The recent Amnesty International sponsored forum “Sri Lanka: Human Rights Issues and Media Representation” held last week in Melbourne was a missed opportunity. The forum could have signposted the strategies needed to pressure the Australian Government to do more to improve human rights and freedom of expression issues, and to bring the Sri Lankan Government to account on its horrific human rights record. Instead, the forum ended up painting an ‘us versus them’ picture and pitting the Tamil diaspora against its Sinhala counterpart.Â This could have been avoided if the presenters were more mature and more informed about the situation in Sri Lanka.
The majority of the people in the room were from the Tamil diaspora, who along with others concerned about human rights and equality, were probably expecting some guidance from ‘expert’ presenters on how to respond not only to what was happening in Sri Lanka, but also the meanness of the Australian Government.
Damien Kingsbury focused his talk on the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). While he outlined the rationale behind R2P – his talk suggested that there were still possibilities and indeed strong support for the Tamil Tigers notion of Eelam – a separate homeland for the Tamil people. Kingsbury is out of touch, and more importantly, he should know that raising the issue in the moment of ‘heat’, with Sinhala extremists in the audience would only result in further polarising the Sri Lankan diaspora. Kingsbury should be aware of the complex make-up of the political system in Sri Lanka. The establishment of the Eastern Provincial Council (EPC) and the election of a breakaway LTTE commander, the young Pilliyan to the post of Chief Minister could have been discussed further, for example.
The EPC is far from perfect, but it is an important start that needs support and encouragement. More specifically for the diaspora, the EPC is searching for investment and skilled people to help improve its way of governance and the services it delivers to the people in the East. And like any provincial government it too has to develop strategies for dealing with the centre and getting the best deal for its people.
Not a lot is spoken about the divisions within the Tamil community. I assume that most of the Tamil population in the audience were from Jaffna originally – they were northern Tamils – who tend to think of their Eastern cousins as slightly inferior. Discrimination of Eastern Tamils by the Tamil Tiger leadership was cited as one of the reasons forÂ split in the LTTE ranks – “symptomatic of historical rivalry and disenchantment of the eastern people with the northerners“.
Jake Lynch was another presenter at the event, and he focused more on the Australian Government’s response to the asylum seeker issue and the problems in Sri Lanka. I know that Lynch’s writings about Sri Lanka are appreciated by human rights defenders on the island. The international coverage is pathetic and any evidence of writing from the outside about the horrors of Sri Lanka, is always encouraging to those at the coal-face of reporting violations and advocating human rights. However, his presence at the event was unimpressive. Like Kingsbury, Lynch failed to include the Sinhala diaspora in the conversation in a constructive way. Yes – it is almost impossible to respond to what borders on the absurd, but as an advocate and trainer in peace journalism he must know that his role is not to inflame the situation further.
Sri Lanka’s story is certainly a complex one. However, it is inexcusable for presenters or journalists to paint a black and white, Tamil versus Sinhala picture of it.
The most important and relevant speaker of the evening was Rohan Bastin, and the only one in the room deserving the ‘Associate Professor’ title. As an anthropologist, he had visited Sri Lanka many times, often staying there longer than the typical couple of weeks that parachute academics and analysts tend to stay. Bastin’s point was simple: what is going on in Sri Lanka is not an ethnic war but more along the lines of a civil war – the State that desired total control and power against a citizenry which desired democracy, equality and freedom. He traced the complex and bloody past from the JVP insurrections that saw tens of thousands killed to the attacks by Governments on Tamil citizens and the most recent abuses carried out in the name of eradicating terrorism. He noted that all political parties have blood on their hands and explained how politicians in opposition have presented themselves as strong advocates of human rights but once they get in to power, end up becoming perpetrators. Sri Lanka’s current President was once a human rights defender. And most recently, the military commander Sarath Fonseka who may contest the Presidency is trying to paint himself as a humanitarian.
Attending the event reminded me once more of the damage that a small number of racist and mostly old men can do to those of us who claim Sinhala heritage, and like most who claim Tamil heritage, want to live in a richly multi-cultural country that treats all its people equally and as fellow human beings. These old disapora men need to come to terms with the reality and stop living in the past Unfortunately, their positions are constantly re-inforced by a divisive media that seeks sensationalism or by politicians who know that extremist messengers can be useful to frighten uninformed citizens. It is important that the loud voices of a handful are not interpreted as a consensus position by a majority.
Racism and political tactics are two different things. There may well be attempts by the Government to dilute the Tamil vote-block in the North. But this will be about politics and the desire for power, and while it affects the rights of the Tamil people, labeling this as racism or worse, referencing it as ‘ethnic cleansing’ as Kingsbury did, ends up simplifying the situation and distancing moderate Sinhalese who support the rights of the Tamils. If the word ‘racism’ must be used, be specific – apply it to the Government and the politicians.
Australians, especially those activists and academics who take an interest in what is going on in Sri Lanka, must learn about the situation themselves, without necessarily relying on the stories from members of either the Sinhala or Tamil diasporas. They need to take the time to read the island’s long history and carefully consider the multiple versions of histories they will discover. They need to understand that both class and caste plays a role in the story and that it is difficult to analyse the situation in black and white terms. And they need to be careful not to label all Sinhalese as racists and realise that many of the buddhists living on the island deplore the actions of the political monks.
So what more could the presenters have done at the forum last week?
They could have led the discussion suggesting that the only way to lobby the Australian Government about the real situation in Sri Lanka was through a united Tamil and Sinhala diaspora position. There are progressive people on both sides that share similar values and outcomes. It is a matter of continuing to request that this happens, and supporting and strengthening a common voice once it is established. There already maybe such fronts, but they are mostly invisible. Perhaps next time Amnesty can do a better job to seek them out.
We must remember that Australia’s own history of locking up people behind barbed wire (Woomera, for example) may limit the Government’s desire to engage with their Sri Lankan counterparts on the issue of the camps. After all, it could lead to embarrassment.Â So, asking Prime Minister Rudd to pressure President Rajapaksa to free the IDPs could be a waste of time.
However, the formation of a group that is made up of progressive members of both the Sinhala and Tamil diaspora, with advice and support from advocates and activists would be the best way to develop strategies that could win Australian support to ensure that the Sri Lanka’s Government stops committing atrocities against its own peoples.
This joint approach is needed not only in Australia, but also in Sri Lanka – where sensible people from all the different ethnic backgrounds must come together and call for an end to the type of Government that ends up killing in the name of power and control. And if such a group does emerge, it must be non-partisan and keep well away from politics and politicians.