The civil war in Sri Lanka ended more than 12 months ago with the defeat of the LTTE, or Tamil Tigers, by government forces, but peace and reconciliation is far from having been achieved. While businesses and tourism are picking up in the country, there is still the unresolved disappearance of over 10,000 Tamils at the end of the war, accounts of continuing human rights abuses in the country and the failure of the government to address the grievances of the Tamil community or adequately investigate war crimes during the 25 year conflict.
For Tamils who fled conflict and persecution, many arriving in refugee boats to seek asylum in Australia, the chances of deportation have acutely increased. In July, the Australian government made it known that, although it would resume the processing of Sri Lankan asylum applications after a three month suspension, most would not be accepted as refugees due to its view that the situation in Sri Lanka had improved.
But Bahrathi and other Tamil asylum seekers being held at Villawood Immigration Detention Centre in Sydney tell of their families still suffering threats and torture by government forces in Sri Lanka.
Bahrathi’s life has been dominated by the Sri Lankan civil war. The rise of Sinhala nationalism after Ceylon achieved Independence in 1948 was accompanied by increasing political, social and economic marginalisation of ethnic Tamils, while many Indian Tamils were denied citizenship. Decades of discrimination and treatment as second class citizens, especially in regard to employment, land and education, gave birth to The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in 1976 and the beginning in 1983 of its long bitter campaign against the Sri Lankan government for an autonomous Tamil state in the north and east of the country.
“Because I lived in an LTTE controlled area there was continuous aerial bombardment and shelling,” Bahrathi explained, “There were so many dead, people getting killed and people being displaced all the time to avoid the shelling. Due to fierce bombing, a lot of my relatives have died, including my brother who was killed by the Sri Lankan army in 1997.”
Bahrathi worked as a driver in Sri Lanka and was subjected to threats and torture by the Sri Lankan army.
“They have beaten me, threatened to kill me and pointed a gun at me,” he said, “They have killed other people in front of my eyes.”
It was during the Norwegian mediated ceasefire in 2002, when he delivered a vehicle to the LTTE through official channels that his life was further threatened. “The person who gave me the vehicle was searched for by the army after that. He closed his shop and left the country, and I had to do the same,” Bahrathi recounted.
In 2007, he fled Sri Lanka and joined a refugee boat, eventually arriving at Christmas Island to the north of Australia in December 2009.
By this time, Bahrathi had lost contact with and trace of his family in Sri Lanka.
International human rights organisations, including Human Rights Watch, have voiced concern about thousands of Tamils who have been abducted, arrested or gone missing at checkpoints and from internment camps following the end of the war in May 2009. According to Human Rights Watch, these arrests violated domestic and international law and families were not informed of their fate. Many remain unaccounted for.
Fearing for the safety of his family in Sri Lanka, Bahrathi contacted humanitarian and intergovernmental organisations for assistance in locating them. After many months, he received news that his family had been traced in October.
“They were being held in custody in an internment camp all this time,” said Bahrathi, “They were only released in August this year.”
When he spoke to his family by phone, his mother revealed that the Sri Lankan army had interrogated them at the internment camp about his whereabouts.
“My mother said that she was really happy to hear my voice, but please don’t call again because we have said that you don’t exist here and we might get into trouble if they trace you,” he explained, “My mother has already been subjected to torture by the Sri Lankan government. They had been looking for me and this put her in more trouble. My mother said please don’t come here, because if you come here, they will torture and kill you under our eyes and they will also torture us.”
However, Bahrathi has been informed that his case for asylum in Australia has been rejected. A spokesman for the Australian Department of Immigration said that: “All asylum applications are processed against migration law with all available information,” but declined to give reasons for the rejection.
Following his election in January this year, Mahinda Rajapaksa, the President of Sri Lanka, has focussed efforts on developing the economy, but his government has failed to address the grievances of minorities, including Tamil and Muslim communities, with a political solution.
According to the International Crisis Group: “Rajapaksa’s post-war policies have deepened rather than resolved the grievances that generated and sustained LTTE militancy,” “All ethnic communities are suffering from the collapse of the rule of law” and “Impunity for abuses by state officials continues…”
In September Amnesty International criticised the actions of the Australian and Sri Lankan governments after three Sinhalese men, Sumith Mendis, Indika Mendis and Lasantha Wijeratne, who had sought asylum in Australia and were subsequently deported in 2009, were arrested, tortured and jailed on their return to Sri Lanka. In October, three Tamil asylum seekers who voluntarily returned to Sri Lanka from Indonesia were also arrested and their families have no knowledge of their whereabouts.
With the State of Emergency Rule and Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) in the country giving police and security forces broad powers to arrest and torture with impunity, Bahrathi made a plea to Australia.
“If you are not able to accept us as refugees, at least give us a mercy death here, rather than send us back to get tortured and die and our families getting affected by that.”
NB: Bahrathi’s real name has been changed to protect his safety and that of his family.
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This post was written by Catherine Wilson