Friday, November 06, 2009

After the peace comes the pay war

By Feizal Samath - As Sri Lanka prepares to endure disruption to such services as fuel, water and electricity over worker demands for a wage rise, President Mahinda Rajapaksa this week said salaries will go up from January, drawing accusations from some unions that the offer is merely a ruse to prevent the protest.

Unions representing two main political parties have publicly announced an indefinite “work-to-rule” campaign from next Wednesday to press demands for an interim wage rise of 5,000 rupees (US$43) per month. The annual per capital income is $1,972, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Under work-to-rule, employees refuse to do anything other than the absolute minimum prescribed in their contracts, which causes a severe slowdown in output but falls short of an all-out strike while also protecting them from legal retribution.

The campaign will hit essential services and is expected to be worse than a three-day work-to-rule by workers from the state-owned Ceylon Petroleum Corporation at the end of last month, which saw long queues of motorists outside empty petrol stations.

In a message intended to assuage angry trade unionists, President Rajapaksa told a convention of the ruling party-controlled Sri Lanka Independent Workers Union on Tuesday that he would be granting a salary increase to all public sector employees from January.

He urged workers “to have patience and bear with us until the end of the year”.

The protest over wage demands is the latest in a series of crises the president has been facing since government troops crushed Tamil rebels in May this year, ending a near 30-year revolt.

The international community has put pressure on the president to investigate alleged human rights violations during the conflict, international media organisations are pressing for a return to media freedom, while a top Sri Lankan general was prevented from returning to Sri Lanka on Wednesday from the US, where authorities were planning to question him over alleged war crimes. Only last-minute diplomatic efforts forestalled the questioning, and he arrived back in Sri Lanka yesterday.

Mr Rajapaksa is also grappling with a rejuvenated opposition, which on Tuesday launched a new 12-party alliance aimed at ousting the ruling party at the next poll.

Protests, particularly trade union action over the rising cost of living and demands for wage rises, were muted during the fighting, in large part because the unions were supportive of the war effort. But now that it is over, attention has returned to daily life and the high cost of living that many workers find difficult to sustain.

The opposition People’s Liberation Front, or JVP, on Wednesday rejected Mr Rajapaksa’s wage promise, saying the government does not have enough money for it.

“The Vote-on-Account [temporary budget] was presented on Tuesday but that has no reference whatsoever to a wage hike. If that is the case, where will the money come from?” said the JVP parliamentarian Sunil Handunnetti. A cluster of JVP unions are leading the wage demands and work-to-rule protests.

The government presented a temporary budget to cover four months’ spending to April 2010, instead of the usual fiscal year budget, saying parliamentary elections are due before next April and a new government should present the budget.

The main opposition United National Party has accused the government of avoiding a normal budget because huge overspending has created havoc with budget deficit targets set with the International Monetary Fund.

Leslie Devendra, general secretary of the ruling party union, urged his colleagues in other unions to heed the president’s call for a suspension of next Wednesday’s protest. The president’s announcement “is a positive step and I hope other unions will stop the action”, he said in an interview. “The government is facing many issues at this juncture and we all need to be aware of [them].”

Palitha Athukorala, chief organiser of the main opposition UNP’s National Workers Union, said although the president promised to meet unions after the October protest to discuss their demands, he met only the ruling party union.

Mr Athukorala said the wage rise is one that the government gives the workers once in three years, the last being in 2006. “The latest one was due in April 2009 and then the petroleum minister promised an interim allowance of 5,000 rupees but that has not been granted,” he said, adding that the November 11 campaign could cripple services across the island.

Mr Rajapaksa, at Tuesday’s meeting, was quoted in the state-owned Daily News accusing unnamed “quarters” of bringing workers to the streets to “fulfil their political agendas rather than on a salary issue”.

The president, under pressure, is also due to announce the date for the next presidential poll, expected before next February, at the annual convention of his ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party on November 15.

On Tuesday, the Overseas Press Club of America, an independent organisation that has defended press freedom around the world for 70 years, urged Mr Rajapaksa to free the jailed Sri Lankan journalist JS Tissainayagam and to act to protect and defend independent media in Sri Lanka.

In a letter, the organisation said press freedom has been stifled in Sri Lanka with journalists being attacked, kidnapped, tortured, murdered and assassinated. Tissainayagam, a Tamil editor and columnist, was in August 2009 sentenced to 20 years in prison for two articles which allegedly violated the country’s anti-terrorist laws.

© The National

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Friday, November 06, 2009

Defence Secretary demands Rs. 1 billion from 'The Sunday Leader'

On October 22 the editor-in-chief and news editor of The Sunday Leader received anonymous death threats.

Red writing scrawled over an edition of the paper warned Frederica Jansz and Munza Mushtaq to stop writing or face the same fate as Lasantha Wickrematunge. Ominously, experts subsequently declared that the handwriting on the letters was identical to the writing on the final threats received by Wickrematunge. As always, the Leader’s response to the threats was prompt and defiant.

The article—“And Now They Come for Us”—made clear that the Leader would remain as ever unbowed and unafraid. However, this response apparently caused grave offense to the country’s Defense Secretary.

On October 29 the Leader received a letter of demand from Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s lawyers demanding that the Leader pay Rs. 1 billion as compensation for defaming their client.

Attorney Sanath Wijewardena claimed that failure to pay Rs. 1 billlion and print an apology for “defaming” the Defense would result in Mr. Rajapaksa initiating yet more legal action against the Leader.

Which leads one to ask: Who was the victim in this case—the editors at the Leader who received the threats or Mr. Rajapaksa, who was merely mentioned in the paper’s response?

© The Sunday Leader

Related Links:
And now they come for us - The Sunday Leader
The Sunday Leader editors threatened with death - JDS

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Friday, November 06, 2009

Court orders ‘Lanka’ journos be referred to Mediation Board

Denagama Dhammika Ratnaweera - Morawaka Magistrate Udesh Perera yesterday ordered the Terrorist Investigation Unit of the Police to refer the case against the three journalists of the weekly newspaper ‘Lanka’, who were accused trespass and taking photographs of a private residence, to the mediation Board.

He also ordered the TID to submit a report to Court from the Mediation Board on January 13.

The three accused media personnel were Daya Nettasinghe, Shalitha Wimalasena and Ravindra Pushpakumara.

The Court ordered police to return the cameras belonging to the journalists.

© The Island

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Friday, November 06, 2009

Politics and the war in Sri Lanka: To which victor the spoils?

NOT even six months has elapsed since the protracted war with Tamil Tiger rebels ended in a bloody climax, leading to the Sri Lankan government’s triumph. But already the leaders of the military campaign are sparring ahead of an election due next year. For weeks the press has been speculating about friction between the administration of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Sarath Fonseka, the hawkish army general who commanded troops in the final assault against the Tigers.

Jittery over rumours, spread mostly by opposition parties, that General Fonseka will challenge Mr Rajapaksa in the election, the government in October banned reports about his political ambitions. A communiqué from the army’s spokesman warned the press that several laws would be used against those who published “false reports” using the names of serving senior army officers.

General Fonseka is no longer army commander. But as chief of the defence staff, a post obtained after the defeat of the Tigers in May, he is the highest-ranking military officer in service. He cannot contest elections while in uniform. But his term ends in December and he has hinted that he might reject any offer of an extension.

During a visit to America which ended abruptly this week, General Fonseka, who holds an American green card (ie, permanent residence), told Sri Lankan expatriates he would step out of uniform to bring the country back on track “if it continues to go on the wrong path even after defeating terrorism.” Such statements, combined with goading from the opposition, have increased agitation in government, and particularly presidential, quarters. Some ministers are already cautioning the public about the pitfalls of a military regime. Others have claimed ownership of the victory for Mr Rajapaksa himself, rather than his military chiefs.

The plot thickened this week when General Fonseka notified the government that America’s Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had sought his testimony in a probe into alleged human-rights violations by Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s defence secretary and the president’s brother, a naturalised American citizen.

General Fonseka was hastily flown back from America on the day the DHS interview was to have taken place. Sri Lanka’s foreign ministry said no American government agency had questioned him before his departure. Still, it had taken several days of feverish diplomacy to prevent the meeting, which, intriguingly, General Fonseka had consented to two days before notifying the defence secretary.

The government’s obvious anxiety about General Fonseka’s possible candidacy is a consequence of Mr Rajapaksa’s plans to call a presidential election in early 2010, nearly two years before the end of his six-year term. He naturally wants to capitalise on the popularity generated by the military victory. But this strategy may backfire if he is challenged by the former army commander, who is hugely popular among the president’s main support base, the Sinhalese Buddhist majority.

As one independent Tamil analyst put it, the ruling regime’s main achievement has been to win the war. But with the victors apparently squabbling among themselves, which ones should people support? Mangala Samaraweera, a parliamentarian who defected to the opposition from Mr Rajapaksa’s party, says his former leader will now “not have the guts” to hold an early poll. Judging by the president’s actions this week, that prediction sounds premature. At the convention of a big trade union, he promised a pay rise in January for all public-sector employees. The next day, as General Fonseka flew back to Colombo, the president took a helicopter to previously Tiger-controlled areas and told soldiers that the salaries of all security-force personnel would be raised with immediate effect. This hardly sounds like a man shy of an early dash to the polls.

© The Economist

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Friday, November 06, 2009

Sri Lankan government resettles Tamil detainees in prison-like conditions

By Subash Somachandran - The Sri Lankan government claimed last month that it had released some thousands of Tamil civilians held in the Manik Farm detention camps near Vavuniya and other northern towns to resettle in their home districts. These refugees have in fact been sent to areas under military occupation, with new prison-like conditions imposed on them

Facing criticism internationally and within the country, President Mahinda Rajapakse announced that his government had commenced resettling about 41,000 Tamils. About 250,000 Tamil civilians during the final stages of the war against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have been incarcerated since May without charge, in violation of basic democratic rights, the country’s constitution and legal system.

There is no way of verifying the government’s claims of the numbers of people released. Independent journalists have been barred from the camps and drastic restrictions have been imposed on aid agencies. Neither the media nor aid agencies were permitted to scrutinise the “resettlement” following a stage-managed publicity ceremony. WSWS reporters, however, have been able to visit some of the villages where detainees have been sent.

Several thousand people from Manik Farm camps have been moved to islands in the Jaffna district. In some cases, they are staying with relatives. However, some have been left without any accommodation or live in previously abandoned houses. The islands of Kayts, Punguduthivu, Velanai, Karainagar, Nainathivu, Eluvaithivu, Analaithivu and Nedunthivu are connected to the Jaffna peninsula by bridges and causeways over shallow water.

These islands have been under military occupation since the 1990s and they are currently controlled by the navy. During the military offensive to capture these areas in the early 1990s, many people fled to the LTTE-controlled Vanni in the Northern Province.

After 1995, some people gradually came back to these islands. Others were unable to return because the military declared High Security Zones in large areas on the islands. Residents live under constant harassment by the navy and the allied paramilitary Eelam People Democratic Party (EPDP), which is a coalition partner in the Sri Lankan government.

People in these islands can only travel to and from Jaffna city after strict security checking and obtaining passes from the navy. They require the navy’s permission for each visit, regardless of its purpose. A ban has been imposed on using camera phones and other electronic goods.

Recently-released detainees explained their harrowing experiences to the WSWS. Before they were brought to the Jaffna peninsula by bus from Vavuniya, they were herded into Aruvithottam, a village near the Manik Farm camps, and interrogated.

When they returned to their respective villages, the military kept them surrounded with barbed wire for a day. First they were questioned by the navy or the army. Next they were photographed separately and with their families. Then they were sent to the divisional secretary’s office, where those who had relatives were allowed to stay with them, provided that the relatives signed a document taking full responsibility. Other detainees were taken separately back to the areas, which they had left more than a decade earlier.

Before processing by the divisional secretary, the navy informed relatives that the detainees “should not leave the island for six months and should not apply for new national identity cards”. The navy marked the identity cards of the people brought from Vavuniya. If they leave, they will face arrest and detention without trial.

At Velanai island, the navy confiscated the identity cards of young people before they were sent to their respective villages. They were asked to return later to collect the cards. When they did, several youth were badly beaten by navy soldiers. These youth, who are all treated as LTTE suspects, have to return every Sunday to the naval camp and sign a book.

Those families looking after their relatives have received no assistance. The government has washed its hands of providing basic essentials, including food, clothes or housing. People cannot go to a hospital outside their area for medical treatment. They have been released from the hell of the Manik Farm camps, but their situation has not improved.

One refugee told the WSWS: “We stayed in our relatives’ home which housed about 30 people. So as not to cause trouble to them, we decided to put up a shelter in our relatives’ land.” Another refugee said: “We came here with empty hands. We borrowed money to buy these things to put up a hut.” Coconut leaves, which are used for roofing, cost about four rupees each.

Some villages on Karainagar island, such as Thopukadu, Madathuvalavu and Rasavinthottam, have been converted into High Security Zones by the navy. Some 90 families from Thopukadu were resettled there but have no relatives to look after them. Their relatives left the island because of the navy’s restrictions. The refugees are living in 10 abandoned homes.

About 190 people attached to the Rasavinthottam and Madathuvalavu villages are being kept in seven abandoned houses. The owners of these houses were displaced in 1990. The roofs are dilapidated and unable to withstand the wet season.

A detainee sent to one of these villages said he could return to an old job some kilometres away, but no-one was allowed to travel. “We have no money. How can we survive? These houses were abandoned more than 19 years ago. Bushes have grown all around and it looks like a forest. There are lots of snakes and mosquitoes. This is looking like another Manik Farm,” he said.

Another person said: “We could survive by doing any type of work but we are unable to go leave the area. We are selling one kilo of flour of our relief supplies to get the money to buy vegetables and other items.”

Due to a drought, the wells have dried up. People have to walk a kilometre to get water. The local council supplies just 15 litres of drinking water per day for each family. A local volunteer institution provides another 30 litres of drinking water for 22 rupees.

A village dispensary is the only available hospital. Emergency patients can be sent by ambulance to Jaffna hospital, but former detainees are not free to go there. Patients must obtain a doctor’s recommendation which is screened by the navy—it is similar to the restrictions at Manik Farm.

School children have not been given uniforms, shoes or school supplies. One student said: “We were displaced in 2008. Since then we have not any schooling. At Manik Farm nothing was done for our students although there were propaganda units providing ‘education’ to us.”

One person angrily said: “When we got into the bus for resettlement in Jaffna, Douglas Devananda [EPDP leader and government minister] said we would be resettled on our own lands and given all facilities. But we cannot even go to our own land and we have no way to survive.”

The conditions facing civilians released from Manik Farm highlight their continued persecution. Hundreds of thousands more detainees have not been even considered for so-called resettlement. They continue to languish in Manik Farm and other camps.

The Socialist Equality Party and the WSWS have initiated an international campaign for the immediate release of detainees, the provision of government aid needed to live decently and an end to the military occupation of the North and East. (See: “Demand the release of Tamil detainees in Sri Lanka”).

We urge workers, youth and all those who defend basic democratic rights to send letters, issue statements and organise protests demanding the unconditional release of the Tamil detainees.

Letters should be directed to:

Gotabhaya Rajapakse
Secretary of Defence, Public Security, Law & Order
Ministry of Defence, Colombo
Sri Lanka

Lalith Weeratunga
Permanent Secretary to the President of Sri Lanka
Old Parliament Building, Colombo
Sri Lanka

Please send copies to:

Socialist Equality Party
301 1/1, Main Road, Attidiya, Dehiwala
Sri Lanka
Tel/Fax: 0094 11 2712104

The World Socialist Web Site

© World Socialist Web Site

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Friday, November 06, 2009

Q+A: EU's GSP+ trade concession and Sri Lanka

By Shihar Aneez - Sri Lanka's deadline to respond to a European Union rights probe report is Friday, if it wants to try to retain a lucrative trade concession from the bloc which helps Sri Lanka's top export, garments.

Following are some questions and answers on the EU trade concession and the possible impact if it is lost.


It is a special incentive scheme for sustainable development and good governance, offering tariff cuts to support vulnerable developing countries in ratification and implementation of international conventions in these areas.


An EU probe has found Sri Lanka in breach of international human rights laws. Western diplomats say it will be very difficult for Sri Lanka to come back from losing it at this stage.


Sri Lanka is one of 16 countries with GSP+ status. Garment exports, the country's top foreign exchange earner, have benefited substantially with a 6-7 percent concession, and the EU has been the product's main buyer. The value of the benefits has been estimated at 78 million euros ($116 million). Losing GSP+ means EU buyers will have to pay more for Sri Lankan exports, thus the exporters lose price competitiveness and market share.


If Sri Lanka could address the concerns of the EU in the next few months, there is a possibility. Diplomats say some of those concerns include settling over 150,000 war displaced, releasing a journalist who has been sentenced for 20-year jail term under anti-terrorism laws, and ensuring media freedom.


Closure of small and medium scale garment firms, job losses mainly among the rural poor, and a decline in global investor confidence would be some of the consequences. The central bank has said exporters will still be competitive after the loss of the scheme due to depreciation of the currency against the euro and pound. But garment exporters say their buyers have already signalled a move away from them to lower price garments.

© Reuters

Related Links:
‘Losing GSP+ not an earth shattering disaster’ - The Sunday Leader

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Friday, November 06, 2009

EU report on GSP+ inaccurate - SL Minister

By Kelum Bandara & Yohan Perera - Export Development and International Trade Minister Prof. G.L Peiris told Parliament yesterday that the government found the European Commission report on the GSP+ matter to be inaccurate and unacceptable in many respects.

Prof. Peiris told the House in a statement that the Commission had handed over a document titled ‘Report on the findings of the investigation with respect to the effective implementation of certain human rights conventions in Sri Lanka’ on October 19, to the Sri Lankan Ambassador in Brussels.

“The Commission has informed the Government that it will be prepared to entertain any observations which the government wishes to make on the contents of this report before November 6, 2009,” he said.

© Daily Mirror

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Friday, November 06, 2009

Unemployed Graduates Issue Ultimatum to President

By Nirmala Kannangara - The Combined Association of the Unemployed Graduates (CAUG) have warned the government of consequences if it fails to honour promises given to the unemployed graduates.

Acting Convener CAUG Chanaka Bandara told The Sunday Leader that President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s failure to honour his election pledge to absorb the country’s unemployed graduates to the public sector over the past four years will lead to a trade union action.

“From 2005 up to last year the President said that the government has made an action plan to absorb the unemployed graduates into the public sector, but instead have given that opportunity to his party supporters but not to those who are affiliated to other political parties,” Bandara said.

He further said that the CAUG has given November 13 as a deadline to the government to address graduate unemployment in the country or face consequences.


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