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Australia Is Supporting the Oppression of Tamils in Sri Lanka

In May 2009, Sri Lankan forces massacred 150,000 Eelam Tamils trapped in the island’s north. The slaughter was part of an ongoing campaign of ethnic cleansing. But the Australian government has whitewashed those atrocities and helped equip Sri Lanka’s state security forces.

Sri Lankan military personnel take part in a training exercise on the eastern coast of Trincomalee, Sri Lanka, which has become a hub for Australia and other members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. (LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI / AFP via Getty Images)

In March of this year, Australia backed a UK-led resolution at the UN Human Rights Council that expressed “deep concern” at the “deteriorating situation” in Sri Lanka. The resolution noted the “accelerating militarization of civilian government functions [and] the erosion of the independence of the judiciary,” and the “increased marginalization” of Tamil and Muslim communities.

However, just one month later, the Australian government gave Sri Lanka’s police force five aerial surveillance drones. The drones were previously owned by the Operation Sovereign Borders Joint Agency Task Force, part of Australia’s military-led border security operation whose primary responsibility is to “deter and disrupt” asylum seekers trying to reach Australia.

Australia claims that the drones will be used to support “crime-fighting” activities. But past experience makes it perfectly clear that the Sri Lankan authorities are likely to use the drones for surveillance of Tamil refugees fleeing the island — and government officials in Canberra know it.

Australia’s Support for Mass Killings

This is not the first time the Australian government has supplied Sri Lankan state forces with military hardware. Twelve years ago, as the country’s military committed one of the largest mass killings so far witnessed in the twenty-first century, Australia provided similar aid that was intended to stop people fleeing.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had once administered three-quarters of the territory of the island’s Northeastern Province. By May 2009, they were confined to a small piece of coastland near Mullivaikkal, in the Mullaitivu District. When the Sri Lankan military launched its final offensive, it ordered the 330,000 Tamil civilians behind LTTE lines to shelter in designated no-fire zones. Despite having declared these to be safe areas, the Sri Lankan authorities ordered the evacuation of all media and UN personnel.

The Sri Lankan military then proceeded to shell the “no-fire” zones, targeting hospitals, food distribution routes, and Red Cross ships. The army had already defeated the LTTE — the purpose of this offensive was to destroy the civilian population that had sustained it.

Footage later emerged documenting systematic crimes, including rape, the killing of civilians, and summary executions of surrendering combatants. A 2012 UN report noted that over 70,000 people still remained unaccounted for. The real death toll is certainly higher than this figure. The most precise estimate, based on local census figures, is that 146,679 people died.

On May 13, 2009, as the killings in Mullivaikkal were reaching their peak, the Australian government announced a new aid package for Sri Lanka. With hundreds of thousands of people displaced or held in internment camps around the island, Australia promised to spend “$15.1 million over four years establishing posts in Sri Lanka and Malaysia, in an effort to strengthen regional co-operation on people-smuggling.” Like this year’s gift of drones, the 2009 package was intended to stop people escaping the island.

In October 2009, Brendan O’Connor, the Australian minister for home affairs, met with Sri Lankan defense secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. He promised that the Australian Federal Police (AFP) would provide training and logistical aid for the Sri Lankan police. A spokesperson for the minister described the meeting as “especially productive,” reaffirming Australia’s commitment to provide resources to help the “Sri Lankan authorities to combat people smuggling.” The AFP opened an office in Sri Lanka that year.

It didn’t take long for the cooperation to bear results. On October 28, 2009, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that Sri Lankan authorities had arrested twenty-nine people in Colombo’s airport. They were mostly Tamils trying to escape, and had been identified thanks to closed-circuit cameras installed by the AFP.

On November 25, 2009, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd told the Australian parliament that Australia would provide “more than $35 million in development assistance to Sri Lanka” between 2009 and 2010. Rudd boasted that the funds had already assisted “some 15 disruptions [of people leaving Sri Lanka] already, involving some 260 individuals.” Meanwhile, Australian immigration authorities recognized 90 percent of people arriving by boat from Sri Lanka between 2009 and 2010 as refugees in need of protection.

Sabotaging the Peace Process

Australia’s interest in Sri Lanka extends beyond stopping Tamil refugees attempting to flee. It also helped undermine the possibility of a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Moves toward a peace process began in the late 1990s, when the European Union declared itself to be “strongly in favor of” a negotiated political solution for Eelam Tamils. The EU backed an agreement between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE to explore the option of shared sovereignty between Tamil-speaking and Sinhalese people on the island.

With UK backing, the United States successfully pressured the EU to proscribe the LTTE in May 2006. In the context of the US-led “war on terror,” branding an organization as “terrorist” meant placing it beyond the political pale. This gave the Sri Lankan government carte blanche to resume hostilities less than two months later, permanently scuttling the peace process.

Australia supported these efforts, having already introduced a partial ban on the LTTE in 2001. As former Australian deputy high commissioner Bruce Haigh has argued, this helped to whitewash war crimes and state terrorism committed by the Sri Lankan government.

In a 2013 session, the Permanent People’s Tribunal — a continuation of the Russell Tribunal on Vietnam — found that the United States was complicit in the Mullivaikkal massacre. As the tribunal argued, Washington’s responsibility

arises not only from its sustained efforts to increase the power and effectiveness of the Sri Lankan military . . . but perhaps even more significantly from its role in blocking and even reversing political and diplomatic initiatives to implement the peace process.

When Sri Lankan forces destroyed the de facto Tamil state in Tamil Eelam in 2009, they also destroyed hopes for self-determination or shared sovereignty between Tamils and the island’s Sinhalese majority. Today, Sri Lanka’s Tamil population lives under one of the heaviest military occupations in the world, and is subject to attacks, racism, and insecurity. It’s little wonder that Tamils would flee the island, seeking asylum in Australia.

Australian aid to Sri Lanka is partly aimed at stopping refugees from reaching Australia’s mainland, in line with a long history of xenophobia. However, as a diplomatic exchange published by WikiLeaks suggests, Australia also recognizes the immense strategic significance of the island and sees “good cooperation with Sri Lanka on people smuggling” as an “entrée to deepen relations.”

Strategic Considerations

A 2011 article by US and Sri Lankan army officers and officials stated that “no other nation in the South Asian region can claim the importance Sri Lanka has in terms of its geography.” As the authors argue, the defeat of the Tamil Tigers in 2009 reopened the possibility of the United States using the strategic Trincomalee Harbour, previously held by the LTTE, as a naval base.

Since the arrival of Portuguese colonizers in 1505, great powers have seen Sri Lanka as a prized conquest. Control shifted first to the Dutch, from 1658 to 1796, and then to the British. Before the island gained its independence in 1948, these successive colonial powers used Trincomalee Harbour as local naval and military headquarters. During World War II, the British established a naval headquarters there following the fall of Singapore. Today, in addition to its proximity to the Middle East, the northern coast of Sri Lanka adjoins an important maritime corridor used in 60 percent of the world’s shipping.

Since 2009, Trincomalee has become a hub of activity for Australia and other members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD), hosting vessels from the United States, India, and Japan. In May 2017, the Australian Border Force’s largest patrol vessel, the ABFC Ocean Shield, arrived in Trincomalee for the Border Force’s first-ever overseas port visit.

In 2019, Sri Lanka joined the Australian-led Indo-Pacific Endeavour, the largest ever overseas military exercise in which the country had taken part. As part of the exercise, the Royal Australian Navy ships Success and Parramatta docked in Trincomalee for four days of training with Sri Lankan forces.

Changing the Facts on the Ground

Western NGOs, such as Human Rights Watch and the International Crisis Group (ICG), as well as the UN, have recognized the 2009 mass killings as war crimes committed in the context of a civil war. However, they have rejected calls from the Tamil community to recognize the massacres as acts of genocide, carried out with the aim of destroying Eelam Tamils, in whole or in part.

Despite this, the ICG has recognized the Sri Lankan state’s anti-Tamil agenda. In 2012, under the leadership of former UN human rights commissioner Louise Arbour, the ICG issued a report:

With the massive number of troops in the north have come various forms of Sinhalization. The almost entirely Tamil-speaking north is now dotted with Sinhala signboards, streets newly renamed in Sinhala. . . . Sinhala fishermen and businessmen are regularly given advantages not accorded to Tamils. These developments are consistent with a strategy — known to be supported by important officials — to change “the facts on the ground” . . . and make it impossible to claim the north as a Tamil-majority area deserving of self-governance.

Tamil resistance to this project continues. In February 2021, at least 50,000 Tamils and Muslims marched 700 km over five days as part of the Pottuvil to Polikandy (P2P) protest, demanding that the military withdraw from majority-Tamil areas and that the Sri Lankan government stop seizing land from Tamils and giving it to Sinhalese settlers. The protesters also called for an end to the destruction of Tamil cultural and religious sites, the preservation of Tamil forest lands and collective grazing lands, and a halt to the killings of cattle owned by Tamil and Muslim farmers. The marchers braved tear gas and multiple arrests.

The Sri Lankan authorities subject Tamils who protest against this treatment to heavy surveillance and intimidation. Shortly after the P2P march, the public security minister, Sarath Weerasekara, warned the protesters:

Now we have their photos and we have their vehicle numbers, we know who these individuals are. We can sue them and confiscate all their vehicles and put them in prison.

The International Truth and Justice Project has documented many cases of torture committed by Sri Lankan police, often involving sexual violence. This draconian treatment is enshrined in laws such as the 1979 Prevention of Terrorism Act, which allows authorities to arrest suspects without a warrant and permits detention for up to eighteen months without pretrial.

“Difficult Things Happen”

Despite overwhelming evidence that they continue to face persecution, Eelam Tamils seeking asylum in Australia face some of the lowest acceptance rates. The Australian authorities have deported many to danger. As Shanmuganathan Nagaveeran, a Tamil refugee in Australia, recently recounted:

I know of Tamils who have been deported from Australia back to Sri Lanka. They are in hiding and are still in fear of their lives. They are not free.

Tamil refugees also remain imprisoned in Australian-run onshore and offshore detention centers.

To justify the refoulement of refugees, the Australian government claims that any abuses against Tamil civilians took place as part of a legitimate struggle against a terrorist organization and are now firmly in the past. As then prime minister Tony Abbott remarked in 2013:

Obviously the Australian Government deplores any use of torture. . . . But we accept that sometimes in difficult circumstances, difficult things happen.

In 2019, to justify the deportation of a Tamil family from Biolela, Defence Minister Peter Dutton claimed:

The civil war in Sri Lanka is now over and Tamils from around the world have returned to their country and have been accepted back by a democratically elected inclusive Government.

The Left must reject this cynical cover-up and stand in solidarity with Eelam Tamils, recognizing both the genocide committed against them and their right to self-determination. In Australia, this means fighting the deportation of Eelam Tamils to Sri Lanka, freeing all refugees in onshore and offshore detention, and demanding an end to all military aid to the Sri Lankan state.