The Smugglers’ Prey

Words by Eric Ellis · Images by Paula Bronstein

Gnanaseelan stands near his five-year-old son Rajani, who lost his lower arm and his mother, when she was killed while breastfeeding and shielding him during a 2009 attack in Sri Lanka’s northeast. Rajani sits on the lap of his grandmother, Indra Devi, and next to his cousin.

WHAT does a Sri Lankan would-be asylum seeker look like? Many look like this man. His name is Gnanaseelan. He’s 32. He’s a Tamil, though never a Tiger. A father. A widower.

He lives in this desperate shanty outside the seaside hamlet of Mullaitivu, on Sri Lanka’s war-ravaged north-east coast, with nine relatives, six of them motherless children.

Gnanaseelan and his family were caught in the crossfire of the last murderous days of Sri Lanka’s civil war between the Tamil Tigers and the mostly Sinhalese government forces in Colombo, which ended in May 2009 on a blood-soaked spit of sand about three kilometres from here.

He was maimed when his leg was struck by a random shell. Four years on, Gnanaseelan is an itinerant, unskilled labourer, taking a day’s work whenever he can find one, which isn’t that often. His limp and his ethnicity are hard to disguise and the Sinhalese contractors building new roads around here, on deals from government friends in distant Colombo, prefer their labour to be able-bodied and of their own kind.

On the rare occasions that Gnanaseelan does snare some work, he’s paid some 1,000 rupees a day (around $A8.35), and a rice-and-curry meal if the employer is feeling generous.

Gnanaseelan – and thousands of Tamils like him – is an innocent victim of Sri Lanka’s lethal ethnic politics. Tamils have endured decades of misrule under the Tigers, a calamitous civil war, the devastating 2004 tsunami, the horrendous bombardment of 2008-09 and now post-war persecution by a menacing Sinhalese military. It’s hardly surprising that Tamils here have a fatalistic saying: “The dead are lucky.”

Unsurprising too, that the promise of safer harbours abroad beckons these people. Of course now, if Gnanaseelan somehow managed to gather the minimum $5,000 it costs to be smuggled on a rickety Australia-bound boat, his prospect would be for a life in Papua New Guinea, if he didn’t drown en route.

Indra Devi with Rajani on her knee, and his cousin standing close, sees the plight of the Tamils as ‘fate’.

Asylum seekers once looked like John Nguyen, the Australian Liberal Party’s election candidate for the middle-class Melbourne seat of Chisholm. In 1979, he and his grandparents fled persecution in Vietnam – by boat, in the wake of war. Nguyen’s boat landed him in Malaysia, before he was accepted by Australia.

Today, a generation and another Asian war on, Nguyen is hailed in Australia as a refugee success story, and has been re-born as an Australian politician – who’s now campaigning on his party’s hard-line ticket to “stop the boats” of refugees coming from places such as northern Sri Lanka.

Asylum seekers today might look like Rajani. That’s him sitting on the knee of Indra Devi, his aaya, or maternal grandmother. Rajani is five, about the same age Nguyen was when he fled Vietnam, and clings tightly to his aaya, perhaps much as John Nguyen clung to his own grandma on that terrifying boat journey in 1979.

Rajani’s lower left arm was blown off when he was just one, not even walking age, severed in the same shell attack that injured his father, the same shelling that killed his mother Asintha, who he doesn’t remember. Asintha’s husband and mother remember her – she was 26 years old when she was killed and “a beautiful woman” says her widower, Gnanaseelan.

Asintha’s mother, Indra Devi, recalls how, in early 2009, the family had retreated to a bunker on that now notorious killing field called Mullivaikal, after the Sri Lankan military swept through their village. Asintha was breastfeeding Rajani when a mortar struck the shelter, blasting her from behind. She died instantly, her body ripped apart, and Rajani was maimed.

The family’s nightmare continued for months as they became one of thousands of Tamil families caught between the last stronghold of the Tigers’ ruthless leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and the surging government forces desperate to kill him.

Indra Devi says that more than 2,000 Tamil civilians had gathered in the immediate area around their bunker. Gnanaseelan estimates there were about 150,000 people massed on the narrow sand spit.

Asintha was one of eight people killed by that single shell, and Indra Devi says it was impossible to tell which side fired the mortar because “both were fighting”. When the shelling stopped, Gnanaseelan, Indra Devi and little armless Rajani were allowed leave. They subsequently spent months being screened and ‘de-Tigerised’ in massive government camps before being allowed back to their devastated village, where this modest shack was built with foreign aid. Four years on, Indra Devi regards her family’s desperate plight as “fate”.

On the rare occasions Gnanaseelan does leave his family, he passes by the home of his neighbour, another Sri Lankan Tamil who could also be an asylum seeker.

RAVI CHANDRAN, with his wife outside his house, nervous that that Sri Lankan army intelligence, operating in a nearby camp, will find out he’s been talking to foreigners and intimidate him, or worse.

HIS NAME IS RAVI CHANDRAN, and what you can’t see from this photograph are the two prosthetic limbs that replaced his legs, which were blown off at Mullivaikal.

A Christian charity provided 35-year-old Ravi with his prostheses, and built Ravi the rudimentary house he and his family moved into last year, but couldn’t provide water, sanitation or power – responsibilities that the Rajapaksa government, now advancing new casinos and a Formula One racetrack in the victorious Sinhalese south, hasn’t yet fulfilled here.

No Tiger either, legless Ravi is even less employable than Gnanaseelan. He makes a few rupees selling eggs from the chickens clucking about his plot. Ravi doesn’t want us to hang around. He’s scared because he says Sri Lankan army intelligence has a camp near here, and will find out he’s been talking to suddos, as foreigners are known in Sinhala slang, and intimidate him, or worse, simply because they can around here. He didn’t ask us to visit him, and he’s genuinely worried that we’re here. He allows us to quickly photograph him if it will help get him that coveted freshwater well.

About a kilometre from here, by the main road that connects Mullaitivu to Colombo, 340 kilometres away, an Australian government billboard has toppled over. It’s one of the 41 signs that Australian taxpayers have paid to erect up this way; its purpose, to discourage Tamils like Gnanaseelan and Ravi from coming to Australia.

The number of Sri Lankans getting on illegal boats has jumped about 25-fold since the war ended. But with an Australian election looming, a poll which will inevitably be fought on the asylum-seeker issue, Canberra has taken a tougher stance. Starting in July 2013, a new “no visa” campaign has spread across Sri Lankan print, radio and television, to discourage asylum-seeker departures, and to break the smugglers.

The Australian government has splurged on billboards such as this one in Jaffna, warning Sri Lankans against seeking asylum by boat, but the steady procession of boats leaving from beaches here suggests it’s money poorly spent.

But the steady procession of boats (Table 13) leaving from beaches here suggests it’s money poorly spent.

In a land of desperate people, people smuggling is a lucrative trade, and there’s no certainty that Rudd’s PNG solution will much change things. As Dr Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu of the Colombo-based think tank, the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), says, “It’s not really about where people are going, it’s what they are wanting to leave.”

“You are talking about people, call them political refugees, call them economic refugees, the bottom line is they have no faith in what the hell is going on where they are, and they obviously feel the grass is greener on the other side,” he says.

“It’s an indictment on the government policy that economic development is [touted as] the panacea for reconciliation and [it’s claimed] that everything is more or less hunky dory in the north, and in particular that’s not the case.”

The Global Mail asked Renuka Marshall of TBWA-TAL, the Colombo advertising agency that designed the anti-smuggler billboards for Australia’s Customs and Border Protection Service (ACBPS), about their effectiveness. She had been warned off speaking to media by Canberra, and said she had to refer our questions to the ACBPS, which responded in Canberra-speak: “The Australian Government is committed to providing people in Sri Lanka with up to date information on Australian Government policy in this area.”

We saw five of Marshall’s signs on our travels through the Tamil region and, at the very least, the billboards that remain erect provide shady relief from the scorching tropical sun for local cops soliciting pagawa (bribes).

PERHAPS CANBERRA’S CASH would be better spent “providing up to date information” to military brass at Trincomallee, where the Sri Lankan Navy has a big base and training academy, and at military headquarters in Colombo, which is ruled by one of President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s brothers, Gotabaya.

Gota, as he’s known, is the regime’s much-feared enforcer. He has further image problems up here, not least the widespread perception that the military is rotten, and possibly that his relatives are as well. This stretch of coastline has long been rife with rumours of official involvement in people smuggling, or of the navy sailing the other way as another refugee boat hits the high seas.

While we were in the north-east, we heard myriad stories of precarious passages to Indonesia and beyond, of 200 people cramming into a fishing boat built for 20, of berths costing as much as $US10,000 per passenger – money paid to shady agents with government and military connections.

The government here is very much aware of what the pressing election issues are
in Australia.

On August 17, Sri Lankan media reported that four Sri Lankan navy signalmen had been arrested on suspicion of organising a boat voyage for a group of 111 asylum seekers, 46 men, 20 women and 45 children. Some 108 of those caught on board a fishing vessel said to be headed for Australia were Tamils from civil-war-affected areas. This follows repeated emphatic denials by the Sri Lankan Navy of the complicity of its personnel, if not its officers, in people smuggling; its defence in the face of such accusation previously has been ‘lack of proof’.

The CPA’s Dr Saravanamuttu says the waters of the north-east are now so tightly controlled, it’s almost inconceivable that an unofficial vessel could leave Sri Lanka without being detected. “You cannot get out of territorial waters without the navy letting you out,” he says. “It just can’t be done.”

Indeed, there are suspicions that the boat convoys are operated like a spigot, to be turned on and off by officials in Colombo at their political whim — the valve is opened whenever tiny Sri Lanka wants to punch above its international weight, and send a back-off message to Australia should it dare criticise Colombo.

Which might explain why successive Australian administrations – unlike their Western counterparts in Washington, the United Nations, Ottawa and across Europe – have been reluctant to point fingers at the Rajapaksas’ handling of the war and their half-hearted reconciliation with the country’s Tamil community.

In Canada, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has, by way of protest, ruled out attending the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) to be held in Colombo in November, while Britain’s deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg told the House of Commons there will be "consequences" for Sri Lanka if "despicable human rights violations" are not addressed by the Rajapaksa regime.

But, as a Tamil leader in Trincomallee put it, “Our people aren’t getting on a boat for Canada or the UK, they are heading for Australia, and the government here knows there’s soon going to be an election there.”

“Australia has behaved in a peculiar fashion,” says Saravanamuttu. “The government here is very much aware of what the pressing election issues are in Australia.”

A smooth CHOGM is essential to the Rajapaksas, he adds, because then, “They can show they are not international pariahs and that the international community endorses them.”

Australia seems anxious to help. One diplomatic insider in Colombo told The Global Mail how Australia’s Foreign Minister Bob Carr, during his visit to Sri Lanka last December, was “told in no uncertain terms what havoc the Rajapaksas could wreak on Australia if they wanted to”.

Saravanamuttu has been picking up the same message. “When Carr came here, I think he was told directly or indirectly that the numbers could increase,” he says.

Since Carr’s visit, a succession of Australian officials, such as shadow foreign minister Julie Bishop, shadow immigration minister Scott Morrison and shadow minister for border protection Michael Keenan, have made sanitised tours of Sri Lanka, and have come away in unanimous agreement. “Since the end of the war things have been vastly improving,” Keenan told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in April.

“The government’s plan post-war is to make sure the Tamils become a negligible minority.”

Which is not how resident Tamils, such as Jaffna lawyer and civil-society activist Kumaravadivel Guruparan of the Forum for Social Empowerment, see it.

“Structural genocide,” says Guruparan, is the Sinhalese-led government’s “very well-calculated generational plan … to de-Tamilise the community”. He believes, “The government’s plan post-war is to make sure the Tamils become a negligible minority, so that the things that identify Tamils as a collective are eliminated.”

Guruparan says Tamils are constantly intimidated and harassed by authorities. He cites military land grabs and says that in the four years since the war ended the general social conditions of Tamils have become “definitely worse than [in] the 1970s” – the tumultuous period that gave rise to the Tigers and to Tamil militancy.

“None of this was present in the 1970s,” says 28-year-old Guruparan, an Oxford-educated lawyer. “There was never an army presence like this. My parents say they weren’t exposed to the army as much as I have been.”

A TAMIL POLITICIAN HANDS us this map of the Jaffna peninsula, Sri Lanka’s Tamil heartland.


Pat Armstrong / The Global Mail

“This is the reason why Tamils are getting on boats,” he says. “They [the military] are stealing their property.”

The map, which we have reproduced to protect the source, purports to illustrate how much land has been taken over for ‘security reasons’ by the mostly Sinhalese military – it amounts to around 20 per cent of the region. Tamil activists say more than 100,000 Tamils have been displaced since the war ended, adding to the estimated 150,000 already displaced by fighting during the 26-year conflict and who still live in refugee shanties around Jaffna. It also shows the military bases that have sprung up in the area – at least 60 of them.

“There is one army soldier for every 11 people here,” says Guruparan. That’s one of the highest soldier-to-civilian ratios in the world, notes the CPA analyst Dr Saravanamuttu.

We send the map to Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s Defence Secretary and mastermind of the military victory over the Tigers, for comment, but he does not respond. The military presence in the north is sensitive, and it seems the locals are not completely subdued. in July 2013, Colombo announced it was shutting 13 army camps around Jaffna and returning the land to its original owners who, it insisted, had been paid rent while the sites were occupied. The army claimed the move had nothing to do with provincial elections scheduled for September – the first in 25 years – that are expected to be swept by the opposition Tamil National Alliance.

North of Jaffna, around the town of Kankesanturai, lies the military’s biggest ‘high-security zone’ (HSZ); it stretches along 30 kilometres of coast and six kilometres inland. This is the part of the island’s far north that is closest to India, the regional superpower. Tamil sources told The Global Mail that the Rajapaksas are secretly building a lavish “official residence” here, close to Palaly, Jaffna’s airport. They say the President will fly Commonwealth leaders here for a retreat during the November CHOGM, to show off, “the crowning glory of the Sinhalese victory in the war”.

The Global Mail bluffs its way into the heavily armed HSZ. Restricted in where we can go, we don’t see any lavish presidential piles under construction, but we do visit a military-owned beach resort that shows Sri Lanka’s soldiers are also keen for their share of the post-war economic spoils. Little wonder, perhaps, that under Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the Ministry of Defence is now combined with the country’s Urban Development Authority – soldiers as property developers?

Saravanamuttu says his research indicates that 16 of the Sri Lankan army’s 19 brigades are now stationed in the north-east. That means there are more than 100,000 troops in the mostly Tamil Jaffna Peninsula and adjacent Vanni region, with its combined civilian population of around 1.3 million (of the nation’s total of nearly 21 million people).

The government’s plan, says the Jaffna academic Guruparan, is more “Chinese in Tibet” than the Israeli efforts to re-settle the mostly Occupied Territories. It started with a massive ‘land grab’ by the predominantly Sinhalese military. On the coast north of Jaffna, Guruparan says that, under the banner of ‘national security’, the military has seized 6,000 acres of property since the war. And the military is settling soldiers and their families here, in order for them “to become a more normalised part of the population over generations”.

He tells how Sri Lankan soldiers are being ordered to marry female former members of the separatist Tamil Tigers.

He tells how Sri Lankan soldiers are being ordered to marry female former members of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the Tamil Tigers. He describes the case of one woman he has legally represented, a former civilian administrator in the Tigers’ civil service when this area – which covers about 15 per cent of the island’s landmass – was their de facto state, Eelam.

The woman’s husband was a ranking commander in the Tiger navy, the Sea Tigers, and died in battle in 2008. Since the war ended, a year later, she has been constantly harassed by army agents, Guruparan says: “She was told that for her to lead a secure life, she would have to re-marry an army soldier.

“These are the kind of subtle ways in which Sinhala Buddhists, these extremists, this hegemony, is taking place – what I call the normalisation of abnormalcy,” he says. “This is what the government means by ‘time and space’ and ‘reconciliation’.” He says such examples are now being used in school seminars in former LTTE-controlled areas to illustrate what ‘reconciliation’ means.

Talk of such matters does not go over well among the Rajapaksas in Colombo. As an articulate advocate in middle-class Tamil civil-society circles, Guruparan says he has also been harassed, and that his vice-chancellor at the state-funded University of Jaffna was warned by military intelligence about his activism.

Guruparan says the government is suspicious of anyone who had any sort of contact with the Tigers, and in the north-east, that includes just about everybody. The Tigers were, for decades, the administrators here. They forcibly conscripted soldiers from among the families of the region, often under the threat of death. “There is no family who doesn’t know someone, who was a friend or a relative [who was a Tiger]. This was a movement that touched everybody in some way,” Guruparan says. That history gives Colombo carte blanche to harass and intimidate anyone on “national security grounds”, part of what activist Tamils see as their de-culturalisation by Sinhalese authorities.

“The Tamil people are being told that no-one is going to help you, the international community is not going to come in, this government is not going to change, so you have to learn to live with the army.” Guruparan says.

Guruparan is concerned that, “people will learn ways to cope with living with the army, that this will become normal, as it is clear the army has no intention of going away”.

The streets of Jaffna, traditional Tamil territory in Sri Lanka’s north-east, where now there is reportedly one army soldier for every 11 people.

THE TIGER’S FORMER PROPAGANDA ‘MINISTER’ (or one-time official spokesman), Daya Master, meets with me in Jaffna. In April 2009, a month before the war ended, Daya Master walked out of the jungle to surrender to government forces in what was one of the conflict’s most spectacular defections. A month later he was back in battle, this time helicoptered into the kill zone by the government to identify the corpse of Velupillai Prabhakaran, the feared Tiger leader. Daya Master was one of the few surviving Tigers close to Prabhakaran who could have made the identification.

“There was no purpose in fighting,” he says. “The LTTE was weakened, no arms, no shells, no manpower. It was finished.”

Today, Daya Master has been rehabilitated as a candidate for Sri Lanka’s ruling party in upcoming northern provincial elections. “I think I have a chance,” he says. “I want to help the people, the only way to help them is in the government. The people supported the LTTE for their political rights. Then the war finished. What is the alternative? The government is the only alternative.”

Daya Master joined the Tigers in the 1980s (Master is an honorific which has stuck from his original qualification as an English teacher) and became the go-to guy for foreign officials and press visiting Eelam. Now he claims he was “just” an employee, and only became a formal member of the Tigers in 2005. I had met him previously, in the Tigers’ capital Kilinochchi, in 2003, when the Tigers and the government were in uneasy peace talks after an oft-broken Norwegian-brokered ceasefire.

Today, he’s a free man working as the ‘news director’ of a government-friendly TV channel broadcasting to Tamil communities, a propaganda position near identical to the one he performed for the Tigers for decades. “Yes, same job, different organisation, different way,” he says.

Daya Master leafs through a gallery of photographs I took in Eelam in 2003. There are shots of the Tigers’ myriad ‘martyrs’ cemeteries where fallen soldiers were buried, and the house where Tiger leader Prabhakaran was born, which had become a shrine. After the war, the government bulldozed them all.

“All these destroyed,” he says. “Gone … all gone.”

Daya Master

He instantly recognises the old Tiger headquarters in Kilinochchi, which is just south of Jaffna. “This is my bunker!” he exclaims. There’s a photo of his assistant, a young man wearing the cyanide-filled suicide capsule necklace all Tigers were required to wear. “My boys!” he says “Gone, gone.”

“The LTTE fought for the Tamil people’s rights, that is no doubt, but time to time their strategy should have changed.”

“It was futile, no? It was a mistake,” he says, albeit one that took him 30 years of profound involvement and a frightening month of bombardment to realise. “We lost many lives. What was the outcome of that? Nothing … for 30 years …100,000 people we lost, no achievement, nothing. There were so many dead bodies lying on the ground – innocent people, not all Tigers.” He confirms that at the war’s end some 300,000 to 400,000 people were caught in the crossfire with no proper water, food or protection.

And what of ‘Prabha’, the Tiger supremo? Was he the mad tyrant, portrayed by government propaganda? Even today, Daya Master seems reluctant to condemn his former leader. “If only he changed his way from time to time …”

I ask who killed Rajiv Gandhi, the much-loved Indian Prime Minister assassinated in 1991 by a Tiger suicide bomber in retaliation for India’s entry into the civil war. I’d asked him the same question in 2003, when he steadfastly denied any Tiger involvement.

Ten years on, with the Tigers vanquished and Daya Master angling for political office among the forces that defeated his once-beloved LTTE, he still struggles to answer, pausing before positing, “The Tigers?”

I tell him that the reason I’m asking is to see whether his spin has changed. He cackles with laughter, “That’s the difference!”

And what happened to the Tigers’ international business empire – which included mobile-phone companies and petrol stations, all estimated to be worth $3-4 billion and generating $200-300 million a year for the organisation’s war machine? The Tigers even had a central bank – the Bank of Tamil Eelam – which in 2005 boasted foreign reserves of $500 million. Rumours have swirled in Sri Lanka that government officials privately purloined the assets in the end-of-war chaos, or that the money has been used to form the basis of a new fighting fund for a re-emergent Tiger army among the Tamil diaspora. Some have pointed an accusing finger at the slippery Daya Master.

“The money-handling people at the time, they vanished with the money,” he says.

I ask him why his fellow Tamils are getting on boats. “Our political leaders,” he says, “so far they have not given the hope of prevailing peace here … Our politicians so far have not shown a good way to them. They are losing this opportunity to peace.”