Australian government complicit in persecution of Sri Lankan Tamils

Thousands of Tamils around the world commemorated the massacre at the Nagerkovil school that occurred 16 years ago near Jaffna, in the north-east of Sri Lanka. Many of the Tamils who commemorated the bombing of the school are facing deportation back to Sri Lanka where the Tamil people face systematic persecution.

On September 22, 1995, staff at the Nagarkovil government school reported that they had seen Sri Lankan Air Force warplanes circling overhead. Fearing that the school was about to be bombed, teachers evacuated children from the school to seek shelter under a tree. When the bombing started, one of the bombs fell near the tree, killing 39 children and injuring others. Those who were injured died over subsequent days. The bombing took place 12 hours after the Sri Lankan government imposed censorship on reporting any military activity. In the meantime, sporadic army artillery shelling took many other civilian lives in the same area. The pattern of shelling, which continued for a week, was such that it took place about four times a day, with at least six shells being fired at a time. On October 1, 1995, the Sri Lankan military launched Operation Thunderstrike into several other areas in the country’s Tamil-inhabited north. The artillery shelling was widespread and indiscriminate, targeting many civilian buildings such as the Methodist mission compound in the town of Puttur, north of Jaffna. The government meanwhile claimed that the bombing of Nagarkovil was a lie propagated by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Founded in 1976, the Tamil Tigers waged a bitter armed struggle to create an independent state named Tamil Eelam in the north and east of the island until they were defeated in 2009. It is estimated that up to 100,000 people died in the conflict. Tens of thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils are still displaced from the civil war, many of them forced to seek refuge in other countries.

In 1995, the newly elected Peoples Alliance (PA) government of Sri Lanka began waging a duplicitous campaign of denial, deceit and cover-ups of its violations of the human rights of Tamils while posing as defenders of human rights. The PA had promised to deliver a negotiated settlement with the LTTE. It entered into a cease-fire with the LTTE in January 1995, but continued to round up leaders of the LTTE and anyone it considered to be an LTTE supporter. In April 1995 the LTTE ended the cease-fire by sinking two Sri Lankan government patrol boats. The PA government then oversaw the re-emergence of government-backed death squads.

Western governments, including Australia, congratulated the PA government for its human rights “reforms”. In September 1995, the US House of Representatives committee on international relations adopted a resolution congratulating the Sri Lankan government for its human rights “improvements”. The Colombo government was able to receive massive amounts of military aid from Western backers. In October 1995, the LTTE launched a series of retaliatory attacks blowing up two main oil depots in Colombo. More then 100 Sinhalese villagers were also killed in LTTE attacks with others taken hostage.

The roots of the conflict date back to British colonial rule when the country was known as Ceylon. A Ceylon independence movement arose within the island’s majority Sinhala-speaking population in the early 20th century. Independence was eventually granted in 1948 by the British. Disagreements between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities flared up when drawing up the country’s first post-independence constitution, with disputes over the official language. In 1956, the Ceylon parliament passed the Sinhala Only Act, which made Sinhala the only official language. The passage of the law was met with demonstrations from Tamil organisations. In 1955 the civil service had been largely composed of Tamils; by 1970 it was almost entirely Sinhalese, with thousands of Tamil civil servants forced to resign due to lack of fluency in Sinhala.

In 1972 the Tamil New Tigers (TNT) formed, reviving symbolism dating back to the 10th century Chola empire; the tiger being an emblem of that empire. In 1976 the struggle of the Tamils progressed with the formation of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) adopting the goal of a “secular socialist state of Eelam”. That same year, the TNT united with other armed Tamil groups and adopted the name Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. The LTTE’s modus operandi was assassinations of Sinhalese and Tamil politicians. The TULF was often blamed by nationalist Sinhalese politicians for acts of violence committed by the LTTE. Another Tamil pro-independence movement, the Eelam Revolutionary Organisation of Students, formed in England, became the backbone of the Eelamist movement in the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora, arranging passports and employment for immigrants and levying them for funds to aid the liberation struggle.

Arbitrary arrests of Tamils still occur throughout the country. Freedom of expression is severely limited. Journalists who endeavour to report fairly on the conflict or even who visit the north of the country are often detained without trial. Some are “disappeared”. Torture has been part of the routine police work throughout the conflict.

The massacre of the Nagarkovil school children was not an isolated incident. The most recent documented indiscriminate mass killing of Tamils occurred on May 12, 2009, when a makeshift hospital located in the so-called safe zone in the north of the country was hit by Sri Lankan Army (SLA) mortar fire. This “safe zone” had been declared by the SLA, which promised not to fire into the area after the Sri Lanka Air Force had dropped leaflets urging people to assemble there. Army mortar firing killed 49 patients at the hospital and injured at least 50 others. Many other similar incidents like this one were covered up by the SLA and the government. Confidential UN reports, revealed by the London Times in May 2009, estimate that as many as 20,000 Tamil civilians were killed in the “safe zone”. Doctors who spoke out against the killings were detained for months without access to lawyers, charged with treason and tortured. They claimed that every kind of lethal weapon, such as the internationally banned cluster shells and shells fired from multi-barrel rocket were used by the SLA inside the “safe zone”.

Some 350,000 Tamil civilians were trapped by SLA troops who had encircled the north of the country. The LTTE was decimated by the Sri Lankan military campaign with thousands of its troops being held in detention after surrendering to the SLA. The LTTE finally admitted defeat on the May 17, 2009, with the LTTE’s chief of international relations, Selvarasa Pathmanathan, stating on the website Tamilnet that “This battle has reached its bitter end ... We have decided to silence our guns. Our only regrets are for the lives lost and that we could not hold out for longer”.

The SLA had been building up for this military campaign for many years. In 2006, the US government increased its Foreign Military Fund to Sri Lanka with the express purpose of destroying the Tamil Tigers. Israel was also a strong backer of the Sri Lankan government, providing millions of dollars in military aid including patrol boats, 17 Kfir fighter jets and training for the Sri Lankan Air Force.

The Australian government has also been a strong backer of Colombo’s offensive against the Tamil independence movement, providing tens of millions of dollars in aid to the government. Tamils who seek asylum in Australia are meted out harsh treatment, detained in detention centres behind razor wire in remote locations such as Christmas Island. Many Tamils held there have been deported or are currently facing deportation. In a July media release issued through the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC), Prime Minister Julia Gillard stated that “I have a message for people in Sri Lanka who might be considering attempting the journey to Australia … do not risk your life, only to arrive in Australian waters and find that far, far more likely than not you will be quickly sent home by plane.” The Gillard government knows that it is sending people back to Sri Lanka to face persecution.