Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Websites blocked just hours before poll results due to be announced - RSF

Reporters Without Borders condemns the imposition of additional restrictions on online free expression in Sri Lanka as the country held a presidential election today. Access to the independent news websites Lankaenews, Lankanewsweb, Infolanka and Sri Lanka Guardian have been blocked by the country’s main Internet Service Provider.

“The authorities blocked access to several independent websites just hours before the results of a very close presidential election were due to be announced,” Reporters Without Borders said. “Such censorship reflects a beleaguered government’s nervousness and readiness to resort to manipulation.”

The press freedom organisation added: “The free flow of news and information during an election offers one of the few guarantees against massive fraud. We urge the government to restore access to these sites as the electoral commission has requested.”

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a Lankaenews journalist told Reporters Without Borders that the site had been rendered inaccessible within Sri Lanka since this morning by Sri Lanka Telecom (SLT), the country’s main ISP. It can still be accessed from abroad. Other Internet users told Reporters Without Borders the site can also still be accessed via the privately-owned ISP Dialog Wemax.

“According to a source working for SLT, verbal directives were given to block the site,” the Lankaenews journalist said. “We complained to the electoral commission, which has referred the complaint to the SLT. We also asked the head of SLT but so far we have not had any answer. Meanwhile, our staff have been getting threatening phone messages with comments such as ‘We are coming to deal with you’.”

The journalist added that he had still received no news of his Lankaenews colleague, political analyst Prageeth Eknaligoda, who has been missing since the evening of 24 January. Eknaligoda had just written a long piece comparing the two leading presidential candidates and expressing a preference for the opposition candidate.

Fellow journalists fear that Eknaligoda’s disappearance is linked to his article . One of his colleagues said he saw police search Eknaligoda’s home this morning.

This latest act of censorship comes after days of all-out exploitation of the state media to support the president’s reelection bid and a wave of threats and intimidation of journalists.

Last March, Reporters Without Borders added Sri Lanka to its list of “countries under surveillance” because of concern about threats to online free expression. The press freedom organisation publishes a list of “Enemies of the Internet” and “countries under surveillance” every March, on Online Free Expression Day.

Sri Lanka was added to the list because access to Tamil-language sites and the Human Rights Watch website had been blocked, while the Lankadissent site ceased to operate in January 2009 following threats.

© Reporters sans frontières

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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Voter turnout 18 percent in Jaffna, 55 percent in Batticaloa

While more than 70 percent all-island average turnout was reported in Colombo only 18 percent have voted in Jaffna, according to Jaffna Election Official S. Kuganathan. However, reports from Batticaloa said turnout was unusual this time, registering 55 percent.

Ballot boxes were being airlifted from Ki'linochchi and Delft (Neduntheevu) to Jaffna for counting.

Counting will begin when all boxes arrive. But, counting of postal votes has already started and its results will be announced by 8:00 p.m., Jaffna election officials said.

© Tamil Net

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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

70 percent voter turnout in Lankan polls

Polling in Sri Lanka's presidential election ended Tuesday with a turnout of more than 70 percent despite incidents of violence, explosions in the north and intimidation of voters, officials and poll observers said.

A series of explosions in northern Sri Lanka ahead of voting lowered turnout in the region to less than 20 percent, but the rest of the country reported brisk polling in the first national election since the defeat in May of separatist rebels of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), election officials said.

Observers said that around the country, some voters were prevented from casting their ballots, and shootings and attacks on rival political supporters were reported but there were no incidents that disrupted the overall polling.

Before the polls opened, five explosions were reported from the Jaffna peninsula, which was a major battleground in the government's 26-year war with the LTTE, but there were no details on casualties, said residents in Jaffna, 396 km north of the capital, Colombo.

Police confirmed they heard the blasts but said they did not have reports of any incidents.

Election officials said the average turnout across the country was more than 70 percent, according to provisional figures made available soon after the polling ended. The final figure could reach 80 percent or more after all figures are tabulated, they said.

Voting began at 7 a.m. at about 11,000 polling stations with 14 million people registered to vote. Polling ended at 4 p.m.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa, 64, representing the ruling United People's Freedom Alliance, is facing former army commander General Sarath Fonseka, 59, who is backed by four leading opposition parties.

During the final hours of voting, the ruling party claimed Fonseka would be disqualified from the race because he was not a registered voter, but Fonseka and legal experts said voter registration was not a requirement to contest the election and, therefore, the general could not be disqualified.

Twenty other candidates also were running but were unlikely to make an impact as the race narrowed down to a close contest between Rajapaksa and Fonseka.

Both the main candidates claim credit for winning the war against the LTTE. The opposition has also vowed to end corruption and what they call a family dictatorship after Rajapaksa appointed relatives to government posts.

Allegations of misuse of state power, including the use of government vehicles, the state media and officials for his re-election campaign have been leveled against Rajapaksa while Rajapaksa's camp has charged Fonseka with lacking political experience.

The six-week run-up to the elections has been marred by violence, including four deaths.

Deputy Inspector General of Police Gamini Nawaratne, who is head of the police election secretariat, said more than 900 election complaints were received during the campaign.

Local and foreign election observers warned of the possibility of violence interrupting the election, and about 70,000 police backed by the armed forces were deployed to provide election security.

Rajapaksa called for presidential polls two years before his six-year term ends in what was widely believed to be a move to capitalise on the government's military victory over the rebels.

The counting of ballots was due to commence Tuesday night. Results are to be released after midnight, and final results were expected by Wednesday morning.

© Espressbuzz

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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

SRI LANKA: All-out propaganda and intimidation in run-up to presidential election - RSF

Tension surrounds today’s presidential election, especially for the press, which has had to face many obstacles. Use of the state media to support President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s campaign for another term has been accompanied by harassment and violence against privately-owned opposition media, culminating in the 24 January abduction of political reporter Prageeth Eknaligoda. Reporters Without Borders appeals to both sides to make every effort to avoid an Iran-style scenario in which the challenging of a questionable election result leads to a cycle of demonstrations and repression in which the press would clearly be one of the victims.

Monitoring of state TV stations Rupavahini and ITN by Reporters Without Borders shows they have been abused by the president and his aides to a rarely-seen degree to promote his campaign.

More than 96.7 per cent of the 1,539 minutes (about 25 hours) of news programmes monitored on these two stations was given over to the activities of the incumbent and his followers. Less than 3.3 per cent was accorded to the opposition, including Gen. Sarath Fonseka, the leading opposition candidate. The two stations were monitored for the seven days ending 24 January.

Rupavahini and ITN were mobilised during this period – and even after the official end of the campaign – with the aim of eclipsing Gen. Fonseka’s campaign. On 24 January, for example, two days before the poll, both stations carried a two-hour live broadcast of a religious ceremony in which President Rajapaksa was participating.

Although a crucial day, the opposition got no air-time at all on 24 January, while the president and his supporters got a total of 47 minutes and 45 seconds on Rupavahini and 101 minutes and 45 seconds on ITN. During ITN’s 6 p.m. Tamil-language news programme, for example, the president and his political allies, especially his Tamil allies, got 13 minutes and 10 seconds while the opposition, which is backed by the Tamil National Alliance, was totally ignored.

ITN’s Sinahalese-language news programme at 7 p.m. accorded 4 minutes and 50 seconds to the president and 6 minutes and 10 seconds to his government while completing ignoring the 20 other candidates.

“Such an imbalance in the coverage of the candidates seriously undermines the democratic credibility of this presidential election, the first since the end of the civil war,” Reporters Without Borders said. “It was hoped the government would do better than this, but it failed to resist the temptation of exploiting the state media. We urge the international community, especially the electoral observation missions, to clearly denounce these abuses in their reports.”

Although security concerns may be valid, Reporters Without Borders is astonished that the government has declared the Rupavahini and Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation buildings “high security areas” on election day and the day after. Gen. Devapriya Abeysinghe, SLBC’s associated director, has obtained full government powers and has requisitioned a limited number of employees for the two days.

Reporters Without Borders has learned of several incidents in addition to journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda’s abduction. The Criminal Investigation Department, for example, asked for warrants to search the headquarters of Wijeya Newspapers, publishing the Daily Mirror, on the grounds that the company had printed “defamatory” posters and other material. A Colombo court rejected the request yesterday.

A bus carrying journalists to cover an event in which Gen. Fonseka was participating on 24 January was blocked for several hours by military police at Kiribathgoda (near Colombo). The police took down their names and addresses.

The Colombo home of Tiran Alles, a leading opposition member and editor of the now-closed Sinhalese-language weekly Mawbima, was bombed on 22 January. In June 2007, after being accused by President Rajapaksa and his brother, defence minister Gotabaya Rajapaksa, of being a Tamil Tiger spokesman, Alles was detained for two weeks. Mawbima, which at the time was one of the country’s few critical publications, was forced to close due to economic pressure.

Finally, in the northern city of Jaffna, a newspaper editor speaking on condition of anonymity told Reporters Without Borders that the pressure has increased there, especially from pro-Rajapaksa groups. Government minister Douglas Devananda told a political meeting that all Jaffna was under his control “except Uthayan,” referring to a Tamil newspaper that has repeatedly been the target of violence in the past. Uthayan’s police protection was withdrawn for several hours on 22 January for unexplained reasons.

Five people have been killed in the course of more than 300 serious incidents of electoral violence in Sri Lanka since December.

© Reporters sans frontières

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Tuesday, January 26, 2010


Voting began Tuesday in Sri Lanka's presidential election, which pits incumbent Mahinda Rajapakse against his former army chief in a tense contest hit by pre-dawn bomb blasts.

In the suburbs of Colombo, people had lined up half an hour before the polls opened across the country at 7:00 am (0130 GMT), according to witnesses. Voting will close at 4:00 pm.

The first results are expected to trickle out late on Tuesday and a final outcome is anticipated around midday on Wednesday.

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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Blasts in Sri Lanka ahead of key vote

Several bombs exploded in Sri Lanka's ethnic Tamil heartland of Jaffna ahead of Tuesday's crucial presidential vote, an independent election monitoring group said.

At least two bombs went off outside the home of a ruling party activist in the Jaffna peninsula, but there were no reports of casualties, the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) said.

"We have a complaint that two bombs were thrown at the home of Subramaniam Sharma, an organiser for the (ruling) Sri Lanka Freedom Party early this morning," spokesman DM Dissanayake said.

He said Sharma's front yard was damaged, but there were no casualties.

It was not clear who carried out the attack, he added.

Residents in the northern peninsula counted up to four pre-dawn blasts, but the source of the other explosions was unclear, said Sunil Jayasekara, a CMEV monitor in Jaffna, 400km north of Colombo.

"We are not sure from where the blasts originated or who was responsible," Jayasekara said by telephone, adding that it shattered the relative calm in the region ahead of the vote in which the minority Tamils could emerge kingmakers.

The 12.5 per cent Tamil minority is seen as crucial in the event that the majority Sinhalese community is divided down the middle between incumbent Mahinda Rajapakse and the main opposition candidate Sarath Fonseka.

Government forces wrested control over Jaffna in December 1995 from Tamil Tiger rebels who were completely crushed in May last year.

The military lifted a night curfew in Jaffna ahead of Tuesday's presidential election, but the military maintains a large presence in the former stronghold of the Tamil separatists.

There was no immediate comment from the authorities following Tuesday's bomb attack which came after opposition charges that the government was trying to use violence and rig the vote, a charge vehemently denied by the ruling party.

© Sydney Morning Herald

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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Sri Lanka refugees living in limbo

By Wayne Hay - As Sri Lanka prepares for its first presidential election since the end of the civil war, around 100,000 ethnic Tamils are still being held in refugee camps in the north of the country.

The incumbent president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, is expected to face a strong challenge from the retired army general, Sarath Fonseka.

One of the big election issues has been the treatment of the minority Tamils, after thousands died in the final stages of the war.

Wayne Hay was granted a rare opportunity to travel to the former battleground, to see how the Tamils are coping in peace time.

The war is over and some of the victims are beginning to build a new life after an internal struggle that lasted more than a quarter of a century and affected hundreds of thousands of Tamils.

Many who were displaced are now free from the government refugee camps they were forced into during the fighting between the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan army.

Some are lucky enough to be back where their homes once stood and, with the help of the government and international aid agencies, are beginning to build a brighter future.

For others, that is still long way off.

'Not good enough'

A journey north along the severely bombed A9 road reveals hundreds of families forced to take refuge on the roadside, finding shelter in the remains of someone else's home.

Trying to survive in houses that no longer have roofs and with what is left of the walls pitted with bullet holes and bearing the scars of heavy artillery fire, it is difficult, if not impossible, to put the past behind them and begin looking forward.

"The whole episode makes me very sad," says Sellaiah Thainabalasingham.

Sellaiah and his extended family lived in refugee camps for six months before being released, but have not been able to return to their property.

"When we were getting on the bus to leave the camp, they told us we were going home. We didn't know we were coming here. It's not good enough that we have to live like this."

They have been told they can go back to their farm in two weeks but Sellaiah thinks it will be a lot longer than that.

When they get there, they are expecting to find that they have lost all of their possessions.

Broken promises

According to the army, the population remaining inside the refugee camps stands at just under 100,000. At its peak, it was more than a quarter of a million.

We were taken inside what is known as Zone Zero for a closely guarded tour. There is a large school, which shapes the minds of the young victims of war.

There are food handouts from international aid agencies and what appeared to be a regular supply of water that is trucked in.

But some of the residents, like Kanakasahai Rukmani, say it is not enough. In tears she told us she just wants to go home.

"They keep promising to send us back, but it never happens. We're struggling here.

“We don't get enough food and we don't have enough clothes."

The residents can now leave temporarily to stay a few nights with nearby friends or relatives, but they still cannot go back to their homes.

In the nearby town of Vavuniya, the population has almost doubled because of the influx of refugees.

At the market, many come to sell the handouts they receive from the aid agencies inside the camps.

"In the camp we only get rice, flour, dhal and oil. We can't cook what we want with that. We don't get any vegetables," says Nallaih Koneswari.

"We don't have jobs either so we come here to sell things like flour to make money to buy better food."

The Tamil vote

The reason, the army says, it is preventing people from going home is because the areas where they lived are potentially littered with landmines which it is slowly clearing. It says it is about half way through the 480 square kilometres it has to clear.

There is plenty of other work still to be done. Much of the north and east of the country were destroyed during the war. In the former Tamil Tigers' stronghold of Kilinochchi most buildings have either been damaged or completely levelled.

Further north on the Jaffna Peninsula, which has been in the hands of the Sri Lankan army since 1996, there is still widespread damage and it will take years to rebuild.

Now with a presidential election looming, the Tamils will get their chance to vote for who they think is the best man to take the nation forward and help their cause.

For those still inside the refugee camps, the army says it will set up booths or bus them into Vavuniya to vote.

During the last vote in 2005, the LTTE called for Tamil civilians to boycott the election, which most did.

Now, they are free to decide who they think is the best man to take the nation forward and represent their needs, and they are expected to hit the polling stations in large numbers.

© Al Jazeera

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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

War crimes pressure on new S.Lanka chief: analysts

Sri Lanka's next president will face immediate pressure to investigate war crimes allegations and to mend relations with Western powers which provide key export markets for the island, analysts say.

This Tuesday's election pitting incumbent Mahinda Rajapakse against his former army chief Sarath Fonseka is the first peacetime presidential vote since separatist Tamil Tigers took up arms against the state in 1972.

Rajapakse and Fonseka proved their military mettle by crushing the rebels last May, but the final victor will need to show skillful statesmanship to secure the prosperity they have promised, analysts say.

On the diplomatic front, the war against the Tigers led to allegations of serious war crimes that continue to dog both men and have damaged relations with former allies in the West.

The United States, Britain and the European Union have been critical of Rajapakse's handling of the war, media freedom and holding of nearly 300,000 war-displaced Tamil people for months in internment camps.

As a consequence, the island nation -- colonised first by the Portuguese, then the Dutch then Britain until 1948 -- has deepened its ties with Japan, India, China and Myanmar, as well as Iran.

"There has been a shift in Sri Lankan foreign policy," Charu Lata Hogg, Sri Lanka expert at British think-tank Chatham House, told AFP.

"From looking to the West for support, it is now focused more on Asia. For instance, Japan, China and India continue to be important investors.

"Any closer alliances with the West, particularly the EU, would necessarily invite greater scrutiny on human rights and accountability for past crimes."

But Western nations are vital markets for the island's key exports -- clothing, tea and ceramics -- and the business community is lobbying for an improvement in the strained relations.

"We need to stop burning bridges and start making friends," Sunil Wijesinghe, who heads the Japanese-owned Dankotuwa Porcelain company, told AFP.

Last month, the EU announced plans to suspend important tariff concessions to Sri Lanka that facilitate exports to the giant European market.

The suspension followed a year-long European Commission probe that concluded the Sri Lankan government was in breach of commitments on human rights and good governance that come with the preferential trade status.

"The West is the biggest buyer of our exports and now that the war is over, it's time to tone down our overly aggressive foreign policy and take a more practical approach," said Asantha Sirimanne, who edits Lanka Business Online, the island's biggest business news portal.

Whoever finally triumphs will have to deal with reviving the war-battered economy, where growth fell to 3.5 percent in 2009 from 6.0 percent in 2008 amid rising unemployment.

The threat of a war crimes investigation will also continue to hang over the victor.

The UN, Western nations and international rights groups are seen as likely to continue pressing for some sort of a probe as allegations and evidence continues to seep out about extrajudicial killings and weapon use.

The UN estimates that 7,000 civilians perished in the final stages of fighting last year. Sri Lanka has always argued that there are no grounds for a war crimes investigation.

Internally, the biggest challenge for Rajapakse and Fonseka -- both Sinhalese nationalists -- will be maintaining the relative peace that reigns across the island at present.

The minority Tamil community in the north, on whose behalf the Tigers waged their war for independence, must be integrated economically and politically to prevent the re-emergence of a popular armed resistance movement, analysts say.

"The victory over Tamil militancy will remain fragile unless Sinhalese-dominated political parties make strong moves towards a more inclusive and democratic state," said Donald Steinberg from the Brussels-based think-tank International Crisis Group.

How the new president wins over the Tamils by devolving power and preventing another conflict will also be closely watched by foreign investors, said Nirosh de Silva, partner for Hong Kong-based private equity firm, Leopard Capital.


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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Sri Lanka Tense on Eve of Presidential Election

Sri Lanka's government and the political opposition are trading accusations their respective rivals are preparing to use force to overturn the results of Tuesday's presidential election. Independent monitors, meanwhile, contend, the electoral process has broken down.

Sri Lanka Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama is warning that up to 800 army deserters, most allied with former general and opposition candidate Sarath Fonseka, are poised to disrupt the presidential election.

"Unscrupulous elements can exploit this situation, cause violence in a manner that is alien to our traditions of tolerance and unknown in Sri Lanka before the conflict situation erupted," he said.

Bogollagama said 25 army battalions and 68,000 police officers have been deployed to ensure a violence-free election.

Former General Fonseka, hoping to unseat President Mahinda Rajapaksa, says five battalions posted in the capital - including two composed of special forces soldiers, some just 100 meters from his campaign office - are an ominous sign that he and other opposition leaders could be targeted him as part of a "military coup" should he prevail at the ballot box.

"They want to bring the war to Colombo? Of course, we will face it," he said.

VOA observed hundreds of soldiers who have appeared to set up a makeshift camp in the grandstands of a race course just down the street from the Fonseka headquarters.

Western diplomats say they are concerned about the potential for violence by supporters of the two rivals after election results are announced Wednesday.

Mr. Fonseka alleges the government is continuing to sling mud against him on the state-controlled airwaves even after official campaigning was supposed to have ended.

"The democratic process and the Constitution and the law of the country is totally being ignored by the government and the head of the government," he said.

Independent domestic monitors are lending credence to charges of manipulation of postal ballots, the military intervening in the political campaign and misuse of state resources, including the media, in favor of the president.

Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu of the Center for Policy Alternatives said the election's integrity has already been seriously challenged.

"With deep regret we have to say that when you look at it in terms of what public officials have said, what they have done, the violence and malpractice recorded we have a picture of dysfunction and breakdown," he said.

Although there are only 20 international observers in the country for the election, more than 3,700 Sri Lankan monitors are to be at the polling centers. The country has about 14 million eligible voters.

All indications are the two Sinhalese men, regarded by their respective camps as the true heroes of last year's defeat of the Tamil Tiger rebels, are locked in a tight battle. Both sides have told VOA News their polling shows their candidate in the lead.

© Voice of America

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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Surprise candidate leaves Sri Lankan poll wide open

By Charles Haviland - A recent cartoon depicts Gen Sarath Fonseka, at a lectern, declaiming "I promise to give you..."

But in the cartoon by Dharshana Karunathilake, President Mahinda Rajapaksa, on the opposite lectern, interrupts: "Whatever he promises, I promise to give you all those!"

It is a sign of how completely the dour, retired general has upset the previously monolithic Sri Lankan political scene and given voters a genuine choice.

Just three months ago, the president declared there would be presidential and parliamentary elections by April. There was little inkling that the then chief of staff would enter politics.

The election was expected to be a walkover for Mr Rajapaksa so weak did the opposition seem.

He had consolidated his power, sweeping a series of provincial elections held at staggered intervals to build on his huge popularity after the government defeated the Tamil Tigers and - in its words - "ended terrorism".

The post-war adulation of Mr Rajapaksa had scaled almost limitless heights. Politicians and columnists could be found saying that, with him at the helm, Sri Lanka had no further need of elections.

They hailed President Rajapaksa as a worthy successor to an ancient Sinhalese monarch who defeated a rival Tamil monarch - although the president distanced himself from such talk.

But suddenly there stormed on to the political scene another figure who could - and did - also say that HE "ended terrorism".

Bringing change

Sarath Fonseka complained he was sidelined and mistrusted by the president and his family, and in late November entered the presidential race.

A man usually photographed in uniform, almost scowling from under his cap, he suddenly started appearing in a pious white outfit, smiling, palms clasped in a traditional greeting.

Always uneasy as a public speaker, Gen Fonseka created ripples of laughter at his inaugural press conference, telling journalists: "I'm at your mercy and you can start shooting."

For the Sinhalese majority - about three-quarters of the population - both candidates carry significant appeal.

Both candidates are steeped in Sinhalese nationalism and are desperate to win their allegiance.

Gen Fonseka was quoted in 2008 as saying that Sri Lanka "belongs to the Sinhalese" although minorities must also be treated "like our people".

Unfortunately this has been a violent and very personal campaign. The bitterness is perhaps all the greater because ideologically the pair are so similar.

President Rajapaksa's side has attracted crowds of thousands to his rallies.

They are fenced in and watched by rows of stern police - this is Sri Lanka, after all - but there are fireworks, firecrackers and a triumphant mood as he and his supporters bellow out their message - that they deserve to win on the basis of the war victory, along with promises of prosperity and development.

His side has tried to capitalise on the fact that the Tamil National Alliance, a parliamentary group seen as close to the defeated Tamil Tigers, will support Gen Fonseka.

In a recent campaign speech, the president said a vote for Gen Fonseka would be a vote for terrorism and the break-up of the country.

One by one, from the podium, the president's campaigners denounced the opposition figures, by name, as traitors.

Their message is that no-one else can take credit for the war triumph or be relied on to secure it.

Gen Fonseka has said he does not believe the war victory is "the entitlement of one family". He calls himself the bringer of change and clean politics.

At a recent rally in southern Colombo, videos were projected onto a big screen, showing him in uniform, striding towards the camera with fire and smoke billowing behind. Then he metamorphoses to wear white, still striding, with stirring images of temples and rapt crowds.

There are slogans calling him a lion - an emotive symbol, the symbol of the Sinhalese people.

'King of our times'

Most Sinhalese people you talk to seem to have decided which way they will vote, and they are very much split.

One Rajapaksa supporter told the BBC: "He is the king of our times because he led the country to a victory against the terrorism which was there for more than three decades."

But one woman voter said Gen Fonseka would win because prices of staples were rising and "we want a change". She said there had been none of the promised development since the war and felt the best person to bring change was the retired general.

Most Sinhalese are devout Buddhists. In recent years, many Buddhist monks have become politicised, vocally supporting the recent war effort. A party dominated by monks is part of the governing coalition.

But the holy men are split on whom to support. Some have come out in favour of Gen Fonseka, and some have voiced concern at the many reports of violence and election malpractice.

At the Srinagar temple in Kotte near Colombo, the chief priest, the Venerable Maduluvave Sobitha, appealed for reason.

"We ask all candidates to remember the religion of compassion we have learnt as a race over the past 1,000 years. We must respect all candidates, their parties, their supporters and their views," he told the BBC.

It is true that minority Tamil and Muslim votes will count in this election.

But the predominant rhetoric about the war victory and patriotism is addressed mostly at the Sinhalese majority. They will have the biggest role in deciding between continuity and change in this hard-fought contest.

© BBC News

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Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Violence and Harassment of Media Mark Sri Lanka Election Campaign - IFJ

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) notes with concern that the campaign for Sri Lanka’s presidential election due to take place tomorrow has been marked by a high degree of harassment of media personnel and occasional acts of violence.

In the most recent instance of harassment, a busload of media personnel going to the venue of a meeting between opposition candidate Sarath Fonseka and former president Chandrika Kumaratunge was detained by police and questioned about the purpose of their trip. Permitted to proceed after questioning, the journalists were stopped again at another point and again put through a round of interrogation.

“The IFJ sees an effort here to prevent coverage of a key meeting, which resulted in the former president endorsing Fonseka’s candidacy,” IFJ General Secretary Aidan White said.

“This latest incident conforms to a broad pattern by which the authorities have sought to tilt the balance of electoral advantage through the use of state media and intimidation of independent media.”

The IFJ expressed concern recently over the skewed coverage of the campaign at the hands of state media, with incumbent President Mahinda Rajapakse favoured with an inordinately high proportion of media time and space.

Early in the campaign, a news crew from state-controlled broadcaster Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation (SLRC) was attacked at an opposition rally.

In later weeks, independent news reporters suffered injury and loss when violence broke out in the aftermath of election campaign events.

“We condemn all such acts of violence and regret that the authority of the independent election watchdog, which is empowered to oversee the fair allocation of time over state-owned broadcast channels, was flagrantly flouted,” White said.

© International Federation of Journalists

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