Sri Lankan leadership change should refocus Australia’s relationship

The surprise defeat of Sri Lanka’s longest serving leader should force Australia to review its immigration policies and “unprincipled and problematic relationship” with the country, human rights advocates say.

On Friday, the leadership of Mahinda Rajapaksa was overthrown by his former health minister Maithripala Sirisena who made the shock decision to run against Rajapaksa in the election just six weeks ago.

Until now, Australia’s increasingly cosy relationship with Rajapaksa, who was in his 10th year of power, has been heavily criticised by human rights groups under both the Labor and Coalition governments.

In November 2013 the Abbott government gifted the country two boats to help stem the flow of asylum seekers and then refused to back an independent international investigation into the country’s alleged war crimes in February.

“As part of its one-eyed obsession with stopping the boats, the Australian government has ignored, condoned and even abetted human rights abuses in Sri Lanka,”  said Emily Howie, Director of advocacy and research at the Human Rights Law Centre.

“Hopefully a new president means a new start, but whether Australia will grasp that opportunity remains to be seen,” she said.

Australian director Human Rights Watch, Elaine Pearson, said Australia needed to now consider the voices of the Sri Lankan people rather than making “dodgy deals with authoritarian rulers”.

“For too long, the Australian government simply accepted and regurgitated the Rajapaksa line about improvements in Sri Lanka after the war. But this vote calls that into question, and provides an opportunity for reassessing issues that both governments should take advantage of,” she said.

The Tamil Refugee Council said Australia should shift its focus from “stopping the boats” to stopping the persecution of Tamils on the small island nation.

Tamil asylum seekers are one of the few groups of migrants who are subjected to “enhanced screening” if they arrive in Australia without a valid visa, meaning they are immediately returned back to the country.

“Up to now, Australia, under both Labor and Coalition governments, has backed Rajapaksa and his cabal of war criminals in order to bring an end to the flow of Tamil asylum seekers to our shores,” said the Refugee Council spokesman Trevor Grant. 

“If Australia really wants to stop Tamils fleeing in the long term, then the root cause must be addressed, which is the persecution. We can only hope that this forms part of the discussion in Abbott’s congratulatory phone call to Sirisena,” he said.

In July a boat load of 153 Tamil asylum seekers were intercepted at sea by Australian customs vessels and returned to Sri Lanka, while in late November another boatload of 28 Sri Lankan nationals were handed over to Sri Lankan authorities.

The Abbott government has consistently deemed it safe to return Sri Lankan nationals to the country, saying the Civil war has now ended and the country is “at peace”.

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