A group of Sri Lankan asylum-seekers reaches port in East Java. People-smuggling is a revenue raiser for the Tamil Tigers, according to the Sri Lankan government. Source: AFP
REMNANTS of the defeated Tamil terrorist organisation, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, are involved in the people-smuggling business bringing Sri Lankan boatpeople to Australia, according to Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister.
Gamini Lakshman Peiris wants Australia to proscribe the LTTE as a terrorist organisation, making any support to it from Australia illegal. The LTTE is a proscribed terrorist organisation in Europe and North America but, perversely, not in Australia.
Peiris says that although the war between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE is over, Tamil Tiger networks still intimidate Tamil families in the diaspora and extort money from them, as well as engaging, he believes, in a range of other criminal activities.
Peiris is a soft-spoken law professor and university vice-chancellor turned chief diplomat for his small country, an island the size of Tasmania with a population just smaller than Australia’s.
In a long interview in Sydney this week, he tells me that people-smuggling has long been a key revenue raiser for the Tamil Tigers. “People-smuggling should not be seen in isolation,” Peiris says. “It is connected with other forms of criminal activity such as money laundering and narcotics.
“The LTTE is still in possession of a large quantity of resources that they accumulated from gun-running, people-smuggling, owning ships. They may have less money now than before, but their expenses now are also much less (now that the military conflict is over).”
Peiris is absolutely clear that the people leaving Sri Lanka are not genuine refugees but economic migrants. He praises the intense co-operation between Canberra and Colombo in suppressing this illegal immigration.
“Only this week, 88 people were apprehended in Sri Lankan waters attempting to come to Australia,” he says. “The Sri Lankan navy is playing a substantial role, and this is acknowledged by both sides of Australian politics.
“Almost 3000 have been turned back, so that the scale now is smaller than it was.”
But he emphasises that Sri Lanka’s actions would be entirely ineffectual if they were not matched by tough action from Australia. By this he means measures such as offshore processing, with a potential wait of years for asylum-seekers, as well as a willingness to send people back to Sri Lanka. “These people have now been shown that they have nothing to gain by endangering their lives and using up their life savings, since they are not genuine refugees. If they were genuine refugees, why would they not go to India? It’s so much closer.
“They are now disabused of the idea that they can secure the good life in Australia of welfare and housing and bringing their relatives out to join them. Some who are coming here are not even from the north (the Tamil area).
“It’s not exclusively Tamils coming here. Some Sinhalese (the majority group) have been duped by people making unconscionable profits into searching for greener pastures.”
Like many figures involved in the issues of people-smuggling and illegal immigration, Peiris believes the UN Refugee Convention itself is outdated and becoming counter-productive.
“The refugee convention does set up bad incentives,” he says. “And it contains big loopholes. The convention was not set up to give people a choice of which country to go to. But its loopholes effectively do this and create an intolerable burden on receiving countries.”
He also believes that groups affiliated with the LTTE blacken Sri Lanka’s name as part of a new campaign against the country.
“LTTE-friendly groups have not given up their goal of a separate nation. But their methods have changed. Now they try to mount an economic onslaught against the nation. They use their substantial financial resources to ingratiate themselves with politicians and buy influence with the media.”
This has been especially effective in Canada, Peiris believes.
“They want to isolate Sri Lanka economically, to discourage investment and foreign tourists from going into Sri Lanka.”
Blackening Sri Lanka’s name is also helpful to illegal immigrants who wish to claim refugee status, he believes.
The end of the long terrorist war the Tamil Tigers waged against the Sri Lankan government, in May 2009, has given his nation a unique moment of opportunity, in Peiris’s view.
The economy is growing at 7 per cent a year, which makes it one of the faster growing economies in the world. The growth rate is much higher in the north, the old redoubt of the Tigers.
“We need to exploit this historic moment,” Peiris says. “We are conscious of the magnitude and urgency of the opportunity. For three decades we were prevented from making the fullest use of our resources because of the scale of violence unleashed on us by the Tamil Tigers. The mood now is one of expectation and confidence that we can put the economy back on track.”
No one should doubt the extreme violence the Tigers cultivated, according to Peiris.
“Suicide bombing was their contribution. It originated with the Tamil Tigers. It was copied by others. They were convinced that the more extreme and intransigent they were, the greater would be their strength. Peace talks always failed because the LTTE was convinced of its military invincibility. They felt they could get it all by military means.
“Extreme violence was the instrument they used in order to terrorise. The greater their atrocities, the better it served their purpose. Terrorism was their whole raison d’etre. They would attack villages, slaughter women and children, attack places of worship.”
In accusing the Tamil Tigers of extravagant violence and human rights atrocities, Peiris echoes virtually all credible scholarship and commentary about the Tigers. But the Sri Lankan government itself is accused of needless violence resulting in the deaths of civilians in the last days of the Tigers war.
Peiris denies the charges and says most of the evidence has been fabricated by people sympathetic to the Tigers. He further argues: “There is a question of context. It seems very strange to focus on the last 14 or 15 days of a conflict that spanned 30 years.
“Some 300,000 people were trapped in a narrow part of land. They were being held by the LTTE as human shields. The government made it clear they were welcome to come to a government-controlled area where they would be safe. There is visual evidence that those who tried to do so were gunned down by the LTTE.
“It was the largest hostage situation in history. Our forces were told to keep civilian casualties to a minimum. The war could have been ended earlier, and with less military loss of life, if that had not been a major consideration.”
Most outside observers believe there were atrocities committed by both sides but that does not make both sides morally equal and there can be little doubt that it is overwhelmingly to the benefit of the Sri Lankan people that the terrorism of the LTTE is at an end.
In November, Sri Lanka will host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. Canada may not send its Prime Minister. But Australia and Britain will send theirs, as will most countries.
Peiris is grateful to the support the Gillard government has given to Sri Lanka for its hosting of CHOGM, including sending various Australian officials to advise on the logistics of the operation. He is particularly positive about the role of Foreign Minister Bob Carr, especially in fostering co-operation on maritime security and combating people-smuggling.
More prosaically, he believes ties with Australia are strong and getting stronger. He opened a Sri Lankan consulate in Melbourne during his visit. He is encouraged by rising numbers of Australian tourists coming to Sri Lanka.
And if Australians have any doubts about conditions now in the north of Sri Lanka, he urges them: “Come and see for yourself.”