Australia stayed silent on alleged human rights abuses in Sri Lanka in exchange for cooperation in cracking down on people-smuggling, Colombo’s new prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said on Monday.
Wickremesinghe said former president Mahinda Rajapaksa had agreed to help stop boats carrying asylum seekers leaving for Australia if Canberra kept quiet about alleged abuses committed by the previous regime.
In an interview with the Australian newspaper, Wickremesinghe said Australian prime minister Tony Abbott’s close relationship with Rajapaksa, who was voted out of power last month, was “a mystery” to Sri Lankans.
Colombo’s new premier also said that “people connected to the previous government” had taken part in people-smuggling operations.
“It was being done by people with Rajapaksa connections, but once this deal was done between Australia and the Rajapaksa government, where you looked the other way [on human rights abuses], then the secretary of defence got the navy to patrol,” he told the broadsheet.
“You could not have got anyone out of this country without someone in the security system looking the other way, the police or the navy.”
The arrival of asylum seekers by boat is a sensitive political issue in Australia, which in 2013 started sending those picked up on boats to offshore camps on Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island and Nauru.
Most asylum-seeker boats that have made the precarious journey to Australia came from Indonesia, but 120 left from Sri Lanka in 2012 for what can be a voyage of up to three weeks.
Wickremesinghe said he was not against the Australian government, but urged them to learn from their experiences.
“Some other countries must also, that fully backed the Rajapaksa regime,” he told the newspaper. “When human rights were being trampled, and democracy was at bay, these countries were silent. That is an issue for Sri Lanka.”
Sri Lanka’s new government has promised a domestic probe into alleged war crimes under Rajapaksa.
The previous regime had resisted a UN inquiry into claims that up to 40,000 ethnic Tamil civilians were killed under Rajapaksa’s command in the final months of a war that ended in May 2009.
Ahead of travelling to Sri Lanka in 2013 for a Commonwealth summit, Abbott said he said he was “not inclined to go overseas and give other countries lectures”.
His office had no immediate comment to Wickremesinghe’s comments in the Australian.