Saturday, January 23, 2010

Sri Lankan ruling party plans violence: opposition

By Fisnik Abrahi - Sri Lanka's ruling party plans to instigate violence to keep voters from the ballot box in an attempt to secure victory during the upcoming presidential election, the main opposition candidate alleged Saturday.

The accusation came on the last day of bitter campaigning between the two main architects of last year's victory over the Tamil Tiger rebels - the incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa and former army chief Sarath Fonseka - who are vying for the presidency at Tuesday's vote.

Election-related violence has marred the campaign for weeks. Five people have been killed and 78 wounded since December, according to a local group tracking the violence.

Fonseka accused Rajapaksa's party of planning to stir up violence to help it win the vote. "The violence will reduce voter attendance, than the rigging will take place," he said.

A government spokesman, Keheliya Rambukwella, denied the opposition's allegation.

"They know that there is an imminent defeat and this is their usual excuse to cover up a humiliating defeat," Rambukwella said.

Tuesday's is the country's first presidential election since the defeat of the Tamil Tiger rebels after decades of war. Both candidates have tried to cash in politically on their popularity among the Sinhalese majority for crushing the long-running insurgency.

Some 80,000 to 100,000 people were killed during the 25-year campaign by the Tiger rebels for an independent state for the ethnic Tamil minority in the country's north and east.

With the race between the two believed to be tight, both have also courted the Tamil minority, who make up about 18 percent of the population and whose members bore the brunt of the bloody conflict. The Tamil vote could be crucial to secure either candidate's victory. The main Tamil political party is supporting Fonseka.

Fonseka, who was the army chief between 2005 until 2009, also accused the government of publicly using senior members of the security forces to boost the ruling party's election chances.

Ranil Wickremesinghe, a key opposition leader and a former prime minister, said the opposition will launch street demonstrations if the vote is tainted.

"We will all get onto the street if they are not democratic," Wickremesinghe said, speaking about the elections.

Sri Lanka's elections chief, Dayananda Dissanayake, said authorities have taken all measures to prevent voting fraud, and urged security forces to ensure the safety of voters.

© Washington Post
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Saturday, January 23, 2010

Sri Lanka locked in dirtiest election for years as poll violence rises

Ralph Michael in Colombo - It was just before dawn yesterday when the bomb exploded in front of Tiran Alles’s villa in Colombo, signalling a new low in one of the dirtiest elections in Sri Lanka’s history.

By the time he rushed from his bedroom at the back of the house, the entire façade was in flames, as was his Toyota saloon in the forecourt. “Shocking,” Mr Alles, 49, told The Times as police examined the wreckage. “There’ll be more violence like this before polling day.”

Until the Tamil Tigers’ defeat in May few would have doubted that the rebels were behind an attack like this on an ethnic Sinhalese businessman. This time, the finger of suspicion points in a different direction.

Mr Alles is a key supporter of Sarath Fonseka, the former army chief, who led the campaign against the Tigers but is now challenging President Rajapaksa in an election on Tuesday.

General Fonseka has openly blamed the bombing on the President. “This shows the Government is in huge fear,” said the general. “The whole reason for my coming into politics has been justified.”

President Rajapaksa’s camp has denied any role in the attack, which did not hurt anyone. The bombing has, nonetheless, heightened fears that election violence could spiral out of control, undermining a peace that took three decades to achieve.

Four people have been killed in more than 773 registered cases of political violence, police say, compared to about 125 in the last presidential poll in 2005. “This is extraordinary,” said Keerthi Tennakoon, of the Campaign for Free & Fair Election. “We’ve not had organised election violence like this since 1989.”

So unruly has campaigning been that Ban Ki Moon, the UN chief, and Baroness Ashton of Upholland, the EU foreign policy head, both appealed for restraint this week.

Dayananda Dissanayake, Sri Lanka’s Election Commissioner, also admitted that he had given up warning police and public officials to remain impartial because they repeatedly ignored him.

Few would have predicted such mayhem in May when the army finally crushed the Tigers’ 26-year struggle to create an ethnic Tamil homeland.

Mr Rajapaksa, a Sinhalese, was hailed as a hero by his supporters, and called the election early to capitalise on his popularity. But he failed to give credit to General Fonseka, and angered him by transferring him to the powerless post of Chief of Defence Staff.

The general resigned, and declared his candidacy last month, backed by an unlikely alliance of opposition parties. “The opposition realised it didn’t have a candidate and had to find someone with an equal claim to winning the war,” said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, of the Centre for Policy Alternatives.

The general, too, has a reputation as a Sinhalese nationalist and many human rights groups accuse him and Mr Rajapaksa of committing war crimes. But his entry split the Sinhalese vote, forcing both candidates to reach out to Tamils as kingmakers.

General Fonseka has been particularly outspoken, accusing the Government of ordering the army to execute Tiger leaders as they surrendered. He also said that the Government was dragging its feet on releasing 300,000 Tamils detained in internment camps.

Mr Rajapaksa responded by freeing the detainees, making hurried visits to Tamil areas, and mustering current army officers to denounce General Fonseka. “The time has come for all groups of people to forget party or colour differences and unite to develop the country,” he told a rally this week.

But while popular still in Sinhalese rural areas, he has failed to convince most Tamils. This month General Fonseka was endorsed by the Tamil National Alliance, the main Tamil party that was close to the Tigers.

Many are betting that he cannot be worse than President Rajapaksa.

© Times Online

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Saturday, January 23, 2010

Tensions grow over Sri Lankan elections

Sri Lanka's political opposition is warning of possible vote-rigging and violence ahead of next week's presidential election.

And as both candidates wind up their campaigns, police say at least four people have been killed and hundreds wounded in clashes between rival supporters.

The ruling party has denied allegations it is planning fraud and has appointed an independent election commissioner - Dayananda Dissanayake.

Al Jazeera's Mike Hanna travelled to Sri Lanka to find out what people make of the presidential vote and what it might mean for them now that the civil war is over.

© Al Jazeera

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Saturday, January 23, 2010

Sri Lanka: Democracy and Freedom of Expression in Peril - JDS

Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka (JDS) warns that withdrawing the competent authority appointed to monitor state media during the pre-election period is a clear indication of the inability of the nominally democratic institutions to restrain the ruling party practice of using every weapon in its arsenal to bring down democracy.

Elections Commissioner Dayananda Dissanayake, earlier nominated Jayampathy Hettiarachchi as the competent authority in the wake of complaints by political and civil organisations on state media abuse in the run up to the presidential election. However, it is reported that the nomination has been withdrawn even before the letter of appointment has been handed over.

Reminiscent of past elections under every regime where state media was always used as a propaganda tool of the incumbent regime, every state media outlet this time too was utilized to support the campaign of President Rajapaksa and discredit those challenging him. Courts the elections commissioner and who is in charge of an operation and the watchdogs have failed to keep that abuse in check during supposedly one of the largest democratic exercises in Sri Lanka.

This clearly demonstrates that the present state or its media set up does not tolerate a semblance of democratic practice even during an election where every adult should have the right of free and fair opportunity to express their political preference.

It should be recalled that these obstacles against free political expression is erected in a country where tens of thousands Tamils made destitute by a war and thousands more locked under draconian anti terrorist laws are made incapable of casting their vote.

With only a couple of days to go, JDS is afraid that a multitude of unfavourable developments, including the inability of institutions set up to guarantee fairness to citizens in Sri Lanka, will lead to an election where democracy and free expression will become an inevitable casualties.

Executive Committee
Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

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Saturday, January 23, 2010

Sri Lanka campaign enters final day

By Charles Haviland - The final day of campaigning is taking place ahead of Sri Lanka's presidential election on Tuesday.

Although the war in the north of the island is now over, the campaign in other parts of the island has become bitter, violent and personal.

The two main candidates are both closely associated with the government's defeat of the Tamil Tigers last May.

But now President Mahinda Rajapaksa and General Sarath Fonseka have fallen out bitterly.

Groups monitoring the conduct of the campaign say there have been hundreds of violent incidents, resulting in four deaths and many more wounded.

Early on Friday, one of Gen Fonseka's campaign managers had his house firebombed.

He blamed the president, but the government said it was "gravely concerned at this wanton act of violence".

Both candidates have toured the country, including the northern Tamil city of Jaffna from which the rebels once ran their self-declared homeland.

But Saturday will see them both addressing rallies in the capital, and hoping for huge turnouts.

© BBC News

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Saturday, January 23, 2010

Uncovering Sri Lanka's war crimes

Peter Bouckaert - Despite verbal acrobatics reminiscent of George Orwell's 1984, Sri Lankan officials have been unable to dismiss a shocking mobile phone video from last January purportedly showing Sri Lankan soldiers summarily executing naked and bound captives. The government has consistently claimed the video is fake, without providing any evidence that the gruesome scene was staged or the footage tampered with.

Now, the top United Nations envoy responsible for investigating extralegal executions around the world has added his voice to those believing the tape to be genuine. After commissioning three experts on forensic pathology, video analysis and firearms to review the tape, the envoy, Philip Alston, told the BBC, "You cannot fake the precise sort of reaction which the human body makes when shot at close range by such a weapon."

Of course Sri Lanka's public relations team went into its usual overdrive, denouncing the "bias" of the UN expert and suggesting that he was on a "personal crusade" to force a war crimes investigation over the allegations.

The response was unsurprising. The Sri Lankan authorities have a list of "biased" organisations that includes just about anybody who reported critically on the final months of the fighting last year against Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, in which at least 7,000 civilians died. The villains include my own organisation, Human Rights Watch, other international human rights and humanitarian groups, several UN agencies, the European Union, the BBC, Channel 4 and many other media outlets. For our Sri Lankan human rights colleagues and journalists, the situation is even graver, of course: many have fled the country fearing for their lives, and some have paid the highest price.

But the Sri Lankan spin is starting to fray. General Sareth Fonseka, the man in charge of last year's offensive and who is challenging his former boss for the presidency, said that the orders to execute surrendering Tamil Tiger leaders in the final days of the war had come directly from the defence secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the powerful brother of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The general later claimed to have mis-spoken, but it is difficult to imagine what he meant to say instead.

The atrocity captured in the video was not an aberration, but sadly an all-too-common occurrence during the 26-year civil war. Both government forces and the Tamil Tigers were responsible for summary executions and targeted killings for which no one has ever been punished. Hundreds of people, primarily ethnic Tamils, have "disappeared". During those dark days, local newspapers on a daily basis ran ads such as "White Van Disappearance – Information wanted," placed by desperate relatives of the latest victims. As hard as they try, Sri Lankan officials cannot hide the reality of what happened during this brutal conflict and its continuing impact on Sri Lankan society.

When you really dig into the "disappearances," as Human Rights Watch has done, the truth becomes all too apparent. For our March 2008 report, Recurring Nightmare: State Responsibility for "Disappearances" and Abductions in Sri Lanka, our investigators spoke to families and witnesses in more than a hundred such episodes. In most cases we were able to establish direct state responsibility. These were just a small fraction of the disappearances and executions carried out by state security services over the course of the armed conflict. But no one has ever been held responsible.

The government's record of investigating allegations of war crimes by both government forces and the Tamil Tigers during the final months of the conflict has been no better. Human Rights Watch and others reported the Sri Lankan army's repeated indiscriminate shelling of civilians, including packed hospitals, and the blocking of humanitarian assistance to the trapped and desperate population in the war zone. One reason the government locked nearly 300,000 civilians fleeing the fighting in closed camps apparently was to keep their stories from coming out.

The Sri Lankan government continues to believe that aggressive denial is the best policy. But the price it is paying in lost credibility is rising. The European Union is considering ending textile trade benefits to Sri Lanka over its human rights record, while the International Monetary Fund (IMF) took the extraordinary step of delaying an emergency loan for months. At the direction of the US Congress, the US State Department produced a report detailing alleged violations of international humanitarian law during the final months of the conflict.

When the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon visited Sri Lanka shortly after the conflict ended in May, President Rajapaksa promised him that his government would investigate, but it has not kept that promise. The ball is now in Ban Ki-moon's court: he should establish an independent international investigation to establish the truth of what happened in Sri Lanka, an essential step toward accountability for the serious crimes committed there.

© Guardian

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Saturday, January 23, 2010

Shattered Tamil city braces for crucial poll

By Charles Haviland - The fishing boats seem to chase each other out in the lagoon. A flock of seabirds rises, glorious against the blue sky.

Calm has returned to Jaffna's waters after decades of turbulence.

It is still a tense peace. The bay where they repair their boats is cordoned off, guarded by the military. Parts of the shore are lined with razor-wire.

But as the vessels crowd into the wharf by the fish market, there is a real buzz in the air.

The men weigh their crabs and cuttlefish, hack the big meaty fish into steaks, bargaining, bartering.

A young fisherman tells the BBC he is delighted with peace in the north. Restrictions have been lifted, he says: they can sail to more places; export their fish abroad; find more markets at home, too.

And he is enthusiastic about the 26 January election.

The two main candidates, President Mahinda Rajapaksa and the former army chief (and former northern commander), General Sarath Fonseka, are both widely viewed as hardline advocates for the island's Sinhalese ethnic majority - people instrumental in vanquishing many Tamils' desire for an autonomous homeland.

But the election is relevant to Tamils, too, says the man.

"It's important to vote - after all, this is for our president.

"Earlier we were voting under threat. Now we're free, and people can decide for themselves who's good for this country.

"The Tamil Tigers and the government fought - we were the innocent victims," says another. "We'll support whoever will benefit ordinary Tamil people."

No election fever

Jaffna was the crucible of the Sri Lankan war. Its imposing public library was attacked by anti-Tamil mobs in 1981 and its great collection of books burned: one symbolic trigger for the start of full-blown conflict a couple of years later.

In 1990 the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) expelled all of Jaffna's Muslims. For five years the rebels held the city and the army besieged it.

The war's legacy is still plain to see in bombed-out buildings. By the coast, we meet local de-miners on their break.

In a converted cinema, well guarded, is the bunker-like office of Douglas Devananda.

His Tamil party is part of the Sri Lankan government; he is a minister. He rejects the many accusations that it still has a paramilitary wing using violence against civilians.

And he tells the BBC President Rajapaksa deserves re-election for bringing peace.

"You know, in the previous Christmas or New Year sounds were something different, that is mortars, explosions, people were crying. But last Christmas, New Year, [fire]crackers. People's joyness coming out. The laugh, the smile.

"So that is a difference. So people feel President Rajapaksa has given peace."

But this almost entirely Tamil city is not being swept by election fever.

The two main candidates have recently visited, and campaigned. But in the central streets Jaffna still seems to be mainly concerned with picking up the old rhythms of normal life and getting back to business.

There is old-world charm. Morris Minor taxis wait in a rank. Vintage Austins appear around corners. There is the new, too: men make a signboard for a new bank branch. Visiting from the south are Sinhalese Buddhist monks and Muslim families.

Electorally it does not seem to be a level playing field.

Posters of Mahinda Rajapaksa are everywhere. The BBC saw none of his rival, Sarath Fonseka. We were told people were frightened to put them up, fearing violent reprisals.

Recently, too, the government shut down the Jaffna transmissions of the Tamil TV station regarded as the most independent.

Tamil concerns

Some in the Tamil community do want the president out and are supporting Sarath Fonseka.

The Tamil National Alliance (TNA), a grouping close to the defeated LTTE, feels the former army chief is more likely to find a solution to Tamil concerns, perhaps giving an extra degree of autonomy to Tamil-majority areas.

CVK Sivagnanam, president of the local Council of Non-Governmental Organisations, used to be an active TNA member and says it is an advantage that the general does not come from a political party, so will not be powerful if elected.

"He will be forced to consult minorities as well," he says. "And the present government, the Rajapaksa government, has done so much damage to minorities - whether it be Tamils, Muslims or Christians, it has been so."

Which way to vote is a question perhaps on the mind of Sunday morning worshippers in Jaffna's many Catholic churches.

At one, the long-time Bishop of Jaffna, the Right Rev Thomas Savundaranayagam, officiates. He has publicly urged people to exercise their right to vote - although he feels neither candidate is really addressing Tamil people's wish to live as equal citizens.

"Both these people in their manifestos, they have not put forward a political solution to the north and east problem but only they have concerned themselves with the aftermath of the war as well as rebuilding the country," he tells the BBC on the cool veranda of his residence.

"Which we will commit [to] but nevertheless we would give a priority to the political solution, about which both the candidates are rather silent."

No refugee votes

There is another huge issue. Jaffna has many Tamil war refugees, recently freed from government camps. Others remain in camps nearby but the BBC was not allowed to visit them.

Many missed out on registering to vote because of war and displacement. Some registered while in camps but returned home before the voting cards arrived.

We meet a man who recently left the huge Menik Farm camp and wanted to remain anonymous.

"I'm very sad I can't take part in selecting the next president," he said. "There are 10 million voters but unfortunately my name won't be there because circumstances prevented me from registering."

In Jaffna the government is firmly in charge - as in the whole of Sri Lanka. The military are ubiquitous. During the BBC's two-day visit there were several government events apparently linked to the election, including a Tamil harvest festival celebration.

People attend such events politely. But it is hard to tell how many will turn out to vote.

Many feel little empathy with either candidate. Some fear voting.

But the Tamil population - only one-eighth of the island's inhabitants - could yet swing the result in a close-run contest.

So some Tamils, after a generation of violence, want their democratic voice to be heard.

© BBC News

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Saturday, January 23, 2010

Can Sri Lanka hold a genuine election?

By Basil Fernando - Sri Lanka’s presidential election, set for Jan. 26, will test the popular sovereignty enshrined in the Constitution and the possibility of a genuine election, as required by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Article 25 of the convention states that citizens of a country have the right to vote and that elections should be genuine and periodic, with universal and equal suffrage, held by secret ballot guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors.

According to Article 3 of the Constitution of Sri Lanka, “In the Republic of Sri Lanka, sovereignty is in the people and is inalienable. Sovereignty includes the powers of government, fundamental rights and the franchise.” So voting for the formation of a government must be genuine.

Genuine means people have complete freedom to exercise their franchise and express their political will without fear. The notion of popular sovereignty, which is the foundation of the constitutional framework of Sri Lanka, presupposes the capacity of the people to genuinely participate in exercising their right to vote.

In the Sri Lankan context, the question is whether the freedom to vote can be exercised genuinely. In a functioning democracy this is taken for granted. But where for decades there has been an attempt to limit the electoral process, the question of a genuine election cannot be taken for granted.

Ever since the 1978 Constitution was promulgated, the possibility of a genuine election has been put to the test. The architect of the Constitution, J.R. Jayewardene, also had the grand plan of restricting the electoral process. Therefore the sovereignty of the people and the scheme for restricting the electoral process have been in constant conflict.

Sri Lanka has already established a tradition of choosing its representatives by the ballot, and the people are deeply conscious of their right to vote. Thus, when Jayewardene contemplated the scheme of restricting the vote, he knew he could not simply legislate that the people could no longer elect their representatives. Since he could not achieve his scheme through legitimate means, he used his political shrewdness to find other means to achieve this.

Elections conducted during the rule of Jayewardene, with stout support from his Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa, were enormous experiments in electoral violence and fraud, to create the façade of elections without genuine results.

This began with a scheme to deny civil rights to the best-known political opponent of the ruling party, the leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, for which purpose litigation was launched against her and her closest associates.

Singapore has set a precedent by adopting schemes that make it impossible for opposition parties to function in a democratic manner. However, the same aim could not be achieved in Sri Lanka, where the habit of electing representatives has become a part of the culture.

Jayewardene and his colleague Premadasa introduced large-scale disappearances immediately preceding an election to intimidate voters. They also introduced a referendum to extend the life of the Parliament. However, by 1988 all such schemes were failing.

The reports of commissioners on forced disappearances clearly indicate that the highest numbers of disappearances occurred close to elections. Through political unrest and intense political propaganda, it was possible to create the impression that such disappearances were unrelated to the elections. However, closer scrutiny reveals a deep connection.

The conflict with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam provided a pretext for election violence. Political violence and fraud were little noticed because people were preoccupied with the problems of violence associated with the civil conflict.

The forthcoming election is the first outside a period of political violence. As the LTTE conflict ended in May 2009, the present election takes place in an atmosphere without a pretext for the massive use of electoral violence or easy attempts at electoral fraud.

Unexpectedly, the ruling regime is being seriously challenged in this election. Unexpectedly, large political contests have developed in the country, proving that the tradition of electing their representatives is deeply embedded in the political culture.

The contest so far has not been conducted in a peaceful atmosphere as required in a democracy. Four people have already been killed and the election monitors have reported large numbers of violent incidents related to election campaigns.

The election commissioner himself has complained openly that he has not been allowed to conduct his duties in a free and fair manner. The dissatisfaction expressed by the commissioner himself is now a well-established fact.

The failure to appoint an Election Commission related to the 17th Amendment to the Constitution is also a reflection of the attempt to deny a genuine election. In the overall scheme of things, the idea of restricting the vote still remains. Genuine constitutional provisions for a free and fair election do not operate even now.

The scheme behind the 1978 Constitution – giving absolute power to an executive president who can rule as long as he wishes by restricting the vote – still remains a problem for the people of Sri Lanka.

Today, there is a conflict between the deeply established tradition of the people in choosing their own representatives and the scheme to restrict the electoral process. The future of this contest will be seen in the days to come.


(Basil Fernando is director of the Asian Human Rights Commission based in Hong Kong. He is a Sri Lankan lawyer who has also been a senior U.N. human rights officer in Cambodia. He has published several books and written extensively on human rights issues in Asia. His blog can be read at

© UPI Asia

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