Maithripala Sirisena’s surprise election as Sri Lankan President on January 8 has paved theway for a significant departure fromthe policies of his predecessor, MahindaRajapaksa. In acknowledgement of the support of members of disaffected minority groups, including Tamils in the north, Sirisena has undertaken to write downfarmers’ debt, increase the health and education budget, and fight corruption.
Fifty or so political appointees to Sri Lankan diplomat posts have been recalled, including the High Commissioner toAustralia,Admiral Thisara Samarasinghe. And this month, the newgovernment blocked a bid by James Packer to build a casino in the heart of Colombo,which had been approved by the old regime, with millions of dollars in tax breaks for Packer’s company, Crown Resorts.
The election result should drive a fundamental rethink byAustralia towards its future relationship with Sri Lanka. Before the election, itwas predicated solely on the basis of stopping Tamil asylum seekers coming toAustralia by boat. Itwas foreign policy at its worst; a crude and undignified domestic power play thatwas never likely to be embraced by the new President.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott, still not learning fromhis mistakes, rang towelcome the result and then proceeded to reiterate that stopping boatswould be front and centre of the relationship; itwas inappropriate and inept. Last year, Australia handed over two patrol boats and acquiesced to demands for funding to assist Sri Lankan authorities stop the boats. Itwould be embarrassingwere Australia to be caught in the foreshadowed inquiries into corruption alleged to have occurred on Rajapaksa’swatch. Itwas poor judgment and ill-conceived selfinterest that droveAustralia’s relations with such a rotten and discredited regime.
As Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop did better, a lot better. She pledgedAustralian support for the newPresident in hismoves to implement democratic reform and counter corruption. It has left her room to argue the case for ending the oppressive military occupation of Tamil areas in the north,which has done so much to force Tamils to flee the country on boats. It is this, and not turning back boats by force, that will see an end of the need for Tamils to flee statesponsored persecution. Arguing the case has urgency because Sirisena has so far maintained the policy of his predecessor of prosecuting Tamil asylum seekers intercepted on the high seas byAustralia and illegally returned to Sri Lanka. The latest transgression occurred in mid- February.
As Bishop has indicated, it is in Australia’s interests to foster and support Sri Lanka as itmoves to implement democratic reform. Australia has the capacity and influence to do it.Not only will that play into our domestic agenda of obviating the need for Tamils to leave, but also enable closer dialogue and co-operation among Australia, Sri Lanka and India on balancing Chinese ambitions in the Indian Ocean. On the strength of considerable financial inducements, theRajapaksa regime allowed undue Chinese influence over government and a growing presence within the country. Sirisena cites this as amajor factor in inducing him to stand for the presidency. Sirisena has ruled out an international investigation into the massacre of Tamil civilians at the end of the civilwar in 2009 and opted instead for a domestic inquiry. Once she has put the relationship on firm footing, Bishop might lobby for aUnitedNations-sponsored investigation.
At the request of theRajapaksa regime, more than 50 Tamils are detained inAustralia as a ‘‘threat to security’’, even though they have been found to be refugees. Their incarceration,whichwould otherwise be illegal, ismade possible by deploying secret provisions of the ASIOAct. TheAustralian government agreed to keep them in indefinite detention as part of a deal to stop the boats. They should be immediately released. They have done nothing wrong; theywere hostages to theRajapaksa regime’s paranoia.
An opportunity has been created for Bishop to undertake important regional diplomacy; it should be grasped and used productively. Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat whoserved in Sri Lanka. Hewas also amember of the Refugee Review Tribunal.