Sri Lanka’s hosting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting has gotten off to a troubled start, with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh withdrawing his participation over the host country’s human rights record. This follows a decision by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper to also boycott the event due to human rights concerns.
British Prime Minister David Cameron is attending the event but has called for an independent international investigation into Sri Lanka’s human rights record if there is no meaningful progress by the Sri Lanka government. This marks an escalation of British pressure on Sri Lankan government, as it is the first time that the UK has called for an international investigation into the deaths of some 40,000 people in the closing stages of Sri Lanka’s Tamil separatist war.
While Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott is attending, his own visit has been overshadowed by the detention of Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon and New Zealand Greens MP Jan Logie. The two Greens politicians were attending pro-democracy meetings when they were detained and questioned, before being deported.
The Sri Lankan government’s somewhat brittle responses to human rights concerns was only highlighted to journalists covering CHOGM. The Sri Lankan Government handed out to visiting journalists a 222-page book attacking reports by the UK’s BBC Channel 4 on human rights issues in Sri Lanka. Channel 4 has issued a rebuttal.
Singh withdrew from the CHOGM under pressure from Indian politicians, in particular from the large Tamil Nadu state in south-eastern India. While Sri Lanka’s Tamils are largely separate, the two groups have retained close cultural contacts, and the Tamil Nadu government provided support to Tamil Tiger rebels in the 1980s.
India is also concerned about the growing influence of China in Sri Lanka, given Sri Lanka’s strategic proximity to India. China helped arm the Sri Lankan army for its final push against the Tamil Tigers in 2009 and has since invested heavily in the country, including helping to build a port in the south of the country.
Since the Sri Lankan government crushed the Tamil Tigers, there have been increasing concerns about broader human rights issues. These have included forced disappearances, sexual violence against Tamil women, attacks on Sri Lanka’s media and what is said by critics to be an increasing closure of Sri Lanka’s democracy.
Abbott will attend CHOGM, in part not wishing to offend a government that has been quite willing to assist with stopping asylum seekers leaving Sri Lanka for Australia by boat. However, the conditions that compel at least some Sri Lankans to leave their homes for the risky journey to Australia will now receive closer attention by the international media.
The Sri Lankan government had hoped to showcase the country’s development since the end of the Tamil separatist war. Increasingly, however, the international media is focusing on stories a little more critical than an otherwise largely anodyne meeting in a country that has such a bloody recent history.
Hot on the heels of the revelation that Sri Lankan soldiers murdered the 12-year-old son of Tamil Tiger leader Prabhakaran in cold blood and last week’s shooting of a journalist in Colombo, the International Crisis Group has released a report deploring what it calls Sri Lanka’s "authoritarian turn". The ICG report calls for international action to halt the Sri Lankan government's erosion of democracy and its recent "constitutional coup".
The ICG report says that the Sri Lankan government has made no meaningful progress on accountability for war crimes that occurred during the conclusion of its war against the Tamil Tigers in 2009. "Instead," it said, the Sri Lankan government "has accelerated the country’s authoritarian turn, with attacks on the judiciary and political dissent that threaten long-term stability and peace".
A leading Australian human rights think-tank has expressed serious concern over the basis of investigations by Australia’s domestic intelligence organisation, ASIO, into Sri Lankan Tamil refugees. The Director of Deakin University’s Centre for Citizenship, Development and Human Rights, Professor Damien Kingsbury, has cast doubt on ASIO’s investigations. Professor Kingsbury said ASIO’s investigation bore the hallmarks of an anti-Tamil campaign being directed by the Sri Lanka government.
ASIO’s blacklisting of a pregnant ethnic Tamil mother, Ranjini, who had been granted Australian residency and married an Australian citizen, has led to her being detained without charge or trial.
It is believed that a further three ethnic Sri Lankan Tamils who had been granted refugee status have also since been detained as a result of ASIO’s blacklisting.
When one’s expectations are low, it is difficult to be disappointed. But even with almost no expectation that the report of Sri Lanka’s ‘Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission’ (LLRC) would seriously address prima facie evidence of war crimes, it has still left a wide range of observers dismayed. The only lesson that appears to have been learned is that the government of Mahinda Rajapaksa has worked out how to get away with murder.
The Journal of Foreign Relations said the report ‘exonerates the military, does not touch on the question of accountability and includes some touchy-feely language about the country’s need to move forward, celebrate its diversity and be grateful for the defeat of terrorism’.
With waves of Tamil refugees now fleeing Sri Lanka, the question has been raised as to whether any among those seeking asylum are members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, better known as the Tamil Tigers, a group proscribed as a terrorist organisation in many countries. This question reflects a Western obsession with ‘terrorism’, but not much about what drives people to supporting such ‘terrorism’ or fleeing their own country.
The situation in Sri Lanka has been, since independence in 1948, that the Tamil minority have been increasingly marginalised and persecuted by the Sinhalese majority. Sinhalese was long the official language of state, structurally excluding Tamils from public life, with this situation remaining the situation in practice. There have been numerous anti-Tamil riots and the deaths of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of ethnic Tamils at various times over decades.