Thursday, June 17, 2010

Japan urges world not to dictate to post-war Sri Lanka

Japan on Wednesday urged the world not to dictate to Sri Lanka amid post-war reconciliation efforts and renewed calls from the West for a probe into possible war crimes.

Sri Lanka last month celebrated the first anniversary of its victory against Tamil Tiger separatists, ending 25 years of civil war, and rights groups used the occasion to push for an international war crimes investigation.

They blame the government for tens of thousands of civilian deaths. The government denies the charges.

Japanese peace envoy Yashushi Akashi, who is on his 20th trip to Sri Lanka, said the international community should not dwell on the past.

"It is up to the Sri Lankan government to define the precise roll," Akashi told reporters in the capital, Colombo. "It is not for other governments or international organizations to dictate to Sri Lanka as to what it should be doing in this highly complicated and sensitive area."

Japan, one of the top aid donors to Sri Lanka, in March signed agreements for 39 billion yen ($426.4 million) in development assistance for the Indian ocean island nation.

Akashi's comments follow the visit by two White House officials and U.N. political chief Lynn Pascoe, who are pushing for accountability for human rights violations.

Samantha Power, special assistant to Obama on multilateral affairs and human rights, and David Pressman, National Security Council director for war crimes and atrocities, met President Mahinda Rajapaksa on Tuesday at the start of a four-day trip.

Colombo says the West is applying double standards by insisting on an investigation while the United States and Britain are not being probed despite thousands of civilian deaths in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan.

© Reuters

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Thursday, June 17, 2010

Sri Lanka: Patriotism as creed

by Tisaranee Gunasekara - Our government has kept us in a perpetual state of fear - kept us in a continuous stampede of patriotic fervour - with the cry of grave national emergency. Always, there has been some terrible evil at home, or some monstrous foreign power that was going to gobble us up if we did not blindly rally behind it”. - General Douglas MacArthur (Nation, 17.8.1957)

It defies reason. The year the war was at its most intense and critical, Sri Lanka’s defence allocation was Rs. 177 billion; but in the first year of peace Sri Lanka’s defence allocation increased by a massive Rs.24 billion to Rs. 201 billion. Normally, defence expenditure increases in times of war and decreases (or stabilises) once peace dawns. Sri Lanka has become the antithesis of this norm; in this surreal land, defence expenditure actually increases during peacetime.

This anomaly is sourced in the Rajapakse attitude to peace and nation-building which, in turn, flows naturally and logically from the Rajapakse attitude to war. Peace will not be consensual; it will not be achieved via reconciliation; nation-building will not be voluntary; there will be no attempts to win over the Tamils by addressing their developmental needs and political concerns. Instead peace will be achieved and nation building effected via force and compulsion. The North and the Tamil areas of the East are treated as occupied territory, its people kept under control by a continuous and overwhelming display of force. Dominance rather than hegemony is the aim. Temporary army camps become permanent while new camps are built; in and around them, Buddhist edifices multiply, under state patronage. Tiger cemeteries, the last resting places of so many young Tamils, are razed to the ground and replaced with monuments to the victors. Every act is a reminder to the Hindu/Christian Tamils that they are but guests in a Sinhala Buddhist country, that they have no inalienable rights even in the land which had been their traditional homeland for centuries.

This policy of pacification requires the accordance of primacy to the military over civilian and to defence over resettlement. This prioritisation is symbolised in the relative allocations in the 2010 budget – a whopping Rs.201 billion for defence and a paltry Rs. 2 billion for resettlement; the sum allocated for resettlement less than 1% of the sum allocated for defence. This stark statistic, in itself, is a sufficient indicator of the future Tamils can expect in a Rajapakse Sri Lanka.

The Sinhalese masses will not fare well either, economically or politically. This is evident in the low financial importance accorded to such key areas as education and health. Education (including higher education) is allocated a mere Rs.46 billion – i.e. around 18% of defence expenditure. Health at an allocation of Rs.52 billion fares only a fraction better – i.e. about 25% of defence expenditure. Thus the living conditions of a majority of Sinhalese are unlikely to improve, despite the ending of the war and the dawning of peace. How can there be a peace dividend in a country which spends more on defence in peacetime than it did during the war?

The Rajapakses would hope to offset this decline/stagnation in real living standards in the South by enhancing the ‘feel good factor’. The Sinhalese will have the doubtful felicity of feeling superior to their non-Sinhala brethren. They will have the dubious satisfaction of going to Nagadeepa, Jaffna or Trinco as members of the victorious race, basking in remembered glory, worshipping at the few old and many new Buddhist shrines, paying homage to the victory memorials. They can feel proud that they have a leader who defies the world, who refuses to make concessions to the minorities. Whether these psychological factors can make up for the decline/stagnation in their actual living conditions (and for how long), only time can tell.

Family and Race

Namal Rajapakse is not a cricketer. Yet during the IIFA extravaganza, when the visiting Indian film stars engaged in a friendly contest with Lankan cricketers, young Rajapakse was included in the Lankan team, otherwise made up of professional cricketers and led by the national captain. His sole qualification was being the eldest son of the Lankan President, and according to some, the heir-apparent.

The inclusion of young Rajapakse on the Lankan side is a symbol of the present and an omen for the future. Increasingly, the only real ‘qualification’ needed to get ahead in many a field, from politics to cricket, is to be a member or a faithful servitor of the Rajapakse Family. Intelligence and expertise, talent and hard work, commitment and seniority are beginning to matter less and less in Sri Lanka, as the tentacles of the voracious Rajapakse octopus reaches out to almost every aspect of Lankan life.

A regime based on a family is narrow-based, by definition. Such a regime needs an ideology which can win for it the support of the masses, a façade for its true parochial objectives and nepotistic deeds. Thus the Rajapakses have Sinhala supremacism. The Rajapakses’ strong psychological predilection for Sinhala supremacism is indubitable; its extremism and xenophobia fit in very well with the obscurantist outlook of this family of minor aristocrats, big fish in a small pond. Even so, had Sinhala supremacism not been a potential winner, the Rajapakses would not have embraced it, fully.

When Mahinda Rajapakse became the Presidential candidate of the ruling UPFA, conditions were ripe for Sinhala supremacism to recover from the strategic setback of 1987 and surge ahead. The obvious inability of the appeasement oriented peace process of Ranil Wickremesinghe to appease the LTTE and Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga’s failure to occupy the anti-Tiger, pro-devolution space, paved the way for the return of a different anti-Tigerism, which was also anti-devolution and anti-Tamil. The Sinhala supremacist lobby, numerically small but ideologically stringent and vocal, rallied round Rajapakse, forming the bedrock of his campaign. He, in turn, incorporated many of their positions into his manifesto, Mahinda Chinthanaya.

From an opportunistic point of view, the same point of view which motivated SWRD Bandaranaike to adopt Sinhala Only, this alliance between the Rajapakse Family and Sinhala supremacists made perfect sense. Both were on the margins, dreaming of and plotting to occupy the political centre. Alone, it was a feat beyond them. The Sinhala supremacists needed a leader who would rescue their extremist policies from political oblivion and bring them back on to centre stage; the Rajapakses needed a suitable façade for their project of familial rule, a platform capable of guaranteeing majority support. Bandaranaike, the cosmopolitan, the man who supported federalism early in his political career, would have had his moments of discomfiture with his Sinhala supremacist allies (he was eventually killed by a Buddhist monk). But between the Rajapakses and Sinhala supremacists, there cannot but be near total ideological congruity. Rajapakse had always been on the anti-Tamil, anti-devolution side of the political divide; he was at the forefront of the opposition to any concessions to Tamils in the 1980’s and was a leader of the anti-Indo-Lanka Accord/Provincial Council ‘alliance’ between the SLFP and the JVP (interestingly he maintained a tactical silence on Wickremesinghe’s appeasement process until the UPFA returned to power in 2004). In 2004 his supporters (clearly with his approval) used race and religion to defeat the notion of a Lakshman Kadiragarmar premiership. (With an anti-Tiger Tamil as the PM, Sri Lanka could have moved ahead, instead of moving back. The JVP, to its eternal credit, was strongly supportive of it and the SLFP would have fallen into line, if Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga did not give into the ‘chandi malli’ tactics of the Rajapakses.) With this history, and with his innate parochialism, Rajapakse fits in well with his Sinhala supremacist allies who believe that Sri Lanka is a Sinhala country and all minorities are nothing but guests in it.

From the inception, Rajapakse’s anti-Tigerism was sourced in a Sinhala First position. As he said, having won the Presidency with Sinhala support, it was incumbent upon him to put Sinhala interests first, over and above minority concerns. This electoral consideration fitted in very well with the Rajapakse aim of concentrating as much power as possible in the hands of the Family. Devolution, like the 17th Amendment, would reduce rather than enhance presidential powers. Furthermore, devolution would empower a community which had not and was not likely to support Rajapakse. Anti-devolution and the intrinsic Rajapakse disinclination to share power with anyone made a perfect fit. The alliance had worked to perfection, so far. The Rajapakses honoured their part of the bargain by defeating the LTTE, without making any concessions to the Tamils, while negating most of the concessions made to the minorities in the Indo-Lanka Accord. Now the Sinhala supremacist must back the Rajapakse moves to establish dynastic rule and provide it with patriotic cover.

The New Religion

Patriotism is the official creed of Rajapakse Sri Lanka, the sole measuring rod of what is acceptable and what is not; it draws the line of demarcation between a good citizen and a bad citizen. Tigers said Tamils are Tigers and damned any Tamil who did not support the Tigers as a traitor. Similarly, according to the new creed, Rajapakses are Sri Lanka, and anyone who opposes them is a real or a potential traitor to Sri Lanka. The fate of Sarath Fonseka, who, together with Mahinda and Gotabhaya Rajapakse, waged a victorious war against the LTTE, is symbolic of the potency and relevance of this new equation. With patriotism as creed, doubts and questioning are not permitted and anything other than unquestioning belief is seen as heresy. Periodically, government leaders talk about a resurgent Tiger threat, to keep Sinhala phobias alive, to justify the patriotic creed and the repressive, anti-democratic measures, which stem from it.

Take, for example, the latest outburst by Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse, in an interview with the BBC’s Hard Talk. When told that former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka has expressed his willingness to give evidence before a war crimes tribunal, Rajapakse becomes incoherent with rage. “He can’t do that. He was the commander. That’s a treason. We will hang him if he do that….. How can he betray the country? He is a liar, liar, liar”, spluttered the Presidential sibling. His remarks capture the essence of Rajapakse rule - arbitrary and capricious, of the Family, by the Family and for the Family, a tyranny made palatable to the Sinhala majority via its role as the main purveyor of the new patriotic creed.

The debate on the most desirable and acceptable mode of devolution can wax and wane; the relative merits and demerits of the 13th Amendment or federalism can continue apace. In reality there will be no devolution; not even the full implementation of the 13th Amendment. Instead, with the proposed constitutional amendments, devolution will contract and become nothing more than provincial decentralisation. A patriotic government cannot act otherwise. In actuality, as the latest budget figures indicate, Sri Lanka is on its way to become a national security state, a state in which every other area from popular wellbeing to democratic rights will be subservient to that nebulous term ‘national security’. Patriotism provides the ideological rationale for this transformation. Patriotism as creed justifies the use of extraordinary measures against anti-patriots, measures beyond not just democracy and justice, but also common human decency. Throughout history, religions have been used for such purposes. The new patriotism too will be used to justify the perpetuation of Rajapakse rule, at any cost, by any means.

© Sri Lanka Guardian

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Thursday, June 17, 2010

Sri Lanka plans to liberalize higher education

Sri Lanka's president Mahinda Rajapaksa has backed a plan to liberalize university education and set up a mechanism to monitor and evaluate the quality of foreign and local higher education, an official said.

A proposal for a 'National policy framework on higher education and technical and vocational education' to revamp higher education, has been drawn up by Sri Lanka's policy-making National Education Commission (NEC).

"The commission wants to establish non-state degree awarding institutions," Dayantha Wijeyesekera, chairman of Sri Lanka Tertiary and Vocational Education Commission and member of the apex National Education Commission told reporters.

"The President has also given his consent, the President was happy with our proposals"

Since 1978, Sri Lanka's president has sweeping powers, which are controversial and there have been calls to trim them. The president won a second term in a landslide victory in January and the ruling coalition was returned to power in parliamentary polls in April.

Sri Lanka has had a state monopoly in degree awarding and attempts to break it grip have been resisted by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, a Marxist-National party which has a strong grip in the state university system.

At present Sri Lanka's higher education system is limited to 15 state controlled universities and a handful of cross-border institutes which award foreign degrees and national vocational qualification institutions, Wijeyesekera said.

"I don't think that it (opening high education to private universities) can be limited to one discipline," Wijeyesekera said. "It will be open to all disciplines."

Liberalizing higher education would allow more opportunities for Sri Lankan students to gain a university degree.

At present Sri Lankan universities can only accommodate less than 10 percent of students who sit for advance level high school exams.

The crisis in the universities which are 'free' and funded by people's money reached a peak in 2004 when tens of thousands of graduates had to be given state jobs with lifetime pensions at tax payer expense.

He said the NEC has proposed to the government to set up a new body which will monitor and evaluate the quality of academia and syllabi in state and private higher education institutions.

"We have proposed to establish a national quality assurance centre (NQAC) to cover all areas of higher education and technical and vocational education in Sri Lanka," Wijeyesekera said.

"The president has agreed to this proposal as well."

Education in Sri Lanka now comes under three separate ministries, who will have to take the proposals forward.

"We don't have any authority to implement this, it's up to the respective ministries to do that," Wijeyesekera said.

"We want to implement this as soon as possible."

© Lanka Business Online

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Thursday, June 17, 2010

Sri Lanka: UN political chief holds talks with President

The top United Nations political official held talks today with the President of Sri Lanka at the start of a two-day visit aimed at helping the island country deal with key challenges in the wake of its long-running civil war.

B. Lynn Pascoe, the Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, also visited an area close to the final battles of the civil war last year and is now the scene of the resettlement of thousands of people who fled their homes during the conflict.

Earlier today Mr. Pascoe met President Mahinda Rajapaksa and other senior Government officials, including Foreign Minister G. L. Peiris and Attorney General Mohan Peiris, in the capital, Colombo, according to information released by the Under-Secretary-General’s office.

He then travelled to areas around the northern town of Mullaitivu, which was the focus of fighting in May last year, when Government forces defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) after several decades of war.

The area is now home to a resettled population of at least 40,000 people who have been assisted by the Government, UN aid agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

Mr. Pascoe was briefed on the progress of resettling internally displaced persons (IDPs) as well as on efforts to clear mines from the former war zones.

He also met a group of mothers with young children who were attending a health clinic in the village of Vattapallai and visited a cooperative store containing food rations supplied by the UN.

“The United Nations is doing everything it can to help you get back to a normal life now that this tragic war is over,” he told the mothers.

Tonight Mr. Pascoe is scheduled to hold talks in Colombo with Ranil Wickremasinghe, the leader of the Opposition, and with the lawmaker Tiran Alles from the Democratic National Alliance.

Mr. Pascoe’s visit to Sri Lanka this week is focused on political reconciliation, human rights and the resettlement of IDPs, in line with a joint statement made by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Mr. Rajapaksa when the UN chief visited Sri Lanka last year after the fighting end.

The UN is also setting up a panel of experts as part of an accountability process for addressing violations of international humanitarian and human rights law that may have occurred at the end of the war.

© UN News Centre

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Thursday, June 17, 2010

President for ever?

Feizal Samath - Sri Lanka’s ruling majority is planning to push forward constitutional amendments that would allow for unlimited presidential terms, sparking an outcry from opposition groups and left-leaning members of its own coalition.

Debate is growing over plans by the president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party-led coalition to bring in amendments that would allow Mr Rajapaksa to run for an unprecedented third term in 2016.

The main opposition United National Party (UNP) and the third-largest party in Sri Lanka, the People’s Liberation Front (JVP), have already announced their objection to the move and have accused the coalition of backroom dealings.

On Tuesday, the UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe told reporters that the government should place the proposals for constitutional reforms before the country.

“Earlier, committees in, and outside, parliament were appointed in this respect [to discuss the reforms]. Why is it done in secret now?” he said.

The government has been keeping fairly quiet about the planned reforms. The only announcement came at a news conference on May 10 by Maithripala Sirisena, the health minister and secretary of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, the largest party in the ruling coalition.

In addition to the removal of presidential term limits, Mr Sirisena said reforms being considered include the creation of a senate as a second chamber of parliament and the removal of the Constitutional Council, which appoints leaders in public service, the elections office, the police and human rights monitors. The council’s powers would be transferred to the president.

To pass, the amendments would need the support of two thirds of parliament; the ruling coalition is six seats short of this super majority.

It is also possible the amendments may have to be passed by a popular referendum, according to the Colombo-based constitutional lawyer JC Weliamuna, who added that “this needs to be studied”.

Mr Rajapaksa has a steamroller majority in parliament after easily winning the presidential election and wiping out the opposition at parliamentary polls that followed.

Leaders of three leftist parties in Mr Rajapaska’s coalition were not in favour of some of the amendments, particularly the one allowing presidents to serve an unlimited number of years, they said at a meeting this month that was chaired by Mr Rajapaksa.

“Our position has always been to abolish the executive presidential system and there is some kind of national consensus on this. And we expressed this view to the president,” Vasudeva Nanayakkara, an MP from the Democratic Left Front, said in a telephone interview yesterday.

In the past few years, political parties including the ruling party and those from the opposition, have publicly stated that they are in favour of scrapping the presidential system or reducing its powers. Under the current presidential system, in force since 1978, the incumbent is immune from prosecution and does not answer to parliament, among other wide-ranging powers.

Mr Nanayakkara said left-leaning parties in the coalition propose that if the presidential system is scrapped, Mr Rajapaksa could again come to power as an elected prime minister, which would make him accountable to parliament.

However, Mr Nanayakkara said that opposing the Freedom Party’s plans does not mean “we would leave the government”.

“The president told us the new provision is to ensure stability. He said that whenever two terms of an elected president ends, there is an issue of stability,” he said.

He said leftist parties in the ruling coalition are also not in favour of dismantling the Constitutional Council. The council, which includes members of opposition parties, is independent of the president and no council appointee can be removed by the president.

In the past month, newspapers have been reporting plans by the government to amend the constitution to enable the president to serve any number of six-year terms compared to the current limit of two terms.

“The government is determined to go ahead with the proposals with or without the wishes of the people,” noted Jehan Perera, a political columnist for the Colombo-based, Daily Island newspaper

SI Keethaponcalan, a political scientist and head of the political science department at Colombo University, echoed Mr Perera, saying: “People may not like it but they won’t react against the government.”

Mr Perera says people are also opposed to dismantling the Constitutional Council because that could be seen as a consolidation of power. “But the people don’t have a choice.”

Mr Keethaponcalan said he believes the constitutional reforms would be approved without a fuss because the government has a comfortable majority in parliament. “The Left parties in the ruling coalition will also back these as they have done in the past.”

© The National

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