Monday, September 06, 2010

Sri Lanka is still denying civilian deaths

By Peter Bouckaert | The Guardian

During the Vietnam conflict, the US military developed some creative ways to increase the numbers of Viet Cong insurgents it claimed to have killed. "If they're dead, they're Viet Cong," meant that any Vietnamese killed by American soldiers would automatically count as enemy fighters.

Sri Lanka's defence secretary, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, has taken such creative accounting to new heights. The United Nations reported that at least 7,000 civilians were killed and tens of thousands wounded during the final months of the brutal conflict with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which ended in May 2009. But Gotabhaya has repeatedly cast aspersions on the idea that there were any civilian casualties.

In his recent statement before a Sri Lankan commission looking at lessons learned from the war, Gotabhaya claimed that injured Tigers "changed their uniforms into civilian clothes" and that the Tigers must have suffered at least 6,000 dead and 30,000 injured – suggesting those counted as civilian casualties were really just Tamil Tiger fighters who had shed their uniforms.

As for the widespread war crimes and human rights abuses by both sides reported both during and after the conflict by various UN agencies, the US state department and human rights organisations, the defence secretary seems to be suffering from severe amnesia. He told the Lessons Learned Commission: "No complaints about human rights violations or abuses by the army were brought to my notice. None at all."

Despite the promises made by President Mahinda Rajapaksa to UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon in June 2009 to investigate wartime atrocities, as well as Sri Lanka's international legal obligations to investigate alleged laws of war violations, the president and his brothers in power have not lifted a finger to do so. The president often appears stunned when other governments both praise the government's victory yet insist on accountability for laws of war violations.

Gotabhaya also proclaimed that the military operation was a really a "humanitarian intervention" in which "we took great care to avoid [endangering] civilians … our military had to stop operations and give protection to people, food convoys." In practice, however, rather than protecting civilians, the government blocked access by humanitarian organisations. The International Committee of the Red Cross complained publicly that it was unable to reach those most in need.

There are genuine concerns that the Lessons Learned Commission will serve only to whitewash allegations of serious abuses, and that its conclusions will be used to brush off calls for an international investigation. The panel's mandate is deliberately limited: its main responsibility is to understand the reasons for the collapse of the 2002 ceasefire agreement, and there is no express mandate to investigate laws of war violations.

The government clearly wants to avoid an honest attempt to find the truth. During a BBC interview in June, Gotabhaya threatened to have the commander behind the final military offensive, Gen Sarath Fonseka, executed after he promised to co-operate with investigations into wartime violations. The government took Fonseka – who earlier this year unsuccessfully ran against the president – to court martial, where he was convicted, essentially cutting him off from any capacity to challenge the Rajapaksa version of events.

The government announced in June that it will deny visas to the members of a UN expert panel established to advise Secretary General Ban on mechanisms for accountability. For those who didn't get the message, protests against the panel led by a government minister outside the UN compound in Colombo should have: this government has no interest in investigating abuses and providing victims a measure of justice.

Add to this the continued suppression of government critics, civil society, and media, the restricted access for independent monitors to the northern and eastern parts of the country where the fighting occurred, the lack of information about an estimated 8,000 suspected Tamil Tiger fighters currently detained in "rehabilitation camps," and the conditions are ripe for a complete rewrite of history.

What the Lessons Learned Commission makes of the testimony it receives remains to be seen. One would hope that it would see the government's version of events for what it is: a cynical fabrication designed to avoid scrutiny. Unfortunately, there is every reason to fear that the panel will believe the story that is being spun by the Rajapaksa brothers, which basically runs to the formula from Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland: "Nothing would be what it is because everything would be what it isn't."

© The Guardian

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Monday, September 06, 2010

Sri Lanka: civil society organizations oppose constitutional change

Lanka Business Online

Civil society organization representing several interest groups in Sri Lanka have come out against proposed changes to the constitution as a move that will further destroy democratic values and individual freedom.

Sri Lanka's organization of professional associations said the constitution change which lifts a two-term limit on the president and has also come under fire for undermining the judiciary and the election office was not promoting good governance.

The change would also effective repeal a previous amendment which aimed to increase the ability of the public service to act justly towards the people and establish rule of law through a constitutional council, critics have said.

" [T]he OPA wishes to state categorically that the proposed Amendment is not in the interest of promoting good governance or in the national interest and requested all concerned to give further consideration to the viability of enacting this constitutional amendment," the organization said in a statement.

Sri Lanka's civil rights movement (CRM) said it was "outrageous" that the constitution change was being "rushed through" as being urgent in the public interest for supreme court approval without people having the chance to even discuss the issue.

The CRM said neither the people nor lawyers had time to make considered representations to the Supreme Court.

Transparency International, an anti corruption body said a 17th amendment to the constitution which attempted to make the public service independent (act justly and fairly by the people) has been made virtually redundant.

"With the new Amendment, the Public Service (including the Police) will be open to political exploitation allowing the politicians to interfere with all aspects of the Public Service," the organization said.

"This, TISL believes, is not in keeping with the democratic values and will affect the independence of the Public Service."

Chandra Jayaratne a retired business executive who has been speaking on behalf of better governance and civil liberties said the proposed amendments were a setback.

"The public service and police service is totally made subservient to the needs and directions of the political masters and this structure will leave the public served by them without recourse and effective fair and unbiased service and protection," he said in a statement.

"Post these amendments the democratic expression of franchise by the eligible public will take a nose dive within politically controlled institutions and media sans independence.

"Within the framework structure and processes binding key institutions of public service, law enforcement, justice, rights and freedoms and good governance as proposed, the public will find it impossible to hold key persons and institutions accountable in all these areas."

Bishop Duleep de Chickera from Colombo's Anglican Church said "all who value democratic freedom in the country voice their objection to" the constitution change and the changes should not be "rushed through" the parliament.

"It is when the people are properly informed of the pros and cons of constitutional change, and given a chance to participate in this process and make informed decisions, that democracy prevails and our legislators fulfil their obligations," he said in statement.

"The political freedom that our legislators are endowed with is determined by the democratic rights and aspirations of the people. To disregard these obligations amounts to a misappropriation of the peoples’ trust."

Last week the business supplement of Sri Lanka's The Sunday Times conducted a poll among its readers and said 90 percent of the respondents said 'No' to the constitutional change aimed at lifting the term limits of the president.

About 8.5 percent approved the change and 1.5 percent were undecided.

"While many respondents gave an emphatic NO, NO, NO answer (many repeating the word twice or thrice for emphasis), the same emphasis (YES, YES) was given among the few who support President Rajapaksa’s plan for a third term, saying there is no other leader in the country," the newspaper said.

In many elections leaders had promised to "abolish" the presidency not to extend the term limits, the newspaper quoted a reader as saying. Others said that constitutional changes should originate from the people to increase their freedoms and rule of law.

"Constitutional Change is a must to bring the democratic values and features back into the governance system in Sri Lanka," said another reader.

Another response said there was little understanding in Sri Lanka that a primary purpose of a constitution devised in Western Europe was to restrain the arbitrary power of the state and rulers over people and a constitution must also give absolute guarantees of equality and individual freedom.

"Until the people understand these two basic principles Sri Lanka will only have fascist nationalism by majority vote (also a Western European invention e.g. Germany and Italy) and not true democracy."

© Lanka Business Online

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Monday, September 06, 2010

US, Israel help Sri Lanka to boost air, sea surveillance capability

By Shamindra Ferdinando | The Island

Sri Lanka is in the process of building and re-deploying its naval and air assets to thwart any future attempt to open up illegal sea routes to and from the country.

The navy and air force will re-position their assets in support of ground deployment in coastal areas.

In line with this strategy, the navy has shifted its north-western headquarters from Puttalam to Mullikulam to exercise naval command and control from Udappuwa to Arippu.

On the invitation of navy Commander Vice Admiral Thisara Samarasinghe, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa after declaring open the new headquarters last week said that new permanent bases would be set up to enhance security. A key element in the new deployment plan would be to ensure north-eastern seas could not be used for illegal activities, the Defence Secretary said.

Sri Lanka took delivery of two Israeli-built Fast Attack Craft (FACs) which are now undergoing trials since the end of war. They are among six FACs expected to join the navy.

Authoritative sources told The Island that the US had enhanced Sri Lanka’s air surveillance capability by providing sophisticated real time data link system.

Sources said that the SLAF took delivery of the system early this year following the conclusion of the war in May last year. Mounted on two Beech King Aircraft SMR 2201 and SMR 2202, the system would Sri Lanka obtain real time intelligence, which would give the military top brass to act swiftly.

During the war, Sri Lanka had mounted a different system on Beech King Aircraft to obtain real time intelligence. Separately, the SLAF deployed UAVs (Unmanned aerial Vehicles) on surveillance missions day and night.

During the initial stages of the Eelam war IV, the US enhanced Sri Lanka’s coastal surveillance capability, though there had been some hiccups.

Despite various constrains, the navy set up Automatic Identification Systems (AISs) at selected coastal bases to monitor ship movements on its own in the wake of concern raised by a third party. Sources recalled the delay caused by similar situation leading to the failure on the part of the government to neutralize threat posed by LTTE aircraft by deploying Chinese radar. Despite a delay, Sri Lanka finally acquired Chinese radar during the Eelam War IV.

© The Island

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Monday, September 06, 2010

Indian Army Chief visits Sri Lanka to boost defence cooperation

The Times of India

Army Chief Gen V K Singh arrived here on Sunday on a five-day visit which is expected to provide an impetus to defence cooperation between India and Sri Lanka and lay the ground for a bilateral defence dialogue.

Singh, who is accompanied by his wife, was received by his Sri Lankan counterpart Lt Gen Jagath Jayasuriya at the airport on Sunday.

Singh, during his stay here is scheduled to meet President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Prime Minister D M Jayaratne, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and External Affairs Minister G L Peires.

His visit is considered preparatory to the Indo-Lanka defence dialogue that is scheduled to begin next year.

The Indian Army chief will be given a ceremonial guard of honour tomorrow before he begins discussions with Jayasuriya and other top military officials of Sri Lanka.

General Singh served in the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) during Operation Pawan in Sri Lanka in 1987.

He will tomorrow pay floral tributes at the memorial for the IPKF soldiers and officers, who were killed during the war with the LTTE.

Singh will be the first Indian Army Chief to visit the memorial, since the time it was erected.

The Indian army chief, who was awarded the 'Yudh Sena Medal' for his distinguished service during 'Operation Pawan' against the LTTE in Sri Lanka, is also expected to visit the war-ravaged Vavuniya in the North on Tuesday.

Media reports said that also on the anvil are visits by Air Force chief Air Chief Marshal P V Naik and Defence Secretary Pradeep Kumar to Sri Lanka.

Naval chief Admiral Nirmal Verma had visited Sri Lanka in June.

Besides an annual defence dialogue, India and Sri Lanka are looking to step up maritime-security cooperation and during the upcoming talks would consider increasing the level and frequency of defence exchanges, reports said.

© The Times of India

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Monday, September 06, 2010

Sampoor, Supremacist Ideology and abuse of International Law

By Dr.Rajan Hoole | Transcurrents

With the LTTE gone, our common objective should be creatively to use the potential the people of this country have to live and prosper together. We see instead fears of an LTTE resurgence being drummed up artificially to justify policies that foster division and discord.

The strength of a nation depends on its ability to speak the truth about its actions and be transparent and respectful of the law in its dealings. The contrary often signals that the nation blunders on by continual evasion and major violations of human rights. Symptomatic of the state of affairs here is the alacrity with which some leading sections of the state and private media rushed to misquote Ambassador Jayantha Dhanapala’s presentation before the LLRC as justifying blanket exemption from humanitarian law in fighting terrorism.

An earnest investigation would show that the Military used excessive force in ‘liberating’ Sampoor during the night of 27th August 2006. Moreover, subsequent policies of the Government towards the Sampoor population were meant to further its agenda, with scant regard for rights of the civilians. Humanitarian law now or in the future would never countenance excessive force or displacement that was avoidable or permanent.

Once Sampoor was captured, there was no further threat to security. President Rajapakse said on 4th September 2006 that they recaptured Sampoor ‘purely for the benefit of the people’. Military Spokesman Brigadier Prasad Samarasinghe told the Daily Mirror categorically (5th September 2006) that ‘the threat posed by the LTTE to the Trincomalee harbour and the adjoining naval base was no more following the successful operation involving the three forces.’ He added that once the area was cleared the civilians could be resettled in the next few days. This was never done.

Contradictions and abuse of International Law

The Government’s obligation under international law was expeditiously to help the people to return to their homes and let any new development proposals go through the due process. That is the minimum courtesy the Government owed them. Many women and children were involved; including those forcibly conscripted by the LTTE who had escaped. Instead, ‘attacks or other acts of violence against internally displaced persons, who do not or no longer participate in hostilities’ prohibited by international law, were regularly carried out by state-sponsored vigilantes against a terrified people.

Citing national security (ICCPR Art. 12) for the permanent displacement of a Tamil population is a dangerous argument and also tenuous. Admiral Wijewickrema referred hesitantly to the security argument (contradicted by Prasad Samarasinghe) telling Lakbimanews (29 Aug.10) that the LTTE used the area to attack Trincomalee naval base. He added as though to convince himself, “It was decided by the government that this place, like any other harbour area in the world, will not be occupied by people.”

Who, and by what right, decides that Tamil people should be deprived of their homes in several parts of the North-East? It is a structure in which almost unlimited power is held by military and ex-military men who had previously, along with the LTTE, violated international human rights and humanitarian laws by which these same people were protected. Other areas facing expropriation for new military establishments are Mullikulam, 28 miles south of Mannar and Channar east of Vidatthaltivu, which supplies its water and agricultural produce. The pattern is the same. Reasonably prosperous people who farmed from a few to 40 acres of rich agricultural land are to be given 20 perches of land in some barren backwater. This is just the thin end of the wedge.

The ICRC commentary on Article 17 of Protocol II of the Geneva Conventions, applicable to internal and international conflicts states, “Clearly, imperative military reasons cannot be justified by political motives. For example, it would be prohibited to move a population in order to exercise more effective control over a dissident ethnic group.” This is why it is dangerous. Depriving Tamils of their habitations on security grounds carries the general presumption that Tamils are collectively a security risk. Whence, they must be corralled and checked by repressive means. In 1984, the UNP government started with Weli Oya and the present one wants to go to the logical extreme. It gives the world the message that a façade of a single nation could only be sustained by systematic ethnic oppression. This is a logical consequence of state ideology.

Policies inspired by Sinhalese supremacist ideology create conflicts where none existed. The people of Sampoor never drove the Sri Lankan Army out, nor did the LTTE fight for it. Sampoor was gifted to the LTTE when the Army quit area near early 1996 to move troops to the North. It was due to the weakness of the State, which also did not anticipate a Sea Tiger threat to Trincomalee. If the displaced people are allowed to move back, they would continue peacefully as before. Why bring up an artificial threat to Trincomalee now and turn the population into a disgruntled one?

Supremacist Ideology and Vandalism

For a military hierarchy and extremists behind the present government, depriving minorities of their habitations is also based on the ideological presumption that Tamils and Muslims are usurpers who robbed land that belongs to Sinhalese Buddhists. Thus coveting land anywhere in the North-East to build a Buddhist temple or to create conditions for Sinhalese settlement becomes a birthright. The Hindus have no such rights, not even to keep a temple they have possessed for centuries.

But Sampoor also has traditions old as any in that region, as old as Koneswaram and the economic and cultural links centred on it covering the villages of Trincomalee District. Pathirakaali Amman temple in Sampoor, which forms part of the tradition, is destined to decay without devotees. The houses of those devotees that were largely intact in early 2007 were destroyed after the Government arbitrarily changed its mind and decided that there would be a harbour, an Indian coal power plant and no people; at least not Tamil.

Narrow nationalists pervert and mangle historical reality to make their claims. The rule of the kings of Kotte and Kandy in the region is cited to assert Sinhalese claims to the East. These kings however respected and fostered local traditions. The last rites of Bhuvaneka Bahu VII were performed at Koneswaram. They did not build a Buddhist temple in the precincts of Koneswaram citing some dubious history, as modern narrow nationalists have done. With regard to Sampoor, the respect Kandyan kings accorded local traditions is evident in the extract from the diary of Jacques Fabrice Van Senden, administrator of the province of Trincomalee, Wednesday 7th, 1776:

“Visited the Temple at Tamblegam. Shown images rescued from Koneswaram – King Koneesar and Queen Isowerie in well lit temple – Presented by King Kollekote, founder of the tank at Kandelay. Representation by priest: While Tamblegamme was under the King of Kandy, a tenth of the produce was collected as tribute by the prince, who remitted half in favour of the Pagoda (Temple); that since the Company had taken the entire tax, death had entered the country and the harvest was diminishing yearly, that before the death of Commandant Shorer, they had obtained a promise from him that he would request permission to assign at least 600 parrahs of paddy yearly for the maintenance of the temple.”

Unlike today’s narrow nationalists, the kings of Kandy and Kotte were often cosmopolitan in outlook, whose culture was sensitive to local traditions and customary law. Today’s politics of narrow nationalism is about creating discord, and its ideas of development, vandalism – vandalising the rich tapestry of Lankan heritage.

And debilitation of the State

The weakness of the State as evidenced in repeated humiliation at the hands of relatively small insurgent forces over decades owes much to its human rights violations. The LTTE’s strength was the State’s brutality and the fears it created by development projects like Weli Oya. The State can only become strong if it seeks reconciliation with the minorities rather than design policies treating them as a security risk.

Today’s hard line is also influenced by propaganda which lauds President Rajapakse as the man of destiny, who defeated Tamil terrorism. The facts speak differently. Even after capturing Elephant Pass in 2000, the LTTE had reached a dead end. By conscripting children it made it evident that Operation Jayasikuru had depleted its fighting capacity. The country had a splendid opportunity to do something right by itself in passing Kumaratunge’s constitutional package of August 2000. Had that been done, the Sri Lankan state would have been on course steadily transforming to one representative of all peoples of Lanka and giving it the moral high ground to check mate the LTTE and its backers.

The opportunity was undermined by Sinhalese extremists joining forces with Mahinda Rajapakse, Ranil Wickremasinghe and the LTTE. This failure, signifying Sri Lanka’s inability to resolve the ethnic problem, combined with the LTTE’s ability to manipulate the politics of the South, with its total control of political space in the North-East, gave it the propaganda edge to push for the Norway-brokered CFA. The rest of the decade was the playing out of a tragedy where the worst could have been avoided. If that were now understood, the end of the war should have led to humility rather than the arrogance on display.

© Trans-currents

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