Monday, November 4, 2013

Sri Lanka still unsafe for many

Published: 3 November 2013
By: Paul Dobbyn

Cause for concern: Peter Arndt (front) in Vavuniya in Sri Lanka's north with local clergy and Justice and Peace Workers. Beside Mr Arndt in traditional attire is the mother of a Tamil man whom she said died in detention.

BRISBANE archdiocese's social justice advocate Peter Arndt has heard many claims about the infringement of Tamils' rights in Sri Lanka since the bloody ending to that country's civil war in 2008.

Recently the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission executive officer was able to observe the situation at first hand when he attended a networking meeting of the Asia Pacific Forum of Justice and Peace Workers in Kandy, Sri Lanka.
What Mr Arndt saw and heard on his September 3-9 visit disturbed him.

The experience convinced him Sri Lanka was not yet safe enough for the return of Tamil asylum seekers from Australia.

Mr Arndt called on the Australian Government to follow the Canadian Government's lead and boycott this year's Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka next month.

Sri Lanka's High Commissioner to Australia Admiral Thisara Samarasinghe has taken issue with many of Mr Arndt's comments.

He challenged Mr Arndt and others who criticised his country's government "to consider the progress that Sri Lanka has made after 30 years of war, and compare it with the post-conflict situation in other jurisdictions".

Admiral Samarasinghe said now was not the time for the Commonwealth to isolate Sri Lanka.

"What Sri Lanka needs right now is the support of all members of the Commonwealth," he said.

"It is encouraging that Australia's lead in taking a pragmatic and constructive approach by engaging constructively with Sri Lanka at the upcoming Commonwealth summit.

"Attempting to isolate the country at this critical juncture will only reverse post-conflict gains.

"It will also undermine domestic efforts at reconciliation between ordinary Sri Lankans who are looking forwards to a future of security, freedom and prosperity, now that the long dark era of terror is over."

Mr Arndt was unconvinced and said he had gained first-hand experience of the sufferings of Tamils in Sri Lanka's north on his visit.

"I wish (Australian Prime Minister) Mr (Tony) Abbott and others could have met with the women I met whose husbands and sons have been detained, tortured and, in some cases, killed over the last four years," he said.

"I wish he could have heard the pain in their voices and seen their tears.

"The systematic way in which Tamil men are being arrested and detained indefinitely looks suspiciously like ethnic cleansing to me."

Mr Arndt said presentations on the human rights situation by Sinhalese and Tamil activists in Colombo and the north were validated with face-to-face encounters with families of those tortured and/or disappeared.

"We met with families of those who continue to be arbitrarily detained, and with those displaced through the military taking over their villages," he said.

Admiral Samarasinghe said Sri Lanka had embarked on its own comprehensive domestic reconciliation and accountability process - the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Committee.

"Extensive efforts made by the Government to restore normalcy in the former theatre of conflict demonstrates that the Government has addressed a number of challenges in a brief period of four years, including some requiring a longer period of gestation," he said.

"These efforts were not only about 'bricks and mortar' but a comprehensive process which included resettlement of the displaced, rehabilitation of ex-combatants, provision of vocational training, launching and implementation of the trilingual policy and improvements in health and education sectors, to name a few."

Mr Arndt and others among the 35 JPWs visited Mannar district which includes Vavuniya and Mahdu where some of the heavy fighting occurred.

He said the after-effects of a civil war - lasting three decades and finishing in May 2009 with as many as 40,000 Tamil civilians being killed in a final battle between rebel forces and Government troops in the country's north - were still being felt.

In Mahdu, Mr Arndt and other JPWs met with Bishop Reyappu Joseph of Mannar and a number of Tamil and Sinhalese priests ministering to the Tamil community where they were briefed on concerns.

They also visited the 400-year-old Shrine of Our Lady of Mahdu which draws hundreds of thousands of pilgrims for August 15, the Feast Day of the Assumption and large numbers for Our Lady's birthday on September 8.

Mr Arndt's visit to Vavuniya allowed him to meet with the wives, mothers and other family members of 12 Tamil men detained in the past four years.

"The men are detained either locally or in Galle to the south," he said.

"In all our visits, we were able to observe there is little improvement, little livelihood opportunities and much fear, mourning and grieving for loved ones killed during the civil war.

"Healing is more difficult as the civil war killings are not officially acknowledged and no memorials and monuments are allowed by the Government.

"The encounters also gave a face to the oft-reported alleged militarisation, Sinhalisation and the blatant disregard of the Government for basic human rights in Sri Lanka, especially in the north."

Mr Arndt said justice and peace workers during the conference were aided by inputs on the Second Vatican Council and the Church and human rights by Fr Sheldon Reid Fernando.

At the end of the gathering, participants committed to focus on two major issues as regional priorities: Militarisation and Migration, and Human Trafficking.

As a collective action, the JPWs agreed to send a letter to the president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Sri Lanka Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith to share their experiences and reflections with the bishops after the meeting.

"We also came away with a commitment to communicate and share findings and reflections with the Churches and peoples in each of our countries," Mr Arndt said.

"For me, it was a chance to see first hand the accuracy of reports I had been receiving from many sources for some years."

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