Tamils vote for independence — and will vote against Labor

My following article appears in today’s Crikey:

Australia’s Tamil community want an independent homeland in Sri Lanka. And they want respect from a Federal Government here that is now denying visa applications to their people.

Last weekend saw thousands of Australian Tamils vote on the Vaddukoddai Resolution in a show of support for an independent Tamil homeland in Sri Lanka. They’ve told Crikey they’re angered by Kevin Rudd’s statements on refugees; some are preparing to campaign against sitting members during the federal election.

Results show overwhelming support locally as elections in Norway, France, Canada, Holland, Switzerland, Germany and Britain saw 99% of voting Tamils back the proposal. The vote has no real political consequence, though it proves the potency of the idea of independence for a traumatised people who simply don’t trust a majority Sinhalese-Buddhist elite to treat them with equality.

I was an election monitor on Sunday in the outer Sydney suburb of Oxley Park (and visited another polling booth in Homebush) and spoke to countless Tamils who expressed their growing anger at Labor’s refugee policies. Many said they would vote Greens for the first time in their lives.

Some live in marginal seats, such as Parramatta (Labor’s Julie Owens), Greenway (Liberal’s Louise Markus), Bennelong (Labor’s Maxine McKew) and Lowe (Labor’s John Murphy). Crikey understands some Tamils are seriously considering contributing to targeted campaigns in some seats against sitting Labor members.

Labor’s Holroyd City Council Councillor Tamil Vasee Rajadurai told Crikey he was “disappointed” with Rudd’s latest refugee shift. Although he called the Prime Minister a “compassionate” man who apologised to the Stolen Generations and would never sink to Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s race-baiting level, he asked the Australian government to understand that Tamils were increasingly fleeing Sri Lanka for a reason.

The Councillor said that it would take years before viable Tamil politicians would emerge in Sri Lanka due to the level of intimidation by government forces in the north and east of the country.

Vyramuthu Vijayasivajie, who arrived in Australia 17 years ago, epitomised the sentiment I heard all day. He always voted Labor but said this year he would for the first time be voting Greens. His antipathy towards the Federal Government was palpable.

In the final stages of the war last year he told me the ALP “stayed silent; while in opposition, Kevin Rudd and the party were quite vocal about the situation in Sri Lanka.” During the crisis, he continued, the Greens spoke out against the atrocities and he was especially happy to hear leader Bob Brown condemn Colombo’s onslaught and the Rudd government’s silence.

Vijayasivajie, 56, met Labor MP Julie Owens last year and told her that if he had no family in Australia he would want to join the Tamils in their fight against the Sri Lankan forces. “She didn’t say much to that,” he said.

He was “angry” with Rudd’s hardening of refugee policy and was scared of “another Tampa”. He personally knew of Tamil women raped by Sri Lankan armed gangs in the country’s north, roaming at night in the areas where Tamils are released after enforced detention.

During last week’s Community Cabinet Meeting in Sydney, Immigration Minister Chris Evans was asked by two Tamils to justify the Rudd government’s suspension of refugee claims from Sri Lanka. Evans claimed the security situation in Sri Lanka had “improved” and two “democratic” elections had been held since the end of the conflict in May 2009. The minister believed in “positive engagement” with Colombo “to provide more security for the Tamil people” — “shouting from the sidelines” was futile.

NSW Greens MP Lee Rhiannon — running for a Senate seat in this year’s federal election — told Crikey that her party is currently crafting its election strategy but she is hearing a great deal of frustration with ALP policy on Tamil and Afghan refugees.

There is “considerable disquiet in inner-city seats [such as Lindsay Tanner’s seat of Melbourne] where people are outraged that Rudd, who was elected with great promise and hope, had not ended the inhumanity that the Howard government had displayed towards refugees.”

But the ALP may also have troubles in outer Sydney seats such as Reid, Rhiannon argued, because the Greens had “carved much territory” after the 2001 Tampa affair. The party saw a mass influx of new members.

A number of Tamils told me, and this is confirmed by Rhiannon, that Rudd’s asylum seeker stance is denying Tamils and Afghanis due process, a position arguably harsher than under Howard. This is because their claims aren’t even being considered; they are being denied a rightful hearing. It may be “worse than temporary protection visas”, Rhiannon says.

Councillor Rajadurai told me the “President of Sri Lanka has the opportunity in his hands to begin reconciliation [with Tamils] now. It’s the best time to do this now but the signs are not there.”

Antony Loewenstein is a Sydney journalist and author of My Israel Question and The Blogging Revolution

2 comments
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  • http://www.arts.usyd.edu.au/peace_conflict/research/peace_journalism.shtml Jake Lynch

    Interesting report, Antony, thanks. Labor's rightward shift on asylum seekers needs to be seen as an artefact of Australia's political system. The Alternative Vote, two-party-preferred set-up, with near-compulsory voting and compulsory preferencing, corrals the Left vote into Labor's column because they have nowhere else to go: the only alternative is supporting the Coalition, which is worse. Something has to happen to break that system: to increase the cost to Labor of attempting to track the Abbott tendency on issues like asylum – presently seen as a cost-free option, in electoral terms. Voting Green would not be enough on its own: perhaps we need a vote strike, until there is a proper choice on a short list of key issues, beginning with asylum seekers? Choice that can only be supplied if Labor starts to show some leadership, explaining to Australians that the numbers of asylum seekers are very small, they have a right to cross borders in search of sanctuary, we can easily absorb them and they benefit the economy?