Asylum-seekers from Sri Lanka are headline news in Australia once again. Last week Rowan Callick of The Australian presented a series of articles that were based in part on interviews with Gotabaya Rajapakse, the powerful Defence Secretary. Rajapakse urged a “hardline on Tamil asylum-seekers.” This headline immediately raised the spectre of Tamil terrorists sneaking into Australia, a scenario that had been emphasised earlier by the security analysts Sergei de Silva-Ranasinghe and Rohan Gunaratna.
Two threads of comment arise from this intervention, the one (A) relating to the vigorous pro-Tiger lobbying in Australia and the West; and the other (B) marking what I regard as a misjudgement on the part of the Sri Lankan Government.
A. Pro-Tiger Propaganda in Australia
When I spoke to Callick on the phone a few days after his article on Brothers who tamed the Tigers appeared in print, I discovered that he had immediately received a spate of phone calls and emails from the Sri Lankan Tamil lobby in Australian, including one from Damien Kingsbury, a Deakin University lecturer. They challenged several of his interpretations, sometimes in measured tones and sometimes in offensive manner (for instance, when they intimated that he was in the pay of the Sri Lankan government). This reminds me of the unverified grapevine information about Stewart Bell of the National Post in Canada drawing accusations to the effect that he was on the Sri Lankan government’s payroll.
This type of pressure is a common tactic and displays the lengths to which the LTTE coteries are ready to go. If, indeed, such vociferous intervention is not orchestrated, the implications are even more momentous: such reactions indicate the commitment of so many Tamil personnel and the fervour with which they act.
The response which Callick inspired is not an isolated instance. A phone call to Shanaka Jayasekara elicited the information that he had received intimidating messages on several occasions in the past and that on one occasion the President of the Australasian Federation of Tamil Associations had lodged a complaint with the Vice-Chancellor. Since Jayasekara, who has previous links with the Sri Lankan government as well as ongoing international security connections, has rarely penned any articles in media outlets within Australia, one can surmise that he has chosen to take a low profile in this terrain.
It has been the Tamil moderates and dissidents abroad who have borne the brunt of intimidation from extremist Tamils in the West. I refer here to such individuals as Dr Rajasingham Narendran in London and Dr. Noel Nadesan in Melbourne. Nadesan, a veterinary surgeon who ran the Uthayam monthly till recently, was subject to cavil episodically. It is a pity that the Australian media have not indulged in investigative journalism through conversations with such Australian citizens in the firing line. Nadesan may well quail at the thought: the problem is that any recourse to the public domain on his part with information on this unsavoury aspect of Tamil politics may compound the harassment he has had to face.
Again, Canberra sources tell me that just last month Tamil spokespersons had told the National Security Research Centre that they would mount a protest if the Centre did not invite Gordon Weiss to be a speaker at a conference entitled “Safeguarding Australia.”
Weiss seems to be the new star in the extreme Tamil firmament, whether willingly or by unsolicited adoption I cannot say. But over the last two years we have seen Bruce Haigh, David Feith, Jake Lynch, Anthony Lowenstein, Julian Burnside and Damien Kingsbury press claims that parrot the slogans disseminated by the LTTE agit-prop campaigners in ways that place them squarely in the same camp as “fellow-travellers.” As far as I know, albeit in surmise, their positions are not motivated by personal advantage or greed. In each case we have ideologically-directed assessments.
These inspirations are permeated by self-righteousness. Like evangelists worldwide, such righteous hate tends to go overboard. When these men present the same outrageous slogans as the LTTE lobby more or less verbatim, then, one has grounds to question their depth of empirical knowledge and their capacities of evaluation.
Feith’s depictions of the conditions of the Tamil refugee camps in Vavuniya simply peddled tales of torture, rape and shortage of food and medical facilities that were being circulated in Tamil migrant networks; and even reiterated the horrendous fabrication by Jeremy Page and the Times [of London] group to the effect that 1400 civilians were dying each week in the IDP camps. He also stated categorically that “All international media and non-governmental organizations have been locked out of the camps.”
Let me knock that calumny on the head by using Annet Royce’s list of the organizations that helped set up the camps and cater to their welfare needs from the very inception;
“UN Agencies – UNHCR, UNICEF, World Health Organization(WHO), UNWFP(World food Program),UNOCHA,IOM
International Organization – ZOA, World Vision, CARE, Welthungerhilfe, UMCOR, ASB, Relief International, DRC, NRC ,Mercy Malaysia, Muslim Aid, LEADS, Caritas, JRS, OXFAM GB, OXFAM Australia, ACTED, Save the Children, FORUT, ADSL, CORDAID, UMCOR Medical Team,
Red Cross community – ICRC, SLRC, GRC
National Organization – Sarvodaya, Sewalanka Foundation, RDF, SEED
District Base organization – FOSDOO, NGAGDO, WDC, ORHAN, VOCOD,
Some more agencies also worked, but not in my mind” (email 19 July 2010).
Annet Royce is a Catholic Tamil from the Jaffna Peninsula and heads the Sewalanka Foundation office in Vavuniya town. Though I use her note because it provides a convenient summary, let me assure readers that I had more than enough confirmation on this point from interviews with two foreign INGO workers in Vavuniya, a chance meeting with Peter Voegtli, the head of the World Food Programme as well as other interviews with key health personnel and a few other local Tamil NGO personnel.
While this information was gleaned by me only in May-June 2010, I had been in Colombo in May-June 2009 as well and knew from anecdotal information provided by friends that church organizations were working in the camps from the outset (assisted by priests who were part of the population within the camps) and that UN agencies were central to their establishment. Banks, post offices and some shops had also been set up within the camps. When Kingsbury to depicted them as “concentration camps” in October 2009, therefore, I concluded that he was a simpleton who was easily misled.
Such statements from a number of quarters in Australia raise questions about where these educated men are coming from. That is not merely a rhetorical question. Study the lines on which Feith ends his opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald. They repeat word-for-word the catch phrases presented within a propaganda video circulated by the LTTE’s transnational network, namely, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tWiMrcdaFuA. As a perceptive Australian blogger named Damian noted after seeing the raging debate around my article, “Taken in by Tamil tall tales [not my title but an imposed one], “ignorance is only bliss before you are fleeced” (comment on 14 November 2009).
The innocents so fleeced also produce a touch of comedy every now and then. When Julian Burnside complained that there were no flush toilets in the IDP camps, one knew that some of these secular evangelists were living in another planet – since the vast majority of Sri Lankans prefer to wash their bottoms with water and their left hand.
B. The Rajapakses’ Misjudgment
That, then, is the background, a kind of battleground, which envelopes the public domain in Australia. But what interests me more is the immediate historical background informing Rowan Callick’s commentary and the confirmation he provides regarding the manner in which Australia moulded Sri Lankan policy in one sphere. Spurred on by Stephen Smith’s visit to the island in November 2009, the Sri Lankan authorities have clearly instituted a vigorous policy of policing the island seas to prevent asylum boats departing. Echoing Navy reports, Rajapakse told Callick they “had stopped the flow of boats.”
No sooner affirmed than undermined!! On Thursday 21 October, a colourful news account detailed how a boat that is alleged to have departed from the island’s north-west coast ran had recently run aground in distress off Indonesia. That embarrassing blip aside, the critical aspect of this spate of news is the confirmation that Sri Lanka has been an active partner in Australia’s policy of offshore policing of boat people.
The Sri Lankan government’s cooperation in this endeavour is informed by the background of Western media depictions of the island’s political scenario. For over two years sweeping generalisations have been presented that depict Tamils throughout the island as “fleeing from persecution.” This is a characteristic oversimplification and blanket categorization common to media beat-ups directed by market aims. But some Sri Lankans deem this image to be a slight on Sri Lankan honour. It arouses Sri Lankan and Sinhalese anger powered by patriotism.
The Sri Lankan government is also directed in this policy by its efforts to prevent Tiger personnel who survived the war and avoided its dragnet in the IDP camps from joining their brethren abroad. From church and/or Tamil personnel in Vavuniya, we now know that perhaps as many as 1000-2000 Tamils, rich people as well as key Tiger functionaries, slipped out of the camps in May-July 2009.
Whatever the mix of objectives, the government’s policy is less than intelligent and misses the wood for the trees, thereby contrasting with a highly intelligent foreign policy from 2006 onwards that saw them allying with China and India to create a buffer against Western and UN pressures on the war front, while deriving all manner of investment benefits.
Why silly and unintelligent? In explicit conjecture I insist that the vast majority of former Tiger fighters and functionaries would be seeking greener pastures for themselves rather than attempting to join the LTTE’s international bandwagon. In brief, their journeys will end in bourgeoisification. Even if a few remained adamantine hardcore Tigers, it is far better for Sri Lanka to have them abroad rather than hidden within.
However, the most obvious benefit arises from the Tamil diaspora’s considerable contribution to the Sri Lankan economy through remittances. The flow of remittances from Sri Lankan migrants of all ethnicities is one pillar in the island’s burgeoning economic growth. While the remittances from workers in the Gulf states has been a significant part of this inflow in recent decades, the fact remains that migration of skilled professionals and others commenced in the 1940s, with surges occurring in 1956-58, the 1970s and after the pogrom against Tamils in July 1983.
Many Tamils abroad support their kinfolk in Sri Lanka and also invest money in properties back ‘home’. Greater Colombo has a large Tamil population, estimated as 250,000-300,000 by T. Sridharan and perhaps constituting as much as 12-15 percent of its total. The Wellawatte quarter, where I reside when I visit the country, is a Tamil domain and has seen large apartment blocks springing up in the past 15 years.
In the last few months the rents have dived because several occupants have returned home to the Jaffna Peninsula or the eastern districts. This internal adjustment in migration should be linked to an assertion by Gunaratna and Rajapakse to the effect that “70 per cent of the Tamils granted asylum in Australia and Canada” had indulged in return visits to Sri Lanka.” It would be simple for the Australian government to check this claim.
The crux of this picture is that Tamil migrants contribute significantly to the Sri Lankan economy. Why then spend monies in order to stem illegal outflows? There must be some unspecified quid pro quo with the Australian government. But from a staunch Sri Lankan perspective does this possible gain balance the benefits? I proclaim “No” – and will do so till the specific benefits are spelt out.
Burke, Jason, “Power play between China and India puts Sri Lanka on strategic map,” http://www.smh.com.au/, 12 June 2010.
Burnside, Julian “Australian leader Abbott ignorant on boat arrivals,” The Age, 9 April 2010, http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/politics/abbott-ignorant-on-boat-arrivals-20100408-ruyl.html.
Callick, Rowan “Brothers who tamed the Tigers,” Australian A Plus, 18 Oct. 2010.
Callick, Rowan “Sri Lanka urges hard line on Tamil asylum-seekers,” Australian, 18 Oct. 2010.
Callick, Rowan “Peace in balance, as clan rules supreme,” Australian, 19 Oct. 2010.
Daily News, ‘”Lankan asylum-seekers bound for Australia,” 22 Oct. 2010.
Feith, David “Tamils horrific treatment makes them desperate to leave,” 30 October 2009,http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/contributors/ and http://www.tamilguardian.com/article.asp?articleid=2585
Ferdinando, Shamindra “Tackling illegal immigrants: Australia’s SLN role,” Island, 22 Oct. 2010.
Jayatilleke, Dayan “Why for Sri Lanka India is indispensable,” http://www.colhariharan.org,20 June 2010
Kingsbury, Damien “Demonising the victims?” ABC Unleashed, 26 October 2009, http:// ww.abc.net.au/unleashed/27136.html.
Perera, Amantha “Untangling the Knotty Issue of Human Smuggling,” http://ipsnews.net/ news.asp?idnews=49245
De Silva-Ranasinghe, Sergei “Beware of asylum-seekers bearing tales of woe,” Australian, 7 April 2010.
De Silva-Ranasinghe, Sergei De “Exclusive Interview with Thirunauakkarusu Sridharan,” South Asia Defence and Strategic Review, Sept-Oct. 2010, pp. 46-49.
De Silva-Ranasinghe, Sergei “Civilian casualties, IDP camps and asylum-seekers. Interview with Father Rohan Silva,” in process with an international web site.
Roberts, Michael “Taken in by Tamil tall tales,” 4 November 2009, http://www.
theaustralian.com.au/ news/ November 04, 2009.
Roberts, Michael “Crude reasoning,” 17 November 2009, http://www.abc.net.au
/unleashed/27306.html. Also in http://www.thuppahi.wordpress.com
Roberts, Michael “Boat People as Blanket Categories,” http://www.thuppahi.wordpress.com, 20 April 2010.
Roberts, Michael “Alex” Kuhendrarajah and the Australian media,” http://www.thuppahi. wordpress.com, 25 January 2010. Also in South Asian Masala, 20 Jan 2009.
Roberts, Michael “Omanthai! Omanthai! Succour for the Tamil thousands in Sri Lanka,
May 2009,”www. thuppahi.wordpress.com, 9 August 2009 and Island, 10 August 2010.
Stanton, John “USA fears loss of Sri Lanka,” http://zeroanthropology.net/ 2010/07/
30/usa-fears-loss-of-sri-lanka/, 30 July 2010.
TamilNet “1400 dying each week in Manik Farm camp – The Times,” 10 July 2009.
Wockner, Cindy “Bound for South Australia?” Advertiser, 22 Oct. 2010, p. 11 or http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/news/south-australia/asylum-seekers-bound-for-south-australia/story-e6frea83-1225941958846.
 Rowan Callick, “Sri Lanka urges hard line on Tamil asylum-seekers,” Australian, 18 Oct. 2010. Also see “Peace in balance, as clan rules supreme,” Australian, 19 Oct. 2010 and “Brothers who tamed the Tigers,” Australian A Plus, 18 Oct. 2010.
 Sergei De Silva-Ranasinghe, “Beware of asylum-seekers bearing tales of woe,” Australian, 7 April 2010.
 I had no previous acquaintance with Jayasekara, but knew that he held a post at Macquarie. I phoned him on a hunch.
 Jayasekara is presently the Unit Convenor for Terrorist Support Networks and Operations and the OUA Academic Coordinator at the Centre for Policing, Intelligence and Counter Terrorism (PICT being its acronym) at Macquarie University in Sydney. He received his postgraduate degree from St. Andrews University in Scotland and had previously been an Advisor to the SL government from 2002-06.
 Feith, SMH, 30 October 2009.
 TamilNet, “1400 dying each week in Manik Farm camp – The Times,” 10 July 2009. The foundations for my evaluation of this lie are: the detailed Health Ministry statistics, dated 12 Nov. 2009 that I have in my possession as a file; interview on 16 May 2010 with Hemantha Herath, the former head of the tsunami disaster management team, who was shifted and placed in charge of the IDP camp medical services from early May 2009; an interview with C. Saloman of UNICEF and a Tamil doctor in Colombo who visited some camps with Sai Baba medical teams on a couple of occasions (both in June 2010) supplemented by a flying visit to one camp cluster in June 2010 in the company of young Dr. Sarfras.
 Email to Roberts, 19 July 2010. Also see Roberts, “Omanthai! Omanthai,” 2010.
 Burnside, “Australian leader Abbott ignorant on boat arrivals,” The Age, 9 April 2010, http: //www.theage.com.au/opinion/politics/abbott-ignorant-on-boat-arrivals-20100408-ruyl.html.
 Daily News, ‘”Lankan asylum-seekers bound for Australia,” 22 Oct. 2010 and Cindy Wockner, “Asylum seekers bound for South Australia?” Adelaide Now, http://www. adelaidenow.com.au/news/south-australia/asylum-seekers-bound-for-south-australia/story-e6frea83-1225941958846.
  Shamindra Ferdinando, “Tackling illegal immigrants: Australia’s SLN role,” Island, 22 Oct. 2010.
 Figure quoted by “Civilian casualties, IDP camps and asylum-seekers,” Interview with Father Rohan Silva,” by Sergei de Silva-Ranasinghe, in process. This figure is the lower end of guesstimates: T. Sridharan of EPRLF estimated that ‘more than 8000-10,000 people escaped” and indicated that perhaps 500 were “hardcore” Tigers (Sergei de Silva Ranasinghe, “Exclusive Interview with T. Sridharan,” South Asia Defence and Strategic Review, Sept-Oct. 2010, p. 47).
 Stanton 2010, Jayatilleke 2010 and Burke 2010.
 Note that in Colombo District, as distinct from the amorphous concept of “Greater Colombo,” the population of Tamils in 2001 was 12.2 per cent, having increased from11.2 %
in 1981, embodying an increase by 82,365 persons in those twenty years (email from Gerald Peiris, 24 Oct. 2010).