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Senators' Statements: Remembering the Tamils in Sri Lanka

Speeches in Parliament
Lee Rhiannon 26 Nov 2014

Today I rise to speak about the Sri Lankan born Tamil community.

November 27 is a very important day for Tamils both in Sri Lanka and in the many countries they now call home. It is a day they remember with deep pain and sadness the 26 year long civil war in Sri Lanka in which over hundred thousand Tamils were killed and the more than 60 years of systematic Sri Lankan state orchestrated brutality towards them.

In previous years I have been able to join the community in Sydney in their grieving. The horror of the 2009 war has left deep lasting scars.

This year I will be in Parliament. My heart and thoughts are with the Tamils in Sri Lanka, in the diaspora and those that have escaped as asylum seekers to try to find refuge and peace in another country.

The Tamils await justice and freedom. I commend their hard work, commitment, integrity and resolve and truly believe that one day this will be realised.

I recently met with the Tamils in Melbourne. While I have spent quite a bit of time with the Tamil community in Sydney and more recently Perth, this was my first meeting with the Melbourne Tamil diaspora community. After a lengthy discussion with the older members of the community, I had the pleasure of meeting younger Tamils.

An ongoing distress for the community, apart from the continuing atrocities of the Rajapaksa Government is the response of Australia's politicians to the situation in Sri Lanka and asylum seekers in Australia.

They noted with gratitude that some Labor MPs have supported them over the years; speaking against the gross injustices the Tamils in Sri Lanka have and continue to face, and making their colleagues aware of the continuing atrocities.

However, the official policy of Labor and the Liberals is quite different from the sympathetic voice of these MPs.

Officially Labor and Liberals - have sided with President Rajapaksa, a man accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity, who continues to oversee a regime that terrorises, tortures and abuses Tamil people and Tamil land. Tamil women and children are arrested and detained and more recently the Sri Lankan government is said to have intervened in the prosecution of members of the Sri Lankan army who gang raped two very young Tamil girls over a number of days. People who commit these crimes are criminals and in Sri Lanka these criminals walk free.

At the Melbourne meeting a number of those present spoke about Victorian Labor MPs Liz Beattie, John Pandazopoulos and Marsha Thomson who travelled to Sri Lanka earlier this year and had a private meeting with President Rajapaksa.
Commenting on the visit of the three Labor MPs to Sri Lanka the country's national newspaper the Daily News stated:

"We're very encouraged by what we see,"MP Beattie said. "Anyone can start a war, but it takes men of courage to end a war."

MP Pandazopoulos said the reconstruction Sri Lanka has undergone since the end of the war is "highly impressive" compared to other countries that have had similar experiences with war. "You need to be commended," he told the President. "You have made some hard decisions."

Soon after this was published, the Tamil Refugee Council in Australia put out a statement in which it said:

Emily's List, the pro-women's progressive political group, should clarify its stance on the rape and abuse of Tamil women after one of its long-time members, Liz Beattie, praised the Sri Lankan president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, as a "man of courage."
I share the concern that these statements were made by Labor MPs. Such comments by western MPs are gold for ruthless leaders who are shunned by most leaders of democratic nations.

Let me note here that the man they are commending - Mr Rajapaksa - and his army that they are calling ‘men of courage' have committed brutal human rights abuses during and since the war in Sri Lanka 2009. The assassination of children, the massacre of possibly 100 000 Tamils, the rape of hundreds of Tamil women - possibly more, the rape and torture of men and asylum seekers, land grabs, the imprisonment of Tamil children, kidnappings, disappearances, bashings. Let's not forget the atrocities during the war - bombing civilian areas, and bombing the makeshift hospitals in the war zone 31 times during the last five months.

Labor MPs Ms Beattie, Mr Pandazopoulos and Ms Thomson are out of step with world opinion.

These are some of the groups and individuals that have spoken publicly about the abuses and have expressed concern and alarm at what is happening in Sri Lanka.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Asian Human Rights Commission, the International Commission of Jurists, Human Rights Law Centre, UK's Channel 4, SBS's Dateline, the Bar Human Rights Committee, veteran Australian sports journalist Trevor Grant, former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, the Australian Tamil Congress, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, International film maker Beate Arnestad.

It remains a concern for progressive Australians that Ms Beattie and Mr Pandazopoulos, who are part of the Victoria Labor left, praised Mr Rajapaksa in the way that they did. At a time when there is growing broad based support for the rights of Tamils and progressives in Sri Lanka, the actions of these MPs is deeply troubling.

The Tamils with whom I met continue to feel extremely hurt by these comments. It adds to their continuing feeling of pain at the response of the Australian government towards the war and the continuing injustices in Sri Lanka.
It would be revealing to know who helped these MPs organise their visit and arrange for them to meet Mr Rajapaksa. In the face of mounting evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity why did these Labor MPs make positive statements about the President who has been implicated in war crimes and crimes against humanity?

The Tamils expressed to me the hope these MPs and all MPs in our state and federal parliaments would closely follow the work of the team mandated by the UN Human Rights Council to conduct a comprehensive investigation of alleged human rights violations in Sri Lanka.

The three distinguished experts leading this investigation are:

Mr Martti Ahtisaari, former President of Finland and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, who has also served as a UN diplomat and mediator and is renowned for his international peace work;

Ms Silvia Cartwright, former Governor-General and High Court judge of New Zealand, and judge of the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts in Cambodia, as well as former member of the UN Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women;

Ms Asma Jahangir, former President of Pakistan's Supreme Court Bar Association and of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, previous holder of several Human Rights Council mandates and member of a recent fact-finding body into Israeli settlements.

They will be handing down their report in March. The world will be watching.

As is the style of the Sri Lankan government, their PR machine will most likely already be in full swing to neutralise any adverse findings.

The power of the ruthless Rajapaska regime is a constant reminder why we need MPs in Australia who are independent and consult with the diaspora Tamil community and multiple international human rights and legal organisations that are concerned about the abuses in Sri Lanka - so that they do not give comfort to this dangerous President through ill-advised statements.

The world has finally woken up to the atrocities of Rajapaksa Government. Australia may well be one of the last countries standing with and giving cover to a President and government accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and ongoing human rights abuses.

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