Kevin Rudd, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade website – www.dfat.gov.au, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Mr Rudd – you were Elected because you weren’t Mr Howard

October 16, 2009 Sri Lanka Campaign Comments Off

The Australian Government says it enjoys ‘warm’ bilateral relations with Sri Lanka.

Does this mean that Mr Rudd’s Government has used the good relationship between the two countries to make sure Colombo hears a clear “let the near quarter of a million people in the camps go”? After all, even the mild mannered UN has now called for this.

According to TamilNet, the answer is no. It quotes senior Australian officials as saying, “Australia is reluctant to call for a closure of these camps and release of the innocent IDPs as soon as possible”.

Rather, it turns out that the Government is using Australian tax dollars to pay for leading ad agency, Saatchi and Saatchi, to help scare off potential asylum seekers to Australia.

Using state of the art “social control” tactics, the campaign uses “street drama to take its message directly to the people. Actors will play people smugglers and warn locals their efforts to escape from Sri Lanka will end in disappointment.”

9news reports that Catholic Churches are also being targeted, with literature and pamphlets being distributed around parishes warning asylum seekers they will not be welcome in Australia. The push has been dubbed the “Stay the Bloody Hell Away” campaign by media, in reference to Tourism Australia’s much maligned “Where the Bloody Hell Are You?” campaign.

Saatchi and Saatchi can be expected to do something clever, creative, and certainly not cheap. But how effective will this campaign be?

The people most likely to escape out of Sri Lanka are the 270,000 Tamils now rotting away in the internment camps after having survived the horrors of an intense military onslaught between the Tamil Tigers and Government of Sri Lanka. Will Saatchi and Saatchi street artists be granted permission to enter the camps and entertain the prisoners?

Regardless, for the 280,000 languishing in what is fast becoming semi-permanent camps – there is no end in sight. They know they are at risk of disease and/or arbitrary interrogation and so no amount of street theatre is going to stop them from taking any opportunity to be smuggled out of the camps and the country.

Sadly, this is not the first time Australia has made calculated attempts to try to deal with the symptoms of the Sri Lankan crisis, rather than the cause.

Advisor to the Sri Lankan Campaign for Peace and Justice and former diplomat Bruce Haigh says: “instead of offering humanitarian assistance to those in the camps, it sent the deputy chief of the navy, Rear Admiral David Thomas, to Colombo in June 2009 to urge that young Tamils be prevented from coming to Australia. His plea amounted to an endorsement of the continued detention of Tamils in appalling conditions. Kevin Rudd supports this position and said as much in an interview with Greg Cary on ABC Brisbane on July 1, 2009”.

And this same priority drives action in Australia. Pamela Curr, who works with the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in Melbourne recently narrated the fate bestowed by Australian on two Sri Lankan men. According to Ms Curr: “On Sunday October 4, I was asked to ring the three Sri Lankan men in the Perth Immigration Detention Centre. They asked me to them to help them. They said that they were afraid to go back to Sri Lanka because they had heard from the family members of (2 others) who had been deported a few days earlier. They were told that (they) were not released from the airport and that the families did not know where the men were held.”

Despite appeals the men were sent back, one “was removed in handcuffs with no shoes or shirt”. Sadly, the story is quite predictable: “(they) have been beaten and charged with people smuggling. They are being sent to Negombo Prison which has a deplorable human rights record.”

Conservative estimates are that the number of Sri Lankan boat arrivals in Australia is in the hundreds. And it can be assured thousands more are part of the one million illegal immigrants waiting in Malaysia (and Indonesia and Thailand) to make the harrowing and dangerous journey in a rickety old boat to Australia.

A few weeks ago, 114 Sri Lankans waiting for a passage to Australia were arrested in Malaysia. As Australia lawyer David Manne told SBS “It is one thing to intercept someone in another country and to assist another country, or cooperate with another country like Malaysia to do that, but what happens to that person? That’s the question that hangs heavily. What then happens to that person?”

So far, Mr Rudd is following closely in the footsteps of what his predecessor, John Howard, would have done.

As Bruce Haigh says about the most recent of these actions: “Sending these [255] people back to Indonesia is to condemn them to a debilitating existence on top of the effect and memory of the horrors they sought to escape. They will be warehoused in Indonesia, a country that is not a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees, for up to 10 years under conditions that will lead most to suffer mental deterioration.”

But Mr Rudd says he is inspired by German Lutheran priest, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed by the Nazis weeks for his (small) part in the plot to assassinate Hitler. Bonhoeffer was actually arrested for helping Jews escape. Leave aside his stated beliefs, Rudd is also a skilled diplomat. If he wanted to, he could use his country’s influence with India, Japan, and China to put pressure on the Government of Sri Lanka to deal with the 270,000+ people-the size of the population of Canberra-in an honourable way. And then to make sure Tamils are treated as equals in Sir Lanka.

Trying to put fingers in dykes isn’t the answer and as the “Sri Lanka model” is exploited to other countries-because other dictators think they can also get away with it-this focusing symptoms will become even less useful. The bottom line is that cosying up to totalitarian regimes didn’t work with Suharto and it won’t work this time either, Mr Rudd.