Monday, December 21, 2009

Sri Lanka: The Conquerors of the Tigers Now Battle for the Spoils

By Amantha Perera and Jyoti Thottam - Who will get the credit for ending Sri Lanka's 26-year war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam: the tough Army commander or the President who appointed him? That's the question at the heart of island's Jan. 26 elections that will pit President Mahinda Rajapaksa against retired Lieut. Gen. Sarath Fonseka. A political novice, Fonseka may not have the organizational strength to beat Rajapaksa, but he has proven to be a sharp thorn in the side of a president who recently seemed unbeatable.

Fonseka has spent nearly 40 years as a soldier. He joined the Army at the age of 19, and he will turn 59 on Dec. 18, the day his campaign officially begins. The same year that Fonseka joined the Army, Rajapaksa won his first election to Parliament. A shrewd, brash career politician, Rajapaksa made eliminating the LTTE, an armed separatist group, the all-consuming mission of his four years in office. Since the collapse of the Tigers, Colombo has been full of enormous cut-outs of the president, congratulating him on his victory. Rajapaksa called early elections to capitalize on the post-war euphoria.

Without any other compelling candidate, the opposition parties have rallied around Fonseka as their war hero. "He was someone who could prove to be an effective counter to the popularity and the credibility that President Mahinda Rajapaksa enjoys," says Jehan Perera, Executive Director of the National Peace Council, a research and advocacy group in Colombo.

Fonseka's own reasons for entering politics are much more personal. In an interview with TIME on Dec. 13 in Colombo, Fonseka explained that just two months after the war ended in May, President Rajapaksa and his brother, Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, sidelined him. He says he was given a prestigious new post — Chief of Defense Staff — without any operational authority. "Even to get a corporal to the CDS office I had to get the Defense Secretary's approval," Fonseka says. "So then I was not happy with the job there. Then I also realised that they were not trusting me."

Sri Lanka has never had a coup or a military president, and some political observers fear the end of that proud civilian tradition if the general is elected. Fonseka dismisses that concern, taking as his models Eisenhower and De Gaulle. If he really wanted to seize power, he asks, why give up the uniform now and "go around asking for the vote?" He says the high-handed treatment by the Rajapaksa government forced him into politics. "The government was responsible for pushing me into that," Fonseka says. "Now they have to face the music."

Fonseka's base of support cuts right into Rajapaksa's. Both are from the increasingly vocal bourgeoisie of the rural south, the heartland of Sri Lanka's Sinhala Buddhist majority. The LTTE's Tamil nationalism and its dream of a separate homeland for the Tamil minority were a challenge to Sinhala Buddhist dominance. Fonseka has the reputation of being an even more strident Sinhala nationalist than Rajapaksa but is now trying to soften that image. "I am a very good Sinhalese, a very good Buddhist, there is no question about it," he says. "But towards minorities I never had any discriminating attitude." He insists that his comments in a 2008 interview with Canada's National Post, in which he called Sri Lanka a Sinhala Buddhist nation, were taken out of context. "I said historically the country belongs to the Sinhalese," Fonseka says. "the next sentence I mentioned was that the majority Sinhalese must treat the other communities like their own people."

Sri Lanka's treatment of the Tamil minority is a central issue in the election. During the last months of war, the government had restricted nearly 300,000 Tamils who fled the fighting to detention camps. Under intense domestic and international pressure, Rajapaksa announced on Dec. 1 that the 130,000 people still in the camps would have limited freedom to leave. The opposition parties have taken up the cause of these internally displaced people, or IDPs, and Fonseka says the government should give them complete freedom of movement: "If they handled the situation properly, we would have been in a position to give them freedom, even send them back to the areas after improving the infrastructure." He criticized the government for failing to improve roads and water lines in the areas where IDPs are returning, and for preventing opposition MPs from visiting them. "That is worse than keeping them in the camps."

The detention of these civilians has become an international human rights issue. On Dec. 16, the European Union proposed suspending a major trade agreement with Sri Lanka, mainly due to the continued detention of IDPs. But Sri Lankan authorities have justified the camps as a security measure, allowing them to screen out suspected LTTE fighters hiding among the civilian population. Fonseka says he would have handled the process more effectively and warns of the consequences of failing to identify lurking LTTE cadres. "If there is a single terrorist act, the army will have to again start searching these people, putting up roadblocks, checkpoints, raiding houses in the night, cordon and searches," Fonseka says. "The harassment of the people will begin again."

He still considers the LTTE a threat. "Even in Colombo there are [still] about 20 LTTE suicide cadres," he says. "They are waiting for the leadership, the guidance, the orders from top." But burnishing his security acumen and resting on his military accomplishments might not be enough to assure Fonseka an electoral victory. Many Sri Lankan voters have moved on to more immediate concern — steeply rising inflation and jobs threatened by a deep global recession and a downturn in major export earners including tea and the garment industry. Fonseka had little to say about economic policy other than to promise "development."

Fonseka wins praise for leading the final ground campaign against the Tigers, and for setting aside seniority to promote talented, effective junior commanders. But military analysts say the last push on land would not have been effective without the Navy, who cut off the Tigers’ vital supply line and escape route by sea. "Sarath Fonseka could not have won the war, if not for the crucial support he received from Secretary Defense Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the other service chiefs, especially the navy and air chiefs and the intelligence agencies," says Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

Politics have unraveled the Fonseka-Rajapaksa alliance. In his interview with TIME, Fonseka repeated charges, first published in a Sri Lankan newspaper, the Sunday Leader, that Gotabaya Rajapaksa had given orders that top LTTE commanders not be allowed to surrender. "This is well known to all those who were there in the field," Fonseka said. "[The Defenwe Secretary] was supposed to have said, 'Whether anybody comes with white flags or no, finish off everybody.' I was the Army Commander, they never passed that message to me, never even consulted me. I only came to know this after two days after everything was over. And I never gave any instructions about the white flags." Fonseka told TIME that, during a recent visit to the U.S., immigration authorities had attempted to interview him about alleged war crimes committed by the Defense Secretary but he declined because he was still a government officer.

The government has denied giving orders not to allow surrender, and in subsequent comments to the press, Fonseka appeared to backtrack. The Sri Lankan press have been full of charges and counter-charges between the general and the Rajapaksa brothers, as the country gears up for a month of furious campaigning. This election won't be as long or as brutal as the fight against the Tigers, but it will be a battle just the same.


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Monday, December 21, 2009

No heroes, only suspects of war crimes!

Vickramabahu Karanarathna - ‘The Island’, reported on December 15: “Fonseka said, he had told a weekend newspaper that a journalist had told him that Gotabaya Rajapaksa had ordered Maj. Gen Shavindra Silva (then Brigadier) to kill the LTTE leaders who offered to surrender but, what he said had been misreported. Certain opposition politicians were trying to gain political mileage by making use of that erroneous report, he said. “I don’t believe that the journalist who wrote the story had any intention of slinging mud at me,” he said.”

Wriggle out

Thus he was trying to wriggle out of the problem he himself had created by exploding a political bombshell about war crimes. Fortunately, for the public, the government took his exposé seriously and claimed that he has betrayed the country by divulging military secrets. Wimal Weerawansa the leader of Jathika Nidahas Peramuna (JNP) told a news conference on the same day that this matter had already been discussed with President Mahinda Rajapaksa and it had been decided to seek the attorney general’s views with the objective of taking legal action against Gen. Fonseka . Weerawansa said further, that the statement which the former Army Commander had said had breached the ethics of his profession. He explained that even a professional who works for a biscuit factory is not supposed to reveal its recipes if he joins a competitor’s company. “Gen. Fonseka had, therefore, seriously violated the ethics associated with the army,” he said.

It is clear that the government has indirectly confirmed that, what appeared in the ‘Sunday Leader’ is the truth and the general should be penalized for exposing this highly guarded truth. There were reports in various websites about the killing of the LTTE leadership around 17 of May 2009. The most wide spread story was that, with international agreement the LTTE leadership was requested to come forward to surrender which they accepted. They came in batches with white flags and all were taken into one room. Then instead of treating them as prisoners of war they were all clubbed to death. Even children, including young girls, were murdered. Though there were confirmations of this event it did not have any credibility as no confirmation came from the side of the Sinhala army. Now, not only the general who led the war but also the very government has indirectly confirmed the development, though not the details. Now both parties have got into a tangle from which neither can get out easily. The general has to explain why he kept his mouth shut all this time, and why he did not check the media story with Major general Shavindra Silva before going public. On the other hand, if the army was so professional and apolitical under his leadership how did Shavindra implement any order given by Gotabaya, without his knowledge. In the case of Lasantha’s murder General Sarath vouched, that the army men could not have been used for a political purpose as they were strictly professional. But in this case he suspects that Shavindra has been used for a political end by Gotabaya. General Fonseka cannot have it both ways; either the army was professional and could not be used for political murders or it was possible for some higher up to have used the army to kill Lasantha and attack other media men.


Whatever maybe the outcome of the investigation promised by the parties involved, the war has not indeed created heroes but only suspects of war crimes. Modern Dutugemunus have behaved like barbarians. In the case of the ancient war in 3rd century BC, narrated in the Mahawansa, the old Elara had invited the young Gemunu for a duel in order to avoid the mass killing. For the old man it was a sacrifice and after his death Gemunu gave the utmost respect and even today the Sinhala people pay homage to the statue of Elara.

This Sinhala story stands in contrast to that of the ancient Greeks. In the latter, the Greek hero Achilles drags the dead body of vanquished Trojan leader Hector, which was tied to his chariot, disregarding the cries of Hectors family. But according to this new story Mahinda has surpassed the ancient myths by the brutality shown to the surrendered LTTE leaders. Whatever may be the result of the proposed investigation on this matter the damage done to our country and the people is irreparable. The political bankruptcy of both parties is shown in debates and abuses that are going on. To gain respect and dignity for all, both these camps should be rejected.

© Lakbima News

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Monday, December 21, 2009

On Lasantha, media freedom and human rights: Interview with Journalist Dilrukshi Handunnetti

Interview with Dilrukshi Handunnetti from Centre for Policy Alternatives on Vimeo.

“Governments usually don’t take notice of silent majorities” says well known investigative and environmental journalism Dilrukshi Handunnetti in this video interview with Groundviews.

To commemorate Human Rights Day 2009 (falling on 10 December) Groundviews interviewed a number of leading activists in Sri Lanka to find out their perspectives on current challenges facing human rights in post-war Sri Lanka. In general, activists featured were asked to comment on the Sri Lankan State’s protection of human rights, the nexus between human rights and human dignity and opportunities for greater human rights protection over the coming years.

Dilrukshi is a lawyer by training having specialized in international law. A journalist for over 17 years, she has extensively covered the areas of politics, conflict, environment, culture, and history and gender issues.

The interview focussed on media freedom and the freedom of expression in Sri Lanka. Dilrukshi flagged the use of the reprehensible Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) post-war and against independent media through the sentencing of Tamil journalism J.S. Tissainayagam. The severe deterioration in media freedom and the freedom of expression since 2005 was flagged, as well as the assassination of senior journalist and Editor of the Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wickremetunge. Dilrukshi more generally expressed concern over the deterioration of human rights in South Asia, and that citizens in Sri Lanka were today denied basic freedoms and rights enshrined in the constitution with complete impunity.


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Monday, December 21, 2009

Sri Lankan guards 'sexually abused girls' in Tamil refugee camp

A British medic held for months in an internment camp for Tamil civilians has revealed how military guards dealt out cruel punishments, while many suspected of links to Tiger rebels were taken away and have not been seen since.

Gethin Chamberlain - Tamil women interned after escaping the horrors of the civil war in Sri Lanka were sexually abused by their guards who traded sex for food, a British medic has revealed.

Vany Kumar, who was locked up behind barbed wire in the Menik Farm refugee camp for four months, also claims prisoners were punished by being made to kneel for hours in the hot sun, and those suspected of links to the defeated Tamil Tigers were taken away and not seen again by their families.

Kumar, 25, from Essex, was released from internment in September, but has waited until now to reveal the full scale of her ordeal in the hope of avoiding reprisals against friends and family held with her. They have now been released after the Sri Lankan government bowed to international pressure this month and opened the camps.

The Sri Lankan government confirmed to the Observer that it had received reports from United Nations agencies of physical and sexual abuse within the camps, but maintained that it had not been possible to substantiate the allegations. It denied that prisoners had disappeared. In response, a UN spokesman accused Colombo of "doing everything it could" to obstruct attempts to monitor the welfare of the hundreds of thousands interned in the camps.

Kumar, a biomedical graduate, was incarcerated in May in what she describes as a "concentration camp", along with nearly 300,000 Tamil civilians who managed to escape the slaughter which accompanied the defeat of the Tamil Tiger rebels, who had been fighting for 25 years for a separate state on the island. Working amid heavy shelling in an improvised field hospital, she had spent months helping save the lives of hundreds of civilians wounded as they were caught between advancing government soldiers and the cornered Tigers.

Sri Lanka has consistently denied mistreating the detainees, but Kumar's damning new evidence will bolster the claims of human rights organisations which have repeatedly criticised the government in Colombo.

Speaking at the family home in Chingford, she accused the Sri Lankan government of persecuting Tamils as it sought to round up rebels who had escaped the fighting. "It was a concentration camp, where people were not even allowed to talk, not even allowed to go near the fences," she said. "They were kept from the outside world. The government didn't want people to tell what happened to them, about the missing or the disappearances or the sexual abuse. They didn't want anyone to know.

"Sexual abuse is something that was a common thing, that I personally saw. In the visitor area relatives would be the other side of the fence and we would be in the camp. Girls came to wait for their relatives and military officers would come and touch them, and that's something I saw.

"The girls usually didn't talk back to them, because they knew that in the camp if they talked anything could happen to them. It was quite open, everyone could see the military officers touching the girls," she said.

"Tamil girls usually don't talk about sexual abuse, they won't open their mouths about it, but I heard the officers were giving the women money or food in return for sex. These people were desperate for everything."

She said prisoners who complained about their treatment were singled out by the guards. "One time I saw an old man was waiting to visit the next camp and this military officer hit the old man. I don't know what the argument was, but the officer just hit him in the back.

"In the same area people were made to kneel down in the hot weather for arguing with the officers. Sometimes it lasted for hours."

Sometimes white vans appeared in the camp and took people away. White vans hold a particular terror in Sri Lanka, where they are associated with the abduction of thousands of people by death squads. "They were asking people to come in and take their names down if they had any sort of contact [with the Tamil Tigers]. They did an investigation and then a van would come in and they would take them away and nobody would know after that. I know people still searching for family members."

Kumar said that on arrival at the camp, near the northern town of Vavuniya, she was put in a large tent with several people she did not know. The camp was guarded by armed soldiers and ringed with high fences and rolls of razor wire. "The first two or three days I was alone there still scare me. When I arrived at the camp I put my bag down and just cried. That feeling still won't go. I just don't want to think about those two or three days in the camp, the fear about what was going to happen to me.

"For the first few days I didn't eat anything. We didn't know where to go to get food. I thought, 'Am I dreaming or is this really happening?' I never thought I would end up in a camp." Tens of thousands of people were crammed into flimsy tents which provided little respite from the intense heat. Toilets and washing facilities could not cope with the demands and food and water were in short supply.

"You have to bathe in an open area in front of others, which I find very uneasy. I stayed next to the police station, so every day I had a bath with the police officers looking at me, men and women. Everyone can see you when you are having a bath. So I would get up early in the morning about 3.30am, so it was dark," she said.

Kumar was held in the best-equipped part of the camp, but even there conditions were dire. "It is not a standard a human being can live in. The basic needs like water and food [were] always a problem. Most of the time you were queuing for water.

"The toilets were terrible, and there was not enough water, so we could not clean them. There were insects and flies everywhere. After two or three days of continuous rain, the sewage was floating on the water and going into the tents and everyone [was] walking through it, up to knee height." She was finally released into the custody of the British High Commission in early September.

The Sri Lankan government says it is aware of allegations of sexual abuse and punishment of prisoners, but denied large-scale abuse. Rajiva Wijesinha, the permanent secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, said "there was a lot of sex going on" inside the camp, but he claimed that most reports involved abuse by fellow detainees. "I can't tell you nothing happened, because I wasn't there," he said. "Individual aberrations could have happened, but our position is 'Please tell us and they will be looked into'."

He said he was aware of one report from a UN agency, but claimed that establishing the facts was very difficult. "We received a report that a soldier went into a tent at 11pm and came out at 3am. It could have been sex for pleasure, it could have been sex for favours, or it could have been a discussion on Ancient Greek philosophy, we don't know."

As many as 100,000 people are believed to have died in Sri Lanka's 25-year civil war.

© Guardian

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