On Tuesday February 27, senior Sri Lankan minister, Nimal Siripala De Silva was in Melbourne as part of a visit to Australia. De Silva, who is the minister for Healthcare and one of the leaders of the ruling party, addressed perhaps the smallest public meeting ever held in Australia by a government official. Less than 20 people were in attendance.
When protesters first arrived at the meeting room at Deakin University, only a lone security guard was out the front. Within minutes however six car loads 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, 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. The demonstration was also campaigning against the crack down on democratic rights and for the rights of the Tamil people.
It became clear that the people in attendance 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 government minister and other government bureaucrats.
The heavy police presence soon pushed the protesters away from the meeting room entrance. SP members however 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) on a picket outside a meeting so far away from home!
SP members told De Silva that the Sri Lankan government was being monitored, not only inside his own country but also by labour movement activists internationally. He was also told that, in particular, sections of the labour movement would not stand for any attacks on members of the USP in Sri Lanka.
To this he 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’.
As was stated clearly in the leaflet that was distributed on the night, standing for the rights of the Tamil people, including self determination does not automatically mean that we condone the terror tactics of the LTTE.
We have always explained that tactics such as individual terrorism actually plays into the hands of the state and does not advance the cause of working people. As we have seen it only gives the 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 we also had an incident where 83 Sri Lankan refugees were refused entry into the country by the Australian government. The Australian government refused to allow the refugees ashore to process their claims for asylum. Instead they have now been sent to Christmas Island.
The Australian government had originally planned to send the refugees to Indonesia and then back to Sri Lanka but due to internal pressure has since had to back down. They are now saying they will not send the men to Indonesia if they would then be returned to Sri Lanka, and may instead process them on Christmas Island or Nauru.
The Socialist Party made the point that in a situation of civil war and severe repression against the Tamils how could the Australian government refuse to process these refugees in an appropriate manner. In is common knowledge internationally that the Sri Lankan government is well known for its repression of the Tamils and any opposition groups.
On this issue De Silva said to the Australian press that the men 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 weren’t 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 and Sri Lanka and build links with the local Sri Lankan community. We will offer what ever assistance is necessary to socialists, trade union and antiwar activists in Sri Lanka. We will also continue to highlight the plight of the Tamil people in the labour movement internationally.