Interviewed by N. Ram - Mahinda Rajapaksa, a powerful and popular head of government and state, has the way cleared for him for the next six years and more. In a recent conversation with N. Ram lasting three-and-a-half hours at Temple Trees in Colombo, he covered, and answered questions on, a range of subjects. Excerpts from his on-the-record comments and responses:
Huge victory in presidential election
I was not surprised [by the margin of victory, nearly 18 percentage points]. Because in the Provincial Councils, if you count the majority, it was 2.5 million. I knew that if you took 1 million out of that, I would have won with 1.5 million. And I knew what the pulse of the people in villages was. Even in Colombo district, outside the municipal area, they gave me a good majority. I knew from the start that my majority would be there.
And I am not surprised about the North-East results. I was encouraged by that. I had the election, I knew that people must vote, they must be given a chance to elect their own President. Twenty-six per cent, I am satisfied with it. In every village, I got some votes, didn't I?
Factors behind the decisive win
One thing is that people wanted experience – a politician to lead their country. I have been in politics for 40 years. Suddenly a military man coming in, I don't think people trusted him. They were frightened by the way that he talked, shouting at people, blackguarding people. He [Sarath Fonseka] showed his inexperience on economic affairs,
Actually, he never said anything about me other than a few words in the final days. Other than ‘I will take him and remand him.' ‘I will kick him out' – that was Somavansa [Amarasinghe, the JVP leader] and he endorsed it. ‘At 7 o'clock I will walk in there, take him into custody, put him into Bogambara [maximum security prison in Kandy] in a 2x2 cell.' He thought this was the Army! He was ill advised.
The whole campaign was against a family and it was all mud-throwing. Without politics, they were trying to personalise the campaign.
Rural Sri Lanka supported me in a big way. I feel that was because of the development in the villages. We had the village road development programme, the programme for the development of the whole village, the fertilizer subsidy, the ‘Grow More Food' campaign. Incomes for rural households rose sharply. From 1948 to 2005, the per capita income came up to $ 1000. During the period of my presidency, when the war was going on, it has gone up to $2200. With development, the lifestyle of the people had changed. They [the Fonseka camp] couldn't understand that.
If I had been in the Opposition, I would have addressed not anything else but the cost of living. Forget about everything else, just address that. When eventually they tried to address it, it was too late. We had the answers.
People in the villages didn't like the way they conducted the campaign: that they would try to take me into custody, kick me out, kill me. People don't like that. Villagers don't want that to happen. They [the Fonseka camp] miscalculated, failed to see the affection, the love people in the villages have for me.
In addition, suburban people voted heavily for me. Other than people in Colombo, and some people in Kandy and other cities, they voted for me. They wanted a peaceful life. They believed in democracy. I think our people are, in that way, very educated, very conscious about democracy. They didn't want a military man coming in.
Who got the credit for eliminating the LTTE?
People, by the way they voted, showed they gave the credit to me. Who built the Taj Mahal? Who is remembered by people as the builder of the Taj Mahal? Not the mason or the chief engineer, right?
On parliamentary election prospects
I think we will win the parliamentary elections very comfortably. The people will vote with us. Now they know the government is stable for seven years.
A two-thirds majority?
I think we will be able to get that, or at least close to that. Finally, Ranil Wickremasinghe's crowd is there to come back and join me, right [laughter]?
Cohabitation? Ranil as Prime Minister?
Oh, no problem but he won't do that [do well in the parliamentary election]! So the situation won't arise. You know that during the campaign, Ranil campaigned for me when he went to the Tamil areas.
He said, ‘Poda, Mahinda Rajapaksa poda, Gotabaya poda, Basil poda [laughter].' People were shocked. I was talking in Tamil; he wanted to show that he also knew Tamil. And the first word he said was ‘Poda, Mahinda poda [laughter].' He meant, ‘Don't vote for him, reject him.'
Role of opposition
The opposition must be able to contribute. They must criticise – constructive criticism but not mud-throwing all the time. Not opposing everything the government brings. This is the unfortunate thing in Sri Lanka. They oppose everything, whatever the government does. It's petty politics. The criticism is always personalised. The opposition must contribute to whatever solution we are going to bring to this North-East issue. Because what we want is permanent peace.
13th Amendment plus
The 13th Amendment was brought in a hurry, without studying the whole problem. There is a need to understand the geography of the country, the historical background of the whole problem. Without studying that, you can't bring a solution that is suitable for your country. It must be a practical solution.
The 13th Amendment is implementable at the moment other than the police powers. It is in the Constitution. I don't have to say I'm implementing it because it is implemented in the other areas. The land, everything is implementable. We had the [presidential] election [in the Northern Province] and we are going to have the Provincial Council election after this [parliamentary elections of April 8]. I thought I had to resettle the people [first]. Now there are fewer than 50,000 in the IDP camps; and many of them don't want to go.
The development-peace link
The west doesn't understand this. It doesn't know what's going in here. They're making statements. They ask about humanitarian assistance. I say I don't want humanitarian assistance! We will look after our people, provide them food. I can get down food from India any time. I said we want development assistance [for the North].
Without peace, there is no development; without development, there is no peace.
Tamils in the national police
Do you know we have taken about 500 Tamils from the Eastern Province and they are already in service? Now we are taking them from the Northern Province. In Jaffna, 7500 Tamils came for 450 places. They have been selected. [The President's Secretary, Lalith Weeratunga add: ‘The people selected have been security-screened and will be recruited [in the national police force] immediately after the election. This is an achievement, by any government.']
There was a campaign by the LTTE and the Muslim parties, Rauff Hakeem and some others, not to join the police forces and the Army. We had Tamil Army officers and even now we have Muslim [Army officers]. There was a campaign against joining. But now, after this [final victory over the LTTE], they have joined.
You should see their muscles! They have been trained well [laughs]. You don't have to train them again. The only thing is they must learn some police work. That's all, it's easy! We have good training institutes.
We can train adequate numbers. They will be in these [Tamil] areas mostly and we want to get them down to the South also. You've got to mix them.
Tamil-Muslim majority in Colombo
In Colombo, the majority is Tamil and Muslim. Twenty years ago, the Sinhalese were about 90 per cent; today, they're less than 30 [per cent]. The majority are Muslims and Tamils and there is no problem. The Mayor of Colombo is a Muslim [Uvais Mohamed Imitiyas].
Dialogue on devolution
Soon after these parliamentary elections, I will call all the leaders of the political parties and start talking to them. You know, I tried to get them down, the TNA [Tamil National Alliance], the Tamil parties, the Muslim parties. But they were not interested. They were not interested in solving this problem as long as [Velupillai] Prabakaran was there. Now they must understand that there is no option for them but to talk. I'm the President of the country, I'm the leader of the country, they must come and negotiate with me, have a dialogue with me. If they think they can't cope with me, new leaders will come up and I will have to deal with them.
On western antipathy to him
They don't like me. They don't like my independent views. My preference is for my country. Why should I be loyal to any other country? I'm not a green card holder, am I?
Close ties with Asian countries
They [India, China, Japan] were the countries that helped me to develop this country. As neighbours of the Asian group, they were very generous in offering us development assistance. This country needs development: infrastructure in the North-East and in the South. In the North and East, the conflict is over, we're one country. Now I want to develop the country. For development, these are the countries that helped me and I am ready to accept other countries to come and help me develop the country. We can look after the humanitarian… We give free food, free health care, subsidised fertilizer, transport assistance. We can afford that. But I want development assistance. I want roads, development of the power sector, hotels. And investment.
I have set new targets for tourism. I called the Tourism Board and said I was not satisfied with the present [rate of development]. I want to call the private sector. They're going to the Maldives and various other countries to invest their money. I am going to tell them to invest here. I want to get Indian companies, the Tatas and others, to invest in Sri Lanka.
On excellent ties with India
That's right. Because I'm very clear. When I say something, I stick to it. When I say ‘yes,' yes. When I say ‘no,' no. With India, I think I have been very clear in my policy. Consistent, never changed. They were a little worried about my connection with China. For development, China, Japan and all these [Asian] countries will come and invest. That is a different question. India is our close neighbour. I always say, ‘India is my relation. Others are my friends.'
On Sarath Fonseka's arrest
When I heard about all this earlier, when the intelligence agencies were reporting to me on all this, the Army would have taken him over [under military law]. They wanted to do that. But if at that time I had allowed that, they would have said that I was frightened of this man contesting.
I accepted his resignation as CDS [Chief of Defence Staff]. I could have declined to do that [under the special Act] and we could have charged him for what he had done, what the intelligence agencies were reporting on. But I didn't want to do that because the people would have said I blocked him from contesting.
I knew he was the best candidate I could get! It was very clear in the election. He couldn't get what Ranil Wickremasinghe got.
Even with the JVP, which supported me once and with all this alliance, he never got that vote. They had the biggest alliance against a contesting President. Ultimately, what happened?
Then [after the election] the Army came and said, ‘Sir, we have to take action for what he had done.' So I said, ‘All right, it's up to you. See if you have the evidence to arrest him. If you have evidence, certainly do it. But please consult the Attorney-General.' Gotabaya [Rajapaksa] was very cautious. He said ‘no,' otherwise they would have taken him [Fonseka] immediately [after the election results were announced]. Only after going through all the evidence was the Army given the green light to do what they wanted.
This is an enquiry [under military law] to see if there is a prima facie case against Fonseka. I don't want to get involved in the judicial process. One thing is that I am a lawyer myself, so I always respect the law. I never say anything against the courts, against the judges. [Except once when the last Chief Justice was trying to decide the price of petrol. I said that was the executive's, not the judiciary's, job.] My view is, ‘let the legal process go on.' I don't want to get involved in it. Discipline is an Army matter. If I get involved, Army discipline will go for a six. I don't want to do that. It is very important that democracy is restored.
Army law is very different from the general law. Now he has been taken by the Army. He is under the Army Commander. He is being given a luxury flat, the Navy Commander's chalet. If he had won, I would have been in Bogambara, in a 2x2 cell! He is allowed access to his lawyer, his wife is allowed to see him. She called my wife, who was at a banquet in Moscow; she was told, ‘ask for it and you will be allowed to see him' and she did. Doctors, everything possible is allowed. We don't want to harass him.
In Buddhism, they say, ‘for what you have done, there will be repercussions in this particular birth.' Good or bad, you don't have to wait till the next birth.
I always believe in God – Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, and God. There is somebody who looks after us. They say that when Vishnu looks after you, no one can do you any harm. That's why I went to Tirupati [and prayed]: ‘Look after this country.'
If Fonseka had won
Had there been a different election result, there would have been a bloodbath. There would have been dead bodies everywhere. Burning houses and all that. Just before the election, even government servants were getting threatening letters saying ‘on the 26th [of January] we will come for you.‘
N.Ram, is the Editor -in-Chief of "The Hindu" - the second-largest circulated daily English newspaper in India. He also heads the other publications of The Hindu Group such as Frontline, The Hindu Business Line and Sportstar. In 2005, Sri Lankan President conferred the "Sri Lanka Ratna" — the island-nation's highest honour for non-nationals — on N. Ram, for his "outstanding, professional contribution towards journalism." He is the first Indian recipient of the honour, which is conferred on a restrictive basis.
© The Hindu
Saturday, February 20, 2010
Saturday, February 20, 2010
by Chitra Weerarathne - Mrs. K. M. S. P. Ekneligoda, wife of Prageeth Ranjan Bandara Ekneligoda, yesterday complained to the Court of Appeal about the disappearance of her husband since January 24, 2010.
The petition said that the missing person had been a cartoonist and a writer with Lanka-e-news website. He had actively campaigned for General Sarath Fonseka at the last Presidential poll.
The petition added that Eknaligoda had been previously abducted by persons who travelled in a white van on August 27, 2009.
He had complained about this abduction to the Officer-in-Charge of the Homagama police station.
The petition requested Court to direct the DIG of the CID, Nandana Munasinghe and other respondents to produce Eknaligoda before the Court of Appeal.
The petition would be supported by Chrishmal Warnasuriya, instructed by Sunil Watagala.
© The Island
Saturday, February 20, 2010
By Saman Gunadasa - Despite the efforts of the Sri Lankan government and Central Bank to paint a picture of a vibrant economy on the brink of an historic expansion, the island confronts a worsening economic crisis. Like a number of European countries, Sri Lanka is burdened with heavy foreign debts and a ballooning budget deficit, in large part due to the huge military spending needed to wage war against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
The Sri Lankan army defeated the LTTE last May, but the island’s economic problems have only deepened. Last week Central Bank governor Ajit Nivard Cabraal visited London to tout for foreign investment, saying Sri Lanka was ready to take off. Foreign reserves, he declared, had risen to around $US6 billion, equal to six months imports, and economic growth would increase dramatically to around 6.5 percent in 2010, up from 3.5 percent last year.
The truth is that the rise in foreign reserves has rested substantially on large commercial borrowings by the government, and the release of the first two instalments of a $US2.6 billion International Monetary Fund standby loan, which is spread out over two years. The IMF approved the loan last July when the country faced a major foreign exchange crisis and, potentially, a default.
The Sunday Times economic columnist warned last weekend: “Most of the [foreign currency] reserves are loans that have to be repaid rather than funds that have been earned through exports. These contingent liabilities have also increased the country’s public debt that is a serious burden on the economy…”
The columnist also noted that another reason for the favourable foreign exchange figures was a rise in remittances sent by workers employed overseas, particularly in the Middle East. He pointed out that while remittances increased 14.2 percent in US dollar terms over the first 11 months of 2009, exports were sharply down in all areas by an overall 14.7 percent. These included a fall of 12.3 percent in agricultural exports, including 10.2 percent for tea, and 15.1 percent for industrial exports.
Textile and garment exports fell by only 5.3 percent, but the sector will be hard hit by the EU’s decision to end its GSP+ trade preferences over the Sri Lankan military’s war crimes and human rights abuses. Like the US, the EU is using the human rights issue to pressure the Sri Lankan government, and undermine the influence of rivals such as China. But the decision to end GSP+, which will take effect in six months, will have a damaging effect on garment exports and jobs. More than half of the sector’s exports go to Europe.
The latest debt figures show continuing rapid rises. The country’s outstanding debt increased by 83.2 billion rupees ($728 million) from September to October last year, with the total rising to 4.1 trillion rupees ($35.6 billion). Of that, foreign debt amounted to 1.77 trillion rupees—a 29.6 percent increase from the previous month. Since then, the Central Bank has not published figures—in part to obscure the real economic situation in the lead-up to the January 26 presidential election.
During the first 10 months of last year, the budget deficit expanded by more than 50 percent, compared to the previous year and hit 8.4 percent of GDP. The estimated deficit for 2009 as a whole is a staggering 11.3 percent of GDP, which far exceeds the limit set by the IMF as a condition of its loan.
The IMF releases quarterly instalments of $330 million following a review to ensure that the government is on track to meet its targets. Over three years starting with 2009, the budget deficit must be successively reduced to 7, 6 and 5 percent of GDP. If the estimated 2009 budget figure is correct, the government has exceeded its limit by a massive 4.2 percentage points.
Last week the IMF residential representative Koshy Mathai warned that the Fund was concerned about the high fiscal deficit. While his tone was measured so as not to spook the markets, Mathai declared: “The fiscal situation is challenging… We want to see whether the underlying deficit reduction path will be maintained.”
This warning has only one meaning. The government will be compelled to slash the budget deficit by more than half by the end of 2011, which can be achieved only through a savage assault on public spending and the living conditions of working people. An IMF delegation is expected to visit the country at the end of this month to conduct a quarterly review.
In the lead-up to the presidential election, President Mahinda Rajapakse, who is also the finance minister, postponed the budget with the tacit approval of the IMF. Now, amid a deepening political crisis in Colombo, Rajapakse has called a general parliamentary election for April 8. The budget will be presented only after the next government is formed.
The IMF, however, may well insist that Rajapakse start to spell out just what steps he will take to reduce the budget prior to April. The conditions of the loan require the government to make tax reforms and restructure key state-owned enterprises, including the Petroleum Corporation and Electricity Board. Any steps in that direction will compound the political crisis in the lead up to the general election.
A sovereign debt crisis is looming in Europe and elsewhere; it is a new stage in the global economic turmoil that erupted in 2008. Greece’s budget deficit is running at 13 percent. EU officials have put forward a plan to slash public service wages and jobs, increase the retirement age by two years, cut health care, and impose higher taxes, including a tax surcharge on fuel, with the aim of bringing the budget deficit down to 3 percent.
The impact will be no less in Sri Lanka. As soon as the general election is over, the Rajapakse government will be compelled to launch what he has termed an “economic war”. While the president uses the term to conjure up a glorious “victory” that will make Sri Lanka “the emerging miracle of Asia,” the reality is that working people will be forced to pay. Using the military analogy, Rajapakse has already made clear that workers will have to perform like soldiers and be prepared to make heavy sacrifices.
© World Socialist Web Site
Saturday, February 20, 2010
Andrew Buncombe - Pattani Razeek is the head of an organisation called the Community Trust Fund, a non-profit organisastion in Sri Lanka that works to promote equality and protect human rights in a country where, to say the least, such niceties have been often overlooked as a result of a vicious civil war. Important work, you probably agree. But it appears that someone did not like what he was doing.
Two weeks ago, on February 11, Mr Razeek was travelling home from a project with some colleagues near the town of Polonnaruwa in the centre of Sri Lanka when their vehicle was intercepted by another - a white van. Mr Razeek reportedly got out, went to the van and spoke to the occupants in Arabic, a clear indication that the men were Muslim. After talking to them for a few minutes, Mr. Razeek went back to his colleagues and told them that he will be joining the group in the white van that, according to him, was heading to the eastern provincial town of Valaichchenai. He assured his colleagues that he will be meeting up with them later. The next day, 12 February, the CTF was informed by Mr Razeek's family that he had not arrived home. His relatives and colleagues have been looking for him ever since.
Anyone who has followed the history of the region and Sri Lanka in particular, will be all too aware of the phenomenon of "white vans". Indeed, the situation in regard to so-called disappearances of journalists and human rights campaigners is such that people crack dark jokes about these vehicles and their feared occupants. The government adamantly denies any involvement in such incidents. Yet dozens of journalists and activists have fled the country in fear for their lives.
Human rights campaigners have seized on Mr Razeek's case and called on the government to investigate this incident. The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, said it "strongly condemns Mr. Pattani Razeek’s enforced disappearance and fears for his physical and psychological integrity". It added: "These events illustrate once more the situation of extreme insecurity faced by human rights defenders in Sri Lanka."
The Independent's Asia Correspondent Andrew Buncombe is based in Delhi. His dominion ranges over India, Pakistan, Burma, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, occasionally parts of South East Asia and - or at least he is hoping - The Maldives.
© Independent Minds
Saturday, February 20, 2010
By Joe Leahy, Financial Times - As one drives towards Sri Lanka's war-torn northern Jaffna Peninsula on the A9 Highway, the island's main north-south arterial road, the landscape takes on echoes of the Somme, the French battlefield of the first world war. At the old front line between government-controlled Jaffna and the former Tamil Tiger rebel-held territory to the south, blackened coconut trees rise like telephone poles from the landscape, their palm leaf tops blown off by artillery fire.
Today, the guns have fallen silent, but this landscape and the war-damaged buildings of Jaffna, the former cultural and economic capital of Sri Lankan Tamil society, are testament to the island's great capacity for violence.
The new government of President Mahinda Rajapakse, who won re-election for a second term with an 18 percentage point lead last month, has a rare chance to reverse history and set Sri Lanka on a path towards ethnic rapprochement and prosperity.
But earlier this month, Rajapakse shocked domestic and international observers by arresting his main political opponent, General (retired) Sarath Fonseka. If such events are any guide, turmoil and violence may remain part of the Sri Lankan political landscape. A much-vaunted peace dividend is in danger of being squandered.
Sri Lanka's victory last May over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) separatist group was hard fought. The LTTE had battled for 25 years for a separate homeland for ethnic Tamils in Sri Lanka's north and east. But its tyrannical leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, failed to read the global mood after the September 11 attacks on New York and continued to use indiscriminate terrorist tactics, including suicide bombings, leading to the group's designation as a terrorist organisation in the West.
In 2006, Sri Lanka's military began driving the LTTE out of long-held territories in the north and east. To minimise civilian deaths, it shelled nearby villages first to warn civilians to leave before intensifying assaults on LTTE positions. But then, at the end of the war, Sri Lanka courted world condemnation when the LTTE herded civilians into a small pocket on the east coast. Thousands of civilians were killed by air strikes and artillery, human-rights groups say. Sri Lanka denied that it had used heavy ordnance and accused the West of being "pro-LTTE".
In the meantime, civil rights in the capital Colombo and other areas in the south, far from the war, were compromised.
Presidential elections last month were a chance to set things back on a normal course. The poll turned into a contest between Rajapakse and his former army commander, General Fonseka, backed by a loose coalition of opposition parties. The emergence of a credible challenger to Rajapakse briefly led to a resurgence of debate and free speech. But the contest turned into a bitter personal rivalry, with Rajapakse feeling betrayed by his former ally. The opposition accused Rajapakse of violating electoral rules by using state media for his campaign, while the president accused the general of plotting a coup.
Not content with winning the poll, Rajapakse had the general arrested. Troops dragged him from an opposition party meeting. He remains in custody, awaiting a possible court martial or worse. With parliamentary elections due in April, civil rights and freedom of speech are once again under threat in Sri Lanka.
The loser from all of this could be the Tamil minority. While about two-thirds of the nearly 300,000 Tamil civilian refugees kept in detention camps after the war have been freed, their plight remains difficult. Their homes and livelihoods have been destroyed and the government seems disinclined towards a comprehensive political solution that would devolve some power to the Tamil regions.
Sri Lanka has everything to gain from settling the ghosts of its political past. Tourism is reviving and the country has started an advertising campaign, Visit Sri Lanka 2011.
But before it can truly welcome outsiders, the island needs to get its political house in order. Otherwise the Jaffna Peninsula may one day again hear the sound of gunfire.
Joe Leahy is the Financial Times' Mumbai bureau chief.
© Gulf News
Saturday, February 20, 2010
by Zacki Jabbar - A group of policemen headed by the Talangama OIC attempted to search the JVP head office in Palewatte yesterday morning, but were forced to turn back because they did not have a legal search warrant.
The JVP’s former parliamentary group leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake told "The Island", that the policemen had not been permitted to enter their office, because they did not possess a valid court order.
"When we told the Talangama OIC to produce the search warrant, he replied that they would be back with the necessary documents. But despite one of our parliamentarians Sunil Handunetti, calling the Talanagama Police almost every hour, to find out if they were coming, no one turned up," he said.
"However, since around 11.30 a.m, we have noticed policemen standing on the road and checking all vehicles to and from the JVP office," Dissanayake said.
The government, he alleged, was harassing them since they were in the forefront of exposing the Rajapaksa government. Another obvious reason was their opposition to the JVP’s decision to contest the forthcoming parliamentary election under the leadership of General Sarath Fonseka.
Asked if the police had been looking for the JVP’s General Secretary Tilvin Silva, he said "I do not know. In any event, Tilvin has done nothing illegal to be arrested."
© The Island
Saturday, February 20, 2010
By Sheila Whyte - Sri Lanka's tortured politics shifted into a new and murky phase after the re-election of the country's president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, in January.
Rajapaksa soundly defeated retired Gen. Sarath Fonseka, the battlefield commander who helped destroy the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam last year, ending Sri Lanka's 26-year civil war.
The election was a bitter contest between the two former allies and when Fonseka threatened to challenge the results in court — he said there was widespread vote rigging — the government had him arrested for plotting a coup.
The arrest prompted demonstrations by Fonseka's opposition supporters and even the country's top Buddhist monks, who usually avoid active politics, urged Rajapaksa to release Fonseka from jail.
Meanwhile, the country's top court has agreed to hear a petition seeking Fonseka's release and the political powers are gearing up for April's general elections, when Rajapaksa hopes to further strengthen his grip on power.
What about the Tamils?
This latest power struggle, which is taking place mostly in the capital, Colombo, is overshadowing the very real problems that linger for Tamils, Muslims and indigenous people who are trying to remake their lives following the civil war that ended in May 2009.
Freed from war, but still living in a fractured war zone, they all face a future filled with uncertain prospects.
The lack of homes, jobs and schools dominate their concerns. But unexploded land mines remain a serious menace as well.
Less visible but no less important is the trauma from the loss of family and friends during the more than two decades of violence at the hands of the government in Colombo and the Tamil Tigers themselves.
The UN estimates 7,000 civilians were killed in the closing months of the war alone and many Tamils don't know the whereabouts of family members, having been forced to live these last months in wretched government-run camps on very modest rations.
The Rajapaksa government has rejected international accusations that this amounts to human rights abuse.
But the European Union is not convinced and last week brought trade sanctions against Sri Lanka to try to force it to do better.
Turn the page
For his part, President Rajapaksa says it's time to turn the page.
"We will ensure equality and equity among all the ethnicities," he said in Tamil shortly after his re-election, called after a surge of post-war support among the majority Sinhalese.
Economic development and integration of the formerly Tiger-held areas in the North and East, which the Tamils claim as a homeland, are Rajapaksa's priorities. But he indicated there will be no self-rule for Tamils.
By the end of the war, almost 300,000 Tamils were being held in internment camps but about 180,000 were freed in time for the presidential election.
Many drifted to their ancestral homes with government rations of about $250, some dry food and a bunch of tin sheets to build temporary shelters.
Those who arrived home, where much of the recent the fighting was, found land that is so overgrown they say it may take months to clear it.
More than 100,000 Tamils remain in camps in Vavuniya because land mines need to be cleared near their old homes. Some detainees are allowed to move about only if they have government passes.
Another dark corner involves 12,000 or so suspected members of the rebel Tamil Tigers, one of the world's more violent secessionist groups, who are being held by government soldiers at an isolated camp.
Although some have been released back to their families after a period of re-education, the government has refused to allow independent observers to visit the prison camps or even find out their names.
"Everything is devastated," says Ahilan Kadirgamar, an activist with the Sri Lanka Democracy Forum, who returned to New York from a visit to the country in January. "Schools, hospitals, everything."
He says resettlement is the most important issue at the moment. "The government has been talking about reconstruction and development but so far, on the ground, there hasn't been enough."
When the government ran out of metal sheets to give returning refugees, the Chinese government stepped in and provided tents.
Kadirgamar says Tamils are freer now to move about and that the A-9, the only highway that connects Colombo to the northernmost Jaffna peninsula, is now completely passable after being part of the front line in the war.
The minister in charge of resettlement, Rizath Bathiyutheen, defends his work, saying no other country could have resettled that many people so quickly.
But while the government has provided some aid, it appears to be working around, rather than with, the Tamils.
And international agencies say there has been little consultation with the displaced civilians, a group that includes an estimated 80,000 Muslims who were expelled from the North by the Tigers and who are experiencing similar problems for their return.
Picking up the pieces
The long civil war had its roots in Tamil grievances that they were systematically discriminated against by the Sinhalese and Buddhist majority.
But it soon evolved into an especially violent conflict with international overtones.
The rebel group Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE) is often said to have pioneered the use of child soldiers and suicide vests. It routinely attacked civilian targets and assassinated high-profile politicians, including former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.
To this, the Sri Lankan government responded in kind to the point that anyone critical of the government risks being harassed or imprisoned.
The government has used its emergency measures laws to detain thousands of people.
Journalists also accuse the government of complicity in the disappearances and murders of reporters who have been critical of the war or written about government corruption.
Lasantha Wickrematunge, the outspoken managing editor of the Sunday Leader, was murdered in January, 2009, claiming in an editorial, published after his death: "When I am finally killed, it will be the government that kills me."
Even after the January election, journalists complained of continuing harassment and intimidation.
"I would imagine if he (Rajapaksa) is going to take legitimate measures to unite the country, he has to repeal draconian pieces of legislation," says Sujith Xavier, a Tamil who studies international law in Toronto.
But Xavier, for one, believes the level of mistrust between Tamils and Sinhalese is too high at this point for much reconciliation.
Still, the crushing of the Tigers opens a path that had been closed, one where civil society and more democratic Tamil leaders may emerge to find common ground.
A vision for how that will work is still unclear. Tamils are still, literally, picking up the pieces.
© CBC News
Saturday, February 20, 2010
Sutirtho Patranobis - “Darkness at noon’’ was how on Sunday opposition leader Ranil Wickeremesinghe described the current situation in Sri Lanka. No one would agree with him more than Sandhya Eknaligoda, the frantic and worried wife of writer and cartoonist, Prageeth Eknaligoda.
On January 24, Eknaligoda left home for office. He did not reach his workplace. Neither has he returned home since that Sunday — Eknaligoda has disappeared without a trace.
His office, Lanka e News, said he might have been targeted because he wrote comments supporting the opposition.
“The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has received information regarding the disappearance of journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda shortly after he wrote articles supporting the presidential opposition candidate. His office was ransacked shortly after, the website he writes for was blocked during the election, and there have been delays and flaws in the police investigation.
The journalist was also a victim of an unresolved organised abduction last year,’’ the Lanka e News website wrote, quoting the AHRC.
The Free Media Movement secretary Sunil Jayasekara told the Daily Mirror that foreign embassies were notified about the disappearance. “We have asked the international community to pressurise the government about this, but there has been no response”, he said.
And if a newspaper report is to believed, not only dissenting journalists, dissenting opinion itself could soon disappear. According to the local Sunday Times newspaper, Chinese IT experts would soon be here to block “offensive” websites.
“IT experts of China’s Military Intelligence Division will be here within the next two weeks to map out the modalities required for this process,’’ Sunday Times said, adding that “action will be taken to impose controls on the Google search engine as well in relation to these issues.’’
In June 2007, the TamilNet website, through which the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) would often issue statements and opinions, was the first one to be banned by the government. Its journalists were also hounded and killed as well.
The military war against the LTTE got over in May 2009. But the fight to protect freedom of expression is likely to go on.
© Hindustan Times
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