The 2004 Boxing Day tsunami that left almost a quarter of a million people dead and led to the world’s largest emergency aid program had a profound impact on two wars being fought in the region.
In Aceh, Indonesia, it contributed to the end of three decades of bloody conflict; in Sri Lanka, the tsunami ultimately led to the deaths of tens of thousands.
In Aceh, the Free Aceh movement (Gam) had been fighting the Indonesian government for a separate state. Gam retreated to the mountains following a declaration of martial law in 2002 and the escalation of the war by the Indonesian military.
In Sri Lanka, The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, better known as the Tamil Tigers, had similarly been fighting for a separate state in the north of the country. As a result of a 2002 Norwegian-brokered ceasefire, they managed to establish a semi-autonomous zone in the north of the country, but both the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government had withdrawn into increasingly hard line positions.
A dispute over whether tsunami emergency aid funds should be autonomously administered by the Tamil Tigers in their area of control meant that already high levels of distrust were further entrenched. Shaky movement towards a negotiated settlement drifted.
By contrast, in Aceh, Gam declared a unilateral ceasefire. There was a sense that assisting the people to rebuild had to take priority. The newly elected Yudhoyono administration put out feelers towards a possible resolution.
While opposing groups in Sri Lanka squabbled and retreated from each other, the international community applied pressure to both Gam and the Indonesian government to find a way forward.
Aceh’s peace talks began in Helsinki in January 2005 and, over the next six months, worked towards a compromise in which Aceh could have a high degree of political and economic autonomy if it remained within Indonesia. Indonesia’s own democratisation was hugely important to this, with the principle of local political representation clinching the deal.
With only animosity in Sri Lanka, the Tamil Tigers made the fatal error of stopping Tamils from voting in the 2005 presidential elections, which saw Mahinda Rajapaksa achieve the slimmest of victories, of 50.29%. Had Tamils voted, the more amenable Ranil Wickremesinghe would likely have won and negotiations could have resumed.
Rajapaksa’s victory ensured that a return to confrontation was all but inevitable. The Tamil Tigers own leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, was equally combative, retaining unrealistic faith in the Tiger’s ability to defeat the numerically superior government forces.
As late as 2007, there remained a chance for a negotiated settlement in Sri Lanka, but this ended when government forces resumed their attacks. By early 2009, the Tamil Tigers had been routed, at the cost of some 40,000 lives, with Sri Lanka’s ethnic division continuing as a running sore in the country’s body politic.
In Aceh, meanwhile, post-tsunami rebuilding continued, and the province assumed something approximating normalcy for the first time in the modern era. The peace agreement led to local elections, comfortably won by former Gam combatants.
The devastation caused by the tsunami created organisational, economic and political pressure in two deeply troubled regions. In one, these pressures highlighted differences, drove opposing sides apart and ultimately led to a further human catastrophe; in the other it pushed opposing sides to seek compromise.
The outcome in Sri Lanka has since served as a model for how to militarily crush a separatist movement, but remains globally deplored by human rights advocates. The outcome in Aceh has, by contrast, been viewed as a model for using democracy to achieve peace.
The 2004 tsunami created two choices for achieving a genuine peace in the areas it affected. Only one of them can be said to have been successful.
A certain predictability has developed in the public exchange on the human rights situation in Sri Lanka. In keeping with this predictability, the UN Human Rights Commission recent report on Sri Lanka’s continuing serious human rights abuses is yet another expression of deep international concern which, almost certainly, will end up gathering dust.
The Human Rights Commission report lists a litany of egregious human rights violations perpetrated by the Government of Sri Lanka or its agents dating back to the end of that country’s ethnic war in 2009. In response, the Government of Sri Lanka continues to deny all such accusations, claiming there is an international conspiracy against it and that the evidence is manufactured, falling back on the argument that its actions were predicated on crushing terrorism.
With the backing of states less sympathetic to human rights issues, Sri Lanka has, since 2008, been immune from expressions of international concern. Attempts to impose an internationally driven solution to its human rights situation or the fate of its ethnic Tamil minority have been blocked in the UN Security Council by Sri Lanka’s main international guarantor, China.
China’s interest in Sri Lanka is part of its so-called ‘String of Pearls’ strategic push into the Indian Ocean. However, with China making inroads into India’s strategic sphere of influence, India has also been keen to try to keep Sri Lanka on side following its troubled relationship.
As an initial gesture towards the West, Sri Lanka did allow a circumscribed ‘Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission’ investigation into the vast scale of atrocities that occurred in the period to May 2009. It was at that time that some 40,000 people were killed by intense government army attacks against civilians sheltering on a sliver of land in Sri Lanka’s north- east coast.
Yet even the innocuous report that came from this tame commission was effectively ignored, reflecting the government’s distaste for anything that does not accord with its brutally hard line on Sri Lanka’s ‘Tamil question’. So it was with the just released UN Human Rights Commission report on ‘Promoting reconciliation and accountability in Sri Lanka’.
UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay found that, despite previous recommendations, there had been no action by the government on issues of enforced ‘disappearances’, hate speech, witness protection or improved ‘truth seeking’ processes. She noted that there remained several outstanding human rights problems to be addressed by the Sri Lanka government.
Among continuing human rights problems identified by Ms Pillay were continued limitations on freedom of peaceful assembly and association, freedom of opinion and expression, extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and enforced or involuntary disappearances. In this, she expressed concern over the role and security of human rights defenders, the independence of judges and lawyers and discrimination against women both in law and in practice.
Overall, Ms Pillay said, there had been little movement towards addressing issues of truth about human rights abuses, issues of justice and reparation for victims, and guarantees of non-recurrence of human rights violations. All of these issues have also been highlighted by civil society organisations in Sri Lanka such as the Centre for Policy Alternatives.
In response to the report, Sri Lanka’s Permanent Envoy in Geneva, Ravinatha Aryasinha, ran the government’s usual line, claiming that the details of Ms Pillay’s report ‘reflect the preconceived, politicised and prejudicial agenda which she has relentlessly pursued with regard to Sri Lanka’. He accused Ms Pillay of ‘double standards’ and paying ‘scant or no regard to the domestic processes ongoing in Sri Lanka’.
He also criticized Ms Pillay’s report for arriving at conclusions in a ‘selective and arbitrary manner’ while ignoring requests from the Sri Lankan government to provide factual evidence to substantiate allegations and to otherwise not make ‘general comments’.
Yet Ms Pillay is not alone in the concerns expressed in her report. A petition signed by leading international figures, headed by South Afrca’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu, has called for an independent international investigation in the form of a Commission of Inquiry. ‘Only this will help to put the country on the path to justice and reconciliation’, the petition says. Similar comments have been expressed by the International Crisis Group and Human Rights Watch.
Underpinning the culture of impunity which informs Sri Lanka’s poor human rights record is a heightened sense of ethnic chauvinism and religious intolerance that has increasingly characterised Sri Lankan politics. This is now institutionalised under the Rajapaksa government, which has enjoyed massive ethnic Sinhalese support following the military defeat of the Tamil Tigers.
Since coming to office, President Rajapaksa’s government has been intolerant of dissent or opposition and has fostered a climate of fear. This initially focused on the country’s ethnic Tamil population, but has since spread to ethnic Sinhalese uncomfortable with the direction of Sri Lanka’s politics.
Sinhalese journalists are now regularly intimidated, occasionally abducted and sometimes murdered. Reporters Without Borders has consequently ranked Sri Lanka at 165th of 180 countries assessed. This shift away from plural politics towards a closed chauvinist ethno-politics has increasingly closed the distinction between the individual and the state, giving Sri Lanka an distinctly authoritarian hue.
For Tamils, despite the wars’ formal end, they remain second-class citizens in their country of birth. The north and east of the country, where most Tamils live, continues to function under military occupation, in which Tamil civilians do not know from day to day whether they will be subject to an arbitrary search, rape, torture or disappearance.
Despite concerns expressed by more liberal sections of the international community, and Ms Pillay’s report and others like it, the Sri Lanka government refuses to budge. With the backing of China, Russia and Pakistan, it is under little real pressure to do so.
Once relatively free, Sri Lanka has now firmly joined that list of authoritarian states that primarily acknowledge basic human rights in the breech. Despite the Human Rights Commission report, and others like it, there appears little the West can now do.
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.
In the dog-whistle competition between major political parties against asylum seekers and the war on alleged "terrorism", the Australian government has jailed legitimate refugees, without charge, for reasons -- extraordinarily -- we are not allowed to know about. Opposition Senator George Brandis claims refugees who are deemed a "security threat" should be jailed because they entered Australia "illegally", parroting the patently misleading line put by Opposition Leader Tony Abbott.
The government is more careful, simply saying a group of asylum seekers who have been granted refugee status have been found to be a security threat. Prime Minister Julia Gillard says we should not second-guess ASIO's security assessment of asylum seekers who are found to be genuine refugees but who have had an adverse security assessment:
"They know about things like the conflict in Sri Lanka. They use the best intelligence they can to give us the best advice they can. So any suggestion that these people are just naively ringing up governments around the world and saying 'What do you reckon?' is not fair to those intelligence analysts and you should not create that perception in people's minds."
This admonishment not to ask questions, however, runs contrary to what is known about the way in which the Australian government reached previous determinations on the issue. In terrorism trials against three Sri Lankan Tamil Australians in 2010, the Australian Federal Police relied on evidence provided directly by the Sri Lankan government. That case failed on the grounds that the Tamil Tigers, with which the defendents were allegedly connected, was not actually proscribed as a terrorist organisation in Australia.
While ASIO is not just naively ringing up governments around the world, at least one government is "ringing up" Australian security agencies and providing information. That information, from a government that is under scrutiny for war crimes and continuing human rights violations, has been deeply biased, hence flawed and quite often wrong.
The ASIO finding that some Tamil refugees remain committed to achieving a separate state for Tamils in Sri Lanka coincides with the Sri Lankan government's own assessment of their continuing, and self-serving, threat to that state. The Tamil Tigers were destroyed in 2009, along with the deaths of some 40,000 civilians, and they no longer exist.
But in Sri Lanka, Tamils are still persecuted and "disappeared", Tamil women are r-ped, and even non-Tamil Sri Lankans are increasingly living under the Rajapaksa government's jackboot. Journalists are targeted for assassination, the high court has been emasculated, and President Mahinda Rajapaksa has removed restraints on his personalised rule.
But, having fled this environment in fear of their lives, as found by the Refugee Tribunal, former combatants or or pro-independence sympathisers are now being jailed, under secret terms that, on the face of it, fit neatly with Sri Lanka’s authoritarian regime.
The government of Sri Lanka has been embarrassed over its human rights record by a call for a boycott campaign being run by respected Australian sports writer Trevor Grant. Grant has been using the Sri Lanka cricket team’s current tour of Australia to highlight what the UN believes were war crimes committed in Sri Lanka in 2009 and a subsequent campaign of human rights abuse against the country’s Tamil minority.
The campaign is the first politically driven proposed boycott of sports in Australia since the anti-apartheid boycotts of South African sporting teams in the 1970s and '80s.
While touring Australia, the Sri Lankan cricket team, self-proclaimed ambassadors for their country, have been touting a holiday resort on their country's north-east coast. Grant says the military built-and-run resort is situated at the site where some 40,000 Tamil non-combatant men, women and children died at the hands of the Sri Lanka military.
Among the many claims that about ‘boat people’ that are made in order to fulfil particular political agendas, one is that when a war is officially concluded then people who live in the once afflicted area have nothing more to worry about. As a result, they do not have a legitimate claim for protection against persecution.
If people flee such an area, the assumption is that they are ‘economic’ refugees, hoping to ‘queue jump’ in order to secure a better life for themselves. This has been the claim made about refugees fleeing Sri Lanka. This claim is morally wrong and it is wrong in fact.
From 1983 until 2009, a number of Tamil groups, eventually coming under the banner of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (Tamil Tigers), fought a bitter, bloody and often ruthless war to establish a separate ethnic Tamil state in Sri Lanka’s north and east. The war was a consequence of earlier anti-Tamil rioting.
At a time of bipartisan support for renewing the Pacific Solution, it is deeply disturbing to see the asylum seeker issue taking a turn for the more extreme. In a world of dog-whistle politics, it appears that further punishing victims is acceptable if it can score domestic political points.
Despite the opposition’s success in the government adopting its Pacific Solution, Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop’s call to return Sri Lankan asylum seekers to Sri Lanka without processing their claims reduces policy debate to moral abandonment. Backing her, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has displayed either ignorance or denial of the facts on the ground in Sri Lanka and Australia’s legal obligations.
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’.
Many of Sri Lanka’s problems can be attributed to its battle against the separatist Tamil Tigers, including impoverishing the country in order to prosecute the brutal war. But Sri Lanka has long been moving away from a more broadly representative parliamentary form of government to an increasingly narrow and authoritarian presidential model.
Having been politically rewarded for a hard line approach that brought military victory, it is unlikely that President Rajapaksa will soften his approach to Sri Lanka’s continuing problems.
Despite having to contest elections, Rajapaksa had earlier said that democracy is a luxury that Sri Lanka could not afford, and his increasingly authoritarian presidential style has reflected that opinion. Rajapaksa’s supporters regard anyone who dares oppose him or question his policies as a traitor to the country.