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Published ABC Unleashed:

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.

Published: ABC Unleashed:

Published: Online Opinion:

Sadly the United States and Australia appear unable to learn from history.

The US is in the same position in Afghanistan that it worked so hard to lock the Soviets into 20 years ago. Then the recalcitrant, chauvinistic, Pathan tribesmen on both sides of the Afghan/Pakistan border were with the US, now they are not.

Like the rulers of British India before them, the governing Punjabi elite in Pakistan have long cut deals with ‘lawless’ tribes in Baluchistan and the North West Frontier Province in order to assert authority.

Causing trauma and creating refugees in Swat will galvanise the local population against corrupt Punjabi administrators. The Taliban in the Swat Valley are from Swat. It is their children, wives, mothers, fathers, relatives and friends who are fleeing Swat. The attack by the Pakistan Army into Swat, known within the region to be a result of US pressure, will prove more destabilising than the activities of the Taliban. The Taliban will gain recruits.

The Soviet army of occupation in Afghanistan during the 1980’s fostered the same phenomena; cruel and clumsy military operations fed recruits into the Mujahedin and encouraged tribal and military alliances.

Bombing villages and killing women and children in Afghanistan will create further opposition to the US and its allies.

To believe that the growth and militancy of the Taliban in Swat has nothing to do with the US presence in Afghanistan is a failure to understand the galvanising effect of this presence on activists in the region.

Sympathetic elements within the Pakistan intelligence service, the ISI, are in likely contact with the Taliban in Swat, in order to try and maintain carefully nurtured networks and to minimise harm through prior warnings of attacks.

The ISI relationship with the Taliban, and the Mujahedin before it, is a complex one, rooted in the geo-politics of the region and access to gas and oil reserves. With regard to the latter the US is not a disinterested party.

Afghan friends recently returned from visiting family in rural areas claim local belief is that the US intends to stay in order to secure oil pipelines through the country to warm sea ports in Baluchistan on the Gulf.

With little chance of finding Osama bin Laden or of breaking Al Qaeda, what is the US doing in Afghanistan?

If US aims are to defeat the Taliban it will be in Afghanistan for a long time.

The Australian media has done little to investigate and unravel the complexities of this conflict and with shameful complacency, acquiesced in the recent increase in Australian troop numbers.

With respect to another place at another time it has been written that:

“Australia took its cue from American positions, and conformity with America was the primary political test of a policy. The role of junior ally permitted the luxury of embracing alliance policies without the need to evaluate independently their costs and prospects…

Throughout, the Australian media were more a dependant than an independent variable in the political process … The news media failed in their most basic political role – as an agent of disclosure. Rather than an independent input into the political process, their news columns overwhelmingly reflected the stance of the government.

The news media failed also in their other main political role – as a forum for diverse commentary and analysis. Dissenting views on Vietnam, even where based on considerable expertise, were more often than not either ignored or denigrated”, according to Rodney Tiffen in Vietnam Remembered.”

Little has changed with respect to the war in Afghanistan. It is a guerrilla war with all of the attendant frustrations for conventional forces. The famous maxim that came out of the Vietnam War, ‘We had to bomb that village in order to save it,’ seems now equally to apply to the war in Afghanistan.

For US Secretary of Defence, Robert Gates, to claim that Taliban hand grenades rather than US bombing was responsible for the recent death of 147 women and children is to head down an old and discredited path. Why would the Taliban murder their support base unless it had been lost to them?

The secrecy with which the Australian Defence Force (ADF) has cloaked itself in recent years is undermining the essential relationship between a democracy and a volunteer defence force. Suspicion is growing that this secrecy has little to do with the needs of the so called war on terror, but rather to do with hiding systemic problems, of morale, maintenance and training within the ADF.

Incredibly the Chief of the Defence Force (CDF), Air Chief Marshall, Angus Houston, claims to have known nothing of an alleged SAS bungle resulting in death and injuries to civilians near Tarin Kowt in July 2006 at the time of Senate hearings in February 2007. That is an incredible and quite frankly unbelievable six month gap in the flow of important information within the Department of Defence.

The Minister, Joel Fitzgibbon, has asked the CDF to investigate the incident. The CDF can’t do that, he is part of the problem.

As much as the facts relating to the incident need to be investigated so does, what on the face of it, appears to be a cover up, involving the CDF and other senior uniformed and civilian officers of the ADF.

Published: Australian Financial Review & Canberra Times

The AFP Commissioner of Police, Mick Keelty , is moving on. The focus of attention should be in reforms to the AFP allowing for greater scrutiny and accountability.

Keelty is moving on despite enjoying the support of the Prime Minister. Support in other key areas of government had evaporated or was fast drying up. Keelty’s brand of political policing, which reached its apotheosis under Howard, faded quickly with the public, lawyers and key ministries following the Haneef enquiry.

Now is the time for the Rudd government to insist on the same Parliamentary oversight of the AFP as that applying to the Australian Defence Force. With a budget of $2billion and more promised in the forthcoming budget the AFP must be brought back to earth. The so called ‘war on terror’ saw the Howard Government deify the AFP and put it beyond the reach of the law. ‘Whatever it takes’ was the ethos and this was supported by the Prime Minister’s office, which in essence set the policy framework and general operating philosophy of the AFP.

Rudd must resist the temptation to be the recipient of salacious scuttlebutt relating to his political rivals and others perceived to be ranged against his government. The trouble with the AFP’s terrorism mentality is that a large number of people are perceived to be potentially enemies of the state, including refugees arriving by boat, demonstrated, yet again, by an AFP leak at the time of the SIEV35 fire.

Even if only for its own protection the Rudd government must insist upon greater control over and insight into the running and agenda of the AFP, lest the hand feeding the AFP gets bitten.

Rudd must curtail all planning for an AFP paramilitary force and pull the AFP out of the formation and implementation of regional foreign policy. He must find other means of handling refugees destined for Australia from Indonesia other than disruption programs which rely on feeding the corruption of Indonesian military personnel and officials.