Published ABC Unleashed: http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/stories/s2574406.htm
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.
However 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 1970’s.
In the world of diplomacy it is more comfortable to support the status quo than oppose it. Posts often report what they believe Canberra wants to hear. Sometimes they are told to modify reports and sometimes Canberra will change reports that the post knows to be true.
The, ability and courage of diplomatic personnel are not always what we might expect of Australians serving their country overseas. The natural conservatism of Australians is reflected in the composition and direction of their institutions, often at the expense of what is right or what ought to constitute good policy.
The Australian government has been badly informed by the High Commission on the situation in Sri Lanka. Canberra has sought to demonise the Tamils.
The war in Sri Lanka is a civil war, the origin of which dates back to 1983 when Sinhalese armed forces moved against the Tamils in the north and east. The Tamil presence in the north dates back over 1,000 years.
After the ending of British colonial rule, the minority Tamils sought an equal footing with the Sinhalese, including use of their language in official and daily transactions. This was not granted and the Tamils rightly saw this as the beginning of a move to marginalise them in the social, cultural, political and economic life of their country.
The Australian High Commission in Colombo has reported developments with the bias and language that Canberra has wished to hear. With scant regard to the realities of the situation on the ground in Sri Lanka, the Australian 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 could then persecute any remaining 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.
Both sides vie 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. There are allegations that they are doing this as I write.
The Tamil Tigers are prone to violence against innocent Sinhalese civilians. The Tamils, like the Palestinians, have fought back from a limited military, diplomatic and economic base with great skill and ferocity. They sought to maximise power and to do that they needed the total 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 through military success.
Mutual antipathy between Tamils and Sinhalese has turned to hatred over the years, to the point that it is now difficult to see any reconciliation. Backed and encouraged by the Bush administration, who in their wisdom 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 Red Cross have condemned the mercilessness of the Sri Lankan army, saying the crushing of the Tigers and civilians amongst them has been, “an unimaginable humanitarian catastrophe.”
The Sri Lankan government wants to crush what they term the ‘rebel Tamils’, which is not a prescription for integration of the traumatised Tamils into mainstream Sinhalese society. Sinhalese chauvinism and racism is unlikely to admit Tamils as equals.
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 Sinhalese crushing of the Tamils will spawn another generation of suicide bombers and guerrilla fighters, just as it has done with the Palestinians.
Australian diplomacy, which had plenty of opportunity to get it right in Sari Lanka, has failed. It followed rather than led and as a result Australia has no leverage.
India is looking at Australia with a cynical eye.