Saturday, September 11, 2010

Why the world must stop Sri Lanka’s decline

By Sonali Samarasinghe | Global Post

On Wednesday, Sri Lanka’s Parliament overwhelmingly passed an urgent bill removing term limits for the president. The constitutional amendment also gave the president unlimited power over judicial, police and other public service appointments and removed constitutional safeguards over the electoral process.

The amendments abolished the Constitutional Council established to ensure the independence of appointments, transfers and removal of persons to the Judiciary and to the police, bribery, finance, elections and human rights commissions. The independent oversight body has been replaced by a toothless Parliamentary Council whose observations the President must seek but need not act upon in making these key appointments.

Sri Lanka is a country rapidly in decline. After the conclusion of its 27-year-long civil war in May last year, President Mahinda Rajapakse was handed a second term in office by a grateful and war-weary electorate. It might have been the turning of a new page. It wasn’t. Instead the country has hurtled towards a dictatorship that has now been constitutionalised, and it seems that the incumbent president has missed the message.

Riding on a wave of popularity and a rare two-thirds majority in parliament – which he obtained with the help of a weak opposition and wily political maneuvering — Rajapakse has now acted swiftly to constitutionalize and consolidate his power. Hence, this week's urgent bill.

Indeed Rajapakse, who as president enjoys immunity from prosecution, has been nothing if not timely and opportune in his politics. In 2005, he came in on a platform of war promising to eradicate Tamil Tiger terrorism. By May 2009 he had done that. Despite clamping down on human rights and achieving only modest economic growth, Rajapakse’s re-election victory in January 2010 — an election held almost two years ahead of schedule and just eight months after his military victory — was not surprising.

Thousands of civilians died in the military offensive. Video evidence emerged of soldiers summarily executing detainees, amid strenuous denials of such action by the government. Sri Lanka’s former army commander, Gen. Sarath Fonseka — the man who led Sri Lanka’s army to victory — went on record saying orders were given to shoot Tiger leaders attempting to surrender, a statement he later retracted.

Fonseka challenged Rajapakse in the January election, alleging blatant nepotism in Rajapakse's first term and citing the fact that after assuming office in 2005 the president appointed three of his brothers to high office. Sri Lanka is now governed by the Rajapakse brothers and their offspring who hold powerful cabinet positions. Other Rajapakse relatives also control large numbers of important offices, including diplomatic missions and state owned businesses.

Just six days after Rajapakse's re-election, Fonseka was arrested and court martialled, presumably for fear he would turn whistle-blower.

The government’s justification of the indiscriminate aerial bombardment of the north and east during the last stages of the military offensive and the resulting civilian death toll was that it was necessary to end the war. However, this May the International Crisis Group called for a U.N. investigation into the final bloody months of the war, stating in a report it had “reasonable grounds to believe that the Sri Lankan Security Forces committed war crimes.”

Sri Lanka has fiercely resisted any inquiry led by foreign authorities, stating that it would conduct its own investigations under a "Reconciliation and Lessons Learned" commission. Many have no faith in such homegrown inquiries that have been more about the reinforcement of the government viewpoint, denial, botching evidence and creating confusion rather than genuine investigation. Sri Lanka has yet to seriously investigate the murder of 15 journalists since Rajapakse’s government took office.

Meanwhile, Rajapakse’s supporters maintain that the removal of the two-term limit this week will shore up a number of choices as candidates in a presidential poll. Yet the repeal of provisions ensuring an independent elections commission will only serve to undermine free and fair elections and make the incumbent president more powerful. With the elections commission no longer having power to issue directions preventing political parties from exploiting state resources to run their campaigns, the incumbent president will have unfettered access to public property to the exclusion of all other candidates. The new amendments also place a duty on both the public and private media to comply with directions issued by the elections commission — a commission over which the incumbent president has absolute control.

Under the new amendments, Rajapakse must attend parliament every three months, a provision his supporters argue will increase accountability. In fact, such a move will only serve to increase presidential power, manipulation and interference in the parliamentary process and remove any semblance of the independence of parliament and the separation of powers.

Certainly for a country that has seen some of the bloodiest years of its 27-year civil war under the present regime, the culture of impunity, the fear propaganda, the persecution intimidation, murder and muzzling of the press is nothing new.

Why must the world take action now?

Because the subversion of democratic mechanisms and violence against democratic institutions continues unabated in a time of peace. Inventive in its attacks it has employed blogs, websites and mass emails to personally vilify any journalist, political opponent or human rights activist it sees as a threat to its rule. This government promised change once the war ended. Instead, nothing has changed.

Rajapakse has now aligned his formerly westward-looking country with China, Iran, Pakistan and Libya, and repeatedly lashed out at the West for criticizing his shameful human-rights record. And, despite the successful end of the civil war, the Rajapakse regime has offered nothing to the Tamil minority. Their aspirations and grievances have once more been swept under the carpet.

His government has demonstrated that it has neither the vision nor the empathy to bring about a just and lasting solution to the Tamil question. Instead, Sri Lankans have become inured to the pervasive Sinhala Buddhist supremacist racism the Rajapakse government brought to the country in order to win over the majority.

If Sri Lanka does not reach out to that section of the population that has been deeply wounded — if there is no accountability — it will only serve to breed a new generation of sullen youths with sympathetic and considerably more active operatives amongst the Tamil Diaspora. A future war may not be confined by Sri Lanka’s borders.

Rajapakse’s priorities are now to attract foreign investment and increase trade while defending his army and his political family against allegations of war crimes. He is using his large majority and the enormous powers vested in his administration for just that — to perpetuate authoritarianism and the culture of impunity while obliterating any remnants of a free media. He has relegated civil and political rights to the realm of irrelevant at best or subversive at worst.

Apart from losing European Union trade concessions this August until the country makes progress on human rights, Sri Lanka has been able to avoid U.N. scrutiny and cleverly stave off any international pressure, using its diplomatic influence with countries like China.

Sri Lanka's government recently announced that it would invite outside investors to its Chinese assisted multi-billion-dollar post-war infrastructure program. China is Sri Lanka’s largest infrastructure lender.

Geopolitics is playing its part. With its many trade and military interests now concentrated in the Indian Ocean, the U.S. too is keen to see strategically placed Sri Lanka not slip entirely into China’s arms.

Here’s the caveat. Sri Lanka’s handling of its civil war must not be seen as a model of success for combating terrorism or a perfect model of counter insurgency but rather a harsh lesson like Hiroshima or Agent Orange. If the ruling regime is allowed to go on unabated, it will soon have a far more deadly, more organized and inevitably more global terrorist movement on its hands.

For this alone the world must act now.

Sonali Samarasinghe is an award winning investigative reporter and editor, and a former Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. She fled Sri Lanka after her late husband, Lasantha Wickrematunge, with whom she worked, was killed and she was subjected to death threats.

© Global Post

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Saturday, September 11, 2010

Sri Lanka: Women take over as breadwinners in north

Integrated Regional Information Networks

Fifteen months after the end of fighting between Sri Lankan government forces and the Tamil Tigers, women in the north are taking up a new and challenging role as breadwinners - with more and more becoming day labourers to support their families.

A survey conducted by the Jaffna-based Center for Women and Development, a non-profit group, revealed that the northern region had approximately 40,000 female-headed households - including more than 20,000 in Jaffna District.

"Three factors have reduced the male-headed households in number: the war, disappearances or being in military custody," said Saroja Sivachandran, the centre's director.

The Sri Lankan civil war, which began in the 1970s, claimed tens of thousands of lives and displaced more than 280,000 people, primarily in the north and east of the country. The government took control of the east in 2007, and declared victory in the north in May 2009.

Although up-to-date statistics are hard to come by because many people remain displaced, Sivachandran and government officials say the northern and eastern regions combined are home to some 89,000 war widows.

"This has drastically altered their livelihood options. Over 50 percent of them [women who head households] are single parents under 30 years of age supporting their own and extended families," said Visaka Dharmadasa, executive director of the Association for War-Affected Women (AWAW).

Women = cheaper labour

AWAW and other support groups say many employers are discriminating against women, in some cases paying less than US$1 a day.

Maillaiyappal Thangavelu supports her two children, parents and three sisters by working on a construction site.

"My husband disappeared," said the 26-year-old Jaffna resident. "My sisters are still in school. My eldest child is in school. My parents are too weak to work."

She earns a $1.25 a day - but according to Sivachandran, this is half of what a man would earn for the same work.

"It has become cheaper to hire women - men would demand higher daily wages. Women unquestioningly accept what is given, often because they have many mouths to feed," Sivachandran said.

"Women provide cheap labour, so they are preferred," said Nagarasa Thavaselvam, president of the Kampanai Camp Residents' Committee in Jaffna, adding that in some households, men are now becoming dependent on women for economic support. Thavaselvam himself is one of many house-husbands.

Government security restrictions on traditional occupations - such as fishing and farming, the main industries of the north - have also driven women to work, Thavaselvam added.

At a construction site, a manager gave his own reasons for hiring women over men: "Women report to work on time. They don't drink and provide cheap labour."

Food, livelihood assistance

Although many women are finding jobs, more assistance is needed to boost their livelihoods in a society where many women have never worked outside the home before, and had never imagined they would do anything other than care for their families.

Imelda Sukumar, a government official for Jaffna and Mullaitivu districts, said industries had to be encouraged to create more jobs, but there had been some programmes for community-based income generation and cash for work at small infrastructure development projects.

"These projects are vital for areas where women carry heavy economic burdens," Sukumar said.

Meanwhile, unemployment - particularly with fishing and agriculture still being pieced back together - is fuelling food insecurity, she said.

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) has provided returning families with six-month food packages, but because many households have been unable to access their land and "resume normal activities", they have given returnees three additional months of food support.

While determining the extent of further assistance needed, WFP will move away from free food and to food for work on community projects or skills training - which will also benefit women.

“It is critical that female-headed households are supported with skills training and other appropriate interventions,” Giancarlo Stopponi, officer in charge and head of WFP’s programme unit in Colombo said. “This will better prepare families for a successful transition from resettlement to early recovery, and thus achieving some form of sustainable household activity.”

The Center for Women and Development said one economic support programme for war-affected women is a $100 grant to help them open a shop, pack chillies and coriander for commercial distribution, or purchase a sewing machine.

An AWAW programme assists farmers to secure farmland.

According to an update from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, nearly 6,900ha of abandoned land is being targeted for cultivation.

"The next season is likely to be better, enabling farming families to return to their original livelihoods," said Dharmadasa of AWAW.


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Saturday, September 11, 2010

In Sri Lanka, the democratic process is regressing

By Jonathan Manthorpe | Vancouver Sun

A penchant for triumphalism is never an attractive or useful quality, but unfortunately it appears to be one with which Sri Lanka's president Mahinda Rajapaksa is overly well endowed.

He has capped his defeat in May last year of the quarter-century separatist insurgency by the Tamil Tiger guerrillas and resulting conclusive reelection victory in January by, in essence, dismantling Sri Lanka's liberal democracy.

On Wednesday, Rajapaksa used the overwhelming parliamentary majority of his United people's Freedom Alliance to push through some fundamentally nation-changing constitutional amendments.

These changes opened the way for Rajapaksa to remain president for as long as he wants and reduced to impotence both parliament and the other institutions intended to curb and contain the power of the executive presidency.

With two brothers as government ministers, a third as speaker of parliament and his son as an member of parliament, the administration of Sri Lanka now looks like a Rajapaksa family business.

Rajapaksa's supporters and advocates of Wednesday's amendment say the changes are necessary to provide Sri Lanka with basic stability as the country attempts to rebuild and progress after 26 years of civil war. And if the presidential powers are a bit muscular, say supporters, that's necessary to ensure the Tigers don't rise again and that Tamil separatism in the north of the island is not revived.

The 18th constitutional amendment , passed on Wednesday with more than enough votes to clear the two-thirds majority hurdle, does two things.

The first is that it removes the constitutional ban on a president serving more than two six-year terms.

Rajapaksa was first elected in 2005. His second term, after an early election, will start in November and with Wednesday's changes he will be able to run again in 2016 and again and again until the cows come home.

Supporters point out that Rajapaksa will still be required to face re-election every six years and the voters can throw him out any time they want.

That argument would be more convincing were it not for the second part of the 18th amendment.

The second part overturns the 17th amendment to the constitution of 2001, which was aimed at curbing the power of the executive presidency.

The 17th amendment created a 10-member Constitutional Council, which has a substantial degree of independence and which is responsible for making all senior institutional appointments.

So the council appoints members to the Election Commission, the Public Service Commission, the National Police Commission, the Human Rights Commission, the Permanent Commission to Investigate Bribery or Corruption, and several other boards.

One of the most recent examples of the value of the independence of the Constitutional Council and the institutions under its purview was the Election Commission's highly critical assessment of the skulduggery that went into Rajapaksa's January election victory.

In the future, such carping need not concern Rajapaksa because the 18th amendment gives the president the power to make all those senior appointments to positions that might otherwise act as a brake on his authority, but which are now patronage sinecures.

In truth, the whole constitutional framework of Sri Lanka is fundamentally flawed. The only place where the miscegenation between parliamentary and executive presidential systems has worked is France, and then inconsistently.

To cap it, Rajapaksa is, as one might guess, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and he has given the generals fair warning that they should stay clear of politics.

The man who commanded the army when it overran the Tamil Tigers in May last year, Gen. Sarath Fonseka, attempted to turn that fame into a political career by running against Rajapaksa in January's election.

Not only was Fonseka trounced at the ballot box, he has since been arrested and charged with breaching military law, including treason.

There was, quite rightly relief and some applause when Rajapaksa and the Sri Lankan army defeated the Tamil Tigers last year.

The war had gone on too long and the Tigers had shown they could not be trusted to stick to a political solution.

But instead of using the opportunity to be magnanimous in victory and embark on a generous and genuine campaign of reconciliation and reconstruction, Rajapaksa has succumbed to meaner instincts.

He is now taking the country down a path all Sri Lankans will come to regret.

© The Vancouver Sun

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Saturday, September 11, 2010

The fast track to the loss of democratic freedoms

By Shanie | The Island

"According to the theories propounded it does no matter what you do. People have no right to question you! They say ‘We have the right to decide what we want.’ The Hon Minister of Finance stood up there and said ‘We have been chosen for five years. You have no right to make this request for the next five years. You have no right to express protest in this House. The people must take our decision.’

This is the kind of democracy against which we have agitated and all Leftists have agitated. What is this democracy? You elect a person. He comes in here by hook or by crook, and for five years the electors have no right to express their point of view whatever damnable thing this particular member may do, however blatantly he may betray the promises given to the electorate. He is entitled to continue whatever happens. Is this the kind of democracy they are advocating?"

That was Dr N M Perera in September 1953 moving a vote of no confidence in Parliament against the ruling UNP government.

The Minister of Finance referred to was J R Jayewardene. It was less than a month after the August 12 Hartal called for by the parties of the Left and just a year after the UNP had been returned to power in a convincing victory at the country’s second General Election. Dr N M Perera concluded his speech with an appeal to all members of Parliament to vote on the no confidence according to their conscience. ‘I want them’, he said, ‘in all conscience to ponder seriously on this question and then decide. Let them not say the Government Party has already decided. The situation has gone beyond that. This was clearly demonstrated on the 12th. From every part of the country, people responded to the Hartal. It was because they felt from the bottom of their hearts that this Government had betrayed them. We must give the people an opportunity to face the facts and then decide once and for all. In a democracy the people are masters and they must really decide the issue. Therefore I ask Hon Members to leave aside bickering and treat this motion in its larger context, and decide to support it irrespective of the consequences to the UNP as such."

The 1953 was actively supported by all parties and leaders of the Left – Mr Philip Gunawardene, Dr N M Perera and Dr S A Wickremesinghe. Even Mr S W R D Bandaranaike from the SLFP lent his moral support and stated that he was in full sympathy with the Hartal, with the aims and objectives of the Hartal. The 1953 Hartal was perhaps the turning point in the political life of this country. For the first time, people’s power was mobilized against the then powerful and arrogant government machinery. Without a doubt, it was the catalyst that within three years was to bring about the landslide victory for the Bandaranaike led coalition n 1956.

The manner in which the Eighteenth Amendment has been rushed through Parliament and the totally unprincipled methods used to obtain the votes of 161 parliamentarians was reminiscent of the arrogance of the UNP government in 1953 – an arrogance that brought about its eventual downfall in a fast track way. What is more pathetic is that the 161 votes included that of the five Parliamentarians of the so-called Socialist Alliance, the heirs to the political legacy of the leaders of the 1953 Hartal. It was an act of betrayal rightly labeled as shameless opportunism by the politburo and central Committee members of their own parties. Unprincipled politics may provide short-term personal gain by way of perks and privileges but must lead invariably to the political wilderness in the longer term. It will take an enormous struggle for a new leadership to work on re-building their parties.

Only seventeen votes were cast against the Eighteenth Amendment and these votes came only from the TNA and DNA. It must be said to the credit of the TNA and DNA that they had the courage to stand up to he indecent heckling from the government benches and have their opposition to the Eighteenth Amendment recorded in Hansard. Butnot so the parliamentarians from the grand old party. They have shown their spinelessness and lack of strong leadership in the party and to the country. Unless the party changes itself, the country for the foreseeable future may be compelled to look to the DNA to provide the opposition at a national level.

Where do we go from here?

The Eighteenth Amendment is paving the way for an elected dictatorship. Near absolute power has been given to the Executive President. We have seen over the past four years how a President who enjoys legal immunity blatantly disregarded the Constitution by not appointing the Constitutional Council and, though it, the various independent Commissions. The public services, law enforcement and prosecutions were so politiicised that the public have lost confidence in the ability of any of the institutions responsible for these areas from acting in terms of the law and good governance.

The President is now vested with constitutional powers to make direct appointments to all these Commissions and institutions. The President will now, for instance, be solely responsible for appointments to the Elections Commission. But no chances have been taken. Some of the powers given to the Elections Commission to ensure a free and fair election have been removed by the Eighteenth Amendment. In the past, we have seen, despite those powers vested in the Elections Commissioner, the impotency of the Commissioner to enforce adherence to his instructions. Now even that facade of independence has been removed. Those who argue that the removal of the term limits means that a President who seeks re-election will have to obtain the people’s mandate will have to explain why this clause has been removed. So far in our history, no incumbent President who sought re-election has been defeated, with or without abuse of state and other resources.

The Eighteenth Amendment has been the first piece of legislation brought in by the government after re-election. It is now clear what their priorities are. J R Jayewardene after vesting himself with the powers under the 1978 Constitution once famously boasted that as the Executive President he could do anything except to change a person’s gender. Mahinda Rajapaksa has gone even beyond that. Since some of the checks and balances that existed have now been removed, civil society and religious leaders have to be extremely vigilant and provide leadership to the people. The political leadership, both in the government and the opposition, has failed us. J R Jayewardene deprived his main political opponent of her civic rights, with more than two-thirds of the then parliamentarians shamelessly agreeing. Today, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s principal opponent remains under custody with every prospect of more than two-thirds of our parliamentarians removing this thorn in their political life. Time was when the country looked to the judiciary as one of the checks on executive power. It was good to be reminded by the Civil Rights Movement of (Senator) Nadesan’s comment on the need for the Supreme Court to get it absolutely right when they are called upon to review so-called "urgent legislation."

It was heartening that in the run-up to the vote on the Eighteenth Amendment, so many leading citizens from civil society and the religious came into the open to voice their opposition. Theirs was not a cry in the wilderness. It has awakened the people to the dangers of untrammeled power, beyond judicial review, being vested in the executive. It is this momentum that needs to be maintained to ensure that our country returns to the path of democracy and people’s rights. The Civil Rights Movement in a statement issued in 1978 following "urgent legislation" being introduced by the J R Jayewardene government in the process of depriving Mrs Bandaranaike of her civic rights, stated: "Democracy does not mean that people are permitted to exercise their vote once every so many years but are expected to keep quiet in between. True democracy requires that the people are enabled to participate in the decision making process of government at every stage practicable, and an opportunity to consider, debate and make representations on proposed legislation is crucial to this."

Abraham Lincoln is quoted as having stated: "If you once forfeit the confidence of your fellow citizens you can never regain their respect and esteem. It is true that you can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time."

© The Island

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