On Tuesday, 27 February, senior Sri Lankan minister, Nimal Siripala De Silva, was in Melbourne as part of his visit to Australia. De Silva, who is the Minister for Healthcare, and one of the leaders of the ruling party in Sri Lanka, addressed perhaps the smallest public meeting ever held in Australia by a government official. Less than 20 people were in attendance.
When Socialist Party (CWI) protesters arrived at the meeting room at Deakin University, to highlight the Sri Lankan government’s crack down on democratic rights and for the rights of the Tamil people on the island, one security guard was on duty. Within minutes of our protest, however, six cars of police officers and a handful of ASIO agents (secret police) were on the scene.
As the tiny number of De Silva supporters started to make their way inside to the meeting, Socialist Party (SP) members distributed leaflets and held placards on a picket calling on the Sri Lankan government to end the civil war and the abductions that have been taking place regularly on the island.
It became clear that the people at the meeting were mainly Australian business owners who had companies operating in Sri Lanka. The main aim of the meeting was for Australian bosses to ‘network’ with a senior Sri Lankan government minister and other government bureaucrats.
The heavy police presence soon pushed the protesters away from the meeting room entrance. SP members refused to be moved out of the building and continued the protest only meters away from the room.
When De Silva entered the building he was heavily flanked by his own security and Australian secret police. He was clearly shocked to see the flag of the United Socialist Party in Sri Lanka (USP-CWI) on a protest outside a meeting so far away from home!
SP members told De Silva that the Sri Lankan government was under scrutiny, not only inside Sri Lanka but also by workers’ movement activists internationally. He was also told the global workers’ movement would not stand for any attacks on members of the USP in Sri Lanka.
To this, De Silva replied with the outrageous remark “Go back to the LTTE”. In recent times the Sri Lankan government had tried to label anybody who stands against the war, against the crackdown on democratic rights and for the rights of the Tamil people, as ‘terrorists’, linked to the Tamil Tigers (LTTE).
As was stated clearly in the leaflet distributed during the protest, standing for the rights of the Tamil people, including the right to self-determination, does not mean that we support the terror tactics of the LTTE.
We always explained that individual terrorism tactics plays into the hands of the state and does not advance the cause of working people. As we have seen, it only gives the Sri Lankan government an excuse to introduce harsher repression, against not only the Tamils but all forms of opposition, including trade union and anti-war activists.
In Australia, last week, 83 Sri Lankan refugees were refused entry into the country by the Australian government. The John Howard administration refused to allow the refugees ashore to process their claims for asylum. Instead, they were sent to Christmas Island.
The Australian government originally planned to send the refugees to Indonesia and back to Sri Lanka but, due to domestic pressure, the government was forced to back down. The Howard government now say they will not send the refugees to Indonesia if they would then be returned to Sri Lanka, and may instead process them on Christmas Island or Nauru.
The Socialist Party stated that in a situation of civil war in Sri Lanka and with ongoing severe repression against Tamils, how could the Australian government refuse to process these refugees in an appropriate manner? The Sri Lankan government is well known for its repression of Tamils and opposition groups.
De Silva told the Australian press that the refugees should be sent home, where he guarantees they will not be persecuted. He said he knows little about them but he is certain they are economic refugees.
"We have never persecuted anybody. I say as a responsible Minister of the Government I give the guarantee - not only that my High Commissioner will give the guarantee so there’s no question on that."
If these statements were not so serious they would be funny. The Sri Lankan government is guilty of the some of the worst abuses of human rights. The Socialist Party will continue to monitor the situation in Sri Lanka and build links with the local Sri Lankan community. We will offer what ever assistance is necessary to socialists, trade union and anti-war activists in Sri Lanka. We will also continue to highlight the plight of the Tamil people in the workers’ movement internationally.