As Sri Lankan asylum seekers attempt self-immolation, and scores are turned back by boat, the government buries its head. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Inside the Tamil’s burning protests

After finishing his shift on Sydney’s Balmain docks, he soaked himself in petrol, then swallowed some to make sure. In the shipyard beside the water he lit himself up. A suicide note and a letter from the Immigration Department, notifying him that his application for a protection visa had been rejected, were found in his bag. Having already planned his immolation, then, we may never know why he finished his shift. Was he biding his time? Fulfilling a sense of duty? 

Dock workers rushed to assist. Then paramedics. They were treating horrendous injuries – more than 70 per cent of his body was burnt. But after marathon surgery, he survived. It would dignify this man to provide his name, but it would also endanger his family in Sri Lanka. So it has been suppressed. 

The following month, on May 31, a Tamil living in Geelong, Victoria, set himself alight on a quiet suburban street. His name has already been widely reported: it is Leo Seemanpillai, the cheerfully anglicised version of it anyway, and before he died neighbours saw him engulfed in flames running down the street. 

Then last month a third Tamil, living in Victoria’s south-east, received dreaded news from home: his brother had vanished within the prison system and was presumed murdered. He knew also that the Sri Lankan government had been searching for him for years, and coupled this knowledge with Immigration Minister Scott Morrison’s blunt assertions that Tamil asylum seekers would be deported. He bought a can of petrol.

The man lived in a small share-house with other Tamil men on bridging visas, clustered in Dandenong like so many others because the rent there is cheaper and they are prohibited from working. His housemates spotted the can and seized it. Then they hid all the lighters and matches in the house, and agreed to monitor him closely. But a week or so later, the man had secretly acquired a small amount of petrol and a lighter. He retreated to his bedroom where he splashed and ignited himself. His housemates responded quickly, extinguishing the fire and calling police and ambulance. He is still in hospital under psychiatric care. 

Trevor Grant, of the Tamil Refugee Council, has spent time with the man and his roommates. “The doctors have been good, but we’ve had issues with the Immigration Department,” he tells me. “They’re starting to put the heavies on about talking to the media. They’ll tell these people, ‘We don’t want the media to know and it’s not good for you.’ Scott Morrison is upset this information is being disseminated. The Immigration Department is covering it up. They’re keen to shut things up.

“I’ve visited this man in hospital. All these people are virtually told that the media are poison. This is all part of the dehumanisation process. Once you start telling human stories, people reconsider government policy.” 

1 . A bloody civil war

In 2009, one of the longest and bloodiest civil wars of recent times ended in Sri Lanka. Troublingly, it remains one of the most obscure. For a quarter of a century, the Sri Lankan government – representing the Sinhalese, the Buddhist ethnic majority – sought to quell the marginalised Tamil minority, who are Hindu. The Tamils were agitating for their own sovereignty – they had their own distinct language, culture and history – or at the very least the end of an institutionalised racism that had been enshrined legislatively. 

The Sinhalese brutality begat the same. Forged in bleak opposition were the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who favoured political assassinations before developing their own diabolical signatures of warfare. The Tamil Tigers invented suicide bombing, trained squadrons of child soldiers and used women as human shields. They were an especially brutal terrorist group. 

About 100,000 people died in the war, roughly half of them civilians. Most of the dead civilians – tens of thousands at least – had been slaughtered in the final stages of the conflict, when the government adopted its own surprising wickedness. To this day the Sri Lankan government denies this, but there is overwhelming evidence suggesting that masses of civilians were herded into “no-fire” zones and then brutally shelled by the military. Observers described a bloodbath. Some of this evidence was shared in a documentary on British television last year, and it caught the eye of British prime minister David Cameron. After watching the film, Cameron tweeted directly to the Sri Lankan president: “Been watching @NoFireZoneMovie. Chilling documentary on Sri Lanka. Serious questions to put to @PresRajapaksa next week.”

The next week in question was the twice-yearly Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, that year being hosted by Sri Lanka in Colombo. Canada boycotted it – perhaps guided by a large Tamil populace – as did India, itself home to an influential Tamil community. Cameron attended, but was stern. Prime Minister Tony Abbott attended also and, continuing a pattern established by the previous Labor government, was exceedingly warm. 

Referring to torture commissioned by the Sri Lankan government – in remarks since removed from the official transcript – our prime minister said, “In difficult circumstances, difficult things happen.” It bore an unseemly resemblance to his 2011 quip about the death of an Australian soldier: “Shit happens.” “It caused a furore around the world in human rights circles,” Trevor Grant says. “He was condoning torture. It’s mind boggling.” 

Our relationship with Sri Lanka has become very tight and mutually satisfying, deepened by Abbott placing so many chips on his “stop the boats” promise, but it is not new. The former foreign affairs minister, Bob Carr, borrowing some Kissingerian pragmatism, believed Sri Lanka would only worsen in isolation, that domestic reconciliation was fiendishly complex and would not be helped by external judgement, and that, regardless, they were critical to Australia’s plans to lessen the number of asylum seeker boats arriving on our shores. He neatly summarised his vision in a statement during a senate estimates hearing in February last year: “We regard the work of advancing human rights in Sri Lanka as very much a work in progress. We present our concerns to the government ... We believe that engagement is a better course than isolation when it comes to Sri Lanka. One has to acknowledge that the country has been through three-and-a-half decades of a traumatic civil war in which terrorism at a very advanced stage was deployed against the people.”

Carr was also mindful of Sri Lanka’s influence on last year’s federal election. In 2013, he wrote in his diary: “The arrival of boats is the underlying reason we are polling so badly in Western Sydney, so this relationship with the Sri Lankans is important, maybe vital. The boats are coming from there.” 

The relationship was further developed earlier this year, when Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the Sri Lankan secretary of defence and the president’s brother, came to Australia to sign a transfer of deeds on “the outright gifting of two Bay Class Patrol Vessels” to his country. It received little attention here – the government were not keen to sing and dance around it – but it was a continuation of years of patronage worth tens of millions of dollars and the establishment of an Australian Federal Police office in Colombo. The problem, of course, is that in pacifying Western Sydney, we’re helping Sri Lanka lock their fire exits. Five years after the official end of military conflict, Grant says conditions are still rotten. “The place is in dire shape. In the north and east there’s military occupation. For every five people in those areas, there’s one soldier. The armed forces have actually increased since the war ended. It’s hellish for Tamils. There’s land theft, military in schools – all designed to change the face of Tamil country. Before the war finished we had very few Tamil asylum seekers. Very few. It was because they were in camps. Then they released many, which is why so many come here.”

The United Nations recently agreed things are dire. In the aftermath of the war, the Sri Lankan government was encouraged to establish an inquiry. They did, and called it the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, ostensibly formed to establish the naked truth of the war, to suggest methods of democratisation, and to substantively promote the unity of a disastrously divided country. These were the mechanisms that Carr had faith in, but when the report was released in 2011 it was criticised as a whitewash by the UN. International trust in Sri Lanka to make amends and reshape its country was ebbing. “The argument is about accountability,” Emily Howie, of the Human Rights Law Centre, tells me. “There are no systems in place for accountability in Sri Lanka. The government has dismantled them. We need an international mechanism because there’s none there.”

Which is why this year the UN Security Council voted to establish an independent investigation into war crimes committed by both government and Tamil Tigers. It passed with 23 votes in favour, 12 against, and 12 abstentions. The US, Britain and Canada voted affirmatively. China and Pakistan voted against. Australia abstained. “The legal case against Australia aiding Sri Lankan abuse is strong,” Howie tells me. “This is the price we pay. We have Sri Lanka’s co-operation to stop the boats, so we stay quiet on crimes against humanity. For instance, torture is standard operating procedure in Sri Lanka.” 

In a report written by Howie and released in March this year, Howie stated that, “Despite the risk of harm on return to Sri Lanka, Australia does not take any proactive steps to monitor the safety of over 1100 people who have been returned since October 2012.”

Damningly, Howie revealed a strategic antipathy in the Australian government about monitoring asylum seekers who have been sent back. Courtesy of a freedom-of-information request, Howie discovered an email sent from Robyn Mudie, the Australian high commissioner to Sri Lanka, to senior Department of Foreign Affairs officer Bryce Hutchesson. On the matter of actively monitoring the complaints of returned people, Mudie wrote to Hutchesson that it would “run counter to Australia’s judgement that it was safe to return people”. In other words: don’t ask, don’t tell. If we have no apparatus to properly monitor complaints, then there won’t be any complaints. And if there aren’t any complaints, there’s no problem. 

2 . Reporting nothing

We witness them a lot these days: political arguments of such contemptuous circularity that we dumbly resort to Orwell to help describe them. Morrison gave us another example this week, when he fronted a doorstop in Melbourne about the boat bearing 153 Tamils to our northern shores. Multiple reports were coming from Christmas Island about the ship, and refugee groups had been in telephone contact with passengers, but the immigration minister refused to discuss it – officially, it did not exist. 

“What I have said,” Morrison told the assembled reporters, “is that it is our practice to report on significant events at sea. Now, there is no such report for me to provide to you today.”

“So, could you clarify, sir, for us: at what point does an event become a significant event involving a boat on water?” a journalist asked.

“When you see me here standing and reporting on it.”

A reasonable definition of “significant” might include a wretchedly crowded ship bearing 150 souls into Australian waters. It might also be “significant” that the much-heralded six months of no boats has ended. But this week, the notion of significance was abandoned in favour of convenience. Either that, or Morrison revealed to us his God-like powers – if he says something is significant, it becomes so.

At time of writing, there were uncorroborated reports that the Australian Navy had turned the boat over to their Sri Lankan counterparts. If true, these asylum seekers will have been placed back in the hands of the people they were trying to escape. Under international law, this would most likely constitute “refoulement”. The principle of non-refoulement exists under international law – expressed in the 1951 Refugee Convention – and written in the wake of World War II in response to the spurned Jewish refugees of Europe. The principle is simple: it prohibits the return of asylum seekers back into the arms of their persecutors. 

There is a markedly valid point to some of the government’s qualms, though: how do we properly distinguish between terrorists and civilians? Given the barbarism was committed by both sides, do we wish to grant refuge to a man who conscripted children at gunpoint? In handing over his portfolio to Julie Bishop, Bob Carr told her we couldn’t wholly, naively accept the Tamil “narrative”. Bishop agreed. 

How we vet these asylum seekers is crucial – and it’s also largely secretive. Regardless, it doesn’t not speak to our responsibility to allow them the opportunity to be processed in the first place. 

3 . A long history

The Oxford professor Diego Gambetta wrote: “Martyrdom is as strong a signal of the strength of a belief as one can get: only those who hold their beliefs very dear can contemplate making the ultimate sacrifice of dying for a cause.” But this applies equally to the diseased and the defiant; oppressors as well as the oppressed. Self-immolation is so alien here, so aggressively awful, that one wonders if it reflects mental distress or an improbable moral fortitude. As it is, it has a long history in Asia. 

In Buddhist scripture, the Medicine King self-cremates as an offering to Buddha, and to demonstrate the ethereal to cynics. He burns for 1200 years. For Hindus, funeral pyres are commonplace, so much so that the Indian government is wrestling with the environmental consequences. A long-outlawed Hindu practice of sati dictated that a widow must leap upon the funeral pyre of her husband. 

There is a symbolic bond between sacrifice and fire, though it’s inadequate and improper to speculate upon the religious persuasion of our three Tamil men. As it is to speculatively sketch the dovetail joints of despair and protest. But it is safe to say that despair featured heavily in these three acts, and that there’s plenty of it crammed in share-houses on our suburban fringes, sustained by a spaghetti junction of political imperatives they cannot touch. Those imperatives were neatly expressed by our prime minister on Thursday when he described Sri Lanka as a “society at peace”.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 5, 2014 as "Inside the Tamils’ burning protests".

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Martin McKenzie-Murray is The Saturday Paper’s associate editor.

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