Sunday, February 28, 2010

Sri Lanka: After the "War on Terror"

By J. Sri Raman - Just four months ago, the rulers of Sri Lanka were the toast of the "anti-terror" fraternity in the region and the rest of the world. They were supposed to have attempted and achieved what others made of less-stern stuff had abandoned as unattainable: a military solution to the problem of terrorism.

With the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) now an extinct species, it was said, the island-nation had become a safe sanctuary for democracy. The end of the armed ethnic conflict was expected to usher in a new era of national reconciliation and unity.

What has followed the war, however, has proven both these hopes false.

Democracy in Sri Lanka only faces new threats after the defeat of Tamil "terrorism." The first major event to follow the war was the presidential election of January 26, pitting the two "anti-terror" heroes in a titanic struggle against each other. As noted in these columns (Sri Lanka: The Battle After the War, January 25, 2019), the contest between President Mahinda Rajapaksa and army chief Sarath Fonseka started on an extremely confrontational note. And it has not ended with the election.

Fonseka had started his campaign, even while in uniform, with the charge that, during the final phase of the war, the president feared an army coup attempt and asked for India's assistance in such an eventuality. The charge was denied, and the challenger was allowed to contest the election as the candidate of an opposition coalition. Rajapaksa, declared the winner on January 27, has revived the controversy by proceeding for Fonseka's military trial for "treason."

The president was not the picture of a confident victor, with a claimed vote of 67 percent, when Fonseka was arrested on February 8 at his office in Colombo. The general has not been seen in public, and not even in private by his political allies, ever since. The arrest has prevented his re-emergence as the rallying point for the opposition in the parliamentary elections to be held on April 8.

All this has not dealt a postwar blow for democracy. As academician and political activist Dayan Jayatilleka, Sri Lanka's Permanent Representative to the United Nations until July 2009, puts it in a recent newspaper article: "No enemy of Sri Lanka could have matched the damage done to the image of the country and the Presidency by our own Government's recent actions ...That clumsy melodrama ... permitted a different story line to emerge in and through the international media, obscuring the clear, conclusive electoral victory handed to Mahinda Rajapaksa by the masses ..."

Jayatilleka adds: "If there are serious allegations of a criminal nature, then all the more reason that he should be tried in a civil court and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. There should be no attempt to do both, i.e. to try him in a military and then a civil court, because the opaque character of a military court undermines the social legitimacy of the findings and could have an adverse effect on the public perception of the criminal proceedings themselves."

Many other observers agree. Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, says: "It was reasonable to expect the aftermath of Sri Lanka's presidential election to usher in a period of political stability. The large majority of votes secured by ... Rajapaksa was impressive on its face and promised benevolence in his decisions after the elections. His unchallenged command over the levers of state power made it unlikely that there would be any viable opposition to his rule."

What followed, however, only provided "evidence of presidential insecurity already manifested in the dramatic events that unfolded even as the votes were being counted." Perera warns: "... the erosion of faith in the democratic process has transformed into violence in the past."

As for national reconciliation and unity, the war has only led to a major conflict within Sri Lanka's establishment and the Sinhala-majority camp. This finds a striking illustration in the statement issued by senior Buddhist monks (to whom both Rajapaksa and Fonseka paid obeisance during their election campaigns), calling for the release of the retired army chief. The monks said: "We wish to stress that we do not under any circumstance approve of the arrest of former army commander Gen. Sarath Fonseka, who risked his life for the country's unity."

The powerful clergy's statement held out no prospect of ethnic rapprochement, either. It charged that ex-LTTE leaders were being given high posts and were protected, while Fonseka was not.

The prelates said: "We urge you (the president) to release and also provide the necessary security to persons including ... Fonseka who laid their lives on line for the protection of the motherland the way that the government does to (ex-LTTE) Vinayaangamoorthi Muralitharan (Karuna) and Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan (Pilleyan) who are being provided all facilities and security after being taken into the government side."" Muralitharan is now the national integration minister in Colombo and Chandrakanthan the chief minister of the Tamil-majority Eastern Province.

Fonseka's removal as the rallying point for the opposition has ended the coalition, where the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the pro-Sinhala Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) or the People's Liberation Front, coexisted. The general's arrest has thus freed the president considerably from pressures to follow up on his promise to attempt a solution to the ethnic problem.

Looking at it all in a larger perspective, many analysts have noted the militarization of politics that the quest for a "military solution" to the problem of terrorism has spelt. Harim Peiris, adviser to former President Chandrika Kumaratunga (2001-05), for example, points out: "Using the quantitative yardstick of per-capita number of security personnel or, in other words, the number of security forces divided by the population, Sri Lanka is by far the most militarized society in South Asia."

He adds: "Our armed forces, including the auxiliaries and volunteer forces, are slightly bigger than the British armed forces and the Brits deployed around the world, including to Iraq and Afghanistan." This is not a tailor-made situation for a democracy-driven war on terror in a developing country.

It is even less so, if one looks at the mega-economic cost of Sri Lanka's militarization. Left-wing analyst K. Ratnayake says: "Political tensions in Colombo illustrate broader international processes in an acute form. The island was embroiled in a savage communal war for 26 years.... Rajapaksa, 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."

Ratnayake adds: "The end of the fighting solved none of the underlying problems. Having mortgaged the country to pay for his criminal war, Rajapaksa 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 the working people ..."

As elsewhere, it is the masses who are compelled to pay the price of the "military solution" to the problem of terrorism.

© Truth Out

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Sunday, February 28, 2010

Sri Lanka: Calling it as you see it – the shooters’ tale

Photo Credit:

It generally starts with a text message.

Someone sends a message saying that there is heavy police presence. Then phones are picked up and calls are made. “Barricades are being brought in. Student protest, apparently”. A few calls later, we have a rough idea of where it’s going to be. We change plans of heading back to office, and tell the tuk-tuk driver to take us to Colpetty.

Lots of Police can be seen, but no sign of a protest. No students, no placards. We talk to a few Police officers. “We don’t know where they plan to go.” Confusion ensues.

A few more phone calls are made to photographers. Then we finally track it down to Town Hall. Students, monks, student monks. Slowly the crowd gathers, and they start marching.

The marching is brisk. The trail moves with the speed and agility of Colombo’s tuk-tuks. Only a few people at the front of the march are aware of the final destination that the march is headed to, and the directions they will be taking. Everyone else, including the police, are confused.

We walk in front of it, occasionally slowing down to shoot, and then running up to overtake it. We stop at junctions, and try to guess where they are heading. Police guess along with us. Sudden turns and twists, and some police officer or another is seen screaming into a walkie talkie.

The march comes to a junction, and there is a lone soldier with an assault rifle on his shoulder. Sanka Vidanagama and I stop for a moment. To try and juxtapose the saffron of the robes and the peace that it signifies, with the greens and browns of jungle camouflage and the violence that’s attached to it.

“I started as a hobby” says Sanka, who’s father is the legendary news photographer Sena Vidanagama, who took the picture of Rajiv Gandhi being hit over the shoulder with a rifle butt. Sena was an inspiration to many a young photographer.

But somewhere along the way the hobby turned into a profession. He talks about what he does, and the reasons behind it, with the same enthusiasm and cool that is trademark Sanka Vidanagama, laid back, all calm. “It’s probably the rebellious nature and the drive that comes with the age as well, which makes us want to go where we go” he adds. Even though young, he’s a veteran in the arts of urban warfare that is tear gas and water cannons. “I’ve faces tear gas about ten fifteen times” he says, but his initiation to violence was when he was recently at the receiving end of a stone that was thrown, when supporters of Gen. Sarath Fonseka and President Mahinda Rajapaksa clashed outside the supreme court complex.

Eranga Jayawardena, who is a Photographer for the Associated Press in Sri Lanka talks about the Hulfstdorp clashes in a different context. “There are two kinds of trouble that you can get into as a photographer. One is when you shoot in situations where there can be incidents that can physically harm you”, says Eranga.

The veteran photographer also talks of his days when he was covering the conflict, which ravaged the country for decades. “The conflict had an ethnic base, and I come from a specific ethnicity which was a party to that conflict. Even though I call it as I see it, by doing photographic reportage – and only reportage, persons with different agendas can twist the information that flows from to for their gain”. The gain for others, Eranga says, comes at a hefty price. “Whenever someone else gains, reporters become victims of targeted and premeditated harassment.”

Eranga follows the same philosophy that all good photographers do – snap what you see, and let the viewer come to conclusions. “I’m a reporter. I report. And then I hope for the best.”

In Colpetty, the march is now confronted with a barricade stopping it’s way. Photographers and reporters manage to squeeze through the barricade before it closes up. They are now on the side of the Police. We talk to them to find the action plan. A police officer takes a megaphone and asks the crowd to disburse. The crowd erects a stage and start making speeches.

Three photographers from local newspapers climb atop a telephone wire box to get a better look. A videographer manages to climb onto a roof. I get onto my colleague’s back. A police officer looks at my colleague and I can almost hear him mutter “psychos”. I smile.

The photographers reunite behind the barricades and take a few more shots of the assembled riot squads. One truck with a water cannon mounted starts to leak water. A few jokes are made at the truck’s expense. When things cool down, pow-wows happen and the people who are lugging heavy equipment around jest and rest. And memories are shared.

Chamila Karunaratna is a news photographer, who started when he was in school. He entered the sphere of photo journalism when he was twenty, and now contributes to a leading weekend paper, as well as freelancing for the Associated Press. Chamila relates an incident at a student protest a few years back, where he was the only photographer on the scene. “This was the days of film. I heard of a protest happening outside Kelaniya University. Since there were violent clashes between the police and students immediately before this, all the photographers were back at their bases”, he recalls.

“I was taking pictures for a long time, and by the time other camera crews got to the scene, the tempers has disappeared.” After filing the shots with his own paper, he went on to hand over copies to the others who missed the incident. A brotherhood which is still shared by many.

The first to arrive at the scene, will almost always give some shots to the others who couldn’t make it on time.

That camaraderie is treasured by those who share it, knowing that the guy next you is not going to leave you in danger, is partly one reason why the shooters cover dangerous events in groups. Ironically, while the individual friendships are cast in iron, they are also members of a community that has failed to forge a united front, that however is a another story. It is more to do with the faults of those who manage the outlets than the foot soldiers.

Today however, everybody is here, and there is time to shoot.

The protest also catches the eye of a passerby. A member of Sri Lanka’s extremely small orthodox Jewish community walks his son towards the protest. The telephone wire box which earlier gave a platform for the photographers, is instantly transformed into a viewing stage for the little boy. The photographer from Reuters walks over and shoots. We watch.

Phone calls and texts are sent to the bases. “Things are calm. They are speaking. No sign of clashes. We have the shots. Shall we come back?”

What started with a text message, also ends with one.

© Perambara

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Sunday, February 28, 2010

Sri Lanka : Breakthrough in Lasantha probe

A serving Army Major General, now on an overseas posting, has been re-called to Sri Lanka as CID detectives continued their investigations into the murder of Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickrematunga.

They want to question this senior officer, who had been dealing with intelligence matters, over evidence that has surfaced so far on the killing. He has been told to remain in Colombo until the process is completed.

The Sunday Times learns that a group of soldiers have been placed under “close arrest” at an Army camp, 58 kilometres east of Colombo. This means these soldiers cannot leave their camp.

According to authoritative sources, the CID has traced five mobile phones used to mount surveillance on Mr. Wickrematunga and to carry out his murder. They had been obtained under the name of a resident of a tea estate in the hill country. However, he had neither produced a copy of his National Identity Card (NIC) for the purchase nor used them.

Mr. Wickrematunga was killed while he was on his way to work around 10.30 a.m. on January 8, 2009. Four gunmen riding motorcycles blocked his vehicle before breaking open the window of his car and attacking him. Despite a three-hour surgery by a team of surgeons, he succumbed to his injuries.

CID detectives are also investigating the abduction, attacks and attempts on the lives of other journalists. “We are making significant headway,” a detective said yesterday.

© The Sunday Times

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Sunday, February 28, 2010

"Burma VJ" - Anti Junta documentary film shelved in Colombo

The screening of Burma VJ, a 2010 Academy Award Nominee for Best Documentary Feature, scheduled at a posh Colombo 3 restaurant on February 23rd has suddenly been postponed indefinitely after the owner of the restaurant has been cautioned by state officials.

The film was about the Burmese demonstrations in 2008 and the military Junta’s crackdown on the protests.

© Lakbima News

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Sunday, February 28, 2010

SRI LANKA: Political group detains journalist

To read the report filed by NSLJA, click here

A group attached to the Sri Lanka Peoples Party had “detained” Daily Mirror Jaffna correspondent N. Parameshwaran yesterday as he attempted to expose attempts by the political party to deceive displaced people in the peninsula.

Speaking to Daily Mirror online, N. Parameshwaran said that he had lodged a complaint with the Jaffna police saying the group grabbed his camera and attempted to assault him after forcing him inside their Jaffna office yesterday.

The journalist had been distributing leaflets containing a copy of a letter written by him which appeared in the Uthayan newspaper in Jaffna yesterday, to displaced people who had queued outside the political party office yesterday when the incident took place.

The leaflet claimed that although the political party was seeking the registration of the displaced people to offer them assistance, there was a hidden political agenda behind the move.

A group of men who had seen the journalist distributing the leaflets grabbed his camera and forced him to follow them inside the party office. Once inside the office they had attempted to assault him but were prevented from doing so by a representative of the party identified as Thilakumara Udugama.

According to Parameshwaran, the political party representative had telephoned the police in Jaffna and later released the journalist after holding him at the office for nearly half an hour. Parameshwaran later went and lodged a complaint with the Jaffna police

© Daily Mirror Online

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Sunday, February 28, 2010

A New Sri Lanka?

By Tisaranee Gunasekara - Last week, in a village in Batticaloa, a nine year old girl was raped, allegedly by three soldiers attached to a nearby army camp. The manner in which the army, the government and the society deal with this case would be both symbolic and symptomatic of the Sri Lanka that is in making, post war.

Rape is a heinous crime; child rape is infinitely more so. Child rape is the sort of crime which should make us forget, at least momentarily, every other identity and affiliation and respond simply as human beings. It is the sort of crime which must be punished, irrespective of who the perpetrators and what the implications are. One swallow may not make a summer but one child rape may reveal much, if the powers that be tries to obfuscate the facts of the crime and society manages to turn a blind eye to the existence of the crime.

According to media reports, the girl, a grade five student, was on her way to school, when she was raped. The fact that the alleged perpetrators were soldiers on duty and the victim a Tamil child means that not only should justice be done justly; it should also be done expeditiously and transparently. If we fail to do so, that failure will send a potent and a deadly message to both the North-Eastern Tamils and the mainly Sinhala servicemen stationed there.

Child Rape and the Need to End Impunity

The Tamil people of the North and the East have endured decades of injustice and brutality at the hands of the LTTE, the Lankan state and armed forces and even other armed Tamil groups.

But child rape was not a common crime, even during an otherwise brutal war. That such a bestial crime should happen in a time of peace is especially insupportable. If justice is delayed or subverted, the Tamils of North and the East would see in it an indication that they are but a subject populace sans integral rights, under the jackboot of a conquering power. In such a psychological context, how can a sense of Sri Lankanness be inculcated in the minorities in general and Tamils in particular?

If justice is delayed or subverted, the troops stationed in the North and the East too will get a message – that impunity is still extant, despite the end of the war. They will conclude that they can commit crimes and misdeeds without paying a price, if the victims are Tamils. Any attempt to delay or subvert justice will thus encourage injustice. And if a minority is permitted to get away with such criminal conduct, it will do dishonour to the army as an institution, and to the majority of servicemen who have not lost their sense of humanity.

The killing of five students in Trincomalee presaged Mahinda Rajapakse’s ‘Humanitarian Operation’. Initially the government insisted that the victims were Tiger cadres who died when the bomb they were carrying exploded prematurely. Once a courageous Sinhala judicial medical officer revealed that the victims had gun shot wounds, the courts took over. But the powers that be did everything to subvert the course of justice. Witnesses were threatened and evidence suppressed; the families of the victims had to either give up their campaign for justice or leave the country. Ultimately the culprits got away scot-free. The case sent the message that violating the rights of civilian Tamils could be done with impunity, especially in the war zone. It indicated that the regime will save the uniformed perpetrators via an arsenal of tactics, from denial to counter charges, from delays to obfuscations.

The suspects in Batticaloa child rape case have been remanded by the courts. Again, according to media reports, there had been attempts to intimidate the family of the victim; soldiers from the same camp are said to have made threatening forays into the village of the victim. It is important to remember these are poor people, people without connections, people who live and die away from the limelight. Therefore they can be threatened easily, especially since they have to continue to live in their village, which is under the ‘protection’ of the army. Therefore the government has a particular responsibility to ensure that the victim and her family are protected.

It is the duty of civil society and media, especially in the South, to put as much pressure as possible on the government in order to ensure that justice is done, that the victim is not victimised even further. When the police or the army commits crimes against civilians in the South, there is a massive outcry from Southern society. Journalists write, politicians talk and people protest. Last week, a man was killed in police custody in Inginiyagala, and this crime received quite a bit of publicity nationwide while the people of area protested against the police. But in the case of the child victim of Batticaloa silence seems to be the norm. It is time we asked ourselves, as individuals and as a society, whether the ethnicity/religion of the victim has become the paramount consideration in deciding what is just and what is not.

Journalist Pradeep Ekneligoda is yet to be found. And the government seems determined to convict Sarath Fonseka, thereby making an example out of him. If a disunited and bickering opposition fails to prevent the UPFA from coming within striking reach of a two thirds majority at the parliamentary election, impunity will become even more rampant, encouraged by hubris.

The IMF has announced that it will postpone the granting of the third tranche of its $2.6 billion loan to Sri Lanka, until the new government presents a budget which meets its conditionality regarding the size of deficit. According to the IMF Resident Representative in Sri Lanka, “the third tranche will be delayed and completed when the budget is formulated after the election” (Reuters – 25.2.2010). And according to media reports, the IMF expects a budget with a deficit of no more than 7% of the GDP for this year. Next year, the budget deficit will have to be brought even lower, to 6%. If Sri Lanka fails to fulfil these conditionalities, the rest of the loan will not be given to us.

The implications for the future are obvious. The government will have to reduce expenditure and increase taxes, if it is to meet with the IMF conditionality’s. But this sort of drastic belt tightening cannot be imposed on the electorate until the election is over. In fact, until the election is over the government will lower taxes and grant subsidies, in order to keep cost of living under control. But once the election is ended, the regime will implement drastic cost-cutting measures, especially if the ruling party has a solid majority. Those who oppose such anti-people measures will be branded ‘anti-patriots, and dealt with severely. The PTA and the Emergency will be used liberally for this purpose. And the South will feel the full impact of the cancer of impunity.

Monarchical Delusions

Indulging in delusions of grandeur is an essentially harmless human foible. But when this malady affects powerful political leaders, the consequences can be both dangerous and far reaching.

Vellupillai Pirapaharan was hailed as the Sun God and the Leader of the World, and these delusions became acute enough to impact on this thinking and actions. After he was elevated President, Mahinda Rajapakse told the country that he was not its ruler but its custodian.

When the Fourth Eelam War was won, Mr. Rajapakse became ‘king’. When this pretentious elevation was ridiculed by some and criticised by still more, the President declared, once again, that he was but the chief custodian of the land. With the outstanding victory at the Presidential election, the ‘king’ is back, on posters and songs, in speeches and discussions.

Mahinda Rajapakse would not be called king, against his wishes; the state media and ruling party politicians persist with this practice obviously because it pleases him (and thus helps their career). He did look happy, when he got his crown (which the state media assured us was made of solid gold with jewels encrusted). It was presented to President Mahinda Rajapakse by the Peoples Friendship University of Russia “as a token reminiscent of Russian Monarchy and in consideration of the President’s role also as a king who brought about peace to the world” (Daily News– 10.2.2010). This latest accolade would be an apposite addition to the President’s already formidable arsenal of illustrious titles (which includes such nonpareils as ‘Universally Glorious Overlord of the Sinhalese’; ‘Heroic Warrior Overlord of Sri Lanka’; and ‘Monarchical Emperor of the Glorious Land of Buddhism’); The minaret shaped crown could adorn the stage when the ‘Musical Concert to Honour the President’ takes wing on February 28th at the BMICH.

And when a man who plays at being a king asks the country to give his party a two thirds majority in parliament to enable him to create his own constitution, it cannot but ring alarm bells about the future of democracy. A Rajapakse constitution will not turn Sri Lanka into a de jure monarchy. But it will introduce an executive presidency or a premiership sans term limits, thereby enabling Mahinda Rajapakse to remain at the helm of the country beyond 2017. From November 2005, the Rajapakse family has moved relentlessly to establish a stranglehold on the Lankan state and the government. The formal entry of First Son Namal into politics has provided this Rajapakse octopus with yet another far reaching tentacle. This, together with the pervious elevation of another political neophyte, Presidential nephew Shashindra Rajapakse as the Chief Minister of Uva, marks the reconstitution of the Rajapakse Brothers Inc. as the Rajapakse Brothers and Sons Inc. Sri Lanka’s newest arriviste Dynasty has arrived.

So Lankan democracy is peril, but not from corrupt politicians, nor from inept policies, nor even from a gargantuan cabinet, but from the insatiable ambitions of the Rajapakses, from their obvious desire to install dynastic rule behind a democratic façade. It is this Rajapakse factor which has turned the upcoming election into our political Rubicon. If the UPFA manages to obtain a two thirds majority (or thereabouts), a Rajapakse constitution will empty Lankan democracy of its content, keeping the shell as a convenient cover for dynastic rule.(Incidentally, when the ruler is ‘king’, citizens become subjects. The state sanctioned de facto anointment of President Rajapakse as ‘King’ may perform the useful ideological function of encouraging Sri Lankans to see themselves not as citizens with rights but as subjects with duties, the foremost of which is obedience).

The President’s antipathy to the 17th Amendment (aimed at reducing the excessive powers of the Executive) is no secret. In his Feb. 24th interview with the ITN’s ‘Ethulanthaya’, Defence Secretary and Presidential sibling Gotabhaya Rajapakse decried media freedom and human rights as foreign concepts and opined that media organisations and judges who succumb to such foreign concepts retard the forward march of the country. A constitution prepared by such minds is unlikely to emphasise either media freedom or human rights. At the end of a Rajapakse constitution-making process, Sri Lankans may find themselves with rather fewer rights than they enjoy currently, with patriotic jargon covering up (and glorifying) the democratic lacunae. The new Sri Lanka is likely to be a more unjust and less democratic place than the old one.

© Asian Tribuna

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Sunday, February 28, 2010

Sri Lanka's dissenting voices 'silenced'

By Swaminathan Natarajan - When Mahinda Rajapaksa was re-elected president of Sri Lanka in January, media organisations and human rights groups said they hoped the suppression of dissenting voices would end.

But those hopes have not materialised.

The recent arrest of defeated presidential candidate, Gen Sarath Fonseka, is seen by some as the latest example of intimidation of Mr Rajapaksa's opponents.

Analysts say the general has joined a growing list of people and organisations that have been targeted.

During the presidential campaign they noticed a dramatic increase in threats to journalists and activists - especially those deemed to have supported Gen Fonseka.


Some media employees and rights groups have protested, and there are fears the situation could get worse ahead of parliamentary elections in April.

London-based human rights group Amnesty International has just compiled a list of journalists who are at risk.

"Many who are viewed as having been critical of President Rajapaksa have received threats," says Sam Zarifi, Amnesty's director for the Asia-Pacific region.

"We could document 56 journalists facing threats in Sri Lanka. The number could be more."

He said those who had been threatened worked for state and private media.

Analysts say that shortly after the presidential election the police shut down the office of a pro-opposition newspaper, Lanka, in Colombo. The editor was detained for weeks before being released.

Lanka is affiliated to the Sinhala nationalist JVP (People's Liberation Front), which supported Gen Fonseka.


The website also says it was intermittently barred by the authorities during the presidential campaign, a charge the government denies.

The same website is still searching for one of its journalists who disappeared two days before the poll.

Colleagues of Prageeth Eknaligoda say he wrote articles supporting Gen Fonseka.

In recent months several Sri Lankan journalists have fled the country fearing for their lives, including senior members of Sri Lanka's Working Journalist Association and the Free Media Movement.

Sri Lankan Media Minister Laxman Yapa Abeywardhana admits that "there are some issues in the government media".

But he says "it is a struggle between the unions. It has nothing to do with media freedom."

Sri Lanka's biggest media workers union disagrees.

"It is a clear case of political vendetta. They are targeting people who supported Gen Fonseka's campaign and even independent journalists," says Dharmasiri Lankapeli, the general secretary of the Media Workers' Trade Union Federation.

The media rights group Reporters Without Borders says Sri Lanka is one of the most dangerous places for journalists to work in the world.

Several have been killed since Mahinda Rajapaksa became president in 2005 - including one of the country's highest-profile newspaper editors, Lasantha Wickrematunge, who was a vocal critic of the government.

No-one has been charged in connection with his death in January 2009, and many cases involving journalists remain unsolved.

The government has been accused of refusing to let journalists freely report from the conflict zone during the final stages of its decades-long conflict with the now defeated Tamil Tigers.

Sri Lanka has denied visas to many foreign journalists and is still blocking independent media from visiting areas where people displaced by the war have been re-settled.

'No problem'

"There is a fear that we are going back to the dark ages," says N Vidyadharan, editor of two Tamil newspapers.

He was detained for weeks on suspicion of giving information to the Tamil Tigers but was later released without charge last year.

Mr Vidyadharan says the threats are being directed at a much wider variety of media organisations.

"Tamil journalists faced a lot of pressure during the war," he explains.

"But this time those who worked for English and Sinhala news media were targeted. This is done to make sure the majority Sinhala voters don't know about alternatives.

"If the government wants to stop the attacks on the media, it can do it in a minute.

"Those who were involved in the attacks on the media in the past few years have not been brought to justice. There seems to be a culture of impunity."

Sri Lanka's media minister denies the charges.

"There is no truth in all these allegations. There is no problem with regard to media freedom," Mr Abeywardhana says.

In the past the Tamil Tigers were often accused of killing and intimidating journalists.

But since their demise, campaigners have been pointing the finger at the government.

"Unfortunately right now the civilian government seems to be behind this," says Amnesty's Sam Zafiri.

"It is ironic many members of the military including Gen Fonseka, who in the past dismissed such complaints, are now talking about the pressure on journalists and activists," he adds.

© BBC News

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Sunday, February 28, 2010

Reflecting between elections in Sri Lanka

By Anonymous - When I asked a friend in Sri Lanka what she thought of the presidential election and its aftermath, she said with exasperation, “The election was a joke. These politics are a joke.”

Another friend said, “At least Sri Lankans are again beginning to laugh and take their politicians less seriously.”

Whether or not the latter comment may be true, the recent politics and events in Sri Lanka are no laughing matter. As concerned individuals, we must critically examine the presidential election and its aftermath at this moment in order to press for restoring justice, dignity and democracy for all inhabitants of Sri Lanka.

Since the war’s end in May 2009, there has been little relief for Sri Lankans, and, in particular, for those civilians who have been uprooted and displaced by the protracted civil conflict. Internally displaced persons (IDPs) are still being held without land rights, homes or the freedom to move freely within the country’s borders. Muslims, expelled from Jaffna peninsula by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 1990, have yet to secure unified support from Sri Lanka’s politicians to return homes.

During the conflict, thousands of Up-Country Tamils living and working on the tea and rubber plantations were chased out of their homes during a series of anti-Tamil riots. Today, many of the individuals remaining in the postwar IDP camps are in fact Up-Country Tamils who — displaced twice and thrice over the past decades — have no home to return to.

In the months before the presidential election, the widening space for dissent gave hopeful indication that Sri Lanka’s politicians might adequately address minority grievances and develop long-lasting strategies for reconciliation. Nevertheless, the election was marred by, as election monitoring centers report, 900 instances of violence, forms of corruption and blatant abuse of public funds for private interests.

Furthermore, the post-election arrest and detainment of retired General Sarath Fonseka has distracted politicians from pressing issues such as the resettlement of IDPs and the need for a far-reaching political solution.

In the last week, the opposition alliance has split, and Sarath Fonseka, while detained, has left the United National Party (UNP)-led alliance and started a new alliance called the Democratic National Alliance (DNA). This fracture and shift may suggest yet another victory for Rajapakse’s governing coalition in the Parliamentary elections, which are set to take place on April 8.

With the recent announcement that the detained Fonseka will contest in the April elections, voters may face the real possibility of continued violence and the residual effects of political elitism that plagued the presidential election.

© Global Post

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Sunday, February 28, 2010

Nominations filed in Sri Lanka

B. Muralidhar Reddy - The process of electing Parliament in Sri Lanka has entered its second phase with the closing of filing of nominations for the election scheduled for April 8.

As per the Elections Secretariat, 7,696 candidates from 24 political parties and hundreds of independent groups are in the fray.

The defeated opposition candidate in the January 26 presidential election, General (retired) Sarath Fonseka, is also in the battle.

A total of 1,40,88,500 voters will elect 196 of the 225 Members of Parliament while 29 will be elected from national lists of political parties. Parliament is scheduled to meet on April 22.

The opposition parties, which supported General (retired) Fonseka in the presidential election, are divided into two groups, giving an edge to the ruling combine led by President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

General (retired) Fonseka is leading an alliance floated by the JVP ignoring appeals from other opposition parties.

He is fighting for a seat from the Colombo parliamentary district.

The UNP is contesting on its own symbol and has managed to secure the support of several smaller opposition groups.

Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickramanayake and Minister Dullas Alahapperuma are on the national list of the UPFA. At least 18 political parties and 37 independent groups have filed nomination papers.

The election campaign of the UPFA kicked off on Saturday with religious observances in Anuradhapura attended by Mr. Rajapaksa.

© The Hindu

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Sunday, February 28, 2010

Sri Lanka's human-rights and free-speech problems need international attention

By Peter Mountford - In post-civil war Sri Lanka, where democratic institutions are more imperiled than ever, the international press has a vital role to play — even more important than the diplomatic efforts of our governments — in forcing greater transparency and accountability.

I just spent two weeks in Sri Lanka and whenever I sat down with someone in Colombo to ask their opinion of the country's political situation, they'd scan the room, lean in close, and ask if we could talk off the record. When I called opposition journalists they demurred, and suggested that we meet in person. They wouldn't say it out loud, but my driver did: "The phones are all tapped," he explained with refreshing bluntness.

I asked if he thought my phone at the Hilton might be bugged. He bobbled his head vaguely, hesitating, and said, "Well ... "

This was an example of what Kesara Abeywardena, a journalist from The Daily Mirror — the closest thing there is to an independent newspaper on the island — referred to as Sri Lanka's "culture of self-censorship." Abeywardena used to write a political column, but decided it would be better to broaden his focus.

"For your safety?" I asked.

"Well ... " he replied, smiling slightly.

Over the last year, numerous journalists have, in the grim local parlance, been "white vanned." The latest, Prageeth Eknaligoda, a vocal critic of the government, has been missing since Jan. 24. Chandana Sirimalwatte, the editor of an opposition paper, Lanka, was recently detained by the police and his newspaper was ordered to stop printing.

Since President Mahinda Rajapaksa came to power, arrest warrants increasingly have been used to muzzle opponents. Earlier this month, to the shock of the West, police picked up the main opposition candidate, Sarath Fonseka (literally, apparently, as he was unwilling to get out of his chair). Last week they arrested Fonseka's son-in-law's mother. At the end of January a dozen or so ranking members of the military — all allies of Fonseka — were fired or arrested.

The charges, in all of these cases, are trumped up. The point is the message, and the message is, "We will get you. If you're not around, we'll get your next of kin."

Malinda Seneviratne, a sharp but unabashedly pro-government journalist, is the only person I spoke to who was happy to go on the record about anything. He said that these things have been going on for years, but no one complained because the country was mired in civil war.

"The problem," he said, "is that we continue to live under 'emergency rule,' even though the war is over. These kinds of policies made a kind of sense when we were dealing with all the terrorism, and the war. But the war's over. It's not necessary anymore."

Over the past 30 years, Sri Lanka has undergone extraordinary changes in order to cope with the day-to-day reality of the war. The changes are systemic and will be almost impossible to undo. Now that the war has ended, people in the West have begun to take notice. Major news outlets have been decrying the failure of Sri Lankan democracy, as if it's something new. It's not. A few wartime presidents were somewhat friendlier, but the underlying political structure was the same.

At the core of Sri Lanka's problem is a rotten constitution, which gives the president near dictatorial power. Opposition members in parliament are easily bought through cushy ministerial appointments, and the chief justice of the Supreme Court is appointed by the president.

A populist and a nationalist in the mold of Hugo Chávez, President Rajapaksa is able to win political points by defying diplomatic pressure from the West, a fact that often makes the application of that pressure self-defeating. On Feb. 16, the European Union dropped Sri Lanka's preferential trade status because of human-rights violations, but the lead article on the issue in Sri Lanka's state-run newspaper began with a prideful quote from Rajapaksa's central bank governor, "Sri Lanka is not prepared to barter its sovereignty for the sake of regaining the tariff concession and will continue with its stated policy instead of giving in to any unfair demands."

As long as the government can control the conversation like that — deftly transforming international concern about human rights into the politically attractive issue of sovereignty — there will be little impetus for reform. Accountability and openness go hand in hand. So the first step forward falls to the press. Since the Sri Lankan press can't speak up for itself, it's the duty of the international press to speak on its behalf.

So the best thing we can do right now is continue flooding the newswires with stories about the disastrous state of Sri Lankan democracy. Kesara Abeywardena may have to choose his words carefully, lest he get white vanned, but I just flew home to Seattle, so I'll go ahead and call it like I see it.

Peter Mountford is in his second year as a writer in residence at Seattle Arts & Lectures. His first novel will be published in 2011 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

© The Seattle Times

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Sunday, February 28, 2010

SLPP persons harass senior Tamil journalist Parameswaran in Jaffna

Persons of Sri Lanka People’s Party (SLPP), a constituent of ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), caught and held N. Parameswaran, a senior Tamil journalist in Jaffna peninsula, the correspondent of BBC Tamil service and Daily Mirror, Saturday from 9:00 a.m til 9:30 in front of the SLFP office located at Veampadi Veethi in Jaffna, sources in Jaffna said. This office is actively engaged in getting SLFP membership forms signed by the resettled Vanni displaced persons in Jaffna on the pretext that the forms are to be used to get information about their children gone missing during the war and to give them relief food, and Parameswaran was caught and held for nearly half an hour as he tried to expose the motive of the forms to the Vanni IDPs waiting in queue to get them, the sources further said. Police, on being informed of the incident freed Parameswaran.

SLFP organizer for the districts of Jaffna and Vanni Thilakumara Udugama and leader of SLPP who had been excluded from the SLFP list of candidates contesting Jaffna electoral district had submitted a list of candidates contesting as an independent group.

S. Gunarasa, popularly known as writer ‘Chengkai Aazhiyaan’, is one of the candidates of the independent group of Thilakumara Udugama and it is said that he was present at the scene when Parameswaran was harassed by Udugama’s men.

Gunarasa being involved in the incident has sent a wave of shock among the media community in Jaffna peninsula, the sources added.

Parameswaran had written several articles in Jaffna ‘Uthayan’ daily exposing the fraudulent activity of enrolling unsuspecting IDPs as members of SLFP and he was trying to distribute copies of the articles to the IDPS who were queuing up to fill in the forms paying 20 rupees per person.

Two weeks ago Thilakumara Udugama had claimed that 26,000 persons have enrolled themselves as members in SLFP in Jaffna peninsula.

Udugama’s men who harassed Parameswaran had confiscated his mobile phone, camera and other personal belongings when they caught and held hid Saturday morning.

Parameswaran is a much respected senior journalist with a long service of record in Jaffna.

© Tamil Net

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