Sri Lanka’s external affairs minister has pleaded with Tamil refugees in Australia who fled the nation’s bloody civil war to come home – having quietly slipped into Canberra for talks on combating people smugglers.
G.L. Peiris told Fairfax Media in an exclusive interview Sri Lanka is now perfectly stable, with an economic boom in the once devastated northern Tamil regions running at three-times the national average.
But he warned smugglers sending record numbers of Sri Lankans by boat to Australia were making “unconscionable profits” and cared nothing for the people they put on unseaworthy vessels.
“Sri Lanka is today a land at peace, it is a perfectly stable society. The northern province is developing at about 22 per cent, when the average population of the country is between 6 or 7 per cent,” Professor Peiris said.
“There has been a total transformation of life in the north. There is absolutely nothing to run away from.”
Professor Peiris’ visit was not foreshadowed by the usual official announcement but Foreign Minister Bob Carr said this had nothing to do with sensitivity about Sri Lanka ties, only that he had not thought it newsworthy.
Human rights activists have routinely accused the Sri Lankan government of continued use of torture or other abuses, more than four years after the end of the military campaign against the separatist Tamil Tigers.
A campaign is also under way calling for a boycott the Commonwealth heads of government meeting to be held in November in Colombo – but Australia has said it will attend.
Professor Peiris met with Senator Carr, Immigration Minister Brendan O’Connor, Defence Minister Stephen Smith and deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop this week and will open a new Sri Lankan consulate in Melbourne on Friday.
Senator Carr said Australia had called for more urgency in reconciliation efforts in Sri Lanka and a full accounting of people missing and disappeared during the Tamil Tiger insurgency.
He also said Australia had welcomed news that an election for a provincial council in Sri Lanka’s north would be held in September.
Record number of Sri Lankans have arrived in Australian waters by boat this year.
But Professor Peiris said these people were not economic refugees but economic migrants, and claims of abuse had no relationship to the reality on the ground in Sri Lanka.
He also said of the thousands of people who fled during the last months of fighting in 2009, the country was ready to welcome them home.
“My message to them is they ought to come and return to Sri Lanka. We are today in a situation where a lot of people who left the country in search of greener pastures abroad but now increasing numbers are coming back to teach in our universities, to engage in their professions.”
To work in their own country, to be surrounded by their own people, that is a natural human instinct,” he said.