As an Australian prison ship bobbed on the high seas for more than five weeks, its desperate, vulnerable human cargo of 157 people, almost all of them Tamils, locked up for 21 hours a day in the stinking, windowless hull, the government was fighting to stop these asylum seekers from accessing their right to re-settlement in Australia.
Even worse, it was secretly trying to return them to Sri Lanka. Using the same veil of secrecy the government had already returned a boat of 41 Sri Lankan asylum seekers to their persecutors. This galvanised human rights advocates into launching the High Court action which stopped the second boat from following the same path.
The government failed, but the asylum seekers are now to be caged in the remote Curtin detention centre in Western Australia for who knows how long. They still face the threat of deportation to India and Sri Lanka.
The callous criminality of the Australian government has been accompanied by Tony Abbott’s hollow claim that Sri Lanka is now a society at peace, a lie he and his ministers repeat over and over again.
Yet if Sri Lanka is a place of peace, why do Tamils flee in such numbers? The answer is that Sri Lanka has not been a place of peace for Tamils for more than 70 years.
Divide and rule
In 1505 the Portuguese began the sordid tale of colonial oppression in Sri Lanka, arriving to find an island ruled by distinct kingdoms with separate cultures, religions and language. The Tamils were predominant in the north and east of the country while the Sinhalese dominated in the south. By 1658, the Dutch had displaced the Portuguese, setting up separate administrative structures that reflected this difference between Sinhalese and Tamils, who represent 75 percent and 20 percent of the population respectively.
However, after the British ousted the Dutch in 1795 this co-existence between separate kingdoms was tipped on its head. In 1833 the British governor took the step that remains at the heart of the conflict between Sinhalese and Tamils. He decided to unify the country, stripping away the rights of Tamils to their homelands. It was done to enhance the colonial oppressor’s administrative control of the island, and thus increase the profits from pillaging the country’s resources.
By 1948, the British colonialists were on their bikes, but they left behind a constitution that gave carte blanche to the extremist Sinhalese nationalists to begin their genocidal campaign against the Tamils. The first step was to disenfranchise one million Tamils, effectively wiping out the Tamil voice in parliament.
Capitalising on this, the majority Sinhalese introduced a number of measures to force Tamils out of any positions. Sinhala replaced English as the official language, pushing thousands of Tamils out of government jobs. Then in 1972 they introduced a policy of standardisation in education, which meant Tamils had to achieve higher marks than Sinhalese to pass university entrance exams. Within a year, Tamil representation in tertiary education had fallen from 27 to 7 percent. Suddenly a whole generation had been alienated, and they were angry about it.
By 1983, when yet another government-orchestrated pogrom saw more than 3,000 Tamils murdered in the streets, the ranks of the newly-formed Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam were bolstered by thousands of disenchanted young men and women. The Tamils had tried for over 60 years to use the political process to achieve some form of equality within a structure weighted heavily against them. Early on, they adopted Gandhi’s methods of non-violence in the face of vicious attacks from Sinhalese extremists and the army, which was entirely made up of Sinhalese soldiers.
The armed struggle which began in the late 1970s endured until 2009, when the new president Mahinda Rajapaksa – having acquired illegal weapons such as cluster bombs and white phosphorous from the US, China and Israel – launched one of the most heinous attacks upon innocent civilians in history. The UN, currently investigating Rajapaksa’s war crimes, estimates at least 70,000 were slaughtered. More than 146,000 people are listed as missing.
Today the genocide continues apace, with the complicity of many governments, including Australia, which provides aid and equipment to the Rajapaksa regime.
The Tamil homelands are under military occupation, with one soldier for every five people in the north and the east. In fact the Sri Lankan military has grown since the war finished, and now ranks as the biggest, per capita, in south Asia.
The Tamils endure torture, rape, disappearances and jailings on a daily basis. One man I interviewed for my new book, Sri Lanka’s secrets: how the Rajapaksa regime gets away with murder, told me of his experience in jail. “I was raped by whoever was on duty. They would butt cigarettes on my skin. They put hot iron bars on my back. A bottle was shoved in my anus. Bicycle spokes were pushed through my penis. A boy staying in my cell was taken away and shot. They said I was next.”
This is but one of thousands of cases of torture. No Tamil is safe, especially young men and women. Recently two girls, 11 and 9 years old, were raped by a sailor from a naval base near their village. A cover-up immediately went into operation, with the local military commander threatening the girls’ family from speaking out.
The military regularly seizes land from Tamils, and builds houses for Sinhalese settlers on it. More than 200 Hindu temples have been demolished and replaced by Buddhist stupas. Tamil Catholic women have undergone forced contraception and their menfolk are denied jobs. The rates of poverty and malnutrition among the Tamil population in the north and east are above 50 percent, while the island average is 27 percent.
What we are witnessing is genocide, yet the world averts its eyes. Worse, duplicitous leaders such as Tony Abbott ensure that Australia is actively complicit in it. One day it will become another shameful chapter in the dark history of this country.
Trevor Grant is author of Sri Lanka’s secrets: how the Rajapaksa regime gets away with murder, Monash University Publishing.
Official book launch: Trevor Grant in conversation with Juila Burnside, 6:30pm Thurs, 14 August at Readings Bookshop, Cartlon.