Bruce Haigh

I am writing, as Head of the Sri Lanka Peace Secretariat in 2009, to correct some errors in the opinion piece on ‘The Drum’, reproduced it seems from ABC News. It seems best to make annotations direct on the published text, though I hope you will also reproduce the evidence from the ICRC that suggests Mr Haigh is being his usual mischievous self as regards Sri Lanka.

“Admiral Thisara Samarsinghe was recently approved by the Australian Government to become the next Sri Lankan High Commissioner in Canberra. He joined the navy in 1974 and retired in January 2011.

Admiral Samarsinghe was chief of staff of the Sri Lankan Navy at a time when the navy shelled Tamil soldiers and civilians trapped in what had been declared a safe zone at the end of the civil war. The navy then blocked attempts by the International Committee of the Red Cross to evacuate the injured, women and children from the safe zone.”

Mr Haigh advances no evidence at all for this bald statement. He completely ignores the evidence of the ICRC, which sent the letter below to the previous Commander of the Navy on February 14th 2009, following assistance provided by the navy to the ICRC. Sadly, in recent discussions of what took place, the support provided by the navy to the ICRC with regard to provision of food and evacuation of the wounded (under 5000, with about 2000 more sick and 7000 bystanders sent out, indicating that the number of war wounded was limited), the role of the navy is ignored. I need only refer you to the language used by the Head of the ICRC, and his references to discipline and kindness and respect for you to realize that Mr Haigh possesses none of these qualities and should not be let loose on an unsuspecting public. 

“From 1983 the Sri Lankan navy detained and shot Indian fishermen from Tamil Nadu who ventured into Sri Lankan waters on the basis that they were likely to be helping Tamil separatists. Until 2009 400 were shot and killed, with several thousand more wounded.”

 I cannot, since I am now in Australia, challenge these statistics, but I do not recall Mr Haigh being quite so dogmatic about these when his friend, former President Chandrika Kumaratunga, was in office.

 

“According to the recently-released UN report into war crimes committed at the end of the civil war, both sides were guilty of breaches under the Geneva Conventions, however the Sri Lankan government has refused the UN panel which prepared the report further access to Sri Lanka and has condemned the report as biased.”

There was no UN report into war crimes. A panel was appointed to advise the UN Secretary General with regard to accountability issues, and the Secretary General’s office accepted that access to Sri Lanka was not essential for this purpose. However it seems that some members of the Panel, who directly contradicted the Secretary General’s office on this, saw themselves not as advisers but as judges. They did not see themselves as investigators, since there is no suggestion that they actually examined allegations they received, but have simply acted as a postbox in repeating these, with addition of the word ‘credible’, without any argument that establishes credibility.

 

The report estimates 40,000 Tamil civilians were killed towards the end of the war, some, as already noted, by the navy. In addition, 4,000 Tamil soldiers (LTTE) are being held incommunicado by the victorious government forces.

The estimate reported by the Panel, with references to the UN, have been repudiated as reliable figures by senior UN officials. The former LTTE cadres, nearly 11,000 in number initially, have now been reduced to something like the figure Mr Haigh cites, but they are certainly not incommunicado, and are visited by friends and relations. The last time I was in one of the Centres, to check on an entrepreneurship development programme I had funded through my decentralied budget as a Member of Parliament, I was introduced to the wife of one of the boys helping with the programme. She was a student at the University of Jaffna, but came down regularly to visit him.

 

The 500-page UN report notes that, “The fact that interrogations and investigations as well as ‘rehabilitation’ activities have been ongoing, without any external scrutiny for almost two years, rendered alleged LTTE cadre highly vulnerable to violations such as rape, torture or disappearance, which could be committed with impunity.”

Mr Haigh should talk with IOM which has been helping government with its programmes in this regard. All female cadres have long been released, though after reading a recent ‘Economist’ article on rape in American prisons, I realize Mr Haigh might be talking of other types of rape too. We have had no allegations of rape or torture or disappearance with regard to these cadres, whose numbers and provenance have been carefully recorded, and it is significant that the report (which Mr Haigh seems to have read in a form other than the one sent to me by the UN, which had just about 200 pages) does not refer to any allegations in this regard but talks only about cadre being highly vulnerable to such abuse. It would be as tenable to suggest that anyone coming into contact with Mr Haigh and his ilk in the days he worked for the Australian Foreign Ministry would have been highly vulnerable to abuse, if the Ministry’s endless inquiries into the subject are anything to go by – even though it seems nothing was ultimately proven and everyone got off scot-free. Whether that suggests institutionalized impunity or a fortunate escape after a witch-hunt I will leave Mr Haigh to decide.

 

“It is wrong for Sri Lanka to have put forward a senior naval officer intimately involved in the civil war as High Commissioner and wrong for Australia to have accepted Admiral Samarsinghe.

 

There are precedents for rejecting Samarsinghe.

 

In 1995 Australia rejected the nomination as Ambassador of retired Indonesian General Herman Mantiri. His nomination was rejected on the basis of war crimes committed by Mantiri against the East Timorese. “

The comparison is absurd, since there has been no allegation even of war crimes against Admiral Samarasinghe.


“In 2005 and 2008 the Canadian Government refused to accept nominations for the position of High Commissioner put forward by the Sri Lankan government, for reasons associated with human rights abuses.”

I am not aware of the 2008 case, but in 2005, after much agitation by LTTE supporters, the Canadians turned down a Civil Servant who had been Secretary to the Ministry of Defence.


“It is a crying shame that the Australian Government has settled for lower standards.

In the interests of fighting people smuggling, the AFP has posted officers to Colombo to liaise with their Sri Lankan counterparts. However the Sri Lankan police have blood on their hands, having engaged in the extra-judicial killing of Tamils for several decades.”

I am not sure why the attack now shifts to the police.

 

“They have been involved in the murder of Sri Lankan journalists. Press freedom is all but dead in Sri Lanka. In 2009 the editor of The Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wickrematunge, was murdered. In the same year JS Tissainayagam, a Tamil journalist and newspaper editor, was jailed for 20 years for publishing editorials critical of the government in 2006. He was held in jail for two years before being sentenced by the Sri Lankan High Court under anti-terrorism legislation, a catch-all law similar to but more draconian than Australian legislation.”

I do not think allegations with regard to Mr Wickramatunge’s death were made against the police, nor against the navy, though the British High Commission did, four days after Mr Wickrematunga’s death, show me a note which they seemed to be worried about, implicating the then Army Commander. This now seems to have been forgotten by them.

Mr Tissainayagam was charged and found guilty, though many of us thought the sentence was too harsh and said so. He was pardoned shortly after the conviction.

 

Australia took sides with the militarised Sinhalese majority in the civil war. At the end of the war, instead of offering humanitarian assistance to Tamils trapped in government camps, it sent the deputy chief of the navy, Rear Admiral Davyd Thomas, to Colombo in June 2009 to liaise with his counterpart, the then Rear Admiral Samarsinghe, on action to stop people smuggling.”

The Australian government gave a great deal of humanitarian assistance to the Tamils who had suffered. Mr Haigh repeats the LTTE initiated dichotomy between Sinhalese and Tamils, whereas the war was between Sri Lankan forces (which include Tamils and Muslims, albeit several of these were assassinated by the LTTE) and a terrorist group. Mr Haigh omits to mention that over 200,000 Tamils were held hostage by the LTTE and used as human shields, a factor that even the equally prejudiced Gordon Weiss records. Those who finally escaped were housed, fed, treated and educated by the Sri Lankan government, with the assistance of the UN and several donor nations, including Australia, and were resettled within a few months as pledged in their original places of residence – though a few are still in the camps since they have nowhere to go, or because the demining, which was successfully completed more rapidly than anywhere else, with some assistance too from Australia after the Sri Lankan government had purchased 24 flails to expedite the process, still remains to be done in a small area.

 

Thomas also met with the President’s brother, the Sri Lankan secretary for law and order and defence, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa , a man accused of war crimes. He also met with the chief of the defence force, the chief of the navy and the chief of the coast guard. No doubt it was seen useful to have Samarsinghe in Canberra to assist when and where necessary in stemming the flow of Tamil asylum seekers.”

Mr Haigh may believe that people smuggling should be condoned, the government of Australia not only has a duty to stop criminality and exploitation, it must also listen to the views of the Australian people who, while I believe positive about genuine refugees, are not too keen on illicit activities that benefit those who wish to make money unscrupulously, and those who have money to pay for such services.


“Over the years the Sri Lankan High Commission in Australia has conducted a campaign of harassment against Sri Lankan Tamils living in Australia. They were assisted by the AFP, which saw nothing wrong in visiting and intimidating Tamils in their homes at odd hours.”

This too is nonsense. While Sri Lankan diplomats are keen to stop terrorism and want the LTTE and those who collect money for tourism dealt with firmly, they promote interaction between all Sri Lankans. During my visit, I have met with several Tamils and have encouraged all those I meet to promote ties between the different Sri Lankan communities.

It should be noted that, far from being fully supportive of our struggle against terrorism, the Australian government is one of the very few from the Westernized world not to have banned the LTTE. It is a matter of extreme regret that Australia has not followed the lead of the United States and Britain and Europe and Canada in this regard.

 

“A Victorian Supreme Court judge, Paul Coghlan, strongly criticised the AFP during his summary at the conclusion of a trial into the alleged terrorist activities of three Tamil males at the end of March last year. One of the accused, Arumugan Rajeevan, had the novel experience of being “unarrested” by AFP agents. He was pulled over as he was driving to a meeting, and arrested and handcuffed at gunpoint. Realising they did not have the legal grounds to arrest him, the AFP “unarrested “him.

Coghlan also commented that Rajeevan had been abused during his interview which was an “absolute departure from normal principles.” No admission of fault or attempt at recompense was made.

Although not guilty of any crime, all three pleaded guilty under pressure in order to minimise sentences. In the event the state withdrew charges but in view of their pleas the men still had to be sentenced. None went to prison.”

Mr Haigh clearly knows more than I do about the Australian Federal Police and the reason individuals plead guilty when charged by virtue of police action, but if this knowledge is of a piece with the falsehoods he has engaged in elsewhere in this article, I suspect the Police might find it very easy to clear its name of his allegations.

 

The Age newspaper commented at the time that, “Coghlan’s damning critique of police behaviour in relation to Rajeevan’s treatment spanned not only his arrest but his subsequent treatment at the hands of federal agents. But the Tamil Tigers case – in which prosecutors last year withdrew all the terrorism charges against the three accused men – raises greater issues than just the quality of police work…The sentencing provides the final chapter in what has been a complex, international tale that raises questions about how Australia should deal with citizens caught up in another country’s civil war.”

The appointment of Samarsinghe again raises that question.”

Mr Haigh is free to decide what is terrorism and what is a Civil War, but perhaps he should be asked to explain very clearly why he is so indulgent to a group that the FBI described as one of the most dangerous terrorist groupings in the world, who pioneered suicide bombing and institutionalized child recruitment, who assassinated two heads of government and several leaders of Tamil political parties that had adopted a moderate approach. If he is sorry that we got rid of terrorism on Sri Lankan soil, we can only wonder at his values and perhaps feel sorry for him – but if he wishes to resurrect terrorism and terrorist fund raising, either in Australia or in Sri Lanka, we must request that he not be supported by the media, without adequate opportunity to refute his mischievous misconceptions.



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