Sunday, April 11, 2010

Sri Lankan tells of asylum death voyage

TWELVE of Pararasasingam Paheertharan's fellow travellers drowned, including brothers aged 13 and 14 employed as crew, after people-smugglers herded him and 38 other Sri Lankan Tamils on to an ill-equipped fishing boat for an ambitious journey across the Indian Ocean.

In the first interview about last November's tragedy, soon to be examined by the West Australian coroner, Paheer said the people-smugglers promised passengers they would be transferred to a bigger vessel after two or three days sailing from Negombo, on Sri Lanka's west coast.

"After 10 days travelling we realised we were deceived by them," he wrote in an email after The Australian visited him in detention on Christmas Island last week.

"After 27 days travelling, our vessel had a hole -- we tried to remove the ocean water but we couldn't control it," Paheer wrote.

He emptied two oil canisters, tied them together and hung on in big waves after the boat sank 350 nautical miles northwest of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands on November 1.

Most survivors were taken aboard the LNG Pioneer, while others were rescued by the Taiwanese fishing vessel Kuamg, which was first to respond.

The former student union activist told how he was rescued at 3am on his 32nd birthday after eight hours in the water.

All 27 survivors, including a 15-year-old boy, remain in detention on Christmas Island.

Paheer and four other survivors await a decision on their claims for asylum, while seven have received initial rejections and can ask for an independent review.

"We never forget it, every day at night we see our people, who are shouting `please help us' from the ocean," he said.

Paheer is among those asylum-seekers who typically pay up to $US10,000 ($10,700) to try to get to Australia from Indonesia or, in his case, from Sri Lanka.

One Customs officer told The Australian he was astonished that so many dilapidated asylum boats made it as far as they did.

The dangers of the journey from Negombo to Christmas Island did not bother the people-smugglers who took Paheer's money, and for Paheer it seemed worth the risk.

Paheer recalled how, as a passenger who spoke good English, it was his job to radio for help at about 1am on November 1, when it became obvious the boat was in trouble.

Nine hours later, a fishing boat appeared. "We waved towards it, it came near us, we explained our situation, then the boat captain said `we informed the Australian government, they sent a ship'," Paheer said.

"Around 6.30pm we saw a ship coming towards us -- unfortunately before the ship came near us our vessel sank.

"I saw that some of us were swimming towards the ship, others shouting here and there, in front of me I saw three people sink into the ocean."

One body was recovered. Those who died included the boat's captain and his young nephews, brought to work as crew. A rescued 19-year-old arrived at Christmas Island with the other survivors last November believing his father had been rescued by another boat.

It was a police officer's duty a few days later to tell the young man his father was not coming, and was believed drowned.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Sri Lanka's traitorous politics

By Savitri Hensman

"A murderer is less to fear. The traitor is the plague," declared Roman statesman and orator Marcus Tullius Cicero over 2,000 years ago. Accusations of treachery still sting. But in Sri Lanka in recent decades, the term "traitor" has been flung about with wild abandon, raising questions about what loyalty people might owe to a nation and what this might mean in practice.

Last year, a civil war ended with the crushing defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), but this has not brought national harmony and reconciliation. Instead, an authoritarian culture has taken hold in which disagreement with the powers that be is labelled as disloyalty to the nation. The general who led the successful military campaign against the LTTE, Sarath Fonseka, became highly critical of the current president, Mahinda Rajapakse, who with his brother Gotabhaya, the defence secretary, also claimed credit for the victory.

Fonseka unsuccessfully stood as an opposition candidate in this year's presidential elections. Some government supporters labelled him as a traitor, and he was arrested. In the runup to parliamentary elections, he is facing trial by a military court.

A political culture built on mistrust of diversity and disagreement took hold 30 years ago. The government tried to tap into fear of and rivalry towards Tamils among the Sinhalese majority. In the world view promoted by industries minister, Cyril Mathew, in his 1979 work Diabolical Conspiracy, those not Sinhalese Buddhists were particularly prone to be treacherous. In the days of British rule "a very special partiality was shown to the minorities and they were given valuable and privileged opportunities. In this crafty way the British rulers were able to obtain all the information regarding the efforts of the majority people for a united stand, from the beholden and grateful minority communities". This was a gross distortion of history, but helped to fuel suspicion and supposedly justify abuses of power. Harsh repression alienated many Tamil youth, swelling the ranks of an initially tiny militant movement fighting for a separate state.

It was not just ethnic and religious minorities who came under attack: anyone who questioned the regime risked arrest or death. After unleashing violence against Tamil civilians in 1983, the government banned much of the opposition including the main Tamil party and Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), supported largely by discontented Sinhalese youth, supposedly for undermining national security.

This fuelled support for the Tamil nationalist movement as well as a JVP rebellion. Soon the JVP, too, was labelling those its leaders disapproved of as traitors and violently targeting them The LTTE also set out to stamp its authority over the Tamil people, detaining or killing "traitors" – rival Tamil nationalists, moderates and anyone suspected of being critical of its policies, which included terrorist attacks, ethnic cleansing and child conscription.

Meanwhile, human rights activists such as idealistic young opposition MP Rajapakse risked their safety to publicise the regime's injustices internationally and try to restore a less violent and divisive political culture.

Now in power, it is ironic that Rajapakse is promoting the kind of repression he once opposed so strongly, further dividing rather than reconciling Sri Lankans. Critics of the government are labelled as traitors, human rights and democracy undermined.

In any country where quasi-religious adoration of "the nation" takes hold, there is a risk this may tip over into unquestioning obedience to its leaders. Ironically, this may harm rather than protect its people and what is best in its heritage. The kind of patriotism needed by Sri Lanka and other countries today is that described by human rights defender Clarence Darrow: "True patriotism hates injustice in its own land more than anywhere else."