Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to Australia Thisara Samarasinghe was recently in Brisbane to speak to various audiences about his country’s progress towards peace and reconciliation in the wake of more than 25 years of civil war. The State Government and members of Brisbane’s Sri Lankan community, including Catholics, hosted the high commissioner.
The Catholic Leader has published stories recently on concerns among Church groups and individuals about human rights abuses in Sri Lanka. The Leader accepted an invitation to interview the High Commissioner for him to respond to such criticisms.
This is an edited version of journalist PAUL DOBBYN’s interview with High Commissioner Samarasinghe in Brisbane on November 29
Question: Regarding the current situation in Sri Lanka’s north and east – would it be possible for me as a tourist to visit these areas?
Answer: Yes of course – you are welcome to go north and east. There are definitely no obstacles, although you would not be permitted to enter any military bases. Standard travel advisories to Sri Lanka do apply as they do to places like Indonesia. I think the situation is much better than travel advisories indicate.
Question: What evidence is there that things are returning to normal in Sri Lanka after the ending of the 26-year civil war?
Answer: There is plenty of evidence: people are happy now. Our country was subject to an absolutely terrible time. People were subjected to a psychology of fear, uncertainty, doubt and mistrust as part of daily life.
Question: Is it possible all this can be swept away so quickly?
Answer: It is not being swept away quickly but there are some very, very positive changes. At one time, parents in Colombo wouldn’t send two children in the same bus for fear of terrorist attacks … a wife and husband wouldn’t go in the same train or if they did, they sat in two separate carriages … that was the extent of difficulties being experienced.
People in the conflict area in the north and east were tormented by terrorists; people couldn’t do what they wanted to; children were dragged away for child soldiery. People had to hand over money for protection. They were used as human shields by the military. They couldn’t go fishing … couldn’t do farming as the fields were spread with mines.
Now all those people are today free. Reconciliation is taking place and mistrust leaving.
In fact one of the best indications is in Colombo. There the Sinhalese (ruling class) are a minority and Buddhists and Tamils a majority by about 75 per cent. So that is a clear indication that they are free, happy, content and safe to live with the rest of the Sinhalese. It’s a model for the rest of the world to see how Colombo has evolved.
Elections are occurring in the north and east. A former terrorist, one who was a child soldier, has been elected chief minister in an eastern province; another military cadre is a junior cabinet minister in federal government and, on top of all that, the infrastructure development is going on – roads, schools and hospitals are being done.
What is critically important is people in the north and east require enough money to get purchasing power and they must be allowed to build their own religion and culture on their own.
These things are pursued genuinely by government and, as a result, the situation is improving beyond normal standards.
Question: If the war is over and the Tamil people have been rehabilitated, why does your government still refuse to allow internationally credible groups such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and International Crisis Group free access to the Tamil areas?
Answer: I was wondering where these groups were before when terrorists were creating such atrocities – 10,000 civilians killed and injured…not just in the north and south, everywhere. Our seat of the economy, the bank, attacked, 100 people were killed in one day … innocent worshipping Muslims and Buddhists were massacred.
Here the country has come out of the clutches of terrorism. For international bodies, there’s no requirement to make investigations or assessments. It was an internal conflict … you can go and meet anybody on the road and talk to them and find out what happened. Sri Lanka should be given a pat on the back for destroying the terrorist group.
We managed ourselves through our commitment, our courage, our sacrifices … almost 6000 soldiers sacrificed in the last three years and civilians on both sides of the fence, Tamils and others too.
So I don’t see any organisations should be coming on an investigative mission to my country.
Question: So don’t you think these organisations have a right?
Answer: No, there’s no right. It’s a free country, but the question is whom are they trying to help? The country’s functioning well with a democratically elected government.
People from our country are unable to comprehend how when things were down in our country, when people were being threatened, there were no such people around offering to help except for India in the 1980s – we appreciate that they lost about 1000 and 15,000 injured so this is not an issue of the last two years, three years.
Question: What is the timeline for withdrawal of troops from the north and east?
Answer: Why should they move out? It’s our country. We may have to spread them around more. We need to see that maritime roads used to bring in arms are stopped. Aircraft, 150mm artillery pieces, radars, semi-submersible equipment … how did they come to Sri Lanka? These are things Amnesty International must investigate. If not for that dirty blood money these things would not have come to Sri Lanka.
Money was collected abroad – there were mechanisms, systems for collecting it. This money was paid to willing sellers. This equipment was put on board ships, not an easy task. Some things manufactured in Australia were found with the terrorists. This was an internationally orchestrated activity.
Question: What of reports of cultural genocide in Sri Lanka’s north and east as regards the Tamil people?
Answer: Rubbish. Tamil people … will be permitted to exercise their religious practice in any way. People with vested interests are spreading these rumours.
We have made 1100 terrorists confident to come to the government and rehabilitated most. We rescued 300,000 people. We have to give confidence to the people. I think confidence is slowly being gained by people. … It will take time to heal the wounds.
The LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) have still got money. They are still advocating separatism, that is the worst thing.
My mandate given to me by the president is to bring people together and I have done this right from day one.
I have enough Tamil friends in this great country (Australia) … I have employed Tamils in the high commissioner’s office.
People unhappy (with Sri Lanka’s progress) are making certain inroads. I’m sure the Australian Government will come to realise that this front organisation will not succeed. … This has to be handled very delicately as the remnants of terrorist groups are trying to raise their ugly heads and must be nipped at the bud.