Friday, October 16, 2009

Boat-bound Tamils plead for asylum

By Geoff Thompson - Almost 260 Sri Lankans aboard a boat moored in Western Java have made a desperate plea to Australia and other countries to consider their bids for asylum, saying returning to Sri Lanka is no longer an option for Tamils who wish to survive.

The group was intercepted in Indonesian waters on the weekend after a phone call from Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Last night, journalists were allowed to board the vessel and speak to the asylum seekers, who are refusing to leave.

A gangplank creaks as journalists cross from an Indonesian Navy frigate to the 30-metre wooden cargo boat moored alongside it to view for the first time, all together and close-up, a mass of 255 faces drawn with fatigue, fear, hope and disappointment.

Huddled skin to skin they looked up knowing this may be their only real moment in the international spotlight, on which their plea for extraordinary attention would live or die.

As babies and young children slept on the boat's top deck, the fluent English of a young bearded man calling himself Alex was put forward as their best chance of being understood.

"There are people in the camps right now being murdered even today as we speak, as we are sitting comfortably on this boat in the shores of Indonesia, there are still Tamil people in Sri Lanka who are dying every day," Alex said.

"This is why most of these people here have fled from genocide in Sri Lanka and trying to find a future somewhere else.

"First of all I would like to say thank you to Mr Kevin Rudd because he has accepted many refugees in the past, and those refugees can be any one of our brothers or sisters who have found refuge and found safety in Australia.

"And we are thankful to him, but the other thing we would like to tell Mr Rudd is the fact that there are still many more Sri Lankans who need help.

"For you to share intelligence and make sure that this boat does not reach Australian waters - it was very difficult for us to accept because we came until the last point believing that Australia will accept us into their country."

But these asylum seekers are now Indonesia's problem, to be dealt with by organisations such as the International Organisation for Migration - which enjoys Australian funding - and Indonesian authorities seeking solutions which may rely on detention centres built with Australian money.

But for now these Tamils are determined not to leave their boat and have threatened self-harm if forced.

"Ask yourselves one question, if you had no home to go to, if you had no country to live in, if you had no place to go, if you had no country of your own - what would you do and how long would you stay in a boat before you were promised to enter a country that will give you asylum?" Alex said.

"How long will you go? How desperate will you be? Take a look at the picture today, look at my people, we're not only suffering back home, we're suffering here.

"We have no choice, we have no country to go back to, we cannot go back to Sri Lanka."

But Australia was not the first and certain choice for these asylum seekers - simply the cheapest and easiest place to get to, even if it means living in a Malaysian jungle for a month. Something even nine-year-old Brindha understands.

"Please help us and save our lives, we are your children. Please think of us, please, please," she said.

"We have lived in a forest for one month. Please sir, please take us to a country, it's OK if it is not Australia, it's better, if any other country takes us, we can't live in Sri Lanka."

© ABC News

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Friday, October 16, 2009

Sri Lanka: Harassed NGOs, stifled journalists and a self congratulatory government

Iman Qureshi - Sri Lanka came to the end of a 26-year-long war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) on the 18 May 2009. Since then, 'peace' has been balancing on a curtailment of basic freedoms. Despite criticism from the international community, Tamil civilians have for months been placed in what the government calls "welfare camps". UN officials have compared these to internment camps. With 260,000 people crammed into just 16 camps lacking in basic sanitation. Water is sparse and a third of all children are malnourished. Civilians, policed by armed guards, are forbidden to leave the grounds and with the monsoon season approaching the camps are expected to flood, spreading disease and causing tents to disintegrate.

The Sri Lankan government has outlined its reasons: Tamils need to be screened for any remaining affiliations with the LTTE in order to prevent a resurgence, and the vast minefields in the northern and eastern parts of the country need to be cleared before the area is once again inhabitable. The government, having pledged three months ago to release 80% of the detainees by the end of the year, has so far released only 20,000. Furthermore, draconian measures put in place by President Mahinda Rajapaksa's government suggest that its intentions aren't all that straightforward.

A record of state sanctioned murder, abduction and intimidation keeps the grudging dissident media at bay. According to Amnesty International, 14 journalists have been killed since 2006; the Committee to Protect Journalists allege that no one has yet been brought to trial in any of these cases. Additionally, foreign journalists have throughout the year been deported and refused visa renewals.

The media is not Mr Rajapaksa's only adversary. NGOs have also been made to tread around the government with caution. The head of the NGO, Forut, arguing that it should remain neutral, was deported for not flying a Sri Lankan flag over the office after the Tamil defeat. James Elder a spokesman for UNICEF, was expelled in September for criticising the treatment of children in the camps. The Red Cross was ordered to leave eastern Sri Lanka where the biggest camps are located. It seems that while Mr Rajapaksa is more than happy to receive foreign aid in the form of a gargantuan IMF loan ($2.6 billion) or the £12.5 million of humanitarian assistance allocated by the Department for International Development (DFID), foreign aid workers are largely unwelcome.

Camps aside, Sri Lanka is hardly a model example for human rights. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, presiding over a UN Security Council resolution on Women and Peace and Security passed on 30 September, named Sri Lanka as a prime culprit for using rape as a tactic of war. The question is; should the British government be handing out monetary aid to a country closely skirting the line of human rights violations, when they have little control over how or where it is spent?

Following months of demonstrations outside Westminster, it is clear that a large Tamil diaspora in the UK is worried for the future wellbeing of Tamil Sri Lankans and fearful of Mr Rajapaksa's impune government. The string of disappearances, tortured suspects and arrests without charge is long, and although it has slowed, it has by no means stopped. Last month the army clashed with camp detainees, injuring several. As reported by the Economist, Sinhalese Sri Lankans are flocking to Tamil areas in order to reclaim "stolen" land. The British government is in a tricky predicament: do they aid, and thereby perpetuate, detention camps and a racist regime, or do they outrightly refuse assistance to some quarter of a million internally displaced people? British Minister for International Development Mike Foster's visit to Sri Lanka on 6 October has highlighted the pressing urgency for western countries to impose more stringent conditions.

Realistically there's not much western governments can do as far as human rights are concerned. A recent European effort to launch a UN war-crimes investigation in Sri Lanka was rejected by China and Russia who argued that such domestic issues should be addressed internally. The only remaining force the EU retains against the Sri Lankan government is the "GSP Plus", a trade concession that has benefited the country greatly in making exports to the EU the biggest source of foreign exchange: it is up for review on 15 October. The Economist has reported that, based on stipulations within the contract to honour human rights which have been broken, Sri Lanka is ineligible for a renewal.

With NGOs and the media being stifled and expelled, it is difficult to determine exactly what is going on. Ultimately it is up to Mr Rajapaksa to maintain a fair and unbiased governance, so far there is little evidence to show that this has been the case. If the fragile situation isn't handled carefully, Sri Lanka might very well see a greatly feared return to terrorist insurgencies and sectarian violence.

© The Journal

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Friday, October 16, 2009

UN human rights chief criticizes Sri Lankan government

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay on Wednesday (Oct 14) criticized the Sri Lankan government for not responding “to our many requests for an international investigation of what we say is widespread acts of killing of civilians."

Speaking at a press conference in Brussels Wednesday evening, she said that “such a request has also been made by the (UN) Secretary General and we are working very closely with the Secretary General to hold the President of Sri Lanka to his promise which he made to the Secretary General that he will look into the issue of accountability and so we want to know what kind of mechanism is he setting up."

The UN human rights chief said, “we have pointed out that they have in the past attempted to hold national investigations of very serious acts of killings that occurred of NGO and humanitarian workers and these investigations were dropped."

“They do not have a very good record in holding serious investigations. Now, I am engaged in discussions with the Secretary General over what kind of mechanism would be acceptable. But as I said the bottom-line is that the government is resisting these suggestions," Pillay, a former South African high court judge, was quoted as saying by EuAsiaNews.

Asked if she was planning to visit Sri Lanka to discuss the human rights situation, Pillay told journalists that the Sri Lankan government has told the Secretary General and publicly that they would not let in the High Commissioner for Human Rights.


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Friday, October 16, 2009

U.S. Business and Govt representatives tour port city

A group of American and Indian business leaders joined a delegation of U.S. and Sri Lankan trade officials on 14 October visit to Trincomalee, a city in the Eastern province of Sri Lanka, which was just months ago enveloped in a terrorist conflict. The trade mission to coastal Trincomalee was part of the Sri Lankan government’s efforts to rebuild its Eastern and Northern Provinces, where it concluded its 26-year conflict with the Liberation Tiger of Tamil Eelam terrorist group in May.

“The Eastern Province is the model for redeveloping the North,’’ said Jaliya Wickramasuriya, Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the United States and a member of the government delegation. “Trincomalee has taken the lead in that effort. That is why we are here.” The day-long visit was intended to encourage large and medium-sized businesses to operate in the Eastern Province.

Sri Lankan forces defeated the LTTE in May 2009, but the conflict displaced about 225,000 people in the Eastern Province and eventually 290,000 people in the North. The Eastern Province residents have been fully resettled. The government is steadily started resettling displaced people who are in welfare centers in Vavuniya. The government is determined to resettle most of the displaced by end of this year.

The government has launched major infrastructure development campaigns in both the East and the North. The projects include the construction of new roads and bridges, rail line repairs, upgrades to water and sewage works, new irrigation systems, hospitals, schools and municipal buildings.

During the visit, the group of about 20 business people and about a dozen U.S. and Sri Lankan government officials first met with the Chamber of Commerce & Industries of Trincomalee District at the Hotel Club Oceanic for a beachfront briefing on the region’s economy. The trade mission also received a briefing on Trincomalee and national government plans to develop the Eastern Province from the Staff of Eastern Province Governor Mohan Wijewickrama and an official with the Sri Lanka Board of Investment. Some of those who took part in the day-long visit to Trincomalee run construction businesses that could share in the re-development work. Others represented manufacturing and technology companies.

Tourism has bounced back since the conclusion of the LTTE conflict in May. In August visits were up 34.3 percent compared to August 2008, and in July tourist arrivals were 28.6 percent above those a year earlier. Sri Lankan tourism officials said that the country will need an additional 20,000 hotel rooms by 2016. Currently there are about 30,000 hotel rooms.

Sri Lanka expects about 500,000 visitors this year. That’s the same number of tourist who came to Sri Lanka in 1982 – the year before the conflict began. But it’s a marked improvement over tourist arrivals in recent years. For instance, just 167,187 tourists came in 2008. The tourism authority expects more than one million tourists annually by 2016.

Melani Schultz of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) also briefed on livelihood projects that the USAID’s CORE (Connecting Regional Economies) program is conducting in the Eastern Province. They include partnering with businesses to build up new enterprises, such as dairy farms, and establishing vocational training centers.

Sri Lankan officials believe that creating livelihoods for returning displaced communities is vital to stabilizing regions that suffered through years of conflict and terrorism. U.S. officials said they shared that view, and that they want to provide jobs as a way of aiding post-conflict reconciliation. “Creating good jobs and the opportunity for a brighter future is itself the best single way the United States can contribute to reconciliation,” said Michael Delaney, the Assistant U.S. Trade Representative and Head of the U.S. delegation.

The visit concluded with a visit to the Sri Lanka Navy’s Dockyard and a harbor tour on Navy swift boats.

The trade mission to Trincomalee was part of a week-long series of meetings and negotiations regarding U.S.-Sri Lankan business ties. The meetings included a “private-public partnership” conference with about 40 U.S. businesses and 30 more companies with operations in India, as well as with trade representatives and diplomats from both the U.S. and Sri Lanka. The week also featured the seventh annual meeting between Sri Lanka and the U.S. to discuss a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) signed in 2002.

© Lankaweb

Related Links:
Sri Lanka open for business - Ceylon Daily News

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Friday, October 16, 2009

Sri Lanka sells $500 mln global bonds - IFR

Sri Lanka on Thursday sold $500 million in global bonds maturing on Jan 22, 2015, said IFR, a Thomson Reuters service.

The 7.40 percent bonds were priced at par to yield 505.9 basis points over U.S. Treasuries, according to IDR.

The joint book managers on the sale were HSBC, JP Morgan and RBS.

© Reuters

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Friday, October 16, 2009

Govt to set up two new FTZs in N-E

Lakshmi De Silva - The Government will establish two new Free Trade Zones in the North and East - one will be in the Kilinochchi District and the other in the Trincomalee District, Enterprise Development, Investment Promotion and Mass Media and Information Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa told the Daily News yesterday.

Tax holidays for 15 years and other incentives would be offered to the investors who start industries in the North and East while the local residents would gain employment opportunities from these FTZs. Two Sri Lankan investors have already indicated their willingness to start a cement factory and a fertilizer factory, he said.

Though the FTZs were started as far back as 1978, the total foreign direct investments made up to 2005 was only 2,700 million US Dollars.

It was on an average around US$ 100 million per year but from 2005 to 2008 direct foreign investments had reached the 2,800 million dollar mark which is a great achievement, he said "We are a government that encourages the private sector and the BOI had initiated steps to approve new enterprises and now a total of 500,000 persons are directly employed in the FTZs and a large number of persons have also received indirect employment and we are heading for a brighter economic future," he said.

© Ceylon Daily News

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