By P.K.Balachandran/Ceylon Today
When the Australian High Commissioner in Sri Lanka, David Holly, called on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to congratulate him on his election victory, the body language of President Rajapaksa clearly indicated that he was receiving good wishes from a long-standing and sincere friend – Australia.
According to a press release issued by the Lankan government, High Commissioner Holly said that he will “facilitate Australia’s highest possible support to Sri Lanka which is on a trajectory with a new vision.” The two dignitaries discussed ways and means of further enhancing bilateral cooperation, the release added.
Significantly, there was nothing about Australia’s offering to help Lanka achieve contentious goals in human rights, democracy or ethnic reconciliation, which is the constant refrain of other Western nations.
For the past six years at least, Australia has had a different take on developments in Sri Lanka. While other Western countries were hauling the island nation over the coals for alleged war crimes, rights violations and ethnic intolerance, Australia, from the time of Prime Minister Tony Abbot, has been of the view that finger pointing could be counter-productive. What is needed is positive engagement to promote economic development which, in turn, could bring about the desired change.
Srimal Fernando and Yashodha Rathnayake admit in their piece on 70 years of Australia-Lanka relations, that Eelam War IV did affect bilateral relations a bit. Australia has been consistently urging the Lankan Government to ensure that all allegations of serious international crimes committed by both sides to the civil conflict, are investigated and prosecuted in a transparent and independent manner.
But the point to note here is that Australia has not been one sided. Its emphasis has been on rights violations and “crimes committed by both sides”, namely, the government forces and the LTTE. This emanates from the fact that successive Australian governments have consistently and strongly opposed all forms of terrorism. In 2001, Australia had banned the LTTE.
Despite the high pitched chorus of allegations against the Lankan armed forces, in 2008, Australia had provided A$ 27 million as development assistance. After the war, in 2009, Australia increased ODA levels. In 2018, Australia provided A$ 28.6 million, Fernando and Rathnayake point out.
CHOGM A High Point
The 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) held in Colombo, was a high point in Australia-Lanka relations. Premier Tony Abbott attended the meeting even as India, Canada and Mauritius boycotted the conference citing lack of progress in post-war reconciliation.
Britain’s David Cameron did come, as did Prince Charles. But he took the opportunity to slam the Mahinda Rajapaksa government for shortcomings in the area of human rights and ethnic sensitivity. The British Prime Minister brazenly displayed colonial-era arrogance during his visit to Jaffna. He sought a meeting with President Rajapaksa to read the riot act to him. But the Lankan President refused to give him an appointment.
Cameron had told fellow Commonwealth leaders: “Together we must say clearly to the government of Sri Lanka – our hosts – that there must be accountability for the past and respect for human rights today.”
In sharp contrast to Cameron, Tony Abbot said, prior to coming to Colombo, that “Australia shouldn’t be giving lectures to other countries about human rights.”
“Sri Lanka had been through a horrific civil war involving atrocities on both sides,” he said but made it clear that he was “not inclined to go overseas and give other countries lectures”.
“My understanding is that ordinary civil society is resuming in the Tamil parts of Sri Lanka. I will be urging the Sri Lankan government to respect everyone’s rights but I will also be acknowledging a lot of progress has been made,” Abbot said.
He noted that Sri Lanka had been cooperative in taking back people arriving by boat and that Australia needed to maintain the “best possible relations” with that country.
In his speech at CHOGM, Abbot said: “ This country (Sri Lanka) has emerged from many troubles. But with peace has come more freedom and more prosperity – so we are here to praise, as much as to judge.,” He cited the constructive way in which peace and reconciliation were brought about in troubled South Africa and Ireland.
“Sri Lanka’s willingness to host this Commonwealth shows its commitment to democratic pluralism and freedom based on law. It ought to reassure all its citizens that just as today is better than yesterday, tomorrow will be better than today,” Abbot said.
This was music to the ears of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Lankan nationalists in the midst of the cacophony of admonitions from the West and the UN and vigorous opposition from the Green party in Australia. The Greens accused Abbot of sidetracking human rights only to stop illegal immigration from Sri Lanka.
Generalized justifications apart, Tony Abbot was indeed motivated by a desire to put an end to human trafficking, technically called “Irregular Maritime Arrivals (IMA), to Australia from Sri Lanka. IMA was a major problem in 2012-13. It rose from 200 in 2008 to 6000 in 2017.
Initially, the illegal immigrants were Tamils from the war-affected North and East of Sri Lanka, but later Sinhalese from the South too had begun migrating in this way.
To help Sri Lanka stop human smuggling, the Australians gave patrol vessels. In 2014, Australia had donated two Bay Class vessels to Sri Lanka to strengthen the Sri Lankan Navy’s existing capability to intercept human smugglers and other maritime criminals. In 2017, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull provided three Austalian Stabicraft (small patrol vessels) to the Sri Lankan Coast Guard.
A 2013 study by Dinuk Jayasuriya and Marie McAuliffe notes that Lanka-Australia cooperation had led to an increase in the number of asylum seekers repatriated to Sri Lanka. Between July 2012 and May 2013, there were 162 voluntary and 965 involuntary returns to Sri Lanka.
Illegal migrants have been, in fact, economic migrants looking for greener pastures, even if they give persecution as the reason for migration. Therefore, Australia is of the view that Lanka should be helped to develop itself so that it can prevent desperate migration of this sort. Undeniably, illegal migration is rooted in the war but the solution is not to keep talking about the war but to help the country and its people ( of all communities) to stand on their feet.
This is why Australia stepped aid after the war. Australian companies invested over A$ 89 million in 2017, which generate jobs and income. Trade in bilateral goods and services between Lanka and Australia reached A$ 1.6 billion in 2018, a 30 percent increase over the previous year. As many as 80,000 Australian tourists visited Sri Lanka in 2017 to keep Lanka’s tourism sector ticking. Many of the popular centers of higher education in Sri Lanka train students for Australian degrees.
Australia and Sri Lanka cooperate in the field of defense. They participate in the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS), the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF).
According Barana Waidyatilake of the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute of International Relations and Strategic Studies (LKI).Australia’s Defense White Paper on cooperation with Sri Lanka covers the following areas: illegal fishing; developing resilience to climate change and its impact on vulnerable neighbors; and maintaining peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific by emphasizing freedom of navigation.
Sri Lanka is a willing partner in keeping the Indo-Pacific Ocean free for navigation as it was the country which initiated the move to declare the Indian Ocean as a “Zone of Peace” way back in 1971.
Role of Lankan Immigrants
The Sri Lankan community in Australia plays a major role in promoting bilateral relations. As per the 2016 census, there were 170,000 people of Sri Lankan origin in Australia. Among them, the Sinhalese were the single largest group (105,000); Tamils were second (45,000) and Bughers and others 20,000. Among the Western countries, it is in Australia that Sri Lanka gets the strongest support on the ethnic issue, perhaps because the majority are Sinhalese and Burghers there.
(The featured picture at the top shows Lankan illegal migrants cramped in a small vessel)