Friday, February 12, 2010


As many as 40,000 civilians could have been killed during the final stages of the Sri Lankan civil war, according to someone with detailed knowledge of the conflict – the former United Nations’ spokesperson in Sri Lanka, Gordon Weiss. Mr Weiss has resigned from the UN after 14 years and returned home to Australia. He’s now free to speak openly about the situation in Sri Lanka, for the first time and does so candidly and unflinchingly in Foreign Correspondent’s return program.

He tells reporter Eric Campbell that between 10,000 and 40,000 civilians died during the final, desperate battles - last year - of one of the world’s longest running and bloodiest civil wars.

“About 300,000 civilians, plus the Tamil Tiger forces, were trapped in an area of territory about the size of Central Park in New York,” says Weiss. “They were within range of all the armaments that were being used, small and large, being used to smash the Tamil Tiger lines … the end result was that many thousands lost their lives.”

Gordon Weiss says his information comes from reliable sources who had a presence inside the battle zone, not Tamil civilians or fighters.

"The Sri Lankan government said many things which were either intentionally misleading, or were lies", Weiss tells Campbell. He says that after the war ended, a senior civil servant openly admitted that the authorities had deliberately underestimated the number of trapped civilians “as a ploy to allow the government to get on with its business.”

He acknowledges that the Tamil Tiger forces were also regularly and ruthlessly killing people, to stop them from leaving the battle zones.

Campbell talks to Tamils who were caught trying to flee to Australia by boat. Despite facing criminal charges in Sri Lanka as a result, one of them admits he’s going to try to make the journey again, as soon as he can. He says he can’t live in Sri Lanka any more.

Claims of Tamil persecution are denied by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who tells Campbell asylum seekers are criminals – drug dealers and arms traffickers. The President says the problem will disappear and national unity will prevail now that the Tamil Tigers have been destroyed. Tamils prepared to farewell their home, friends and extended families to make the dangerous journey to Australia are a clear indication rhetoric and reality are along way apart.

© ABC News

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Friday, February 12, 2010

Political uncertainty drives Sri Lanka shares down

Sri Lankan shares fell for a third straight session on Thursday on political uncertainty amid clashes erupted in the capital following the arrest of losing opposition presidential candidate.

The All-Share Price Index of the Colombo Stock Exchange closed 49.50 points or 1.31 percent to 3,724.84 after hitting a record 3,806.78 in the previous session.

Thousands of Sri Lankans, protesting the arrest of losing presidential candidate Sarath Fonseka, clashed with government supporters on Wednesday, a day after parliamentary elections were called.

The opposition has said it will continuously agitate against the 'illegal' arrest of Fonseka, the former army commander who oversaw the victory in a 25-year war in 2009.

"Concerns are there with the current political uncertainty," said Prashan Fernando, executive director at Acuity Stockbrokers.

The bourse is still up 10 percent so far this year, following a 125 percent rally in 2009, one of the best in Asia.

Foreigners, who sold net 785.3 million rupees worth of shares in 2009, have sold a net 4.3 billion worth shares so far this.

Market heavyweight John Keells Holdings lost 2.1 percent to 163.75 rupees.

The day's turnover was 1.4 billion rupees ($12.3 million), over twice of 2009 daily average of 593.6 million rupees.

The Sri Lankan rupee closed flat at 114.66/68 per dollar on sluggish trade, dealers said.

The interbank lending rate or call money rate, fell to 9.086 percent from Wednesday's 9.148 percent.

© Reuters India

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Friday, February 12, 2010

Sri Lanka's ripples go far beyond the island

Beautiful country, blighted land: hardly the type of slogan to welcome tourists, but sentiment that sadly sums up life in Sri Lanka. Decades of civil war have sabotaged the economy of what should be a jewel of the Indian Ocean. For the more than 21 million people - Sinhalese and Tamil mostly - squeezed into an area not even a third the size of Victoria, the suffering has been needless and long.

Despite the cautious hope that greeted the end to almost 30 years of war last May, ominous clouds are again gathering. The move by President Mahinda Rajapaksa this week to arrest Sarath Fonseka, his former chief general and subsequent opponent in January's presidential election, smacks of authoritarianism. Mr Fonseka fell out with Mr Rajapaksa after leading government troops to bludgeon Tamil Tiger remnants last year in the east of the island. Both men, undeterred by allegations of human rights abuses in the final days of the conflict, sought the credit for finishing off the Tigers' cadres, and Mr Rajapaksa prevailed where it counts - at the ballot box.

Apparently not content with the voters' decision to return him to office, Mr Rajapaksa appears determined to also crush any future opposition. Mr Fonseka is accused of ''military offences'' and though he is no longer a military officer, he faces a court martial. And Mr Rajapaksa has since dismissed the parliament two months ahead of schedule, seeking to ram home his advantage against a dispirited opposition reeling from Mr Fonseka's arrest. Mr Fonseka had forged an unlikely coalition with Tamil parties, promising to submit to scrutiny for his role in the conflict. The Sri Lankan army is accused of shelling Tamil civilians trapped in a cantonment with the last of the Tigers and Mr Fonseka is also accused of involvement in the death of the newspaper editor Lasantha Wickrematunge, an Australian permanent resident. Mr Rajapaksa remains defiant, intent on keeping the final days of the war secret.

Sri Lanka must honestly account for its conduct of the war if the country is to start on the path to a more stable future. On ABC Foreign Correspondent this week, former United Nations spokesman in Sri Lanka, Australian Gordon Weiss, claimed the last stages of the conflict cost as many as 40,000 civilian lives. His claim sits at odds with the official UN estimate of 7000 killed, fuelling suspicions that the cost of defeating the Tigers was far greater than the government in Colombo has been willing to admit. Without a transparent inquiry, questions over the conduct of the campaign will haunt Sri Lanka, undermine trust in the government and ultimately hold back much-needed development.

Australia has major interests in Sri Lanka, not least because the country is the main source of asylum seekers willing to risk the perilous journey by boat to Australia. The war and instability in Sri Lanka affect all the countries of South Asia - and by extension, Australia, as an Indian Ocean power. If the Rudd government genuinely seeks a reputation for an ''activist'' foreign policy, Australia should take a stand against Sri Lanka's slide from democracy.

Australia has so far merely said it was watching developments closely. This passive attitude could be easily confused with a willingness to pander to Colombo out of fear that any criticism could jeopardise Sri Lankan co-operation with Australia on immigration matters. It would be a greater betrayal of the Sri Lankan people should Australia be seen to abandon support for democracy in order to preserve relations with an increasingly authoritarian ruler.

For a different island nation in the Pacific, Australia did take a strong stand. After Fiji broke from democracy, Australia was at the spearhead of moves to suspend the country from the Commonwealth. Sri Lanka is also a member of the Commonwealth, and should be put on notice that it risks a similar penalty.

© The Sydney Morning Herald

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Friday, February 12, 2010

Two journalists missing in Sri Lanka

The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed by the disappearance of two journalists in Sri Lanka. Chandana Sirimalwatte, chief editor of the Sri Lankan weekly newspaper Lanka, was detained by police around noon on January 30, according to his wife, Hemali Abeyratne, and staffers at the paper. Lanka e News journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda has been missing since January 24.

Lanka, the weekly Sirimalwatte edited, was closed down by the Criminal Investigation Division (CID) for several days around the same time he was detained, but was ordered reopened when staff appealed to a local magistrate. Soon after he was detained, the BBC reported that it was told by the director of the CID that Sirimalwatte was being held under unspecified emergency regulations, because a recent article might have violated rules on government inquiries into terrorism. It did not specify which article was at issue.

“CPJ calls for Chandana Sirimalwatte’s immediate release,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. “His continued detention without charge is an indicator of the Rajapaksa government’s continued anti-media policies, and should be ended immediately.”

The situation remains tense for opposition politicians and the media after incumbent President Mahinda Rajapksa won the country’s highly contested presidential elections on January 26. His major opponent, former general Sareth Fonseka, was arrested on February 8 at his party’s headquarters. Sirimalwatte’s detention came four days after the voting ended.

Today, Abeyratne issued a public letter calling for Sirimalwatte’s release: “I believe that my husband is being held in illegal detention for over 14 days without being produced in a court of law and without any charges being formally brought against him. It is obvious that the Government is trying to stifle the right of all Sri Lankans to information and crush the principles of universally accepted press freedom.”

Also today, Media Minister Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena said he expects a breakthrough in the disappearance of Lanka e News journalist Eknaligoda by next week, though he admitted the government had little information in the case: “The government is not aware if Eknaligoda is being held captive by a group of unknown persons and his family had no information whether he was abducted or not,” Abeywardena was quoted as saying by the Daily Mirror. “There is a possibility that Eknaligoda could be hiding himself.”

“The disappearance of Prageeth Eknaligoda is particularly chilling in a country where so many journalists’ deaths and disappearances have gone uninvestigated,” Dietz said. “And given the post-election climate in Sri Lanka, there is reason to be greatly concerned.”

The government has continued to put pressure on the media in the post-election period, especially on outlets linked to the opposition party. Several Web sites have been shut down and remain inaccessible within Sri Lanka.

In a separate development, Sri Lankan media have reported that Rajapaksa has taken over the Ministry of Mass Media and Information (which is a separate ministry from the one run by Abeywardena). According to the reports, all using official sources, the decision came after a request by the former Media Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa. He said he wanted to resign to work in the ruling party’s campaigns for parliamentary elections set for May.

© Committee to Protect Journalists

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Friday, February 12, 2010

Women scribes in Sri Lanka: fighting against odds

Image courtesy:

Manipadma Jena - May 2009 marked the end of Sri Lanka's 26-year civil war that had torn the nation apart. But it has been an uneasy truce. “The Sri Lankan government should immediately end its post-election harassment of media outlets and ensure protection of journalists from attack,” Human Rights Watch said on January 29, 2010. It added, “Since the presidential election on January 26, Sri Lankan authorities have detained and questioned several journalists, blocked news Web sites, and expelled a foreign journalist. At least one journalist has been assaulted and several threatened.”

Controls on journalists who had dared to take on the government — not just on the war with the LTTE and its aftermath, but also on domestic, political and economic issues — have hardly eased. Abductions, phone and text threats, and denouncements on official government Web sites continued into the election eve. “Now that the President has been re-elected, there appears to be a settling of scores with critics of the government,” said Brad Adams, Asia Director at Human Rights Watch.

As the voices against media harassment rise, several media organisations, including Reporters without Borders and the International Federation of Journalists, have asked President Mahinda Rajapaksa to deliver on his promises of a free and autonomous Fourth Estate. But will Rajapaksa now deliver? That's anybody's guess.

Sri Lanka's civil war, which began in 1983, was one of the oldest ongoing conflicts in the world. In 2006, when full-scale violence resumed between the government and the LTTE, human rights violations committed by both sides increased dramatically. Widespread internal displacement was by far the direst of consequences, as the military recaptured LTTE occupied territory.

The pre-poll promises of returning Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) to their homes, too, have only been partially fulfilled.

Media, black or white?

In such a sharply polarised scenario, the media are viewed in black and white terms — either as supporters or detractors, as allies or enemies. Boding far-reaching ills for a democracy and civil society, freedom of expression has been a consistent casualty.

Dilrukshi Handunnetti, in the Asia Media Report 2009, titled ‘Truth, the Second Casualty' takes an insider's hard look at the tumultuous state of the Sri Lankan media in its quest for the truth amidst violence, sensationalism and censorship. A lawyer by training, she has been a journalist for 17 years, and is currently editor, investigation desk, at The Sunday Leader. She sees herself as a human rights activist above all else and has covered the ethnic conflict from a non-military perspective.. She says, “Women journalists successfully bring in the gender perspective and the psychological impact of violence on men, women and children, both during the conflict and at the IDP camps, which male journalists might mostly overlook, concentrating rather on political aspects.”

“Journalists are consciously kept out. News that gets out from the camps is sensational and there is no way to verify its authenticity,” observes Sharmini Boyle, the director and chief editor at ‘Young Asia Television', a leading independent organisation producing programmes on human rights, peace-building, youth and gender issues.

In Sri Lankan politics, women have a four per cent representation at the Centre and two per cent presence at the local level. Gender representation in the media is much better. A Sri Lanka-based Tamil woman journalist, who has put in 16 years in the profession, but who requests anonymity, asks a pertinent question, “How many of us women journalists really travelled to conflict zones to report? Every attempt has been made to silence us.”

A majority of mediapersons, both at the local and international levels, would echo her. Thakshila Dilrukshi, BBC's Sinhala service reporter, who was attacked with clubs recently by partisan political groups, certainly would.

The Tamil journalist adds, “It is quite difficult to operate as an independent journalist and report impartially.” Her fears are those of all journalists who have remained true to their professional ethics and spirit, despite the immense pressure to side with the government, quit altogether or even leave the country.

“It is frustrating being unable to carry out my job independently, travel to North and East (the conflict areas and IDP camp bases) for news coverage without obtaining prior permission from the authorities, and being watched all the time. I like to travel to the field, be with the people of all three (Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim) communities and report what I see and hear. I do not like ‘comfort journalism'. But after my colleagues were shot dead, and about 35-40 journalists left the country, I have decided it is prudent to keep a low profile,” she says. Of the 34 media personnel killed since April 2004, three were Sinhalese, one was a Muslim and the rest were Tamils.

The gender perspective

For women journalists the nature of work and the working environment has undergone a sea change. Recalls Vijita Fernando, journalist, translator and fiction writer since the 1960s, “There was a time in the media industry in Sri Lanka — print and broadcast — when there were no women reporters. They were either editors of supplement pages for women and children or feature writers.”

Things have changed dramatically in the intervening years. “Now, women occupy editors' chairs, cover parliament, do the police beat and, of course, cover the conflict too, but only marginally — and with accompanying male journalists. When the conflict was on, however, hardly any journalists were allowed in the north and east,” she observes.

Vijita strikes a thought provoking note: “Women journalists have always focused on the gender aspect even while writing about IDPs and IDP camps. This is an extension of their interest in women. Even outside the conflict and post-conflict situation, women journalists tend to focus on women's lives — the abuse, their rights, their children, domestic violence, maternal health and mortality. But I am not generalising. There are a few women journalists who have always written on politics and issues like the dearth of women in politics and women's legal rights. Yet, here too, it is the women they are focusing on, although not on what is normally termed as ‘women's issues'.”

Confirming her observations, the Tamil journalist adds, “There are many stories to be covered, such as martyrs' families, women cadres, children affected by conflict, to name a few. Since there are travel restrictions these stories remain untold to the world.”

Women scribes in the troubled island nation are certainly mainstreaming gender. They are shaking off the tag of being interested only in ‘soft' stories and are consolidating their position despite the odds. For instance, 30 women journalists came together in May last year to put in place the Sri Lanka chapter of the South Asian Women in Media (SAWM - the first South Asian all-women media association with members from SAARC countries) in order to give the much needed fillip to women journalists in Sri Lanka. But most of all they want to do stories that shine the torch on the political and stark social realities that beset their country today.

© The Hindu Business Line

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