Friday, February 19, 2010

Murdered Sri Lankan Editor named World Press Freedom Hero

A Sri Lankan journalist who was fatally shot last year has been recognized by the International Press Institute as a hero for freedom of the press, the group announced Thursday.

The institute said it is naming Lasantha Wickrematunge, who was editor of Sri Lankan newspaper The Sunday Leader, as an IPI World Press Freedom Hero.

Wickrematunge, a fierce critic of the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tiger militants, was shot dead near Colombo on January 8, 2009. More than a year later, the killing has not been solved, IPI said.

"The murder of Wickrematunge was a shocking reminder of the dangers facing Sri Lanka's courageous journalists, for whom death is all too often the ultimate form of censorship," IPI Director David Dadge said in a written statement.

"By naming him an IPI World Press Freedom Hero, IPI honors his memory and his sacrifice, and sends the strongest message possible to the Sri Lankan government that the international community will not forget his murder and that the perpetrators must be found and punished."

Three days after his death, The Sunday Leader published a column in which Wickrematunge had predicted his own death.

The column anticipated his killing by government forces and defended the craft of journalism in his country, which is enduring a bitter civil war.

Wickrematunge wrote that he was twice assaulted and his house was fired upon.

"Despite the government's sanctimonious assurances, there was never a serious police inquiry into the perpetrators of these attacks, and the attackers were never apprehended," he wrote in the column.

"In all of these cases, I have reason to believe the attacks were inspired by the government. When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me."

Asked last year about threats to journalists, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa voiced assurance that no journalist or media institution had cause to fear any threats or attacks by the government, according to a statement on the government's official Web site.

"The government had no interest whatever in seeking disgrace through any attacks on the media," he said, and he assured media leaders that the culprits would be captured and brought to justice, the statement said.

Wickrematunge's brother, Lal Wickrematunge -- chairman of Leader Publications Ltd., which includes The Sunday Leader -- told IPI that the slain editor had known he was in danger.

"But he continued in his journey unbowed and unafraid. He felt total commitment to his work," Lal Wickrematunge said.

Lasantha Wickrematunge's killing spurred a demonstration in Colombo by 4,000 people, which Reporters Without Borders said was the largest since Rajapaksa took power in 2005.

He was re-elected to a second term last month.

Sinhalese-dominated government forces have been working to eradicate the last vestiges of Tamil Tiger separatists in Jaffna peninsula, a rebel-held northern region. The 25-year-old civil war has left more than 65,000 people dead.

According to IPI figures, 17 journalists have been killed in Sri Lanka over the past decade. Two of them were killed in 2009.

Wickrematunge will be among 60 World Press Freedom Heroes honored in a ceremony in September, IPI said.


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Friday, February 19, 2010

China's Sri Lanka port raises concern

China's construction of a port in Sri Lanka and a Chinese admiral's suggestion Beijing build a naval base in the Gulf of Aden has raised fears in the Middle East that a confrontation between China and India is looming along vital energy export routes.

Both the Asian titans, whose economies continue to expand despite the global financial meltdown, are heavily dependent on Middle Eastern oil and will become more so as supplies dwindle.

The Indians are building their naval forces across these vital shipping lanes through which some 85 percent of China's oil supplies pass along with raw materials from Africa.

Inevitably, these will increasingly encroach on Middle Eastern and African waters as Beijing seeks to protect the economic arteries on which it is becoming increasingly dependent all the way from the Persian Gulf to the South China Sea.

This is causing grave concern in India, which is vying for the same energy and mineral resources as China.

This raises the prospect, distant though it may be, of a confrontation between the two. The region is vital too for the Gulf states as an energy export and trading route as they increasingly look eastward.

There is also the possibility that one day China and the United States, which has long been the dominant naval force in the Indian Ocean, may also clash.

New Delhi views China's efforts to expand its regional clout through its "string of pearls" strategy -- ringing India with naval bases and electronic listening posts -- as an attempt to muscle into waters India has long considered its own.

Indeed, the Chinese are seeking to protect their maritime trade further east as well in the Strait of Malacca, a major shipping choke point between Malaysia and Indonesia that links the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea.

Beijing wants to ensure unhindered access to the narrow waterway for its energy shipments.

The construction of the $1 billion container port at Hambantota, until recently a fishing hamlet on Sri Lanka's southeastern coast, illustrates how the Chinese thrust into the Indian Ocean is becoming more pronounced.

The deep-water port will include a development zone and an oil refinery.

Over the last few years, the Chinese have built a similar port at Gwadar on Pakistan's Arabian Sea coast, which will eventually be the terminal for pipelines carrying Gulf crude and natural gas to western China.

Another is planned at Chittagong in Bangladesh, an oil refinery terminal in the northern Bay of Bengal east of India.

These could become bases for China's growing submarine fleet, a potential threat to the arterial shipping lanes running east from the Persian Gulf.

The Chinese are reported to have established a naval base in Myanmar and intelligence surveillance bases on islands across the Bay of Bengal.

Another is reportedly being built on Marao Island in the Maldives chain that runs south toward the British base of Diego Garcia, currently manned by U.S. forces.

Beijing says it has no interest in establishing major foreign bases so far from home. But as its economy mushrooms and its naval forces swell, it will inevitably require bases to project its growing power.

China is reported to be interested in establishing facilities in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Myanmar, Pakistan and Thailand.

In December, Rear Adm. Yin Zhou, a senior officer at the Chinese navy's Equipment Research Center, proposed a naval base be established in the Gulf of Aden, which would take Chinese expansion even further west than it is now.

Ostensibly, Yin's idea was to support China's naval flotilla attached to the international anti-piracy task force deployed off Somalia.

There is no question that piracy is a growing problem, not only in the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea, but in the Strait of Malacca and elsewhere.

The International Maritime Bureau, which monitors global piracy, said there were 42 attacks on oil tankers around the world in 2009, a 40 percent increase over 2008. And most took place off Somalia and the Arabian Peninsula.

But given China's naval expansion, it would make sense for Beijing to seek a military foothold in the Gulf of Aden, adding another strategic dimension and threat of conflict to a region already riddled with risk.

© United Press International

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Friday, February 19, 2010

“Deeply Divided”: Sri Lanka through the eyes of Adele Barker

by Mandy Van Deven - During the year she taught Russian literature at the University of Peradeniya in Kandy, Sri Lanka, Arizona University professor Adele Barker found herself more comfortable in the role of perpetual learner than educator. Barker’s apt and thoughtful descriptions of being a fish out of water provide an excellent place of departure for the detailed exploration of the current social, cultural, and political struggles of her temporary home.

In Not Quite Paradise: An American Sojourn in Sri Lanka she offers a profound historical reflection written with accessible prose and a desire to present an evenhanded look at the country’s precarious past—a past we continue to see play out in the immediate aftermath of a 26-year civil war and last week’s dissolution of the country’s Parliament.

Barker is aware of her own complicated position as a colonial outsider in the bittersweet story she shares, and smartly uses her power to leverage an increasing awareness of the challenges faced by this small South Asian country that has been persistently ravaged by conflict and a recent natural disaster that stunned the world.

Given that your professional background is completely unrelated to Sri Lanka, what inspired you to live there for two years?

The simple answer is that I landed there serendipitously. I had applied for a Fulbright Senior Scholar grant in 2000 and originally thought I would be sent to either Jordan or India. Then I got a call from the Fulbright Office telling me I would have a better chance of getting the award if I reformulated my application to teach in Sri Lanka—and that’s what I did.

On a deeper level, I needed a change. I had spent most of my adult life as a Soviet Studies specialist, and to be frank, when the Soviet Union collapsed the country lost its cache for a lot of us because the very things that had attracted us to studying it disappeared overnight. This was part of the malaise I felt, but I also wanted to explore other genres of writing. Although I knew I wanted a book to come out of the experience of living in Sri Lanka, I had no idea what form it would take, nor did I know I would keep going back to the island after my teaching duties were over.

How did the book begin to take shape?

The events on the island took over my life and the narrative of the book I was writing. After I came back to the U.S. in 2002, I worked on the book for a year and a half, but it just didn’t feel right. Sri Lanka was in the midst of a 26-year civil war, and I was writing about how the war had been eating away at the country from only one side. I had lived too much in Sinhalese society and not enough in the Tamil north, so I needed a more balanced perspective. Of course, what ultimately drove me back to Sri Lanka was the tsunami in December 2004. I returned several months after that happened and spent another eight months there. During that trip, I finally got up to Tamil territory, and needless to say, most of the book had to be totally rewritten.

"Not Quite Paradise" ends up as an interesting mash up of memoir and historical non-fiction. How did these two genres come together?

There are travel writers I really admire, like Rory Stewart, who wrote this amazing book called The Places in Between about walking across Afghanistan. He leaves himself out of the book until the end and then breaks your heart with what he says about himself and his dog! I thought that might have been the easiest way to go, but I just couldn’t do it. Too much of what I was writing was filtered through my experiences. I knew this would be a highly subjective book, so I reached for a way to blend the genres of travel writing and memoir. I held back details of my life because I didn’t want my story to overshadow the story of the country, which had its own persuasive and emotional narrative. It was really hard to strike the right balance, and I still wonder if I got it right.

Your desire for balance comes across in the writing, which tends more toward observation than analysis. Much of the book is simply storytelling, with a reliance on the reader to draw one’s own conclusions. How did you record these memories in the making?

I spent a lot of time recording things in my journal and writing long emails to the folks on my listserv; in fact, I was obsessive about it.

When you land in a place that is a 180 degree turn from where you are from, everything seems either exotic or completely incomprehensible. I recorded a lot about things I didn’t understand. I kept wondering why people would pass their screaming children under the belly of an elephant or why it mattered what day of the week it was when a gecko fell onto my head or why my housekeeper came on a day when she was not supposed to work to kill the thousands of ants that had taken up residence in our kitchen and then disappeared back up the hills again.

The tenor of my journals changed over time as I became more aware of the history of conflict in the country. I came to understand how it was impacting my everyday world—and that, of course, affected what I wrote.

About mid-way through the book, your focus shifts to the 2004 tsunami, where it remains until the end. The tone becomes more activist than observer. What effect did the tsunami have on your writing?

The tsunami turned people’s lives upside down, and it did something to my own as well. The central eastern shore took a direct hit on the morning of December 26, 2004, and I did a lot of walking along the southern and eastern shores when I went back afterward. I met people who talked freely about what had happened and people who couldn’t access their emotions at all. The tsunami is just one part of the historical trauma of the island. Just as catastrophic as “the day the sea came to the land,” which is how Sri Lankans refer to the tsunami, is the 26-year civil war that, at least militarily, came to an end in May with the defeat of the Tamil Tigers—but it’s far from over.

Statistics differ, but it is probably fair to say that roughly 48,000 Sri Lankans were killed in the tsunami. Twice that number have been killed in the war. The casualty figures in the final weeks of the civil war in April and May of 2009 were horrendous. Innocent civilians got caught in the crossfire and used as human shields by both sides. Those who survived were put in Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps. The current president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who just won re-election, promised to have all of them out of the IDP camps by the end of December, but that still hasn’t happened. There are huge resettlement problems on the island. People don’t have homes or families to go back to. In some cases, they are separated from their families because one person is in one camp and their family members are in another.

I think constantly about how I can help and I go back and forth about whether writing is enough. Increasingly, it feels like it isn’t. Given the actions of the current government in Sri Lanka, one of the few things I feel I can do is write about the situation and bring attention to issues that are under-reported, or not reported at all. It strikes me as odd for instance that the American media does not report the situation in Sri Lanka more than it does given the fact that the country is one of the most dangerous in the world for journalists.

You address the country's unrest as being the result of "ethnic" conflict; however, there are some who claim the conflict is not ethnic, but political.

I’m not sure you can draw a distinction between ethnic and political concerns in the Sri Lankan civil war because the two have become almost indistinguishable. Many people point to Sinhala being made the sole official language in 1956, which enraged many Tamils, as the chief catalyst for the war. In Sri Lanka, ethnic affiliation is closely tied to one’s language, and the Sinhalese and Tamils speak languages that are in no way linguistically related. The language issue never got settled to the satisfaction of many Tamils, and when the Tamil Tigers came into being in the early 1970s, the issue wasn’t just about language anymore; it was about the right to an independent homeland for the Tamils.

One of the horrible problems in this war is that each side felt as if its very existence was threatened by the other. The civil war had all the hallmarks of an ethnic conflict that was improperly handled politically. That situation continues today.

What are your thoughts on Rajapaksa's recent dissolution of Parliament?

I think it’s another nail in the coffin for true democracy in Sri Lanka. Since Rajapaksa came to office in 2005, charges of corruption and nepotism have dogged his administration. He ran on a promise to defeat the Tamil Tigers, and in May of last year, he did just that. Rajapaksa rode the crest of the military victory to an electoral victory. His electoral opponent, General Sarath Fonseka, was the Commander of the Army at the time the war ended, and when I left Sri Lanka several weeks ago, I had a sense that Fonseka was going to win the election. Frankly, I was shocked at the results. Today General Fonseka is being held under arrest, charged with planning a military coup against the government.

Sri Lanka has witnessed an increase of censorship during Rajapaksa’s first presidential term (18 journalists who spoke out against the government have been murdered). The government remains reluctant to address the lack of equal rights and Parliamentary representation for Tamils, which is what led to the war to begin with, or the hindrances to resettlement and government aid for the Tamil North. Rajapaksa also has worldwide humanitarian organizations to deal with, and his government is under investigation for genocide committed in the final weeks of the war. Military victory was just the beginning of what needs to be done on the island. Otherwise, you don’t have peace, only the absence of war.

In a sense, Not Quite Paradise functions as a platform through which the voices of ordinary Sri Lankans can be heard. What do you want people to hear them saying?

I heard many stories in the years I was in Sri Lanka: personal stories, stories about the day the sea came to the land, stories about the war. What made a huge impression on me was how deeply divided the country is over the ethnic conflict. The decades-long lack of communication and severely limited contact between both sides has resulted in widespread myths and misinformation. In addition the violence that each side has inflicted on the other, each has come to see itself as uniquely victimized, and I think most people have gotten to the point where they just want the war over, perhaps at whatever cost.

People in Colombo have lived for 26 years not knowing if a bomb was going to go off in the bus they were riding that morning. When I warned a friend not to take the bus after a flare up of violence in 2006, she looked at me incredulously and said, “This is our life. This is how we live. We don’t know how to live otherwise.” I think learning how to live otherwise and finding a way to heal is going to take a long time, and I am not completely convinced that the current government is going to do what is necessary to help heal the ethnic rifts in this country. It is a sad time.

Mandy Van Deven is a freelance writer and the founder of the Feminist Review blog. Focusing on gender, politics, and popular culture, her work has appeared in various online and print media, including AlterNet, Bitch, In These Times, and make/shift. Mandy worked for over ten years as a grassroots organizer in New York and Atlanta. She is an avid and enthusiastic world traveler who has collected friends in countries all over the globe. Mandy currently lives in Kolkata, India.

© The Women’s International Perspective

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Friday, February 19, 2010

Sri Lanka wins a war and diminishes democracy

By Barbara Crossette - In its 62 years of independence, Sri Lanka has never had a better chance than it has now to stamp out the last fires of ethnic hatred, violence and mindless chauvinisms that have left over 80,000 people dead in civil wars across one of the most physically beautiful countries in Asia.

Tragically for all Sri Lankans, it looks as if its increasingly autocratic president, reelected in January on a surge of Sinhala triumphalism following the defeat of a Tamil rebel army, is determined to let this hopeful moment pass. Not only a lasting peace between the Tamils and Sinhalese is at stake but also the multiparty democracy that set the country apart from many of its neighbors.

Why should a descent into misgovernment in a nation of 21.3 million people on a relatively small island off the coast of India matter to people anywhere else? This isn't Zimbabwe or Bosnia or Haiti. Not yet. But it is one of the newest examples -- streamed live on the Web if not much present in the American media -- of a post colonial collapse. Kenya is another. It is a phenomenon worth study.

Sri Lanka was once the most advanced nation in South Asia by measures of human development. Literacy, education levels and social services are all still higher than in neighboring Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Nepal. The country has no external enemies. Women have held high office for decades. There was a lively press and a functioning two-party system, albeit dominated by mostly people drawn from elite families.

Now journalists live in fear, are killed, disappear or flee. (The president has just named himself information minister, to make matters more menacing.) The leader of the opposition party who dared to challenge the incumbent in the January presidential election has been detained, so far without formal charges. The Tamils, who voted overwhelmingly for him, wait fearfully for the payback.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa wanted all the credit for the defeat last year of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the death of its ruthless leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran. Rajapaksa decisively defeated his opponent, the war hero Sarath Fonseka, in part because he was rewarded by Sinhala voters - who comprise more than two-thirds of the population -- for being the leader who made the country safe again.

The Tamil Tigers were a totalitarian movement that instilled terror with mass indiscriminate killing of civilians, and introduced suicide bombing to assassinate a generation of leaders, both Tamil and Sinhala.

Poor people were often the victims. They had to ride the vulnerable buses and stand in lines at government buildings or on train platforms that were always at risk of being blown up. Innocent Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus died. The Tigers assassinated numerous ministers and one president, and tried but failed to kill another. They murdered Tamils who questioned their tactics, among them the country's leading human rights lawyer, Neelan Tiruchelvam, and a respected former foreign minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar.

They also killed Rajiv Gandhi as he campaigned to regain the prime ministership in India in 1991. In 1987 he had reversed the Indian policy of using intelligence operatives to arm and train Tamils to keep the pro-Western Sri Lankan government off balance. Gandhi sent Indian peacekeeping troops to the island to disarm the Tigers, and made himself a marked man.

The Tigers were a heavily armed movement that never deserved the ill-informed sympathy it got outside Sri Lanka. Many Tamils and Tamil-speaking Muslims, a separate ethnic group descended from seafarers who crossed the Indian Ocean centuries ago, were trapped in the Tigers' grip and welcomed the end of fighting and oppression. Overseas, Tamils said they were coerced into giving money to support the war, and may still be as the rebels try to regroup. A very sophisticated public relations campaign told a compelling story that was never more than only partially true.

Tamils in Sri Lanka - both those in the north and another very different Tamil population in the central tea plantation country who never joined the militants - certainly had and still have serious grievances. Favored by British colonial administrators for their high education levels and linguistic skills, they aroused resentment among the Sinhalese. In 1956, Prime Minister Solomon Bandaranaike, adopted a chauvinist policy that made Sinhala the sole national language and gave prominence to Buddhism, practiced by the majority of the Sinhalese. (He was assassinated three years later by an enraged monk who thought the prime minister hadn't gone far enough.)

In the ensuing years, Tamil communities were attacked and hundreds of people were killed or had their property destroyed. There was a widespread feeling of marginalization, which persists, whatever the fate of the Tigers.

In this environment, a victorious Sinhala-led government in Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital, would be expected to take the opportunity to extend a magnanimous hand to the Tamils, especially in the north, if only to insure lasting peace. The Tamil cultural and historical capital, Jaffna, has been wantonly damaged by the Sri Lankan military and needs rebuilding both materially as well as in spirit. Tamil families struggling back to normal life after months in squalid detention camps set up after the war last spring lack many basic necessities.

The World Bank and United Nations offer help, but it is only occasionally and, some international aid workers say, grudgingly accepted. The Sinhalese have apparently persuaded themselves against all evidence that the outside world is against them. A Sri Lanka writer described this to me as a "majority with a minority complex."

Sri Lankans who deplore what is becoming of their country manage to keep hope alive. Fonseka, the defeated presidential candidate, has appealed to the courts for his release. A parliamentary election is coming. The institutions are still in place, at least for now.

© The Nation

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Friday, February 19, 2010

Sri Lankan Police and Sri Lanka’s President’s Guards trained in India

Sathyalaya Ramakrishnan - The Sri Lankan uniformed personals including senior police officials ranging from the rank of superintendent of police to Sub-Inspector of Police, who are engaged in the security of the Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa have completed their two-month long special training at Haryana Police Academy, Madhuban.

It is learnt that further 100 more such police officials would be trained in the Academy.

As many as 99 police officials of Sri Lanka have already undergone training at this Academy in 2008, an official spokesman of the Academy said on Thursday.

The Bureau of Police Research and Development has, on the directions of External Affairs Ministry, chosen Haryana Police Academy to impart training to police contingents of other countries.

The Haryana Police Academy, Madhuban has already received ISO 9001:2001 certification which is given at an international level.

Speaking on a farewell function organized at the Academy for the officials of Sri Lanka, Haryana Director General of Police (DGP) Mr Ranjiv Dalal said it was a matter of immense pride for the Haryana Police Academy to train these Sri Lankan police officials.

Further he said one could easily realize that the security of the President was quite sensitive in view of terrorist activities in Sri Lanka.

Under Haryana Police Act, 2007, community policing has been made an integral part of police training. ''The Haryana Police has not only adopted modern techniques, but also motivated the police personnel to discharge their duties impartially,'' he added..

"Training to police contingents is already given to other states including Nagaland, Manipur, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Bihar, Chandigarh and also to Andaman and Nicobar. Among units of paramilitary forces which were trained at the Academy were Central Industrial Security Force and Central Research Bureau units", Said the Police Academy Director V N Ra.

© Asian Tribune

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Friday, February 19, 2010

Sri Lankan parties part ways

B. Muralidhar Reddy - Sri Lanka's mainstream opposition parties, which demonstrated a rare unity by backing the presidential candidature of the former Army Chief, Sarath Fonseka, have decided to part ways and form their own alliances for the April 8 parliamentary election.

The (UNP) has decided to fight under its own election symbol and is wooing several smaller opposition parties that had thrown their weight behind General (retired) Fonseka.

So far, Mangala Samaraweera, Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) led by Rauff Hakeem and the Democratic People's Front (DPF) led by Mano Ganeshan have agreed to contest under the UNP symbol.

Ironically, the man who brought the opposition parties together, General (retired) Fonseka, is expected to lead an alliance floated by the JVP. The JVP is expected to fight the election as the Democratic National Alliance (DNA) under the leadership of the retired General.

It would be an uphill task for the two opposition alliances in facing up to the buoyant ruling combine, the United Party Freedom Alliance led by President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The signs of disunity in the opposition were evident soon after the presidential election result was announced.

While Ranil Wickremsinghe, leader of the main opposition party chose to describe the election as fair, the JVP dubbed the Mr. Rajpaksa's victory the biggest computer fraud in the nation's electoral history.

Release ordered

Meanwhile, a court ordered the release of 14 supporters of General (retired) Sarath Fonseka. They were held on February 8 in a raid on the election office of General (retired) Fonseka on the charges that they were part of a coup to overthrow the Mahinda Rajapaksa government.

Local media reports said Colombo Magistrate Champa Rajaratne released the accused, including 10 retired Army officers, as the police had failed to establish their involvement in the alleged plot by the ex-General.

The General is under military custody and being tried under military rules as he had quit the service less than six months ago.

© The Hindu

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