Australian Tamil rights advocate decries deportation from Singapore | Connect Asia

Australian Tamil rights advocate decries deportation from Singapore

Australian Tamil rights advocate decries deportation from Singapore

Updated 18 December 2012, 15:12 AEDT

An 81-year-old Australian doctor says he was locked in a small cell without food, water or toilet access for more than five hours, before being deported back to Australia from Singapore on Saturday.

Dr Brian Senewiratne is a Sri Lankan-born Australian who has been a long-time critic of the Sri Lankan Government over its treatment of Tamils.

He was on his way to Malaysia and Indonesia to speak at forums on the Tamil refugee issue, when his deportation took place.

Presenter: Liam Cochrane

Speaker: Dr Brian Senewiratne, Tamil rights advocate

SENEWIRATNE: There's one thing I might add to your introduction which I heard. I am actually a Singhalese from the Majority community. I am not a member of the Tamil community and my cousin was the previous president of Sri Lanka. So I've got nothing to gain personally from getting involved in all this except the good name of Australia, because its handling of the asylum seeker problem is a violation of the UN Refugee Convention, the UN Rights of the Child and Human Rights Convention.
SENEWIRATNE: So I thought I would just add that to your introduction.
COCHRANE: That is helpful to give us the context of where you're coming from and how you fit into the political and ethnic background of this obviously highly charged issue. So tell us from what... 
SENEWIRATNE: And I have been campaigning  from 1948, when as a 16 year-old boy I protested at the disenfranchisement of the plantation Tamils of Indian origin.
COCHRANE: Well, we might come up to recent times and talk about why you were heading to Malaysia in the first place. What was the point of your trip?
SENEWIRATNE: The point of the trip was that I was invited to come to Malaysia by concerned Malaysians who said, look, Malaysia is part of this refugee problem and to either allow them to sink in the ocean or to lock them up in Malaysian so-called detention centres or whatever is unacceptable. Will you please come and give us a run down of the situation regarding the push factors in Sri Lanka as well as the plight of the refugees and I said yes, beside of the fact that I'm 81 and in heart failure. I will come.
COCHRANE: Were you planning on engaging in any protests or any potentially illegal activities?
SENEWIRATNE: No, I had two closed doors invited meetings of senior Malaysian human rights and leading members of society. They were closed meetings. They were not advertised and there were two meetings, one in Jahore, which is just adjoining Singapore and in Kuala Lumpur. They were not open meetings. I was not there with a megaphone on the streets urging revolts or anything like that.
COCHRANE: OK. So those were your plans. You've left Australia, you've arrived in Singapore. What happened to you in Singapore?
SENEWIRATNE: Right. I left Australia at 11.45 on Thursday 13th. December, arrived at Singapore Changi Airport at 5 am. I filled up the immigration form that they give you. I took my passport and went to the immigration, customs counter. The guy typed in my details and then looked at me and looked at the screen and raised his eyebrows and this raising of the eyebrows went on three times and I realised that there seemed to be some problem. And he said, a momento, I'll just get my boss. The boss came and led me to a room, maybe ten foot by ten foot, maybe a little bigger, with a couple of seats and I was asked to sit there and there was no toilet, no food, no drink, no nothing. And I sat there 8.30, (word indistinct) 5.30, 6, 6.30, 7, and in the meantime there were Tamil boys or boys coming in and out talking in Tamil which is the language I don't understand, but nothing happened to me. 
COCHRANE: Did you at any point request further facilities from the airport staff?
SENEWIRATNE: No, I didn't request security from anybody, because there was nothing to secure.
COCHRANE: Not security, any facilities. Did you ask for a drink, water, a toilet break?
SENEWIRATNE: Oh, well I said, look, I've not had food from 4 o'clock this morning. They said well, that's tough luck.
COCHRANE: And what did they say. Why did they say they were keeping you detained in the airport?
SENEWIRATNE: The deportation order came, was handed to me later and if you want me to read it out right now I can.
COCHRANE:  Can you give us the overall gist of it. What's the main thrust of it?
SENEWIRATNE: It's one sentence. This is to inform you that you are being refused entry into Singapore for 1, 2, 3, 4. The fourth reason is tick,   being ineligible for the issue of a pass under immigration policies. That was handed to me by the armed guard with a revolver in his pocket who took me to the aeroplane.
COCHRANE: That's a fairly vague reason for denying you access and deporting you. Do you have any, were you given any further ideas perhaps verbally about why you were being detained?
SENEWIRATNE: Why I asked, what are these, what exactly do you mean by immigration policies? The police officer with a gun said, well, I'm only a police officer. I said, well, ask the boss who sent you there to explain to me what these immigration policies are? He said, look, you are going to the plane, right. So now you come with me and that was it. And I said, what about my passport? He said, no, you're not going to get your passport. I said can I go to Indonesia where I had a hotel booked. They said no, you're not going anywhere. You're going straight back to this place and they opened the door of the plane, took me to the last, one but the last row, told me to strap myself in and he said goodbye and left, that's it.
COCHRANE: Now, have you been in contact. Well first of all, let me ask you, have you been prevented from travelling before, especially to Malaysia?
SENEWIRATNE: Yes, I was. In 2008, I had an international award awarded to me in recognition of my contribution to human rights by 22 groups in Canada, these are NGOs in Canada and I was invited to Canada to deliver my acceptance speech and receive the award, which I haven't, which I did.
On the way back, I was asked by Malaysia, can you please come to Malaysia. There are about 20,000 people here waiting to hear you and deliver the same address. I said, yep, if you've got police permission and it's all above board. He said it's a dinner party for a start. Can you come? I said yep, of course I can. So I flew into Kuala Lumpur, I got exactly the same treatment. I was kept in a room without food or drink or water or anything like that and then walked before a lady with a veil on her head who said I am deporting you. I said on what grounds. She said because your presence in Malaysia is a threat to Malaysian security. I said Madam, if an unarmed doctor on medicine, I was 78 at that time. If a doctor of medicine who had never carried a weapon in his life and never had advocated violence is a threat to Malaysian security, then your security can't be crash hot. He said I don't care what you think of Malaysia, but you are being deported right now.
COCHRANE: OK. So let's return to the incident that happened on Saturday, your most recent detention in Singapore. You've explained to us the official reasons that you were given fairly vague reasons relating to immigration policy. Why do you believe you were detained and deported?
SENEWIRATNE: I believe that the government of Sri Lanka is in cahoots with Malaysia certainly, possibly Indonesia, certainly Australia, because I was harassed even on the arrival in Brisbane where I've been a resident for 37 years and an Associate Professor of Medicine. I couldn't even get back to this country, back ...
COCHRANE: What was the problem in the Brisbane airport?
SENEWIRATNE: At Brisbane airport, I was searched and detained for at the immigration people who went through every single stitch of luggage that I was carrying for nearly three hours and then the immigration officer who had been a patient of mine, I think, because he came to me and said Doctor, don't hold it against us. We are not responsible. I said look, I know that, but I want to know who is responsible?
COCHRANE: Have you been able to get in contact with the Australian authorities since returning?
SENEWIRATNE: No, I didn't. Since returning this time, yesterday?
SENEWIRATNE: No, I haven't, because the Foreign Minister of Australia is currently distributing your money and mine in Rajapaksa's regime 35 million dollars and he's actually in Colombo. I'm sending a letter to the Department of Foreign Affairs right now and I'm carrying a letter, a copy of a letter, in another hour's time to my member of Federal member of Parliament one, Kevin Rudd and asking him what he is going to do about it.
COCHRANE: Who is, of course, Australia's former prime minister. What do you hope that Kevin Rudd will do?
SENEWIRATNE: I don't care what he does, but I am a member of his. I have voted for him. He has known me for 20 years. He called me Brian introduces me to other people as a worker, both in health as well as in human rights and he knows me very well. And I'm going to say, Kevin, you have to put your money where your mouth is and tell me exactly what you're going to do about it. I'm sending a copy to Sarah Hanson-Young and to Senator Lee Rhiannon and former senator Bob Brown to table this in parliament and I'm going to send a copy to Bishop Desmond Tutu whom I have met a couple of years ago and whose very well, who very well realises the situation and I'm asking him whether he can contact Justice Navanethem Pillay in the UN Human Rights Council to table it. 
NOTE: An Australian Foreign Affairs Department spokesperson says "We are aware of media reports that an Australian man was deported from Singapore. The man did not approach Australian consular officials for assistance before he was deported."

Contact the studio

Got something to say about what you're hearing on the radio right now?

Send your texts to +61 427 72 72 72

Add the hashtag #raonair to add your tweets to the conversation.

Email us your thoughts on an issue. Messages may be used on air.