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Lee Rhiannon's Sri Lanka visit diary notes

Lee Rhiannon 12 Nov 2013

On 7 November 2013, as international leaders readied themselves for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Sri Lanka,  Lee and New Zealand Greens MP Jan Logie headed there to discuss human rights, media freedom and the push factors that cause Tamils to seek asylum in Australia.  They travelled widely and met a range of people, particularly members of parliament, members of provincial councils, religious leaders and community leaders.

Below are extracts from her diary. The names of the majority of people she met with have not been included because of ongoing concerns for the safety of Tamils and members of civil society in Sri Lanka.

FRIDAY 8 November 2013

COLOMBO - capital of Sri Lanka

I am off the plane by 1.30 am. Walking though the long airport corridors signs of the Sri Lanka I have read and heard about abound. A portrait of President Mahinda Rajapaksa looks down on the visitors, CHOGM flags add colour, and even at this early hour helpful guides give directions. I'm getting the impression that the Sri Lankan government is out to gain maximum advantage of its moment on the international stage.

Our delegation of Australian and New Zealand MPs to Sri Lanka has started. Jan Logie, the Greens NZ MP, arrived a couple of hours before me. We meet up with our hosts and set off in two vans, both with a security person in each vehicle, for about a four-hour drive to Vavuniya in the north of the country. In the dark there is not much to see apart from the headlights of the trucks and cars heading into Colombo.

Jan and I grab some sleep in the back of the van. I awake to see the red line of dawn slashed across the horizon and the outline of coconut trees and chai shops. The road is busier with many people on bicycles, locals sweeping the paths and the early morning bustle of life in a Sri Lanka town.

This trip gives Jan and I plenty of time to catch up about our work on Sri Lankan issues and our time as Greens MPs and to get to know each other.

VAVUNIYA - town in the northern province

We arrive about 6am and enjoy the warm hospitality and a lovely fruit breakfast. We have time to freshen up for our meetings that start at 8am.

Our first meeting is with Tamil National Alliance members of parliament, members of the Provincial Council and local Catholic Fathers.

Disappeared people

Extensive work has identified 2,301 people who have disappeared 90 per cent went missing in government-controlled areas in the north and east of SL.

More than 100,000 people were killed during the war. Some of the people imprisoned by the Government of Sri Lanka after the end of the war in huge detention prisons were rescued but many were killed by the Sri Lankan army after they were captured. Evidence from photos and videos shows people who the government said had died in combat were in fact captured and subsequently killed. One of the local Catholic priests is still missing.

Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission

The government has failed to implement the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, which raises the question - how will the government negotiate in good faith with Tamil representatives if the government wont implement its own report. Many people are so fearful for their well being they would not give evidence to LLRC.

Terrorist Investigations Division

The Terrorist Investigations Division remains an active unit within the police force. After the recent election a young man was called to the fourth floor of TID building as part of its investigations of the campaigns by young Tamils in the election. All the young man had been involved in was some basic election campaigning work. TID is known for its intimidatory tactics.

Rehabilitation program

Tamils find the rehabilitation program insulting. When they are in custody they have to salute the Sri Lankan flag and are forced to work on farms, once owned by Tamils, to make profits for the army. The army gets paid by the SL government for the rehabilitation programs it runs for Tamils but the programs they provide are nothing more than working on the army farms that were taken by force. The rehabilitation programs should restore the lost livelihood of Tamils by providing work and education opportunities by engaging local organisations.

Child abuse

There are increasing reports of child abuse. Tamil children have been taken and put in Buddhist hostels and schools. Children who have been abused by a Buddhist priest have been brought to the local hospital. The priest has been protected by the army and has not been charged. The doctor who described these developments referred to this as structural genocide.

Role of army

Concerns about the activities of the Sri Lankan army was raised by many people we met with. The army is taking on roles that further entrench them in the north while denying local people their land, their rights and their livelihood. The army are running tourist programs, teaching in schools, and using displaced farmers robbed of their land to work on army farms.

The Buddhist religion is being used to assist the army to rob local people of their land and their own religious shrines and practices. Buddhist shrines and special places are being set up on locations that have no connection to Buddhism. Stupas and other symbols once placed on local land gain significance and it becomes hard to remove them.

Many spoke about the changing demographics in the north and the east. 25 years ago the Tamil areas suffered colonisation. Borders have been changed and non-Tamils given assistance to move to this region.


Tamil fishing communities have been particularly hard hit. The army takeover of much of the coastline in the north and east means that they have been forced to move inland and no longer can pursue fishing. This has an enormous impact on whole villages as they lose one of their main food and income sources. The Indian government's fishing policy which covers large fishing operations around Sri Lanka allows bottom trawling which is destroying many marine habitats and many fish stocks have been reduced.

International investigation

Great emphasis is given to the need for an independent international investigation into war crimes and crimes against humanity and that a witness protection program needs to be part of the process. Many people we spoke with said that the crimes that have been committed and those that continue to be perpetrated amount to genocide against the Tamils.

KILINOCHCHI - town in the northern province, about 10 km south of Jaffna

About 9.30 am we thank our hosts and set off for the drive - about one and a half hours - to Kilinochchi. Now we get a chance to see the countryside and the area we are passing through is where large tracts of Tamil land have been taken over by the army. We pass many check points and Buddhist stupas and monuments at the entrance to these army controlled land.

After the recent local election that resulted in the Tamil National Alliance winning 30 seats in the 38 member council it was widely thought that there was a huge mandate for resources to be fairly allocated to this region. This had not yet happened. There is an increase in intimidation of the Tamil community.

A journalist we meet had just been released after ten months in jail. He was not charged with any crime during this time. He said he met people in jail who had been deported from Australia and Norway after attempting to be accepted as a refugee. He was in Boosa Detention Camp which is notorious for its torture of Tamil inmates.

These are some of the points the TNA representatives made:

• People are often arrested two and three times for the same offence but are not charged. So they are jailed for long periods with no opportunity to defend themselves in court.
• There are incidents where parents are taken away and jailed and their children are left with no care.
• Tamils who challenge the government often have their assets confiscated.
• The number of army camps is increasing along with land confiscation. A sugar cane plantation maintained by the local council was recently taken over by the army.
• 760 families in the Kilinochchy district cannot access government assistance for their homes because the army has confiscated their land.
• A local Hindu temple lost the land it owned that was immediately adjacent to the temple. Their land title papers were correct but the Secretary of Defence had false papers prepared, which enabled them to have a win in court for the land to be alienated from the Hindu temple. The army built a wall to deny access to temple goers and a stay order was granted to also stop entry. This happened in 2012.
• A common tactic of the government is to use Buddhist religious symbols to take over Hindu special places.
• The failure of the national government, which controls budget allocations, to rebuild educational institutions damaged during the war, is limiting opportunities for young Tamils. The community is not allowed to take money from overseas to rebuild damaged buildings.

Return of Tamil asylum seekers

I was interested to hear about what happens to Tamil asylum seekers who have been forcibly deported from Australia when they arrive back in Sri Lanka. Many are taken directly from the airport to jail. About three (at time of my visit) months ago about 60 people who were deported from Australia and then sent back to SL are still in jail. Also Tamils who go abroad and are then sent back are often incorrectly accused of organising fund raising for the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) and have their assets confiscated.

We were told that when Australian and New Zealand government ministers have visited this region they are accompanied by army people, although this may not have been apparent to the visitors.

At about 12.30 am we set off for Jaffna.

JAFFNA - capital city of the Northern Province

Our first stop was at the offices of Uthayan, a Tamil national newspaper. We met the editor M. V. Kanamaylnathan, Eswarapatham Saravanapavan the managing director, and many of the 82 staff - this includes about 50 journalists. Our visit starts in a reception room and immediately we are confronted by a shocking story. The wall is pock marked with bullet holes and a photographic display documents the violence, murders and intimidation the staff and owner have had to contend with for years. Photos show journalists dying in pools of blood, their subsequent funerals, large piles of newspapers being burnt, buildings and vehicles destroyed. The violence now feels very real to us.

This paper is a big operation - they have an estimated readership of 36,000 with about 20 people reading each copy of the paper produced.

The wall behind the lounge where we sat for our discussion had bullet holes. When we came in we had walked past a pile of computer monitors and hard drives shot up. I sat there thinking of how courageous these people are. The attackers have gone to enormous lengths to silence this media outlet. We were taken on a tour of the building, meeting many of the workers and we inspected a massive printing press that had been burnt out. But they always have a backup press and the paper has rarely missed an edition. At times the paper used came from exercise books.

Mr Saravanapavan commented that the Australian government ministers who recently visited this region should have come to this office to help their understanding of the ongoing human rights abuses. They have invited the British Prime Minister David Cameron and expected him in the days following our visit. They understand that he will only attend the CHOGM opening event for a few hours and then he will head north and include a stop over at their headquarters.

Many of the attacks on these journalists and their building came during curfew hours, which suggests the perpetrators are the Sri Lankan army or forces associated with them.

The staff ask me to find out if the Australian High Commissioner reported on these attacks of this significant media outlet to DFAT.

Tour around Jaffna

We then set off for a tour around the Jaffna coast. This is a beautiful town with a raft of stunning heritage buildings and an inviting coastline of lapping waves and gentle breezes. We get a glimpse of how this land could be but the reality is harsh. The civil war may have ended in 2009 but for so many life is tough and deteriorating. About 30,000 Tamils have been displaced over the past 25 years.

During this visit so many people we have met have raised their concerns about the army land take over. On this tour we are seeing the cruel outcomes of SL government policy. Wrought iron shanties far from the coast, serviced by nothing more than dusty pot holed roads, are now the homes of fishing communities who no longer can launch their boats and continue their life's work. These roads would turn to mud during the monsoons and be impassable.

Abuse of women

Another off shoot of this army control in the north is the large number of families headed by women. This is a theme we hear about throughout the trip. I am told that there are shockingly high levels of rape. Such abuse often results in these women being ostracised from their own communities.

As we drove down the coast I was shocked at how much land the army had taken over. Large tracks of land are now no go areas for Tamils.

Jaffna meetings

We head to our hotel for two final meetings for the day with the Chief Minister C. V. Vigneswaran and other members of the National Provincial Council.

The Chief Minister's first comment was that Sri Lankan democracy is in danger. We talked about the role of the army. With a force of 150,000 military personnel in the north and the east I was coming to understand the SL government's level of control and dominance and how they can successfully evict so many people from their land.

Mr Vigneswaran explained that about 6500 hectares have been taken over by the army in this region and the government is backing the transfer of ownership.

I had noticed as we drove round that the roads to the military check points that lead into the army bases are tarred and very new. These are the showpiece roads and they provide what is so important for the Sri Lankan government control through quick access. This is how the army is working to change the demography of the north.

I was also interested to hear from the Chief Minister about the recent elections where there was such a strong vote for the Tamil National Alliance. Five ministers are Tamils. Some people in Australia had suggested that this shows that Tamils are now being given a fair go. However, Mr Vigneswaran explains that there were attempts to interfere with the army producing false papers to allow more voters from outside the northern provinces to vote in this election.

The Chief Justice outlined his plan for the future of this region -
• Treasure and value democracy,
• Oppose violence and separation,
• Work for federal form of government,
• Integrity of provincial boundaries, and
• Extra budgetary assistance for the north to help region rebuild after the war.

Mr Vigneswaran also raised issues about the Sri Lankan constitution that he thought our Prime Minister Tony Abbott should be aware of. The 18th amendment passed by the Sri Lankan parliament removes the two-term limit on a President and gives the President power to appoint individuals to bodies that had been independent.

He thought our Prime Minister in coming to CHOGM should be aware that he was coming to a country and being hosted by a leader who has ruled over law changes that have devolved power to an army general. He described how some MPs receive phone calls from judges informing them how they should vote.

We discussed the push factors that are causing many Tamils to make the decision to flee their country by boat - the abuse of women, intimidation and violence, colonisation of land and loss of livelihood. He spoke with great concern about how many members of civil society are dealt with - in ways that strike fear into many. He linked these abuses with the fact that President Rajapaksa's brother, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, is Defence Secretary and their family controls many businesses.

Mr Vigneswaran was hopeful that many countries would use the CHOGM events to raise hard questions with the Sri Lankan government

NPC members raised strong concerns about the loss of land owned and farmed by Tamils. They gave great emphasis to this as the land confiscation by the Sri Lankan army remains an active project, using Buddhist religious symbols to alienate the land from the Tamils.

They referred to these events as structural genocide. With virtually no Buddhists in the north there is no need for this religious expansion. As most of the police, army and judiciary all part of the Sinhalese majority, few Tamils lodge complaints about these developments.

They explained that while the SL army at times offers compensation for land they have taken over, the Tamil communities have made it clear they do not want compensation, they want their land and a government and defence forces that respect the rule of law.

SATURDAY 9 November 2013

We set off early for the long drive back to Colombo. On the way as well as enjoying the beauty of this island, Jan and I discuss the themes coming through from our many discussions.

1. Violence, surveillance and intimidation
• People killed in attacks linked with the army
• People gaoled but not charged
• Intimidation of people who speak out or complain about government abuses
• Attacks on media offices

2. Abuse of women
• Rape and humiliation of women who have been sexually assaulted
• Children being taken away from their mothers and given to army families
• Women forced into prostitution

3. Theft of land, loss of livelihood
• Army implicated in massive land confiscation
• Misuse of Buddhist religious symbols to alienate land from Tamil population
• Displaced people, particularly fishers, have lost livelihood

These are some of the issues we want to speak to the media about at our planned press conference planned for the next day when we are in Colombo. We also intend to speak about our findings when we return to our respective countries.

Back in Colombo it was like we had come to another country - the final touches were being put in place for CHOGM with more flags being erected, streets swept and paving being laid in a stunning city park.

SUNDAY 10 November 2013

Click here for the media statement  Jan and I put out together.

This is our last day in Sri Lanka and over breakfast Jan and I reflect on what an informative trip it has been. Today we will be meeting with a range of representatives of non-government organisations and religious groups and some legal people who assist Tamils and progressive Sri Lankans who are in conflict with the government and who also provide assistance to refugees who have been forcibly returned by the Australian government to Sri Lanka.

We have six back-to-back meetings planned between 8 and 10.30 am. Some of the issues raised include:

Crimes against humanity
Despite the fact that there is overwhelming evidence detailing incidents of torture and war crimes no one has been indicted. The disappearance of tens of thousands of people has been occurring since 1971. With effectively no one charged people have lost faith in the process. The deaths and disappearance of about 60,000 Tamils still has not been properly dealt with by the Sri Lankan authorities despite numerous reports.

There was a very moving protest in March, which was part of a larger campaign organised by families wanting to learn the truth about their disappeared loved ones. The attitude of the SL government that we had been hearing so much about during this visit was on display here. Despite more than 600 people, many of them mothers, travelling by bus to Colombo to visit the UN office in Colombo the police blocked and intimidated participants and the bus drivers were held up with guns.

The failure to follow the rule of law is a major theme of the work undertaken. Their major focus is the next session of the United Nations Human Rights Council due to be held in Geneva in March 2014.

Exclusion of Tamils from decision making
One of the main causes of the conflict is the ongoing exclusion of Tamils from decision-making. He emphasised the need for a power sharing mechanism and for education on what this means. The situation since 2009 is a "negative peace" as justice does not exist for all SL citizens. The establishment of the Provincial Council in the north is a positive step and attributed this to the pressure the SL government is under because of CHOGM. However the Provincial Council cannot raise money and so it has few resources to deal with the range of post war problems.

The continuing problems include erosion of the separation of powers, abuse of police powers, and undermining the integrity of the justice system. He said the infamous white vans still pick people up who may never be seen again, Tamil children are being taken away from their families, and very poor people are being evicted from their land. The upshot is that Tamils are becoming a minority in their own land. It is not possible to organise real opposition to the SL government.

Attacks on religious groups
The revivalism of SL Buddhism is being promoted by Bodu Bala Sena, a Buddhist nationalist organisation. They are running campaigns against the Tamils, the minority Muslim community and evangelical and other Christian groups. There are a number of cases before the Supreme Court. There is growing concerns about the trend towards Sri Lanka becoming a fundamental Buddhist state. While the Sri Lankan Constitution affords Buddhism special standing it also sets out in considerable detail the rights of all religions.

Treatment of asylum seekers returned from Australia
Local legal people raised concerns about the treatment of asylum seekers who are forcibly returned. There are links between the Australian Federal Police and the Sri Lankan Criminal Investigation Department, possibly the most notorious police unit as it has been linked with torture and extra judicial killings. Some of the people returned have provided affidavits detailing the torture inflicted on them by CID officers.

The AFP provide resources to the CID. I have questioned the AFP in Estimates about these links and the allegation that an AFP officer was present when CID personnel tortured returnees. The AFP have stated that their officer was in the building but not in the room when these abuses occurred.

Arrival of SL immigration officers - Jan and I detained

At about 9.45 am our host informs Jan and myself that government representatives have arrived and are inquiring about our activities. We ask if they have a warrant and are informed that they did not need to have a warrant as they have discretionary powers to undertake such investigations.

The officer who does the talking is Mr Jayarathnam. He is employed by the Department of Immigration. He and is colleague are soon joined by two other officers. They ask for our passports and after discussing it we agreed to hand them over.

Jan and I are concerned about the implications for the people we have and are still due to meet with and those who are organising our meetings. We cancel the remaining meetings we were due to hold.

At about 10.10 am Mr Jayarathnam informs us that we will be detained at our hotel so we need to leave. When we walk to the cars about ten journalists and a couple of camera crews were waiting outside the building where we had been meeting. We inform them that we could not do the press conference planned for 10.30 am. There is some speculation that the reason we were being detained is to prevent us from doing the press conference.

Mr Javarathnam also demanded the identification papers of the woman who was driving us back to the hotel. These were handed over.

10.25 am We arrive at the hotel. For about ten minutes Mr Jayarathnam refuses to return the ID papers to our driver even though when they were handed over he said they would be immediately returned on our arrival at the hotel. This action added to the stress and anxiety of our SL colleagues. This incident brings home the intimidation so many Tamils and progressive Sri Lankans live with every day.

10.38 am the Immigration officers separate us into different rooms in the hotel. They say they want to take statements from us. We initially go to the different rooms. I am not happy being alone with one officer. I stand up and tell them I won't stay there and go and join Jan and am allowed to. We agree that we will not let them separate us.

10.45 am I text my family and staff about what has happened. I ring Tom Behrens at the Australian High Commission in Colombo and explained what had happened. (A DFAT representative I spoke to before I left Australia had supplied me with Tom's contact details.) We are now being detained in a hotel vestibule.

10.49 am The officer in charge, Mr Jayarathnam, again states that he needs us to make statements and that Jan and I need to be in separate rooms when we do this. We explain that we cannot do that.

10.50 am Two men arrive with a camera. We don't know if they are journalists or with the officers.

10.55 am Australian Greens leader Senator Christine Milne rings to inquire how we are. I explain the situation and that we are waiting to hear back from the HC. Around this time more people have come into the lobby including some Australian journalists.

11.02 am I overhear one of the Immigration officers saying - we have "got information we (Jan and I) have violated the Act" and that "the government did not know we were coming (to SL)". This is not true as the government issued both of us with a visa.

I start talking to the media representatives but the immigration officers tell me to stop. They say I can talk to the media because I have violated the Act. They do not explain what this means. On the back of the shirt that one of the officers is wearing the words "Aspire to be the best" are emblazoned.

11.32 am Tom Behrens from the Australian HC rings back to ask for details about our situation.

11.49 am Four additional government officers arrive and have discussions with the two officers who have been with us since this started.

I am doing a series of phone interviews with Australian journalists. Although I am not allowed to speak to the media present, I have not been stopped from using my phone.

12.30 pm I should be at the airport now for my 2.30 pm flight back to Australia.

12.34 pm More officials arrive and talk to the Immigration officers who have been detaining us. The man who appears to be senior approaches us and identifies himself as Chula Penera, a Controller General with the Department of Defence. He says twe violated the law as under the visa we were issued we are not suppose to hold a press conference. He adds that we are no longer required to make a statement and that we are free to leave on the condition that we do not speak to the media. If we wish to do a press conference we need to seek permission first from the Sri Lankan Department of Foreign Affairs. He returns our passports and apologies for any inconvenience.

12.57 pm Jan and I get into a taxi to go to the airport. I may just make my flight home. The taxi driver is very interested in what had happened to us and offers his detailed criticism of the Rajapaksa government. I let my family and staff know I am heading to the airport. I say a quick farewell to Jan as I have to run to catch my plane. It was excellent to be able to do this trip with her. We enjoyed each other's company and over the last few hours of detention it was good to have her support.

1.13 pm Tom from the High Commission rings and I inform him we are heading to the airport. At the airport there are a series of hold ups as it appeared that officers with the Department of Immigration at the airport had not been informed that I was free to leave. After a short delay and a few phone calls and another apology I am off to the Qantas check-in. Tom is very helpful throughout the airport delays, staying in touch until I am on the plane. News travels fast as it was clear the Qantas staff had heard what happened. I was given a seat with many surrounding empty seats that delivered a good night's sleep on the trip home.

MONDAY 11 September 2013 - Sydney airport

It is wonderful to be met by family and staff. I do a quick press conference and then fly to Canberra as parliament is sitting this week.


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