Published on Thursday, 14 February 2013 10:45
Deputy Opposition Leader of the Australian Parliament Julie Bishop who visited Sri Lanka recently along with parliamentarians Scott Morrison and Michael Keenan at a joint press conference said that as far as the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) later this year is concerned, Bishop said that is satisfied that Australia should attend and also should encourage other Commonwealth countries to attend. The Sri Lankan Government is not perfect but it is making inroads into the challenges facing the country and should be encouraged to continue to do so, she said.
"I wanted to brief the media as soon as possible on our return from Sri Lanka. Last week Scott Morrison, Michael Keenan and I visited Sri Lanka for the purposes of seeing the conditions on the ground, meeting with a wide range of people and determining whether our policy directions on Sri Lanka were heading in the right direction. The visit was organised in three parts. The first part was organised by the TNA, the Tamil National Alliance, the parliamentary party and they were encouraged to take us to places that they wanted us to see, to meet with people they wanted us to meet with. The second part of the visit was organised by the Australian High Commission. We met AusAID officials, we saw a number of AusAID projects and we met with a number of NGOs, UNHCR, IOM and the like. The third part of the visit was organised by the government. On the last day we met with the President, a number of ministers and we concluded with a roundtable that was led by the chief of the defence forces and included the leaders of the navy, customs, police and intelligence", Bishop said.
"As a result of our visit we are satisfied that the policy positions that we have taken are the correct ones at this time. It was not our job to visit Sri Lanka to take sides between the Sinhalese and the Tamils, it was not our job to involve ourselves in domestic policies or domestic politics or indeed some of the controversies but we certainly spoke to many people about these issues.
"We have to remember that Sri Lanka is emerging from a bloody conflict, a thirty year civil war. The Tamil Tigers, the LTTE was in fact a proscribed terrorist organisation in a number of places around the world. The Sri Lankan forces defeated the LTTE forces and we must remember that the LTTE had a navy, an air force and had essentially occupied northern Sri Lanka. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced as a result of the conflict which ended three years ago.
"We in fact saw a number of housing projects under way, the Indian Government is providing housing, the Australian Government through AusAid is providing permanent housing and we also saw housing that was being built by the Sri Lankan military," she further said.
"We visited Jaffna and Kilinochchi in the northern province which was held by the Tamil Tigers for so many years and we were struck by the amount of reconstruction work that is going on. Billions of rupee have been invested in major infrastructure projects, roads, and this is all quite self-evident when you travel up to Jaffna New highways, roadworks everywhere, water sanitation projects, electricity transmission. You have to remember much of the north has never had electricity and now a majority of the north has electricity. There's still some way to go. The mobile phone coverage was superb. Indeed I got better mobile phone coverage throughout the north of Sri Lanka than I do driving through Kings Park in Western Australia.
What was also heartening was the reconstruction work being carried on in schools and we visited a school that AusAID has funded the rebuilding of it and one of the young students told us that at the end of the war, after the schools had been closed, at the end of the war only 36 students returned to that school. Today there are 2000 young students at that school. There are some impressive statistics about teacher/student ratios, the number of students attending schools. Likewise in the health area, new hospitals are being built and hospitals closed during the war have been reestablished.
There are, of course still concerns. The presence of the military in the north, we also visited the eastern province where the naval command is based. In the final years of the war the Sri Lankan military presence increased dramatically and I just want to put this in context, Sri Lanka and Australia have roughly the same size populations. Our defence force is around 50/55,000. The estimates of the size of their defence force is anything between 200, 300,000 soldiers and defence force personnel. They are facing the challenge of decreasing the military presence in the north but not having several hundred thousand young men and women trained for defence force purposes unemployed. So in a number of instances the military have been deployed for civilian purposes and they were involved in building houses. We in fact visited what's called a model village where the military were building permanent housing of the same standard that AusAID were building elsewhere in the northern and eastern provinces.
We saw that the navy has been deployed to build a golf course in the hoped to be tourist area around Trincomalee. And the military who have been sent back down south are involved in the beautification process of Colombo and that is quite evident. The city of Colombo has improved dramatically in terms of the beautification, the heritage building restoration and the like,"Bishop further said.