Monday, December 07, 2009

The president and the general

BILASH RAI - The Sri Lankan military won the war against the Tamil Tigers over six months ago. But since that time, the island has been steadily losing the peace that the people – Muslim, Tamil and Sinhalese – so deserve. The main hurdle towards lasting peace has been the continuing war mentality and ultra-nationalism on the part of the Rajapakse regime – for this is what we have to call it. Those elements that had been the regime’s main strengths in fighting the war – the dangerous mix of militarisation and Sinhala Buddhist mobilisation – are now not only undermining peace, but also creating instability in the government hallways of Colombo.

In the single-minded pursuance of the war, President Mahinda Rajapakse and his brother, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya, with full support from the military, put together a broad and formidable coalition. This was made up of the ultra-nationalist Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and then its breakaway faction, sections of the left parties, as well as Tamil paramilitaries, including the breakaway faction of the LTTE. Yet just weeks after the last shot was fired, that coalition began to unravel, with increasing anti-government mobilisation by the JVP, criticism from sections of the JHU and, finally, the need felt by the president for a full overhaul of the armed-forces leadership.

The latest in these twists and turns has been the alienation and vocal opposition of the former army commander, General Sarath Fonseka, who is popularly credited with winning the war. Gen Fonseka, even more a militarist and Sinhala Buddhist nationalist than the president, is now expected to contest Rajapakse in the next elections. And with the opposition United National Party (UNP) backing the general’s candidature, there appears to be little hope of a credible or strong opposition.

Within weeks of the end of the war, the Rajapakses changed the entire high command of the armed forces, giving the top military brass different assignments, from secretaries of other ministries to ambassadorial appointments. Gen Fonseka’s control over the army was severely clipped, by ‘promoting’ him to a symbolic position as chief of defence staff. The general, in his recent resignation letter, claimed that it was widely understood that he was sidelined because various agencies misled the president regarding the possibility of a military coup.

The sidelining of Fonseka is not very surprising, given that the Rajapakses have been clear that they have no ‘friends’ – only their large clan. Brothers, cousins and nephews are thus being put into key political positions without any sense of embarrassment. Initially, they seemed certain that with the war victory they could entrench the family in power for the foreseeable future. Very quickly, however, that future began to seem uncertain, with the challenge posed by Fonseka.

Over the last three years, both Gen Fonseka and Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse have considerably politicised the military, by making Sinhala nationalist and anti-minority statements. Now, an open challenge between the general and the president could further deteriorate the situation. As Himal went to press, the president announced early presidential elections, almost two yers ahead of the end of his term. Analysts expect this to take place in late January 2010. The president wants to hold elections before he loses momentum from the war victory, but with Gen Fonseka running against him the Sinhala-nationalist vote stands likely to be split. Yet while the minorities’ vote could become significant, given that both Rajapakse and Fonseka are seen as Sinhala chauvinists it will be hard for the minority communities to choose.

Trumping militarism

With international pressure mounting, the 300,000 people interned in camps at the end of the war are finally being resettled. While close to 150,000 displaced individuals have apparently been allowed to return home (or elsewhere), and Basil Rajapakse announcing that all IDPs will finally have freedom of movement starting in December, their full access to humanitarian agencies in the north continue to be of concern. Moreover, it must be accepted that rehabilitation and development alone are not sufficient unless accompanied by demilitarisation and genuine political devolution.

Indeed, the regime’s lingering war mentality remains amply clear. The signals are not only in the exalted status accorded to the president’s brother as defence secretary; nor in the numerous checkpoints in Colombo, and continued militarisation of the internment camps for displaced peoples in the north and east of the country. Such indicators can also be seen in the regime’s ongoing flirtation with the Burmese junta, whose guest President Rajapakse saw fit to be soon after winning the war – a visit recently reciprocated by General Than Shwe himself. Just as the LTTE dug its own grave through a totally military mindset, the Rajapakse regime could now be weakening itself irrevocably. For the country and its people, a dangerous instability could ensue.

Emergency rule and the Prevention of Terrorism of Act continue to be the primary supports of authoritarianism and corruption, with parliamentarians lacking the fortitude to repeal them and thus take the Rajapakses head-on. As the Tamil minority suffocates in the north under the military jackboot, police brutality is on the rise in the south. Meanwhile, the media, which should have learned the dangers of authoritarianism over the decades of war, continue their irresponsible projection of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism and opportunistic support of the government.

Job losses and increasing unemployment propelled by the global economic downturn are creating conditions for social unrest and disenchantment among labour, and the unemployed are already pushing many onto the streets. Alongside, Sri Lanka’s aggravated relations with the European Union are putting more jobs at risk. The political tightrope that President Rajapakse has been walking between the East and West – mobilising India, China, Pakistan and Iran to counter pressure from the EU and the US on human rights and conduct of the war – is looking increasingly difficult to manage, as allegations of war crimes in Sri Lanka are presently under consideration by the US State Department and Congress. Incredibly, the president’s brothers – Gotabhaya as well as Basil, who is in charge of development – are both US citizens, and could thus become the subject of greater US pressure.

Yet on the ground, the challenge remains the same: the need for sane voices for peace and co-existence – democratic voices that can take up the decades-long grievances of the minorities, and the rising economic questions and inequalities that plague Sri Lanka’s post-war future. In the end, it is neither the moorings within Colombo’s militarised elite nor the megaphone diplomacy of the international actors that will change Sri Lanka’s future. To take a leaf from Sri Lanka’s three decades of war, the UNP’s authoritarian regime – first under J R Jayawardena and then Ranasinghe Premadasa – though seemingly entrenched, was dislodged after 17 years following the unleashing of democratic forces and peoples movements. Can peace and democracy trump authoritarianism, militarism and nationalism one more time and deliver peace?


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Monday, December 07, 2009

11,000 Tamil 'fighters' held in secured Lankan camps: Report

Over 11,000 Tamil 'fighters', including children, were held by Sri Lanka without charge in highly secured "rehabilitation centres", despite claims by authorities it had lifted restrictions on the movement of all displaced persons, a news report has said.

According to The Times newspaper, more than 11,000 Tamil prisoners are being held without charge in closely guarded "rehabilitation centres", even as the government claimed it had released all Tamil civilians from detention centres last week. It said children are among 11,000 Tamil 'fighters' held in rehabilitation.

According to the report, the prisoners, whose exact number has been unknown due to the government placed restitutions, is allegedly a "combatant category" that includes former LTTE fighters. However, the definition of "Tamil Tiger" is unclear.

Apart from the hardcore LTTE cadres, many of those in the camps are thought to be Tamil youths, their family members and civil administrators, forcibly conscripted by the Tigers in the final stages of the war.

According to media reports, the parents of Velupillai Prabhakaran, the Tamil Tiger leader killed this year, are being held in the notorious "4th Floor" detention complex in Colombo. They are in their seventies and had long been alienated from their son by his terrorist activities.

Even as the government allowed nearly 1.30 lakh Tamil civilians housed in refugees camps in northern Sri Lanka to visit their relatives this week, there is concern over the fate of the 11,000 still being held, the report said.

The London-based daily pointed out reports suggesting a new round of arrests over the past few weeks among civilians on the verge of being released from camps.

"I've got between 30 and 40 cases in which families have been released here from the detention centres, only to have their menfolk taken away at the final moment to a so-called rehabilitation centre," Father V. Yogeswaran, director of the Centre for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, in Trincomalee, was quoted as saying.

"As for 'secret' detention camps? I wouldn't openly say that they exist for sure, but I tend to think they do. Some men have been taken away and never accounted for," he said.

Last week the government allowed nearly 1.30 lakh Tamil civilians housed in refugees camps in northern Sri Lanka to visit their relatives as authorities lifted restrictions on their movement.

Some 3 lakh Tamils were housed in the refugees camps after the final stage of the government's military operations that defeated the Tamil Tiger rebels in May. Risath Bathiyutheen, the Minister of Resettlement and Disaster Relief Services, told the media that there will be no restrictions imposed on the duration of their absence from the villages.

The government has declared that civilians will be free to leave the villages once they have given their personal details to the authorities concerned.

All civilians of the Vavuniya welfare village from Jaffna Peninsula and Eastern Province have already been resettled, an official statement said. The government has said all efforts would be made to resettle all displaced people by January 31.


Related Links:
Rehab of Tamils in Lanka may take time: Krishna - Times of India

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Monday, December 07, 2009

China gets dragon’s share of post-war projects in Lanka

China has bagged the largest chunk of post-war development projects in Sri Lanka’s North and South with ongoing and projects concluded estimated at more than US$ 6.1 billion or about Rs 6,973 million.

Contrary to popular belief that funds for all these projects are outright grants, all the money is being obtained at commercial rates from China’s Exim Bank. This means the loans will have to be re-paid with interest by successive Governments in the years to come.

The costing for these projects, carried out by the Government to obtain funding, the Sunday Times learnt, has raised a serious issue. That is whether project costs have been heavily inflated far beyond the real value.

An example is the Chinese loan of US$ 245 million (about Rs 27.9 billion) for a 56-kilometre railway track from Pallai (located on the northern edge of mainland Sri Lanka) to Kankesanthurai in the Jaffna peninsula. The cost works out to more than US$ 4 million (about Rs 456 million) a kilometre.

This is in marked contrast to a 92-kilometre stretch of rail track from Omanthai (the last point in Wanni held by troops before the end of the separatist war) to Pallai at a cost of US$ 185 million (about Rs 21 billion). This works out to about US$ 2 million a kilometre. The US$ 185 million for this part of the northern railway track is a soft loan from the Government of India. A soft loan is one with a below market interest rate.

In the North, the construction of all adjunct roads has been given to four different Chinese companies in 13 different packages. This followed a Cabinet decision on October 6 this year.

S.B. Divaratne, Secretary to the Presidential Task Force for Resettlement Development and Security in the Northern Province, has directed the Road Development Authority (RDA) to “enter into contracts urgently with the Chinese contractors and begin construction work as soon as possible to complete the work within 30 months.”

This Task Force is headed by Senior Presidential Advisor Basil Rajapaksa. The four Chinese companies which will share a staggering Rs 94.3 billion are China National Aero Technology Import and Export Corporation, China Harbour, China Railway No 5 Engineering Group Co. Ltd. and Synohydro Corporation.

No Sri Lankan labour will be employed in any of their projects. That means no employment opportunities will be available to Sri Lankans in the majority of the development projects since the defeat of Tiger guerrillas. These projects will see the induction of more Chinese labour. This in effect means that a part of the Exim Bank loans returns to China for the use of their labour.

In all projects undertaken by Chinese companies, their own labour is utilised. On the basis of the Chinese gifted Performing Arts Society now under construction in Colombo, costing over US$ 200 million (about Rs 22.8 billion), around 1,000 labourers are deployed. On the basis of this, officials estimate that when the current projects involving US$ 5.1 billion (about Rs 5,000 million) reaches US $ 6.1 billion (over Rs 6973 million); the Chinese work force could reach 25,000.

Besides the Cabinet approved projects of October 6, other agreements have also been concluded with China. Then Treasury Secretary, Sumith Abeysinghe, on a visit to Beijing signed an agreement with the Exim Bank of China on August 7 this year. This was for a “Priority List for preferential buyers credit of the Exim Bank of China and totalled US$ 646.8 million (or about Rs 73.9 billion).

Here are some of the many projects:


Phase II of Puttalam Coal Power Project

Hambantota Port Development Project – Phase II

Component (1) Hambantota AirportComponent (II) Hambantota Port Development

Matara-Kataragama Railway – Matara-Beliatta Section

Southern Expressway (Pinnaduwa-Matara Section


Palaly-KKS Railway

Medawachchiya-Talaimannar railway line

Jaffna Inner Circular Highway and Jaffna City links

All adjunct roads in the north, Mannar and Puttalam.

The agreements also covered the purchase of, among other items, two MA 60 transport aircraft. This is at a cost of US $ 18 million (or about Rs 2 billion) each. This is said to be for use by Mihin Air which has already suffered colossal losses. The MA 60 or Modern Ark 60 is a turboprop powered aircraft; a close copy of Russian built Antonov An 26.

© The Sunday Times

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Monday, December 07, 2009

Politics Of Ethnic Deception: Will It Lead To Peace?

By Prof. A.R.M. Imtiyaz - The post-cold war political climate is vulnerable to identity-oriented tensions, caused by both primordial and constructed political strategies. These tensions, due to political need, create deadly militants. But they are the by-product of the socio-political moves, and often they win political legitimacy when political moderates disastrously fail to deliver. The question in ethnic politics is not how deadly these non-moderates are, but whether the central authority will deliver peace.

The end of the ethnic civil war between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and Sri Lanka’s Sinhala-dominated security forces had encouraged some to hope for peace and ethnic reconciliation between the Tamils and Sinhalese. The destruction of the Tamil resistance movement led by the LTTE was the primary reason for this glimmer of hope. In fact, war itself destroys the possibility for ethnic cooperation
Two questions need to be answered in order to understand the future of the island of Sri Lanka; are we winning peace and has Sri Lanka’s Sinhala political establishment the political will to seek a solution that meets the basic aspirations of the Tamils and other minorities in Sri Lanka?

A political solution needed to ease communal tensions

Sri Lanka needs to seek a political solution to the ethnic crisis. It seems global pressure is not strong enough to push the Sinhala political class to negotiate power-sharing democratic solutions with the Tamil nationalists. If the international community has any suspicions about the Tamil nationalist agenda, they should pressure the island’s Sinhala political class to conduct an internationally supervised referendum on the future of the Tamil nationalist agenda.

Any political attempts to ease ethnic tensions between the Tamils and Sinhalese should recognise the political aspirations of the Tamil nation. Such attempts should also recognise and appreciate the special problems of the Muslim communities living in the north and east. Both academic and political discussions aimed at seeking political solutions grimly deny these basic facts. Though post war Sri Lanka is at a cross-road it is not the end of the world as far as the island’s future is concerned. The Tamil nation’s non-moderate leaders were the result of post independence politics. Politics of violence was not their initial choice either. But the question is, are we trying to ease tensions?

Politics of deception

There is no sensible answer unfortunately since the politics of deception are being practiced in the name of peace and ethnic reconciliation. Examples are seen in recent gatherings of the minority leaders in Zurich. There are no clear political goals as far as the Tamil nation is concerned. There is no sign that these kind of gatherings have clear political commitments to seek non-unitary political solutions to the Tamil question. Nor were such meetings aimed at brokering human solutions to the ethnic conflict that unreasonably affected the Muslim communities of the north and east, partly due to the narrow politics of accommodation of their Colombo-centered leaders with the Sinhala nation.

What is extremely disquieting is that the strong body of the minority politicos are increasing their levels of trust in Sarath Fonseka, the former military General of Sri Lanka’s brutal war machine. The logic of their move is politically adolescent. These moderate politicos need to remember one simple fact that Fonseka is a strong representative of Sinhala hegemony and his behaviour and politics were and are compatible with the interests of Sinhala goals. Ethnic tensions in Sri Lanka are the direct product of such a narrow and exclusive mentality. But again, these Tamil and Muslim politicos are not angels, their simple aim is power and they will win that power at any cost and promise wonders in order to stay in power.

Such power politics can efficiently weaken democracy, and discourage the masses towards democracy. Political science literature on elite politics suggest that this sort of rip-offs cause uneasy political tensions among the masses and between the masses and elites. As such Tamil moderates need to move carefully.

As I argued in the article on Ethno-Political Conflict In Sri Lanka, Journal Of Third World Studies, Fall 2009), if there is resistance from the Sinhala political establishment to offer power sharing, the final option is partition. The demand for separation becomes strong when a power-sharing arrangement is not possible.

Some may fear that partition may further strengthen the ethnic hostilities between two nations, but even if it provokes a period of violence, it would offer the separated ethnic groups much needed stability and security in the near future.

In actual fact, the demand for separation would not be in vain if separation reduces ethnic fear and offers social and political security, as well as stability, to the different ethnic groups.

Separation can work

The separation of Pakistan from India, Eritrea from Ethiopia, Bangladesh from West Pakistan, and Greeks from Turks in Cyprus, all show that partition can be helpful, even if it is less that completely successful in terminating violence. The world recognises that if people do not want to co-habit in the same polity then, partition should not be automatically neglected as a solution. This might be one way to manage Tamils’ demands for political independence.

(The author teaches Ethnic Politics and Foreign Governments and Politics at the Department of Political Science, Temple University, USA.)

© The Sunday Leader

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Monday, December 07, 2009

U.S. Report on Sri Lanka Urges New Approach

By LYDIA POLGREEN - A report on Sri Lanka to be released next week by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee urges a less confrontational approach to that nation, citing strategic American interests in the region.

The report says that while the Sri Lankan government has been widely criticized for its handling of the war against the Tamil Tigers, who were fighting for a separate state for the ethnic Tamil minority in northern Sri Lanka, the government has also achieved a measure of progress in resettling the conflict’s displaced and rebuilding the war-shattered east of the country.

“With the end of the war, the United States needs to re-evaluate its relationship with Sri Lanka to reflect new political and economic realities,” says the report, a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times. “While humanitarian concerns remain important, U.S. policy toward Sri Lanka cannot be dominated by a single agenda. It is not effective at delivering real reform, and it shortchanges U.S. geostrategic interests in the region.”

The bipartisan report, which was endorsed by Senator John Kerry, the Democratic chairman of the committee, as well as Senator Richard Lugar, the ranking Republican, is being released as the Obama administration is preparing to announce its new policy on Sri Lanka. It also comes as questions persist about what Western countries can do to influence the government there.

Concerns about human rights and humanitarian aid for the people affected by the conflict have dominated the relationship between the United States and Sri Lanka over the past few years as the hard-line government in the capital, Colombo, pressed its military offensive against the Tigers.

The tough strategy of Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s president, and his two brothers, Gotabaya and Basil, helped defeat the insurgency in May after more than two decades of war. The rebel group used brutal tactics like the use of child soldiers and female suicide bombers. It was also responsible for the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, a former prime minister of India who was hoping to return to power, in 1991.

Government troops overran a narrow strip of beach where the leaders of the rebel group were pinned down, along with about 300,000 Tamil civilians. Human rights groups have pointed to evidence of an indiscriminate use of heavy weapons by government troops in areas crowded with civilians in the last weeks of fighting. The United Nations documented at least 7,000 civilian deaths in a tally that does not include the last, and probably bloodiest, weeks of fighting.

The government also faced pressure to release nearly 300,000 Tamils it had held in closed camps since the end of the war. Officials said the displaced people needed to be screened to weed out fighters, but conditions in the crowded camps deteriorated as the monsoon rains arrived. On Tuesday , the government said the displaced were free to leave, with some limitations.

Sri Lanka has resisted calls for an international investigation of its conduct of the war, and has dismissed the demands of the Western countries that have bankrolled much of its humanitarian aid effort as imperialism.

Sri Lankan government officials have repeatedly pointed to growing ties between their country and China as a sign that the West’s influence there is on the wane. Mr. Rajapaksa, who is running for re-election in January — and is staking his campaign on the war victory — has accused foreign aid organizations and Western countries of meddling in Sri Lanka’s affairs.

More broadly, government officials have expressed dismay at the barrage of criticism they received abroad after the defeat of the Tamil Tigers. Mr. Rajapaksa portrayed the conflict as part of a global fight against terrorism, and the victory over the Tigers as a model for anti-insurgency military campaigns elsewhere. Sri Lankan officials deny that large numbers of civilians were killed by government troops.

The United States and other Western countries abstained from a vote at the International Monetary Fund in July to lend $2.6 billion to Sri Lanka. The United States has also curbed military aid because of concerns about human rights abuses in the war against the Tamil Tigers.

But Sri Lanka is too important a country to be isolated from the West, the report argues.

“Sri Lanka is located at the nexus of crucial maritime trading routes in the Indian Ocean connecting Europe and the Middle East to China and the rest of Asia,” the report says. “The United States, India, and China all share an interest in deterring terrorist activity and curbing piracy that could disrupt maritime trade.”

© New York Times

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