Saturday, February 13, 2010

Sri Lanka: Protests grip restive nation after General’s arrest

By Adithya Alles - Sri Lanka’s bruising presidential election ended less than a month ago on Jan. 26, but the island nation is now caught up in protests that threaten to spiral into public agitation across the country.

If the populace felt it could breathe easy after incumbent president Mahinda Rajapaksa defeated his main challenger, former Army commander Sarath Fonseka, by a margin of 1.8 million votes in the January vote, that calm was short-lived.

On the night of Feb. 8, after two weeks of trading charges, Fonseka was taken into custody by the military police on accusations of corruption and trying to topple the government while he was in public office.

Fonseka’s detention has sparked clashes in different areas. Protests are planned across the island by his supporters as well as by other groups such as lawyers and the influential Buddhist clergy in the mainly Buddhist country.

Just 48 hours after Fonseka’s arrest, clashes broke out between Fonseka supporters, pro-government gangs and police in at least three towns, including the capital Colombo.

In Colombo, a group of around 2,500 Fonseka supporters chased down pro-government supporters who blocked their path as they were holding the first protest demanding the Fonseka’s release.

In the next 24 hours, at least three more such protests were tear-gassed by police, including one in the Colombo suburb of Maharagama on Feb. 11.

The rallying point for the protestors has been the wife of the arrested general, Anoma Fonseka.

Anoma remained in her husband’s shadow through his 40-year military career. She maintained that posture when her husband led the Army in its final and crushing assault on the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) last year.

The Tigers were defeated in May 2009, ending two and half decades of deadly civil war that killed over 70,000.

Fonseka was feted as a hero, but soon fell out with the Rajapaksa government. That fallout led to his coming forward as the opposition candidate challenging the president in the January vote.

"He is good spirits, he is mentally strong," Anoma told reporters early this week, soon after visiting her husband, who is being detained at an undisclosed location. "He requests every one of his supporters to be calm and not to resort to unlawful activities or break the law."

Anoma has found herself at the centre of the opposition campaign ever since she addressed the media tearfully the morning after her husband was arrested. She has regained her composure thereafter, but there is no denying that it is her presence that has rejuvenated the pro-Fonseka protestors.

Opposition parties that endorsed Fonseka’s unsuccessful presidential bid have rallied together to launch protests against his arrest.

"This (the arrest) was a blatant violation of fundamental rights, there is no rule of law," said, Rauf Hakeem the leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress. Hakeem was meeting with Fonseka along with four other leaders from political parties when military police arrested him on Feb. 8.

"We have to fight to gain our rights, our freedom. This government is not behaving as one that has just won an election with a 1.8 million majority, it is acting like one that is nervous," he said.

"This is just the beginning. We will carry on till the general is freed," said Somawansha Amarasinghe, the leader of National Liberation Front, a pro- nationalist party that was instrumental in getting Fonseka to contest the election.

The opposition threatens to launch all-out protests if the general does not get a fair trial. "You will see people coming on to the streets spontaneously, this will become a people’s movement," observed Mangala Samaraweera, a former Rajapaksa Cabinet minister that has since turned foe.

The arrest has galvanised the opposition, which was in disarray soon after the election defeat. It was emboldened even more after a fundamental rights applications filed by the general’s wife, challenging the arrest, was given leave to proceed by the Supreme Court on Feb. 12.

"We have sought the assistance of Buddhist priests to help us," said Karu Jayasuriya, the deputy leader of United National Party (UNP), one of the main political parties supporting Fonseka.

UNP leader and leader of the opposition Ranil Wickremasinghe met with President Rajapaksa on Feb. 12 to discuss the arrest. The UNP later said that Rajapaksa had informed Wickremasinghe that the government will abide by the Supreme Court’s decision on the fundamental rights application.

The government maintains that Fonseka is not being persecuted for his politics and that the correct procedure was followed in his arrest. Media Minister Lakshman Yapa Abeyawardena said that he was taken into custody under Section 57 of the armed forces act. The minister added that Fonseka was to be charged with attempting to topple the government, abuse of power and corruption when he was still holding office. The charges pre- date Fonseka’s retirement date of Nov.12, 2009.

"I beseech the opposition not to put innocent civilians in front to achieve their political end," the minister said.

But the protests over Fonseka’s arrest have spread to the provinces as well. Injuries were reported when police tried to break up a protest in the north central town of Anuradhapura, about 200 km from Colombo, on Feb.12.

More protests are likely in the coming days. Shrilal Lakthilaka, a lawyer affiliated to the UNP, has announced that he will start a fast on Feb. 15 in support of Fonseka. "If he does not get justice, I am willing to go a hunger strike," the lawyer said.

The National Bhikku Front, the powerful body made up of Buddhist priests, has also come out in support of Fonseka. "A decorated war hero has been arrested. This is not democracy, we will fight for his freedom," NBF head Ven Dambara Amila Thero said.

© Inter Press Service

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Saturday, February 13, 2010

War crimes probe call reiterated

The United Nations have once again called for an independent international investigation over alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka.

Navi Pillai, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has told a gathering in Dublin, Ireland that her office is in a clear understanding that national investigations "have not worked so far".

Speaking in Dublin, Ireland, she added that UN Secretary General Ban ki-Moon is "seriously committed to getting President Rajapaksa to comply with the undertaking he gave to the Secretary General."

The High Commissioner confirmed that she recently met Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe in Geneva.

HR minister

"It seems that everybody was waiting for the election to be over, and so that is what I reminded him," she said.

"The position that Sri Lanka has the unique office of a ministry for HR I thought places a particular responsibility on the minister of HR should talk to his own government not only on post conflict rights violations but post election rights violations."

Expressing "disappointment" that the issue of alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka was not properly addressed at the UN HRC, she said it is an important vehicle on which states can take measures on rights violations of another country.

Denying war crimes allegations, the Sri Lanka government says it will not allow any international investigations.

In an interview with the BBC, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa said he would nto allow any such investigation as “there is no reason.”

But the former military chief Gen Sarath Fonseka has said he will testify at an international hearing.

© BBC Sinhala

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Saturday, February 13, 2010

Up to 40,000 civilians 'died in Sri Lanka offensive'

By Andrew Buncombe, Asia Correspondent - The bitter controversy surrounding the final stages of the Sri Lankan government’s operation to crush separatist rebels has been reopened after a former UN official claimed that up to 40,000 civilians may have been killed.

In the final stages of last year’s move to defeat the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the UN protested strongly about the number of Tamil civilians caught up in the fighting. Privately, officials estimated that between 8,000-10,000 lost their lives and that many more were wounded.

Now, Gordon Weiss, who until the end of last year was the UN’s spokesman in Colombo, has suggested the figure may be much higher. “A lot of civilians died inside the siege zone. I have heard anything between ten and forty thousand people and that’s from reliable sources who had a presence inside the zone,” he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. “[The Sri Lankan authorities] repeated a number of things that were either intentionally misleading or were lies. One senior government civil servant remarked at the end of the war that the government insistence that the figures were very low was a ploy. It was a ploy to allow the government to get on with its business.”

Last night, the Sri Lankan government dismissed the claims. Lucien Rajakarunanayake, a senior presidential spokesman said: “All I can tell you is that [Mr Weiss] is unaware of the facts. The figures are a total exaggeration. The UN itself has given figures that are much lower than this.”

Precisely how many civilians were injured or wounded as Sri Lankan forces defeated the remnant of the LTTE fighters making a final stand in the north east of Sri Lanka, may never be known. At the time, the UN and other organisations claimed that civilians were being struck by ordinance fired by both sides. Testimony provided by Tamils who escaped from the war zone suggests that many civilians were used as human shields by the LTTE as government troops advanced.

Mr Weiss was last night unavailable to comment and the UN in Sri Lanka refused to discuss the claims of its former spokesman, believed to be writing a memoir of his experiences in Sri Lanka.

In the interview, the former spokesman also suggested there was a need to investigate allegations of possible war crimes. While there have been widespread calls for such an inquiry, including from some senior figures within the UN, the Sri Lankan authorities have refused such an undertaking. “I will not allow any investigation by the United Nations or any other country. There is nothing wrong happening in this country?Take it from me, we will not allow any investigation,” Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the country’s defence secretary and brother of the president, recently told an interviewer.

Indeed, the purported readiness of former army chief Sarath Fonseka to cooperate with such an inquiry has been cited by the government as one of the reasons he was arrested and placed in detention and will likely be placed before a court-martial. Mr Fonseka, who last month failed in his electoral challenge to Sri Lanka’s president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, had said allegations about war could be investigated. The defence secretary said of Mr Fonseka’s undertaking: “He simply cannot do that. For one thing it is a lie.”

Yesterday, hundreds of lawyers marched through Colombo to protest against Mr Fonseka’s continued detention. They gathered near the country’s Supreme Court which admitted a petition filed by the former general’s wife that claimed his detention by the military police was illegal. The court has given the government four weeks to reply.

Such a date would be less than a month before parliamentary that Mr Fonseka has intended to contest. The government has not yet specified which charges it wishes to bring against him, but has repeatedly claimed he was plotting a coup – something he denied.

Meanwhile, the US and Norway denied claims made by the government that they had bankrolled Mr Fonseka’s campaign. In a statement, the US Embassy in Colombo said: “The United States backed no candidate but strongly supported a free, fair, and credible democratic process.”

© The Independent

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Saturday, February 13, 2010

'General Fonseka knew about Lasantha's murder beforehand' - SL Defence Secretary

Interviewed by Ravi Velloor - Soon after Mahinda Rajapaksa took charge as president of Sri Lanka in late 2005, he appointed younger brother Gotabaya, a former infantry officer, to the critical post of Defence Secretary.

At Cabinet meetings, Mr Gotabaya would listen as the debates swirled on how to tackle the Tamil Tiger separatist insurgency that had roiled his nation for a quarter century. Many thought a political settlement was the only way out.

"Gota", as he is known, was convinced otherwise. He soon set about beefing up the military, organising the weapons and other supplies needed to take on the world's deadliest guerilla force. Arms came from the Ukraine, China and Pakistan. Valuable intelligence inputs came from India, whose former prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, had been assassinated by a woman Tiger.

Twelve days before he was due to retire as a major general in 2005, President Rajapaksa picked Sarath Fonseka as the new army chief. He couldn’t have found a more determined man. Together, the three orchestrated what the Sri Lankans call the world's first decisive victory against "terrorism".

But now the Rajapaksas have fallen out with Fonseka.

In October, sitting in his defence headquarters office, my meeting with Mr Gotabaya was cancelled at the last minute. His military aide said the secretary had been summoned by the president, then developed a stomach ache and had gone home to rest.

When I got back to my hotel Colombo was all agog with rumours that Fonseka, still the chief of defence services, was about to mount a coup and topple the president.

The Rajapaksas now have the upper hand. Gotabaya's hard-hitting tone throughout the hour-long telephone interview he gave me on Wednesday afternoon reveals the depth of the anger the Rajapaksas have towards Fonseka.


On the circumstances that prompted Fonseka's arrest:

The episode has nothing to do with our political differences. The biggest damage he has done is by coming into politics in the manner he did. After 35 years in the military he should have thought of the institution as a whole.

Our forces never used to be involved in politics but this time they were fully involved and this divided the military. He used to telephone officers directly. Some officers told me they switched off their cell phones because of this. His campaign staff comprised mostly military officers and their main task was trying to reach the security commanders.

He divided the army. Because of this, the government had to bring some of the officers on television to defend its position. He started his political campaign when he was occupying the army commanders house!

On Fonseka's charge that his military security was deliberately reduced to expose him to danger:

He had requested for a certain number of security personnel. This was granted, but he kept more than that. The army couldn't do anything. If it tried to take away the extra security and vehicles, he would immediately have claimed the government was harassing the commander.

He created the situation and then he began attacking the president and myself in a third grade manner, more than any other politician ever would. It was so dirty.

On the main reason for Fonseka's arrest:

The main reason is whatever he had done in the military. He will be charged under the army act. Under the army act, any officer can be charged under military act within six months of leaving the military. There are other things we will do under civil code.

Such as what?

It was clear that while he was holding the Chief of Defence Staff assignment he was working with politicians and held discussions with them and tried to win them over. That was completely wrong because he was sitting in Security Council meetings. It amounts to treason. He knew everything that was going on.

The IDP (internally displaced persons) situation for instance. He is the only person who disagreed that the people should be resettled promptly. He completely opposed it. In fact, he said there should be no resettlement for three years. (Presidential adviser) Basil (Rajapaksa) wanted it. The security force commaders wanted it. But Fonseka said, no , he can't agree.

Once in the Eastern Province (a war-ravaged province where Tamils are a majority) he even told the security commander to bring back to camps those who had been resettled. Everyone in the army knows that. But once he left the army, he said just the reverse.

On the other civil offences:

Well, he alleged that I gave orders for shooting at people holding white flags (of surrender). It is utter lies. You can understand the difficulty he put the government in.

On Tuesday, he told the BBC that he will give evidence in any court. That type of thing. He simply cannot do that. For one thing it is a lie. The other thing is to give evidence... after all he was one of the people involved.

Also, certain things he said in the political campaign we cannot ignore. It wasn't in the heat of campaigning. He was serious. Such as how to get rid of certain people.

On Fonseka knowing about the murder of the journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge beforehand:

Yes, of course. We know there was no other person. You have to see the circumstances. Some of the media people harmed had never criticised any other person except him, or people close to him. Nothing happened to those who had been criticising me or the president.

We have a clue whom he has used. We are very convinced. In fact, I know for sure. He was definitely responsible for 5 or 6 cases (of disappearances) where media people were involved. Now I am going after the people who did the executions. The truth will come out very soon, then the people will know.

On government fears that he was heading towards leading a coup:

He was planning on a military rule. It was very clear in the latter stages, in the way he had spoken and addressed the people. He said he wouldn't allow the politicians to rob the military of the victory they had achieved and offer a political solution.

He was completely trying to isolate the politics and take the country on a different path. In his very last stages as army commander he began bringing his people into Colombo and his regiment, positioning his senior regiment people all over.

All these things were looking like a military coup. He also took a keen interest in changing the previous navy commander (who was not well inclined towards him).

All that hastened our decision to move him to a higher apppontment. I had to take that decision to take him out from the commander's position and make him CDS (Chief of Defence Staff). The CDS is not a ceremonial post, but he created that impression.

The fighting phase (against the Tamil Tigers) was over and in the second phase what was required was more intelligence and planning. It needed careful planning, rebooting. You can't do it the same way you conducted a military operation. Hence, the CDS appointment.

Outsiders don't know all this and call it a demotion. In fact, the JVP (Janatha Vimukti Peramuna) who are his present supporters criticised the government at the time for creating such a position with huge powers. They said we are trying to create a dictator. They said too much power vested in a single person. If Fonseka's aim was to serve that would have been a better position.

On the impact on the army:

They understand. They know he has made mistakes. His behaviour during the campaign antagonised the military. And in any case he wasn't a very popular army commander. We ourselves gave him more credit than he deserved. There were better officers in the army.

He was appointed 12 days before retirement. If President Rajapaksa had not been elected in 2005 Fonseka would have retired as a major general. What he achieved we could have done with any other commander. We had better officers who had made more sacrifices.

We had four presidents previously. None of them were convinced it (the Tamil Tiger separatist insurgency) could be tackled militarily. Only Rajapaksa (the President) was convinced it had to be tackled as a military problem.

All the others were half hearted. It was only purely numbers. I gave numbers and increased the army's strength by three times to close to 300,000. We put more people on the ground.

On Fonseka's wife saying she has no clue to his whereabouts:

He is being kept in a naval base. He is not in a cell or anything. We have given him an apartment that was once used by the navy commander when he was a chief of staff. It is pretty luxurious.

If Fonseka had won he wouldn't have given all these facilities even to President Rajapaksa. But he lies, his wife lies. And his supporters lie.

On letting him campaign in the parliamentary polls:

Now he can't. The court martial will begin immediately after the assembling of the summary of evidence is done. I don't know how long it will take because that depends on lawyers. But we want to finish it soon, in less than six months maybe. The severity of the charges is very high. He can be put in jail for as long as five years.

On Fonseka alleging serious human rights violations by the Sri Lankan military:
I am not bothered. He can tell any lie but he can't prove anything. At one time he says defence secretary wasn't in office at a particular time, at another time he says I gave illegal orders (of shooting at people holding white flags of surrender) during that time. We can prove these allegations aren't true.

We are 100 per cent convinced that western countries with vested interests were backing him. Even the US, and countries like Norway, spent lots of money on his campaign.

I have proof of the Norwegian government paying journalists to write against the government. They have vested interests and used to support the Tamil Tigers in various ways. They also supported Fonseka to try oust the president.

On Gotabaya's personal plans:

There are still a lot of things that need to be done. As secretary for defence I have to bring stability. The Tamil Tigers has a big network outside. We have broken much of that but we have to continue.

The military can do a lot for reconciliation. People don't understand how good our soldiers are. A lot of people tell me that in the Eastern Province they want army around, not police. The army can also play a major role in development because we have trained, disciplined people.

On whether he is standing for the parliamentary polls like his nephew, the president's son:

I won't be contesting for parliament.

© The Straits Times

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Saturday, February 13, 2010

Thin Line Between Politics and ‘Treason’ in Sri Lanka

By Robert Mackey - On Friday, Sri Lanka’s supreme court ruled that Sarath Fonseka, the retired general who was arrested Monday night after his defeat in the country’s presidential election, will be allowed to challenge his detention in court. After the ruling the Web site Lanka Truth posted a video of one of General Fonseka’s representative’s telling reporters that the court had scheduled a hearing for Feb. 23.

After General Fonseka’s arrest on Monday by the Sri Lankan military he had led until just a few months ago, a government spokesman, Keheliya Rabukwalla, told reporters that the general’s crime was to have engaged in opposition politics before his retirement.

At a news conference, Mr. Rabukwalla said that while General Fonseka was till a member of the country’s security council last year, “he had many connections and many dealings with various other political parties’ leaders who had been working against the government — and this amounts to treason, to some extent.”

Sri Lanka’s defense minister, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, who is also the President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s younger brother, made the same charge in an interview with The Straits Times, a Singapore newspaper, published on Thursday, saying:

The episode has nothing to do with our political differences. [...]

It was clear that while he was holding the Chief of Defense Staff assignment he was working with politicians and held discussions with them and tried to win them over. That was completely wrong because he was sitting in Security Council meetings. It amounts to treason.

In the interview, Mr. Rajapaksa also blamed General Fonseka for a host of charges made against Sri Lanka’s government, including possible war crimes committed during the military’s final offensive against the separatist Tamil Tigers last year, the long detention of Tamil civilians in camps after that battle ended and even the killing of Sri Lankan journalists like Lasantha Wickrematunge, a prominent editor who was killed in early 2009. On the resettlement of Tamil civilians displaced by fighting, Mr. Rajapaksa claimed General Fonseka was “the only person who disagreed that the people should be resettled promptly. He completely opposed it. In fact, he said there should be no resettlement for three years.” On the disappearance or murder of journalists, Mr. Rajapaksa said:

Some of the media people harmed had never criticized any other person except him, or people close to him. Nothing happened to those who had been criticizing me or the president.

In the same interview, Mr. Rajapaksa, an American citizen who lived in the United States before his brother became president, accused the Amercan government of financing General Fonseka’s campaign for the presidency, saying:

We are 100 percent convinced that Western countries with vested interests were backing him. Even the U.S. and countries like Norway spent lots of money on his campaign.

The Associated Press reported on Friday that the United States Embassy in Sri Lanka denied that charge in a statement released on Thursday night that said, “The United States backed no candidate but strongly supported a free, fair, and credible democratic process.”

© The Lede : The New York Times News Blog

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Saturday, February 13, 2010

Sri Lanka: JVP fears imminent arrest

By Jamila Najmuddin - The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) fears there are moves to arrest some of the senior party members and had discussed its concerns with the party lawyers, informally today, a party official told Daily Mirror Online.

The discussions focused mostly on what legal action the party could take if the government decided to detain some of the party’s senior members.

“Some government ministers have openly said that senior JVP members could be arrested soon. Considering the government’s behaviour towards General Sarath Fonseka, it would not be surprising if the government decides to detain some of our senior party members,” the party official said on the condition of anonymity.

The official added that if the possibility of the arrests grew stronger, then the party would consider informing the foreign missions in Colombo. “Considering the government’s behavior, we might just inform the international community of our safety,” the party official said.

© Daily Mirror

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