Excerpts of a speech by Don Randall, Liberal MP for Canning, Western Australia, and Deputy Chair of the Sri Lanka Friendship Group, on ‘Humanitarian issues during the war in Sri Lanka’, tabled under Private Members’ Business in the House of Representatives on February 28 2011.
I am pleased to speak on this motion on humanitarian issues during the war in Sri Lanka. At the outset, I congratulate the member for Werriwa on bringing this motion to parliament and for the measured way that he addressed it. I have always had high regard for the member for Werriwa’s interest in human rights and migration issues. On this occasion he is quite passionate about his views as the issue stands now.
I come to this debate from a number of perspectives. One of them is the fact that I am the deputy chair of the Sri Lanka friendship group in this parliament and I have a keen interest in the issues. Like the member for Werriwa and others, I have had contact and lobbying from both sides of the Sri Lankan debate. This debate has been generated because for more than the past 26 years there has been a civil war in Sri Lanka. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE, fought a strong war under their leader Prabhakaran, to have a separate state in the north of Sri Lanka for the largely Tamil population. It was a brutal war with many atrocities—by both sides, might I say. The collateral damage of any war is the civilians. I do not for one moment absolve anyone on either side of blame. As I said, in a brutal war like this there will be casualties.
In Sri Lanka, my best friend is a Tamil gentleman. Not every Tamil is an LTTE sympathizer and not every Tamil is a supporter of a free state, as the member opposite pointed out. I will expand on that. The largest population of Tamils anywhere in Sri Lanka is in Colombo. This demonstrates that there is free movement for the Tamil population throughout the island. The LTTE has been proscribed in many parts of the world and was re-proscribed in the European Union just recently. This is an outlawed group.
People come to see me and say, ‘Are you concerned about this and that?’ I say, ‘I am very concerned about the human rights and the issues with people in Sri Lanka, but if you are a supporter of the LTTE please do not try to raise that issue with me, because I think that when you come to Australia you’ve got to leave that behind. You come to Australia for a better life for you and your family, and we don’t want any ethnic wars in Australia or continued hostilities. People from the Balkans—the Serbs, the Croatians, et cetera—come to Australia and, yes, there are passionate issues. But you move on and start a new life, and please don’t have your children that you bring to Australia or that are born in Australia continue these hostilities from now to eternity. We are one of the most successful migration destinations in the world.’
The Sri Lankan Civil War finished in May 2009, when finally the remnants of the LTTE were cornered in the jungle and Prabhakaran and his remaining lieutenants were killed. Once that happened, something like 280,000 innocent civilians, who had been held captive largely because they were in the area under LTTE control were liberated. Many of them were taken to camps. I sat in parliament here and listened to a number of speakers from the Tamil organisations who described these camps as concentration camps. That is in dispute; the fact is that most of these people—some 263,000 of those 280,000 people—have now been returned to their home areas.
One of the reasons that some have not done so is that much of their land is still heavily mined. With the help of international groups, including some from Australia, they are gradually clearing the mines from the fields and the villages in those areas. When I went to Sri Lanka sometime ago, we went to the elephant orphanage, where there was an elephant which had had its leg blown off because it had trod on one of the mines. So the place is infested with mines still.There is an argument that persecution has been a push factor for migration to Australia. An article in the Canadian newspaper the Toronto Sun by Brian Lilley from the parliamentary press bureau says: ‘To become a refugee, a claimant must prove they are in danger of torture, there is a risk to their life or meet other criteria showing they will face persecution in their home country’.
That is the definition of a refugee. Migration by Tamils fleeing Sri Lanka ceased more than 12 months ago. The Australian ambassador to Sri Lanka, Kathy Klugman, congratulated the Sri Lankan navy for its success in stopping any further departures. But they continue to monitor this, because the latest successful apprehension was as recently as February 19 this year—the odd boat is still trying to leave.
It is interesting that an article from the Australian, similar to the one I referred to before from the Toronto Sun, says that something like 70 per cent of those who came to this country, once they got their protection visa—surprise, surprise!—returned to Sri Lanka within 12 months. That says to me there is quite an issue here. I have a letter sent to the Department of Foreign Affairs on February 2 this year. In it are the names of Mr Libasudeen Ibralebbe, who was after a renewal visa, Mrs Sivaanujah Sivaharan, who wanted a new passport, and Mrs Rageswary Somasundaram, who wanted a renewal of her passport. The letter also says, ‘These people, who have received protection visas, want to return to Sri Lanka.’ So much for their fleeing from persecution in fear for their lives!
This is where we have a problem in this country: we have to be very careful because there is evidence of people being arrested for trying to collect money here on behalf of the LTTE diaspora. Even though they have been defeated on their own shores, they continue offshore with this programme of an independent homeland. Australia must not be allowed to support it. This is also happening in Canada and Europe.
There was a request that the contents of the letter that I have here be made available to the foreign minister, Kevin Rudd, and to the immigration minister, Chris Bowen. I hope it has been made available, because at the next estimates there will certainly be questions about their response to these people who claimed protection visas and who then, quite clearly within 12 months of receiving a protection visa, sought to renew their Sri Lankan passports to go home. That says to me that there could be a bit of a rort going on here. Putting it again into context, the member opposite said we need the UN involved. The UN is involved.
Professor GL Peiris has been at the United Nations over the last few weeks, seeking meetings with Ban Ki-moon on this issue. He has been explaining the government’s involvement in seeking the truth on this matter. In fact, in May 2010 the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission was established in Sri Lanka, and it has already had over 200 sittings. If Desmond Tutu is asking for this to happen—and it is no different from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission held in South Africa after the apartheid regime—all I can say to him is that he is correct: this should happen and it is happening.
But we cannot in some patronising way say, ‘Well, you’d better send in the UN to take over the monitoring.’ That would be like us agreeing to the UN to come here to monitor our issues with Aboriginals following international criticism. If Mr Tutu is so passionate about that, why isn’t he insisting that Mr Mugabe in Zimbabwe has the same treatment? Do not go for the easy targets. This is a democratically elected country. They had a recent election where Mr Rajapaksa was re-elected. I had some issues, like the member for Werriwa, with the fact that General Fonseka ended up on a sticky wicket after the elections.
But a bad democracy is better than any other choice. It is about time that we moved on. Australia is a great friend of Sri Lanka, and we want to see Sri Lanka re-establish itself in the world from a human rights and also an economic point of view because they have the opportunity to do so.