As Tony Abbott arrived in Colombo to attend CHOGM and to pay homage to a brutal dictatorship, his leaky boat diplomacy was fast taking on water. Abbott is a desperate man, his regional foreign policy driven by a domestic political slogan. “Stop the boats” is what he lives for. Any way will do: burn them, buy them, turn them back. Just, please, stop the boats.
In aid of this pathetically transparent policy, Abbott shamelessly appeases the Sri Lankan government, which is responsible for war crimes, crimes against humanity and ongoing genocide against millions of Tamil people.
He is isolated among the leaders of the most powerful Commonwealth nations. The Canadian prime minister refused to attend CHOGM in Sri Lanka, his foreign minister describing it as an accommodation of evil.
The Indian prime minister also pulled out, fearing a pre-election backlash from millions of people in the state of Tamil Nadu. And the prime minister of Great Britain, David Cameron, backed away from his original stance that everything is fine in Sri Lanka.
Cameron went, but the weight of public opinion had shifted so decisively that he was forced to face the reality and comment on it. Just before he left, he revealed that he had watched the frightening documentary No Fire Zone, which lays bare the war crimes of the Rajapaksa regime in murdering tens of thousands of innocent civilians at the end of the war in 2009.
Cameron described it as “chilling” and tweeted that he would have serious questions for Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Cameron was also forced into making the concession of a visit to the north to see how Tamils live under military occupation. This was a whirlwind, government-guided, handshake tour that failed to do anything to address the terror under which these people are forced to exist.
What all this meant, though, was that Tony Abbott was isolated. He was the lone ranger still saying that everything is hunky-dory in Sri Lanka.
When Canada pulled out, he had the cheek to admonish that government by saying that you don’t make new friends by rubbishing old ones or abandoning them.
As his major counterparts were either staying at home or making it clear they understood there was a dark and menacing side to Sri Lanka, Abbott was having none of it. He said he was “not inclined to go overseas and give other countries lectures”.
He would not even acknowledge the very obvious signs of Sri Lankan repression when Australian Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon was detained and questioned by intelligence operatives in Colombo while on a pre-CHOGM fact-finding trip that included meetings with some very brave, and now very frightened, pro-democracy activists.This was just a few days after two Australian journalists were arrested and deported while attending a conference on media freedom.
Rhiannon and her travelling companion, NZ Greens MP Jan Logie, who was also detained, issued a statement outlining information they received during discussions with Tamil politicians and pro-democracy activists.
It included details of the sexual abuse suffered by large numbers of women in the country. The statement named the commander of the Jaffna military base as one of the abusers: “Elected officials and members of civil society in Sri Lanka have provided us with examples of massive illegal land confiscation by the armed forces; people have been jailed and detained with regular disregard for legal rights; violence, often involving rape, of women and children with no police investigation of these crimes and on-going intimidation of media workers.
“Large numbers of women regularly suffer sexual abuse perpetrated by members of the Sri Lankan armed forces. One lawyer described to us the evidence collected about these crimes. In one case they have text messages from Major General Mahinda Hathurusingha to the ‘comfort women’ he frequently abuses.”
The Australian government’s position on Sri Lanka has once again been exposed as unprincipled. It ignores the torture and rape of innocent people, the abuse of “comfort women” by military officers, media repression and the persecution of thousands of people.
It ignores the deportations of Australian journalists for attending press freedom conferences and the harassment of an Australian senator who was collecting evidence about the rape of women and children by military officers.
It cosies up to and positively encourages the regime that does these things because it has decided that stopping asylum seeker boats from reaching our shores is the only thing that matters.
[Trevor Grant is a spokesperson for the Tamil Refugee Council and hosts the weekly Refugee Radio: 3cr.org.au/refugeeradioshow.]