Melbourne Age chastises Colombo over rights abuses

Following yesterday’s strong editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald over Sri Lanka, today the Melbourne Age adds its voice to the outcry.

I can’t read these pieces and not think about the gutlessness of the corporate press when writing about the Middle East. Slamming Sri Lanka is risk-free for editors. Seriously challenging Israel’s occupation of Palestine involves dealing with annoyed Zionist lobbyists:

Beautiful country, blighted land: hardly the type of slogan to welcome tourists, but sentiment that sadly sums up life in Sri Lanka. Decades of civil war have sabotaged the economy of what should be a jewel of the Indian Ocean. For the more than 21 million people – Sinhalese and Tamil mostly – squeezed into an area not even a third the size of Victoria, the suffering has been needless and long.

Despite the cautious hope that greeted the end to almost 30 years of war last May, ominous clouds are again gathering. The move by President Mahinda Rajapaksa this week to arrest Sarath Fonseka, his former chief general and subsequent opponent in January’s presidential election, smacks of authoritarianism. Mr Fonseka fell out with Mr Rajapaksa after leading government troops to bludgeon Tamil Tiger remnants last year in the east of the island. Both men, undeterred by allegations of human rights abuses in the final days of the conflict, sought the credit for finishing off the Tigers’ cadres, and Mr Rajapaksa prevailed where it counts – at the ballot box.

Apparently not content with the voters’ decision to return him to office, Mr Rajapaksa appears determined to also crush any future opposition. Mr Fonseka is accused of ”military offences” and though he is no longer a military officer, he faces a court martial. And Mr Rajapaksa has since dismissed the parliament two months ahead of schedule, seeking to ram home his advantage against a dispirited opposition reeling from Mr Fonseka’s arrest. Mr Fonseka had forged an unlikely coalition with Tamil parties, promising to submit to scrutiny for his role in the conflict. The Sri Lankan army is accused of shelling Tamil civilians trapped in a cantonment with the last of the Tigers and Mr Fonseka is also accused of involvement in the death of the newspaper editor Lasantha Wickrematunge, an Australian permanent resident. Mr Rajapaksa remains defiant, intent on keeping the final days of the war secret.

Sri Lanka must honestly account for its conduct of the war if the country is to start on the path to a more stable future. On ABC Foreign Correspondent this week, former United Nations spokesman in Sri Lanka, Australian Gordon Weiss, claimed the last stages of the conflict cost as many as 40,000 civilian lives. His claim sits at odds with the official UN estimate of 7000 killed, fuelling suspicions that the cost of defeating the Tigers was far greater than the government in Colombo has been willing to admit. Without a transparent inquiry, questions over the conduct of the campaign will haunt Sri Lanka, undermine trust in the government and ultimately hold back much-needed development.

Australia has major interests in Sri Lanka, not least because the country is the main source of asylum seekers willing to risk the perilous journey by boat to Australia. The war and instability in Sri Lanka affect all the countries of South Asia – and by extension, Australia, as an Indian Ocean power. If the Rudd government genuinely seeks a reputation for an ”activist” foreign policy, Australia should take a stand against Sri Lanka’s slide from democracy.

Australia has so far merely said it was watching developments closely. This passive attitude could be easily confused with a willingness to pander to Colombo out of fear that any criticism could jeopardise Sri Lankan co-operation with Australia on immigration matters. It would be a greater betrayal of the Sri Lankan people should Australia be seen to abandon support for democracy in order to preserve relations with an increasingly authoritarian ruler.

For a different island nation in the Pacific, Australia did take a strong stand. After Fiji broke from democracy, Australia was at the spearhead of moves to suspend the country from the Commonwealth. Sri Lanka is also a member of the Commonwealth, and should be put on notice that it risks a similar penalty.

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