Sunday, August 15, 2010

Emergency without reason accepted by society too

By Kusal Perera | The Sunday Leader

It’s the ‘Miracle in Asia’, as the Rajapaksa regime wishes to brand Sri Lanka under its rule. It’s no miracle though, to be wholly contradictory and to be far from the ‘truth’ here in Sri Lanka, also under the Rajapaksa rule.

External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris declared at a media briefing on May 3, the World Press Freedom Day, that the President had decided to pardon journalist J.S. Tissainayagam. JST was arrested under Emergency Regulations and sentenced to 20 years rigorous imprisonment under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).

One week after Prof Peiris’s revelation on Tissainayagam, another Peiris, Attorney General Mohan Pieris, said Tissainayagam (to be pardoned) should withdraw his appeal to courts that challenges his sentence. So it was in fact, one Peiris against the other, while Tissainayagam waited for the actual interpretation of this much applauded pardon.

Two days after Tissainayagam’s unresolved pardon issue hit headlines, Emergency Regulations were partly relaxed by parliament on May 5 and Minister, G.L. Peiris promised that Emergency laws will be completely removed, in stages, without compromising national security. He was quoted in the official government news portal as saying that the government has relaxed regulations that “put imperative obligations on house owners to provide information about their inmates”. The Minister also said, “the provision that gave security forces to enter into private properties, used in connection with offences, too had been done away with.”

What Minister Peiris, in fact, meant was that there will be no necessity for registering households and their visitors at police stations and the security forces will not have powers to enter premises, without a ‘search warrant’, as during the war.

In less than two months after Prof Peiris’s explanation on relaxing Emergency laws, Democratic People’s Front (DPF) Leader Mano Ganesan wrote to President Rajapaksa, totally contradicting Minister Peiris and accusing that the law is being flouted, racially. Ganesan wrote an urgent letter on July 9, to President Rajapaksa that said, “Recommencement of the police registration for the Tamils in the city of Colombo is purely discriminatory. We are certain that it is only the Tamils who are instructed to register…”

The “imperative obligations on house owners to provide information about their inmates” that Prof. Peiris said was no more, did not apply to Tamil people, resident in the city of Colombo. Ganesan requested the President to “intervene to stop this discriminatory act which is flatly against the spirit of reconciliation.” Did the President contradict Prof. Peiris and his explanations on relaxing emergency regulations in his response to Ganesan? That, Ganesan is yet to tell.

The Media Spokesman for the Police Department, SP Jayakody nevertheless gave a contradictory explanation to The Sunday Leader of July 25, justifying the ‘recommencement’ of registration of Tamil people, without saying it was only for Tamil people. According to SP Jayakody, this was not carried out under Section 23 of Emergency Regulations as before. It was enforced under the Police Ordinance and was no flouting of the law. Prof. Peiris was perhaps ignorant of the Police Ordinance that makes house owners obligatory to provide information on inmates, even without emergency.

Emergency laws have been used in most unwanted instances under this regime in contradiction of what is said or promised by the regime. Sarah Malanie Perera, a convert to Islam and now resident in Bahrain, was detained and hauled into court under emergency laws, for “insulting Buddhism” through her two books that try to explain why she chose Islam as her faith. Discussing religion, if interpreted as against Buddhism, can be taken under emergency laws. But not the other way round, when Buddhists accuse other religions.

What is this all about, in this the ‘Asian miracle’? It’s about Sinhala Buddhist hegemony. All through the escalated war that was waged with much hype against ‘Tamil’ terrorism and ‘Tamil’ separatism, emergency regulations were basically used against the Tamil people living outside the conflict areas. Within the war zones, there was no necessity for law. Such was not made possible on the strength of the law alone, but on the strength of Sinhala politics. It was the Sinhala psyche which justified the use of law so blatantly as to raid Tamil businesses, Tamil residencies and also abduct Tamil youth and Tamil businessmen by the hundreds, according to Ganesan’s Civil Monitoring Commission (CMC), that was tracking such violations.

It was that Sinhala psyche in enforcing emergency law that made authorities load buses with 376 Tamil people who had come to Colombo and transport them by force to Vavuniya in June 2007, an act that was challenged in the Supreme Court during former Chief Justice Silva’s tenure, by the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA).

This regime has to keep that iron fist clenched and needs to continue with that Sinhala image. It is for that reason the LTTE is still kept live and haunting the Southern Sinhala psyche. It is also because this regime wants power accrued within the family and away from constitutional provisions that the LTTE is often projected as a possible threat. It is on that the Defence Ministry gets a massive allocation of funds, far greater than when the war was fought, over an year ago. The Coast Conversation Department (CCD), the Urban Development Authority (UDA) and the Registration of Persons Department (RPD) have all been moved under the Defence Ministry for accrued power. Added to that, the Attorney General’s Department is now under the President.

This is a fierce erosion of democratic life, to live with. What has been retained as emergency rule is used with the same Sinhala rhetoric to have the regime in control. There is still provision to detain any person for three months at a stretch. Who says that cannot be extended? The security forces will continue with police powers. The reason given is that they need such powers to facilitate ongoing investigations into terrorist activities. For such investigations, what if they continue to search houses?

The government has done away with the cluster of emergency regulations that restricts processions and meetings that were considered detrimental to national security. Yet protests and processions are attacked and tear gas fired with leaders arrested and detained. Opposition MPs Vijitha Herath and Ajith Kumara, along with 12 others were arrested in Galle on August 12. It was not emergency laws this time. The police were assaulted, the magistrate was told.

Relaxing emergency laws is not exactly the issue in Sri Lanka. There are other laws that could be interpreted and used to keep the clenched fist clenched. The AG is there under the President to interpret the law, if need arises. Moved from the private bar to assume the top legal post over the next person in waiting for succession and the AG’s Department brought under the President, Pieris would have to deliver what is asked for.

The advantage this Rajapaksa regime has with them is the Police Department that has no sense of working under normal law of the land. Worst is, it is heavily politicised from electoral level to the very top. This society has been under emergency regulations from April 1971, except during that very brief period from 1978 to 1983 July. There too, emergency law was in effect at different times. We thus have 40 years under emergency rule and a politicised Police Department with almost every single person recruited, trained and left on duty to handle emergency regulations. Over the past few decades, they were deployed as an auxiliary force in security work too.

This is therefore a regime that wants power without compromise and one that could use a Police Department that had no opportunity for normal civil duties outside emergency laws.

For a regime that has kept space for militarising of the society, even on dengue mosquitoes, emergency regulations would mean very little. Society accepts any violation of the law as necessary, as long as that is justified on national security. It is still the Sinhala psyche that works for this Rajapaksa regime. A Sinhala ideology that makes this society forego its own rights with a ‘hurrah’ for daily existence. A society that does not know how intellectually poor it is. A miracle no doubt that we still exist this way.

© The Sunday Leader

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Sunday, August 15, 2010

Sri Lanka: Garment workers torn apart as GSP Plus is withdrawn

By Malik Gunatilleke | The Sunday Times

The loss of the European Union’s GSP Plus benefits has caused widespread panic amongst garment sector workers who fear they may lose their jobs as factory owners look for ways to cut costs. Only 15 Asian countries enjoy the GSP Plus benefits for trade with EU countries and Sri Lankan exporters feel they will lose their position in the market. Sri Lanka’s garment industry is likely to be the hardest hit by the suspension of the GSP Plus concessions from today as garments account for more than 50 percent of the exports to the EU countries.

Effects of the GSP loss have already been felt in some of the garment factories where employees who have long coped with meagre wages are struggling to obtain their salary revisions and overtime payments.

A Sunday Times team visited the Free Trade Zone in Awariyawatta where workers from many of the surrounding factories were eager to speak of the problems they were facing at their workplaces.

A.S. Madushanka, a Works Inspector at a shoe factory, said the employees were not receiving their salary increments on time.

“In January we were supposed to receive an increment of Rs. 500 but the administration told us that because orders were not coming in, it would have to delay the increments by four months,” he said.

He said the shoes made in the factory were sold all over the world including, China, the United States and the European markets with the average price of a pair of shoes being about Rs.20,000. Ye the minimum wage at the factory was a meagre Rs. 8000.

Sri Lanka received a 10% tax concession from the GSP Plus Scheme alone. With 65% of the exports to the EU being garments, experts believe the revenue loss will range from 15% to 20%.

Garment factory workers told us that they believed that some owners were closing down their factories on the basis of the suspension of the GSP, but reopening them elsewhere to cut cost and avoid paying compensation to the workers.

Madara Lakmini, who has worked for nearly 10 years in an garment factory, said she feared that the owners might close down the factory and thousand workers would lose their jobs. This would not bother them.

“The executives apparently don’t care because they can get jobs in other companies but we will be left destitute. We have no one to listen to our woes and there are instances where thugs have been used to suppress any protest action,” she said.

Lakmini said every employee worked 60 hours a week with an additional 60 hours of overtime every month. She said she believed the work period would be reduced significantly for cost cutting purposes. She said increments had also not been given despite a union strike in February.

Iron Operator Nishan Pushpakumara said the general salary level at their factory was around Rs.5,000 a month, much less than others in the zone. He charged that the administration was also taking action against employees who had voiced their protests.

“They make our work difficult and unpleasant apparently hoping we will quit. Most of those who have worked for around one or two years will probably leave the factory,” he said. Apart from the workers who have been directly affected, many of the surrounding businesses are also feeling the pinch. The usually bustling night bazaar in the area where hundreds of workers would shop before going home was already beginning to show signs of losing business.

Senarath Widanaratne, owner of a clothing stall at the night bazaar, said his business had taken a bad hit since the workers were facing difficulties.

“With the cost of living increasing and the employees getting less money into their hands what do they have left to spend on clothes and the likes. My earnings have fallen by 50% and it has also affected the way in which I have been able to take care of my family,” he said.

Mr. Widanaratne who opened his shop around five years ago said this problem started last year.

M.H.T. Sunil, owner of New Ruhunapura Textiles, standing outside his empty shop, said his earnings had diminished by as much as 75% and during 17 years of doing business in the area he had not seen such a lean period.

Meanwhile, trade union leaders have accused the government and factory owners of doing little to resolve the crisis arising from the loss of the GSP Plus concessions.

The GSP Pus scheme gives duty free access to the European Union for around 7,200 products from various small and developing countries which have implemented internationally-recognised environmental, human rights and good-governance agreements. Sri Lanka was awarded the GSP Plus to facilitate its recovery following the Tsunami in 2004.

Wasantha Samarasinghe, President of the Inter-company Employees Union, said the withdrawal of the GSP Plus facility had put Sri Lanka in a position where it had lost its advantage in competing with other countries for the same market.

“Some factories are likely to close down and the worst-hit will be the workers who already work for very low wages,” he said. Anton Marcus, President of the Progressive Free Trade Zone General Services Employees Union, said the full effect of losing the GSP Plus benefits would be felt in the months to come.

He said the unions had told the government that it should act effectively to ensure the continuation of the GSP Plus benefits, but the government had failed miserably. “The very parties that said that the GSP plus benefits will not be needed are now talking about financial difficulties and cutbacks to escape from minimum wage increments,” he said.

Mr. Marcus charged that owners of large garment factories were receiving many benefits from the government but showed little concern for their workers.

© The Sunday Times

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Sunday, August 15, 2010

Sri Lanka - China Relations: Great expectations maybe bleak houses

By Kumar David | Lakbima News

China has been a good and loyal friend to Sri Lanka, that is the people and nation not this or that government, though sometimes it may be difficult to manage overlap. If the present regime has great expectations that it can ride rough and wild with human rights and China will stand by it through thick and thin, well its hopes may be resident in bleak houses. You may counter that China has stood firm by many egregious regimes (Burma, Sudan and Zimbabwe), so why not Sri Lanka. There’s a difference; when the government or regime is indistinguishable from the state, China does not make a distinction either, but if the ruling party is prone to change, her loyalty is to the entity endowed with continuity, the nation.

For half a century China has been consistent in this stance. A UNP government signed the controversial Rubber-Rice Pact in 1952 and in 1957 an SLFP led government recognised the PRC even before its entry to the United Nations.

The deaf and blind club

The Chinese state is a major human rights violator and it is a one-party system, hence democracy in the sense of changing or challenging the government is out of the question. I am more aware than most, having squatted for a quarter of a century at China’s doorstep, that Chinese people accept the state and regime and those who desire to overthrow the CCP are a minority - I think a very small minority. I am not opening up a discussion of state, politics and public acquiescence in the Middle Kingdom today, we can do that another time, my point is that there are obvious reasons why the Chinese state has no interest in formal democracy elsewhere in the world. An unfortunate supplement is that its citizens too are disinterested in democracy in other nations, and that’s a nail in the coffin of anyone who expects Chinese support for human rights, globally. Could anyone, for decades, woo more discreditable louts than the murderous junta in Rangoon? Hence it is unsurprising that secrecy surrounds Chinese development loans to Lanka, conniving with GoSL to keep interest rates and repayment tenures hidden from the public who eventually must carry the burden.

So let us get this straight, China is a card-carrying life-member of the Deaf & Blind to Human Rights Club. However, with a few exceptions (Sihanouk, Pol Pot) China courts nations and peoples, not particular regimes. True China has a soft corner for the SLFP over the UNP, but don’t get the impression that she has special loyalty to the Rajapaksas and their dynastic household.

Steadfast to false principles

Firstly, Beijing is obedient to the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other nations because it needs to be. The principle is: You shoot up your Darfurese in West Sudan, impale political protesters in Harare, and crush every Burmese under your jackboot, we don’t give a s***t, so long as you don’t come with prissy notions about who we lock up, what we do in Tibet, and why we clamp down on our dissidents. China has very obvious quid pro quo motives in urging loyalty to the principle of non-interference in the right of states to screw their citizens. You may recall Tennyson, oxymoron about Lancelot: “Faith unfaithful kept him falsely true”; likewise the Mandarin logic of foreign relations. What the government of Sri Lanka, or Timbuktoo does to its Tamils, its journalists or its human rights pests is an internal matter, China will not interfere, nor will it countenance interference by the US, the UN or any other foreigner. The principle will hold after the Rajapaksas are sent packing and a new bunch from the same party, or the UNP, takes over. The principle will hold even if the new lot throw all the Rajapaksas behind bars. To figure out the consistency of Chinese foreign policy, unburdened as it is by ethics and morality, you have to grasp this first.

The second Beijing principle to grasp is that in its view global existentialism is only state-to-state; bury all notions of class solidarity (“Workers of All Nations Unite” is heresy in ‘communist’ China!). Or Tennyson again: “His honour rooted in dishonour stood.” China will extend support to non-state actors only in clear cases of national liberation wars against a foreign enemy, the Vietnam War for example. The old Soviet Union was more politically flexible in its willingness to back rathu sahodarayo against repressive states in Africa, Latin America and Asia. I guess that was because the Soviet Union was in the thick of the cold war, while the Chinese were largely bystanders. This prioritising of state-to-state relations complements the non-interference attitude. It also justifies the Chinese willingness to provide armaments and war materials to selected states to bash internal opposition. Actually Beijing is much more consistent and predictable than New Delhi.

Economic motives and strategic indifference

China is hungry for resources; coal, iron ore and every other mineral with industrial or strategic potential; its thirst for oil is unquenchable. About 40% of global GDP growth is driven by the Middle Kingdom - the number varies a little each year. Its resource needs are gigantic; in July 2010 it overtook the United States as the world’s largest energy consumer, a record that the latter held for over a century. Lanka is energy deficient, but Hambantota is a useful point of call for shipments from Africa; to repeat then, it’s not some harebrained military strategy to encircle India with Chinese built Indian Ocean harbours, but commerce that explains Beijing’s involvement in Hambantota. Marry that with the old loyalty and you have it all; it is Sri Lanka, not the Rajapaksa cabal that occupies a soft spot in Beijing’s not so tender heart.

Let me link these strands together. I doubt if anything but the fall of Pakistan to extremists, admittedly a possibility within a decade, will bring Sri Lanka into Indo-American strategic cross-hairs; not some imagined Western paranoia of Chinese involvement in Lanka. Some locals imagine that such presumed paranoia bestows the island with great strategic weight. Nope that’s rubbish; Lanka has no military significance for China since she has no blue-water fleet or airpower to project across continents and so far from home. The lesson from Kissinger is to think big, to see the big picture and the large strategic landscape. Looked at this way, it’s the future of Pakistan, not Chinese intentions that will decide if Lanka becomes a strategic focus for the West. Afghanistan probably is already lost, but it is small change, Pakistan is the real prize. If Pakistan falls, then without doubt and in ways not now discernible, Indo-American strategic power will take control of the island - installing a pliant government may be the easiest. And China! China will keep mum as she did when Bush marched into Afghanistan on her border, or into Iraq.

© Lakbima News

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Sunday, August 15, 2010

The long, long wait for a brother’s words

By Raveena Aulakh | The Star

She’s convinced her baby brother was on MV Sun Sea, the Tamil refugee boat that docked near Victoria, B.C., on in the wee hours of Friday.

“When I spoke to him last, he had escaped Sri Lanka and was in Thailand,” said a Scarborough mother, who didn’t want her name used. The refugee boat’s voyage is believed to be have started in southeast Asia.

That was months ago and she says her brother, 24, who worked at a textile store before being thrown into a government camp, was planning, somehow, to come to Canada.

“Now all I can do is pray that he made it,” she said in an interview through a translator.

Organizations like Canadian Tamil Congress have been bombarded with questions by dozens of Tamil families across Canada, who believe their relatives were among the 490 refugees aboard the Sun Sea.

Some people haven’t heard from their relatives in northern Sri Lanka for six months and “hope they made it to this boat,” said Jag Shanmugalingham, a volunteer with the organization. “They are desperately clinging to that hope.”

In the past couple of days, at least 90 families have called and submitted information about 150 relatives, who they believe came aboard the boat, said Shanmugalingham.

One woman called and said she believed 11 members of her family were aboard the Sun Sea. Another said he had at least 6 family members aboard.

It’s an emotional time for families, said Shanmugalingham. Some people get really upset when they discover that it might be days or weeks before they can find the names of the 490 refugees.

“There’s been a lot of crying, pleading as people ask us to connect them with the people on the boat,” he said. “We are telling them to be patient but give us all information they can so that lawyers can prove the identities of these people and that they have nothing to do with Tamil Tigers.”

© The Star

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