Published The Drum 18 May 2011
Admiral Thisara Samarsinghe, was recently approved by the Australian Government to become the next Sri Lankan High Commissioner in Canberra. He joined the navy in 1974 and retired in January 2011.
Admiral Samarsinghe, as Chief of Staff of the Sri Lankan Navy, oversaw the shelling of Tamil soldiers and civilians trapped in what had been declared a safe zone at the end of the civil war. The navy then blocked attempts by the International Committee of the Red Cross to evacuate the injured, women and children from the safe zone.
From 1983 the Sri Lankan navy detained and shot Indian fishermen from Tamil Nadu who ventured into Sri Lankan waters on the basis that they were likely to be helping Tamil separatists. Until 2009 400 were shot and killed, with several thousand more wounded.
According to the recently released UN report into war crimes committed at the end of the civil war, both sides were guilty of breaches under the Geneva Conventions, however the Sri Lankan government has refused the UN panel who prepared the report further access to Sri Lanka and has condemned the report as biased.
The report estimates 40,000 Tamil civilians were killed towards the end of the war, some, as already noted, by the navy. In addition, 4,000 Tamil soldiers (LTTE) are being held incommunicado by the victorious government forces. The 500-page UN report notes that, “The fact that interrogations and investigations as well as ‘rehabilitation’ activities have been ongoing, without any external scrutiny for almost two years, rendered alleged LTTE cadre highly vulnerable to violations such as rape, torture or disappearance, which could be committed with impunity.”
It is wrong for Sri Lanka to have put forward a senior naval officer intimately involved in the civil war as High Commissioner and wrong for Australia to have accepted Admiral Samarsinghe.
There are precedents for rejecting Samarsinghe. In 1995 Australia rejected the nomination as Ambassador of retired Indonesian General Herman Mantiri. His nomination was rejected on the basis of war crimes committed by Mantiri against the East Timorese. In 2005 and 2008 the Canadian Government refused to accept nominations for the position of High Commisioner put forward by the Sri Lankan government, for reasons associated with human rights abuses.
It is a crying shame that the Australian Government has settled for lower standards. In the interests of fighting people smuggling, the AFP have posted officers to Colombo to liaise with their Sri Lankan counterparts. However the Sri Lankan police have blood on their hands, having engaged in the extra-judicial killing of Tamils for several decades. They have been involved in the murder of Sri Lankan journalists. Press freedom is all but dead in Sri Lanka. In 2009 the editor of The Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wickrematunge, was murdered.
In the same year J.S Tissainayagam, a Tamil journalist and newspaper editor, was jailed for 20 years for publishing editorials critical of the government in 2006. He was held in jail for two years before being sentenced by the Sri Lankan High Court under anti-terrorism legislation, a catch-all law similar to but more draconian than Australian legislation.
Australia took sides with the militarised Sinhalese majority in the civil war. At the end of the war, instead of offering humanitarian assistance to Tamils trapped in government camps, it sent the Deputy Chief of the Navy, Rear Admiral Davyd Thomas, to Colombo in June 2009, to liaise with his counterpart , the then Rear Admiral Samarsinghe, on action to stop people smuggling. Thomas also met with the President’s brother, the Sri Lankan Secretary for Law and Order and Defence, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa , a man accused of war crimes. He also met with the Chief of the Defence Force, the Chief of the Navy and the Chief of the Coast Guard. No doubt it was seen useful to have Samarsinghe in Canberra to assist when and where necessary in stemming the flow of Tamil asylum seekers.
Over the years the Sri Lankan High Commission in Australia has conducted a campaign of harassment against Sri Lankan Tamils living in Australia. They were assisted by the AFP, who saw nothing wrong in visiting and intimidating Tamils in their homes at odd hours.
A Victorian Supreme Court Judge, Paul Coghlan, strongly criticised the AFP during his summary at the conclusion of a trial into the alleged terrorist activities of three Tamil males at the end of March last year. One of the accused, Arumugan Rajeevan, had the novel experience of being “unarrested” by AFP agents. He was pulled over as he was driving to a meeting, and arrested and handcuffed at gunpoint. Realising they did not have the legal grounds to arrest him, the AFP “unarrested “him. Coghlan also commented that Rajeevan had been abused during his interview which was an “absolute departure from normal principles.” No admission of fault or attempt at recompense was made.
Although not guilty of any crime, under pressure all three pleaded guilty in order to minimise sentences. In the event the state withdrew charges but in view of their pleas the men still had to be sentenced. None went to prison.
The Age newspaper commented at the time that, “Coghlan’s damning critique of police behaviour in relation to Rajeevan’s treatment spanned not only his arrest but his subsequent treatment at the hands of federal agents. But the Tamil Tigers case – in which prosecutors last year withdrew all the terrorism charges against the three accused men – raises greater issues than just the quality of police work…The sentencing provides the final chapter in what has been a complex, international tale that raises questions about how Australia should deal with citizens caught up in another country’s civil war.”
The appointment of Samarsinghe again raises that question.
Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who served in Sri Lanka.