SHADOW MINISTERIAL STATEMENT – SRI LANKA
Posted on September 15th, 2009

Speech of The Hon Julie Bishop MP Deputy Leader of the Opposition Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs

Ms JULIE BISHOP (Curtin) (4.04 pm) ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢¢”š¬‚ The Coalition supports the announcement today of additional funding for humanitarian aid to Sri Lanka.

We also join with the government in raising concerns about the conditions facing civilians currently held in relief camps in northern Sri Lanka as a result of the violent confrontation earlier this year between the Sri Lankan military and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or Tamil Tigers.

The Coalition supports the ceasefire between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers, the laying down of arms and the renunciation of violence by all sides in the conflict.

The Coalition deplores terrorist attacks on civilians, wherever they may occur, and hopes that a political solution can be found that provides a lasting peace in Sri Lanka.

The Coalition recently had an opportunity to discuss these issues directly with the Sri Lankan opposition leader and former Prime Minister, Mr Ranil Wickremesinghe. I appreciated his willingness to talk openly about past and present circumstances in Sri Lanka.

The people of Sri Lanka, like people all around the world, want to live in peace and aspire to create better lives for their families.

Sadly for Sri Lanka, the nation has experienced bitter internal conflict since the 1970s when rebels started fighting for a separate state for Tamils in Sri LankaƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s north and east.

Armed conflict between the Tamil Tigers and the government has resulted in more than 70,000 deaths, hundreds of thousands displaced and severe restraints on economic development in many parts of the nation.

There was hope, about seven years ago, that a ceasefire would result in an end to the conflict, but violence returned and continued until the military defeat of the LTTE in May this year.

Since that time it has been estimated that more than 250,000 people have been held in refugee camps.

While the number of people held in these camps is a matter of dispute, the United Nations and international aid agencies have expressed concerns about the conditions under which the many thousands of people are being held.

The coalition respects the right of the government of Sri Lanka to bring justice to those suspected of being involved in terrorist activities. It is a fact that the LTTE are a proscribed terrorist group in a number of countries.

While the Sri Lankan government has declared victory over the LTTE, a recent report that police had foiled an alleged plot to conduct a suicide bomb attack in Colombo shows that the security situation remains uncertain.

While the government must act to secure the nation against terrorism, the way in which the Sri Lankan government responds to the peace process will be important. Restraint should ensure that the conflict does not reignite and steps must be taken to minimise the risk that a new generation of Tamil Tigers could be radicalised.

It is also vital that the government of Sri Lanka ensures it meets international standards for human rights in its treatment of the displaced people. This is important because it is vital that the seeds for long lasting peace are sown from the current situation and that it does not sow the seeds for a return to violence.

There can only be a political solution to the tensions in Sri Lanka, with a negotiated solution that accommodates the reasonable concerns of all parties. Sri Lankan expert DBS Jeyaraj has been reported on BBC World News as saying that any long delay in resettling the displaced Tamil people has the potential to further alienate them.

The Norwegian Minister of International Development, Erik Solheim, who has worked with both the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers for over a decadeƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢¢”š¬‚and who helped broker the 2002 ceasefireƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢¢”š¬‚has said that if the Sri Lankan government shows generosity in victory, allows for greater Tamil autonomy and works hard to build an inclusive state for all citizens, there may be a long-term solution to tensions.

In response, the Sri Lankan government has assured the international community that it is working on a political solution and that time is needed to obtain a consensus. The President, in his speech declaring victory over the LTTE, spoke of the need to end ethnic and religious conflict and promised a ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”home-grown solution to this conflictƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢.

It is concerning that the government of Sri Lanka has taken steps to expel Australian aid worker and UNICEF spokesman, James Elder. I urge the Sri Lankan government to review this decision and to work closely with international aid agencies to facilitate the free and open flow of aid and support to the people held in camps.

The United Nations has said in a statement that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon intends to raise with the President of Sri Lanka the issue of Mr ElderƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s expulsion and the detention of two other United Nations workers.

The coalition welcomes recent reports that 2,000 people have just been released from the camps and have been allowed to return to their homes, as part of 10,000 people the government has said will be released over the next few days. While this is a positive development, it is vital that the process of release and resettlement takes place as quickly as possible.

Again, the United NationsƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢¢”š¬‚while noting that the Sri Lankan authorities are stating that people are being screened for possible connections to the Tamil TigersƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢¢”š¬‚has indicated, through its representative Neil Buhne, ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”The best solution is obviously that as many people leave as soon as possibleƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢.

The sooner that people are able to return to their homes and start to rebuild their lives, the sooner that steps can be taken to rebuild trust and respect between all communities in Sri Lanka.

Once described as the jewel of the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka is one of the most beautiful countries on earth. Australia has long enjoyed a warm relationship with Sri Lanka, with two-way trade in 2007 valued at more than $230 million.

Australia is also a generous provider of aid, having provided more than $35 million to them this financial year. We responded generously as a nation to the devastating tsunami on 26 December 2004, which killed more than 35,000 people and destroyed the bulk of Sri LankaƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s fishing fleet.

Like many other countries in our region, Australia is a leading provider of educational services, with more than 8,000 Sri Lankan students currently studying at our tertiary institutions.

According to the most recent census, there are more than 80,000 Sri Lankan people living in Australia and they have made a significant contribution to our economic and cultural development.

Many Australians have developed close personal friendships with the people of Sri LankaƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢¢”š¬‚particularly through educational exchange and business dealingsƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢¢”š¬‚and many of our parliamentary members have taken part in political exchange visits.

I particularly note the efforts of the member for Canning who, as chair for a number of years, and now as deputy chair of the Australia-Sri Lanka Parliamentary Friendship Group, has hosted many Sri Lankan parliamentarians as a way of promoting a stronger relationship between our parliaments.

It is these personal relationships that build greater trust and understanding that will underpin stronger diplomatic, cultural and economic relations into the future.

The Coalition believes that Sri Lanka now has the opportunity to build the structures for enduring peace that will lead to greater economic development throughout their nation and which have the potential to bring great benefits to the Sri Lankan people.

Australia, as a friend of Sri Lanka, will continue to support efforts at building peace and greater prosperity.

ENDS

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