2014: not such a great year (planes, boats, Sri Lanka)

It felt like it was surely the worst year ever for plane crashes.  In fact, many more civilians used to die in aviation disasters each year for a long time, and the figures were even less dramatic when expressed as passenger deaths per million flights. 2014 was actually the year in which there were the fewest fatal civilian passenger airline crashes even though more than 1000 people perished. But planes do not generally go missing, never to be found.  And nice countries like Russia don’t generally shoot them down either, so it was all certainly newsworthy.

Just weeks ago, an Air Asia flight crashed into the sea in Indonesia with 162 people on board.  We will come to the crashes in Ukraine and Algeria later on. Early on in 2014, a Malaysian Airlines plane carrying 239 people  disappeared without a trace.  What to make of the fact that the pilot’s wife reportedly moved out with their children the day before, and that he did not make any social or professional plans for after the flight? the world’s people wondered in an orgy of circumstantial reasoning which never really went anywhere.

In fact, there was a precedent in 2014 for pilots doing strange things. An unarmed co-pilot locked the pilot out of the cockpit while he was taking a leak and diverted an Ethiopian Airlines flight scheduled from Addis to Rome so as to land in Geneva where he sought political asylum.  I can understand why a man might want to get out of the economic proto-powerhouse Ethiopia is becoming 30 years after the famine (it imports 10 million litres of wine): dissidents are not tolerated. But why not just get out in Rome, and seek asylum there, avoiding the likely 20 years in jail for hijacking?

Perhaps, you might think, because Italy received 80% of the 200,000 asylum seekers who arrived in Europe by sea in 2014, and because it is likely that very few boat people arrive in Switzerland so the Swiss might be less afflicted by compassion fatigue.  But only a small fraction of those arriving in Italy sought asylum there, instead travelling on to places like Germany, which processed 77,000 refugee applications in the first quarter of 2014 alone.  In fact, post-Berlusconi Italy patrols the Mediterranean to save the lives of boat people and convey them ashore, then provides accommodation from which they are free to come and go, encouraged by a mass given by Pope Francis on Lampedusa, Europe’s version of Christmas Island, decrying the ‘globalisation of indifference’ from a makeshift lectern fashioned from the rudders of three asylum seekers’  vessels. So I’m really not sure why the Ethiopian did what he did.

Australia received about 17,000 and 20,000 refugees who arrived by sea in 2012 and 2013, an incursion of such frightening enormity that the Abbott government employed the navy in 2014 to bounce them back to Indonesia, but refused to provide any details to their electors relying on ridiculous military language. Suddenly, not only were these poor bastards criminals (not even alleged criminals), they were foreign fighters who had to be dealt with militarily.  And we couldn’t talk about the war because the enemy was too dangerous (and, presumably, intelligence indicates that none of the people smugglers ever think to use their mobiles to find out what’s going on).

Perhaps most astonishing of all was the 2014 delivery of two navy patrol boats to the Sri Lankan regime of Mahinda Rajapaksa, the better to capture and imprison Tamils fleeing persecution by the lovely Buddhists who won the War, before they could get out of Sri Lankan waters. Rajapaksa (who was unexpectedly voted out of office earlier this year) was in power when up to 40,000 Tamils were killed in the final weeks of the civil war.  Think about that: 40,000 people shelled to death in a few weeks.  I can’t imagine it’s great to die from being shelled.  That is outright slaughter, a moral outrage of the highest order, a freaking genocide.

The Yanks thought Rajapaksa (a lawyer by training) was responsible for what they considered to be a war crime, as we know from the Wikileaks cables.  There is no shortage of evidence of some of the atrocities.  The Sri Lankan government claim the evidence is fake (almost certainly: more preposterous propaganda); less partisan assessors disagree.  The President of  Canada, almost as right wing as Tony Abbott, boycotted the 2013 CHOGM conference at which our Prime Minister promised the military hardware, and David Cameron, UK’s Tory prime minister, pointedly visited Jaffna to hear the Tamils’ tales of woe first hand, and supported calls for an international enquiry.  Abbott, in contrast, uttered the following outrage:

‘Obviously the Australian Government deplores any use of torture. We deplore that. Wherever it might take place, we deplore that. But we accept that sometimes in difficult circumstances, difficult things happen. The important thing is to act as quickly as you can to bind up the nation’s wounds and to build a better future …’

Did you get the feeling after the third assertion of deplorableness that there was a ‘but’ in the offing? What was the man trying to say?  We deplore any use of torture but we accept that difficult things happen.  Wrong way! Go back, nuff nuff.  We do not accept that difficult things happen in difficult circumstances.  We deplore that after all this time, once a dominant ethnicity has won a war against a self-determination unit struggling to secede, we ice the cake with an old school slaughter.  The things described to the BBC by a person who said he was an eye-witness are not ‘difficult things’, they’re attrocities, genocide, war crimes, outrages, events which put a hole in an entire people, and yield ghosts and mental illness which will haunt the perpetrators in a ghastly fashion:

 ‘They shoot people at random, stab people, rape them, cut their tongues out, cut women’s breasts off. I have witnessed all this with my own eyes. I have seen small children laying dead. I saw a lot of small children, who were so innocent, getting killed in large numbers. A large number of elders were also killed. … When they were at the hospital, one day I saw a group of six soldiers raping a young Tamil girl. I saw this with my own eyes.’

Let’s be straight.  The Australian prime minister went to Sri Lanka with other world leaders and while he was there he sucked up to people whom our greatest ally believes to be war criminals and promised to give them attack boats so as to stop the victims from seeking our succour.  Then, in 2014, we handed them over, and the company that made the ships in the first place used the gift in its corporate marketing (‘a lovely day was had by all at the jolly handover ceremony’).

The High Court had to enjoin the then Minister for Making Refugees Disappear from refouling a boat load of Tamils whom he had secretly captured and imprisoned without the slightest judicial authority, 27 km off Australian shores.  According to the Tamil Refugee Council, at least 11 of the poor bastards seeking our succour had been tortured.  They were dumped in Nauru instead after a great international palaver.  Scott Morrison had in 2014 done it before.  He secretly handed over to Sri Lankan intelligence officers desperate folk he had captured at sea, condemning them to imprisonment, because it is a crime in Sri Lanka to leave otherwise than from a designated port. He had a 4 question interview by video link with the floating prison without any opportunity for legal assistance, before deciding that they were not refugees.  Prominent Australian law professors — Hilary Charlesworth, Fleur Johns, Penny Matthews, Sarah Joseph, Julie Debeljak may be known to Melburnians — publicly expressed their aghastness.

In 2014, the UN Human Rights Council ordered an international investigation into the allegations of genocide by the Rajapaksa regime.

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