BY:GREG SHERIDAN, FOREIGN EDITOR – The Australian
THE criticism of Sri Lanka’s President Mahinda Rajapaksa, when he visited Australia for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Perth, left the key Sri Lankan villain out of the story.
The criticism was that the Sri Lankan government engaged in serious human rights abuses, shelling areas where civilians were present, at the end of its civil war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, in May last year.
Both sides committed atrocities in this war, but the defeat of the Tamil Tigers was a decisive defeat of perhaps the bloodiest and most murderous terrorist group the world has seen.
Alexander Downer, Australia’s foreign minister for 11 years of the war, tells me: “I know the Sri Lankan government played very hard ball and committed some human rights abuses, but it’s a wonderful thing the Sri Lankan government won that war. I have always regarded the Tamil Tigers as absolutely a terrorist organisation.”
It is easy to forget how bloody the Tamil Tigers were. In their 2 1/2-decade campaign, perhaps 70,000 people died. The Tamil Tigers pioneered the suicide bomber, conducting hundreds of such attacks and using a woman with a suicide vest to murder India’s prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991. They also murdered a Sri Lankan president. Rohan Gunaratna, an authority on terrorism based in Singapore, tells me the Tamil Tigers also pioneered suicide attacks at sea. The sinking of the USS Cole was an imitation of a Tiger operation.
The Tigers were authoritarian under the leadership of Vellupillai Prabakaran. They murdered Tamil and Sinhalese civilians, within the areas they controlled and within Sri Lanka generally. They used civilians as human shields, engaged in forced recruitment, routinely bombed civilian targets, used child soldiers and refused to let civilians leave the combat zone. They also engaged in sectarian attacks against Muslims.
They were connected with Islamist terror groups, having received early training from Palestinian extremists and became involved in the illicit arms trade.
They got funds from Tamil Tiger support networks across the world, especially Canada, the US, Britain and Australia. Downer says: “I have no doubt the Tamil Tigers raised a lot of money in Australia.”
Gunaratna says: “After the conflict ended and the LTTE was decimated in Sri Lanka, they still had a presence overseas. They have been involved in bank fraud and people-smuggling to get their members overseas, especially to Canada and Australia.
“Australia should not permit anyone who is connected to any terrorist organisation to settle in Australia because that will affect Australia’s security.”
Gunaratna stresses, no doubt rightly, that the vast majority of Tamils are law-abiding people.
Since Labor changed border protection policy in 2008, more than 1400 Sri Lankans have arrived, unauthorised, by boat, though the rate has declined this year. There is no reason to assume any particular individual has a connection with the Tigers and each case must be judged on its merits. But membership of the Tamil Tigers is not just support for Tamil self-determination. By any measure, the Tamil Tigers were as deadly, unscrupulous, murderous and committed to terrorist attacks on innocent civilians as al-Qa’ida or the Taliban are.
In 2007, several Sydney and Melbourne men were arrested for providing funds to the Tamil Tigers. They were charged with terrorism offences but, because Canberra had not listed the Tigers as a terrorist organisation, the charges were downgraded to supplying funds to a UN-proscribed organisation. The courts heard evidence that more than $1 million had gone to the Tigers from Australia, and electronic components that were used in terrorist bombings had also come from here.
The men were convicted of the lesser charges and given suspended sentences. The prosecutions occurred as similar charges were laid against other men of Tamil background in several other Western nations. The Sri Lankan government in 2005 provided Western governments with intelligence and urged them to act to stop the flow of funds to the Tigers. These funds, though billed as humanitarian relief, were essential to the Tigers’ ability to continue their terrorist campaign.
The inside story of the Howard government’s failure to get the Tigers proscribed under Australian legislation has never been told. The Tigers were on a list of terrorist organisations proscribed by the UN. It was because of this that it remained a crime to supply funds to them. More than 30 countries explicitly banned the Tigers and listed them as a terrorist organisation under their own laws. Australia failed to do this.
This is not because the Howard government did not regard the Tigers as terrorists. But the inside bureaucratic story is complex and reflects poorly on Australia as an episode where ethnic politics impeded serious counter-terrorism.
Initially, the bureaucracy was hesitant about designating the Tigers as a terrorist organisation because it might lead to retaliation against Australians in Sri Lanka. It was important to upgrade security for the Australian High Commission in Colombo.
The attorney-general at the time, Philip Ruddock, declines to discuss the matter. However, sources tell Inquirer that Ruddock required the agreement of state governments to proscribe the Tigers. He wrote to state governments seeking that agreement. But within Australia the Tamils were a well-established lobby, with strong support from numerous non-government organisations and some human rights lobbies. The Sri Lankan community is politically divided: the Sinhalese vote Liberal, the Tamils vote Labor.
Sources tell Inquirer that at least one Labor state refused to agree to the Tigers being listed as a terrorist organisation. This was against Ruddock’s assessment, the assessment of Australia’s security agencies and the assessments and actions of the UN and dozens of foreign national governments, including friends and allies of Australia. Later, the court case itself inhibited proscription.
Gunaratna says: “Australia’s response was not very decisive.”
The Tamil war in Sri Lanka is over for the moment. Overwhelmingly, the priority for foreign governments should be to assist Sri Lanka in economic development, which is the dynamic most likely to aid reconciliation.
At the Perth demonstrations against Rajapaksa, some Tamil Tiger flags were displayed. It would be poor policy for Australia to allow the development of a Tamil Tiger network on its shores.