The Abbott Government and Sri Lanka's new regime

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Maithripala Sirisena (right): a new broom?

Tony Abbott will need to take a different approach to new Sri Lankan president Maithripala Sirisena, says former diplomat Bruce Haigh, but is our current PM capable of change?

IN A SURPRISE RESULT Sri Lanka’s former minister for health, Maithripala Sirisena, was elected President on 8 January. Former President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, called the election two years ahead of schedule and expected an easy victory.   

Sirisena was elected on the votes of members of disaffected minority groups including Tamils in the north. In acknowledgement of simmering tensions, Sirisena has undertaken to write down farmer’s debt, increase the health and education budget as well as fight corruption.

The egregious Sri Lankan high commissioner to Australia, Admiral Thisara Samarasinghe, a political appointee of the Rajapaksa regime and a person cited as a war criminal has been recalled along with fifty or so other political appointees to diplomat posts. Australia should insist that his replacement is a skilled professional diplomat who can assist in building a more balanced relationship. Sri Lankan security operatives that harass members of the Australian Tamil community and liaise with the AFP should also be asked to leave.

The result of the election should drive a fundamental rethink by Australia toward its future relationship with Sri Lanka. Prior to the election it was predicated solely on the basis of stopping Tamil asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat. It was foreign policy at its worst; a crude and undignified domestic power play which is unlikely to be embraced by the new president.

However, as we have seen Abbott learns slowly, if at all. He rang to welcome the result and then proceeded to reiterate that stopping boats would be front and centre of the relationship; it was inappropriate and inept. Last year Australia handed over two patrol boats and acquiesced to demands for funding to assist Sri Lankan authorities stop the boats.

It would be embarrassing were Australia to be caught in the foreshadowed corruption enquiries. It was poor judgement and ill-conceived self interest that drove Australia’s relations with such a rotten and discredited regime.

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop did better — a lot better. She pledged Australian support for the new president in his moves to implement democratic reform and counter corruption. It has left her room to argue the case for ending the oppressive military occupation of Tamil areas in the north, which has done so much to force Tamils to flee the country on boats. It is this and not turning back boats by force that will see an end of the need for Tamils to flee state sponsored persecution.

Arguing the case has urgency because Sirisena has so far maintained the policy of his predecessor of prosecuting Tamil asylum seekers intercepted on the high seas by Australia and illegally returned to Sri Lanka. The latest transgression occurred in mid-February.

As Bishop has indicated, it is in Australia’s interests to foster and support Sri Lanka as it moves to implement democratic reform. Australia has the capacity and influence to do it. Not only will that play into our domestic agenda of obviating the need for Tamils to leave but also enable closer dialogue and co-operation between Australia, Sri Lanka and India on balancing Chinese ambitions in the Indian Ocean. On the strength of considerable financial inducements the Rajapaksa regime had allowed undue Chinese influence over government and a growing presence within the country. Sirisena cites this as major factor inducing him to stand for the presidency.

Sirisena has ruled out an international investigation into the massacre of Tamil civilians at the end of the civil war in 2009 and opted instead for a domestic inquiry. Once she has put the relationship on firm footing Julie Bishop might lobby for a UN sponsored investigation.

At the request of the Rajapaksa regime, over 50 Tamils are detained in Australia as a "threat to security" even though they have been found to be refugees. Their incarceration which would otherwise be illegal is made possible by deploying secret provisions of the ASIO Act. The Australian government agreed to keep them in indefinite detention as part of a deal to stop the boats. They should be immediately released. They have done nothing wrong; they were hostages to the Rajapaksa regime’s paranoia.

An opportunity has been created for Julie Bishop to undertake important regional diplomacy; it should be grasped and used productively.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who served in Sri Lanka. He was also a Member of the Refugee Review Tribunal.

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