Saturday, June 26, 2010

Sri Lanka's wartime abuses

By Vishal Arora

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, both famous and infamous for his government’s May 2009 military victory over the 25-year Tamil Tiger insurgency, was in India earlier this month. And he promised to resettle the war-displaced Tamils and find a political solution to the ethnic issue – assurances his government gave to the United States two weeks earlier. But will he deliver on his pledge?

In Tamil Nadu, a south Indian state separated by a narrow strait from Sri Lanka, and home to around 65 million Tamils, people and parties protested Rajapaksa’s visit. They hold him responsible for the death of innocent Tamils in his government’s war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), as the Tamil Tigers are also known, which had been fighting for a separate state since the 1970s, alleging discrimination by successive governments led by the majority Sinhalese. Of the 20 million people in Sri Lanka, around 18 percent are Tamils (mainly Hindu) and 74 percent are Sinhalese (almost all Buddhist).

According to a report by the International Crisis Group (ICG), a non-governmental organization headquartered in Belgium, between 30,000 and 75,000 people died as the Sri Lankan military bombed and shelled civilian targets inside LTTE-held areas in Sri Lanka’s north and east. Further, it is estimated that around 80,000 displaced civilians are still awaiting resettlement.

Indian Ocean Strategy

Giving a red carpet welcome to Rajapaksa must have been difficult for Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. After all, the welfare of Tamils in Sri Lanka has long been a key political issue in India’s Tamil Nadu state, currently ruled by an ally of Singh’s government. But thanks to India’s diplomatic expediency, Singh had little choice.

“India has many strategic stakes [in Sri Lanka] and is [therefore] trying to engage Rajapaksa in a constructive way,” said R.S. Vasan, a former regional commander of the Indian Coast Guard who currently heads the Strategy and Security Studies department at the Tamil Nadu-based Center for Asia Studies. Vasan explained that China, which is competing with India for primacy in the Indian Ocean and Asia, had supplied military equipment to Sri Lanka to fight the LTTE.

China is building a $1 billion deepwater port in Sri Lanka’s southern town Hambantota, one of Rajapaksa’s constituencies. It is apparent that China’s financial, diplomatic and military support to Sri Lanka was in exchange for China’s strategic interests in the Indian Ocean.

China, Vasan added, seems to be preparing for a larger role in the Indian Ocean by compensating for its inability to deploy People’s Liberation Army Navy personnel in the Indian Ocean Rim (IOR) by creating “dependency ports,” from Gwadar (in Balochistan province of Pakistan) to Myanmar.

The Chinese moves are understandably a cause of concern for New Delhi.

Leveraging Location

Capitalizing on Sri Lanka’s strategic location in the Indian Ocean, Rajapaksa used the China card not only in India, but also to virtually compel the United States to overlook the immense civilian casualties in the anti-LTTE war. For, like India, the United States is also wary of China’s growing influence in Asia and the world.

“There is no doubt that the United States agreed with whatever Mahinda was doing [as part of the anti-LTTE operations], mainly because the war against the LTTE was seen as part of the global war on terrorism,” Vasan said. Also, until 9/11, the LTTE could secretly procure war-fighting material by the FOC (flag of convenience) ships. But increased surveillance as a part of the global war on terror made such operations difficult. “I am sure that both direct and indirect support would have come its [Sri Lankan government’s] way during the run up to the last day [of the war against the Tamil rebels].”

Colombo apparently views its engagement with China as a substitute for U.S. assistance, which totals around $2 billion since Sri Lanka’s independence from the British in 1948, and its relations with the West in general, which normally translate into financial aid or tariff concessions. Therefore, neither the United States nor Europe has the leverage to put pressure on Sri Lanka beyond a certain point. This explains Rajapaksa’s arrogance, which was quite visible during the January 2010 presidential election when his government alleged that Western forces, including the United States, had funded his rival candidate, General Sarath Fonseka, as part of an “international conspiracy.” He also asked the United States and its allies to look at the war casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq before they pointed a finger at Sri Lanka and the governments actions in the war with the LTTE.

Investigating War Crimes . . . Or Not

Likewise, while the Tamil diaspora has been active in Europe, Canada, and Australia –- and also in the United States –- lobbying to bring Rajapaksa to book for war crimes, the subsequent international pressure has had little success thus far. The U.S. “clout” in the UN Human Rights Council failed. Soon after the Sri Lankan war ended, Washington sponsored a resolution in the Council calling for a war crimes investigation in Sri Lanka, but China – reportedly along with Cuba, Russia, India, and Islamic states – managed to block the move. Instead, the 47-member human rights watchdog passed a Sri Lankan-authored resolution congratulating the Rajapaksa government for its efforts to address the needs of civilians displaced by the fighting.

Colombo has also thwarted, thus far, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s plans to appoint an independent panel to look into atrocities in Sri Lanka. In what appears to be tokenism, the Sri Lankan government formed the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission – allegedly comprising of members handpicked by Rajapaksa – to examine the country’s civil war since 2002.

Not surprisingly, the United States subsequently gave legitimacy to the Reconciliation Commission, reinforcing the criticism by human rights groups that Washington’s strategic interests override human rights concerns in Sri Lanka. The website of the Sri Lankan Ministry of Defense promptly flaunted the words of U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton following her meeting with Sri Lanka’s Minister of External Affairs, GL Peiris, in Washington on May 28. “There has been tremendous progress and many thousands and thousands of such internally displaced persons have returned home,” the Ministry of Defense website quoted Secretary Clinton as saying. “I want to thank Minister Peiris for our productive discussion today and commend him for his commitment to the reconciliation process. The United States pledges our continued support to Sri Lanka.”

Peiris also promised Clinton that detainees would be resettled within three months, but more importantly, he called for “a multidimensional relationship with the United States.”

The European Union recently announced temporary withdrawal, starting in August, of preferential tariff benefits on imports to Sri Lanka, citing human rights concerns. A press release by the EU stated, “This decision follows an exhaustive investigation by the European Commission, which identified significant shortcomings in respect of Sri Lanka’s implementation of three UN human rights conventions relevant for benefits under the scheme.” It is possible that Sri Lanka has made recent overtures to the United States, hoping that the latter will influence the EU decision.

Given the pragmatism shown by India and the United States, the Sri Lankan president can only be expected to move as per domestic considerations, not in favor of the minorities.

Power or Prudence?

Rajapaksa does not seem to be convinced about devolving power to the Tamils. Nor does he seem serious about rehabilitating the displaced Tamils. He apparently fears that autonomy and proper resettlement could help Tamils reunite and renew their struggle for a separate nation. Given the emotional scar Rajapaksa has left on the Tamil psyche by brutal military operations, he has reasons to fear resurrection of the movement. Therefore, in an effort to stifle any opportunity for such a resurrection, many Sinhalese settlements are reportedly being built in Tamil areas, and the Tamils who have been resettled are living in abject conditions.

As prime minister in 2004, Rajapaksa spoke about a negotiated settlement with the Tamil Tiger rebels. But, Sri Lankan political scientist and analyst Jayadeva Uyangoda has indicated that the president took an entirely anti-LTTE stand after he allied with the nationalist parties Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) in the run up to the presidential polls in 2005 – when the LTTE asked the Tamil population to boycott the election, which made victory easier for Rajapaksa. The May 2009 military victory over the LTTE – eight months before the next presidential election – made Rajapaksa even more popular among the Sinhalese majority.

But power cannot substitute for prudence in politics. Rajapaksa still needs to exercise caution in politics both international and domestic, said Vasan.

“As long as Sri Lanka is able to balance the relations between the two Asian giants [India and China], it will gain in terms of investments and opportunities. But it ought to know where to draw the line. For example, it has been reported that Chinese companies have brought their own workforce and have built settlements close to the workplace. With the linguistic and cultural differences, it could add to social tensions. Also, the Chinese project costs in comparison to Indian projects will be far higher due to distances and work practices.”

At home, Rajapaksa should treat the Tamil and Muslim minorities as equal citizens of the island. “Any lapses on this part would lead to further divisions which will not augur well for the nation and its citizens,” says Vasan. Perhaps not even for Rajapaksa and his government.


Vishal Arora is a journalist based in New Delhi, India and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus. He writes and researches on politics, culture, religion and foreign relations in South Asia.

© Foreign Policy in Focus

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Saturday, June 26, 2010

"Provide maximum facilities for armed forces occupying North and East" says Buddhist prelate

By Cyril Wimalasurendre

Army Commander Lt. General Jagath Jayasuriya, calling on the Maha Nayaka Thero of Asgiriya Ven. Udugama Sri Buddharakkitha, said that the establishment of permanent camps for security forces in the liberated North and East were well in progress.

The camps would be provided with all the basic facilities to make life comfortable for security forces personnel, the Army Commander told the Ven. Mahanayaka Thero.

The cost of constructing the camps was comparatively low since the work was done by forces personnel, the Army Commander said.

A massive development was taking place in the North and East. The farms and land which were under the LTTE were now taken over by the government and were made use of for development projects, Lt. Gen. Jayasuriya told the prelate.

He informed the prelate that Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa visited the region being developed by the forces.

The Ven. Mahanayaka Thero said that he was pleased with the development activities launched in the North and East under the patronage of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and stressed the need to protect the country’s land because several other groups were also interested in owing land in the island and were ready to buy land at any cost because those groups were keenly interested in owning the land, the prelate said.

Those groups were funded by foreign countries. They invest funds on purchasing land and expand their population, the prelate further said, adding that maximum facilities be provided for forces and police personnel in occupation in the North and East.

The Army Commander later paid homage to the Sacred Tooth Relic at the Sri Dalada Maligawa.

Central Command Major General Mano Perera, Major B. M. Chandratilaka, Major D. B. Hewawissa, Lt. Udaya Perera, Col. Sarath Bandara and several others accompanied the Army Commander.

© The Island

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Saturday, June 26, 2010

Sri Lanka main opposition wants joint front

Sri Lanka's main opposition United National Party (UNP) is to work towards forming a joint opposition front, a senior party official said Saturday.

"We will soon start talking to all parties and groups on the need to work together against the government," UNP Chairman Gamini Jayawickrema Perera told reporters.

"There are many issues relating to high cost of living and the government's many broken pledges," Perera stressed.

The opposition remains fragmented after the breaking down of the broad opposition front which backed the unsuccessful candidature of former Army chief General Sarath Fonseka against the incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa in the January election.

In the April parliamentary election the opposition split, paving the way for a resounding win for the government.

Perera said the opposition was hoping to launch joint protest action against the Rajapaksa government.

However, the main opposition UNP is yet to resolve their leadership issue with incumbent Ranil Wickremesinghe resisting calls to resign.

A special convention to be held in August is expected to resolve many party reform issues.

© Xinhua

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Saturday, June 26, 2010

EU shows no concern about war crimes in Sri Lanka

The European Union has failed to call the Sri Lankan government to be accountable for alleged war crimes in the war against Tamil Tigers in order to extend trade concessions on exports to the EU. The EU has announced that it will not renew trade concessions known as the GSP+ to Sri Lanka unless the government provides a written commitment on human rights by the 1st of July.

When providing the GSP+ trade concession the Eu takes a country's human rights record into account. However, in its latest diplomatic move against Sri Lanka on trade, the EU has not requested the government to allow a probe into war crimes and human rights violations. Recently, the United Nations as well as human rights organizations have urged the Government of Sri Lanka to open doors for an international inquiry on alleged war crimes and human rights violation during the war.

In a detailed letter written to the Sri Lankan government on the 17th of June, EU has provided an outline regarding the conditions for the renewal of the GSP+ facility. In its 15 point letter, the main reference to the war is with regard to 'former LTTE combatants' held in detention and the EU has requested the government to provide a list of those detained to family members. It also calls upon the government to end those detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) 'by releasing them or bringing them to trial'. In addition, the EU seeks access for humanitarian organizations to detention centers.

The Government of Sri Lanka has earlier announced that over 10,000 Tamil Tiger suspects are held in detention. However, none of them have been proven to be 'LTTE Combatants'. Relatives of those held in detention for over a year have called upon the government to reveal where they are held, to release them or produce them in court. Places of detention have not been made public even after the government has announced that the LTTE has been defeated by war.

In its letter to the Government of Sri Lanka the EU has requested several reforms in government legislation and to respect international norms. It also calls upon the government to 'take steps to ensure journalists can exercise their professional duties without harassment". The Government of Sri Lanka has in writing rejected the EU conditions saying that they are 'clearly inconsistent with Sri Lanka's Sovereignty'.

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