewed in the east had their faces and identificatin showed. What else will you expect them to state the truth or what the Sri Lankan government wants them to state. The SBS reporter had revealed theri identity openly and will leave for Australia but these people would have had to face the horrible consequences if they had really stated the truth. Espwcially if they are Tamils.
    The thing with most diplomats and the western media is they do not really want to know the truth as itis very uncomfortable for them or their governments so sit in luxurious hotels in Colombo or other southern cities where they are wined and dined lavishly at the expense of the Sri Lankan government and then taken on tours by the Sri Lankan government or Armed forces to certain show case villages or prjects and come back and psot glowing false reports on how well the Tamils are treated by the Sri Lankan government when in reality it is the oppostie.
    This is what even the UN report stated. Far more innocenet Tamil civilians died under hands of the Sri Lankan aremd forces far grater in number than Bosnia Sebrenica Syria Libiya put toghether but the UN abd the West failed them

  5. Lewis Stoll

    Nobody is suggesting that the Sri Lankan government isn’t corrupt, dysfunctional and by many reports, oppressive towards civil disobedience but if we are to put things into perspective:
    – the LTTE were are terrorist organisation that destroyed public infrastructure, used human shields, employed child soldiers and killed innocent civilians throughout the civil war. This was a war and they were by no means innocent. I would have strong reservations in granting asylum to a member of the LTTE. It is true that the conflict arose from tensions caused by systemic socio-political marginalization of Tamils but the violent facts still remain.
    – the Tamils, while traditionally a marginalised minority are integrated into many facets of Sri Lankan society. From the tea pickers in Nuweralya to the current vice captain of the Sri Lankan cricket team, Angelo Mathews(not to mention Muttiah Muralidaran, the country’s greatest cricketer). Given how entrenched state politics are in the cricket board, I doubt Mathews would be playing, let alone vice captain, if everyday Tamils (not LTTE sympathisers) were as oppressed as the article suggests.

    Yes it is true that in the north (Jaffna), the Tamil community are socio economically disadvantaged. This is a legacy of previous political values that will take time to heal. The government appears to be trying to manage dissidence and LTTE sympathy.Like any normal person, I abhor the way they have used violence and oppression in this scenario but without ever living through a civil war it’s easy to sit back and criticise from the comfort of Australia.

    So what do we do? Boycott the series? Boycott Sri Lanka? All that serves to do is take away one thing that helps to distract Sri Lankan people from the rigours of living in a third world country. The passion for cricket over there is rivalled only by India. Why punish the players and the citizens for actions by the government? The same applies to travelling there. Sri Lanka is a fascinating country filled with amazing food and friendly people. A western guilt complex wont help them. I really detest this banning, boycotting, removing culture we are creating. Perhaps instead of advocating for boycotts, the author could try to get a hold of Kumar Sangakarra or current captain Mahela Jayawardena and write a piece on their views about the situation and the glue that cricket is to their society at the moment..

  6. Tom Makin

    Siva, we can all keep on going on claims and counter claims forever. The fact is no one knows what the real situation is in Sri Lanka. There were many who admitted to be economic migrants and were returned. They put people who try to leave in prison as a deterrence so people won’t leave. If they’re interested in cleansing out the Tamils they would have let them all leave the country freely.

    The Tamil Tigers used civilians as human shield and you blame it all on the government. Be fair now.

  7. Tom Makin

    The government is ethnically cleansing out the Tamils but they spend so much money to guard their coast and try to stop them from leaving? Put some common sense into the debate.

  8. Tom Makin

    Ooh, looks better with proper capitals. Might subscribe to this site, it has good discussions.

  9. Warren Joffe

    My elderly mother is delighted to have a bit of rough gardening and house cleaning done by a not too demanding unionised Tamil and I guess lots of Crikey readers and families wouldn’t mind a bit of the advantage the entrenched locals have usually had from the immigration of relatively impoverished foreigners with a bit of nous and a background of work ethic. So, it is easy to sympathise with our letting in more Tamils who are at least as likely to speak English as any Sinhalese (though not Burgers of course) and more likely to work hard. That’s just self-inerest making humanitarianism easy.

    I wonder about Bruce Haigh’s credentials though. I see his name as a retired diplomat and so, this time, have looked up his CV. Looks like he fell out with the Keating government (or maybe Gareth Evans in testy mood). Could that have been because he said rude things about Keating’s mate Soeharto and was unwise enough to suggest that the Bandaranike dynasty were just as bad (not true but not totally untrue)? Anyway he seems only to have served v. briefly in Sri Lanka, where, btw, the Rajapakse clan really are approaching the Soeharto league.

    But, also, Bruce if you are there, or maybe someone else could tell us about that Chinese naval base on the “west coast”. Is that meant to be a reference to Hambantota which is decidely not on the west coast but just to the west of the centre of the south coast, and not near to the turning point to the north which only the 2004 tsunami negotiated easily and swiftly?

    The Tamil business is not nearly as simple as BH and some comments suggest though a shrewd remark was made about Sri Lanka in a recent Atlantic article to the effect that the Sinhalese are the only majority who behave and think as though they are a minority (no doubt because of the vast numbers of Tamils to the north in Tamil Nadu – in SL the total number is only about 17 per cent and they divide into two different communities historically and geographically). Amongst the problems once one sets aside the baleful influence of Bandaranaike opportunism from the 1950s in the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka are, e.g. the fascist nature of the terrorist Tamil regime in the far north where the oppression of their own people was appalling, especially the uneducated peasantry and fishermen: let’s not forget that it was those Hindus who invented modern suicide bombing as a political tactic; e.g. the general ignorance amongst Sinhalese of their own history and demography (for example not knowing that the 8 per cent or so of “plantation Tamils” dating back to the foundation of British tea estate in the mountains of the south are a totally different community from the 9 per cent Tamils of the north who – another fact unknown to a typical Sinhales – have been there 1000 years and even were part of a Hindu kingdom of most of Ceylon. But…. before I go on….

    The treatment of the Tamils is nothing like the treatment of blacks in Apartheid era South Africa except that one can find a hotelier or boarding house owner having to decide not to try and employ Tamils and Sinhalese together, even now when the civil war is over, because they don’t get on…. Funny when you hear Sinhalese, with very dark skins (much more suited to Australian sun than the Anglo-Celtic or Slav) speaking of the Tamils as black, or “very dark” (and therefore recognisable) in often somewhat disparaging tones. But Apartheid, forget about it. As Doestevsky might have put it, every unhappy country is unhappy in its own way.

    Of course Sri Lanka was made to be paradise and blew its chances when it had good foreign exchange reservers in the mid 50s, Singapore had none to speak of, and one Cambridge educated leader – Lee Kwan Yew, showed another – Solomon Dias Bandaranaike, how to govern a country effectively. (One tiny clue: the practical Lee did nothing like the idiotic politicking of Bandaranaike in attempting to establish just one national language – and not English or Tamil, and one national religion – Buddhism, in a country with many Hindus, Muslims and various flavours of Christianity. But Lee didn’t try to appeal to allies on the left….Temptation to say something about Gillard foregone….).

  10. AsGrayAs

    Ditto @Bob the builder. I have, many times, heard a scoff of dismissal in response to news stories re: hunger-striking and lip-sewing refugees in Australian detention centres. These protesting asylum-seekers are being let down by a succession of governments unwilling to act in accordance with international law and UN obligations; populist politics, but only ever listening to the fearful vocal minority. Weak.
    @Siva, thanks to you too for your comment. These practices are standard, unfortunately. Our diplomats, trade officials, etc., are either too stupid to see through the veneer provided by the SL government/military, or they are knowingly turning a blind eye. Trusting that back home in Oz, the dispassionate voting public either won’t care, or are being blindsided by the ‘tsunami of illegals’ flooding our shores… I continue to be baffled by the fact that the refugee issue is even considered an issue.
    I really shouldn’t be, though; I know where I live…

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