Thursday, September 16, 2010

Protection from thought: The Economist and National Security in Sri Lanka

By Groundviews

In what may be explained as an utterly fatuous action in a country that apparently has no official policy on censorship – but is plagued by the arbitrary regulation and control of online content as well as print media – Customs officials have detained two issues of the Economist this year. In addition, reports indicate that several other issues of the Economist have been withheld by Customs, including two issues published in May of 2009.

Similarly, in July of 2009, The Economist was withheld at Customs once again for an article, titled ‘Victory’s rotten fruits’, that commented on the distasteful triumphalism that followed the end of war in May 2009. A news report last month by the Sunday Times that obtained a statement from Lakshman Hulugalle, the Director General of the Media Centre for National Security, provides a lacklustre exposition of why foreign publications may be censored in the future:

Asked what the government policy was in detaining foreign publications, Mr. Hulugalle said if they were “harmful to national security”, they would be disallowed.

The application of the rationale for censorship in Sri Lanka is as misguided as the ad hoc policy in place at Customs with no clear guidelines or capacity to determine what type of content might ‘legitimately’ undermine ‘national security.’ It is discernible to any reader familiar with the articles in question that the censorship of the magazine is explicitly related to the unfortunate dexterity of heavily politicised institutions of the state to distort dissent as an act of disloyalty and further justify their irrationality with a tiresome jingoistic diatribe. The latter has perniciously marked out the acceptable and unacceptable in expression, publication, circulation and the access to information. As an institution, Customs falls under the authority of the Ministry of Finance – one of the numerous portfolios under President Rajapakse and that relation itself may be an explanation for the sporadic displays of loyalty through censorship.

However, the content of the most recent articles that have been withheld are far from a revelation and could hardly be determined as being so overwhelmingly controversial that it might undermine the security of the nation and hence warrant restriction. If these articles have any value, it is that their content reflects a critical stand against the politics and policies of the incumbent government. For the purpose of highlighting the doltish attitude by the apparatchiks of the government towards the value of dissent, a recapitulation of the most significant sections of the content in these articles would have significant heuristic value for further debate on the acceptable, if not pragmatic, limits of censorship. In ‘Rebuilding, at a cost’ the Economist notes,

‘The authorities say that land will be dished out through open tenders. But local leaders fear plots will instead be handed to henchmen of the president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, most of whom come from the Sinhala-dominated south. Demands for preferential treatment for the inhabitants of Trincomalee, whether Tamil, Sinhala or Muslim, may fall on deaf ears…A soldier on the road to Mutur says government officials visit regularly, adding disgustedly that he is forced to salute the likes of Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan, a former LTTE leader who is now deputy minister of resettlement, whereas “war heroes” like the former army commander, Sarath Fonseka, languish in jail…A wider crackdown against the opposition seems to be under way. Also on August 13th two MPs from Mr Fonseka’s Democratic National Alliance were arrested during what they called a “pro-democracy” protest. Police wielding batons and firing tear gas charged the demonstrators. The country may be developing after the war, but democracy still looks frail.’

Following the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment, last week’s issue of the Economist highlighted in an article titled ‘Eighteenth time unlucky’ that,

‘Indeed, whatever problems Sri Lanka’s political system suffers from, the weakness of the presidency, which is already directly responsible for over 90 institutions, is not one of them. Quite the contrary: Mr Rajapaksa himself, before he tasted its benefits first-hand, used to campaign for the abolition of the executive presidency… Such important changes should have been put to a referendum. Mr Rajapaksa might well have won one. But a campaign would at least have thrown the issues open to public debate and scrutiny…That he has preferred to put the consolidation of his family’s power ahead of a sorely needed national reconciliation with an aggrieved Tamil minority is a decision Sri Lanka will repent at leisure.’

Emphasis ours. Perhaps after carefully reading every single article in every single copy of the Economist, Customs have now released the issue.

If our patriotic policy-makers persist with the principle of ‘national security’ as a justification for the proscription of the content above, then it is worth questioning both their judgment and intelligence with reference to two specific points. Firstly, it is incomprehensible that the content covered by the article on the Eighteenth Amendment can undermine national security, given that the verbal jousts in parliament, reportage by citizen and mainstream media have exhaustively covered similar criticisms and opposition to the bill by intellectuals, lawyers, journalists, independent analysts and political parties. In addition, the article on the perils of post-war development, with its relatively mild references to nepotism and the stifling of the Opposition, hardly poses any sort of threat and it would be sophomoric to argue that the content could possibly cause insecurity.

Secondly and in congruence with the latter point, the demographic that actually read the Economist in Sri Lanka is, unfortunately, significantly small and further, even if the Economist print edition is consistently detained by Customs in the future, it will still be accessible on the web, emailed around, posted on blogs, linked to on other websites and printed in other mainstream newspapers. The wider implication in the continuation of this bootless and inane policy would be the resulting erosion of public trust in the institutions of the state, especially when responsible and pragmatic policy-making appears to be so demanding that it ceases to exist.

It follows that while holding up issues of the Economist at Customs does nothing at all to impede the dissemination of the magazine’s engaging content amongst subscribers in Sri Lanka, it does have two unintended consequences for the Rajapakse regime. One, as a consequence of censoring a specific issue, it becomes far more popular than it would have had its sale and dissemination in print form been allowed in the country. Secondly, every instance a copy is banned, domestic and international scrutiny on post-war censorship in Sri Lanka gets a vital boost.

It is quite clear that the remnants of an arbitrary and inchoate war-time policy on censorship continues to exist and is derived, if not complemented, from the occasional inability of the government to tolerate dissenting views. In this specific case of censorship it appears that officials and the apparatchiks of the government have misinterpreted dissent towards the government as an attack on national security or worse, they may zealously believe that any dissent towards the government might actually undermine the security of the nation. In any case, following a miraculous improvement in comprehension on the part of all authorities concerned in this matter, inquiries need to be made regarding the utility of enforcing an unofficial and what is ultimately an ineffective policy with clear partisan interests; the lack of any acceptable reason provided by officials for withholding the Economist; and the guidelines, if any exist, that have been provided to the Customs officers. Unfortunately, in the hopeless anticipation of a response from the grand arbiter, it is entirely certain that we might have to endure an inordinate delay for a response, the insult of a lack of response and the prolific ability of authorities to feign ignorance.

© Groundviews

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Thursday, September 16, 2010

‘Any country facing terrorism should follow Sri Lankan model’ - Sri Lankan Defence Secretary

By Ramesh Ramachandran | Asian Age

In an exclusive interview, Sri Lankan defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa says that his country’s military victory over the LTTE offers lessons for the international community. Excerpts:

Q. Recently you visited India for defence talks. There was defence cooperation for years before and during the conflict, so what are both sides talking today?

A. India could not do certain things, meet certain needs of the Sri Lankan armed forces, like supply of weapons, because of the sensitivities during the conflict period. Now that issue is no longer there, so we can think of going beyond that. The whole idea is to improve the defence relationship, to strengthen regional security, to improve maritime security in the Indian Ocean.

Q. There are concerns in India about China looking to beef up its presence in Sri Lanka, particularly its role in the Hambantota port project.

A. It is purely a business arrangement, nothing beyond that. I don’t think there is any issue in that sense. Wherever possible, when India has faced any security concerns, we have always bent backwards to accommodate them. With India, we are not looking at government-to-government relations alone; we are interested in people-to-people ties and trade. I know that Indian investors are interested in infrastructure projects in Sri Lanka. We are studying India’s successful PPP (public-private partnership) model.

Q. There has been criticism of the delay in the rehabilitation of the displaced Tamils.

A. I don’t think any other place in the world has so quickly resettled these people in their original habitats in such a short period. In one year we have resettled a majority of the three lakh IDPs. Very few are remaining, and that is because of the delay in clearing landmines. We cannot solve problems overnight but the government has aggressively invested more money in the North and East than the other provinces.

Q. Sri Lanka has also been criticised for not minimising the civilian casualties of the war.

A. India knows what is LTTE but most of the outside world does not. It was a most ruthless terrorist organisation. Some think the attack on the USS Cole was the first attack by a terrorist group but by that time the LTTE had done many attacks on ships. It had done more suicide attacks in one year in Sri Lanka than all the suicide attacks in Afghanistan and Iraq put together. The LTTE’s weaponry was equivalent to that of the armed forces — heavy artillery guns, mortars, machine guns, missiles, Naval suicide boats and, ultimately, even small aircraft. That was the magnitude of its military strength. So it was not a small insurrection or a civil disturbance. By defeating the LTTE, we have stopped the killings of innocent civilians.

Q. How are you dealing with the former LTTE combatants?

A. We have rehabilitated about 500 child soldiers. We started a skill development programme for the 11,000 former combatants who surrendered; some of whom have completed this programme and joined the society.

This is the truth but the other side does not know the true story.

Q. What can the world learn from Sri Lanka’s experience with terrorism?

A. What we have done is to defeat the terrorists. I should say any country which faces terrorism should follow the Sri Lankan model. I think in fighting terrorism as well as humanitarian assistance in a conflict like this, there are lots of lessons for others to learn rather than criticise. But there were concerns about humanitarian assistance during the conflict. Our military operations and humanitarian assistance ran parallely.

One can say the actions were not effective, maybe there were weaknesses, but it was a success. Of course, there were issues but in a situation there would be issues.
We had no-fire-zones and restrictions on use of heavy weapons which are not normally done anywhere in the world in this type of situation, but we did that.

Q. Looking back at the last days of the conflict, would you have done anything differently? There were reports that some LTTE leaders wanted to surrender but they were shot, there was also talk of ceasefire.

A. Prabhakaran did not want to surrender. Even the night before they were defeated, they tried to launch a counter attack and escape.

There would have been no problem if they had surrendered, but we came to that last minute after a hard battle and a lot of sacrifices, so we were not ready for ceasefire.

Q. And did they inform the UN?

A. Nobody informed us about any surrender. We took the time to defeat the LTTE because of the civilians. If we had no such concerns, we could have bombarded the place, used all our artillery and walked through within a day but we took over two months. So the international community must consider the risks that we took.

Q. Looking ahead, do you have a political solution of the ethnic problem, a devolution package?

A. Political jargons alone will not bring about a solution. We have created an environment for everybody to live peacefully, as Sri Lankans, as one nation. All other issues are for politicians. The ground reality is we must give people the opportunity to live peacefully, with jobs and education. That is what they want and the government will ensure that is there in Sri Lanka.

Q. What will be your message to the Lankan-Tamils living in India and abroad?

A. Some of them left long ago; others, more recently. The second and third generations have concerns about their children’s education. I know it is difficult to give all that up and come. But if they come, they are most welcome. I think they must bring their know-how, knowledge, and invest their wealth here because development is the main requirement.

© Asian Age

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Thursday, September 16, 2010

Sri Lanka President leaves for the US

Colombo Page

Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa left for the United States this morning on a private visit, sources at the President's office said.

The President is however, expected to attend the 65th Session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York commenced on 14 September 2010.

General Debate of the 65th Session of the UN General Assembly is to commence on September 23 and continue until September 30.

Last year, Prime Minister Rathnasiri Wickramanayaka represented Sri Lanka at the UN General Assembly.

© Colombo Page

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Thursday, September 16, 2010

Iranians now in Colombo, keenly eyeing maritime agenda

By Joseph Thavaraja | Asian Tribune

The delegation led by Iranian Commerce Minister Mehdi Ghazanfari which is now in Colombo is keenly looking for maritime ties with Colombo port.

They will be looking to sign no less than 6 MoUs on ‘customs’ and ‘acceptance of each other’s maritime certificates’. The Iranian delegation will also propose to link Colombo port as a ‘sister port’ to Shahid Rajaei new port located in the historic port of Bandar Abbas.

Iranian Commerce Minister Mehdi Ghazanfari has also announced in Colombo that the trade value between Iran and Sri Lanka has surpassed US $ one billion.

The 9th Joint Economy and Trade Cooperation Committee meeting between held in Colombo, ended Tuesday (14).

© Asian Tribune

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