Sri Lanka – insurgency, war crimes and me

1425537_10151945882159699_946205772_nWhen I was growing up I knew next to nothing about Sri Lanka. I knew they played cricket, were in the Commonwealth Games and that one of the guys from my school was from there. Because of the sporting links I knew the country was part of the Commonwealth and so like Australia was a former British colony.

At some point, travelling the globe, developing interests beyond leather and willow, I must have heard of the Tamil Tigers. Fighting for independence; the media called them terrorists. I’d been taught, studying the Chinese and Cuban revolutions in high school, that the struggle for change, freedom and self-determination often involved violence; I knew that propaganda is just another weapon, exploited by the powerful to maintain control.

So I had no conception during the 80s, while I watched Arjuna Ranatunga and Ranjan Madugalle take on Alan Border and Geoff Lawson on the cricket pitch, that civil conflict was consuming Sri Lanka and thousands of people, including civilians, were dying as a result of it.

Panelists and Greens members at the forum, 2009.
Panelists and Greens members at the forum, 2010.

I learned more about what was happening in Sri Lanka when I began volunteering in Lee Rhiannon’s office in state parliament in 2009. (I had no idea who Lee was then either, but that’s a different story). One of the tasks I was asked to do was to work with a young Tamil woman Lee had met on issues relating to Tamil refugees. She and I became friends; we visited Villawood Detention Centre together a couple of times, organised an event in Homebush where the Tamil community could come and talk to Lee and Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, and I met with other passionate young Australian Tamils who were forming a group called Tamils-for-Greens. (FYI, Lee has gone on to do a lot of important work on Sri Lanka – read about it here.)

Last month another friend of mine (a male New Zealander) asked me to write a historical overview of Sri Lanka for GreenMail, the members publication of the Greens NSW. I did, through the research learning a lot more about Sri Lanka. I ended up extending the piece into highlighting the continuing push for an independent investigation into allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity during and after the war, and how Australia, sadly has becoming complicit in supporting the Sri Lankan regime, at odds with other prominent Commonwealth leaders.

It was published yesterday by SBS Online. The first two paragraphs:

“Next month the United Nations Human Rights Council will vote on a resolution on Sri Lanka. It relates to accusations of war crimes and crimes against humanity by both sides during the final stages of the island nation’s bitter civil conflict, and ongoing reports of systemic abuse of Tamils by the government since the end of the war in 2009.

Driven perhaps by internal asylum seeker politics, successive Australian governments have continuously sided with the Rajapaksa regime. There is, however, growing international consensus regarding the need for an independent and international investigation of the claims.”

Read more

Hopefully reading it will give a sense of the scope of the issue. Unfortunately, ongoing issues within Sri Lanka did not really break through into the Australian mainstream media until December 2012, when, following the lead of prominent former sporting boycotts against South Africa, a group of campaigners called for a boycott of the Sri Lankan cricket tour of Australia.

The campaign was endorsed by numerous prominent Australians including author Thomas Keneally, Sydney Peace Foundation Chair Stuart Rees, human rights lawyer Julian Burnside and former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, who called for “an independent assessment of the situation in Sri Lanka, including whether members of the Tamil minority are being persecuted and how those sent back from Australia after coming here by boat are being treated.”

If you’re interested, read more about the campaign for peace with justice in Sri Lanka here. But not before you’ve read shared, printed out and order a signed copy of my piece in SBS here, thanks 😉

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