Sunday, January 24, 2010

Sri Lanka: Election and Media

By Dinidu de Alwis - Employees of State funded media institutions along with media activists expressed their opposition to the misuse of State media, in the run up to the Presidential Elections. Employees alleged that state media is being used and manipulated for the promotion of incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Sunil Jayasekera of the Free Media Movement (FMM) said that the blatant abuse of the media, is in effect taking away the people’s right to free information. He also said that it is imperative that organizations such as the FMM work towards ensuring freedom for journalists to work.

Jayasekera added that State media does not give space for the opposition candidates, and instead broadcasts messages which hinders the campaigns of the opposition campaigns.

The employees gathered in front of the Rupavahini corperation shouted slogans towards the senior administration staff of all State run media institutions, and alleged that the usage of air time and print space for political motives were negatively effecting on the revenues of the organization as well.

The demonstration was also attended by civil society organizations and media activists, who came in support of the employee’s cause.

“As media professionals and defenders of the rights of the media industry and media enterprises, we have responded to the appeal by workers in the state media institutions who have collectively appealed to us to support them in their protest of the interference of their normal day-to-day work at the public media by political powers” said Lakshman Gunasekera of the South Asia Free Media Association.

Gunasekera added that the media is being manipulated for the benefit of one candidate during the election, and that they are disappointed at the abuse of people’s resources in the mass media.

The protests comes hot in the heels of a briefing yesterday, where employees alleged that State media is facing a financial crisis due to the taking up of potential advertising space and revenue sources for the campaigning by the Government.

Media institutions have become highly polarized in their reportage during the run up to the Presidential Election, where the incumbent President Rajapaksa faces stiff challenge from his chief opposition in the form of the former Commander of the Army, (Retd.) Gen. Sarath Fonseka. Both candidates have pledged in their manifestos to allow greater freedom to the media to operate.

Veteran Civil Servant Jayampathy Hettiarachchi’s appointment as the Competent Authority over Media, by Commissioner of Elections, Dayananda Dissanayake was later revoked citing the non-cooperation from State media institutions. Dissanayake earlier produced a set of guidelines for media institutions to practice during the time of the elections, which the Competent Authority was expected to enforce.

The Supreme Court earlier directed all media to follow the guidelines issued by the Commissioner of Elections in respect to the forthcoming Presidential Elections following an application filed by Fonseka against the state run Independent Television Network, and Lake House for violating the guidelines of the Elections Commissioner against biased coverage of the Presidential election campaign.

Gen. Fonseka had said that the two media institutions had disregarded and blatantly violated the guidelines issued by the Commissioner of Election which were issued following a fundamental rights application filed by him in last December.


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Sunday, January 24, 2010

Sri Lanka: President Scoffs At Dublin Verdict

By Munza Mushtaq - President Mahinda Rajapaksa last week scoffed at the explosive judgment delivered recently by a Dublin based International Tribunal which found the Sri Lankan Government, its military and aligned paramilitary groups guilty of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity during the war.

At a meeting he had with editors of several weekend newspapers at his official residence in Kandy last Wednesday, in response to a question raised by The Sunday Leader Rajapaksa dismissed the war crimes tribunal and its findings – insisting they were unimportant and insignificant.

Asked if he would at any stage hold an independent inquiry on the allegations of war crimes based on the Dublin tribunal – if so pressured to do so by the United Nations, he replied curtly, “We will see about it at that time.”

In response to the war crimes tribunal the Sri Lankan Government has consistently maintained that Western forces are aligned in an ‘international conspiracy’ to tarnish this Government’s image and taint its victory against the LTTE.

Meanwhile, issuing the final report made public yesterday, the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal concluded that the international community, particularly the United Kingdom and United States should share responsibility for the breakdown of the island’s peace process.

The Tribunal ruled that the European Union in particular had been complicit in the obstruction and dismantling of the peace process and stigmatizing Tamil groups in banning the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

“The International Community has neglected its duty to promote peace in the region,” the tribunal said.

The Tribunal’s ten member international jury panel has recommended the Sri Lankan government establish an authoritative Truth and Justice commission; Immediately repeal of Prevention of Terrorism Act, 1979; Disband all paramilitary forces and reduce military presence in Tamil areas; and Implement a political power sharing solution with the full participation of the Tamil people.

The Tribunal has further urged the International Community, including the Sri Lankan Government to appoint a UN special rapporteur for Sri Lanka to investigate and identify responsibilities for human rights violations, violations of humanitarian law and war crimes committed by all parties in conflict.

The Tribunal also called for the establishment of an independent group of eminent persons to investigate the responsibilities of the international community in the disruption of the ceasefire agreement and subsequent war crimes and crimes against humanity and provision of the Sri Lankan Government with weapons during the ceasefire.

© The Sunday Leader
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Sunday, January 24, 2010

The contest for Sri Lanka's future

By Stephanie Scawen in Colombo - Pitting the president against a former general, the contest between the two frontrunners in Sri Lanka's presidential election has shaped up to be a battle of political heavyweights.

In one corner for the January 26 vote is Mahinda Rajapaksa - the incumbent president who ordered the destruction of Sri Lanka’s Tamil Tiger rebels.

In the other corner is the man who made that vision a reality - retired General Sarath Fonseka.

Eight months after the final defeat of the Tigers, the former partners in war are very much enemies in peace.

And in perhaps one of the grander political ironies, it is the Tamil people themselves who could be the kingmakers in deciding Sri Lanka's presidency.

Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, of the Colombo-based Centre for Policy Alternatives says that in what will be Sri Lanka's first post-war election, the island's Tamil voters could well prove decisive.

"This is about reconciliation and national unity and should be about the Tamil polity demonstrating its commitment to be part of the mainstream of Sri Lankan politics and to choose a Sri Lankan leader," he told Al Jazeera.

"So in that sense it is very ironic but it is also very appropriate."

Rajapaksa is seeking a second term in office two years ahead of schedule, looking to build on the popularity he gained following last May's final defeat of the Tigers.

A few months ago his re-election seemed a done deal.

But Fonseka's decision to join the campaign trail has made the incumbent's chances of victory at lot less certain.

Tamil vote key

The votes of Sri Lanka's Sinhalese - the majority ethnic group on the island – are largely split between Rajapaksa and his former general, while the island's Tamils make up around 12.5 per cent of the 20 million population, so their vote is key.

For many Tamils their decision to back Fonseka is not so much a vote for him but a vote firmly against Rajapaksa.

Indeed Fonseka has won a key ally in the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) – an alliance of ethnic Tamil parties formed with the backing of the defeated Tamil Tigers.

But that backing is still conditional.

"We need to bring change. We need an opening," says Tamil MP Mano Ganesan, who leads the Democratic People's Front.

"It's not that we believe totally in Sarath Fonseka. We have no choice."

If elected, Ganesan says, Fonseka will still have to prove himself to the Tamil electorate.

"He will need to perform… so he can win the hearts and minds of the Tamils," he says.


Fonseka's campaign slogan of "Believable Change" has echoes of another recent presidential campaign on the other side of the world – one which also has yet to deliver the changes it promised.

Rajapaksa, meanwhile, has labelled his 14-point election programme "A brighter future", promising to push Sri Lanka back into the forefront in Asia while working for a political solution to the ethnic issues in a post-war Sri Lanka.

Observers say corruption, the economy and media freedoms are key issues for the Sinhalese community who want to see some tangible benefits of the military victory.

For the Tamil and Muslim communities both candidates have been pledged to develop and rebuild the war-ravaged east and north of the island to help reintegrate them into unified country.

Fonseka, for his part, has also offered to scrap the presidential system if elected and replace it with a parliamentary democracy – effectively sacking himself.

Rajapaksa is offering more representation for minority Tamils in new legislative arrangements, but up to now has shown little enthusiasm for Tamil autonomy or power sharing.

But observers say there are strong grounds to doubt that either candidate, whoever wins, will have Tamil interests at heart after polling day.

The International Crisis Group (ICG), a conflict resolution and prevention group, quotes one former government official as saying: "If you were a Tamil, how could you vote for either candidate? Lots of Tamil nationalist voters will likely not vote at all."


In the mean time some fear that Rajapaksa will stop at nothing to prevent a Fonseka win.

In the final days before voting, election-related violence has increased, and there have been numerous allegations of threats and intimidation against campaign workers.

Under Sri Lankan election laws, posters, bill boards and hoardings showing images of the main candidates were meant to have been removed some weeks ago, but they are still visible everywhere.

Sri Lankan media are pinning their colours clearly one way or another, with the Sunday Observer headlining a January 17 article about Fonseka as "The Traitor".

"It's been dirty campaign," Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu of Sri Lanka’s Centre for Policy Alternatives told Al Jazeera.

"It is not the most violent on record but it is the first outside the context of conflict and there should be no reason why the scale of violence that we are recording at present has to be recorded. It's like war in certain parts," he said.

"All the elections we have monitored, the closer we get to polling day there is a spike in violence, and there is nothing regrettably to suggest that this election will be an exception."

Concerns remain too whether Tamil refugees still in camps in the north and those recently released have been properly registered for the election.

Fears of fraud

Increasing election violence has also raised fears of tampering with Tamil votes – something that appears more likely with the TNA's backing for Fonseka.

This election is extraordinary for the sheer number of candidates standing besides the two main contenders – who themselves head coalition groups.

Twenty other names will appear on the ballot paper – each represented by a symbol. Rajapaksa falls under a betel leaf slogan. Fonseka: a Swan.

And like the proverbial bird gliding across a calm lake – some say the price of a Fonseka victory will come at the cost of some furious paddling beneath the surface.

"The opposition seems so dazzled by the prospects of being able to give Mahinda [Rajapaksa] a run for his money that they seem to have forgotten all the risks involved," one Western diplomat told the ICG.

If Fonseka wins, serious questions remain whether the various coalition partners will be able to hold him to the promises he has made.

Would they also still back him come parliamentary polls in April or May?

Paikiasothy believes the result will be very close – with the winning margin less than five percent.

"What's important is that whatever the majority is,… that the result will be accepted and can be accepted, and that there won't be any serious doubts cast on the credibility and the legitimacy of the result," he says.

And with some 90,000 Tamil refugees still behind fences in the north – that result really does look like it will come down the wire.

© Al Jazeera

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Sunday, January 24, 2010

Sri Lanka poll campaign winds up; both contenders confident

B. Muralidhar Reddy - As the curtains fell on the official campaign for the January 26 Sri Lankan presidential election, the two chief contenders - President Mahinda Rajapaksa and common opposition candidate retired General Sarath Fonseka - wound up their nearly two-month-long campaign with mammoth rallies in and around Colombo.

A general sense of unease prevails in the island nation ahead of what has been billed one of the most exciting and crucial elections in the post-independent history of Sri Lanka. Mr. Rajapaksa ended his campaign with a huge rally at Piliyandala, near here. Though considered to be a stronghold of the main opposition United National Party, the campaign managers of the President had managed to put up an impressive show of strength and enthusiasm among the people was evident. Mr. Rajapaksa sounded confident amid repeated applause from supporters.

The retired General ended the campaign with a gathering dominated by Muslims. Charging the government with attempting to rig the mandate, the General told his attentive supporters that he would certainly be occupying the most powerful office.

As it could be expected in any electoral do or die battle, charges flew thick and fast. Notwithstanding the apprehensions of violence and malpractices, it would not be easy for any party to indulge in brazen violations for two reasons. First, the poll has generated unprecedented interest among the people and the voter turn-out is expected to be high.

Second, the presence of 40 foreign election observers. At a news conference here on Friday, they said they would monitor the elections in all districts including the northern and eastern provinces where the LTTE was militarily defeated in May 2009 after 34 months of war. They would release a report on January 28.

As per a local NGO monitoring the campaign, so far over 800 election-related incidents of violence including five deaths had been reported since the election was declared late November. Earlier in the day at a news conference General Fonseka accused the President of getting ready to rig the polls. “I began this campaign with no political background and today I am confident that [a] overwhelming majority of the people are with me. We know for a fact that 90 per cent of the votes in the postal vote are in our favour.”

Main opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe of the United National Party (UNP), ultra-nationalist Janatha Vimukthi Perumana (JVP) leader Somawansa Amarasinghe and chief of Democratic People’s Front (DPF) Mano Ganesan declared that they would take to streets if the Rajapaksa government attempted to rig the election.

In contrast to the aggressive tone, Mr. Rajapaksa invited every one to join him in his vision to build the nation irrespective of party politics. He promised to launch a development phase after January 27 with the people who love the country.

A report by Mr. Rajapaksa’s campaign office quoted him as saying, “He said that everyone should unite to build the country irrespective of party politics. The President invited everyone to join for this purpose from January 27. The President made this observation while addressing a massive public rally at the Sanath Jayasuriya Stadium in Matara. Actress Malini Fonseka, cricketer Sanath Jayasuriya and people’s representatives also addressed the rally.”

© The Hindu
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Sunday, January 24, 2010

Presidential elections, the Sinhala mindset and the future of Sri Lanka

Prof. A. R. M. Imtiyaz - The voters in the island of Sri Lanka will meet the sixth presidential elections on January 26. Though the island of Sri Lanka is a home to two nations and some minorities, its elections are often carefully directed to absorb the attention of the Sinhalese. This is mainly due to competitive nature of Sri Lanka’s electoral system and the size of the Sinhalese population.

One key feature of Sinhala political establishment’s election campaign is anti-minority, particularly the anti-Tamil policies in strict political science language, ethnic outbidding policies. These ethnic outbidding polices radically helped politicise Sri Lanka’s ethnic relations and eventually led the Tamils to lose the trust in the system.

Mahavamsa: the Sinhala ideology

Elections in deeply divided societies can generate tensions and conflict. This is particularly true when politicians on their part resort to emotional politics. In Sri Lanka, the Sinhala political establishment to exploit the support of the poor Sinhala masses tactfully speaks to the Sinhala mind set, which is largely a result of the Mahavamsa.

According to Mahavamsa, Sinhalese people are the preservers of Buddhism and the entire island is the sacred home of the Sinhalese and of Buddhism and explicitly preaches violent messages against the Tamil nation.

Therefore, in this election, the key three questions, as far as the minorities are concerned, need to be answered. They are (1) is Sinhala polity ready to accommodate the aspirations of the minorities and the Tamil nation (2) how much does Sinhala mentality play into the agendas of the major candidates? and (3) will the winner take meaningful measures to reform the Sinhala state by providing genuine power-sharing and autonomy to win ethnic reconciliation among the masses of the Tamil and Sinhala nation as well as the Muslim community to win real peace?

The major candidates: two Sinhala actors

There are 22 candidates in the field. However, the major competitors of the elections are incumbent Rajapaksa who came to power on November 17, 2005 on an anti-peace and anti-Tamil agenda and Fonseka who was carefully recruited to the Sri Lanka’s Army by the ruling Sinhala political establishment led by Rajapaksa to defeat the violent form of the Tamil resistance movement, led by the Tamil Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Moreover, Rajapaksa represents the UPFA, the combine political vehicle of Sinhala extremists and the traditional Marxist parties as well as some minority parties while Fonseka portrays himself as a common candidate and contests the elections, using the swan symbol. The major opposition parties, including the UNP and the JVP endorse the candidacy of Fonseka. Also, Fonseka won the endorsements of the major parties, representing the minorities such as the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA).

Both Rajapaksa and Fonseka were able to win the support of the minority political establishment. But the election polices and promises of these candidates do not recognise the special problems of the Muslims, existence of the ethnic conflict between the Tamils and the Sinhalese, or for that matter the Tamil national question. In fact, it is unreasonable to expect such progressive attitudes and polices from these major candidates since they are the different representatives of the Sinhala mind set and hegemony, which aim to consolidate the identities of primordial rights of the Sinhalese.

Rajapaksa: the brutal face of Sinhala hegemony

For Rajapaksa, the major problem of the island is the LTTE, which successfully challenged state terrorism since 1983. The LTTE is militarily defeated, and Rajapaksa has been capitalising on the war victory to secure a second term to further fill his family and friends’ pockets in the name of narrow Sinhala patriotism and nation building.

Rajapaksa and his ardent supporters need to understand the fact that the LTTE is the product of Sinhala polity’s spiteful outbidding policies against the Tamil nation.

In 2005, Rajapaksa, employed the anti-peace and anti-Tamil policies to win elections. This time around, Rajapaksa has been aggressively pursuing war victory against the LTTE to maximise the Sinhala votes. During his tenure, Rajapaksa did not do any serious political actions to seek political solutions and thus it is safe to assume that he will not commit to any solutions (beyond the failed 13th Amendment) to win peace. In fact, his actions are logically compatible with the interests of the 5th century Sinhala mindset.

Coming conflict with the Muslims

The Muslims of the east suspect the government plans to “Sinhalise” the east – through development projects that will bring in new Sinhala settlers, environmental regulations that will remove public lands from use by Muslims.

In Ampara District, there are serious tensions between local Muslims and Sinhalese, with the government ally and Sinhala nationalist Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) accused of working against Muslims interests. (International Crisis Group, 2008) JHU inspired Sinhala settlements are being progressed in Kurangkuppaangnchaan in the Kinniya DS division in Trincomalee District.

Mr. Fonseka: neo-Dutugemunu

On the other hand, Fonseka, the atrocious Sinhala warrior is seeking to deny the second term for his former boss — Rajapaksa. Fonseka wants the people of Sri Lanka to believe him as an agent for change. Also, he is assertively trying to represent himself as a human face of Sinhala compassionism.

It was reported in the media that Fonseka strongly believes that Sri Lanka belongs to the Sinhalese. According to an interview in Canada’s National Post newspaper in 2008, Fonseka said that “ We being the majority of the country, 75%, we will never give in and we have the right to protect this country…We are also a strong nation … They can live in this country with us. But they must not try to, under the pretext of being a minority, demand undue things…In any democratic country the majority should rule the country. This country will be ruled by the Sinhalese community which is the majority representing 74% of the population.”

Believable change or believable deception

Fonseka’s above statement represents his desire to transform the island of Sri Lanka only for the Sinhalese. His election manifesto, what he describes as believable change for Sri Lanka, does not recognise the existence of the Tamil problem nor does it come close to seeking ethnic reconciliation and peace by reforming Sri Lanka’s unitary state structure and its Sinhalanised political institutions.

Political reforms and changes are serous business in any human society. Such reforms and changes inexorably require genuine human actions to lead the process. Average politicians cannot emerge as an agent for any serious believable changes, because the major purpose of politicians is to win elections at any price. Therefore by and large, politicians need to understand the mood of voters and formulate policies and promises to win votes.

Hence, it is extremely unlikely that Fonseka will seek genuine measures to transform the island of Sri Lanka to accommodate the needs and aspirations of the minorities and the Tamil nation. Hence, it is politically naive to depict him as an agent for regime change in Sri Lanka.

Real Change: beyond the Mahavamsa mentality

The military campaigns, led by Fonseka what Tamils considered as an accelerated agenda of genocide led to dehumanise the Tamil life, and thus the war uprooted people from a normal life of peace and reduced them to wartime refugees.

The bottom line is that Sri Lanka needs progressive political actors to challenge the Mahavamsa mentality and to embrace human modernisation. These changes should recognise the aspirations of the minorities and the Tamil nation. It is very unlikely the major candidates who are fighting over the split Tamil blood will be committed to such a historical task.

When democracies fail…

Democracy is a beautiful political practice, but it also can produce protracted political instability when politicians manipulate the system to gain power. The major candidates in Sri Lanka’s presidential election provide no real programmes to liberate the island of Sri Lanka from the prison of the Sinhala mentality. Therefore, it is very likely that the island of Sri Lanka would confront the serious polarisation regardless of who wins the power. Moreover, Sri Lankans during election period are often confused with the theory of the lesser evil. What Sri Lanka’s experience proves is that the lesser evils become nasty leaders when they win power. The one result of such politics of deception is the brutal ethnic civil war.

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

© The Sunday Leader

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