- “Wounds are healing much faster in Sri Lanka than overseas” – Admiral Thisara Samarasinghe
Admiral Thisara Samarasinghe believes that every Naval officer is a diplomat the moment he crosses 12 nautical miles into international waters. In the post war phase, the 57-year-old war veteran has taken up a position as Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to Australia, taking his place in the new frontier of Sri Lanka’s defence in the international arena. While there were initial doubts about the appointment of a hardened military officer to head Sri Lanka’s Mission in a Liberal Democracy such as Australia, Admiral Samarasinghe has persevered and succeeded against many odds, navigating the tricky waters of a strong Tamil Diaspora lobby, a hostile media and wary politicians to usher in a new era of diplomatic engagement with Australia and the greater Oceania region.
From bilateral cooperation to combat human smuggling operations, to Australia’s stoic support for Sri Lanka as hosts of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in November this year, Admiral Samarasinghe has been at the helm of creating partnerships between many governmental agencies that has steered relations between the two countries towards calmer waters. He believes that the decision by someone to invest in his training overseas when he was a young sailor has paid dividends for the country, having equipped him well to face the challenges of this new role.
Sri Lanka’s Envoy to Australia who is accredited to several other Pacific nations was in Colombo last week to assist during the visit of the New Zealand Foreign Minister and spoke to the Daily FT regarding some of the key issues he has confronted in his new role.
Following are excerpts of the interview:
By Dharisha Bastians
Q: How successful has Sri Lanka been in dealing with the issue of illegal immigrants headed to Australia?
A: These illegal immigrants become the pawns of human smugglers. The Tiger lobby is ready to support them when they are temporarily set free, representing them, giving them legal aid and by giving them jobs and places to stay. During the time of the war, people smuggled out of Sri Lanka were contracted to give the LTTE part of their earnings in foreign countries. This was one income that the terrorists had. This kind of project is still happening in Australia and in other foreign countries.
But on the President’s directive and advice of the Ministry of External Affairs, I carried out a campaign of awareness by explaining that Sri Lanka was now a country at peace and that the claims of asylum seekers that they were fleeing for fear of their lives and they risked assault and death if they remained in Sri Lanka were false. We indicated that if the fear was of death, there was a country very close by to flee to. Instead why were they risking life and limb to escape to Australia? The truth is it was entirely based on economic opportunism. On a diplomatic level, the two countries engaged on this issue.
Australia appointed a high level Commission. I expressed my views before that Commission in writing. My letter said that no Sri Lankan needs to travel to Australia for persecution. Please send them back as soon as they come. That is a deterrent. They realised this and they started to do this. A policy was made that asylum seekers would be processed outside mainland Australia, in Nauru and Papua New Guinea. The temporary facilities granted to the asylum seekers in those places are very good. They are provided medical care, food and lodging. But despite this, there were voluntary returns. People said, they’d prefer to return to Sri Lanka, which proved it was not harassment they feared back home, but this journey was motivated by a desire to come Australia.
Q: What were the specific initiatives Sri Lanka launched to combat the human smuggling issue?
A: I sought the Australian media’s support in this campaign. The Australian media has been largely hostile to Sri Lanka. SBS is Australia’s largest television network. I sent a SBS reporter to Sri Lanka about a year ago. He spent 15 days in the country. We obtained authorisation from the Defence Secretary for the reporter to travel in Sri Lanka Navy patrol vessels to learn firsthand what an immense effort we were making to prevent these boats leaving our shores. He was present when a boat of asylum seekers was apprehended by the Navy about 2,000 miles from our shores. He got into that boat and was able to question the asylum seekers. They told him themselves that they were not really going because of persecution but because they needed to earn some money. The SBS journalist returned to Australia and broadcasted these interviews. This created a massive impact in Australia.
From this point onwards more reporters went to uncover more information. This type of reporting built confidence in the Sri Lankan Government’s claims in Australia.
Q: Can you explain the bilateral cooperation between the two countries to address the issue?
A: The Australian Foreign Minister came to Sri Lanka last December. He held wide ranging and cordial discussions here with the Government and Opposition parties and saw for himself what was happening here. He made a statement that there was no need to travel to Australia by boat to escape problems in Sri Lanka. Carr said that claims by smugglers that you can travel to Australia that way and remain in that country were not true and urged people not to be fooled by these claims.
After that the Australian Opposition Leader and its Shadow Immigration Minister also arrived in Sri Lanka. They even spent two nights in Kilinochchi. They returned to Australia and said there was no reason for anyone from Sri Lanka to arrive in Australia as a refugee and that there was no impediment to sending these illegal immigrants back. Now both the Government and the Opposition was speaking in one voice about Sri Lanka and that was helping to convince Australians and so great success for us.
Scott Morrison in fact told an Australian newspaper that if Iraq or Afghanistan achieved what Sri Lanka has achieved today after a prolonged conflict, people would be offering them a Nobel Peace Prize. That statement is in writing. Recently 60 odd people arrived in Perth in one boat, and within one week they were airlifted back to Sri Lanka. There was a perception that if asylum seekers land in mainland Australia, they cannot be sent back. But the Government of Australia made that tough call and they were returned to Sri Lanka.
I must also mention a major initiative to combat illegal human smuggling in the form of an annual Joint Working Group on Human Smuggling and Transnational Crime. The Defence Ministries, Justice Ministries, Attorney General’s Department, Police, Immigration, Navy and Border Protection from both countries, and their Immigration Secretary and our Defence Secretary participated in this meeting. The meeting will happen every year. Next year our people will go to Australia. It was inaugurated by the Foreign Ministers of the two countries. There were cordial discussions and trust-building between the two countries to make this initiative possible. It is a major success story especially given Australia’s former perceptions of Sri Lanka.
I believe that while all this is happening, it is important to develop other areas of engagement. Investment, trade, education, health and sports. These are the five areas I want to focus on.
Q: How much do you think Australian perceptions have changed about Sri Lanka?
A: Australia is a country very close to our own, even though it is far away. Our people have been professionals in that country since the 1940s and before. These Sri Lankans benefitted from the free education system in our country and then travelled to Australia under the Colombo Plan system. Australians are therefore very grateful to our country for what we have given Australia. So building on these deep relationships is the aim of the two Governments.
One thing the President said to me before I took up this posting was to try and change Australia’s attitude towards our country. I think the Government’s attitude has changed. The Navy and Police played a vital role in preventing some 6,000 asylum seekers from reaching Australia. Still there are a few boats that escape the net but the issue has been minimised greatly.
The issue of the asylum seekers are a major problem for Australia. The boats coming from Sri Lanka comprise only about 20-25% of asylum seekers entering Australian waters. But the LTTE diaspora lobby is so strong, that it is our people that are mostly blown up in the media. That is for obvious reasons.
I repeatedly engage with the ABC and SBS networks and Australian radio on this issue. There is a connection between the human smugglers and Tamil diaspora. The Tamil diaspora wants these boats to come. The LTTE is an international organisation. As someone with some knowledge of the inner workings, the Australian Government accepts what I say. The situation in countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq is that they honestly cannot send these people back. The greatest advantage that Sri Lanka has is that there is a genuine peace in the country. We have to showcase that to these countries. The fact that an Australian journalist came to Sri Lanka and saw for himself was a major turning point in this issue.
Q: Did the inter-Governmental success in tackling the boat people issue result in Australia’s support for Sri Lanka when there was debate about Colombo being the CHOGM venue?
A: It definitely played a role. Australia is the chairperson of the CHOGM. There were other challenges by Canada and other countries. But that is why Australia came to Sri Lanka and its Government representatives saw for themselves. Australia has an envoy in Colombo. She knows exactly what is happening. I do my share of lobbying in Australia alright but they are also being fed back by their own people. If my lobbying and what she says tallies, then the argument is strong. I don’t have to tell a lie. I have seen what was happening here.
There was an argument that human rights was an issue with regard to CHOGM. I did everything possible from the day I went there, to speak to Parliament and Parliamentarians. I told them that the words crimes against humanity and genocide should never be used against our armed forces. I was part of those forces. We saved Tamils. One idiotic soldier or sailor may commit an atrocity that is unacceptable. That is an individual. The system never supported that. Sri Lanka never got a bullet free from any country. We bought from Israel, China and Pakistan. This is how we convinced the politicians.
The message of our President, our Defence Secretary and our Foreign Secretary, I tried to carry it to the people with conviction. I had a special advantage because I was involved. I always told them, we never killed Tamils. We killed terrorists. There was a perception that it was the Sinhala Army against Tamil terrorists. I begin my stories with the 1971 insurrection. In that case there were 40,000 Sinhalese killed in 1971. Nobody is questioning that. There were violations then also. Our wives and parents were hidden because our forces people were being killed by nobody else but the JVP. It hurts us. I said.
These fact finding missions and the good relationship between our two countries, starting of course on human smuggling, helped for Australia to canvass for Sri Lanka. Bob Carr said that their policy was engagement. He said Australia was convinced that Sri Lankan refugees need not come to Australia. They were one of the first countries to say they would attend CHOGM in Colombo. New Zealand followed suit. I think Canada is isolated. In an interview recently I said Canada would finally realise they should come. If 50 odd countries decide to come, why should they not come? I am accredited to Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Vanavatu. All those countries are supportive of us. The area of the Pacific is a success story. Australia, New Zealand and the Asia Pacific putting their hands up first for CHOGM is a success for us.
Under the direction of the President, the foreign policy is convincingly explaining things to the Government. I am confident. Yesterday the New Zealand Foreign Minister assured that a large delegation from there would attend CHOGM and they would bring a business delegation for the business forum as well.
When I go back, they are planning to screen ‘No Fire Zone’ in Australia. I will also be taking footage of atrocities committed by the LTTE. I am going to their Parliament. I don’t believe in lying. But we honestly have nothing to hide. We didn’t kill civilians. Of course in any protracted war there are casualties. It is important for Sri Lanka that at a time when most of the Western world is pressuring our country, that Australia is willing to speak for us.
Q: How successful has Sri Lanka’s tourism drive been in Australia?
A: Again on the directive of the Ministry of External Affairs, BOI and Tourism Board, we conduct programs and events targeting every region in Australia at road shows and other places. As a result of this, tourist arrivals have increased by 35% from Australia and New Zealand in the last two years. That is great progress. The first reason is because the country is now secure, because it is a beautiful location and thirdly because our promotions have been successful.
Lonely Planet is a Melbourne-based travel research and advisory company founded in 1974. They have ranked us at the top of the top 10 – we are number one. All travel advisories have been minimised. Investment is coming in. We must be grateful to our Sri Lankan diaspora living in Australia. Their efforts go a long way to making these promotional campaigns a success. And importantly, they help to create a good image about Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans in Australia – that we are a hospitable, disciplined and intelligent people. Although they have left our country they love Sri Lanka.
Cricket is also a great tool for economic and commercial diplomacy. From every province in Australia, at least one school cricket team goes to Sri Lanka. It is not just the team that travels in these instances, but their teachers and families. Our own national cricket team made a major impact on a recent tour to Australia, even though they lost the Test series.
The current opposition also has what they are calling the new Colombo Plan. If the old plan was about getting skilled professionals from developing countries to Australia, the new plan will be about getting Australians out into the world, to bring those influences back to Australia.
Q: Just like in other parts of the world, Australia also has a large Tamil lobby. How has your engagement been with these groups?
A: I engage with the Tamil diaspora groups more than other groups. Reconciliation forums are being held in Sydney and Melbourne and other places. They are a bit slow, but they are active. Once when I attended one forum, there were demonstrations against me calling me a war criminal. I invited them to come and sit. Then there was a feeling that they were embarrassed to ask questions openly. So I asked them to put questions into a box and answered them that way. I must say there is still a fear for people to come out openly; they fear reprisals from the more extremist factions. But there are many now who come out. In Melbourne especially there are very positive Tamils who are rejecting terrorism.
I have to say that process is very slow, but it is happening gradually. The only officer I requested for the mission was a Tamil officer. Everyone else is people the Foreign Service has given me to work with. I went there alone – I didn’t take anyone from the Navy there. I can handle any job with anybody given to me, but I asked for a Tamil officer. For all my important meetings I go with him. My own house is frequented by Tamils. My friends from Royal are Tamils. I have nothing to hide, and I am not scared of anyone. We have to reach out to the Tamil people. Wounds are healing much better in Sri Lanka than wounds in other countries. They don’t see what is happening here now. Some people don’t know that the Tamil and Muslim population in Colombo put together are larger than the Sinhala population. The diaspora is a must, but they remain scared of hard LTTE elements still active. I go to the Kovil. I believe you have to practice what you preach.
Q: As you say, the Australian Government believes the situation here is improving post-war. Yet it also decided to co-sponsor the UNHRC resolution against Sri Lanka. Does that mean Australia is still concerned about the human rights situation here?
A: Obviously they cannot oppose an American resolution. But they were convinced this time that they should not give their support without certain acknowledgements in the resolution. They were a little upset that they did not get one acknowledgement. But they went ahead and supported it this year. They co-sponsor because of regional alliances to various countries; sometimes they have to give in to these things. I mean, India voted against us. If India can vote against us, any country can vote against us. I think next year it is very unlikely that they will sponsor; of course we don’t know for sure. Sri Lanka is a small country for Australia. They have a bigger picture and they have to fall in line. But I have been constantly saying that it is high time they identified themselves. They are a big country, a big economy. But they have military alliances with the US and others and they have to depend on these partnerships. It’s difficult for us to navigate these.
Q: How concerned is Australia about the northern election and reconciliation issues in post-war Sri Lanka?
A: They are very concerned about the election and are keen about the LLRC recommendations to be implemented in a specific time frame. We keep them informed on our progress. They think that we are not doing enough – obviously. I have told them not to worry about our security or the thinning down of our military. They can’t tell us where to put a policeman on the road. We have released 11,000 terrorists into normal society. Not 10, not 15, not 500 or 5,000. We run a risk. This is a tremendous risk the President took for the sake of reconciliation. They don’t understand these things. Which country will ever do that? I say you have prisoners in Guantanamo Bay for 20 years without charging them. My President took the risk – I was there when he took the risk against the advice of Sarath Fonseka at the time, who wanted resettlement to happen in four years and for demining to be done in four years. The President said, no, it has to be done in one year. People don’t know. I know because I was there. There are no arguments for that. All our ambassadors are doing a great job everywhere. I think even England and Canada can be handled. I think it is very important to liaise and brief other high commissioners in the country you’re serving as well. The Tiger diaspora also does this. They send letters to the missions which voted for the resolution against Sri Lanka at the UNHRC thanking them. That Track 2 diplomacy is also very important.
Q: How do you find the transition from being a Navy man to diplomat?
A: Absolutely fine. In the Navy also we have handled very tricky situations with India, with regard to the fishing and boat issues. When I was young I was very much in it. I negotiated with Israel three times to purchase things – tough people to negotiate with, all to our advantage. I negotiated with Russia. With the USA to purchase the coast guard cutter Samudura. All these were very hard negotiations.
They say the Naval officer is a diplomat from the time he crosses 12 miles offshore – after you leave territorial waters you are a diplomat. You deal with foreign issues. If you see a ship it is a foreign ship. You go out to sea flying the flag. When I was trained in UK in 1976, I was two years behind Prince Charles – I went to the Baltic, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Poland, crossed the Arctic circle; I have seen the world. In 1991 I did the Naval Staff College course in the US and topped the batch. When I was Navy Commander, I was invited to the 19th International Seapower Symposium conducted by the United States Navy at the Naval War College, and I was asked to give the final address because I had topped the batch in that school. That exposure helps.
At the 60th Independence Day celebrations I got down six Navy chiefs and 27 admirals and eight destroyers to come here. For the first time in the history of India and Pakistan, their two Navy chiefs met in Sri Lanka for two days. Somebody invested in me 37 years ago and that is maybe paying dividends today. That is why I say invest in training. Put people through good quality training. Education is experience and the ability to do a job.
A lot of things that are happening for Sri Lanka happen behind the scenes. So much has to do with quiet diplomacy, the things we cannot say. It is said of the Navy that we engage in silent service. When the Army fires a shot, everyone knows. The Navy fires so far out at sea, so nobody hears anything. This is the policy I adopt with regard to my work as a diplomat. Work silently, but there are runs on the board. Transition is good. Nobody says I am militarising the Embassy. I think I am able to go down to the lowest level and get the job done. But of course I want perfection. That is a must.