Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Now a new war, on freedom

War is often the justification for a temporary suspension of normal civil liberties under emergency powers. The test of an established democracy comes when a war ends, and those liberties are promptly returned to the population. This includes the right to stand and vote against the wartime leader in free and fair elections.

Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his army defeated the Tamil Tigers last May. But where is the peace dividend for his terror-racked country? The early presidential election held on January 26 was a textbook case in abuse of incumbency against Rajapaksa's rival, the former military chief General Sarath Fonseka.

Into the bargain, there are now credible reports that the election commissioner, Dayananda Dissanayake, and his wife were kept captive at the presidential compound on election day and the day after while counting was conducted and a result announced. Dissanayake now appears to have withdrawn the resignation he announced after this detention, again as a result of what appears to have been a threatening meeting at Rajapaksa's office.

On Monday soldiers arrived at General Fonseka's office and carried him off into the night amid blows and verbal abuse, after he told a foreign radio station he was willing to testify in any international human rights tribunal about alleged war crimes during the final stages of the war. As a former United Nations official on the scene, Gordon Weiss, said on ABC television this week, there is much that Colombo would want to keep hidden. Although he had resigned from the army before standing for the presidency, Fonseka is being held by the military, and seems destined for a closed court-martial on vague charges.

Meanwhile, organisations such as Amnesty International and Reporters without Borders note that disappearances and intimidation of journalists continue. The respected commentator Jehan Perera, of Sri Lanka's National Peace Council, talks of a ''climate of fear''. In this vitiated atmosphere Rajapaksa has now dissolved parliament, in preparation for an early election at which his goal will be to achieve a two-thirds majority, sufficient to amend the constitution.

The descent into dictatorship must be watched with alarm by the democratic world, especially fellow members of the Commonwealth. It could easily spark new rebellion, this time among the Sinhalese majority on the lines of previous Marxist insurgencies. Until now Canberra has treated Rajapaksa gingerly, intent on getting co-operation in stopping the outflow of boat people refugees. Now it appears more and more that Rajapaksa is the cause, not the solution.

© Sydney Morning Herald

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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Crackdown Provokes Fears for Sri Lanka’s Democracy

By Lydia Polgreen - In a part of the world better known for the interruption of democracy than its stubborn endurance, Sri Lanka has always been something of an oddity. A small country that suffered through one of the world’s nastiest recent wars, it nevertheless remained for the most part a vibrant multiparty democracy.

Last spring the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa decisively defeated the Tamil Tiger insurgency that had terrorized Sri Lanka for the better part of three decades. Last month, voters rewarded him with a landslide victory that gave him a new term.

So it is all the more surprising that his government decided to arrest the longtime ally who became his main rival for the presidency, Gen. Sarath Fonseka.

That arrest, and the harassment of journalists and opposition politicians and their supporters, are raising fears that Sri Lanka’s democracy is faltering just as the long-awaited peace begins.

War has a way of chipping away at the foundations of even the strongest democracies. But what has surprised many people in Sri Lanka and beyond is the way that crackdown has endured well beyond the government’s battlefield triumph, and has, in some ways, even intensified and become routine as Mr. Rajapaksa and his family have tightened their grip on government.

“Sri Lanka has been on a clear path towards the consolidation of power in the hands of very few people, many of them related to each other,” said Alan Keenan, an analyst at the International Crisis Group who specializes in Sri Lanka.

The events of the past week have been so unsettling that some influential supporters of the president have questioned the arrest. In a highly unusual rebuke, a group of leading Buddhist monks, one of Mr. Rajapaksa’s most stalwart constituencies, criticized the arrest of General Fonseka in a letter to the president, saying the general had “made enormous sacrifices to unite and safeguard the territorial integrity of the country.”

Dayan Jayatilleka, a former diplomat, political analyst and ally of Mr. Rajapaksa, wrote in a deeply critical essay on Groundviews, a popular citizen journalism Web site, that the arrest of General Fonseka was a “clumsy melodrama” that was “obscuring the clear, conclusive electoral victory handed to Mahinda Rajapaksa by the masses.”

Even Rajiva Wijesinha, secretary general of Sri Lanka’s peace secretariat and a staunch defender of the Rajapaksa government, admitted in an interview this week that “the timing could have been better,” adding that “it might have been better after he lost so badly to let him go.”

Top officials insist that General Fonseka posed a grave threat.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the president’s brother and the defense secretary, told The Straits Times, a newspaper based in Singapore, that General Fonseka had planned to topple the government, and that acting to stop him was the only way to preserve democracy. “He was planning on a military rule,” the newspaper quoted him as saying.

Mr. Rajapaksa and General Fonseka were once united in their determination to crush the Tamil Tiger insurgency at virtually any cost. Mr. Rajapaksa gave the military a free hand to prosecute the war, and the army’s size and budget ballooned.

The president’s defenders say that at the end of the war Mr. Rajapaksa tried to reassert civilian control, alienating the general. Rumors that General Fonseka was plotting a coup have swirled for months, though many dismissed them because Sri Lanka has no history of military intervention in its politics.

Some analysts have contended that he was arrested because he was hinting that he might give evidence of war crimes committed in the final battle against the Tamil Tigers, and the arrest was a way to keep him quiet. No charges against General Fonseka have been announced, and it remains to be seen if he will be tried in military or civilian courts.

The election has featured the clearest signs yet that the government does not feel bound by the rule of law, analysts said. Despite clear directives from the country’s beleaguered elections commissioner, state-controlled news media continued to favor the president overwhelmingly.

Parliamentary elections are scheduled for April, and many people worry that General Fonseka’s arrest will have a chilling effect on the vote. Mr. Rajapaksa’s party has made it clear that it seeks a two-thirds majority that will allow the president and his allies to reshape the Constitution.

The opposition coalition that backed General Fonseka, meanwhile, is crumbling. The biggest opposition party, the center-right pro-business United National Party declared Monday that it would run on its own in parliamentary elections. But its ability to draw voters is in question; it failed to deliver its urban stronghold, Colombo, the capital, for General Fonseka.

The other large opposition party, a Marxist organization that dabbles in virulent Sinhalese nationalism, is also on the wane.

The fact that these disparate parties chose to champion General Fonseka is a sign of just how weak and ineffective they have become. Not one had a candidate within its ranks who could rival Mr. Rajapaksa.

General Fonseka proved a wooden candidate and had the temperament of a hard-charging military officer, according to people who have worked closely with him.

As a candidate he pressed the government to release Tamil civilians held in closed camps, but government officials said that as army commander he had resisted calls to resettle civilians quickly. That record, along with his role in the bloody final stages of the war, makes him an unlikely martyr. But Mr. Rajapaksa seems determined to make him one, contended one political analyst who did not want to be quoted criticizing the government.

The president could have simply settled for a victory, the analyst said, but by making the general a target, Mr. Rajapaksa has only given him more credibility.

© The New York Times

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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Tragic triumphalism in Sri Lanka

By Mahir Ali - A YEAR ago, as Sri Lanka’s long and agonising civil war entered its endgame phase, there was little indication that the bloody denouement would make way for the healing and reconciliation that the island-nation so desperately needs.

The manner in which the army conducted its final assault in the Tamil-dominated north and east precluded such a possibility in the short run. And neither President Mahinda Rajapaksa nor army chief Gen Sarath Fonseka made much of an effort to suggest they would be gracious in victory.

Who could have guessed, though, that they would turn into implacable foes within weeks of that military triumph, and that one of them would imprison the other just a few months later?

Fonseka has been threatened with court martial on the charge of conspiring to overthrow the government. And a military trial has been justified on the basis that the plot was hatched while he was still in uniform.

That’s an implausible scenario. Sri Lanka does not have a tradition of military coups. There is no question that its armed forces have grown progressively stronger and more influential in recent decades as the country has morphed into a security state, and that is always an unhealthy sign. But that troubling circumstance can hardly be construed as evidence of Fonseka’s culpability.

The fact is that he left the army and took on Rajapaksa in last month’s presidential election. That isn’t how military plotters generally behave.

Rajapaksa won by a substantial margin and, notwithstanding the misgivings of Fonseka and some of his supporters, international observers found few signs of electoral fraud.

The retired general had managed to rally behind his presidential bid a remarkably broad coalition that ranged from Sinhalese radicals to Tamil parties, and included former president Chandrika Kumaratunga, who not so long ago headed the Sri Lanka Freedom Party that Rajapaksa now leads.

By and large, however, this reflected not so much an endorsement of Fonseka as a desire to relegate Rajapaksa, whose reputation for corruption and predilection for nepotism is compounded by a disturbing personality cult and a disinclination to countenance dissent. That desire appears to have been widely shared in the capital Colombo, where Fonseka handsomely outvoted his rival.

But the Sinhalese countryside appears to be solidly behind Rajapaksa, who has every intention of capitalising on his current standing and the opposition’s confusion: he has prematurely dissolved the national parliament and elections are expected to take place by early April. A two-thirds majority — which may prove hard to achieve, but isn’t out of the question — would hand him unprecedented power.

As executive president, Rajapaksa is already head of state and government as well as commander-in-chief of the armed forces. In addition, he has kept the defence and finance portfolios for himself, and — ominously —has expressed an interest in taking over the information ministry as well. One of his brothers, Basil, is a senior presidential adviser; another, Gotabhaya, is the defence secretary. The president’s 23-year-old son, Namal, is likely to be a candidate in the coming parliamentary elections.

Some years ago, Rajapaksa told a long-time friend that his sons were his greatest joy and he loved spending time with them, so he left it to his brothers to operate the machinery of state. This intriguing snippet emerged when that friend, prominent newspaper editor Lasantha Wickremtunga, was shot dead in Colombo in January last year. He left behind a remarkable indictment of the Rajapaksa regime, in which he said: “When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me”, but also hinted at a military role in silencing him.

In the same article, Wickremtunga accurately described the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam as one of “the most ruthless and bloodthirsty organisations to have infested the planet” and called for its eradication, but added: “To do so by violating the rights of Tamil citizens, bombing and shooting mercilessly, is not only wrong but shames the Sinhalese, whose claim to be custodians of the dharma is forever called into question by this savagery — much of it unknown to the public because of censorship.”

Equally aptly, he pointed out that “a military occupation of the north and east will require the Tamil people of those regions to live eternally as second-class citizens”. Until recently, huge numbers of Tamils were incarcerated in concentration camps where they were routinely maltreated. Estimates of the civilian toll in the final stages of the civil war tend to be speculative, but it would have been uncharacteristic of either the Tigers or the army to go out of their way to avoid civilian casualties.

Sri Lanka’s drift towards one-man — or at least one-family — rule through an ostensibly democratic process (albeit in the absence of a free flow of information, a crucial ingredient of meaningful democracy) is deeply unfortunate, but even more tragic is the apparent lack of concern among most Sinhalese for the plight and prospects of their Tamil compatriots.

There are, thankfully, sections of the intelligentsia and other segments of society that tend to speak out against human rights abuses, but what are the chances that they will be able to resist Rajapaksa’s determination to silence them?

It’s harder to say how he will react to a plea from the country’s leading Buddhist monks that Fonseka be freed. After all, Rajapaksa loves being photographed in temples on national occasions.

Be that as it may, the dispute between the two of them comes across as a personality clash more than anything else. A disgruntled ex-general miffed at having been offered the humiliating post of sports minister probably won’t count for much in the slightly longer run, unless Rajapaksa is foolish enough to make a martyr of him.

Like many of its South Asian neighbours, Sri Lanka deserves a far better leadership, a redistributive development strategy (based in part on a sharp decline in ‘defence’ expenditure, now that the war is over), and a more pluralist form of democracy.

© The Dawn

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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The international significance of Sri Lanka’s emerging police state

K. Ratnayake - The rapid moves by the Sri Lankan government towards a police state not only spell danger for the working class on this island, but are a warning to workers around the world. As debt crises erupt in country after country and governments encounter resistance to the savage austerity measures being demanded by international finance capital, the anti-democratic methods of President Mahinda Rajapakse are an advance notice of the measures that will be used elsewhere.

Political tensions in Colombo illustrate broader international processes in an acute form. The island was embroiled in a savage communal war for 26 years which came to an end with the defeat of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) last May. President Rajapakse, who had restarted the war in 2006 and conducted it with particular ruthlessness, declared that he would now bring “peace and prosperity” to the island.

The opposite has been the case. The end of the fighting solved none of the underlying problems. Having mortgaged the country to pay for his criminal war, Rajapakse was compelled to take out a $2.6 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to prevent a major balance of payments crisis. Now with the IMF calling the tune, the government is preparing to make major inroads into the living standards of working people.

Rajapakse has been seeking to consolidate his grip over the state apparatus in preparation for social convulsions. In the course of the war, he increasingly operated through a presidential cabal of relatives, close advisers and generals acting independently of parliament and with growing contempt for constitutional and legal norms. The president wielded his extensive powers under the state of emergency, which is still in place, to ban strikes, threaten the media and conduct widespread detentions without trial. Pro-government death squads acting with the complicity of the security forces killed hundreds of people, including politicians and journalists.

Calculating that he could politically exploit the military “victory” over the LTTE, Rajapakse called the presidential election two years early in a bid to entrench himself in power. The opposition parties backed the country’s former top general, Sarath Fonseka, as their “common candidate” in the bitterly fought election on January 26. Fonseka had been part of Rajapakse’s inner circle but fell out with the president and resigned last November to contest the poll.

Rajapakse’s election win, far from settling the issues, produced what can only be described as factional warfare in the country’s ruling elites. Fonseka refused to concede defeat and threatened to mount a legal challenge. The government responded last week by placing the former general under military arrest, on the basis of unsubstantiated allegations that he was plotting to overthrow Rajapakse.

A day later, the president prorogued parliament and announced a general election for April 8 which will now take place in a political climate of fear and intimidation. The government has already announced that its aim is to obtain a two-thirds majority, giving it the power to change the constitution and thus provide the legal fig leaf for Rajapakse’s autocratic rule.

For all the venom of the infighting in the Colombo establishment, the factional disputes are of a tactical character—how to impose new economic burdens on working people and where to line up in the sharpening rivalry between the major powers, especially between the US and China. Rajapakse’s extreme measures are a sure sign that class tensions on the island are reaching a breaking point.

While Greek debts are in the international headlines, Sri Lanka’s economic crisis is of a similar magnitude. The country’s overall debts rose to four trillion rupees ($US35 billion) in the first 10 months of 2009. According to the IMF, the ratio of total public debt to gross domestic product (GDP) reached 87 percent in 2008. The budget deficit has risen to 11.3 percent of GDP and the IMF is demanding that the ratio must be slashed to 5 percent by the end of 2011.

Hongkong and Shanghai Bank Corporation senior economist, Robert Prior-Wandesforde, told a seminar in Colombo last week that the government had to go far further in slashing public spending. Dismissing Rajapakse’s economic figures, Prior-Wandesforde said: “He has to deliver like he did with terrorism [the LTTE]. The one thing that would prevent Sri Lanka from reaching its true potential is the kind of recklessness, wastefulness and corruption in public expenditure.”

Greek economic measures now have to be applied in Sri Lanka and more broadly. But the corollary is that Sri Lankan political methods will increasingly be employed in Greece and elsewhere as popular opposition grows to huge new economic burdens. The crisis is not isolated to economically backward countries like Sri Lanka and problem European states such as Greece, Portugal, Spain and Ireland. A default by Greece would impact heavily on Germany and France and reverberate throughout the EU. Britain is heavily indebted, as is the US which is only able to sustain a budget deficit at 10.6 percent of GDP because its dollar remains the international reserve currency.

The present global economic crisis is not a temporary phenomenon, but results from the breakdown of the mechanisms put in place after World War II to restore the equilibrium of world capitalism. The United States, which was central to the post-war restabilisation, is now in economic decline and is at the centre of the present financial turmoil. Whatever the short-term ups and downs of particular economies or the global economy as a whole, the world has entered a new period of economic convulsions that has profound political ramifications for the working class.

Anyone who dismisses the warning signs in Sri Lanka would be badly mistaken. Because of its particular history and relationship to the global economy, this small island often sharply reflects economic and political processes taking place internationally. In the final analysis, amid heightened economic and social tensions, the ruling elites around the world are being driven to defend their privileged position by adopting Sri Lankan methods.

The working class needs to draw the necessary conclusion: the only means of defending their basic democratic rights and living standards is to abolish the present social order and to restructure society to meet the pressing needs of the majority, rather than the profits of the wealthy few.

© World Socialist Web Site

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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

For world's journalists, 2000s a 'decade of death'

To read the the "World Press Freedom Review" click here

By Joe Sterling - For the working press across the globe, the past 10 war-ridden years represent a "decade of death" and the world remains "mired in an age of barbarity" when it comes to "the deliberate murder" of hundreds of journalists.

That is a major thrust of the International Press Institute's World Press Freedom Review 2009, a grim catalogue of facts and trends recording the challenges in disseminating news.

The group's latest yearly review focuses in on press freedom in every country across the turbulent Middle East and North Africa. But this year, the institute took the opportunity to reflect on the events of the past 10 years, what the report says is a black stretch of history for journalism.

"This decade is unlike any other, because, in conflict countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and Pakistan, it has seen the deliberate targeting of journalists," said Anthony Mills, managing editor of the World Press Freedom Review based in Vienna, Austria.

"Such a departure has changed the face of conflict reporting, leading to less coverage and therefore a worrying vacuum in the understanding of these complex events."

The report said 735 journalists died in conflict between 2000 and 2009. Mills says the vast majority of those killed were targeted for death and others were those who died in accidents while on the job.

Breaking down the toll by region, 238 journalists were killed in Asia, 202 in the Middle East and North Africa, 162 in the Americas, 68 in Europe, 53 in the rest of Africa, and 12 in the Caribbean.

"If anything, the number of journalists murdered is increasing. Compared to the first half of the decade, the assassination rate for journalists has risen by more than 40 percent," the report said.

Country-by-country, the largest number of deaths this decade occurred in Iraq, where 170 died covering the insurgency and the sectarian violence.

The Philippines came in second as the most dangerous country with 93 deaths, including 32 last year in a massacre of reporters accompanying relatives of a politician.

The fighting in Colombia between government forces, armed groups like the FARC and drug cartels left 58 journalists dead, and the violence in Mexico between security forces and drug cartels racked up 38 journalists killed.

Thirty-five journalists were killed in Russia, 31 in Pakistan, 23 in India, 22 in Somalia, 17 in Brazil and 17 in Sri Lanka.

"When it comes to the deliberate murder of journalists because of their work, we are still mired in an age of barbarity, with the number of journalists killed in 2009, at 110, higher than the 66 killed in 2008 and far higher than the 56 killed in 2000," the report said.


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