Friday, May 21, 2010


Photographic evidence: Five photos taken on the front lines in early 2009

New evidence of wartime abuses by Sri Lankan government forces and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) during the armed conflict that ended one year ago demonstrates the need for an independent international investigation into violations of the laws of war, Human Rights Watch said today. Recently Human Rights Watch research gathered photographic evidence and accounts by witnesses of atrocities by both sides during the final months of fighting.

On May 23, 2009, President Mahinda Rajapaksa promised United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that the government would investigate allegations of laws-of-war violations. One year later, the government has still not undertaken any meaningful investigatory steps, Human Rights Watch said.

Last week, the government created a Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission with a mandate to examine the failure of the 2002 ceasefire and the "sequence of events" thereafter. It is not empowered to investigate allegations of violations of the laws of war such as those documented by Human Rights Watch.

"Yet another feckless commission is a grossly inadequate response to the numerous credible allegations of war crimes," said Elaine Pearson, acting Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Damning new evidence of abuses shows why the UN should not let Sri Lanka sweep these abuses under the carpet."

Human Rights Watch called on Secretary-General Ban to promptly establish an international investigation to examine allegations of wartime abuse by both sides to the conflict.
New Evidence of Wartime Violations

Human Rights Watch has examined more than 200 photos taken on the front lines in early 2009 by a soldier from the Sri Lankan Air Mobile Brigade. Among these are a series of five photos showing a man who appears to have been captured by the Sri Lankan army. An independent source identified the man by name and told Human Rights Watch that he was a long-term member of the LTTE's political wing from Jaffna.

The first two photos show the man alive, with blood on his face and torso, tied to a palm tree. He is surrounded by several men wearing military fatigues, one brandishing a knife close to his face. In the next three photos, the man is lying - apparently dead - against a rock. His head is being held up, he is partly covered in the flag of Tamil Eelam, and there is more blood on his face and upper body.

A forensic expert who reviewed the photos told Human Rights Watch that the latter three photos show material on the man's neck consistent in color with brain matter, "which would indicate an injury to the back of his head, as nothing is visible which would cause this on his face. This would indicate severe trauma to the back of the head consistent with something like a gunshot wound or massive blows to the back of the head with something such as a machete or ax."

While Human Rights Watch cannot conclusively determine that the man was summarily executed in custody, the available evidence indicates that a full investigation is warranted.

Several of the photos also show what appear to be dead women in LTTE uniforms with their shirts pulled up and their pants pulled down, raising concerns that they might have been sexually abused or their corpses mutilated. Again, such evidence is not conclusive but shows the need for an investigation.

The new accounts by witnesses described indiscriminate shelling of large gatherings of civilians during the last weeks of fighting, apparently by government forces. In addition to an incident on April 8, 2009, previously reported, witnesses told Human Rights Watch about three other incidents in late April and early May 2009 of government forces shelling civilians, mainly women and children, who were standing in food distribution lines. The witnesses also described LTTE recruitment of children and LTTE attacks on civilians attempting to escape the war zone.
Government's Failure to Investigate Abuses

The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission created on May 17, 2010 is the latest in a long line of ad hoc bodies in Sri Lanka that seem designed to deflect international criticism rather than to uncover the facts. The mandated focus of the commission ­- on the failure of the 2002 ceasefire - is largely unrelated to the massive abuses by both government forces and the LTTE in the last months of hostilities. Nor does the commission appear to have been designed to uncover new information: the commission's terms of reference do not provide for adequate victim and witness protection.

The government-appointed chairman of the commission, Chitta Ranjan de Silva, is a former attorney general who came under serious criticism for his office's alleged interference in the work of the 2006 Presidential Commission of Inquiry. The attorney general's role was one of the main reasons why a group of 10 international experts, the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP), withdrew from monitoring the commission's work. The IIGEP stated that it had "not been able to conclude...that the proceedings of the Commission have been transparent or have satisfied basic international norms and standards."

"De Silva was the architect and enforcer of the attorney general's conflict of interest role with respect to the 2006 commission," said Arthur Dewey, former US assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration and member of the IIGEP. "Nothing good for human rights or reconciliation is likely to come from anything in which De Silva is involved."

The government has also yet to publish the findings from a committee established in November 2009 to examine allegations of laws-of-war violations set out in a report produced last year by the US State Department, despite an April 2010 deadline.

Sri Lanka has a long history of establishing ad hoc commissions to deflect international criticism over its poor human rights record and widespread impunity, Human Rights Watch said. Since independence in 1948, Sri Lanka has established at least nine such commissions, none of which have produced any significant results.

On March 5, Secretary-General Ban told President Rajapaksa that he had decided to appoint a UN panel of experts to advise him on next steps for accountability in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan government responded by attacking Ban for interfering in domestic affairs, calling the panel "unwarranted" and "uncalled for." Two months later, Ban has yet to appoint any members to his panel.

"Ban's inaction is sending a signal to abusers that simply announcing meaningless commissions and making loud noises can block all efforts for real justice," Pearson said. "The only way to ensure accountability in Sri Lanka is to establish an independent international investigation."

© Human Rights Watch

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Friday, May 21, 2010

“The Sri Lanka option” : Friends like these

Little Sri Lanka is rarely a model of anything. But since it crushed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam its government has found itself in an unfamiliar position. Some of the world’s less savoury regimes are beating a path to its door to study “the Sri Lanka option”.

Last November, Myanmar’s military dictator, Than Shwe, who rarely travels abroad, visited the island “so that his regime can apply any lessons learned to its efforts against the ethnic groups in Burma,” says Benedict Rogers, a biographer of General Than. In May last year at a meeting of regional defence ministers in Singapore, Myanmar’s deputy minister made the link explicit, saying the world had witnessed a victory over terrorism in Sri Lanka but had forgotten about the insurgency in his country.

In October Thailand’s prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, held talks with his Sri Lankan counterpart about the lessons of the Tigers’ defeat (for handling a Muslim insurgency in southern Thailand, not the protests cleared this week in Bangkok). In March a military delegation from Bangladesh met Sri Lanka’s army chief, to swap notes on what he called Sri Lanka’s “successful completion of the war for peace”. Behind the scenes, hawkish generals and politicians from Colombia to Israel seem to be using Sri Lanka’s experience to justify harsher anti-terror operations.

Louise Arbour, head of the International Crisis Group (ICG), says the Sri Lanka model consists of three parts: what she dubs “scorched-earth tactics” (full operational freedom for the army, no negotiations with terrorists, no ceasefires to let them regroup); next, ignoring differences between combatants and non-combatants (the new Icg report documents many such examples); lastly, the dismissal of international and media concerns. A senior official in President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s office, quoted anonymously in a journal, Indian Defence Review, says “we had to ensure that we regulated the media. We didn’t want the international community to force peace negotiations on us.” The author of that article, V.K. Shashikumar, concludes that “in the final analysis the Rajapaksa model is based on a military precept …Terrorism has to be wiped out militarily and cannot be tackled politically.” This is the opposite of the strategy America is pursuing in Afghanistan. It is winning a widespread hearing.

© The Economist

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Friday, May 21, 2010

Death toll from Sri Lanka's flooding hits 20

The Sri Lankan government says 20 people have died in floods and mudslides after a week of powerful storms brought heavy rain across the country.

The Disaster Management Center said on its website Friday that most of the deaths occurred in western Gampaha district. The government says many homes have been inundated and roads washed out. The navy has stepped up operations to rescue those stranded and to distribute relief.

© Associated Press

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Friday, May 21, 2010

'Channel 4 brings up war crimes when we negotiate with intl. community': Media Minister

By Sandun A. Jayasekera - Cabinet spokesman, Information and Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella said that the British Channel 4 TV station has a tendency to telecast fabricated stories on Sri Lanka whenever it negotiates with the international community.

Addressing the weekly cabinet press briefing held yesterday at the Government Information Department, he said Channel 4 once again has exhumed an anti Sri Lanka episode on war crimes which was proved to be false 10 months ago. “They have once again brought up this sordid story just when a Sri Lankan delegation is to attend crucial trade talks in Brussels with the European Union. I categorically deny these allegations of war atrocities said to have been committed by our armed forces,” Minister Rambukwella emphasized.

The Sri Lanka government got the assistance of two academics to check the authenticity of the visuals of the first telecast of Channel 4. The two experts promptly shot down the alleged firing on Tamil civilians by armed forces personnel and said the video was a doctored production. They timed the telecast showing the first video on war crimes when Sri Lanka was attending the UN Human Rights Commission sessions in Geneva last year.

“The Sri Lankan government thereafter challenged Channel 4 to prove these experts wrong, but they could not,” Minister Rambukwella stressed. Minister Rambukwella said legal action in the form of a civil case would be filed against Channel 4 after consulting the Attorney General.

© Daily Mirror

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Friday, May 21, 2010

Sri Lanka's powerful president: Putting the raj in Rajapaksa

There is no stopping the remorseless ascent of Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s president. A year ago this week his government routed the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) after a 26-year civil war. This January, after a campaign featuring songs lauding him as a “king”, his grateful citizens re-elected him in a landslide. His party then cantered to victory in a parliamentary poll in April. His main rival in the presidential race, Sarath Fonseka, a former army chief, faces a court-martial and poses no threat. Now the president seems intent on an extraordinary concentration of power into his family’s hands, and on its prolongation.

Mr Rajapaksa himself, besides being president, is minister of defence, finance and planning, ports and aviation, and highways. In all, he is directly responsible for 78 institutions. One, the defence ministry, is a condominium with his brother, Gotabaya, the defence secretary. Besides control of the armed forces, police and coast guard, it has expanded its remit to take in immigration and emigration, as well as, curiously, the Urban Development Authority and the Land Reclamation and Development Corporation.

Another Rajapaksa brother, Basil, is economic-development minister and senior presidential adviser, with oversight, among other things, of wildlife conservation and the boards of both investment- and tourism-promotion. He also runs a presidential task force set up to develop the war-ravaged north and east.

A fourth brother, the eldest, Chamal, has forsaken his former cabinet seat. All is not lost, however. He has been elected unopposed as speaker of parliament. In the unlikely event that the president were to face impeachment, which would require a motion signed by at least half of the members of parliament, the speaker would have to agree to entertain the motion.

The family reportedly also wants to leave its imprint on Sri Lanka’s constitution. One aim is to lift the present bar on presidents serving more than two six-year terms. A second is to revise the 17th amendment to empower the president to appoint members of a number of important bodies, such as the human-rights and election commissions, and others covering the police, public service and the investigation of corruption. This would defeat the purpose of the 17th amendment: to curtail presidential power. It would also take power away from ethnic minorities, to whose representatives the 17th amendment gave a say in some appointments.

A third proposed change is to enable the president to take part in parliamentary proceedings. Basil Rajapaksa has said this will be similar to “question time” in Britain, “though not exact”. Far from weakening the “executive presidency”, as many have advocated, the reforms would in effect give Mr Rajapaksa some prime-ministerial trappings as well. It is unlikely, however, that the president will face the sort of abuse hurled at British prime ministers in the House of Commons.

He does, however, face some criticism. At home, it is somewhat muted, though the Sunday Leader did note that Sri Lanka “seems to have reached a point of one-family rule. Every aspect of our lives from the registry of our births, to the taxes we pay…and the documents we must carry in order to move freely is under the control of Rajapaksas. Their domination is absolute.” That newspaper is a rare source of dissent. Its former editor was shot dead by unknown assassins last year.

Critics also lament the lack of progress towards national reconciliation. Despite insisting that its enemy was the LTTE, not the Tamil minority it claimed to represent, the government has done little to ease Tamil grievances. And far from making serious plans for the devolution of power, seen as essential to ethnic harmony, the trend is relentless centralisation.

Criticism is even fiercer abroad. Human-rights groups marked this week’s anniversary with a renewed push for an international inquiry into alleged war crimes by both sides. The International Crisis Group, a think-tank, produced a report offering evidence of abuses by government troops, including attacks on hospitals, humanitarian-aid convoys and civilians. It estimated that 30,000 civilians or more may have died in the war’s final weeks, and that “all but a small portion of these deaths were due to government fire.”

Perhaps in an effort to deflect external pressure, the government has announced the formation of a “Lessons learnt and reconciliation commission”. But, based on the experience of previous national commissions of inquiry, outsiders are unlikely to trust this one. Its terms of reference are anyway not to investigate alleged war crimes, but the whole period from February 2002, when the government and the Tigers signed an abortive ceasefire.

The Tigers were brutal and loathsome. Yet Sri Lanka’s leading Tamil party in the north of the country marked the anniversary of the war’s end as an occasion for mourning. The government, by contrast, planned a big parade in Colombo. It had to be called off because of flooding.

Little else is raining on the Rajapaksas’ parade. The president is just 64, seems in good health and is still popular among the Sinhalese majority. Nothing seems to stand in the way of a long Rajapaksa raj. And, moving in from the wings, his son, Namal, elected to parliament in April, seems set to follow in his father’s and uncles’ footsteps.

© The Economist

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Friday, May 21, 2010

Jaffna: One year after the end of the war in Sri Lanka

By Subash Somachandran and Kamal Rasenthiran - It is now a year since President Mahinda Rajapakse’s government claimed to have “liberated” the Tamil population from the “terrorism” of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). However, there has been no improvement in the lives of the people of Jaffna and other northern towns since the LTTE’s defeat last May. Instead, there is an intensified military occupation, with many people living in refugee camps or makeshift huts and thousands of youth still under detention.

This week, soldiers and military intelligence personnel were dispatched to either shut down or closely monitor meetings and memorial events to mark the anniversary. On Monday, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the LTTE’s former mouthpiece, held a low-key meeting in Jaffna to commemorate the tens of thousands of civilians killed in the final months of the military offensive last year. After it had started, soldiers surrounded the meeting and prevented it from continuing. Soldiers detained a reporter who was only released after he promised not to write an article on the incident.

TNA member of parliament Mavai Senadhirajah told the small gathering that “in contrast to government’s victory celebrations we should hold this day as a sad day”. He said many people had died in the last days of the war. He gave no explanation for the LTTE’s defeat and said nothing about fighting for the rights of the local population. The TNA has said it is ready to back the government in devising a “political solution” for Tamils. This means a power-sharing arrangement between the Tamil elites and the Colombo government at the expense of working people—Tamil and Sinhala alike.

A number of other anniversary meetings and events were blocked, with soldiers chasing people away. On May 18, the army closed down a meeting at the Jaffna office of the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC), also known as the Peoples Front for Tamil Nationalism.

During the general election in April and for a few days following, there was a brief easing of the main military checkpoints in Jaffna. However, since Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse visited Jaffna in late April, the security measures have been re-tightened. Rajapakse was accompanied by the three armed services chiefs and the Inspector General of Police.

On May 3, the Jaffna commanding officer, Major General Mahinda Hathurusinghe, formally announced that security would be tightened in Jaffna. Recent reports of abductions, murders and extortions provided the pretext. Detachments of four or five armed soldiers now stand at road junctions and bridges, checking vehicles and people.

Facing public anger over the military’s continued occupation of private houses, buildings and land, Defence Secretary Rajapakse reportedly told security forces commanders that the military would be “gradually withdrawn” from private properties. In 1995, after the military recaptured Jaffna from the LTTE, it seized large areas of land and evicted people from their home in order to establish high security zones (HSZs). Today, 15 such zones cover 160 square kilometres or 18 percent of the Jaffna peninsula. Some 25,000 homes remain occupied, of which 18,000 are in the HSZs.

Displaced people are pressing to regain their homes. On Tuesday, the Union of Displaced People (UDP) of Valikamam north, held a meeting on the issue with MPs from the TNA, the United National Party and the Eelam Peoples Democratic Party (EPDP). EPDP leader Douglas Devananda, a cabinet minister in the Rajapakse government, declared that he would take up the matter with “higher ups” and get a solution in two weeks.

Like Devananda’s other promises, the latest is a fraud. Nothing has changed for the better in Jaffna over the past 12 months. Schools, hospitals, roads, housing and transport remain dilapidated. Many refugees and “resettled” people live in appalling conditions.

During the war many families fled to the LTTE-controlled Vanni, south of the peninsula. After living there for more than a decade, they were forced to flee to government-controlled areas in the final stages of the war. About 280,000 people were detained in huge camps controlled by the military. In recent months, some of these refugees have been “resettled” in Jaffna, but without any decent housing or means of livelihood.

Speaking to WSWS reporters, a “resettled” woman expressed disgust with the political parties. “No one is helping us,” she said. “We have been given tin sheets. On rainy days we have no place to sleep. There are no toilet facilities, and to fetch water we have to go 2 kilometres. We don’t even have proper vessels to collect water. Refugee relief was ended last month. We have no jobs, so we do odd jobs to earn a living. Our meals consist of rice with coconut sambol.

“During the election campaign, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) [Rajapakse’s party] candidate stood as an independent, telling us we would be provided with job opportunities and houses made of bricks. The EPDP and TNA candidates also appealed for our votes, making same false promises. Nothing has happened.

“One of my sons died at Mullivaikkal [where the final military assault took place last May] without receiving proper medical attention. My sister and her husband died in a shell attack, leaving three children orphaned. Now these children are struggling to live with relatives who cannot afford to maintain them. When we lived in the LTTE-held area we had problems with them. Now we have been uprooted from there and face more problems. We feel we have no future under these rulers.”

Another woman commented: “Our small tent was flooded by yesterday’s heavy rain. We could not sleep for the whole night. When I saw you coming I hoped you were village officers visiting us to help. I have no work and no income. I am indebted to the village fund to the tune of 6,000 rupees. Without a job how can I pay that back? Here our children have no facilities. All these political parties, like the TNA and the EPDP, made promises but produce no action.”

The Rajapakse government and Tamil businessmen have other priorities. On the initiative of the Jaffna Chamber of Commerce and Industry (JCCI), a trade fair was held in April to encourage the 200 local and overseas companies in attendance to “explore the business opportunities” in the war-torn region. JCCI chairman K. Pooranachandran told the media: “We will soon see a time where both local and international investors will come behind the North and East entrepreneur and signs of this are already emerging.” After explaining that there were 200,000 unemployed youth in the north, he said the trade fair would help fast track the industrialisation of the Jaffna peninsula.

In other words, investors are being enticed to exploit the area as a cheap labour platform. For this purpose, the government is planning several free trade zones in the north and east. In addition, the Board of Investment has opened a branch office in Jaffna, mainly to woo wealthy members of the overseas Tamil diaspora to re-invest in the region. The Central Bank also has plans to open a branch in Jaffna, as does the Colombo Stock exchange.

By tightening the military occupation, the Rajapakse government is demonstrating its readiness to maintain the repressive methods that it employed during the war to suppress any opposition by working people to the appalling social conditions and sweatshop exploitation that these business ventures will rest upon.

© World Socialist Web Site

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