Foreign Pulse: Island of fear

Published Jul 15, 2014, 2:04 pm IST
Updated Mar 31, 2019, 7:11 pm IST
Picture for representational purpose only (Photo: AFP/File)
 Picture for representational purpose only (Photo: AFP/File)

Is Sri Lanka a “society at peace” which has made “a lot of progress when it comes to human rights and the rule of law” since the war against secessionist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam rebels concluded in 2009? Such is the controversial claim of Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott to defend his policy of interdicting boats carrying Sri Lankan asylum seekers on water and repatriating them into the hands of the Sri Lankan Navy.

On July 6, a vessel with 41 Sri Lankans (37 Sinhalese and four Tamils) on board was seized by the Australian Navy off the coast of the Cocos Island and its passengers were summarily dispatched to Sri Lanka through a clinical “mid-sea transfer” that involved coordination between the two militaries. The Australian immigration minister, Scott Morrison, admitted that at least one of these 41 persons may have been facing political persecution in Sri Lanka.


In late June, another boat with 153 Sri Lankan asylum seekers (all Tamils) was captured by the Australian Navy near Christmas Island and held in custody on sea. This lot embarked on the perilous journey from Pondicherry in south India and was believed to be a mix of fresh escapees from Sri Lanka as well as refugees who had already been granted asylum in India.

Sri Lankans, who enjoy refugee status in India are, of course, safe from Colombo’s clutches, but some try reaching Australia or New Zealand where citizenship and other benefits are more lucrative than what India offers. Refugee rights advocates contend that 11 or more persons of the 153-member cohort had been previously tortured by Sri Lanka’s intelligence services and would be killed if delivered into the jaws of President Rajapakse’s fearsome security apparatus.


Had it not been for an Australian court order restraining the Abbott government from dumping the occupants of this boat into the forbidding arms of the Sri Lankan state, Canberra would have gotten rid of its catch surreptitiously. Ex post facto disavowal by the Australian government, that it had no intention of packing these 153 individuals back to Sri Lanka, and the statement by the Sri Lankan government that it is not interested in receiving them, are defensive public relations spins that emerged after an international outcry arose to the embarrassment of the two countries.


With the plight of fleeing Sri Lankans tugging at consciences, the inhumane attitude adopted by Prime Minister Abbott towards at-risk civilians is under the scanner. Canberra’s harsh methods of offshore detention of asylum seekers in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, as well as aggressive naval operations to capture and push back refugees in concert with countries like Indonesia, Cambodia and Sri Lanka, have drawn flak from the United Nations and rights advocates.

Australia has earned a macabre reputation for dehumanisation of helpless individuals from across Asia who undertake epic voyages on the oceans in a desperate quest for refuge. The Australian government’s own statistics acknowledge that at least half of the Sri Lankans who arrive by boats are legitimate cases. Yet, Prime Minister Abbott is disingenuously projecting Sri Lanka as a post-conflict society returning to normalcy in order to score points in Australia’s racially-charged domestic politics. His effusive praise of Mr Rajapakse at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (Chogm) in Colombo last year for ushering in “more freedom and prosperity” is absurd because harassment of minorities (Tamils and Muslims) is going on with the connivance of the Sri Lankan state.


The Sinhalese Buddhist chauvinism being openly brandished by armed vigilantes like the Bodu Bala Sena has the tacit approval of Sri Lanka’s ethnically biased military and police forces, which have been mandated to stifle all forms of dissent against the ruling Rajapakse clan. The Sri Lankan President’s brothers, accused of controlling as much as 70 per cent of the country’s budget, are known sympathisers of Bodu Bala Sena.

Although reconciliation was the need of the hour after the Sri Lankan Army crushed the separatist guerrillas, the Rajapakses pressed on a vindictive agenda. Instead of accommodating minorities after a vicious war against the LTTE, insult was added to injury. The Sri Lankan state’s illiberal nature is the main reason for the Sri Lankan Tamil refugee diaspora around the world lacking confidence to return home five years after the war ended.


The crackdown on civil liberties under the Rajapakse brothers has not spared the Sinhalese either if they dare to oppose the regime. Reporters Without Borders ranks Sri Lanka as one of the 15 worst countries in the world for press freedoms. The UN high commissioner for human rights has slammed Sri Lanka for “persistent impunity and the failure of rule of law”. No wonder that a steady stream of civilians of different ethnic hues is decamping from such an authoritarian political environment.

While critiques of Australia’s heartless policy towards asylum seekers are legitimate, the real blame should be laid at the source of the whole crisis, i.e. the Rajapakses who have been monopolising power and wielding it with intolerance. India, which hosts hundreds of thousands of long-term Sri Lankan refugees, is frustrated with the Rajapakses for their refusal to grant meaningful autonomy to minorities. New Delhi knows that the root cause of the continued outflow of distraught people from the island nation is its flawed unitary and majoritarian governance model.


The Indian government voted thrice against Sri Lanka in the UN Human Rights Council (2009, 2012 and 2013) on the question of injustices done to civilians in the war against the LTTE. But with the LTTE now fading into historical memory, the onus is on India to draw attention to the contemporary repression prevalent in Sri Lanka.

New Delhi must resolutely oppose the culture of abduction, disappearance and maltreatment of not just dozens of boat-laden asylum seekers, but also thousands of Sri Lankans of different ethnic backgrounds on the island proper. Past and present crimes are coming together to create a permanent problem state in South Asia that can have long-term destabilising externalities for India’s own security.


It is time to step up the pressure on the Rajapakses who plan to perpetuate their rule through a combination of ethnic polarisation and intimidation.

The writer is a professor and dean at the Jindal School of International Affairs