Thursday, January 21, 2010

State media turned into presidential propaganda outlets - RSF

Flouting a 15 January supreme court ruling, state-owned TV stations Rupavahini and ITN continue to openly favour President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s campaign to win another term in the presidential election to be held on 26 January with a total of 21 candidates taking part.

Detailed monitoring by Reporters Without Borders has established that 98.5 per cent of the news and current affairs air-time on these two stations on 18 and 19 January was given over to the president and his supporters. This violates the constitution, above all its seventh amendment and article 104 (b) empowering the electoral commission.

“Alarmed by Gen. Sarath Fonseka’s candidacy, President Rajapaksa and his followers are using and abusing all of the state’s resources to get the president reelected,” Reporters Without Borders said. “The TV propaganda is deafening and the figures we are releasing today are worthy of the Burmese or North Korean regimes.”

The press freedom organisation added: “We urge the supreme court and the electoral commission to use all the powers at their disposal to force Rupavahini and ITN to come to reason. This glaring media imbalance shows that the incumbent is benefiting from an advantage that is unacceptable in a democratic election.”

The Reporters Without Borders monitoring on 18 and 19 January found that, of a total of 472 minutes and 5 seconds of news and current affairs air-time on Rupavahini and ITN, Gen. Fonseka and the other opposition candidates were granted only 7 minutes and 50 seconds, or 1.6 per cent, while the president, his government and his party were granted 465 minutes and 25 seconds, in other words, nearly eight hours of air-time in just two days.

On ITN, one had to wait until the 7 p.m. Sinhalese-language news programme for coverage of opposition activity (Gen. Fonseka for 30 seconds, the UNP for 40 seconds and the JVP for 45 seconds), while President Rajapaksa got 3 minutes on the 9 a.m. programme, 2 minutes on the 10 a.m. programme, 4 minutes 45 seconds on the noon programme and 4 minutes 20 seconds on the Tamil-language programme at 6 p.m.

Rupavahini is giving the government an overwhelming air-time advantage. In the 8 p.m. Sinhalese-language news programme on 18 January, for example, the government got 8 minutes and 30 seconds and the president got 7 minutes and 10 seconds, while Gen. Fonseka, the UNP and the JVP got a combined total of just one minute. And it is deplorable that the twenty or so other candidates are totally ignored by the state media.

Granting so much time to propaganda on behalf of the incumbent is not new. On 11 January, for example, Rupavahini carried a live broadcast of President Rajapaksa’s election programme launch that lasted one hour and 15 minutes.

Even if some privately-owned media are campaigning openly for the opposition or are giving more space to the activities of all the candidates, the extremely biased coverage on the main TV stations is having an undeniable impact on the campaign. Meanwhile, Sirasa TV, a privately-owned station based in Colombo, has not resumed its independent style of coverage since it was attacked by gunmen in January 2009.

The coverage imbalance is being accompanied by a smear campaign against Gen. Fonseka, the former army commander, in certain pro-government media, prompting him to write to eight newspapers requesting apologies for articles he regards as libellous. And the website of the defence ministry, which is headed by the president’s brother, is openly campaigning against him.

Control of the state media has become crucial to the election campaign. The Commissioner of Elections has issued several reminders about the rules requiring balanced coverage and tried to introduce a Competent Authority to monitor the TV stations, but the president’s office resisted. The supreme court’s ruling has also been ignored.

The president and his allies have abused other state resources in the course of the campaign. The Telecommunications Regulatory Commission, for example, forced all mobile phone operators to send SMS messages signed by President Rajapaksa to all their clients, while soldiers have been seen putting up the president’s election posters.

Cases of intimidation and violence against the media have also increased. Thakshila Dilrukshi, a journalist with the BBC’s Sinhalese-language service, was hospitalised after being attacked by supporters of a minister in the central city of Polonnaruwa on 13 January. Her equipment and personal effects were stolen during the assault, which occurred after she covered a clash between Rajapaksa and Fonseka followers.

The Colombo-based Sunday Leader, outspoken weekly, was raided the same day by police bearing a warrant who claimed to have been tipped off about the printing of "defamatory" posters.

Freelance journalist Jude Samantha was assaulted while covering clashes between government and opposition supporters on 16 January in Madurankuliya, in the western district of Puttalam.

© Reporters Without Borders

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Thursday, January 21, 2010

United Nations concern over Sri Lanka poll violence

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has expressed alarm at the violence surrounding the run-up to Sri Lanka's presidential election.

He has urged all political parties and their supporters to "refrain from violence... and to avoid provocative acts throughout the election period".

At least four people have been killed in poll-related violence in the weeks leading up to the election.

The 26 January vote is taking place amid heightened tension.

Gen Sarath Fonseka, Sri Lanka's former army chief is the main rival to President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

He resigned from his post as chief of defence staff in November following differences with the government over who should take credit for defeating the Tamil Tiger rebels last May.

Worsening violence

"The secretary general is concerned about the growing violence in the lead-up to the presidential election in Sri Lanka, including the reported killing of political activists," a UN statement said.

Sri Lankan groups monitoring the presidential election campaign say the levels of election-related violence and misuse of state resources are at their worst for at least 20 years.

Scores of people have also been wounded in the violence, with more than 20 instances of firearms used or deployed as a threat, Rajith Keerthi Tennakoon, of the Campaign for Free and Fair Elections, told the BBC's Charles Haviland in Colombo.

He said he believed both sides were "aggressively moving towards a violent election" and he feared it would worsen.

The Sri Lankan army defeated the Tamil Tiger rebels last May, ending 26 years of civil war.

The rebels were fighting for a separate Tamil homeland.

© BBC News

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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Heroes Cross Swords in Sri Lanka

Brahma Chellaney - Two celebrated heroes who, as president and army chief, helped end Sri Lanka’s long and brutal civil war against the Tamil Tigers are now crossing political swords. Whichever candidate wins Sri Lanka’s presidential election on January 26 will have to lead that small but strategically located island-nation in a fundamentally different direction – from making war, as it has done for more than a quarter-century, to making peace through ethnic reconciliation and power sharing.

Sri Lanka, almost since independence in 1948, has been racked by acrimonious rivalry between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils, who make up 12% of today’s 21.3-million population. Now the country is being divided by the political rivalry between two Sinhalese war idols, each of whom wants to be remembered as the true leader who crushed the Tamil Tiger guerrillas.

The antagonism between President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the now-retired General Sarath Fonseka has been in the making for months. No sooner had Sri Lanka’s military crushed the Tamil Tigers – who ran a de facto state for more than two decades in the north and east – than Rajapaksa removed Fonseka as army chief to appoint him to the new, largely ceremonial post of chief of defense staff.

Once the four-star general was moved to the new position, his relationship with the president began to sour. After rumors swirled of an army coup last fall, the president, seeking military assistance should the need arise, alerted India.

When Rajapaksa decided last November to call an early election to help cash in on his war-hero status with the Sinhalese, he had a surprise waiting for him: anticipating the move, Fonseka submitted his resignation so that he could stand against the incumbent as the common opposition candidate. In his bitter resignation letter, the general accused Rajapaksa of “ unnecessarily placing Indian troops on high alert” and failing to “win the peace in spite of the fact that the army under my leadership won the war.”

Now the political clash between the two men – both playing the Sinhalese nationalist card while wooing the Tamil minority – has overshadowed the serious economic and political challenges confronting Sri Lanka.

Years of war have left Sri Lanka’s economy strapped for cash. Despite a $2.8 billion International Monetary Fund bailout package, the economy continues to totter, with inflation soaring and public-sector salary disputes flaring. The government, desperate to earn foreign exchange, has launched a major campaign to attract international tourists.

But a vulnerable economy dependent on external credit has only helped increase pressure on Sri Lanka to investigate allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity. This was a war with no witnesses, as the government barred independent journalists and observers from the war zone. Yet the United Nations estimates that more than 7,000 noncombatants were killed in the final months of the war as government forces overran Tamil Tiger bases.

How elusive the peace dividend remains can be seen from the government’s decision to press ahead with the expansion of an already-large military. The Sri Lankan military is bigger in troop strength than the British and Israeli militaries, having expanded five-fold since the late 1980’s to more than 200,000 troops today. In victory, that strength is being raised further, in the name of “eternal vigilance.”

With an ever-larger military machine backed by village-level militias, civil society has been the main loser. Sweeping emergency regulations remain in place, arming the security forces with expansive powers of search, arrest, and seizure of property. Individuals can still be held in unacknowledged detention for up to 18 months.

Now calls are growing for the government to surrender the special powers that it acquired during the war and end the control of information as an instrument of state policy. Fonseka has promised to curtail the almost unchecked powers that the president now enjoys and free thousands of young Tamil men suspected of rebel links. Rajapaksa, for his part, has eased some of the travel restrictions in the Tamil-dominated north after opening up sealed camps where more than 270,000 Tamils were interned for months. More than 100,000 still remain in those camps.

Neither of the two main candidates, though, has promised to tackle the country’s key challenge: transforming Sri Lanka from a unitary state into a federation that grants provincial and local autonomy. After all, the issues that triggered the civil war were rooted in the country’s post-independence moves to fashion a mono-ethnic national identity, best illustrated by the 1956 “Sinhalese only” language policy and the 1972 Constitution’s elimination of a ban on discrimination against minorities. Sri Lanka is the only country, along with Malaysia, with affirmative action for the majority ethnic community.

As the incumbent with control over the state machinery and media support, Rajapaksa has the edge in the election. But, with the fractured opposition rallying behind Fonseka and a moderate Tamil party also coming out in support of him, this election may produce a surprise result.

Whichever “hero” wins, however, building enduring peace and stability in war-scarred Sri Lanka requires a genuine process of national reconciliation and healing. The country’s future hinges on it.

Brahma Chellaney, a former member of India’s National Security Council, is a professor of Strategic Studies at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi and the author of “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan”.

© Project Syndicate

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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Sri Lanka: Countdown begins

B. Muralidhar Reddy - The year 2010 will be a watershed year in Sri Lankan politics irrespective of whether or not the incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa becomes for the second time the people’s choice for the country’s most powerful executive job.

No Sri Lanka-watcher would have imagined a few months ago that the January 26 presidential election, called prematurely by Rajapaksa two years before his current term was to end, would turn out to be a contest mainly between the President, with 40 years of political experience, and General Sarath Fonseka, the military commander who prematurely retired from service and entered politics a few months ago. One week is a long time in politics; and there could be very few instances in contemporary history where the dictum has proved so accurate.

What makes the presidential race supremely ironic is not only the circumstances and situation that have pitted Rajapaksa and Fonseka against each other, but also the fact that they have pushed under the carpet the core issues pertaining to the root cause of the ethnic conflict. In the words of Tisaranee Gunasekara, a perceptive writer and a keen observer of Sri Lanka politics, the contest has been reduced to a clash of egos between the President and the man who claims to be the main architect of the military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

In an article penned for the Kathmandu-based Himal magazine under the title “Election on a precipice”, the author says, “Most Sinhalese regard President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Defence Secretary and brother of the first citizen Gotabhaya Rajapakse and Commander of the Army Sarath Fonseka as the ‘heroic trinity’ responsible for their historic triumph over the LTTE. Today, that war-time triumvirate has collapsed and the Sinhala South is compelled to witness the unseemly sight of its saviours battling each other for power.”

How, when and why did the situation come to this pass? The answers to these questions are indeed crucial during the presidential campaign, what with a cacophony of high-pitched voices in both the camps trading callous charges. There is enough direct and circumstantial evidence by now to prove that it all began no sooner than the LTTE was defeated militarily and its supreme leader, Velupillai Prabakaran, was slain in May 2009.

First, it was a tussle for the spoils of war and for the credit for the successful military campaign against the Tigers. Fonseka, who faced an attempt on his life by a suspected LTTE woman suicide cadre, is convinced that it was the single-minded pursuit of the men and women under his command that delivered the results.

Even if one were to evaluate the victory purely through the prism of a military battle, the simplistic assertion conveniently ignores the role played by the Air Force, the Navy, various wings of the intelligence, the disgruntled elements within the Tigers, the altered world view on the LTTE’s acts of violence, and the role played by all the neighbours of Sri Lanka, India in particular.

It would be unfair to leave the President out of the equation involving factors and personalities that contributed to the decimation of the LTTE. Rajapaksa fought and won the 2005 presidential election on the plank of the liberation of the island nation from the clutches of the LTTE. His election manifesto, endorsed by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the Jathika Hela Urumaya (National Heritage Party), among other things, explicitly talked about the abrogation of the Norwegian-brokered 2002 Cease Fire Agreement (CFA) and the ouster of Norway as the official facilitator of the peace talks between the government and the Tigers. The Rajapaksa regime demonstrated a rare raw courage in warding off pressures from very influential quarters, particularly the United States, on the war against the LTTE and on several other matters.

The death of Prabakaran and the near elimination of the Tigers from the shores of Sri Lanka has meant that there will be no war on the island, but for real peace to dawn much work is necessary – to win the hearts and minds of the Tamils and other minority communities in the North and East. To prepare a road map to peace, the active participation of all mainstream political parties of both the majority and minority communities is imperative. But the presidential election has only further accentuated the polarisation of Sri Lankan society.

The President, in his capacity as the supreme commander of the armed forces, did contribute to cementing the retired general’s perception that he was the real war hero by giving him a blank cheque in the course of the 34-month-long Eelam War IV. The President and his managers had then defended to the hilt some of the high-handed tactics of the general, fashioned with the knowledge, and sometimes at the behest, of Gotabhaya Rajapakse. An impression was allowed to gain ground that the Army under Fonseka was infallible and its conduct was above scrutiny.

There is little doubt that the decision of Rajapaksa to advance the election was opportunistic, aimed at cashing in on the euphoria in the majority community, which constitutes 75 per cent of the electorate. He simply did not want to take chances by letting the parliamentary elections, due before April 22, decide the future course of events. He was determined to secure a second term for himself and thus be in a commanding position to decide on the contours of the new Parliament and tailor a political solution of his choice to the ethnic problem.

Rajapaksa had not factored in the possibility of Fonseka throwing a spanner in his works. The retired general had a score to settle, particularly after he was relieved of his responsibilities as the Army chief on July 15 and shunted to what he termed as the powerless office of the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS). A stubborn and slighted Fonseka, egged on by the mainstream opposition parties, did not take kindly to the President sidelining him after Prabakaran’s death and so plunged into politics.

Faced with a seemingly invincible Rajapaksa, the opposition parties, diametrically opposed to each other on every major issue of debate in Sri Lankan society, have clung to the retired general like the proverbial last straw. Little thought has gone into the consequences of propping up a man who until the other day was portrayed as the worst Army chief in the 60 years of independent Sri Lanka as the ideal candidate to take on Rajapaksa.

Fonseka has undoubtedly put life into what otherwise would have been a listless presidential race. Projecting himself as Mr Clean and as the harbinger of the much-needed break from the dynastic politics of the Rajapaksa clan, the retired general, with ample help from the political rivals of the President, has managed to catch the imagination of some of the electoral constituencies.

Predictably, it comes with heavy costs. To begin with, it would be the first presidential election in the island nation in which there is just one contender from a mainstream political party. The general has succeeded in bringing the two arch rivals, the main opposition United National Party and the ultra-nationalist JVP, on one platform, but the moot question is for what purpose and duration. The attendant danger in the candidature of Fonseka is that for the first time in Sri Lanka a mainstream effort is being made to politicise the military, which has unswervingly stuck to its job unlike some of its counterparts in the region.

The development could not have happened at a more inopportune time as the country stands at a crossroads of history following the comprehensive military defeat of the LTTE. There was and still is an opportunity to redefine and settle the terms of the unstable relationship between the 75 per cent Sinhalese majority and the Tamil and Muslim minorities on the basis of genuine devolution, equality, and justice. However, going by the conduct of the influential sections on both sides so far, there is a good chance that Sri Lanka will yet again miss the bus. The mud-slinging and recrimination has touched a new low. The campaign by sections of Rajapaksa loyalists hitting the general below the belt, with all kinds of allegations, is a matter of serious concern.

The general, on his part, wittingly or perhaps acting as per someone else’s script, in an interview to a Sunday weekly, stunned the nation with a charge that the Defence Secretary had instructed a key ground commander in the North that all LTTE leaders must be killed and not allowed to surrender. The reference was to Nadesan, Pulidevan and Ramesh, who reportedly wanted to surrender but whose bodies were discovered on the morning of May 18. Within 24 hours of the interview, the general went back on his statement, but the damage had already been done. Doubts about the events in the last few days of the war in general and the fate of the LTTE leaders and their families have been revived. The government, on its part, only messed it up further, first by talking about taking the general to the court and, subsequently, putting the matter in cold storage by referring the interview and a letter from the United Nations on the basis of Fonseka’s comments to a ministerial committee with the mandate submit to a report before the parliamentary elections.

As voting approaches, there is an air of uncertainty with apprehensions of bloody clashes. Doomsday scenarios are being speculated and the minorities feel vulnerable. Pro-LTTE elements, still day-dreaming about their Eelam project with little concern for the plight of the nearly three lakh war displaced, are also complicating matters for the very community whose interests they claim to champion.

There is just no evidence of any introspection or realisation of the ground realities among them in the post-Prabakaran era. Publius, a commentator in the Sri Lanka-based citizen’s journalism initiative “groundviews”, in an article titled “Dayan Jayatilleka’s critique of Tamil nationalism: A comment” said:

“It is a question Tamil nationalism should have started asking itself several years ago, in my view the last opportunity was the ceasefire period commencing 2002, when an unprecedented domestic and international political space opened up for the constitutional institutionalisation of an extraordinary level of autonomy short of independence....

“As it happened, the remarkable achievement at Oslo on 5th December 2002, when both federalism and internal self-determination were put into a negotiating framework, was cheaply and vaingloriously squandered. Thus the unitary state will always win over devolution. In these circumstances, and keeping in mind that 2009 merely ended the war in Sri Lanka, but not its defining conflicts of pluralism, both honesty and consistency require that we stop pretending that devolution under the unitary state, in terms of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of 1978 together with our unreconstructed political culture is something that is remotely viable, if we are serious about power-sharing in 2010.”

© Frontline

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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Sri Lanka War Chiefs Fight for Peace Spoils

By Melanie Gouby - He may seem the most unlikely candidate of all, but former army chief General Sarath Fonseka has shaken off the Sri Lankan establishment and engaged in a fierce campaign to beat his former ally to the presidential throne.

General Fonseka, the very man who led the army to victory, and once part of current president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s inner circle, dramatically turned against the power in place and declared he would run against his old friend in the election.

President Rajapaksa had called for early elections, hoping to strengthen his rule thanks to the nationalist sentiments prevailing in Sri Lanka following his government’s victory over the Tamil Tigers rebels last spring, ending a 26-year civil war.

Rajapaksa was expected to win the January 26th election hands down - but he didn’t reckon on Fonseka entering the fray.

As a military man who took tough decisions in the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) guerilla movement, Fonseka was not exactly the designated candidate for the opposition, and certainly not for the Tamil minority.

Nevertheless, last Wednesday the Tamil National Alliance, a party representing the Tamil population, declared it would “request from all Sri Lankans … to vote for General Sarath Fonseka”.

The campaign revolves around ethnic issues, but little is being said by either candidate about actual policies or how they will realise their lofty promises of good governance and economical revival.

Fonseka has committed himself to abolishing the executive presidency – which currently gives the president over-arching power – as well as fighting corruption and making concessions to the Tamil minority.

He promises to grant an amnesty to former militants and says that government troops will return occupied private lands to their Tamils owners.

But Fonseka is also an ardent Sinhalese nationalist and has yet to declare he will make concrete political concessions to the Tamils and recognise their right to self-determination. Some think his courtship of the Tamil population is simply a calculated electoral move.

“Personally I don’t believe him because he made literal statements as the leader of the army, saying that the minorities don’t have a place here,” said Sheila Richards, the head of a Colombo-based peace and reconciliation NGO. “The military is also behind the violation of media rights and the lack of freedom of expression.”

Fonseka promised he would pass a freedom of information law, and recently claimed that Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the Minister of Defence and brother of Mahinda, should take responsibility for the killing of journalists in recent years.

At the heart of the feud between Fonseka and the Rajapaksa brothers lies a dispute over both who should take credit for the victory against the LTTE, and who is to blame for the high civilian death toll.

It was army chief General Fonseka who commanded the troops that finally defeated the LTTE after 26 years of bloody civil war, but President Rajapaksa credited the victory mainly to himself and his brother.

And when Fonseka was asked by US officials to testify in an investigation into possible war crimes in November, palpable tensions began to emerge within the power triumvirate.

Fonseka later declared that he would welcome such investigations once he was elected, and accused Gotabaya Rajapaksa of being responsible for the alleged crimes.

Since then, the election has been little more than a media circus, with each side hurling accusations at the other.

This blame game does not fool many Sri Lankans. To many, Fonseka is just the lesser of two evils, an anti-establishment candidate who will keep the establishment running.

“We are left with the choice of an extremely corrupt, centralised government which has disregarded the written constitution and runs the country like it’s a family business, or we've got an ex-General who was hired for the job purely due to his ruthless past and is just a mouthpiece for the opposing parties at the moment,” complains Sammath Gammampila, a 22-year-old Sinhalese student.

“What can you expect of someone like him, who led the war and denies his implication in the violation of human rights during the war? He was leading the army. But the presidency will be more ruthless if Rajapaksa is elected,” adds Sheila Richards.

Even if he is genuine about his fight against corruption, General Fonseka will be confronted by the realities of Sri Lanka’s establishment.

“The way things are now, it will be difficult to change it rapidly. Because Fonseka comes from a background that is close to this corrupted power, he was at the top of the army, it seems unlikely that those promises will be kept,” explains an opposition MP who wishes to remain anonymous.

On top of this, Sri Lankans wonder whether Fonseka will have what it takes to turn around the economy and bring them the comfort they are longing for.

“Full stomachs, a home and a job, that’s what most people want. They have forgotten long ago about their rights and about democracy. The war brainwashed them into thinking that this near state of dictatorship is normal,” adds the opposition MP.

But the rival candidates have barely touched on the economy during the campaign, and Fonseka’s manifesto does not make promises beyond easing the cost of living and providing employment for the country’s youth.

The reality is that economic issues may well be left in the hands of foreign powers, with India and China struggling to impose their respective spheres of influence over Sri Lanka.

New Delhi has a history of meddling in the island’s politics, and it was thanks to an Indian intelligence tip-off that Fonseka was ousted from his position in the army, according to Seema Sengupta, a freelance journalist based in Kolkata, India.

This is likely to push Fonseka closer to China, who largely funded last year’s decisive attack on the LTTE.

Whoever is elected will have to choose his allies carefully, but a stable Sri Lanka will also require foreign powers to act responsibly.

“India, as the largest South Asian neighbour, will be required to play a constructive role in ensuring that Sri Lanka can prosper”, says Sengupta. However, international pressure has had little effect in bending the will of the Sri Lankan elite either during or since the war last year.

Tamil voters, the “kingmakers” in the election according to observers, will have difficulty forgetting recent events and the ruthlessness with which they were repressed.

On the 26th, they will have to make a tough call on Fonseka – is the enemy of their enemy their friend?

© Open Democracy

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Thursday, January 21, 2010

War refugees struggle to rebuild in Sri Lanka

By Krishan Francis - The vast rice fields of Kilinochchi are overgrown with shrubs. The herds of cattle and goats have disappeared. The tractors and motorcycles are gone. Buildings and homes have been bombed into heaps of concrete rubble.

War refugees have found little left of their old lives as they trickle back to their villages in the former Tamil Tiger stronghold eight months after Sri Lankan forces crushed the rebel group.

"We are happy to be back but confused about what to do next," Subramanium Muthurasu, 66, said. "We have to start farming, but we don't have the resources. We stand empty-handed."

Muthurasu, who once grew rice and tended cattle in the village of Karaichchi, is desperate to find a way to make money now that he has the extra responsibility of taking care of his daughter, widowed by the war, and her five children.

The government says the returnees are getting food rations and money to help them out, but conceded it was not enough.

"You should understand that this is a poor country, you will not be able to give everything at one go," said Maj. Gen. Kamal Gunaratne, the military official in charge of the hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians displaced by the fighting.

Journalists from The Associated Press were granted rare permission to visit the former battlefield just weeks before a hard-fought presidential election pitting President Mahinda Rajapaksa against former army chief Gen. Sarath Fonseka. Both men, considered war heroes by the Sinhalese majority, are heavily courting the Tamil vote with promises of aid to the war-wracked minority as it tries to rebuild from the conflict.

For more than a quarter-century, this Indian Ocean island nation was consumed by the conflict between the Sinhalese-dominated government and the ethnic Tamil separatists who were fighting for an independent state in the jungles of the north.

The rebels controlled a vast swath of the area, set up a de facto state with police, courts and banks, and used Kilinochchi as their administrative capital.

The economy of the rebel-held region had long been stifled by the war, with a government blockade keeping out everything from gasoline to cement. But agriculture thrived and some entrepreneurs managed to run shops and small industries producing soap and cologne.

All that disappeared last January when government forces overran the area, sending the insurgents and the residents fleeing deeper into rebel territory. Some civilians managed to grab their valuables and drive off with their motorbikes, but were eventually forced to abandon everything as the offensive swept over them. Those with money in rebel banks saw their savings instantly disappear.

According to U.N. documents, more than 7,000 civilians were killed in the final months of the fighting. About 300,000 Tamils were forced into government detention camps, awaiting government permission to return to their homes.

Kilinochchi today looks like a garrison town with dozens of military camps, large and small, every few hundred yards (meters0 and soldiers patrolling the streets. Rebel monuments have been replaced by army war memorials.

No building is without damage and the streets are nearly empty, because only 8,000 of the district's estimated 120,000 pre-war residents have returned.

Gunaratne said about 70 percent of people in camps have gone home or live with relatives and friends. Some others live in transit camps, cleaning up their land before moving back.

The returnees receive a resettlement package of $250 from the United Nations refugee agency, six months of food rations, 12 tin roof sheets and a tent.

In the village of Karaichchi, soldiers have also built mud and thatch huts as temporary shelters to protect returning families from the rain and helped clean up land and wells.

Returnees say the resettlement package is not enough for them to make the needed investments in cleaning up and replanting their farms or restarting businesses.

"Is this enough to start our lives?'" asked Ramiah Rajamani as he used the tin sheets to cover his hut in Puliyankulam village south of Kilinochchi.

Rajamani said he saved $150 of the $250 grant to resume farming. He will need twice that amount to cultivate his two-acre farm, he said.

"The government doesn't have a roadmap as far as resettlement is concerned," said Suresh Premachandran, an ethnic Tamil lawmaker. He accused the government of taking over private property for military camps and continuing to block international aid groups from helping the people.

Gunaratne said the government was not willing to compromise on security so soon after defeating the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

"We have to prevent the remnants of the LTTE or germs of terrorism filtering back to the villages," he said.

But he said the government was also trying to help the residents, lending them its own tractors to plow the fields, and it plans to distribute rice seed as well.

UNHCR spokeswoman Sulakshani Perera said the U.N. was distributing food rations and hygiene kits in resettled villages.

"The need to develop livelihoods remains a key issue that must be tackled in order to ensure that the returns are durable," she said.

Some of the returning refugees are working to make the most of their situation.

Ramasamy Kanthasamy, a 50-year-old father of three, once ran a restaurant along the roadside and owned more than 600 goats, cows and sheep, which he was forced to abandon. Their loss cost him around $40,000, an unimaginable fortune here, he said.

He now sells cookies, tea and cigarettes he bought with his government grant out of a hut he built out of his tin and plastic sheets on the site of his former restaurant.

"We have lost everything, but I know how to do business," he said. "With some help I can rise."

© The Washington Post

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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Sri Lanka: A Human Rights Agenda for Sri Lanka’s Presidential Candidates - Amnesty International

Read the Human Rights Agenda for Candidates

Amnesty International calls on all candidates standing in Sri Lanka’s Presidential elections on January 26th to end widespread human rights violations and the culture of impunity that continues to plague the country.

On Monday (18), the organization issued a 10-point Human Rights Agenda for all candidates.

“Candidates should commit to restoring respect for basic rights, like life and liberty, ending arbitrary arrests and detention, enforced disappearances and torture, and to restoring respect for freedom of expression,” said Yolanda Foster, Amnesty International’s Sri Lanka specialist. “In the longer run, what’s needed is to rebuild Sri Lanka’s institutions so that they can protect efficiently and without discrimination. That’s the only way to restore public faith in the justice system.”

More than 20 candidates are standing in the elections with President Mahinda Rajapaksa, and his former Army Commander and Chief of Defence Staff, retired General Sarath Fonseka the main contenders. Both have taken credit for the military victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May, while at the same time attempting to evade blame for grave violations of human rights and humanitarian law.

Thousands of people died in the last phase of the war when government forces fired artillery into areas densely populated with civilians. The LTTE used civilians as human shields, opened fire on and killed civilians who attempted to escape. Survivors were forcibly confined for months to displacement camps guarded by the Sri Lankan military. The government relaxed restrictions on freedom of movement in December, but in the camps or outside, these civilians need assistance and protection.

“As the Sri Lankan people contend with the most recent abuses committed by both sides of the recent conflict, the reality is that they have been haunted by injustice and impunity for years”, said Yolanda Foster. “Accounting for the conduct of combatants and their superiors during the fighting is crucial, but accounting for the past is only part of the challenge. This election could be an opportunity to improve the human rights of millions of people, but this can only happen if the authorities make a real commitment to respect rights and enact reforms.”

“Immediate steps can be taken to improve human rights protection. The government must repeal emergency laws like the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Journalists like J.S Tissanaiyagam have been wrongly imprisoned under these regulations while hundreds of prisoners held without charge or trial are simply forgotten”.

More than 11,000 people are currently held without charge by the army in school buildings and other ad hoc detention camps in northern Sri Lanka. The army suspects they are LTTE members who fled the conflict zone along with civilians; there are hundreds of other suspected LTTE members detained without charge in jails and lock-ups elsewhere in the country.

The authorities must stop using irregular places of detention and must end the dangerous practice of incommunicado detention, which increases the likelihood of torture and enforced disappearances, of which Amnesty International has received reports.

“There is a long history of enforced disappearances and torture is widespread across Sri Lanka, especially in the north and east of the country and in the capital Colombo. Amnesty International calls on candidates to commit to ending these practices and to bring national laws into accordance with international standards,” said Yolanda Foster.

Amnesty International urged all candidates to commit to ending grave violations against people expressing dissenting views, including human rights activists, lawyers and journalists.

“Sri Lanka is one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists to work with 15 journalists being killed since 2004, and many others going into hiding and fearing for their lives. Lawyers and human rights activists have been threatened and attacked. People have lost faith in the justice system and there has been a chilling effect on freedom of expression and association in the country” said Yolanda Foster.

“People in Sri Lanka are tired of the rule of the gun and long for the rule of law. Sri Lanka needs to make a fresh start and end impunity for violations of human rights and humanitarian law. It’s time for the government to turn their promises into real action and act now on human rights abuses,”said Yolanda Foster.

About 100,000 people who fled the northern war zone remain in camps, dependent on the government for shelter and relief. Many more are in the early stages of attempted return or resettlement and continue to require protection and humanitarian assistance. Ensuring protection, assistance and respect for the rights of Sri Lanka’s displaced and newly resettled survivors of war remains an urgent priority.

Journalists and human rights defenders have been denied access to camps housing displaced persons and have been prevented from monitoring and reporting on conditions faced by survivors and documenting their experiences in the war zone.

Displaced people must have the right to freedom of movement, liberty and security of person, the right to health, education and to adequate standards of living.

© Amnesty International

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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Sri Lanka’s Choice

Chris Patten - Pity the poor Sri Lankan voter. As presidential elections loom on January 26, the public is faced with a choice between two candidates who openly accuse each other of war crimes.

The current exchange of charges and counter-charges between retired Gen. Sarath Fonseka and President Mahinda Rajapaksa must be particularly confusing to those Sri Lankans who consider both to be war heroes rather than war criminals. Many from the ethnic Sinhalese majority feel that, regardless of the human costs in the last months of the long-running civil war that ended last year, both leaders deserve credit for finally finishing off the terrorist 
Tamil Tiger rebels.

With the Sinhalese nationalist vote thus split, the two candidates are focusing their energies on winning the votes of the country’s minority ethnic Tamils — which is surely one of the stranger political ironies of early 2010. After all, both General Fonseka and Rajapaksa executed the 30-year conflict to its bloody conclusion at the expense of huge numbers of Tamil 
civilian casualties.

By early May, when the war was ending, the United Nations estimated that some 7,000 civilians had died and more than 10,000 had been wounded in 2009 as the army’s noose was being drawn tight around the remaining rebels and hundreds of thousands of noncombatants, who could not escape government shelling. The final two weeks likely saw thousands more civilians killed, at the hands of both the army 
and the rebels.

After the war, the Tamils’ plight continued. The government interned more than a quarter million displaced Tamils, some for more than six months, in violation of both Sri Lankan and international humanitarian law. Conditions in the camps were appalling, access by international agencies was severely restricted, and independent journalists could not even visit. Barbed wire and military guards insured people could not leave or tell their stories to anyone.

By the end of 2009, most of the displaced had been moved, and the nearly 100,000 remaining in military-run camps were enjoying some freedom of movement — important steps brought about mostly as a result of international pressure and the authorities’ desire to win Tamil votes. However, a large portion of the more than 150,000 people recently sent out of the camps have not actually returned to their homes nor been resettled. They’ve been sent to and remain in “transit centers” in their home districts.

Now, put yourself in a Tamil’s shoes, and decide whom to vote for in the presidential election: Choose either the head of the government that ordered the attacks against you and your family, or the head of the army that 
carried it all out.

On January 4, the Tamil National Alliance, the most important Tamil political party, made its choice and endorsed General Fonseka after he pledged a 10-point programme of reconciliation, demilitarisation and “normalisation” of the largely Tamil north. There is some hope his plan might be a sign that top leaders realise that, after decades of brutal ethnic conflict, peace will only be consolidated when Sinhalese-dominated political parties make strong moves toward a more inclusive and 
democratic state.

What counts more than campaign promises, though, is what the winner actually does in office, and based on past performance, it is hard to imagine either candidate making the necessary constitutional reforms to end the marginalisation of Tamils and other minorities — the roots of the decades-long conflict. Left unaddressed, Tamil humiliation and frustration could well lead to militancy again.

While Sri Lankan voters face a difficult decision, for the international community, the choice is clear. Whoever wins, the outside world should use all its tools to convince the government to deal properly with those underlying issues to avoid a resurgence of 
mass violence.

In the interest of lasting peace and stability, donor governments and international institutions — India, Japan, Western donors, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank — should use their assistance to support reforms designed to protect democratic rights, tie aid to proper resettlement of the displaced, and a consultative planning process for the reconstruction of the war-ravaged, overly militarised north. UN agencies and nongovernment organisations should have full access to monitor the programmes to ensure international money is spent properly and people receiving aid are not denied their fundamental freedoms.

In short, this means not giving Colombo any money for reconstruction and development until we know how it will be spent. And if we see funds not being used as promised, it means not being afraid to cut them off until.

While there may not be much to choose between the candidates, the rift between General Fonseka and Rajapaksa — and the consequent divisions among Sinhalese nationalist parties and the renewed vigor of opposition parties — has at least put the possibility of reforms on the agenda. International leverage, correctly applied, could help expand this small window for change, leading to the democratisation and demilitarisation the country desperately needs to move finally beyond its horrific war and its bitter peace.

Chris Patten is co-chairman of 
the International Crisis Group

© Khaleej Times

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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Sri Lanka graduates above IMF low income status: Cetral Bank

Sri Lanka has moved out of the countries eligible for financing from the International Monetary Fund's poverty reduction and growth facility with greater access to capital markets and higher incomes, the Central Bank said.

"Accordingly, Sri Lanka will now be recognised as a country with a middle income emerging market status," the Central Bank said in a statement.

"This upgrade would facilitate Sri Lanka to project itself strongly in international financial and capital markets."

The Central Bank said the IMF has moved Sri Lanka out of the list of countries from the list of countries that comes under the poverty reduction growth facility trust.

Central Bank said a country graduates out of the list only after showing per capita income above the World Bank's International Development Association (IDA) threshold for a several years, has substantial and durable access to international capital markets and do not face serious short-term vulnerabilities.

The full statement is reproduced below:

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has, on 11 January 2010 graduated Sri Lanka from the list of Poverty Reduction and Growth Trust (PRGT) eligible countries.

Accordingly, Sri Lanka will now be recognised as a country with a middle income emerging market status. This upgrade would facilitate Sri Lanka to project itself strongly in international financial and capital markets.

A country graduates from PRGT only if it, (i) has enjoyed income per capita well above the International Development Association (IDA) threshold for a number of years, (ii) has the capacity for durable and substantial access to international financial markets, and (iii) does not face serious short-term vulnerabilities.

The Executive Board of the IMF has taken into account the following specific factors in considering of Sri Lanka’s graduation.

i. The strong economic performance in recent years that has substantially lifted Sri Lanka’s per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to US dollars 2,014 by 2008, well above the prevailing IDA threshold, and its per capita Gross National Income (GNI) has not been on a declining trend for the last 5 years. The strong growth performance has signalled substantial resilience to shocks, including shocks to oil prices, and to the expiration of the Multi-Fibre Agreement.

ii. The availability of an IMF Stand-by Arrangement facility as approved in July 2009 to cushion the impact of the global crisis. Further, the economic developments under the programme have been stronger than expected, with GDP growth expected to return to almost pre-crisis levels in 2010, while exports have been showing signs of recovery.

iii. The country’s public external debt being projected to decline gradually over the medium term. Although debt dynamics remain sensitive to currency depreciation and export shocks, the timely implementation of fiscal consolidation, as envisaged in the Stand-by Arrangement programme, will be crucial to ensure that the public debt remains on a sustainable path.

iv. The country’s ability to access international capital markets in the past years and its ability to meet the market access criterion. Over-subscription of the recently issued five-year sovereign bond reflected the progress made under the Fund-supported program, and signalled good prospects for continued access to international capital markets.

© Lanka Business Online

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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Army refutes claims by tribunal

By Amira Cader and Achala Dissanayake - The Sri Lankan Military today refuted the charges raised by the Dublin tribunal on Sri Lanka saying the tribunal had not conducted a proper inquiry. The tribunal had charged that Sri Lanka was guilty of war crimes and also claimed that it had gathered evidence from some soldiers.

However Military Spokesperson Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara, speaking to Daily Mirror online, said that the tribunal dose not have evidence to prove that any war crimes took place in Sri Lanka.

The People’s Tribunal on Sri Lanka (PTSL), an initiative by the Ireland peace process supported by the University of Dublin and Dublin City University, claimed there was harrowing evidence, including video footage on the use of heavy artillery and phosphorous munitions during the war in Sri Lanka and of the continuous violation of human rights by military activity.

© Daily Mirror

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