Image: People with Sinhalese ancestry as a percentage of the population in Sydney, divided geographically by postal area, as of the 2011 census. CC BY-SA 3.0 au - Photo: 2020

Australia Burns Furiously but Still Remains an Attractive Destination to Sri Lankans

By Dr Palitha Kohona

The writer is former Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations, and former Foreign Secretary.

COLOMBO (IDN) – Summer temperatures continue to establish new records. The capital clocks up an unprecedented 44 degrees Celsius, a more familiar figure in Middle Eastern cities. Bush fires have continued to burn for months, destroying hundreds of thousands of acres of forest and farmland (an area bigger than Scotland has been consumed by the fires so far) and thousands of houses.

Farm animals by the thousands have perished in the intense heat and insurance claims are expected to exceed one billion Dollars. Millions of native animals have also been wiped out.

Thick smoke caused by the fires blankets major cities, turning day into night in this normally sun swept land of clear skies, raising fears of possible long-term health implications. On some days, the air quality in the capital Canberra was considered to be the worst in any capital city in the world. Adding insult to injury, a cricket match is cancelled due to the smoke.

A chorus of messages of sympathy pour in from world leaders. Sri Lanka joins the line on January 7. Faced with this unprecedented catastrophe, the country rallies and methodically sets about the task of containing the fires, rebuilding and restoring. As the lucky country reels under the impact of the fires, it remains the land of dreams for many Sri Lankans.

Dr. Palitha KohonaThere have been suggestions in the past that the closest relatives of the Australian Aborigines are the Sri Lankan Veddas. Despite physical resemblances, this theory is not supported by scientific studies. The similarities between some Aboriginal place names and Sinhala words may be purely coincidental.

Sri Lankan migration to Australia has a long history. In 1816, Drum Major William O’Dean, a Ceylonese Malay and his wife Eve, a Sinhalese, and their three children were sent to the Australian penal colony by the British. O’Dean was a Non-Commissioned Officer of the 1st Ceylon Regiment. He defected to the Kingdom of Kandy in 1803, following the abortive British invasion of the Kingdom. He even married a local girl. When the British took over Kandy in 1815, O’Dean was arrested for treason, court martialled and sentenced to be shot. Governor Brownrigg later commuted his sentence to transportation to the penal colony of Australia. After coming to Australia, he was employed as a Malay Language interpreter by the colonial Government. Clearly, ethnic origin was not a barrier to government employment in those early days of the colony.

The first Sinhalese began to arrive in significant numbers in the 1870s to work in sugarcane plantations in Queensland. There is a report in a local newspaper of a confrontation between a group of white red necks and a team of Sinhalese sugar cane workers. The drunken red necks had objected to the presence of the coloured workers in their neighbourhood. However, the troublemakers had fled when the workers had charged them with their machetes drawn.

Other early references to Ceylonese migration date back to the 1870s when the authorities in South Australia considered importing labour from Ceylon. A community was believed to exist on Thursday Island as early as 1876. A family in Thursday Island reputedly originated from an individual with powerful connections in Colombo who had been convicted of murder but was allowed to leave for Australia quietly by the Governor. 

In 1882, a group of 500 left Colombo for Mackay in Queensland.

Subsequently, Sri Lankan migration to Australia dwindled until the independence of Sri Lanka.

Early immigrants from Ceylon, many of whom entered the country surreptitiously, were generally absorbed into the Aboriginal population. There is an anecdote often repeated among Sri Lankan Australians of an eminent Sri Lankan anthropologist working in Western Australia and studying an Aboriginal community, approaching an evasive looking chap and being told in Sinhala “Anney mang amaaruwe daanne nethuwa yanda”. (Please go away without getting me in to trouble). The individual concerned was a Sinhala youth (a seaman) who had been absorbed into an aboriginal community after having jumped ship in Perth.

I befriended a smart young bureaucrat in a glamorous government department in the 80s who was considered to be of Aboriginal descent. It was even whispered that he was a token Aborigine in a department long considered to be a preserve of blue eyed, blond haired and tanned Australians. I had my private reservations, somehow.

Later my friend did his own research and, to his surprise, discovered that he was the result of a liaison between a Ceylonese medical student in Melbourne on a Colombo Plan scholarship and a middle-class Australian girl. Given the rigid racist social attitudes of the time, the relationship could not continue. The medical student returned to Ceylon and the girl was packed off to the country by her family to deliver the baby. A boy was born and was registered as an Aboriginal child. But he was very lucky. Adopted by an enlightened white family, he was educated at a top private school and received his degree from the premier university in Melbourne. He was later recruited to the Public Service as a trainee. The story had an even happier ending. The Ceylonese medical student, by now a well-established doctor, returned to Australia, more enlightened in its policies and social attitudes, and resumed the relationship with the Australian girl. They got married and moved to the United States.

Australia adopted the White Australia policy in 1901 mainly to exclude Asians, primarily Chinese and Pacific Islanders, from the country. Many thousands of those already in the country were deported causing great hardship. In 1949, most Asian war refugees were also returned to their countries of origin.

Confronted by economic necessity and labour shortages, the White Australia Policy was relaxed gradually after the Second World War, under Prime Minister Menzies. First, non-British Europeans and those with a high percentage of European blood were permitted to settle in Australia.

Many Ceylonese Burghers, unsettled by the massive changes occurring in post-independence Ceylon, made use of the relaxed rules to migrate to Australia. However, the sun kissed land was not always kind to the Burghers some of whom were noticeably dusky. A classmate of mine who migrated to Australia under the relaxed White Australia policy, returned to his native land a few years later spitting chips, as the Australians would say, about the way he was treated. In 1950, Asian students were taken into Australian universities under the Colombo Plan.

Sri Lankan migrants, in general, appear to have been assimilated to Australian society quite easily. There is no obvious Sri Lankan ghetto like communities in Australian cities. Many of Sri Lanka origin and their progeny have done well in their adopted country, in the medical and legal professions, in the public service and in business. Sri Lanka can boast of one of its sons becoming a Governor of a State, a few breaking the glass ceiling of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and other federal and state departments and one later heading a senior position at the UN in New York, some impressively succeeding in business and one even becoming the CEO of a leading bank, and many academics, one of whom became the Deputy President of the International Court of Justice. And at least one who has been honoured with the prestigious Order of Australia award.

Despite the mutual high-level interest in cricket, no one of Sri Lankan origin has made it to the top ranks of the sport in Australia, although some Sri Lankan players have been recruited to play in the shorter version of the game at club level. Sri Lanka defeated Australia in the World Cup finals in 1996. The victorious Sri Lankan team was coached by an Australian of Sri Lankan origin from Melbourne. Feelings among the sports fans of Sri Lanka soured when Muttiah Muralidaran, Sri Lanka’s star bowler, was repeatedly no balled by Australian umpire Darrell Hair for chucking in 1995.

Even Prime Minister John Howard waded into the controversy labelling Muralidaran a chucker. However, Muralidaran’s bowling action was cleared by a team of biomechanical specialists from the University of Western Australia. In an ironic twist, Muralidaran was engaged as spin bowling coach by the Australian cricket team in 2014.

More sporting interchanges between the two countries would further improve bilateral relations between the two countries and could pave the way for young men and women of Sri Lankan origin to find their way into the top levels of sports in Australia and even improve sporting standards in Sri Lanka itself.

Politically, Australia and Sri Lanka have developed a strong relationship. During the latter stages of Sri Lanka’s internal conflict, Australia was very forthright in condemning the terrorist campaign of the LTTE. Subsequently, despite heavy pressure exerted by the LTTE lobby on Australia, pro Sri Lanka groups, mainly expatriates, who were also well organised played a vital role in countering the LTTE influence and propaganda efforts.

The Government of Australia responded firmly to attempts, mainly by Sri Lankan Tamils, to reach Australia by boat as refugees. This was also being used as a propaganda ruse by the militarily defeated LTTE.  

Ethnic unrest in 1983 caused an increase in the flow of refugees from Sri Lanka to Australia, mainly Tamils but others also. Some studies suggest that among these refugees around 20% are people of Sinhalese ethnicity pretending to be Tamils to obtain easy asylum in Australia. The refugees attempting to reach Australia by boat (by passing many other possible asylum countries), were detained in Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and in Nauru. But those facilities have now been closed. Australia, however, has firmly declared that those seeking to enter the country illegally will not succeed. Australian authorities and the Sri Lankan navy work closely to prevent boats taking off to Australia from Sri Lankan waters with illegal migrants.

Vast opportunities exist for Sri Lanka and Australia to cooperate, especially in the economic area. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership negotiations, or “RCEP”, which includes the 10 Southeast Asian nations of ASEAN, as well as China, Japan, Korea, India and Australia have been concluded.

Accessing this arrangement will open up trade and investment opportunities in a regional grouping of 3.5 billion people with a GDP exceeding 49.5 trillion Dollars. This huge and lucrative market provides an obvious incentive to Sri Lanka’s ambitions to develop stronger relations with the East.

Australia is a major source of tourists to Sri Lanka and is being heavily marketed by tour operators. Thousands of Sri Lankan students have chosen to study in Australia. At the moment 4500 Sri Lankans are attached to Australian educational institutions. (Australia earns 17 billion Dollars annually by providing educational facilities to foreign students.) It is also a country from which Sri Lanka receives significant funds repatriated by Sri Lankan Australians.

Regular bilateral visits have strengthened the relationship. In 2011 President Mahinda Rajapaksa participated in the CHOGM summit in Perth. In 2017 Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and President Maithripala Sirisena undertook state visits to Australia.

Australian Prime Ministers Sir Robert Menzies, Gough Whitlam and Tony Abbott have visited Sri Lanka. In November 2017 PM Malcolm Turnbull visited to Sri Lanka. Prime Minister Tony Abbott participated in the CHOGM in Colombo and, earlier, was vocal in opposing Canadian and UK efforts to shift the CHOGM to another country. Sri Lanka, in turn, was also actively supportive, especially among the members of the NAM, of Australia’s successful bid to be elected to the UN Security Council for the period 2013 -2014. [IDN-InDepthNews – 15 January 2020]

Image: People with Sinhalese ancestry as a percentage of the population in Sydney, divided geographically by postal area, as of the 2011 census. CC BY-SA 3.0 au

Photo in text: The writer Dr. Palitha Kohona.

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

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