Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Lanka needs some Gandhigiri-style protests

By Sutirtho Patranobis | Hindustan Times

Minister Wimal Weerawansa is not known to be particularly fond of India. But if he secretly watches Hindi movies over Haldiram's bhujia and canned gulab jamuns, he could borrow the 2006-movie about the goofy don, Lage Raho Munna Bhai, from me. The movie will teach him a thing or two about Gandhigiri and how to say it with flowers next time he decides to go on a two-day 'fast unto death' against the United Nations.

I'm certain that the UN doesn't function like rich North Indian property dealers but extending roses would anyway appear more graceful then threatening the world body's staffers from entering office.

(On political hunger strikes, I could send him an internet link on Manipur's Irom Sharmila and her 10-year-long fast.)

The protests gave a lot of publicity to Weerawansa, easily the most in his 21 years of leftist-ultra nationalist politics. But it put Sri Lanka on diplomatic back foot. In spite of all his hungry histrionics, the three-member advisory panel is expected to meet soon to firm up modalities to look into alleged human rights abuses during the final stages of Lanka's civil war.

Of course, if Weerawansa's dual aims were to send UN's Lanka envoy Neil Bunhe on an unplanned New York trip and give the agency a chance to quickly shut down the downsized UNDP regional office then he was wildly successful.

But Weerawansa wasn't the lonely crusader; the government's support was not painfully tacit.

The video-sharing website YouTube, for one, has this upload in which a powerful ministerial secretary – there are not many in Sri Lanka – ordering a top police officer over phone to remove policemen from the protest venue. The External Affairs Ministry all but said it was in fact very happy with the protests; diplomacy failed to stall the panel, so lets get down to the street.

It was the same government and police which had lobbed tear gas shells on protesters and forcibly removed monks fasting in support of detained former army chief, Sarath Fonseka just a few months ago.

Meanwhile, Weerawansa should take heart and stomach that he fared better than M Karunanidhi. Karunanidhi's fast-to-death on the Sri Lankan Tamil issue in April, 2009, lasted for exactly six hours.

© Hindustan Times

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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Silencing Dissent in Sri Lanka

Video courtesy of Frontline Club

Candid Minds

If we don't believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don't believe in it at all, Noam Chomsky once said. The basic premise in which democracy rests is the freedom of speech and expression and whenever it is in peril, democracy is in peril.

However, in many countries autocrats have usurped power and leave no stone unturned to make sure that they silence all forms of dissent. The civil war in Sri Lanka and the subsequent triumph of the government forces against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), supplemented by the enormous election victory, has made Mahinda Rajapakse government autocratic. Reporting truth, if that truth is against the government’s view, is often a hazardous proposition in Sri Lanka as journalists are killed, physically assaulted, maimed, abducted and harassed. Armed groups in the country are also known for their arm-twisting tactics against those journalists and human rights activists who dare to challenge them by exposing the truth.

The malicious statements of a democratically elected government against dissenting journalists and human rights activists would create a dangerous precedence that would harm the smooth working of the principles of democracy. Any group, political or otherwise, that has no regard to the freedom of speech and expression of people has no right to remain and work in a democracy, or for that matter, in a civilised world. In Sri Lanka, Rajapakse government’s malevolent responses against criticism have reduced their international legitimacy. The United Nations expert panel has decided to investigate the war crimes committed in the civil war. Demonstrations led by a minister in Sri Lanka against this expert panel show the overt hostility that the government has for the UN’s investigation.

The Sri Lankan civil war that ran from July 1983 to May 2009 witnessed incredible reduction in the freedom of press. The various governments in the country refused to recognise that the press and the common people had a right to information. As the intensity of internal strife increased, the noose on the neck of press freedom also got tightened. The press in Sri Lanka was allowed only to project the government’s version of events. They were always stopped from publishing the truth and from reporting the human rights abuses done by both the government forces and the armed men of the LTTE. January 2010 presidential election made the Rajapakse government more strong and they increased the clampdown on dissenters and opposition voices. Even famous newspapers and journalists were arrested, trade unionists harassed and web-based media intimidated.

India as a responsible neighbour and as an aspiring regional super power has an enormous onus to constructively engage in the human rights situation in Sri Lanka. President Mahinda Rajapakse recently came down to India and had discussion with the Indian government. From the comments made by Rajapakse after the meetings show that his actions of silencing dissent and violating human rights got a tacit approval from Indian authorities. If that is the case, it must be noted that it is not the right view to take for a country which is the largest democracy in the world. We, as a country, have never been known for supporting any human rights abusers or governments that silence dissent. Indian government should take into account the emotions and opinions of ordinary Indians who have always given our support to freedom of speech and expression.

The Indian government and the citizens should voice our concerns against the human rights violation in Sri Lanka and against the forces that silence dissent in the country. We should also urge the United Nations to go on with the investigation of the expert panel on human rights violations in Sri Lanka, despite the protest from the Lankan government.

© Candid Minds

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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Sri Lanka: Independent news website blocked for past year

Reporters Sans Frontières

Reporters Without Borders calls on the Sri Lankan authorities to stop blocking the Lanka News Web site at once. Sri Lanka Telecom, the country’s main Internet service provider, has been blocking the online newspaper’s access since 11 July 2009.

In an interview for Reporters Without Borders, Lanka News Web editor Chandima Withanaarachchi talks about its editorial policies and the probable reasons for the government’s persecution of the site. He also describes the press freedom situation and the difficulties for journalists in Sri Lanka.

The government has been trying to assert control over online media since its military victory over the Tamil Tiger rebels and the ensuing presidential election, which was accompanied by propaganda and intimidation of the news media. Three other independent news websites – Lanka-e-News, Infolanka and Sri Lanka Guardian – were also blocked on 26 January, shortly before the election results were announced. Lanka News Web is the only one that is still inaccessible inside Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka was on the list of “countries under surveillance” in the latest Reporters Without Borders report on “Enemies of the Internet.”

Can you tell me more about your website, Lanka News Web? What sort of topics does it cover? What is the audience? How many people visit it every month?

Lanka News Web is formed by Sri Lankan journalists living in exile. It began operations on 3 March 2009, following the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunge, the editor of The Sunday Leader, in January 2009. At the time, the situation in Sri Lanka was highly volatile because Eelam War IV [the fourth phase of the armed conflict between the Sri Lankan military and Tamil Tigers] was at its peak. Freedom of expression was totally suppressed and everyone was censoring themselves. Our intention was to eliminate these self-imposed restrictions and minimise the fear that had engulfed our society.

From the very outset, Lanka News Web maintained an anti-war stance. We focus mainly on human rights abuses, corruption and malpractices of government officials. Since there was no other source of bold, fearless reporting, Lanka News Web became very popular within a very short period of time. We filled a big vacuum in our society.

Our popularity became a nightmare for the government of Sri Lanka. As a result, we were banned in Sri Lanka on 11 July 2009, almost one year ago.

Despite this ban, Lanka News Web gets about 3 to 4 million hits per month from within Sri Lanka. In all, we are getting 30-40 million hits worldwide every month.

What kind of stories has Lanka News Web been covering these past months? Do you believe you are being harassed today because of some stories in particular?

As I said, we mainly focus on human rights and anti-corruption issues. We recently published some photographs of a Tamil youth who was tortured to death. We got those photos from Human Rights Watch.

When we report anything sensitive about the armed forces, the Sri Lankan defence ministry gets really annoyed.

None of our national media reports malpractices in the armed forces or the behaviour of some top brass officers – how they victimise their fellow officers and so on. All these things are happening behind an iron curtain.

Since we are operating outside of Sri Lanka we can report such incidents without fear. That is the root cause for the harassment we are currently facing.

One of the state media said your website carried a totally fabricated ‘exclusive’ story claiming that the government had given a Chinese firm a contract to clear dead bodies from the Nanthikadal lagoon in Mullaitivu? How do you respond?

We challenge the government to prove that it is a fabricated story. Our reporters cited highly reliable diplomatic sources. Anything we report that does not reflect well on the government and its officials is branded as fabricated.

If we report anything erroneously, the aggrieved parties are able to exercise their right of reply. That is guaranteed on our website. We will always defend and adhere to the finest ethics of journalism.

Some say you are the victim of political witch-hunt. Can you tell us about that? What kind of accusations have been made against you and why?

The Sri Lankan Government is out to get us. That is pretty clear. After failing to get the website by banning it, they turned on me. They reported me to Interpol, alleging that I failed to appear in a court case in the Colombo high court.

I left Sri Lanka 10 years ago. Suddenly, they trumped up a criminal charge against me, accusing me of forgery and counterfeiting. I voluntarily ceased my notarial practise in Sri Lanka a long time ago. I would be more than happy to face any trial as long as it was fair and impartial.

Since the attorney-general’s department is currently under the president, there could be more indictments against not only me but also other anti-government activists in the future.

Do you see this prosecution as a way of intimidating reporters and activists?

It is pretty obvious. This is a clear intimidation. There are people who smuggled billions of people’s money from various institutions. The Sri Lankan courts have repeatedly issued warrants for them. But the government never tried to execute those warrants through Interpol. They have targeted me because of my political stance.

What is the next legal step? What kind of sanctions do you face if convicted?

I have already started correspondence with Interpol. My lawyers are making further representations to Interpol in this regard. I have further consulted my lawyers in Sri Lanka with regard to my high court case.

Under this regime, you cannot expect a fair trial, just a conviction. We are already facing sanctions.

How would you describe the Sri Lankan press freedom situation today? What role can websites and online journalists play in keeping people informed?

Press freedom in Sri Lanka is an appalling and horrifying topic. There is no press freedom at all. The latest victim of media suppression is freelance journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda, who disappeared five months ago. There is still no clue of his whereabouts. Most journalists have fled the country.

Press freedom is just a lovely memory of days gone by. The only ray of hope, the only glimmer of hope for press freedom in Sri Lanka, is preserved through websites. Most of these websites are operating from overseas. Lanka News Web and Tamilnet have been banned.

What can human rights organisations and the international community do to help you and the independent media, especially the new media?

This is an excellent time for the international community, human rights organisations and media institutions to extend their support and solidarity to the people who are fighting against this injustice within and outside Sri Lanka. We may see some foreign countries trying to mend relations with Sri Lanka, which deteriorated during the war. We do not mind if they mend their relationships, but they must insist that law and order prevail in the country.

© Reporters Sans Frontières

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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Why the media silence on Sri Lanka's descent into dictatorship?

By Edward Mortimer | Guardian
It is now over a year since the president of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa, claimed victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). But war is still being waged on the "paradise island" – by the government, against the country's journalists.

Last week alone saw one media outlet receive a threatening letter and the head of another charged with fraud by the supreme court after publishing stories critical of the government. And two international NGO workers involved in protecting journalists had their visas revoked.

The situation has been deteriorating for some time. According to Amnesty International at least 14 media workers have been killed in the country since 2006 and more than 20 are thought to have fled – more per capita than have left Iran. Arbitrary arrests, abductions and assassinations have been documented for over three decades. No one has ever been prosecuted for these attacks on the media.

In January last year, as the Sri Lankan army closed in on the last remaining pockets of resistance held by the LTTE, the government imposed a media blackout on the war zone. (It also denied humanitarian access to civilians trapped by the fighting and, like the rebels, displayed callous contempt for civilian life.)

Away from the killing fields, the local media suffered a sharp spike in attacks. Just days after independent broadcaster MTV was raided by gunmen, Lasantha Wickrematunge – editor of the Sunday Leader and prominent government critic – was assassinated in broad daylight in a high-security zone regularly patrolled by the army.

The end of the war has changed nothing. Phones are tapped. Emails hacked. Media outlets harassed and journalists threatened. One – Prageeth Eknaligoda – has been missing since January's presidential election. Small wonder that so many journalists say they now resort to self-censorship.

And they are not the only ones who live in fear. NGO workers, lawyers, members of the opposition – the culture of impunity puts them all at risk. The state has also ramped up its vitriol against external critics: last week a cabinet minister began a hunger strike and orchestrated a siege of the UN offices in Colombo in response to the secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, setting up a panel of experts to advise him on accountability for alleged war crimes during the final stages of the civil war last year. The minister has since ended his "fast to death" amid growing speculation that the protests were supported, if not sponsored, by the government.

All this is happening under the noses of the world's press. While burning effigies of Ban draw the spotlight for a few days, Sri Lanka's slow descent into dictatorship has mostly gone unnoticed. Global media coverage of the conflict in Sri Lanka during the past four years is about a tenth of that given to Iraq. In 2009, the New York Times and the Guardian devoted four times more space to the Israeli military offensive in Gaza (death toll 1,400) than the bloody end of Sri Lanka's civil war (estimates range between 7,000 and 40,000 civilian dead). China Daily gave Gaza over six times the coverage, and the Independent Newspapers group in South Africa over 10 times. All papers ran more articles on Tiger Woods last year than on the Sri Lankan conflict.

This global silence plays into the hands of the Sri Lankan government's apologists, both those who delude themselves and say, as one did in a meeting at London's Frontline Club last week, that missing journalists have merely run off with mistresses, and those who are paid to delude others. The government has spent lavishly on public relations firms such as Bell Pottinger – which counts General Pinochet and Trafigura among its past clients – and its US subcontractor Qorvis, which also represents Equatorial Guinea's unsavoury dictator. The pardoning on World Press Freedom Day of JS Tissainayagam, a journalist previously sentenced to 20 years' hard labour, is part of this PR strategy.

All of us who care about universal values, and freedom of expression in particular, have a duty not to let Rajapaksa's twisted version of events go unanswered. If we do so, we encourage other states to believe that they too can get away with the "Sri Lanka option" – using brutal methods to crush internal opposition, without regard for civilian casualties or international law. It has been reported that leaders from Colombia to Thailand have been following Rajapaksa's "success" with great interest.

Those brave Sri Lankan journalists who continue to seek out and report the truth despite the high risk of "disappearance", torture and assassination, surely deserve the support of their international colleagues. Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya's murder has rightly been denounced around the world. Wickrematunge, who chillingly foretold his own death in an editorial published posthumously, should be no less well known. The Committee to Protect Journalists, a press freedom organisation, rates freedom of expression in Sri Lanka as lower than in Saudi Arabia or Uzbekistan, yet somehow the world – including the mainstream media world – does not seem to notice.

Surely it is time for that to change.


Edward Mortimer is chair of the Sri Lanka campaign for peace and justice and senior vice-president of the Salzburg Global Seminar. He was chief speechwriter and director of communications for UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan until 2006.

© Guardian

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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Sri Lanka eyes return to executive prime minister

By Ranga Sirilal and C. Bryson Hull | Reuters

Sri Lanka's president and opposition leader agreed in principle on Monday to endorse a constitutional change that would weaken the presidency and create an executive prime minister's post.

If implemented, the amendments would mean the sweeping and largely unchecked powers enjoyed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa would be vested in a premier accountable to the Indian Ocean nation's 225-member parliament.

The announcement marks a reverse of sorts for Rajapaksa, who has publicly expressed interest in changing the charter to allow himself a third term in office. However, he has also said he would consider running for an executive premiership.

"The president is of the view that an executive prime minister is the ideal situation in terms of answerability," to parliament, Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella told Reuters.

The president also agreed with Ranil Wickremesinghe, a former prime minister from 2001-2004 and the leader of the main opposition United National Party (UNP), to establish a joint committee to discuss on constitutional reforms.

"In principle, both the leaders agreed on the executive premiership and to discuss more on the constitutional amendments," UNP secretary-general Tissa Attanayake told Reuters.

Sri Lanka's last similar agreement on constitutional change, struck in 2000, fell apart at the last minute when the opposition under Wickremensinghe pulled its support.

The president's office said both parties agreed on Monday to change the 17th amendment, which was never put into practice but was designed to take away the president's power to unilaterally appoint judges and key public officials.

The president's ruling United Peoples Freedom Alliance won a parliamentary majority in April six seats shy of the two-thirds he needs to implement constitutional reform.

That commanding majority, coupled with Rajapaksa's appointment of three brothers to key positions, has sparked fears he would use the chance to change the charter to consolidate power and entrench his family's political dynasty.

Rajapaksa, who served as prime minister in 2004-2005, has pledged to get rid of the executive presidency, widely criticised by Sri Lankans for being invested with too much power and too little legislative oversight.

From independence in 1948 until 1978, Sri Lanka operated under a Westminster-style of government, when then-Prime Minister J.R. Jayawardene used a five-sixths majority to adopt a new charter that made him the nation's first executive president.

© Reuters

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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Sri Lanka's UN representative returns to New York

By Gandhya Senanayake and Amadoru Amarajeewa | Daily Mirror

The country representative of the United Nations (UN) in Sri Lanka Neil Buhne left for New York on Sunday after he was recalled for consultations by UN secretary General Ban k-moon over the situation in Sri Lanka, UN sources told Daily Mirror online.

Buhne was recalled following the tense situation which developed outside the UN office in Colombo last week culminating with a three day fast unto death by national Freedom Front (NFF) leader and government Minister Wimal Weerawansa.

Meanwhile a high profile UN delegation which was scheduled to carry out a four day inspection tour of its projects in the Eastern province today have cancelled the visit, officials said.

The UN delegation comprising the representatives of donor countries that provide economic aid through the UN were to meet the Governor of Eastern Province, the Chief Minister of the East and the Trincomalee government agent during the tour.

Meanwhile the NFF today stated that it will launch new protests against the United Nations office in Colombo demanding that the UN Secretary dissolve the three member panel appointed on Sri Lanka. NFF also said that protests will be held against the UN in Geneva, Britain, Switzerland, Italy, France and Germany.

© Daily Mirror

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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Making foreign policy on the street

By Dr. P. Saravanamuttu | Groundviews

The declared threat, the demonstration, siege, fast unto death outside the office of the UN in Colombo by the Wimal Weerawansa led National Freedom Front, raises interesting and alarming questions about policymaking in our country.

Wimal Weerawansa announced that he would call upon his supporters to surround the UN office until the UN Secretary General disbanded the advisory panel he has set up on alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka. It was reported that the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) had informed the UN that these were the views of an individual and not that of the GOSL. Days later, Weerawansa, a cabinet minister and key supporter of the president and regime, leads a demonstration of hundreds to the UN office, blocks the entrances and exits to the building, declaring that they will not move until the panel is disbanded.

It has also been reported that the police attempted to disperse the demonstrators but were withdrawn, according to one report on the instructions of the Defence Secretary, and that a senior police officer was man-handled by the protestors. The Foreign Secretary subsequently visited the office along with NFF representatives and managed to ensure that the besieged UN staff could be evacuated with police protection. In a subsequent press conference, Weerawansa declared that unless the panel was not disbanded within a day, his supporters would embark on a fast unto death. It is understood that the GOSL maintains that it will provide security to the UN staff at the same time as it respects the right of the NFF to demonstrate. UN staff, were instructed to work from home following the demonstration and attempted siege. Later, essential staff were allowed to return to work in the building and Weerawansa commenced his fast.

Weerawansa and his supporters were effectively placing the UN office under siege. No one disputes their right to demonstrate, but to besiege the UN office surely raises questions about collective cabinet responsibility, our international obligations and policy –making? Can a cabinet minister and indeed one who is known to be so close to the president of the republic, mouth off, bluster and threaten in this way on an issue which the regime has placed such overwhelming importance and can the government stand by and say he is acting in his individual capacity? Can a cabinet minister unilaterally engage in such egregious action with possibly grave policy implications? Is collective cabinet responsibility so far removed from all of this? Indeed if he was acting without the consent and/or support of the president, will any action be taken against him for encroaching on the turf of what surely should be that of the minister of external affairs and for bringing the country into disrepute by besieging the office of the United Nations? He is reported to have said that he is prepared to lose his cabinet position if the powers that be disagree with his action.

Mr Moon’s panel, pilloried by the regime, is the object of Mr Weerawansa’s “patriotic” ire. Is this populist politics way out of control answering to the needs of a regime pathologically in need of an enemy and hyper sensitive to the war crimes charge or is this an excess of righteous enthusiasm in defence of our sovereignty?

The regime has gone to great lengths in a) insisting that Mr Moon has exceeded his powers under the Charter in appointing this panel and b) in insisting that there is no need for one since no such alleged crimes were committed by the security forces and that in any event as per the joint communique issued by Mr Moon and the president, the regime has set up its own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC).

On a) there appears to be difference of opinion. Whilst a number of member countries of the NAM and Russia and China agree with the regime, others, mainly from the West do not and have urged the regime to call upon the expertise of the panel, seeing it as complementing the LLRC. The panel – incidentally headed by a former Indonesian attorney –general Darusman who the regime chose to appoint to the Independent International Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP) attached to the Commission of Inquiry (COI) whose report nothing has been heard of since – is an advisory panel to the Secretary General. It will make recommendations to him. Any further action by the UN can only be pursuant to a Security Council resolution, which in turn will be vetoed by the Chinese and Russians, unless of course they are too embarrassed and/or appalled by the siege.

On b) were the panel to conclude that no war crimes were committed by members of the security forces the matter would effectively be laid to rest on the word of an international panel. Likewise, were the panel to conclude that such crimes were committed by the LTTE, it would dispel the attempts to keep alive the “atrocities” of May 2009 as a means of galvanizing support for the secessionist cause.

In this context it should also be noted that the LLRC does not deal with accountability in respect of allegations of war crimes but rather into the causes of terrorism. It does not have investigative powers. Nor is it empowered by a victim and witness protection mechanism. Neither does it meet the criteria enunciated by the US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice for such commissions, which were endorsed by the minister of external affairs. Corresponding to the regime’s imputation of Darusman and other panel members’ bona fides is the point that the head of the LLRC was the former attorney general with whom the IIGEP had many problems. There is also a committee that was appointed in response to the State Department report to the US Senate Appropriations Committee on allegations of war crimes in Sri Lanka. Some LLRC members sit on this committee. This committee was to have reported in December last year. Its deadline was then extended to April 2010 and now to July 2010. Note, the LLRC has a mandate for four months.

Most worrying is the state of our foreign policy. Both the GSP+ issue and the Moon Panel have been badly mismanaged. The regime has misled the public over GSP+ form the outset-making it out to be a negotiation when it was an agreement with stated obligations and eminently amenable to a win-win outcome whereby the concession would have been extended and human rights protection strengthened. The regime insisted too that it was politically motivated and the subject of a conspiracy hatched by local traitors and the international community bent on avenging the military defeat of the LTTE. Whilst the final letter from the European Commission could definitely have been better drafted – a point reportedly made by some of the member states- it is relevant to ask as to whether the 15 conditions laid down in it were in response to eventual entreaties from the regime as to what it needed to do to secure extension of the concession or as to whether it was an unacceptable and unilateral ultimatum from the Commission to a sovereign state – as the regime insists it is.

Mr Moon’s panel has been blown out of proportion as the thin edge of the wedge in respect of an international war crimes probe. As a consequence, the regime has invited speculation of the “ she doth protest too much” variety and it will have to fight the panel tooth and nail and probably not much else. Yet another zero-sum situation that could have been avoided. The regime wants to present a picture of political stability, peace and reconciliation but cannot resist confrontation, bombast and turbulence. Their brand of populist politics and pseudo-patriotism leads them to dig policy holes for themselves and destroys the goodwill this country has earned over the years as a respected member of the international community.

Foreign policy cannot be made on the street and God forbid that Weerawansa alone on a tiny stage, except for a motley crew of cohorts, fasting to death outside the UN building should be emblematic of Sri Lanka in the international community.

© Groundviews

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