A footnote on Australia’s role in Sri Lanka’s war

In September 2007 I wrote about an unreported naval battle halfway between Sir Lanka and the Cocos Islands, which seemed a little mysterious. The Sri Lankan navy only had five offshore patrol boats. How did they know to amass sufficient force to intercept a four-ship Sea Tiger convoy 1100 kilometers from home? Their accurate intelligence suggested a US and possibly an Australian role. In any case, 18 months later the Tigers were finished as a fighting force.

It’s a troubling historical context to Australia’s decision to give two Bay-class patrol boats to Sri Lanka to help in stopping Tamil asylum seekers, some of whom have been reported to show signs of torture, from reaching Christmas Island. Australia’s possible role in the defeat of the Tamil Tigers, by helping to cut off their arms supplies, would have helped to produce the wave of asylum seekers which Australia is now trying to deter.

It was kind of stretching it to include it as an item in the rather lightweight Prince gossip column.

The Australian Financial Review 

Saturday 22nd of September 2007

 This Tiger tale must have some tip-off

Back in May, the Prince reported the appointment of a former Australian diplomat, Palitha Kohona, as foreign secretary for Sri Lanka. Back then Our Palitha was asking Alexander Downer, along with the rest of the international community, for help to cut off funding for the Tamil Tiger insurgency.

It seems someone heard Kohona, because on September 10 the man who runs the Tamils’ $US300 million ($350 million) arms-buying budget, Kumaran Padmanadan, was arrested in Bangkok.[Thai police subsequently denied this report]

The operation was described as “an international effort to crack down on the global terrorism network”. But more dramatic action was unfolding that same day, 1100 kilometres south-east of Sri Lanka, where four Sri Lankan warships engaged four freighters carrying hundreds of tonnes of weapons and ammunition for the Tigers.

Three of the freighters were sunk and 45 Tamils killed in the 24-hour gun battle, ending early on September 11. At one point the Tamils reportedly fired 120-millimetre mortars at the Sri Lankan ships.

While the Sri Lankans are clearly chuffed at their success, there’s speculation about how their warships managed to find the Tamil freighters out there, halfway to Australia’s Cocos Islands. There’s talk of US Navy help. Then again, it’s a section of the Indian Ocean near the main oil tanker route that is nominally Australia’s responsibility to oversee. P-3 Orion aircraft patrol up to Sri Lanka.

So did the Australian government know that the Tamil ships were there? And, if they did, did Downer tip off Kohona?

More worrying is what if they didn’t know? The navy has enough trouble keeping tabs on refugee boats like SIEV-X. Did it miss the biggest naval engagement on our doorstep since World War II?

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