TONY JONES, PRESENTER: Many of the most recent asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat are from Sri Lanka. Whilst the Federal Opposition claims they’re economic refugees and should be sent back, two Sri Lankan journalists tell a different story. In a new documentary they say Sri Lanka’s asylum seekers are escaping human rights abuses committed in the wake of their nation’s recently-ended civil war. Kerry Brewster reports.
KERRY BREWSTER, REPORTER: These two journalists have documented the bloody events of a civil war.
Lokeesan was the last Tamil reporter in Sri Lanka’s north, where up to 40,000 Tamil civilians who’d been herded into no-fire zones in 2009 are believed to have been deliberately killed by the Sri Lankan military.
BASHANA ABEYWARDANE, EXILED SRI LANKAN JOURNALIST: So they were attacked from air, they were attacked by the ground forces and they were attacked by the naval forces from the sea. There was something people used to call cluster shells. It causes multiple explosions. It rains over the people. They were quite a lot of burning (inaudible) and it looks like some kind of a chemical effect, some kind of a chemical explosive.
A. LOKEESAN, EXILED SRI LANKAN JOURNALIST (voiceover translation): If I had been identified and found by the Sri Lankan Government, they would have killed me.
KERRY BREWSTER: Before escaping to India, Lokeesan witnessed these scenes, some footage not seen before.
Bashana Abeywardane, a Sinhalese newspaper editor who advocated a political solution to the conflict, says he fled for his life after a source was gunned down in Colombo. He was granted asylum in Germany.
BASHANA ABEYWARDANE: 146,000 people are unaccounted for and no-one knows what happened to these people.
KERRY BREWSTER: These men appear in the film Silenced Voices in which exiled journalists document Sri Lanka’s alleged war crimes and question the fate of potentially thousands of people.
BASHANA ABEYWARDANE: This is another photograph, you know, this – you can see all these people, quite a lot of young girls. And it looks like they are about to be taken away from this place to a unknown place for some unknown destiny, you know. We don’t know what happened to these people, whether they are still alive, that they have been detained somewhere, that they have been killed.
KERRY BREWSTER: Three years after the war, independent journalists aren’t allowed into the so-called “killing fields”. This footage, shot secretly late last year, is said to show one of several internment camps.
BASHANA ABEYWARDANE: I think the situation has actually worsened for the Tamil people. And when no-one is watching, anything can happen.
KERRY BREWSTER: According to India’s respected economic and political weekly, which sent an undercover reporter to Sri Lanka, 18 of the country’s 20 Army battalions are based in areas once controlled by the Tamil Tigers. It says there’s one Sinhalese soldier to every five Tamil civilians.
BASHANA ABEYWARDANE: I think the people are living in utter desperate situation. You know, they don’t have any option, because the thing is after the war ended, if there had been any hope within the last three years, it has been completely shattered.
A. LOKEESAN (voiceover translation): It’s very hard for people to get enough food to stay alive. There are no employment opportunities, schools have been destroyed, so there’s no education. People feel at any moment their lives could be lost.
KERRY BREWSTER: Then there are the reported abductions, the men and women allegedly taken away by soldiers because of previous political activity or Tamil Tiger sympathies.
According to human rights activists, a person goes missing every five days.
Do you believe that?
BASHANA ABEYWARDANE: Of course I do believe that, because the thing is, I know the sources and I know the people who are working on such cases and they are not Tamil people even. Most of them are Sinhalese who are working on these issues. And when they says it, there’s more reason to believe it.
KERRY BREWSTER: Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to Australia says the journalists’ allegations are untrue. Admiral Samarasinghe claims the former conflict zones are thriving.
THISARA SAMARASINGHE, SRI LANKAN HIGH COMMISSIONER: People in the north and east now are breathing peaceful air. Their progress is unbelievably very good. The people – the 27 per cent growth is indicated because the Government is investing heavily on infrastructure, agriculture and the fisheries, health and education are the key areas that the government is – that is why they are showing tremendous growth, including east, which is about 21 per cent.
KERRY BREWSTER: Despite the glowing report, more Tamils are leaving their homeland.
Australian Federal Police based in Colombo are helping the Sri Lankan Navy and Coast Guard intercept asylum seeker boats before they leave Sri Lanka. Tamils are arrested and jailed, where according to activists, they’re beaten. It’s unclear how many are released.
Australia’s Customs and border protection says it’s helping prevent criminal people smuggling activity and Admiral Samarasinghe is very grateful for Australia’s assistance.
THISARA SAMARASINGHE: They are helping at the moment and we would like more co-ordination and this has been discussed. And we will in the near future have better co-ordination and more assistance if this trend continues.
BRUCE HAIGH, FORMER DIPLOMAT TO SRI LANKA: Our relationship with Sri Lanka is predicated on one thing and one thing alone at the moment and that’s turning back boats. We’ve lost the plot, we’ve lost our moral compass.
KERRY BREWSTER: Former diplomat to Sri Lanka Bruce Haigh says Australia is now actively supporting a regime of extreme cruelty.
BRUCE HAIGH: This regime in Sri Lanka is as bad as the regime in South Africa under apartheid, and yet there are people in this country that see it as benign. It is not benign.
KERRY BREWSTER: But the Federal Opposition’s Julie Bishop and Scott Morrison promise to go further. They say all Tamil asylum seekers reaching Australia are economic migrants and that a Coalition government would turn their boats back.