Sunday, August 01, 2010

Sri Lanka: The war on media resumes

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By Tisaranee Gunasekara | Asian Tribune

In post-war Sri Lanka ‘security’ remains the paramount concern of the government and the state. The need to ensure ‘security’ is the reason cited for many a controversial decision, from the continuation of the Emergency in peace time to the budgetary choice of guns over butter.

And yet, despite this official obsession with security, armed predators roam the country, from Colombo to Ampara, seemingly at will, attacking unarmed victims and vanishing into thin air. Innumerable police investigations follow, to no avail. The perpetrators are never caught.

Last Friday’s attack on the office of the Siyatha TV station took place in a high security zone, quite close to the Temple Trees. This is an area teeming with police and armed forces personnel and dotted with stationary and mobile checkpoints. Despite these extreme security measures, an armed gang entered the Siyatha office in the early hours of Friday morning, assaulted a couple of employees on duty, carried out a slash and burn attack lasting about 15 minutes and got away scot-free. Either Colombo is not safe, despite the near hysterical hype on security and the ubiquitous presence of gun-toting servicemen; or the attack on Siyatha was carried out with the knowledge (if not at the behest) of powers-that-be. Either the government is criminally incompetent; or the government is criminally complicit. These are the only two possible conclusions, given the current Lankan conditions.

Friday’s slash and burn attack on Siyatha is remarkably similar to the January 2009 attack on the MTV headquarters in Pannipitiya. The attackers on both occasions followed a similar modus operandi. The attacks were carried out in the night; though few in numbers, the attackers acted not haphazardly but with precise intent, with the aim of terrorising psychologically and incapacitating technologically. The resultant image was not of blustering thugs but highly trained professionals. Moreover both media organisations are on the anti-Rajapakse side of the political divide. Siyatha began as a pro-government venture until the schism between the Rajapakses and Sarath Fonseka caused a limited re-alignment in the Lankan polity. Siyatha is said to be owned by the Kariyapperuma brothers, one time intimates of President Rajapakse and fortunate recipients unlimited presidential largesse. Not so now, since the Kariyapperumas opted for Gen. Sarath Fonseka during the Presidential election, and thus fell from grace. According to media reports, post-Presidential election, the regime withdrew all state ads from the Siyatha newspaper, forcing it to fold up. It could be argued that Friday’s attack heralds a new stage in this old campaign to drive the Siyatha media out of existence.

Anti-democratic politics and anti-poor economics

The timing of the Siyatha attack is interesting – and revealing. The attack comes hard on the heels of the EU decision to withdraw the GSP+ facility from Sri Lanka. Media freedom was one of the most important pre-conditions put forward by the EU for the renewal of the GSP+ facility. So long as there was a possibility of regaining the GSP+ facility, this pre-condition acted as a deterrent on those who equate peaceful opposition with treachery and regard media freedom not as a pillar of democracy but as a dangerous de-stabiliser. The power-wielders would have acted with restraint and refrained from resorting to excessive measures in their desire to regain the GSP+ facility. Was that why there was a lull in the anti-media war, subsequent to the disappearance of Prageeth Ekneligoda? Was that why no media personnel or organisation was attacked in the last several months? Was it a coincidence that the attack on Siyatha happened within weeks of the regime abandoning all hopes of regaining the GSP+ facility?

Does the attack on Siyatha signal the full scale resumption of the war on media? Or is it an extension of the witch hunt against Gen. Fonseka and his supporters? Either way, Siyatha attack demonstrates that violent intolerance is alive and well in Rajapakse Sri Lanka. Siyatha attack is a warning to all media organisations and personnel that the Big Brother is watching.

The attack on Siyatha was not an isolated incident. On the night of 17th July, an armed gang descended on the Ragamwela, a village in Ampara. According to Panama Mudiyanselage Bandara, a resident of Ragamwela, “They took us out and threatened to kill us. They had two T 56 rifles. I managed to flee but by the time I turned back they were setting fire to everywhere” (BBC – 18.7.2010). When some of the villagers ran to the nearby STF post for help and protection, the STF personnel refused to intervene, saying that they do not have the authority to enter the area!

There are curious similarities between the Siyatha and Ragamwela attacks. In both instances, the perpetrators acted with impunity, knowing that they were immune both from discovery and from punishment. This indicates the presence of powerful protectors if not masters. In both instances the attackers acted in a terroristic manner aimed at frightening the victims into compliance. And in both instances the attackers got away despite security presence.

The Ragamwela attacked happened almost a fortnight ago. So far the authorities are maintaining a deafening silence while “local media organisations say that the journalists were stopped from visiting Ragamwela by police” (ibid). Ragamwela is strategically located close to several tourist hotspots. Its economic value would have increased several-fold, post-war, with the expected boom in tourism. Since the attack, the villagers are being prevented from entering their lands, by the police. The Chief Sanganayake of Wellassa-Digamadulla region, has complained to the Human Rights Council that the Pottuvil police is barring him from observing ‘vas’ in the village temple. The attackers chased away the residents of Ragamwela by violent means; the authorities are abusing the law to keep the villagers away. Does this not point to a strong link between the attackers and the authorities? Since the attackers and the authorities seem to be working in tandem, is it not logical to conclude that a major power-wielder is behind the attack? Is this the reality behind the much hyped Nagenahira Navodaya?

Is the dispossession of Ragamwela villagers linked to the ongoing campaign by the authorities to confiscate economically strategic land occupied by the have-nots, under the guise of ‘clearing unauthorised structures’? Will the tragedy of Ragamwela be repeated in other villages with economic or tourist value? Is the Rajapakse ‘nation-building project’ a confluence of a Sinhala supremacist politico-military strategy and an anti-poor economic strategy? In such a nation-building project there will be no space for freedom of information and expression. This is probably why the regime is moving with unseemly haste to set up a media authority, a legal compliment to physical attacks on media organisations and personnel who refuse to tow the line.

Already there are many areas and issues that an absolute majority of the local media are treating as off-limits. For instance, there is hardly any coverage about the macro use of Chinese prison labour in Chinese funded mega construction projects. That a large number of Chinese convicts are present in various parts of the country, engaging in manual labour in Chinese funded infrastructure projects is an open secret. This is an unprecedented development which can have long term repercussions, both national and regional; and yet it is hardly mentioned in the media. Nor is there a discussion about the regime’s plans to settle families of armed forces personnel in specially constructed cantonments in the North. This is a development which can have a serious impact on future inter-ethnic relations and thus on peace and stability. And yet, the issue is barely mentioned in the mainstream media. By and large, Sri Lanka has a compliant media; still the Ruling Family does not seem to be satisfied, as the recent judicial and extra-judicial attempts to curb free reportage amply indicates.

Positive Reportage or Spin?

In the last four and a half years the regime used patriotism to cover up for its abuses in the North-East and the right of sovereignty to escape from retribution for these wrongdoings. How long can these tactics work, post-war? This uncertainty would make the regime extra-sensitive to media criticism and enhance its determination to use positive reportage alias spin to hide unpleasant realities from the public eye.

The need to muzzle what will be deemed officially as ‘negative reportage’ will increase as the economic woes of those at the bottom and the middle of the economic totem pole exacerbates. The loss of the GSP+ facility has already begun to impact on the living standards of garment factory employees, with the factories in the Katunayake FTZ reducing overtime payments and other non-financial benefits. According to media reports, the government has no contingency plan to deal with the negative effects of the loss of the GSP+ facility and has not even met factory owners to discuss potential problems and possible remedies. Moreover, 35% of industries benefiting from the GSP+ are non-garment exports, most of them small scale businesses. What will be their fate, with the removal of the GSP+ facility?

According to a new World Bank Report, “Sri Lanka under-invests in education compared to other middle-income and developing countries” (The Towers of Learning). Sri Lanka spends 2.8% of GDP on public education way below the average for lower-middle income countries, 4.3%. Sri Lanka ranks 82nd in the Knowledge Economy Index, below the average for lower-middle income countries; our Global Competitiveness Index Ranking was 70 in 2007-2008 and 77 in 2008-2009. Hardly a performance worthy of a country aiming to become the Miracle of Asia! All the more reason for ‘positive reportage’ which hide gloomy realities, and a totally compliant media willing to play by the Rajapakse rules.

A democracy is not made of periodic elections alone. A democracy is not real or complete without a free media, a media that is willing to speak at any turn (including out of turn) and to take up any issue (including unpopular ones). In a democracy media freedom depends on two conditions – a state and a government willing to respect media freedom and a media not prone to self-censorship. Neither condition is present in Sri Lanka of today in sufficient degrees. These critical absences do not auger well for the future of Lankan democracy.

© Asian Tribune

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Sunday, August 01, 2010

Academics will quit if salaries aren’t revised

By Nadia Fazlulhaq | The Sunday Times

The university system is in a precarious position, and could well collapse, if the academic staff at the universities vacated their posts in protest at the government’s failure to give them a salary increase.

Professor Sampath Ameratunge, president of the Federation of University Teachers’ Associations (FUTA), told the Sunday Times that the academic community is dissatisfied with the current pay structure. The maximum salary for a senior academic is Rs. 59,755, and that of a probationary lecturer Rs. 20,750. “All department heads will quit their posts if no solution is found by August 16,” said Prof. Ameratunge, who is also dean of the Management Faculty, the University of Sri Jayawardenepura. University staff take turns volunteering for the post of department head, a job that carries much responsibility.

“If they do quit, it would affect the entire study programme. The exam timetable will be disrupted, lectures will be held up, and the students will suffer from a lack of supervision.”

The Federation of University Teachers’ Associations held a token strike this week, and the University Grants Commission (UGC) issued a circular saying that all those who took part in the strike would have a day’s wage deducted from their salary.

“We are a trade union, without political influence,” Prof. Ameratunge said. “We have genuine grievances. We have made several representations to the government but nothing has been done. We had discussions with President Mahinda Rajapaksa in 2008. and again in 2009.

We also met Minister Basil Rajapaksa, the National Salaries and Cadres Commission, and the present Higher Education Minister, S. B. Dissanayake. Despite all the discussions, our salaries have not changed since 2006.”

According to Professor Ameratunge, there are some 4,000 tertiary institution academic staff, including 310 professors, in the country. Every year, 50 to 60 academics leave to take up lecturer posts at tertiary institutions overseas. Some of them have between 20 to 25 years’ teaching experience.

“The trend for highly qualified teachers leaving for countries like the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada, is on the increase, and this is especially the case with Ph.D holders, who get a salary here of about Rs. 55,000 rupees.”

According to Prof. Ameratunge, all the universities have a number of vacated positions for lecturers in the engineering, medical, dental and management faculties.

A new salary structure has been presented to Parliament for the next budget. The proposed monthly salary for lecturers and professors is set at an upper limit of Rs. 200,000 and a lower limit of Rs. 72,000. However, by the time the new salary structure is approved and comes into effect, a number of academics would already have left the country, Prof. Ameratunge pointed out.

Dr. Mahim Mendis, president of the Open University Teachers’ Association, told the Sunday Times that a number of Sri Lankan academics with doctoral qualifications obtained overseas have returned to serve the country, but are disappointed at the poor prospects here and thinking of going back and obtaining permanent residency in other countries.

“The academic community should not be taken for granted,” Dr. Mendis said. “The government keeps making empty promises to the academic community. This has become almost routine. We were told there would be an interim solution, with a 25 to 50 per cent increase in the allowance, and that this would be given in December 2009. But there has been no such increase.”

Dr. Mendis, a senior lecturer in Social Studies with 23 years’ teaching experience, said the government should issue a circular to make the proposed salary increase legal. Meanwhile, student groups say they support their lecturers, but hope they will not abandon the students by leaving the country.

A spokesman for the Inter-University Students Federation said top-scorers in the medical, dental and engineering faculties would rather work for private companies or go overseas than work as lecturers at a Sri Lankan university.

“Most first-class degree holders do not remain in the country,” he said. “This is especially so at the Rajarata, Uva and Wayamba universities.” The Sunday Times contacted University Grants Commission chairman Professor Gamini Samaranayake, who refused to comment.

The Minister of Higher Education, S. B. Dissanayake, told the Sunday Times that the salary increase could be granted only from the next budget, and there would be no interim salary arrangement for university lecturers. He said the Ministry would be negotiating with the universities on this matter.

© The Sunday Times


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Sunday, August 01, 2010

Accusations and Agitations; University students up their game

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By Roel Raymond | The Sunday Leader

On July 23, reports that Ruhuna University student Susantha Anura Bandara had succumbed to head injuries following an assault by police were made public, followed by mass pandemonium, as university students gathered to protest against what they charged was another act of police brutality.
The Incident

On June 16, a section of students from the Ruhuna campus engaged in preparing for ‘Student Hero’s Day’ were attacked by outside elements, prompting a protest the following day (17th), against administrative officials without whose permission, they say, entrance to the campus premises is prohibited.

The students also took the opportunity to push administrative officials to make allowance for the future establishment of hostel accommodation within the campus premises as a) the current hostel was situated about 2km away from the campus premises and b) they were being continuously harassed on their way to and from.

Following the protest on the 18th, university administrative officials had decided to temporarily close down the Ruhuna Campus, asking the students to gather their belongings from the hostel in Medawatte and go back home until further notice.

Police escorts were sent with the students to the hostel premises – in order to stave of further outside attacks – but in a surprise turn of events, once inside the hostel premises, police had allegedly blocked off the hostel gate with a police bus and attacked the students with batons, chairs and poles.

Susantha Anura Bandara

A third year student of the Faculty of Natural Sciences and Social Sciences (D.O.B 10.11.1985), Susantha was taller than most of his colleagues, which is why, it is hazarded, he was hit harder on the back of his head, causing subsequent internal bleeding.

Following the attack, Susantha had left with six of his friends to Ampara where he stayed over at a friend’s place and then traveled the next morning to his home town of Buttala. After having a shower that morning however, Susantha had vomited and gone with his mother, to the Buttala Hospital.

Susantha’s condition however took a turn for the worse. He fell unconscious for one and a half days, and was thereafter taken to the Diyathalawa Hospital and admitted to the Intensive Care Unit for four days before finally being taken to the Buttala National Hospital where he underwent several MRI scans.

Speaking to The Sunday Leader, Convener, Inter University Students Federation Udul Premaratne said that Susantha’s mother had tried unsuccessfully to lodge a complaint at several police stations regarding the attack on her son by the police and his subsequent illness but had been turned away.

Her entry and Susantha’s statement had finally been accepted on July 8 by the Badulla Hospital Police, Premaratne said, following pressure from doctors, who had insisted that an entry be made because of the condition Susantha was in.

On July 23, over one month after the incident at the Ruhuna University, Susantha Anura Bandara passed away while at the Badulla National Hospital.

The Police And The ‘Bassa’ Myth

Following student agitations and protests after Susantha’s death, Inspector General of Police Mahinda Balasuriya refuted student accusations that the police attack was the reason for his death, saying – at a press conference called at Police Headquarters – that the boy had died of ‘natural causes’ and not because of an impact to the head.

The next day however, Premaratne said, Balasuriya had retracted his statement, bringing in the name of Susantha’s colleague “Bassa’’, saying that initial investigations had proved that Susantha had died from injuries inflicted on him by ‘Bassa,’ or Basnayake.

Bakka, Premaratne said, was a friend of Susantha’s. In order to allay his mother’s fears and tears following a particularly bad bout of vomiting after the attack, Susantha had said that it wasn’t the police that had hit him so badly, but his friend Bakka.
Susantha’s mother, Premaratne said, had mentioned this, together with a number of other details to the police, but says that the ‘Bassa’’ story was what had been grabbed by the police and leaked to the media.

The Evidence Against The Police

The IUSF says they have evidence against the police and its attack on the students.
Over 100 students who had been inside the hostel premises in Medawatte at the time of the police attack have testified to the incident. Additionally, Premaratne said, area residents and town’s folk also were witnesses as they had both heard and seen the pandemonium caused by the police, who had in some cases chased students as far as the Matara town.

In addition to this, the IUSF website ( carries video interviews of Susantha’s friends who visited him at the Badulla hospital, where he had told them that he was sick as a result of the beating he received by the police. Premaratne also said that a media briefing had been called following the attack (20th), where mention had been made of Susantha who was in hospital at the time.

IUSF Questions The Police

The IUSF, Premaratne said had a number of questions they wished to ask of the police. First, he asked, why the police had failed to conduct any inquiry into the incident that took place at the Ruhuna University, in spite of a police entry being made in that regard, citing the police officers that had been identified and involved in the attack against the students (OIC of the Matara Police Sampath Mahinda Caldera, and Police Officers Gamini Jayaratne, Ranjith Padmasiri and Damayantha Wijey Shri.)

Next, he asked, why the Inspector General of Police, in spite of setting up hotlines, fax machines and making a promise when he entered office that the police force would be ‘close to the people’ (mahajanayata sameepa polisiyak) was covering up the misdeeds, misbehaviour and brutal indiscipline of the police officers and also stating that he had ‘’not received’’ the police entry made by the Ruhuna students regarding the attack.

Citing the Angulana and Bambalapitiya cases, Premaratne also drew attention to the fact that had the people of Angulana not stood up against the police and had there been no video evidence of the youth drowning at Bambalapitiya, the police would have covered up both cases saying that the two boys from Angulana were from the “underworld’’ and that the youth had accidentally drowned.

Premaratne also asked why the police were attempting to intimidate students by tearing down posters they had pasted regarding Susantha’s death and by assaulting and arresting university students that had engaged in the pasting of posters. The Inspector General has become a Government Spokesman, he ridiculed, and the police force “Government Goats’’.

The Public Outcry

The university students have promised to continue unabated the protests against police brutality, until the perpetrators are brought to justice. Massive protests have been organised in both Matara and Colombo and leaflets are being distributed explaining the circumstances of Susantha’s death, Premaratne said. The IUSF in addition will file a Fundamental Rights petition with regard to the case and make moves to meet with the Human Rights Commission, in order to bring as much publicity as possible to the deteriorating role of the police in today’s society.

Also Guilty

While the police can be, and are being blamed for the death of Ruhuna student Susantha Anura Bandara, the issue at the heart of the agitations and protest by the students has been against university officials/administrators and the Minister of Higher Education S.B. Dissanayake. On June 24, medical students from the Allied Health Sciences also took to the streets outside the Ministry of Higher Education, protesting a decision made by Minister S.B Dissanayake to reduce the four year period of their degree by a whole year, thus making it, as the students termed it, another useless degree. July 16 saw students of the Higher National Diploma in Engineering outside the Ministry of Higher Education, protesting the alleged misappropriation of a gift of funds amounting to 21.9 million euros by the Director General of the Sri Lanka Institute of Advanced Technologic Engineering (SLIATE) under whose purview the HNDE falls. On July 19 the Inter University Students Federation, in a letter to Minister S.B Dissanayake challenged him to an open debate before the public, accusing him of making moves to privatise the universities and thus make them inaccessible to the majority.

© The Sunday Leader

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Sunday, August 01, 2010

Tamils registered: targeted ethnic profiling?

By Ranga Jayasuriya | Lakbima News

An elderly Tamil man stands at the entrance to the Mayura Kovil, Colombo 6. The Kovil is bustling with devotees, more so as the annual Vel procession of the Kovil, a major event in the religious calendar of Hindus in the area, is scheduled to take to the streets in two weeks. The old Tamil gentleman, who is also a member of the Kovil committee, stands at the gate, screening passers-by with his naked eye to see that nothing untoward happens on the eve of this all important event.

Born and brought up in Colombo, he has no other place to call his own and has lived all his life in there. Last month he had been told by the police to reregister himself and his family members with the police, the second time in past three years he had to undergo the humiliating procedure. Earlier in 2008, he was rudely woken up and dragged to Wellawatta police station in the night and kept waiting for hours till cops wrote down his family information.

That was at the height of the war.

He asks: “But, why this time... when the war is over?

That is the question of a thousand Tamils. And there seems to be no convincing answer. The police say they will register all the citizens and not only Tamils and that the new program is conducted under a section of the police act which vests power in the OIC of the police station to register residents of the police area, for the “wellbeing of the people themselves”.

But, still the mind numbing question is why now — 14 months after the end of the war? And, if the program is to register all citizens, which is still bad and smacks of an overarching police state, why is it only in Tamil majority areas that the registration of people is taking place?

The registration effort is now in progress in Wellawatta, Kotahena, Bambalapitiya, Grand Pass etc. The old gentleman says he has lived long enough to discern the untold objectives of the program. “They (police) say everybody will be registered. But I think it’s Tamils they want to register after all.”

“Tamils have to obey orders or fear arrest and being taken to the police. It is not that bad for the Sinhalese.” He admits that the end of the war has made life easier for Tamils in Colombo as security restrictions were lifted. Like anyone else in the town, he blames the skyrocketing prices of essential goods, piling up of garbage on the road sides and traffic snarls.

But in addition to the every day worries of an average citizen, the registration adds further trauma and sense of collective humiliation for Tamils.

“They ask what special grievances we have. Well. This registration is one of them.”

Sugar coating

Despite the police assurance, it is hard to hide an unsavoury practice of ethnic profiling with a sugar coated explanation. Most Tamils feel bitter being singled out, but there appears to be no means to vent their frustration.

The road in front of the Mayura Kovil runs past a ghetto where the majority of inhabitants are Tamils - both long time residents and recent arrivals.

Dwellers there had been told to reregister with the police. Many have already done so and others have collected registration forms from the Wellawatta police.

“Police will come to houses and take to the police station anyone not listed in the form,” says a resident.

In Wellawatta, police announced via loudspeakers that residents in the area should register with them.

Yesterday, Keselwatta police visited Bandaranaike Mawatha, Armour Street to distribute registration forms. Bandaranaike Mawatha is a congested, mainly Tamil residential area. A journalist of a Tamil language newspaper, who is also a resident in the area, told this correspondent that police told residents that new data would be entered in the computer so that it would make the procedure easier if anyone loses the National Identity Card or applies for a police certificate.

Householders should provide details of family members, any guests staying with the family on a longtime basis,and their National Identity Card details, Grama Niladhari certificates etc.

Last week, the annual Vel procession of the Kathiresan Kovil in Bambalapitiya paraded the streets. When it went past the Temple Tress, President Mahinda Rajapaksa and first lady, Shiranthi Rajapaksa were there at the gate to receive the procession, one of the major religious events of Colombo Hindus. The president’s appearance was a welcome gesture of state patronage to Tamil culture and Hindu religion. And the festival was full of optimism of a new dawn for Tamils and the country in general. However, also, early last month, Bambalapitiya police informed shop owners in the area to register themselves and the persons they have employed in shops.

A shop owner, opposite the Kathiresan Kovil who requested anonymity told this correspondent, the police announcement was intended for all shop owners in the area. As a Tamil, who is originally from Matale, he, however says, that he does not see the program as discriminating against Tamils.

“All the shop owners were told to register their employees, be they Sinhalese, Tamils or Muslims. Police said there are 13,000 National Identity Cards, 5000 of them are not legible and 3000 are duplicate copies. When information is computerized, they (police) said, they can stop people from forging identity cards” he said.

But, in Kotahena, Tamil shop owners complain that they have been singled out.


Western Province Peoples’ Front MP Praba Ganeshan told this newspaper that Tamil shop owners in the area complained that Kotahena police had visited their shops and told them to register with the police, but that some cops avoid going to Sinhalese owned shops.

“When I inquired from the OIC, Kotahena police, he denied that his people visited the shops.”

“I wrote to the President, asking him to intervene. But, I haven’t got a reply yet,” he said.

Two years back, in September 2008, Defence Ministry launched a major registration drive of recent migrants in Colombo; most of them happened to be Tamils and Tamils of Indian origin. Schools, temples and community buildings were turned into makeshift registration centres where recent migrants who arrived during past five years were registered.

In December last year, police lifted the restrictions that required every citizen from North-East who arrived in Colombo to register themselves with the police as long as their stay is not longer than one month.

Later, as other restrictions were gradually lifted, registration of Tamils was viewed as not fitting new realities, hence it became redundant.

The security situation has changed, but minds of those at high echelons are hard to change, specially when driven by paranoia. The problem with post war Sri Lanka is that it has failed - or has, at least, been too slow - to move forward from its war time psychosis to a new era of national reconciliation and to mend fractured ethnic relations and uphold civil liberties of all its people. In that sense, the worse fears about far reaching consequences of counter-insurgency campaigns, which go an extra mile - at the cost of the social fabric - to defeat the enemy have come true. The fractured social fabric is hard to mend unless there is genuine political commitment.

War has ended, but fear psychosis hasn’t. Not a single Tamil who spoke to this correspondent in Wellawatta, Bambalapitiya, Slave Island and Kotahena wanted to be named for obvious reasons.

Those are the echoes of a terrorized community. When the police go for another round of registration campaigns, all clearly targeting Tamils, that does not help in any way to alleviate their fears.

Police Spokesman SSP Prishantha Jayakody on registration

Q: The new registration program is aimed at Tamils...?

It is wrong to say only Tamils. We are registering everyone, Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims.

Q: Is there any circular being issued to register people?

Under section 76 of the Police ordinance, the OIC of a police station is vested with powers to register residents in his area for their security and wellbeing. Therefore, the current program is conducted at the discretion of the OICs and not under emergency regulations.

Q: The program is taking place in Tamil areas. It seems they are the target group...?

No, we are conducting the same program island wide.

Q: Do you register people in Galle or Matara also?

Yes, we plan to.

© Lakbima News

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Sunday, August 01, 2010

Sri Lanka: Securing the city by evicting poor

By Nicola Perera & Sivamohan Sumathy | Himal South Asian

We have lived here for a hundred years – from the time of my umamma [mother’s mother].’ This is what a middle-aged woman told these writers on 12 May, a few days after inhabitants of Mews Street, in Colombo 2, were evicted from their residences. A week earlier, municipal authorities had informed the 20-odd families that they were to be temporarily relocated to Thotalanga, a crowded settlement of homeless people living in the most meagre of conditions, before being given permanent housing. ‘They said we would get flats in six months,’ said one of the recent evicted. ‘Until then we could live in the cardboard houses in Thotalanga. We refused. Then this happened.’ The forced removal of these families caught the attention of the media for a brief moment. But in fact, their story is a long and ongoing one, intertwined with the story of Sri Lanka on the make in its post-war era.

The eviction of the residents of Mews Street is part of a larger campaign to ‘clean up’ the area for development and security purposes. A similar campaign took place in July 2008, when the residents of nearby Glennie Street, familiarly known as Kompannya Veediya, were likewise evicted from their homes, on the grounds that their proximity to the nearby Air Force and Army headquarters represented a threat to national security. Kompannya Veediya is what upper- and middle-class Colombo residents would identify as a slum or shanty. Yet apart from the presence of military establishments, it is also falling prey to other forms of gentrification – for instance, a former warehouse turned into an exclusive restaurant and art gallery.

The people of Kompannya Veediya claim longstanding tenure in the neighbourhood. But on 11 July 2008, the Ministry of Defence served eviction notices on the inhabitants of the 359 houses, asserting that they were on the ministry’s land. The Urban Development Authority (UDA) planned to relocate the community to temporary accommodation, on the promise that they could take up residence within a year in a new housing complex being constructed in Dematogoda, a lower-middle-class locality in central Colombo.

The destruction of the Kompannya Veediya houses was also part of the municipal authorities’ campaign to spruce up the city in preparation for the SAARC Summit, which Colombo would host in July-August 2008. The eviction was surrounded by political controversy, fuelled in part by the human dimension of working-class citizens attempting to preserve their homes against the Colombo Municipal Council’s (CMC) bulldozers. A petition was filed with the Supreme Court on the residents’ behalf by some members of the Parliamentary opposition, and the standoff was covered extensively by the media. However, the spectacle of outraged homeowners, visiting politicians, teargas and bulldozers was only the most recent and public chapter in a longstanding negotiation process between the Kompannya Veediya community and urban/national governance structures.

Although the potential resettlement of the Kompannya Veediya residents had been on the cards since the 1980s, it was the imminent SAARC Summit that finally triggered the move. (Likewise, a popular perception of the recent evictions from Mews Street points to the International Indian Film Academy awards ceremony, held in June in Colombo). The location of the neighbourhood – literally in the environs of high-security installations, and figuratively in the discourse of national security – was precipitated by the timing of the Summit, shortly after the Sri Lankan government resumed fighting the LTTE in earnest. The community of squatters had grown steadily in the area during the previous half-century, but in the pre-Summit climate of heightened security, the state suddenly woke up to a threat on its very doorstep – in the Kompannya Veediya residents. The Summit demonstrated the state’s continuing policy of conflating the ethnic conflict with the war against the LTTE, and dismissing both to the margins of the nation. However, the heavy security arrangements and the eviction issue immediately exposed the fissures in the embattled state’s representation of an uncontested national identity.

Loyal opposition

The 2008 eviction was similar to the authorities’ controversial round-up of individuals from the north of Sri Lanka in June 2007, while they were staying in lodges in the capital. As was then the official explanation, the Kompannya Veediya neighbourhood was identified as a potential host for LTTE members. Apart from the shock of sudden homelessness, the people perceived the eviction order as an insult to their self-identification as patriotic citizens. One man, ‘Mohammed’ (all names have been changed), spoke about how they would often show their solidarity with the soldiers manning the nearby checkpoint by sharing a late-night cup of tea with them. As ‘S E Susith’ said, ‘We have never acted in any way where we deserved to be shot, because this is our country. We have reported suspicious individuals hanging around the neighbourhood at once to the police.’

Such assertions of loyalty came from individuals whose ethnic-religious-linguistic identities were not always in sync with the Sinhalese-Buddhist ideal. The majority of the Kompannya Veediya community is of Malay origin and mostly Muslim, while the rest are a mix of Sinhalese Buddhist and Tamil Hindu or Christian. (With one of these writers who did not speak Tamil, the Tamil and Malay interviewees spoke in Sinhala.) Susith stated that, like himself, the other members of his family and virtually all of his Sinhalese neighbours and friends in the Kompannya Veediya settlement converse fluently in Tamil. It is not uncommon for non-Sinhalese people living in the south to possess some functional Sinhala. Conversely, it is common for Sinhala-speakers in the south to live their entire lives without ever feeling the need for Tamil-language competence. Sinhala-English or Tamil-English bilingualism is more frequent, as a result of middle- and upper-class socioeconomic privilege. Nevertheless, the state’s rationale that the predominantly non-Sinhalese Kompannya Veediya residents endangered national security was based on a fundamentally undemocratic concept of the nation that excluded Mohammed and others like him. However, the blurring of linguistic and ethnic lines in the community also destabilises the strict binaries of ‘self’ and ‘other’ that support the dominant paradigm of ‘Sri Lankan-ness’.

The SAARC Summit became an occasion for the marginalisation of the Kompannya Veediya group in another sense too. According to residents, their ramshackle, haphazard constructions presented a jarring note for VIPs travelling from sophisticated downtown Colombo to the conference venue. However, sweeping a group of low-income citizens out of view gave the lie to the state’s pledge of human-centred development embracing the entire nation, particularly for the country’s underprivileged classes.

In fact, Kompannya Veediya was a space marked by heavy political engagement. With weary cynicism, the people recall archetypal stories of election campaigning involving hopeful people’s representatives distributing bottles of liquor and rice packets. The community had also relied heavily on political patronage to obtain utilities and other services. They answered the Urban Development Authority’s claim that their houses were illegal structures by pointing to a stone plaque at the entrance to the neighbourhood, proclaiming the inauguration of an electricity-supply scheme by M H Mohammed, then Minister of Western Region Development, in 2004. ‘Nafeek’ stated, ‘These were once wooden structures, but the authorities told us that if we build with cement then we will be provided with electricity.’ Nevertheless, the work to provide electricity to the settlement proceeded only in fits and starts, leaving many of the houses without power. Consequently, when a death occurred in the neighbourhood, the people would speak to a local politician, who would obligingly assist in tapping into a nearby power line for the funeral ceremonies.

The Kompannya Veediya community’s history of interaction with state functionaries also served to constitute their identities as citizens. The people show meticulously maintained bills from the Ceylon Electricity Board, as well as tax receipts. A Household Enumeration Card issued by the Colombo Municipal Council tagged each house with a number, and recorded the electorate, ward, street name, the principal occupant’s National Identity Card number and ethnicity. ‘Do cooperate to make your place a safer place to live,’ the Household Enumeration Card exhorted the people of Kompannya Veediya, perhaps foreshadowing the community’s eventual marginalisation for the sake of national security. Similarly, each household was issued a separate card by the Air Force headquarters, instructing residents to provide details of additional temporary or permanent residents to the nearest police station.

Today, the residents are clear about the government’s actions, as well as its agenda for cleaning up the city. One of the residents recalled, ‘When we saw the street people and beggars being chased off the road, we didn’t think we would be chased off as well!’ A throwaway line in a weekend newspaper in July 2008 offered a counterpoint to this sentiment: ‘There is fear and fire in the hearts of over 700 underprivileged families … This is a place where very few of us have been.’

Little Kilinochchi

Such underlying themes of class identity are marked in the act of eviction, and in the way those evicted perceived it. The houses were houses in the way middle-class houses are supposed to be: Mohammed told us about how some of the residents had built ‘up-stair’ houses with attached bathrooms, well-constructed roofs and marble. In the same vein, the people highlighted the success stories of those who had made good for themselves, leaving the slum for the ‘good life’: among the fisherfolk, day labourers and those who sold homemade snacks for a living, there was the occasional athlete who had competed abroad. Several stories were related to us of mothers, wives and daughters who had fuelled this pursuit of gentrification by joining the migrant workforce going to West Asia. They were, in other words, good, law-abiding citizens. And yet…

The members of the Kompannya Veediya community who had taken up the UDA’s offer of makeshift accommodation were eventually relocated to a site on the banks of the Kelaniya River in Thotalanga. The rows of single-room wooden shelters reminded us of Zone 1 in Menik Farm, where people rendered homeless by the final battles of the war were housed by the state. The association was brought home by a parting comment by Susith, in reference to their eviction. ‘This is little Kilinochchi,’ he said, referring to the centre of the last phase of the battle – and underlining, in no uncertain terms, the marginalisation of a group of underprivileged subjects of the state.

Two years later, in 2010, the questions raised by the evicted residents of Mews Street are sharply political. One woman narrates her story, subverting conventional notions about belonging and citizenship:

The place has been taken over to build a school for soldiers’ children. And our children are destitute. How can we send them to school? Their shoes are somewhere, schoolbooks are somewhere else. We are living here. At night we go and sleep somewhere. But this is nothing new to us. This is how Ananda and Nalanda [two prominent Sinhala-Buddhist schools in Colombo] were built too. Look at those schools. There are no Colombo children in those schools. They put their own children, and most of them are kudukarayas [drug addicts] and thugs. Only a few are good people.

Only days later, the former Mews Street residents were relocated to the Thotalanga settlement, inexorably swept away by the government’s current campaign to reclaim the city.

The processes of eviction and dislocation, and the status of displacement, raise questions about the nature of citizenship and its investment in securing the city in ways that marginalise people in multiple ways. The restated question of belonging is not just about who belongs, but also: Where do they belong?


Nicola Perera is a writer based in Colombo.
Sivamohan Sumathy teaches literature, critical theory, theatre and film theory at the University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka. Her works include Thin veils, Like myth and mother, Piralayam and Oranges.

© Himal South Asian

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Sunday, August 01, 2010

Sri Lanka: Attacks against media continue unabated

By Sutirtho Patranobis | Hindustan Times

The pre-dawn attack on Siyatha television channel has once again raised questions about the safety of independent journalists and private news enterprises in Sri Lanka. A group of heavily armed men attacked the Siyatha channel’s office early Friday, ransacking it and exploding petrol bombs on their way out. The ensuing fire gutted the channel’s news and control rooms.

The attack took place in a well patrolled part of the city.

The Daily Mirror newspaper’s editorial pointed out how brazenly it was carried out. “…Hunupitiya Lake Road is too central for an ordinary gang to come in two vehicles, assault the employees and bomb the place and get away scot-free,’’ it said.

The incident was the latest in a series of assaults against individual journalists and well-planned attacks against media offices.

In March, the Sirasa television channel office was attacked by a mob on the pretext that it was sponsoring rapper Akon’s concert in Colombo.

The singer, the protesters said, had insulted Buddhism in one of his music videos. In reality, the channel was only a part sponsor of the event and the real motive was left to speculation.

The case of the missing political analyst and cartoonist Prageeth Eknaligoda is another one, which the media keep’s raising but investigations into which seemed to be heading no where. Eknaligoda went missing on January 24 and till date the police have failed to provide any breakthrough.

The Island newspaper, in its editorial pointed out other unresolved cases: “those responsible for the attacks on the Sunday Leader, the MTV studio, the Sudar Oli office in Colombo and the Uthayana head office in Jaffna have not been arrested in spite of the much advertised deployment of special police teams.’’ The government, the editorial added, has to arrest those behind the latest attack or “it will continue to remain a suspect in the eyes of the public.’’

© Hindustan Times

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Sunday, August 01, 2010

"Siyatha" slams Police, Fire Brigade

By Damith Wickremasekara | The Sunday Times

The Police and the Fire Brigade did not respond on time when Siyatha TV was attacked, its owning company Voice of Asia Network Chairman Roshantha Kariyapperuma said yesterday. He told the Sunday Times he had lodged a strong protest with President Mahinda Rajapaksa about the delay.

Mr. Kariyapperuma said the police and fire brigade arrived 35 minutes after they were informed about the attack on the Siyatha TV and radio station at Lake Road in Colombo 2. “We had to send a vehicle to the fire brigade to find out why it was not coming, despite the fire station being located less than two kilometres away,” he said.

Mr. Kariyapperuma said President Rajapaksa who called him on Friday had promised a full probe on the incident in which more than 12 men armed with T56 assault rifles stormed the TV-radio station and set fire to editing equipment and computers.

The chairman estimated the loss at around Rs. 50 million and said they did not have insurance cover.

“We will resume our TV transmissions within two weeks while the radio stations are operating again,” he said.

“We have not been unfairly critical of any party or organisation. Therefore I cannot figure out who was responsible for the attack. But our problem is why the police and fire brigade took time to come,” he said.

Mr. Kariyapperuma is the husband of well-known actress Sangeetha Weeraratne and the brother of former Telecom Regulatory Commission chairman Priyantha Kariyapperuma who quit the TRC after the presidential election following allegations that he had supported Gen. Sarath Fonseka, the defeated candidate.

Meanwhile, the Kompanna Veediya police and detectives from the Colombo Crime Division have been called in to investigate Friday’s arson attack. They were sifting through debris and explosive particles at the scene to find clues.

Private security personnel at the TV station later told police the masked raiders headed for the main news room and set it on fire with petrol and grenades.

Meanwhile, in one of the first international reactions to the attack, the United States said yesterday, “This attack, together with the unsolved disappearance of Prageeth Ekneligoda and other acts of violence against the press, serves to intimidate journalists and to further imperil media freedom in Sri Lanka. We welcome the announcement of a police investigation since only a credible inquiry will bring the perpetrators to justice.”

Condemnation points at lack of interest in probing attacks on media

As local and international condemnation over the pre-dawn attack on the Siyatha radio and TV stations poured in, Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella said two police teams have been deployed to probe the incident. He said he had not received any reports regarding the attack from them.

Former JVP MP Bimal Ratnayaka who was among the politicians to visit the scene of the attack expressed shock that the incident had taken place in close proximity to Temple Trees and that the attackers had escaped.

“This kind of blatant attack cannot be carried out without political patronage,” he said. The Working Journalists Association of Sri Lanka while condemning the attack said only the government can direct a proper investigation into the incident but due to a lack of interest in conducting thorough probes on such attacks there is suspicion that they are carried out by those linked to the government.

The National Forum of Journalists said this incident proved again an intolerance for those who hold different opinions. It said that the law provides anyone to hold views of their own political affiliations and this cannot be denied via bombs by any individual or group.Those responsible for the attack must be punished soon or the blame for it must be borne by the state, it said.

The Sri Lanka Chapter of the South Asian Free Media Association (SAFMA) too condemned the attack and said that it only confirms the perception of the outside world that despite the valour of the heroic armed forces and agencies of law and order in suppressing insurgencies and rebellions, much of the crimes committed outside insurgent activity, especially attacks on the vital institutions of democracy such as the mass media, go unresolved.

© The Sunday Times

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Sunday, August 01, 2010

Hidden hand behind "Siyatha TV" attack

By Mandana Ismail Abeywickrema | The Sunday leader

The directors of Voice of Asia, the broadcasting company of Siyatha TV and radio, suspect a hidden hand of a would-be competitor of the company, of carrying out the attack against Siyatha TV in the early hours of Friday (30).

Popular film actress and wife of Voice of Asia Director, Roshantha Kariyapperuma, Sangeetha Weeraratne told The Sunday Leader, “We have not gone against the government or the opposition. Our news has always been unbiased and impartial. There is no reason to believe that any one would want to harm us.”

However, she said that the company suspected a hidden hand of a would-be competitor behind Friday’s attack. “Definitely not anyone who is already established – but someone new,” she said, refusing however, to name any person or persons.

Reliable sources confided to The Sunday Leader that there is a strong suspicion that another company gearing to enter the TV broadcasting field, whose managing director’s brother is a government politician known for his strong arm tactics, to have had a hand in the Siyatha TV attack.
There is currently a staff of 280 employed at Voice of Asia Networks (Pvt) Ltd. The attack on Siyatha TV left two employees injured with a 65-year-old security guard suffering serious injuries to his head following a brutal assault on him by the group of 12 unidentified men, who had stormed the office on Friday morning.

Weeraratne said the company was still in its infant stages of construction and was still in the process of building. Therefore, the equipment at the network studios had not been insured and no tight security measures adopted.

The Sunday Leader has previously highlighted a rift between the Kariyapperumas and the Rajapaksas following the conclusion of the last presidential election.
Roshantha and brother Priyantha Kariyapperuma were at one time closely affiliated to President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brothers. Priyantha was even appointed as the head of the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (TRC).

However, this relationship soured during the last presidential election after one of the Rajapaksa siblings accused the Kariyapperumas of not working for President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s campaign, but instead supporting common presidential candidate, Retired General Sarath Fonseka.

The Kariyapperumas have defended their relationship with the former army commander, insisting they have been close friends with the Fonsekas for quite a while, before the latter decided to enter politics.
The Rajapaksa sibling had in fact reprimanded the Kariyapperumas when they had called to congratulate President Rajapaksa after his re-election in January.

Nevertheless, Weeraratne, when inquired if there was any ill-feeling between the two families, said there was no rift with the government and that they were all on the best of terms.

© The Sunday Leader

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