Australia's foreign minister, Senator Bob Carr, spoke to a group of the Sri Lankan diaspora in Australia on Wed. 6 March

George Rupesinghe

Australia's foreign minister, Senator Bob Carr, said that Australia will pursue a policy of engagement with Sri Lanka but it cannot and will not attempt to influence policies of that country's democratically elected government.

He was speaking to a group of the Sri Lankan diaspora in Australia in his Sydney offices on Wednesday 6 March in what was billed as a dialogue arranged by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. The group included representatives from the Australian Federation of Sri Lanka Associations, SPUR (Society for Peace, Unity and Human Rights) NSW, the Australian Tamil Congress, other Tamil organisations and independent participants, some of whom came from Canberra and Melbourne, and relevant officials of the Australian Government.

Senator Carr said he valued the contribution migrants from Sri Lanka have made to Australia over the years. He visited Sri Lanka in December last year with an open mind and was impressed by the country and its people. He hoped they would act together and work together to solve their common challenges. He had discussions with President Mahinda Rajapakse, Opposition leaders including those from the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and took the opportunity to talk to people both in the north and south.

Much remains to be done on reconciliation and other matters and Australia is committed to assisting Sri Lanka with aid, bilateral arrangements and engagement through forums such as the UN and CHOGM. Direct aid is currently marked at $20 million, some of which will go towards de-mining areas affected in the war.

Concerns about governance and human rights, including the recent controversial dismissal of Sri Lanka's chief justice, have been discussed with his Sri Lanka counterpart, Dr G. L. Peiris.

Responding to questions and concerns Senator Carr said that in his studies of politics he observed that people emerging after protracted conflicts yearn for peace and will vote for peace even if that peace is enforced by an authoritarian government.

He did not clarify the reasons why Australia has not banned the LTTE like other countries but emphasised that the collection of funds for terrorist purposes was illegal in Australia.

A representative of the Australian Tamil Congress admitted that people coming from Sri Lanka by boats were mainly economic refugees. The small number of genuine refugees should not be similarly classified. David Walsh, of the NSW offices of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship said there is no group assessment of refugees. Every person's claims are assessed individually.

Senator Carr hoped this would be first of such meetings. He would be happy to continue such discussions in the future and urged the participants to work together to improve the situation in their homeland.

After the foreign minister left the meeting, aid and immigration officials gave facts and figures of relevant Australian Government programs currently aimed at Sri Lanka.

Mark Pierce, from Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, strongly advised that participants pay particular attention to what the minister had said regarding Australia's approach to events in Sri Lanka. The avenues for dialogue and discussion will remain open for concerns to be aired to and explained by the Australian Government.

 

 

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