Lanka is in crisis. This is a nation divided—a nation where civil, political and
economic rights are not equally shared. Last week I returned from a visit to Sri
Lanka, where I went to witness these things for myself and to research a
suitable project for funds raised here after the tsunami to assist victims and
their families in Sri Lanka. I did so at the urging of the 3,000-strong Tamil
community in my electorate of Strathfield, Sydney, New South Wales. Many came as
refugees fleeing the 20-year civil war in Sri Lanka. They are proudly
Australian, exemplary citizens contributing much to our civic life and
community. But they are also deeply concerned for their homeland, especially the
The Tamils are a distinct people with their own
Since independence in 1948, power has been vested mainly in the Singalese—
predominantly Buddhists—who currently comprise about 80 per cent of the
population. The Tamils—mainly Hindus—comprise the remaining 20 per cent of the
population, along with much smaller Christian and Muslim communities.
Over time these minorities have
progressively seen their rights eroded through ingrained discrimination and
segregation. As a result, the Tamils and other minorities have a sense of
oppression and alienation. These are some examples of that discrimination at
work. Tamils have to get higher marks than Singhalese for entry to the same
courses at universities. In the Civil Service and private enterprise, jobs have
been systematically allocated to Singhalese over Tamils. In enterprise and
commerce the Tamils have been systematically cut out of the opportunities
afforded to the majority. Several Catholic priests informed me about the
systematic and endemic abuse of human rights by the Sri Lankan Government within
the Tamil community. Indeed, one priest gave me a six-page list of churches
damaged and destroyed by aerial bombing and shelling in the north of the island.
There were 93 fully damaged, 186 partially damaged and 20 requiring minor
repair! All these things breed resentment, frustration and hatred.
To make matters worse, the majority-dominated Government has
used the media to provoke bias against the minorities. Racism and fear is
fostered. It is the politics of division, exclusion and misrepresentation, with
the truth hidden from the outside world. I experienced first-hand a concerted
campaign to prevent me from travelling to Tamil Eelam.
Before I left Sydney, the editorial advisor and head of
the Australian Bureau of the Asian Tribune alleged I was carrying nearly
$100,000,00 cash into Sri Lanka. If true, this would have meant I had
broken Australian law as well as placing my life in danger. I believe
this was a covert effort to try to scare me from visiting Sri Lanka.
Thankfully I did not fall for this pathetic attempt and I was able to
witness for myself the suffering of this proud people as well as their
determined efforts to rebuild their community.
The Tamils are a resilient people. I observed that in a
remarkable three year period the Tamils developed a virtual state within the
north and north-east of Sri Lanka. I visited their
judiciary and court,
school of law, police station, police academy, medical and
technical colleges and small industries, a
bank plus a
housing 278 children left orphaned by the war and the recent tsunami. The
Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO) runs a variety of development, relief and
reconstruction projects as well as
assisting several non-government organisations with their projects. All this
is a tribute to the spirit and resilience of the Tamil people. "
But it is no substitute for a final political settlement to this long-lasting
dispute. Thankfully, some sort of end is in sight with a
cease fire brokered by the Norwegian Government signed in February 2002. For
the first time in a generation, the economy started to flow and people could
travel about the island, albeit it with some difficulty. It is the beginning of
a road map for lasting peace, and now the Sri Lankan Government must deliver by
giving up its monopoly of power. That means a genuine federal structure that
guarantees the right of the Tamil minority to autonomy so they can protect their
culture and enjoy full economic and political rights.
Every human has the right to a place they can call home, and to equality of
opportunity, to social justice, to freedom: one united Sri Lanka based on a
federal structure with equity and self-determination for the Tamil people. War
is destructive and tragic. There are casualties on both sides. Acts are
committed that should never have happened in civil society. The curtain needs to
be pulled right back.
The Tamil and other minority groups need support. The international community
needs to take urgent action, conduct independent research, visit these areas,
engage with the community and see first-hand what is happening. That is my
prayer and hope for this beautiful country. Then the weapons can be put away
forever. Then the precious resources of this bountiful country can be put into
improving the lives of these beautiful people who have suffered so much for so
long. That is worth the dream. That is worth the effort. That is worth the
struggle. I commend the plight of the Tamil people to the House.