AUSTRALIAN PARLIAMENTARIANS REVEAL SRI LANKA’S POST-CONFLICT REALITIES

February 13, 2013 at 4:52 pm

Deputy opposition leader of the Australian Parliament Julie Bishop along with parliamentarians Scott Morrison and Michael Keenan recently visited Sri Lanka. The following are the video and the transcripts of the press conference held by Julie Bishop and Scott Morrison on their return to Australia

You Tube Video of the Press Conference

Transcripts:

Joint Press Conference Julie Bishop MP and Scott Morrison MP

4 February 2013

BISHOP:

I wanted to brief the media as soon as possible on our return from Sri Lanka. Last week Scott Morrison, Michael Keenan and I visited Sri Lanka for the purposes of seeing the conditions on the ground, meeting with a wide range of people and determining whether our policy directions on Sri Lanka were heading in the right direction. The visit was organised in three parts.

The first part was organised by the TNA, the Tamil National Alliance, the parliamentary party and they were encouraged to take us to places that they wanted us to see, to meet with people they wanted us to meet with. The second part of the visit was organised by the Australian High Commission. We met AusAID officials, we saw a number of AusAID projects and we met with a number of NGOs, UNHCR, IOM and the like.

The third part of the visit was organised by the government. On the last day we met with the President, a number of ministers and we concluded with a roundtable that was led by the chief of the defence forces and included the leaders of the navy, customs, police and intelligence.

As a result of our visit we are satisfied that the policy positions that we have taken are the correct ones at this time. It was not our job to visit Sri Lanka to take sides between the Sinhalese and the Tamils, it was not our job to involve ourselves in domestic policies or domestic politics or indeed some of the controversies but we certainly spoke to many people about these issues.

We have to remember that Sri Lanka is emerging from a bloody conflict, a thirty year civil war. The Tamil Tigers, the LTTE was in fact a proscribed terrorist organisation in a number of places around the world. The Sri Lankan forces defeated the LTTE forces and we must remember that the LTTE had a navy, an air force and had essentially occupied northern Sri Lanka. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced as a result of the conflict which ended three years ago.

On the issue of reconciliation there is clearly a long way to go but we were heartened by the steps that have been taken. Indeed, the veteran leader of the Tamil parliamentary party and others were travelling to South Africa to talk with the ANC in South Africa about ways that they could progress the reconciliation process under way in Sri Lanka.

In terms of resettlement, I mentioned that hundreds of thousands of people had been displaced during the war. The majority of them have been returned to their homes, to their homeland.

A number, who were displaced because of military camps being established in the north in the last few years of the war, have not been returned to their homes but they are being provided with land and temporary accommodation and in some instances more permanent accommodation pending decisions about the military withdrawal from the north.

We in fact saw a number of housing projects under way, the Indian Government is providing housing, the Australian Government through AusAid is providing permanent housing and we also saw housing that was being built by the Sri Lankan military and I’ll come back to that in a moment.

On the question of the rehabilitation of former LTTE, the former combatants, there is a rehabilitation process under way. After the war clearly a number of people were detained but we have seen evidence of the steps being taken to rehabilitate people.

For example, we visited a landmine site, the Australian Government through AusAID is supporting a private sector organisation to de-mine agricultural areas so that it can be productive and used for agricultural purposes once more.

A number of women, in particular, are being employed by this private sector organisation to carry out the de-mining work. It’s painstaking, detailed work. We had an opportunity to speak to these women. A number of them were former Tamil Tiger combatants. Indeed one was in the Sea Tigers and her job was to be part of an effort to send explosives in small boats to blow up to Sri Lankan navy. She’s now employed to get rid of landmines. They are paid well and they want to finish this work and with the money that they have saved start up small businesses. The Tamils are very enterprising, hard-working people and we were heartened by their aspirations to set up small businesses throughout the north.

We visited Jaffna and Kilinochchi in the northern province which was held by the Tamil Tigers for so many years and we were struck by the amount of reconstruction work that is going on. Billions of rupee have been invested in major infrastructure projects, roads, and this is all quite self-evident when you travel up to Jaffna New highways, roadworks everywhere, water sanitation projects, electricity transmission. You have to remember much of the north has never had electricity and now a majority of the north has electricity. There’s still some way to go. The mobile phone coverage was superb. Indeed I got better mobile phone coverage throughout the north of Sri Lanka than I do driving through Kings Park in Western Australia.

What was also heartening was the reconstruction work being carried on in schools and we visited a school that AusAID has funded the rebuilding of it and one of the young students told us that at the end of the war, after the schools had been closed, at the end of the war only 36 students returned to that school. Today there are 2000 young students at that school. There are some impressive statistics about teacher/student ratios, the number of students attending schools. Likewise in the health area, new hospitals are being built and hospitals closed during the war have been reestablished.

There are, of course still concerns. The presence of the military in the north, we also visited the eastern province where the naval command is based. In the final years of the war the Sri Lankan military presence increased dramatically and I just want to put this in context, Sri Lanka and Australia have roughly the same size populations. Our defence force is around 50/55,000. The estimates of the size of their defence force is anything between 200, 300,000 soldiers and defence force personnel. They are facing the challenge of decreasing the military presence in the north but not having several hundred thousand young men and women trained for defence force purposes unemployed. So in a number of instances the military have been deployed for civilian purposes and they were involved in building houses. We in fact visited what’s called a model village where the military were building permanent housing of the same standard that AusAID were building elsewhere in the northern and eastern provinces.

We saw that the navy has been deployed to build a golf course in the hoped to be tourist area around Trincomalee. And the military who have been sent back down south are involved in the beautification process of Colombo and that is quite evident. The city of Colombo has improved dramatically in terms of the beautification, the heritage building restoration and the like.

There is also deep concern about recent matters regarding the Chief Justice of Sri Lanka who has been the subject of impeachment proceedings. We discussed this matter at length with a range of people. But we should not fall into the trap of assuming that every controversy in Sri Lanka is directly linked to the fact Tamil/Sinhalese conflict. In fact the Chief Justice was appointed by the President. She is Sinhalese. So a whole set of different considerations apply and I believe that separate representations should be made to the Government in relation to that matter.

As a member of the Commonwealth we obviously want to ensure that Sri Lanka respects the rule of law, the independence of the judiciary and the like. Yes, we heard grievances from some people in the north, in particular one Tamil member of Parliament told us of his frustration at having his office raided by the police and concerns he had about that. But I point out that when we spoke to the Tamil parliamentary leader and asked him of instances of violations of human rights, of physical abuse, of intimidation, harassment against Tamil MPs, he didn’t cite any examples and he particularly didn’t cite this example. So again, I say we have to ensure that other controversies in Sri Lanka are not necessarily an indication of the ongoing conflict between the Tamils and the Sinhalese and the Sri Lankan Government.

From my perspective I was there to gather facts for our foreign policy positions and Scott for border protection. We arranged to meet with the US delegation who were there, they were focused on alleged war crimes. That is part of Sri Lanka’s history that they will have to come to terms with and we will certainly look closely at any resolution that goes before the United Nations on that score.

As far as the Commonwealth heads of Government meeting later this year is concerned, I’m satisfied that Australia should attend and should encourage other Commonwealth countries to attend. The Sri Lankan Government is not perfect but it is making inroads into the challenges facing the country and should be encouraged to continue to do so.

On the issue of border control, as it relates to Sri Lanka, I am satisfied that our policy in relation to this is the right policy setting at this time and on that note I will ask Scott Morrison to give you his observations on border control.

MORRISON:

Well thank you very much, Julie. I’m very pleased that Julie and Michael Keenan were able to come along as part of this delegation and to have our Deputy Leader leading that delegation was of great assistance. The Coalition is in the business of, if elected to government later this year, of being able to hit the ground running and particularly on this issue more than most. I think there is an obvious high expectation of the change in policy that would be required if there were a change in government later this year and frankly that expectation of change in policy was something that was often discussed with people in Sri Lanka at all levels, both civilian, within the government and within the military.

A couple of figures that I think are relevant in terms of the pace of change in Sri Lanka and I think the pace of change is something which is a key take out. If people are basing their impressions on what policy should be right in Sri Lanka, particularly in relation to border protection, of experiences of 18 months ago, 12 months ago, even six months ago, then they are behind the pace. Things are changing quickly. As Julie said, that doesn’t mean there’s not a long way to go and that’s not to discount or diminish any grievances that exist, but the pace of change is dramatic. GDP per capita has increased by US $1000 per person in Sri Lanka since the end of the war. That’s a 50 per cent increase, GDP is up 50 per cent since the end of the war, visitor arrivals to Sri Lanka are now over a million which is double since the end of the war. 20,000km of roads have been constructed in Sri Lanka, 17,000/almost 18,000, I should say, of those roads are in rural areas, access roads.

Now that stands in stark contrast to a war that cost the country an estimated $200 billion, 500,000 people displaced, 100,000 dead and 4,000 child soldiers part of the ex combatants that came out of that conflict and 45,000 widows in the north. It’s hard to move around Sri Lanka in the north and just not be struck by the change. You don’t see soldiers with machine guns on street corners in Sri anymore. The reports of midnight abductions and white vans and the brutality of torture and so on that was a routine thing some years ago we would press keenly in all of our meetings to be trying to understand the presence of this today. And the reports of those things barely arose and when did, it was to events that had taken place some time ago. There have been some arrests, particularly up in the north at the university campus, but those arrests everyone knows where everybody is. Those people haven’t disappeared. They are being investigated for various matters that the authorities wish to investigate them for and it’s important, as Julie said, that we don’t involve ourselves in the domestic politics of Sri Lanka. Our job was to prepare ourselves if we’re elected to government to implement sound border protection policies.

Now the military draw down in the north is something also which I think is not perhaps being acknowledged. There is a significant military presence in the north and they are still very involved in the day-to-day civilian life and civilian administration and Julie’s given some of the reasons for that.
Let’s not forget this was a country at war just four years ago.

But of the two key areas, and I’m talking about the Kilinochchi district and the Mullaitivu district, in Kilinochchi we’ve had a reduction we were advised from 36 to 26 battalions and that’s a reduction of around 9000 soldiers, in the Mullaitivu district we’ve had the withdrawal of two divisions which is almost 10,000. Now this has only taken place in the last few months, certainly there’s a long way to go but the direction was something that we found encouraging.

In terms of resettlement 97,000 families had to be resettled, 500 the figure is, have been able to be resettled on their original lands. 80,000 homes are in the pipeline, 35,000 have been completed and there is a need for another 30,000 and I think this is an important point for the international community. Everyone may want to express an opinion on what’s happening in Sri Lanka but what they need is houses and roads, bridges, hospitals, schools.

And I think one of the proudest parts of our trip was to see the work of AusAID. Here the Australian people building schools and homes for people who desperately need them and I think in terms of the soft diplomacy and the true spirit of Australians I think our commitment has been very very well felt in these remote villages of Sri Lanka.

5700 people have returned from India since the end of the war. In all of our discussions with the ION the UNHCR even the TNA we were very keen to understand, what has happened to people who have returned from India. These were people who fled Sri Lanka and there have been no cases presented to us, in fact there was a high level of confidence, that people have returned from India to Sri Lanka unviolated and have been able to reengage in the community and that is very heartening given that it is our policy to send all, without exception back to Sri Lanka.

The work of the IOM in particular in managing that resettlement process to people being returned to Sri Lanka I think is very positive and I think they have proven to be a very good partner to the Indian and Sri Lankan governments in managing that process of resettlement and I think there are lessons there for how we would pursue a similar policy.

But when you look at the situation in India where people have fled Sri Lanka can go live, work, send their children to school, move freely, have access to permanent housing, power and all of these things and there’s a UN agency office in Chennai and there’s health care and the high commissioner for refugees only recently described India as a model country in terms of how they’re looking after refugees, you have to wonder why people would take the $1m rupee journey 3000km to Australia when India is 30km away and at low tide you could almost walk there as was said to us.

The overwhelming message we got in terms of people coming to Australia came down to a number of factors, the primary one was economic and lifestyle. Even for those who may feel they have a case in terms of persecution the safer and more ready option available to them is [inaudible] for a dangerous journey to Australia. What we found was the greatest threat and risk to life, the greatest threat and risk to life to Sri Lankans in Sri Lanka was if they got on a boat and came to Australia, not if they stayed in Sri Lanka, not if they returned to Sri Lanka.

And that’s why I think Julie and I and Michael Keenan can say very confidently and comfortably that our policy of ensuring that all those who would seek to come to Australia illegally by boat would be returned I think can be executed strongly, effectively and I think compassionately.

In terms of the intelligence roundtable with the security forces and others I make a number of points. When Senator Carr was there last year, I could not be struck by any other impression that this was just a regurgitated stunt. The measures that were announced barely scratch the surface and most of which were already in train anyway. There is a deficiency in the interception capacity of the navy in Sri Lanka which needs to be attended to. There is a deficiency in the aerial surveillance capacity which needs to be attended to. There is a deficiency in the sharing of intelligence and other intelligence operations which needs to be attended to and they’ll be important parts of what a Coalition government would do if we were to be elected. Now the specifics of that we have to be very careful about discussing, they go to operational matters and I’m not about to get into a discussion of the [inaudible] and other things that are required to give effect to that. But they’re three areas of weakness and we had a high level of cooperation and enthusiasm from the Sri Lankan government about what we could do with them more constructively to ensure we could take the current interception rate which is one in three to as close to three out of three as we could get it. We would much prefer to see the vessels prevented from leaving Sri Lanka whether on land or within a reasonable distance from their shoreline than them take that dangerous journey all the way to Cocos Island. But if it’s necessary, it’s the Coalition policy to ensure those boats do not cross our sea border. So our policy is to send back and it’s probably best to conclude on this note. That is, when we asked the commander of the naval base in Trincomalee what was the most important thing that we could do, he said send them back. Now I acknowledge that the government’s decision that they were dragged kicking and screaming to introduce last year in relation to Sri Lankan arrivals as the pirate boat headed toward Australia last year and they finally saw the wisdom in sending them back, that that has had an impact on the traffic of Singhalese. But that policy only sub standardly applies to Singhalese. You need to apply this policy universally. You can’t be half-hearted about it, you can’t be double minded about it. The Coalition is none of these things. The Sri Lankan government understands that and I think if we were elected to government, we’d be able to work very constructively to ensure that people don’t risk their lives on these boats.

Courtesy : http://www.juliebishop.com.au