Saturday, September 25, 2010

"Sri Lanka Army used phosphorus bombs": Civilian victims

By K.Sahadevan

Truth cannot be hidden for far too long. As for Sri Lanka, concrete and credible evidence of how the incumbent Rajapaksa government conducted and won the protracted war against the Tamil Tiger rebels keep surfacing.

A witness to atrocities in the final stages of the war against the Tamil Tiger rebels in the island’s north, making a voluntary testimony before a Presidential Commission of Inquiry, has said on September 19, 2010 that the military “used cluster bombs and phosphorus bombs against innocent civilians”, killing 400-600 civilians daily.

“The Army used banned phosphorus and cluster bombs against the LTTE, when the LTTE stage counter-attacks against the military fighter jets carrying out air raids on government-declared No-Fire Zones. This caused mass-scale destruction to the lives of the innocent civilians remained there. The situation went to the extent where approximately 400 – 600 were getting killed and 1,000 getting wounded on a daily basis,” N. Suntharamurthi, an official from the Pooneryn Agriculture Development Authority, shared his experience with the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) at Pooneryn.

If the video clip, accepted by the UN as an authentic one, showing the Sri Lankan soldiers shooting down a number of blind-folded naked Tamil youths at an unknown location in the northern war zone, has already become a credible evidence against the war-crime probe charges, the eye-witness accounts of the war-victims to its own Commission have placed the hawkish Sri Lankan government in an awkward position.

BBC barred

The appointment of yet another Presidential Commission in the annals of the history of Sri Lanka was aimed at neutralising the international pressure calling for an international probe on the alleged war crimes by the government troops during the final stage of the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Trying to give some credibility to this commission, the government held a session of hearing of this commission at the Kilinochchi, former political and administrative nerve centre of the LTTE. The motives of the government were exposed when the BBC was denied access to cover this session of hearings.

However, the motives of the Commission have backfired on the government’s face due to the brave but chilling eye-witness accounts of the civilians, who were fortunate or otherwise to have survived to relate the story. Perturbed by these startling revelations, the government immediately got its official military spokesman to deny all allegations outright.

It is now an open secret that senior journalist Prageeth Egnaligoda, who is missing over the past six months, was abducted because he was in possession of credible information with regard to the chemical weapons that the government troops have bought, kept in store and used during the final weeks of the war.

"Zero civilian casualty" myth

The verbal accounts of the people, who have witnessed their family members and next of kin getting killed in hundreds due to the usage of such weapons of mass destruction, have proved beyond any reasonable doubt that the Colombo government was violating the international laws in the war against its own people.

With the credible war crime evidences coming out, the government finds it difficult to defend its position that no such crimes were committed by its troops and not a single civilian was killed in the war by its action.

The government’s fragile position in this issue was very clear when President Mahinda Rajapaksa made a point in his address at the 65 th Session of the UN General Assembly this week that there are “serious problems with the current rules governing the conduct of the war”, implying that they need radical changes.

In what is widely seen as “the most controversial passage of his speech”, President Rajapaksa, who publicly challenged in local forums to face any international probe on war crime charges, said at this apex international forum that it was therefore “worth examining the capacity of international humanitarian law to meet today’s needs”.

Western duplicity

Western diplomats commenting on his speech said the Sri Lanka President, in a way, has accepted he would not be able to escape if the war crime charges are probed impartially and independently at international courts under the existing international laws.

It is as good as anybody’s guessing that the western diplomats who staged a walkout when Iranian President made controversial remarks suggesting that “the US government could have "orchestrated the 9-11 attack to reverse the declining American economy, and its grips on the Middle East, in order to save the Zionist regime”, decided not to protest to President Rajapaksa’s solemn idea of changing the existing international laws just to suit him.

As for the Sri Lankan President, the idea of changing the existing laws to suit his needs is something that he is well used to in his own land. Last week he brought a radical change in the country’s existing constitution to undermine the independence of the key institutions of the country, including police, judiciary and elections commission. The constitutional amendment which was hurriedly passed in the parliament without consulting the electorate, has removed the two-term limit of the president to rule the country.

Commenting further on the civilian hardships, Suntharamurthy has said that with the war getting aggressively spread across from north-western Mannar district to the north-eastern Mullaitivu, displacement of civilians became a commonplace.

“The displacement that began in Mannar stretched to Mullivaikkal. The suffering of civilians during this period of time was immense. Both parties to the war were responsible for this,” he said.

“Because the government established so-called No-Fire Zones and placed civilians in them, the LTTE was able to recruit new cadre at ease and also store weaponry in them. When we were in the safe zones, we had to face life-threatening circumstances. Using civilians as a protective shield, the LTTE attacked the Army using shells and quickly moved out of the area, only to have the army retaliate with shell and air attacks. Nearly 200 people were getting killed daily,” he told the Commission.

“Whenever we tried, the LTTE didn’t allow us to move and attacked us with raw blades. They shot into the air to scare us. At the same time, the Army also shot at civilians who attempted to cross into areas under their control”.

“Because of this, we stayed in the safe zone. Puthumathalan, Suthanthirapuram, Ambalavanpokkanai, Valaippadu and Valignarmadam were some of the areas we stayed in. On one occasion, Army shelling into the safe zone killed 17 women and 6 children on the spot,” he has said, calling on the LLRC to be different to the previous commissions of the country’s history.

Sources say that only fifteen of nearly four hundred persons, most of them women, were allowed to witness before the Commission.

Fate of the surrendered cadres

A woman giving witness before the Commission in Kandaavalai has said in her account that she had seen the LTTE combatants who had surrendered themselves to the government troops being taken away in sixteen buses on the final day of the war.

Meanwhile, the wife of a top Tamil Tiger leader has revealed that several key rebel leaders including her husband were missing, after surrendering to the government troops during the final days of the bloody war in May 2009.

Anandhi Sasitharan, the wife S. Elilan, LTTE’s former political commissar of the Eastern Trincomalee district has made these revelations to the BBC Tamil Service after giving her verbal account before the LLRC.

“I along with my three children and key LTTE leaders including my husband Elilan surrendered to the Sri Lankan government troops on September 18, 2009. They surrendered to the army as a big group led by an English school principal (Catholic priest) Rt Frances at Vedduvahal area in the Mullaitivu district followed by the civilians on that day,” she has said in a telephone interview last week.

“Wives and next of kin of those who surrendered to the military along with my husband have also been desperately searching for their loved ones, but there was no information about any of them to date. Even the Catholic Priest, Rt Frances has not been located to date,” Anandhi Sasitharan said, giving a detailed account of how and when they surrendered to the military.

“Among those surrendered along with Elilan were deputy leader of the LTTE’s political wing Thangan, administrative unit leader Poovannan, Iniviyan, Ilamparuthy, sports unit leader Raja and his three children, former LTTE in-charge of international affairs Lawrence Thilakar, Yogaratnam Yogi, Theepan, Kutty and Babu,” she said, adding that she could not remember the names of others.

“I was with my husband when surrendering took place, but the military officials identifying him as Mavilaru Elilan took him away and sent me, being a government servant, to the Vavuniya refugee camp”.

“There was no news of my husband to date, not even a letter. I met some of the disabled LTTE cadres who had already been released by the government. They too denied any knowledge of my husband,” Anandhi Sasitharan said in the BBC interview.

The Rajapaksa regime is already in trouble with its own army commander charging the top government defence authorities of giving orders to the ground commanders to shoot and kill a large number of key unarmed LTTE leaders, including its political wing head B. Nadesan and its peace secretariat head S. Pulithevan while surrendering with white flags, this is yet another evidence that indicates even the surrendered LTTE ex-combatants are missing while in protective military custody.

Witness protection

Meanwhile, senior Tamil leader and Member of Parliament of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) for the Jaffna district, Mavai Senadhirajah, has urged the government to give witness protection for the Tamil civilians who testified before its Commission.

Raising the witness-protection issue in parliament, MP Senadhirajah said that the official military spokesman has unfairly denied the witness accounts of the people before the commission.

“This has instilled fear among the people who came forward to share their experience before this Presidential Commission of Inquiry,” the Jaffna district MP has said.


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Saturday, September 25, 2010

Sri Lanka: Does the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission really listen?

Photo courtesy: The Sunday Leader

By valkyrie | Groundviews

The most recent sessions of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) were held in the conflict affected North from 18 to 20 September, at which a large number of persons, particularly women, made representations. Of course one wouldn’t know it by reading the newspapers, listening to the radio or watching television. In what appears to be a complete information blackout, Sinhala and English language media, which gave considerable prominence to representations made by those appearing before the Commission in Colombo, such as Jayantha Dhanapala and Austin Fernando, were conspicuously silent when the LLRC held sittings in the area where the final battle between the Sri Lanka armed forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was fought. In contrast, the Tamil newspapers carried heart wrenching accounts of mostly women who had lost, in many cases, their entire families.

According to Prof. G.L. Peiris, the Minister for External Affairs, the government established the LLRC ‘drawing upon the experience of South Africa in particular’ with the primary focus on ‘restorative justice, enabling people to pick up the pieces, to get on with their lives’. In his speech at the 9th IISS Asian Security Summit on 6 June 2010 he further reiterated that ‘The State is firmly resolved to put at their disposal all the resources that would facilitate this difficult task’.

Speaking about the LLRC at the 15th session of the UN Human Rights Council on 13 September, Hon. Mohan Peiris, the Attorney-General of Sri Lanka pointed to the public nature of its hearings and described the mandate of the Commission which includes ‘determining responsibility regarding past events in question related to the conflict’, while rejecting ‘aspersions already cast on the work of this Commission’. If assessed within the framework as set out by the Minister and the Attorney-General, what does the LLRC’s performance in Killinochchi and Mullaitivu tell us about the possibilities for post-war reconciliation?

The majority of persons in Killinochchi and Mullaitivu had no knowledge of the LLRC’s visit to the area. There were a few who had access to more resources and information than most and had written asking to appear before to the LLRC. These persons were informed of the Commission’s visit. Most others who heard the LLRC was going to hold sessions in the area only days prior to the visit, spent a couple of days attempting to ascertain the location of the hearing. Requests made to several government officials for information about the Commission’s visit either elicited no response or the people were informed they could not attend the sessions. With much difficulty, a large number of women found out where the hearings were being held and turned up in large numbers. It transpired that most of those living in the areas the Commission was visiting were women who had suffered injuries in the war and whose husbands, fathers and sons had either been killed or were in detention or ‘rehabilitation’ camps.

Although the merits of engaging with the LLRC can be debated, according to activists in the area, many women felt that being able to speak about the hardships and losses they had experienced was in and of itself a relief. As has been reported in the Tamil media the LLRC was clearly unprepared to cope with the number of women who turned up and therefore requested the women to make written submissions. The situation was exacerbated by the limited administrative support available to the LLRC, particularly with regard to Tamil translators, a fact which became glaringly apparent weeks ago when Minister Douglas Devananda who appeared before the Commission made his representation in Tamil. It seemed the Commissioners were also not equipped to deal with persons who had experienced immense hardship and were in need of emotional support. Once again, as has been widely reported in the Tamil media, the women often became emotional or broke down in the middle of their representations. The Commissioners however showed little sensitivity or empathy. Women also reported seeing men who appeared to be CID officials photographing persons who made representations and even those who attended the hearings.

In this context, can one believe that this, in the words of Prof. Peiris, ‘home grown, home spun mechanism’ has the capacity to bring ‘people together, accentuating, not the things that divide them, but the whole reservoir of values which all the people of Sri Lanka share’? Was U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton wrong in her assessment when she reportedly told Prof. Peiris that ‘This experiment holds promise’?

The non-existent media reportage of the sittings of the LLRC in Killinochchi and Mullaitivu illustrates the challenges faced in constructing an alternative narrative about the war from the perspective of the affected person- the victim-survivor. The reasons for the deafening silence of the media are manifold. The most obvious reason is the fear of the state that charges of war crimes might be leveled against it at an international forum which has meant that anyone who has sought to construct an alternate narrative of the war has been and continues to be vilified and attacked. Dishearteningly, the majority of Sri Lankans appear satisfied with the version put forward by the state and exhibit hostility towards anyone who seeks to deconstruct the dominant ‘truth’. The other reason is related to the militarization of the Vanni and the treatment of its population. As evidenced by the refusal to grant permission to the BBC to travel to the area and cover the proceedings, more than a year after the end of the war movement in and out of the Vanni remains strictly controlled. Local and international humanitarian organisations that wish to work in the return areas have to obtain approval from a number of state structures with little transparency about the procedure to submit applications. For instance, to date, the working methods and rules of procedure of the Presidential Task Force are unknown.

The only constant in this scenario is that rules are ad-hoc and can change without notice at any moment. Even organisations that wish to merely visit the Vanni to conduct assessments of the needs of the population in order to formulate projects to address them or meet with local organisations in the area, have to obtain approval to travel to the area. Although the government is supposedly committed to enabling the returnee IDPs rebuild their lives, its’ actions indicate callousness toward a population that continues to be monitored, controlled and prevented from living with dignity. Even those who travel to the area to visit family or relatives are reportedly not allowed to stay overnight. Of course, there are no published rules regarding work or travel to the return areas that are accessible to the public. This could even lead defenders of the state to declare that these ‘rules’ and restrictions on travel and movement are imaginary but the experience of organisations and individuals who work or have tried to work in and travel to the area prove otherwise.

Although many individuals, the majority of them women, have appeared before the LLRC despite possible harm, threats or intimidation they may suffer, can and should people be expected to engage with the Commission and tell their stories, which most often challenge the dominant narrative of the war, in the context of a heavily militarised environment in which they are unable to exercise even the most basic rights to which they are entitled? Further, when men who appear to be state intelligence services are present and photographically recording those who appear before the Commission, how can the safety of those who make representations be guaranteed, particularly women who live alone and are already vulnerable due to lack of shelter, electricity and other factors that contribute to their physical security?[1]

Leaving aside the issues related to the limited mandate and legitimacy and impartiality, or lack thereof of the Commission, the manner in which it has managed the sittings in the war affected areas illustrates the lack of respect for the lived experiences of these people. It also makes one wonder whether the voices of the war affected will be reflected in the final report and recommendations of the LLRC. A Commission with the stated aim of promoting national unity and reconciliation needs to exhibit greater transparency and engage with the public. For instance, when it travels to the former conflict areas, the place of hearing and procedure to be followed when making a representation should be widely disseminated. As those in the return areas do not have access to electronic media it should be done through the distribution of pamphlets, posting notices in the GA offices etc.

Although no process can offer a complete version of the past as there will always be contested versions of events, for a people whose lives have been so brutally torn apart by war the least the state could provide is freedom to place their experiences within the public space. The hearings in the war affected areas are important as they will enable the construction of a narrative of the war that challenges the dominant state sponsored narrative which denies the suffering of the people and refuses to allow them public space to grieve and acknowledge their losses. Based on the manner in which the Commission has functioned to date, one is forced to conclude that it is most likely to lend itself to the project to reinforce the dominant state narrative thereby ensuring that the dissenting voices of the war affected are permanently silenced, memories erased and history re-written. This collective amnesia, which is being foisted upon the people, can have dangerous consequences, from bolstering a culture of impunity to self-blame on the part of the victim-survivors. The government has repeatedly stated that the LLRC’s focus is restorative justice rather than retributive justice implying that issues of accountability and justice will not be examined or discussed. In doing so they fail to recognize that restorative justice does not constitute erasing the past and denying victims and survivors the right to grieve and memorialize.

At the hearings in Colombo every person who appeared before the Commission was asked for his/her opinion on the means through which communities can be reconciled in post-war Sri Lanka. Yet, at the hearings in Killinochchi and Mullaitivu the Commissioners failed to understand that the first step towards reconciliation is allowing people to live with dignity, which in the case of those affected by the war includes enabling their narratives to become part of the broader narrative about the war.

© Groundviews

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Saturday, September 25, 2010

As Ban meets Sri Lanka Rajajaksa, UN War Crimes Panel not mentioned

By Matthew Russell Lee | Inner City Press

When Mahinda Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka met with the UN's Ban Ki-moon on Friday morning, Ban did not raise the slow starting UN panel of experts on war crimes in the country.

Five hours after the meeting, the UN issued a terse summary of what was discussed. It mentions only Rajapaksa's own “Lessons Learnt” panel, and not the UN's.

Inner City Press, covering the meeting on Sudan later on Friday with a “free range” UN pass, noted Sir Lanka's Prime Minister G.L. Peiris seated on the North Lawn's second floor, reading.

In his previous trip inside the UN, Peiris refused to take any questions from the Press. In Washington, he walked out of a session at the National Press Club when he thought tough questions might be asked.

Neither he nor Rajapaksa have scheduled any press availability at the UN, unlike, only on Friday, the Presidents of Bolivia, Cyprus and Nigeria, to all of whom Inner City Press asked questions.

While Ban met with Nigeria's Goodluck Jonathan before he met with Rajapaksa, the UN's summary of the Nigeria meeting was issued hours before the Sri Lanka one. Does this reflect greater checking with or push back by Sri Lanka? Or, some ask, ineptitude in the UN's Sri Lanka team?

Its last read out about Sri Lanka came out at 10 p.m. When Inner City Press asked if it had been checked with the government, spokesman Martin Nesirky said no, there had just been a technical snafu. But how come a snafu on Friday as to Sri Lanka, and not Nigeria?

Here is the UN's Sri Lanka summary:

From: UN Spokesperson - Do Not Reply

To: [Inner City] Press
Date: Fri, Sep 24, 2010 at 4:42 PM
Subject: Readout of the Secretary-General's meeting with President Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka

Readout of the Secretary-General’s meeting with President Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka

The Secretary-General’s discussion with President Rajapaksa focused on the need to move forward expeditiously on outstanding issues covered in the joint statement of May 2009, particularly a political settlement, reconciliation and accountability. The Secretary-General underlined that the President’s strong political mandate provided a unique opportunity to deliver on his commitments to address these issues. The President underlined that development and education in the North were integral to national reconciliation. He gave examples of progress made on reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts in this regard.

The President updated the Secretary-General on the work of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission.

But what about the UN's panel? And what about the answers promised long ago by Ban's spokesman Nesirky about Ban's personal relationship with Rajapaksa, including prior to becoming Secretary General?

© Inner City Press

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Saturday, September 25, 2010

Sri Lanka may deduct more money from private worker salaries

Lanka Business Online

Sri Lanka's government may take away more money from the salaries of private sector workers to set up another pension fund, a government minister said, amid concerns about the management of an existing fund.

The new pension fund may take up to two percent from the salary of a private sector worker and make employers contribute another two percent, labour minister Gamini Lokuge said.

Final details of the new pension scheme are being worked out, Lokuge told, our sister news website.

The minister said government may also contribute to the new pension fund.

"Right now the government's contribution to the pension fund is being calculated," Lokuge said.

The 'government' gets money from taxing the people, borrowing or printing money and creating inflation, but Sri Lanka's rulers have for years have behaved as if the government has its own sources of money.

State enterprises which could generate money are also making record losses. Critics say any government spending therefore increases the burden on all the people including private sector workers and is therefore a deceptive practice.

State workers and politicians do not have to contribute for their pension and which has defined benefits and gets it from state tax revenues. They also do not pay income taxes on their salaries while private sector workers are forced to pay income tax.

At the moment private sector workers contribute 8.0 percent of their salaries to the Employees' Provident Fund' (EPF) which has been largely used to finance government borrowings at rates that are not fully market determined.

The employer contributes 12.0 percent.

Another fund has been made with a 3.0 percent of a salary contributed by employers. Private sector workers have no say on the investment policies of either fund, regardless of their age, financing needs and ability to bear risks.

Even the earnings of the EPF are taxed while state workers and politicians get tax free pensions.

Some have resorted to desperate measures like defaulting on loans collateralized from their pension balances to get the money out.

A few years ago an attempt to create a contributed pension fund for state workers was scuttled by the next administration that came to power.

© Lanka Business Online

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Saturday, September 25, 2010

IMF approves US$ 212.5 million fourth tranche of SBA to Sri Lanka

Colombo Page

The Executive Board of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Friday completed the fourth review of Sri Lanka's economic performance under the Stand-By Arrangement (SBA) and approved an immediate disbursement of about US$ 212.5 million.

Under the US$ 2.5 billion SBA approved by the IMF in July 24, 2009, the IMF has so far disbursed a total of about US$ 1.27 billion to Sri Lanka.

The Executive Board today also concluded the 2010 Article IV consultation with Sri Lanka, a press release issued by the IMF said.

Following the Executive Board's discussion on Sri Lanka, Murilo Portugal, Deputy Managing Director and Acting Chair, has said that Sri Lanka's performance under the program has been satisfactory as overall economic conditions are improving and the economy is likely to show strong growth this year on the back of improved fundamentals and political stability.

Sri Lanka recorded an economic growth rate of 8.5 percent in thee second quarter of 2010, the highest ever recorded quarterly GDP growth since 2002.

The Acting Chair has pointed out that "sustaining high, socially inclusive growth will require substantially higher levels of private investment, underpinned by broad-based structural and financial sector reforms."

Portugal has said that the current favorable environment allows the authorities to focus on addressing the many challenges that remain, particularly in the fiscal and financial sectors.

"Policies will be geared toward preserving macroeconomic stability, ensuring external competitiveness, facilitating capital market development, and improving the investment climate," he has stated.

The IMF official has highlighted that fundamental tax reform, including reform of the investment promotion regime, is central to achieving the government's budget deficit reduction targets while creating the fiscal space for reconstruction and infrastructure investment, as well as social spending.

In this regard, the IMF says the 2011 budget will be the key to demonstrate the government's continued commitment to the program's goals.

The IMF says further improvements in monetary policy formulation will provide useful support for macroeconomic stability and the country's Central Bank now in a position to move gradually toward a flexible framework to target the inflation more directly.

The recent introduction of more exchange rate flexibility will support such a transition while also helping to maintain competitiveness, it says.

"The government's financial sector reform agenda is on track. Further reforms include putting in place a deposit insurance system, establishing a regulatory framework for private sector pensions, and deepening capital markets, which will facilitate private investment," the Deputy Managing Director and Acting Chair has stated.

Sri Lanka has seen a remarkable progress in the country's economy after the government wiped out the separatist Tamil Tiger rebel group, LTTE, in May 2009 and ended the three-decade long armed conflict.

© Colombo Page

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Saturday, September 25, 2010

Sri Lankan government urged to say sorry for war years

By Charles Haviland | BBC News

Abusiness leader in Sri Lanka has called on the government to apologise for itself and on behalf of previous regimes for suffering during the war.

It was the latest in a series of submissions given to a government-appointed commission examining the final years of the conflict.

It has also emerged that witnesses in the north accused the armed forces of killing civilians in shell attacks.

The government says that defeated Tamil Tiger militants are to blame.

Former Ceylon Chamber of Commerce President Chandra Jayarathne said that after its victory celebrations last year the government should have undergone what he called a "process of atonement".

He said that he hoped the commission would lead to a "public expression of regret and apology on behalf of all the leaders and governments of the past, specifically to the war victims and to the nation at large".

Mr Jayarathne also said that, among other things, there was a perception that disappearances and arbitrary arrests were still continuing.

According to accounts emerging from the panel's visit to what was the Tamil Tigers' last stronghold earlier this week, a Tamil civilian who fled the war zone accused the navy of repeatedly shelling refugee boats as they crossed a lagoon to escape, even though they shouted that they were civilians.

Eight people were killed.

In separate testimony, a woman also described how her daughter and son-in-law were also killed by shells as they fled.

Witnesses accused the Tamil Tigers of violently trying to stop them from escaping.

The BBC was barred from the proceedings in the north - these accounts came from Tamil-language newspapers.

© BBC News

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