Wednesday, December 28, 2011

‘The Tamils demand impossible things’ - SL President

Interviewed by R. Bhagwan Singh | Deccan Chronicle

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), ending the 30-year-old ethnic war. But a political settlement eludes the country. In this interview with R. Bhagwan Singh at his Temple Tree residence in Colombo, the President spoke about relations with India and China, and the difficulties in relation to the Tamil question.

The Western countries are demanding a probe into “war crimes” in Sri Lanka. How are you going to deal with this issue?

The LTTE remnants in these Western countries are bringing pressure on political leaders there to raise baseless issues against Sri Lanka. Western countries talk about Kashmir and Sri Lanka in their Parliaments, but keep mum about what they did in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and so on.

After the 1880 uprising in Ceylon’s Uva (in the south), the British rulers killed every male aged above 14, and destroyed all water reservoirs to force the people into starvation. They took away land. They did that in India, too. And they talk of human rights now. The West wants me to be their lackey and I refuse to be that.

There is a feeling in India that you are leaning towards China, and that could hurt India’s geo-political position in this part of the Indian Ocean.

For me, India is first, and others come only after India. As soon as I came to power, I went to India and got their support; after that, I did not have to bother about the UN, UK, US, and so on. In fact, we got help from the US by way of vital information about LTTE ships which made it possible to destroy them at sea.

As for China coming here with major infrastructure projects, I must tell you that every project that we gave the Chinese we first offered to India, including the big port project in Hambantota, but there was no response. Even the Colombo port expansion was advertised but only the Chinese came.

The war ended more than two and a half years ago. The LTTE has been eliminated but the Tamils’ demand for autonomy still seems strong as the victory of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) in the last parliamentary election shows. How do you intend addressing Tamil concerns? The Jaffna Chamber of Commerce (JCC) has said that the Tamil diaspora will not invest in the country until there is a political settlement.

These elections were held under the proportional representation system. There was also a substantial number that voted against the TNA. You must note that 54 per cent of Tamils live outside the north and the east. The JCC is free to have its opinion, but there are Sri Lankan Tamils abroad who have shown interest in investing in the north. We are keen on a sustainable political settlement. But it must have wide acceptance, especially in the context of the post-conflict situation.

Regional autonomy was a slogan used by the terrorists and their apologists. The need is for strong unity in diversity, for which regional autonomy is not the only way. A better approach would be equality of opportunity, and the spread of democratic freedom and rights, together with speedy economic development of the north, in tandem with other regions of the country.

How do you propose to address the question of devolution?

As for devolution, we have already elected provincial councils in all provinces other than the north. It will be established there, too. There must be discussions on how the provincial administrations could be strengthened and improved, with greater economic and development activity devolved. This is a process of democratic expansion in which all communities and political groups, as well as the key economic players, should participate.

Many say that the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) you have proposed will not be useful because there have been many such committees before, but the political problem has remained the same.

The PSC is a good approach to what has been a vexed problem because in a democracy it is Parliament that will ultimately have to agree to any solution. Unfortunately, the TNA has not named its representatives to the PSC. They (TNA) have the same attitude as the LTTE.

They demand impossible things — merger of the north and the east, land policy and police. See what happened in your country when Rahul Gandhi was travelling in Uttar Pradesh. Chief minister Mayawati tried to get him arrested. Do you think I want to get arrested by these people (by giving the Tamils a police force)?

The TNA seems to be driven by the Tamil diaspora, which does not want peace and political settlement, as they fear that their host countries might then send them back home. The TNA cannot represent the same separatist agenda of the LTTE, which will not find acceptance with the majority population. I want to work towards a solution but the TNA is not cooperating.

The local body and Parliament elections have been held in the north even during the conflict. So why does the government not hold provincial council election there now?

Elections will certainly be held in the near future. But one must realise the importance of the elections to a provincial council, which gives genuine opportunity to the people to participate. It is no secret that in the parliamentary elections that were held during the conflict, the people of the north were not allowed to exercise their franchise.

The LTTE acted against such democratic expression. Another fact is that the voting was on an old and outdated register, which makes the TNA’s success not as big as it seems. The LTTE prevented the conduct of a census in the north. Once proper electoral registers are prepared, we can hold election to the northern provincial council.

The Tamils are complaining that the north remains highly militarised even now. There are over 100,000 troops policing about 300,000 people. It is said that the Army’s permission is required even to hold a library association meeting or a school function. When do you propose to bring down Army’s involvement in the civil administration there?

There are more than 300,000 Tamils in the north. The military presence is not worked out in proportion to the population but the security needs of the region. The presence of the military in an area that has seen brutal armed conflict for nearly three decades does not amount to militarisation.

The military is playing a significant role in building infrastructure as the locals lack skills. Also, large sections of the north are yet to be de-mined. It is not true that school functions or library meetings and such activities require the permission of the military. But there could be cautious surveillance, knowing the nature of the defeated enemy. We are still getting hidden arms caches of the LTTE. The presence of the military will be phased out in keeping with security needs.

The Tamils suspect that their lands are being taken over to set up new Army camps or to be given to Sinhalese businessmen.

It is the LTTE rump which spreads these canards. The armed forces and their camps are present throughout our country. This is necessary to ensure Sri Lanka’s territorial integrity and to protect its sovereignty.

In Jaffna, there were many Muslims and Sinhalese before the LTTE chased them away, committing the first ethnic cleansing. Whether it is the Sinhalese, Tamils or Muslims, anyone who has been chased out of their traditional homes must be given their lands back. The majority status enjoyed by the Tamils in the northern province will not be changed by any actions of the

© Deccan Chronicle

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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Red Cross grieves loss of Briton killed in Sri Lanka

BBC News

A British man killed on holiday in Sri Lanka has been described as a "committed" Red Cross worker.

Khuram Shaikh, 32, of Milnrow, Greater Manchester, was a physiotherapist for the International Red Cross in Gaza.

He died early on 25 December after an attack on him and a colleague in the tourist resort of Tangalle. Four people have been arrested.

The Red Cross said it was "deeply shocked... and grieved by the loss". His colleague remains in hospital.

Mr Shaikh was the manager of the Red Cross's physical rehabilitation programme in Gaza, providing prosthetics for people who have lost limbs, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said. He had been there since September 2010.

A spokeswoman at the Jerusalem office said: "He went on holiday to Sri Lanka with a colleague and unfortunately this has happened.

"We are deeply shocked and the International Committee of the Red Cross is grieved by the loss. He was a very committed member of the Red Cross team in Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem."

A post-mortem examination showed Mr Shaikh had been attacked by a sharp weapon and shot, police said earlier.

His colleague, Russian Victoria Alexandrovna, 23, was being treated in Karapitiya hospital, Galle.

The ICRC spokeswoman added: "We cannot give any specific details of the circumstances of what happened because the criminal investigation is taking place.

"We are in contact with the local authorities and will follow it up with them."

She added that the organisation is making efforts to support Mr Shaikh's parents and his colleagues in Gaza.

There are also efforts under way to assist the family of Ms Alexandrovna.

© BBC News

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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Lankan lessons: War crimes and Rajapaksa regime

Photo courtesy: CHR Sri Lanka

Editorial | The Economic Times

Given scepticism about the intentions of the Rajapaksa regime, the big question mark over Sri Lanka's Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) was if it would impartially probe alleged war crimes committed by the Sri Lankan army during the last phase of the war with the LTTE or if it was part of Colombo's prevarication.

On the war crimes front, the LLRC's report, made public recently, is a disappointment. It has attracted criticism from UN-affiliated and other international rights groups, citing doubts about the LLRC's mandate and impartiality. The report virtually exonerates the Lankan army from the charge of deliberately targeting civilians, including using heavy artillery in the No Fire Zone.

Pertinently, Colombo had, then, after some nudging by New Delhi, sought to allay fears of a massacre by promising not to use heavy weaponry in the zone. Indeed, the LLRC's report even suggests that given the foggy nature of events during the last stages of the war, it is impossible to find out exactly what happened. This is bunkum.

Closure, as the report itself notes, is part of the process of reconciliation. And that means an independent, impartial enquiry into these alleged crimes is vital for that process to be meaningful. On some other counts, like, say, on missing persons and detainees, language policies, land issues, demilitarisation and so on, the report proposes some sensible measures. It also stresses that the devolution of powers issue is central for a reconciliation based on a political solution.

The murderousness of the LTTE was to blame too but, as the report notes, the whole conflict is rooted in the sense of grievances of the Tamil people. In that context, there have been fears the LLRC was set up as part of an effort by Colombo to stave off international pressure and buy more time while really not doing much on most issues in reality.

The Rajapaksa regime actually has been consolidating the Sinhala majoritarianism responsible for much of the conflict. Whether it will move, credibly and with visible effect, on even the forward-looking aspects of its own LLRC's report is the key question.

© The Economic Times

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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Concern grows for Sri Lankan activists

Photo courtesy:

Amnesty International

New information concerning the disappearance of Sri Lankan political activists, Lalith Kumara Weeraraju and Kugan Muruganandan, indicates that they may be held in official custody. Despite several complaints lodged with local authorities, no credible action has been taken to investigate their disappearance.

Lalith Kumara Weeraraju and Kugan Muruganandan were last seen leaving Kugan Muruganandan’s residence in Avarangal, Jaffna, northern Sri Lanka, at around 5:00 pm on December 9. There were preparing a press conference to be held the following day, aimed at publicizing a protest highlighting human rights violations.

Family members report they later received an anonymous phone call saying that Lalith Kumara Weeraraju had been killed.

On 14 December, Kugan Muruganandan’s wife visited Atchchuveli Police Station to collect a copy of a complaint she had lodged regarding his disappearance. She saw the same motorbike on which he and Lalith Kumara Weeraraju had last been seen, with license no NP GT 7852, inside the police station grounds. Police officers at the station told her that it had been found by the Kopai Police on 13 December, parked near a Hindu temple in Kopai. On 15 December, Sri Lankan Cabinet Spokesperson, Minister Keheliya Rambukwella stated to media that “Mr Weeraraju and Mr Muruganandan have not been disappeared, they are there,” viewed by some as an acknowledgement that the two men are currently being held in official custody.

Following the disappearance, a local parliamentarian lodged a missing persons complaint with Jaffna Police, who denied they were holding the two men in their custody. The same parliamentarian also submitted a written complaint to the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence and the National Human Rights Commission. However, despite these concerns being raised, no credible action has been taken to investigate the disappearance.

© AI

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Monday, December 26, 2011

The LLRC Report: A masterpiece of contortions

By Tisaranee Gunasekara | The Sunday Leader

“… From the very beginning there was a very clear military plan and in parallel…a plan for humanitarian assistance” - Gotabhaya Rajapaksa (Testimony before the LLRC)

“….the Commission is satisfied that the military strategy that was adopted…was one that was carefully conceived, in which the protection of the civilian population was given the highest priority.” (The LLRC Report)

A perceptive analysis of past errors and some judicious recommendations for the future constitute the strongest aspects of the LLRC’s much-awaited report. The Report, for instance, warns against disallowing the singing of the national anthem in Tamil, because such a ban will “create a major irritant which would not be conducive to fostering post-conflict reconciliation”. Its final recommendations argue that “the practice of the National Anthem being sung simultaneously in two languages in the same time must be maintained and supported…”

‘The practice of singing the National Anthem in two languages’ ended early this year; under orders from Colombo, provincial authorities compelled students of Jaffna Hindu College and Vambadi Girls School to sing the National Anthem in Sinhala. That order was a result of a cabinet decision (of 8.12.2010) which banned the singing of the national anthem in Tamil. President Mahinda Rajapaksa justified his ‘Sinhala Only National Anthem’ proposal with the factually incorrect argument that “in no other country was the national anthem used in more than one language”; he defined the practice of singing the national anthem in Tamil as a “shortcoming that must be rectified” (The Sunday Times – 12.12.2010).

Was the LLRC unaware that the ‘practice of singing the National Anthem in two languages’ is dead, has been dead for almost a year? Did the Commissioners not know that this practice was killed on Presidential orders? The Commissioners could not have been ignorant of this reality unless they suffered from collective and targeted amnesia. But acknowledging the truth about the national anthem would have been tantamount to an indirect critique of the President, the Commission’s appointing authority. The fate of Gen. Fonseka teaches that that hell hath no fury like a Rajapaksa opposed/criticised, especially when the dissident is a former official/acolyte. Caught between the rock of reality and the hard place of Rajapaksa ire, the LLRC turned contortionist; it warned of the danger of abandoning the bilingual national anthem as if this is a future pitfall and not a Rajapaksa-wrought fait accompli.

This episode is symbolic of the LLRC and its report. The Commission’s real mandate was to provide the Rajapaksas with a plausible fig-leaf. Last week, President Rajapaksa “…filed motion in the war crimes suit against him in the District Court of Washington DC” (Lanka Standard – 18.12.2011). This is one more indication of the Sibling’s desperate need to make peace with the West, without undermining their project of Familial Rule and Dynastic Succession. The LLRC too was born out of this desire; its job was to deflect international criticism and forestall a UN inquiry. Conscious of this raison d’être, the LLRC seemed to have worked while looking over its collective-shoulders at the Ruling Siblings. The Report faithfully reflects this anxious concern to please the powers-that-be. Minister Professor GL Peiris was dead right; the Report is a ‘true mirror of the humanitarian operation’ because that was what the Rajapaksas wanted it to be.

Most depositions by civilian Tamils mentioned in the Report present a picture which is almost totally at variance with the ‘humanitarian offensive’ myth. They detail the atrocities of the Tigers; they also tell of how No Fire Zones became Free Fire Zones. Tamil after civilian Tamil maintains that they were shelled by both sides. One civilian states that “there were aerial attacks by the air force” on the third NFZ. But true to its real mandate, the LLRC ignores this civilian evidence and embraces the myth of a ‘humanitarian operation’ peddled by its star (and most quoted) witness, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. Unsurprisingly; if the LLRC is chary of telling the truth about and apportioning responsibility for something as relatively innocuous as the scrapping of the Tamil language national anthem, will it have the courage to tell the truth about far more dangerous issues, especially if that truth discredits the Commander-in-Chief and his Brother?

By toeing the Rajapaksa line shamelessly, the LLRC deals a body-blow to the claim that the Rajapaksas can carry out an unbiased investigation of their own deeds. The LLRC’s pussyfooting approach thus inadvertently justifies the demand for an international investigation. Perhaps aware of this lacuna, the Commissioners juggle desperately to intersperse a largely incredible report with some credible insights and comments. So the Report advocates devolution while carefully refraining from mentioning the term ethnic problem, a Rajapaksa anathema. It is outspoken in its criticism of the EPDP and the TMVP for engaging in rights-violations, but religiously omits to mention that this impunity is granted and guaranteed by the Lankan Forces and the Rajapaksa Siblings. Post-war, these outfits have become key cogs in the Rajapaksa politico-electoral machinery, as symbolised by the transformation of Mr. Iniyabarathy, convicted criminal and alleged abductor, into a Rajapaksa-electoral organiser in the East. His ‘Deshamanya’ title, bestowed by President Rajapaksa this November, is symbolic and symbiotic of this amoral nexus.

Unfortunately the LLRC’s efforts may prove futile. A key witness in the Washington case against President Rajapaksa is reportedly a former Lankan major general who had ‘high security clearance and close contact with some of the army’s most powerful figures’. He had already given a deposition stating that Gotabhaya Rajapaksa passed on “some instructions to a field commander to get rid of those LTTE cadres who are surrendering without adhering to normal procedure…” and that “Mr. Rajapaksa sanctioned the creation of a ‘hit squad’…..” (Daily Telegraph – 18.12.2011).

By vindicating the Lankan Forces (and by extension the Rajapaksas) on all essential counts, the LLRC discredited itself and defeated its own purpose. A less blatantly partisan report could have been more successful at countering international criticism. But such a report would have infuriated the Rajapaksas and, that is a risk none can expect the LLRC to run, given the fate of Gen. Fonseka.

Abduction, Rape and Land-grabbing

19 months after defeating the LTTE and despite a mammoth defence budget, existence remains unsafe, unjust and brutish for many Lankans. This month human rights activists Lalith Kumar Weeraraj and Kugan Murugandan disappeared in Jaffna. In the South the regime is planning the next logical step in its land grabbing exercise. According to Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva, “Lands given to farmers under state grants, Mahaweli and Swarna Bhoomi deeds would be acquired if they have not been developed and used productively” (Sri Lanka Mirror – 21.12.2011). The Rajapaksas and their local minions will decide which lands are underutilised – an ideal way of acquiring fertile land for foreign agribusinesses and of threatening/punishing anti-government farmers.

December’s toll of this climate of impunity included a seven year old child who was abducted and raped; “The girl, who is a resident of the Kodikamam area was at her home with her family when she was abducted around 11 p.m. by a group” (Sri Lanka Mirror – 20.12.2011). If we are not outraged by this horror, and undisturbed by the deadly future it portends, will we not deserve that future?

© The Sunday Leader

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Monday, December 26, 2011

Sri Lanka: Protest in Jaffna over “disappearances”

Photo courtesy:

World Socialist Web Site

Amid police and military threats, about 200 mothers, wives and other relatives of disappeared persons held a protest on December 10 in Jaffna, northern Sri Lanka, to demand information about their loved ones.

Hundreds of Tamils “disappeared” during the 26-year communal war against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), particularly during the military offensive before its defeat in May 2009. Despite their denials, the military, police and associated paramilitary groups are directly implicated in these abductions and murders.

Such disappearances occurred not only in the North and East, but also in other areas, including Colombo. The security forces turned a blind eye as squads of thugs, often operating from white vans, seized people, mostly Tamils. The victims simply vanished and were likely murdered. These methods were bound up with the government’s police-state measures to silence political opponents and critics.

The protest was organised by several organisations, including Right to Life and the International Movement against Discrimination and Racism (IMADR). It was backed by the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), a bourgeois Tamil-based party, and several ex-left organisations, including the Nava Sama Samaja Party (NSSP).

Although the protesters genuinely wanted information about their loved ones, the organisers had their own agenda. TNA secretary Mavai Senathirajah told the gathering: “The UN should inquire into the Sri Lankan government’s human rights violations. These inquiries should be done publicly. Only that way people will have confidence.”

The TNA’s appeal to the UN for an investigation is a continuation of its futile appeals in the final months of the war for the “international community” to ask President Mahinda Rajapakse to end the military offensive. The US and other major powers are not defenders of democratic rights in Sri Lanka, but are using the issue of disappearances and other abuses to advance their own strategic and economic interests.

The TNA is seeking the support of these powers to pressure the Rajapakse government to grant it a role in administering the North and East on behalf of the Tamil ruling elite. The NSSP has stepped in to boost the TNA’s tattered credentials as the TNA seeks to re-establish itself within the Colombo political establishment.

The protest was held near the Jaffna central bus-stand and involved people from various parts of Jaffna Peninsula, Kilinochchi, Mullaithivu and Vavuniya, as well as Colombo. The army set up checkpoints at several junctions to harass and intimidate people going to the venue. People travelling the 30 kilometres from Point-Pedro to Jaffna had to pass through eight checkpoints.

Police vehicles patrolled Jaffna town. A squad of riot police was stationed about 75 metres away from the protest. Dozens of police and military intelligence officers were seen watching the area. Police had been mobilised at the bus-stand to threaten protesters and tried to drive them away. People refused to leave, arguing with police that they had the democratic right to conduct the agitation.

Police arrested Socialist Equality Party (SEP) member M. Kamaladasan while he was distributing an SEP statement on its campaign to demand the release of all political prisoners. He was kept at the Jaffna police station for more than one hour and only set free after SEP General Secretary Wije Dias spoke to the officer in charge and insisted on the party’s democratic right to campaign. Police also tried to harass journalists covering the protest.

Participants chanted slogans, including “Release our children, Release our loved ones. Where have they gone?” They displayed pictures of the disappeared persons.

SEP member Nadarajah Wimaleswaran, 27, and his friend, Sivanathan Mathivathanan, 24, disappeared in the Velanai area in Kayts while travelling from Punguduthivu Island on March 22, 2007. All the evidence pointed to the involvement of the Sri Lankan navy, but the military, police and judicial authorities covered up the crime.

The response of the security forces to the protests underlines the government’s fear over the mounting anger among Tamils to the continued military occupation of the North and East. During the final months of the war, the military’s air and artillery bombardment killed thousands of civilians. Around 300,000 men, women and children were herded into military-run detention centres and held without charge for months before being “resettled” into tents or makeshift shelters with little or no financial assistance.

There have been several protests in recent weeks. Jaffna university students boycotted classes for one week demanding the arrest of military personnel who attacked student leaders, including the student union president. Volunteer teachers have held a demonstration to demand permanent jobs. On December 6, unemployed graduates picketed outside the provincial governor’s office calling for jobs.

The WSWS spoke to several of the participants in the latest protest. A mother of three children explained her plight: “My husband went to obtain a pass to travel to Colombo in January 2007. At that time, the army unit stationed near the Sinhala College issued the passes. My husband did not return. I came to know that my husband was seized by the army there. I still search for him, going from one place to another. I am demanding his release. I work as a housemaid and struggle to bring up my children. We are terribly poor and helpless.”

One mother held up a photo of her daughter, Nadarajah Navaranjini, who was 27 years old when she disappeared in the Vanni area of northern Sri Lanka in 2009. The weeping mother made a desperate appeal to know her daughter’s whereabouts. The former was held at the military-controlled Manik Farm camp, where more than 250,000 civilians were incarcerated after the war. Now she lives as a refugee in Jaffna.

Another woman said: “On May 18, 2009—the final day of the war—we surrendered to the army at Vattuvaikkal in Mullaithivu with a group of other people. My husband, Mahendran Murugathas, 33, was arrested by the army. When I begged for his release, the soldiers said they would free him after an inquiry. They asked me to go to the camp. In front of my very eyes, the army took my husband, along with 40 others, onto a bus. I wandered to several camps in search of him. Still I have no news about him. The army arrested him. They should release him.”


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Monday, December 26, 2011

Searching for the boy with the violin

By Priyath Liyanage | BBC News

In the last months of Sri Lanka's civil war, nearly 300,000 Tamil civilians - driven out of their homes with the retreating Tamil rebels - were trapped in a small strip of coastal land in the north of the country.

While some people were released, others escaped. There was no choice but to walk through the raging battle towards the advancing government forces. It is still unclear how many people were killed in the shelling and crossfire.

This stage of the country's prolonged war was fought without independent witnesses. The story of these civilians who reportedly became a human shield for the Tamil Tigers is largely untold.

The only news of their plight was through the reports filed by embedded reporters of state media. Independent and foreign media, along with most international aid agencies, were removed from the battle zone.

One night, as I was going through reels of footage, I caught a glimpse of a young boy picking his way across the battlefield with a violin case slung over his shoulder.

His choice intrigued me: at a time when people were in fear of their lives and took the one thing they could carry, why was his instrument so precious? I wanted to know his story.

So, armed only with a blurry photo of this boy, I went back to Sri Lanka determined to find him.

I began in Vavuniya, a border town 160m (258km) north of the capital, Colombo. A major checkpoint there once divided the former rebel-controlled area from the rest of the country. More than two years after the war's end, the checkpoint is still active - the identity of every visitor is diligently checked.

From there I travel up to Jaffna, Sri Lanka's northernmost city and the centre of its Tamil community.

The best lead I have is a tip from a former music director who lost all his instruments during the war, and now works at a school. He doesn't recognise the boy in the photograph, but identifies the well-groomed man walking with him as a musician called Sri Khugan.

But all attempts to contact Sri Khugan fail. He doesn't want to speak and has switched off his mobile phone.

With its heavy military presence, some describe Jaffna as an "open prison".

The Tamil rebels didn't tolerate any dissent and although the power balance has changed, people are still afraid of the consequences of careless talk.

'Total impunity'

Well-known film director, R Keseverajan is open about the intimidation in the north.

"Only politicians say there is normalcy," he says. "We still have wounds in our hearts, those are not healed.

"A man who lost a leg at war will think of the war every time he tries to walk."

With his extensive contacts in the arts industry, Keseverajan suggested that the man in the picture could be Veera - a presenter on rebel TV. Disappointingly, this was another dead end - Veera was also reluctant to talk and after many attempts to get in touch, we heard he had left the north.

Keseverajan wasn't surprised. He told me about a recent attack on a university student. A young man was assaulted by masked motorcyclists in broad daylight - right in front of a military checkpoint.

"People are scared. There is total impunity here," he says.

I try my luck with another artist, Parvathi Sivapatham, a concert singer with a huge fan base and once engaged to sing propaganda songs for the Tamil Tigers. I imagined a musician of her stature to be living in a mansion but her home was a tiny house with a tin roof. She lost everything during the war - including her books and instruments.

"We are artists. What could we do but sing songs? In those days I sang songs for the Tamil Tigers," she says. "Now I sing traditional songs. I don't even think about those other songs. Life has to go on."

Like so many others, she too was wounded on her journey from the front and was able to save only one instrument.

"I managed to bring this shruthi box [a kind of harmonium]. I carried it in a little bag," she recalls. "Bullets were flying everywhere, but I was determined to bring it.

"It was the closest thing to my heart. I don't think I had any choice."

The boy with the violin remains elusive, but it is possible he could be one of the 7,000 people still held in the Menik Farm refugee camp. However, the defence authorities do not allow us in. People there are still waiting to be allowed to return home.

I meet Siva Ruben, a musician who had been a refugee in Menik Farm, but he doesn't recognise the boy or the man next to him. Siva now lives in a tiny tin-roofed shack with his wife and one-year-old daughter; he lost many of his family members during the war. His journey through the battlefield was traumatic.

"My sister got left behind in the crowd. I never saw her again," he tells me. "We had to leave many of the wounded to die. We walked over so many dead bodies. You can't choose who to help.

"I got shot in my arm, and was carrying my friend on my back - he had lost his leg. With all that, I still took my nadeswaram [oboe]. I left all other instruments behind. I only brought this. I can make a living playing this."

Our last attempt to identify the boy in the photo was to try an orphanage, home to hundreds of children who had lost parents during the fighting.

There we found a boy with a violin, but not the one we were looking for. He remains a glimpse on a newsreel.

The search for him took me across the north of the country. Along the way I met many musicians who came through death and mayhem.

More than two years since the end of war, the wounds in Sri Lanka are still fresh. When the music ends, what is left are laments they have inherited from the pain they have suffered.

© BBC News

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Monday, December 26, 2011

Rights group: Sri Lankan Tamil women exposed to sexual violence, trafficking after war

By Associated Press | The Washington Post

Ethnic Tamil women in Sri Lanka’s former war zones face abuses including sexual violence, trafficking and forced prostitution, an international human rights group said Wednesday.

The Brussels-based International Crisis Group said there have been credible allegations of sexual violence against women in those areas at the hands of both security forces and men from their own communities.

The group said many cases go unreported in the country’s north and east, where a 25-year civil war ended in May 2009 when government troops defeated separatist Tamil rebels.

Scores of Tamil women live alone, or with young children or elderly parents because their husbands are dead or in government detention.

“The fear of sexual violence in the home is widespread in part because the military’s access is unfettered and women often have no choice but to interact with them,” the group said in a statement.

“There are also alleged incidents of sexual violence when women go to the security forces for information about their detained husbands. These cases are especially difficult to corroborate, perhaps in part because these victims would put their husbands at risk if they came forward.”

Military spokesman Brig. Nihal Hapuarachchi said he has been monitoring events in the former war zones but has not come across any such incident.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

© The Washington Post

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Monday, December 26, 2011

Insurance penetration low; not seen as an investment: Fitch Ratings

Sunday Times

Fitch Ratings Sri Lanka has said that insurance penetration in Sri Lanka is low in relation to other Asian countries particularly because insurance is viewed as ‘a risk management tool rather than an investment vehicle’.

Another reason is that Sri Lanka’s relatively low per capita income. Total premiums/GDP is 1.2% versus a regional average of 6.2%3. The number of life policies/population was 10.9% at end-2010, and is rising.

It said the availability of a pension scheme for state employees has resulted in a lower appetite for insurance (investment policies) from this segment. However, investment-linked policies are gaining popularity, and the second-largest insurer in the market for life generated over 50% of its life premiums in 2010 from unit-linked products.

These comments came in the agency’s overview of Sri Lanka's life and non-life insurance sectors which it said is stable, indicating that most ratings are likely to be affirmed in the next 12-24 months.
This reflects the sound operational and financial performance of the insurers rated by Fitch, as well as their healthy capital position, while taking into account the challenges in maintaining market share and underwriting profitability in the non-life segment, the ratings agency said in a press release.

On improving capitalisation, Fitch said industry capitalisation should strengthen in the medium term; with capital requirements set to increase for existing companies, and mandatory listing requirements.
On intense competition in the motor sector, Fitch noted that as in most countries, price competition remains high in the motor segment, and new entrants have been eating into the market share of the larger, more established companies. As such, underwriting profitability remains under pressure, with many companies posting combined ratios1 of over 100%.

Aside from a contraction in non-life premiums in 2009, the sector has developed steadily over the preceding six-year period. In Fitch’s view, this growth is likely to be sustained due to the potential in the life segment. Life is still relatively under-penetrated, and prospects will brighten for the non-life segment with a sharp increase in new vehicle registrations – as well as overall economic prospects for the country.

On weaker capitalisation or solvency, the agency said a sharp decrease or sustained weakening in capitalisation or solvency ratios could lead to the outlook being revised to negative. On motor profitability, it said intensified competition in the motor segment which could further weaken underwriting profitability – owing to higher claims ratios – could be negative for ratings. Healthier competition with reduced pricing pressures and fewer concerns over market share, could be ratings positive.

Fitch said it believes that higher premium growth in 2010 and H211 is sustainable over the medium term given improving lapse ratios and growth potential in the life segment, as well as higher vehicle demand and trade activity supporting non-life growth prospects. Fitch’s forecast for GDP growth in 2012 is 7.5%-8.0% for 2012.

It said the Sri Lankan insurance market has seen steady (albeit slow) growth over the 2006-June 2011 period, with the exception of a contraction in 2009. Non-life premiums shrunk by 3.1% in 2009 owing to a weak macro economy, a slowdown in vehicle demand and weakening of import/export segments. However, with improved growth prospects since the end of the Sri Lanka civil war in mid-2009, lower interest rates and higher disposable income supported growth in both segments in 2010 and 2011.

It said in most countries, the motor segment is fiercely competitive – with competition mainly in price form. As such, underwriting profitability has come under pressure and claims ratios in this segment are the highest – averaging 64% in 2007-2010, with companies relying on investment income to compensate for underwriting losses. Investment income increased in 2009-2010, but is unlikely to be maintained at similar levels in 2011-2012. So pricing would need to improve to enable the sector to maintain non-life operating profitability at the current levels. Prices could stabilise as companies attempt to focus on a more service-oriented approach, and compete on other aspects of the product.

© Sunday Times

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Friday, December 23, 2011

Sri Lanka military to renovate key locations in Colombo

Lanka Business Online

Sri Lanka's military will renovate key locations in the capital Colombo as part of continued efforts to modernize the city, under a master plan of the country's urban development agency, minister Keheliya Rambukwelle said.

"The construction work will be entrusted to the engineering services divisions of the Sri Lanka Army, Navy and Air Force so that construction costs would be kept to the minimum," minister Rambukwelle said.

The military will renovate an old marketing department building in Colombo's Fort area, grounds at race course and Bloomfield grounds, refurbishment of a central supermarket in the Pettah area, he said.

The Old Marketing Department building is estimated to cost 80 million rupees and the Race Course Ground 400 million rupees.

Colombo's Manning Market, a wholesale market in the Pettah area will be relocated to Peliyagoda, north of the capital.

The existing market will be re-developed, an adjacent bus stand complex will be expanded and pavement hawkers in the area will be given space in a commercial complex to be built there.

Another market where a fish trading exchange was located earlier, will also be refurbished for 250 million rupees. The fish market was relocated to Peliyagoda earlier.

He said a recent recommendation by a commission to learn lessons following a 30-year civil war, that the military should be weaned off civil life did not apply in this case.

The Colombo renovation is carried out by Sri Lanka's Urban Development Agency, which is under the defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.

The military has also renovated an old Dutch colonial hospital in Colombo, which is now an upmarket boutique market targeted at tourists.

Sri Lanka's military also runs restaurants, domestic air services and a party cruise ship service and there are plans to build hotels.


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Friday, December 23, 2011

Sri Lanka: Lessons unlearnt and reconciliation deconstructed

By Dr Kumar David | South Asian Analysis Group

The LLRC (Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission) appointed by President Mahinda Rajapakse has submitted its report and it is now in the public domain. I do not intend to summarise the 460-pages but only to give my evaluation in a few paragraphs. I will follow this up with a short closing section in which I will make an assessment of what the report’s impact is likely to be on foreign actors. The initial evaluation will be grouped under four headings.

The LLRC denounced the LTTE as killers, terrorists, abductors of children, separatists and heartless maniacs whose actions were solely responsible for the loss of tens of thousands of lives. The full and unmitigated responsibility for the carnage of Tamil civilians is placed on the shoulders of the LTTE, its artillery placements, taking cover close to hospitals, gunning down escapees, and such like acts. I am critical of the politics, militarism and subjugation of the Tamil people by the LTTE, and though I would do it on my own terms, I will not defend the LTTE in the face of these denunciations. I agree with the conclusion that the LTTE violated human rights and committed war crimes. Hence one duty of the Commission has been achieved; unfortunately the remainder of the report vitiates this.

The Report: The LTTE

The Commission’s attitude shows that it is incapable of understanding the LTTE politically, the reasons for its rise, the role of Sinhala chauvinism and the dynamics of ethnic conflict that fertilised the LTTE’s growth, and more broadly the learned commissioners have only a skin deep grasp of what is called the national question or the Tamil problem. Therefore the Commission’s report will have no effect on ethnic reconciliation or providing a basis for settling problems.
The military

The Commission’s findings in respect of the military are an unmitigated whitewash and an exoneration that will make even a soldier blush. The military’s version of events is swallowed hook line and sinker; field commanders are not confronted with the tens of thousands of dead, they are not challenged that such an outcome is unacceptable. Instead the learned commissioners eulogize the military for giving “protection of the civilian population the highest priority” and note “that protection of civilian life was key factor”. And this after tens of thousands were killed by shellfire! Two brief quotations will suffice to illustrate the commissioner’s psychological bent.

“The Commission is satisfied that the military strategy that was adopted to secure the LTTE held areas was one that was carefully conceived, in which the protection of the civilian population was given the highest priority. In reaching this conclusion the Commission has taken due account of all the material placed before it”. (Emphasis added).

“These factors are consistent with the position that protection of civilian life was a key factor in the formulation of a policy for carrying out military operations. They militate against any proposition that deliberate targeting of civilians was part and parcel of a policy”. (Emphasis added).

Tamils in Lanka and abroad will decry this as a lie of Goebbelsian proportions and there will be anger and dismay. If this is what, in Tamil eyes a Sinhalese a Presidential Commission, concluded about the largest massacre of Lankan Tamils in known history, then in my sober judgement, ethnic relations will be poisoned beyond redemption. Consider the plight of a moderate Tamil who wishes to promote cooperation with the government. He has no option but to condemn this as falsehood akin to holocaust denial. Then how to promote economic cooperation and reconciliation with a regime that kills and claims to protect? It is my prediction that the outrage against this affront delivered to the Tamils by the LLRC will infuriate Tamils and play into the hands of those who say: “See! This is who they are; we are better off going our own way”.

The government

There is nothing in the report to show that the Commissioners probed the military or the Executive about orders given to field commanders. This is a most serious defect if the Report is to contribute to judgements about war crimes of the political leadership. This is an enormous lacuna that undermines the worth of the report on a vital issue.

US Ambassador Butenis, according to a Wikileaks cable, warned that no government would conduct an investigation that would allocate a portion of the blame to the excesses of its armed forces or concede the crimes of its side. This may be so, but we the general public must not let the LLRC off the hook for its dereliction of duty.

Addressing Tamil grievances

I have said that I am prepared to go along with condemnation of the LTTE, though on my not the LLRC’s terms, and the other part of the report that could have been beneficial are land policy and resettlement; unfortunately the LLRC is both weak-kneed and knock-kneed. Chapter 6 on Land Policy is acquiescence or congratulatory of state policy and contains no bold recommendations, especially in respect of closing down of the High Security Zones and returning of commandeered land to rightful owners.

And what rot to talk of reconciliation without boldly addressing devolution of power to the Tamil people in their areas of traditional domicile, demilitarisation of the North-East, and the release of Tamil youth in illegal state custody for many years. Forget about reconciliation with the Tamils if they must continue to live under military occupation by a Sinhala state. As expected the LLRC is a waste of time on core issues. Anyway, everybody knows that the purpose of appointing the LLRC had little to do with an ethnic settlement; its all about getting international pressure on war crimes and human rights violations off the back of the government.

How will the international community respond?

The LLRC match is being played out for the sake of international actors. If GoSL wants to settle the national question it knows what it needs to do and could have done so a long time ago; no need for commissions. End the military occupation of Tamil areas and close down the High Security Zones, implement full devolution of power, and release Tamil youth held in illegal detention. For starters, these few steps will do more than a hundred commissions of inquiry. This game is not being played for reconciliation with the Tamils; it is being played to get the human rights and international agencies baying for blood off the back of the government.

Will the human rights lobbies, New Delhi, and the Western powers take the bait and concur with the LLRC that the regime and its armed forces stand acquitted of war crimes and human rights violations? My guess is as follows; non-governmental and human rights lobbies will not take the bait, New Delhi will be delighted to go along with the report, as for Western governments, let’s watch for a bit. The nigger in the woodpile is the Sonia-Singh administration in India, which I will not trust with a five anna coin when it comes to human rights in Lanka. What are India’s interests in this game? Having backed, diplomatically supported and provided military intelligence to an operation hell bent on a course that led to tens of thousands of casualties, the only interest that the Sonia-Singh administration now has is to avoid having its face further blackened before the world.

The LLRC Report absolves the Sri Lankan military of war crimes and human rights abuses. Bravo for India, so it is not the accomplice of a marauder. One can only hope that Indian and South Indian public opinion will not let Delhi get away with such misdemeanour. It is necessary to build a campaign in India around this objective.


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Friday, December 23, 2011

Sri Lanka: Protesters want end to disappearances

Photo courtesy:

UCAN | Eurasia Review

Street protests on Wednesday (21) in Colombo reflected growing anxiety about the disappearance of dissidents following the apparent abduction of two activists last week.

Activists joined relatives of ‘disappeared’ and political prisoners to demand that authorities release suspected inmates long held in custody without being charged at unknown destinations throughout the island.

More than a thousand protesters carried photos and placards and called for an end to disappearances and for the release of political prisoners.

Political and rights activists Lalith Kumar Weeraraj and Kugan Muruganathan went missing in Jaffna on December 13, shortly after organising a press conference to publicize the protest by the Movement for People’s Struggle in Colombo.

Arumugan Weeraraj, 53, father of one of the activists, was among the protesters.

“My son faced threats due to his human rights campaigns. He worked on disappeared and political prisoners. And he worked for reconciliation between Tamil and Sinhala communities,” said Weeraraj, a Catholic from the archdiocese of Colombo.

“We need to pressure the government to release the prisoners,” he said.

A cabinet spokesman, Keheliya Rambukwella, told the media at a cabinet briefing that Weeraraj and Muruganandan were not missing. They had not been detained unlawfully, he said, and if they were being held by the police or military they would be produced before a magistrate and dealt with according to the law.

© Eurasia Review

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Monday, December 19, 2011

Sri Lankan army commanders 'assassinated surrendering Tamils'

By Alex Spillius and Emanuel Stoakes | The Telegraph

Sri Lankan army commanders were ordered by the country's leaders to assassinate surrendering Tamils in the final phase of the long and brutal civil war, according to a senior former military officer.

The claims are contained in a sworn deposition, seen by The Daily Telegraph, made by a career officer who rose to the rank of major general before he fled the country in fear of his life to seek asylum in the United States.

He is the highest ranking person to assert that atrocities against Tamil rebels and civilians were sanctioned at the highest echelons of the government. The source had the highest security clearance and close contact with some of the army's most powerful figures.

His testimony contradicted a government-appointed commission, which concluded that Sri Lanka's military did not intentionally target civilians.

The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission report, which was released last week, said some isolated allegations of civilian abuses by security forces needed to be investigated further, suggesting that any violations could only have resulted from soldiers who were not following orders.

That assertion flew in the face of an extensive United Nations report that accused the government of deliberately shelling civilian areas and possibly killing tens of thousands of people in the final months.

In his deposition, the major general says that he was informed that Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the defence secretary and brother of President Mahindra Rajapaksa, passed on "some instructions to a field commander to get rid of those LTTE [Tamil Tiger] cadres [who] are surrendering without adhering to normal procedures".

Such an order, he said, "should come from either the secretary of the defence, with the knowledge of the president involved. He also has to be kept informed. The commanders could not undertake such decisions."

It has been estimated that 20,000 people or more died in the closing months of the civil war in 2009.

The source, whose name has been withheld for his own safety, confirmed that assassinating Tamil Tigers who had been captured or surrendered became "standard operating procedure" as the Sri Lankan military forces closed in on the last rebel resistance on a strip of land on the island's northeastern coast. Tamil activists are hoping that the evidence provided by the officer will build pressure for a war crimes prosecution against the president or defence secretary.

The US Department of Justice has a live file on the issue but has yet to prosecute, despite a leaked cable written by the US ambassador to Colombo which said that "responsibility for many alleged crimes rests with the country's senior civilian and military leadership", including both Rajapaksas and Gen Sarath Fonseka, then the armed forces commander.

American human rights lawyers are seeking to prosecute the defence secretary under the US Torture Victim Protection Act, which allows prosecutions against foreign leaders and officials who commit torture or extra-judicial killings.

Bruce Fein, a human rights lawyer, said that the alleged actions of Sri Lanka's rulers and commanders appeared to be genocide.

"It's hard to come to conclusion that the aim wasn't to destroy the Tamil people in whole or substantial part," he said, citing the definition of genocide under international law.

A video obtained by Channel 4 purported to show the assassination of what were thought to be Tamil rebels. The Sri Lankan army labelled the video as a fabrication. Other witnesses described various incidents of indiscriminate killing.

The UN also blamed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) for allegedly using civilians as human shields – a claim also made by the Sri Lankan government – and for using child soldiers.

Throughout its 26-year battle for autonomy, the ethnic minority rebels pioneered suicide bombing as a terror method, killed thousands of civilians among the Sinhalese majority and committed numerous atrocities that led to it being designated as a terrorist organisation by the US and Britain.

The testimony from the senior officer was first obtained by The International, an investigative website based in the US. It backed up various other allegations of illegal conduct by the authorities.

He said that to his knowledge shortly after becoming defence secretary in 2005 Mr Rajapaksa sanctioned the creation of a "hit squad" known for operating out of a white van to remove suspected LTTE members or collaborators off the streets of the capital Colombo.

Yolanda Foster, the Sri Lanka researcher for Amnesty International, said: "We doubt Sri Lanka's will and ability to bring the perpetrators to justice, given the scale of the allegations and the potential that serving members of the Sri Lankan government may be implicated."

A spokesman for the Sri Lankan high commission in London said: "We categorically deny these malicious allegations."

© The Telegraph

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Monday, December 19, 2011

Sri Lanka: No more excuses, it is time to act

Editorial | Tamil Guardian

Now that Sri Lanka's farcical attempt at accountability - the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) report - has finally been published, there can be no more excuses. The LLRC has for too long been the international community's fig leaf, used by governments across the world, including the US and the UK, to stall calls for accountability and a credible investigation into allegations of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. The commission's inquiry, its findings and its recommendations serve only to further vindicate the overwhelming justification for an independent, international investigation. For the victims, justice is well overdue. The time to act is now.

The LLRC is the by-product of sustained international pressure following the horrific findings of the UN expert panel, and Sri Lanka's desperation to stave off any meaningful investigation and subsequent discovery of truth. For governments across the world, it has been convenient to support Sri Lanka's assertion that the LLRC would answer the serious allegations made by the UN expert panel. However, it should come as no surprise that the LLRC report falls far short of this. The international community's willingness to play along with Sri Lanka's theatrics has been dismaying and deplorable. It has revealed a shameful disregard for the much preached about doctrine of universal human rights and the proclamation of 'never again'.

Making a mockery of any serious allegations, the words 'war crimes' only feature twice in the entire LLRC report. Never in the main body of the text, 'war crimes' only crop up during the citation of other reports by human rights organisations, one on Sri Lanka and the other on Israel. Undoubtedly, the emergence of compelling and damning evidence of atrocities, forced the commission to concede that some violations of human rights did take place. It would have simply been untenable to tow the Sri Lankan government's long held, official line of zero civilian deaths and maintain even the pretence of credibility. Beyond this meagre admission however, the report dismisses any notion of a 'systematic', 'persecution' of Tamil civilians by Sri Lanka's armed forces and the 'deliberate' targeting of civilian establishments - key assertions made by the UN expert panel - as untruths.

Criminal responsibility for atrocities is conveniently deflected from those in power. Ignoring the testimonies of a significant number of witnesses that identify a clear chain of command, and thereby command responsibility to crimes, the report urges the prosecution of individual soldiers if found guilty. Even if such witness testimony is negated, the scale of civilian deaths in Sri Lanka could not have taken place without the knowledge of the most senior military officials. International law is uncompromising in this regard - responsibility for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide goes to the very top. In the case of Sri Lanka, the defence secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the then head of the army, General Sarath Fonseka, and the commander in chief - the president - Mahinda Rajapaksa are principally answerable.

The LLRC itself states that Sri Lanka is unable to adequately investigate aspects of the conflict crucial for determining culpability, such as the direction and nature of artillery fire on hospitals. Although inviting international experts would be the logical conclusion of such a finding, the LLRC do nothing more than lament over Sri Lanka's technical short-comings and proffer the LTTE as an alternative. In the complete absence of reasoning and self-confessed inadequacy of scientific investigation, such a blanket dismissal of government responsibility and guilt, underlines the commission's partiality, prejudice and flippant attitude towards genuinely investigating all sides.

The commission's inherent bias in favour of the state and the armed forces is laid bare in its own findings. To the LLRC, the 'good name' of the army was not an investigative finding, but a primordial truth, with the commission's raison d'etre 'to clear the good name of the Army'. The possibility of Channel 4's Killing Fields documentary being doctored and thereby tarnishing the army's reputation is stated to be 'more serious' than, as is almost undeniably the case, the footage is prima facie evidence of war crimes. Most abhorrent of all, the commission gives credence to the supposed 'dilemma' faced by Sri Lankan Army commanders - to protect civilians or neutralise the enemy.

Ultimately, in Sri Lanka, the impotency of any internal enquiry is a foregone conclusion. The state's culture of impunity, its catalogue of abandoned commissions and abject failure to meaningfully implement any recommendations of previous commissions is an indisputable truth. That the LLRC was commissioned directly by the ruling regime, to investigate the actions of that regime and its stooges, and present its findings to the ruler, is beyond ridicule.

The government's brutal clamp down on dissent and suppression of any support for an investigation into allegations of war crimes, brings into question an internal inquiry's ability to find the truth. Together with the lack of a witness protection programme, the documented overbearing military presence during evidence gathering, and reports of witnesses being photographed and filmed by wanton by-standers, the authenticity of witness statements is irrevocably undermined. When the president has imprisoned the very man who engineered the government's so called victory, the absolute independence of those running the commission, who were after all appointed by that very same president, is at the very least disputable.

Sri Lanka is already manoeuvring itself to further stalling measures, with the LLRC recommending a myriad of commissions, inquiries and even a 'household survey' to examine civilian deaths. If left unchecked such internal inquiries could span months, if not years and still fail to arrive at meaningful accountability or justice - such has been the case for over sixty years.

Fundamentally, in Sri Lanka, any internal inquiry into atrocities against Tamils will fail, not merely due to the lack of judicial independence, technical expertise and political will, but because the majority of Sri Lanka's citizenry do not desire it. The deaths of over 40,000 civilians are not isolated incidents, devoid of forethought or intention. They constitute a deliberate persecution and targeted destruction of the Tamil nation in the Vanni - a genocide, perpetrated by the armed forces, orchestrated by the government, ignored by the judiciary, whitewashed by the mainstream press, and above all else, mandated by the Sinhala Buddhist majority. Sri Lanka cannot be left to investigate itself.

Only an international, independent investigation can justly examine crimes of such gravity and achieve the accountability and justice needed for any hope of a lasting peace. One failed internal inquiry may have been deemed a necessary formality, but with the release of the LLRC report, the world can no longer hide behind the pretence of protecting state sovereignty. To do so, not only emboldens a government that continues to brutally oppress and violate human rights, but constitutes complicity to the crime. The time to act must be now.

© Tamil Guardian

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Monday, December 19, 2011

Weighing the LLRC report in the scales of justice

Photo courtesy: CHR - Sri Lanka

By Kishali Pinto Jayawardene | The Sunday Times

Stripped of all ambiguities, the moral question regarding state accountability for civilian casualties during the last stages of the war between government troops and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was whether the government deliberately pressed ahead with its military offensive despite knowing full well the terrible toll that it would take.

Past governments had hesitated to go this far, being fully aware of the consequences. But this government did go that distance and there is no question about it. It did not take a soothsayer to foretell that the LTTE, given its abysmal track record, would use civilians to stop the advance of government forces which in fact, it did for what was to be the last time around, at least in this avatar. As to be expected, the consequences were near apocalyptic. The government's conduct, post-war, also fed into the theory that it views the minorities in Sri Lanka as being of little account, to be manipulated and intimidated as the occasion demands it.

Implicated in violations but 'without intent'

Yet putting aside the moral question for the moment, the legal question according to the laws of war is narrowly phrased in terms of whether government policy deliberately targeted civilians or places that were protected such as hospitals in pursuance of its military objective. In its Final Report tabled in Parliament this week, the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) answered this question in the negative, while stressing that there was a possible implication of the military causing death or injury to civilians 'even though this may not have been with an intent to cause harm.'

The LTTE's using of civilian shields and provoking attacks by the army by placing and using their military equipment in civilian areas, is emphasized. The LLRC concludes this particular part of their mandate by calling upon the government to investigate these circumstances and if such investigations disclose wrongful conduct, to prosecute and punish the wrong doers.

Certain core questions which are unanswered

This conclusion certainly disposes once and for all, of the government's initial and unpardonably flippant defence that there were zero civilian casualties. However, the LLRC's injunction on the government does leave core problems unanswered. Who will take the responsibility to investigate, prosecute and punish in a context where the primary state organs of the police and the prosecutors are near irreparably politicized and where the judiciary itself is increasingly suffering from public perception relating to its independence from the executive or the lack thereof? Do the answers to this vital question emerge from the LLRC report, apart from mentioning the value of an independent judiciary and a transparent legal process in passing? Let us meticulously examine the Commission's reasoning though a comprehensive examination of its findings and recommendations belongs to a different forum.

In the first instance and to give it due credit for doing so in extremely difficult circumstances, the LLRC Report does link up the deterioration of Rule of Law institutions to its mandate, using somewhat surprisingly pungent language when it refers to the weakening of public institutions thereby rendering the general public powerless and helpless to a point that they have become wholly dependent on politicians.

These are reflections that would, no doubt, be shared by all right thinking people in Sri Lanka.

The LLRC applies this conclusion to specific patterns and incidents of violations of human rights that have languished without proper investigation or prosecution. Importantly, it recommends the investigation and prosecution of offenders in the death of 5 students in Trincomalee in January 2006 and 17 aid workers of the aid agency Action Contra L' Faim in Mutur in August 2006. It is stated that such action would send a strong signal in ensuring respect for the Rule of Law, which in turn will contribute to the healing process.

This particular recommendation is a strong point in the LLRC report and counters strenuous attempts by pro-government defenders to cover up these killings or merely attribute them to the LTTE, which theories were given strong support by sections of the private media. Similarly, the Report lays down specific safeguards for arrested and detained persons and expresses serious concerns regarding persons who had surrendered to the security forces at the conclusion of the fighting and had thereafter 'disappeared.' It is reminded that the State has a clear duty to investigate specific allegations, to prosecute and punish the wrongdoers and to treat such a disappearance as an offence entailing penal consequences.

Going that extra mile

The Commissioners draw attention to similar recommendations by past commissions of inquiry, observing with wry humor that as these recommendations had been left unimplemented by successive governments, there has been 'understandable criticism and skepticism regarding Government appointed Commissions from which the LLRC has not been spared.' Coupled with this injunction, it calls for the judicial review of legislation and for the criminalizing of an offence of enforced disappearances, which indeed reflects the thinking of constitutional analysts, legal practitioners and activists for decades. Deploring attacks on journalists, it also calls for the enactment of a right to information law.

But to return to our core question of the Report's recommendations as to the manner in which to reverse the politicization of public institutions, it may legitimately be said that it has refrained from going that extra mile. Certainly it deals with the 'easy' question of the politicization of the police commenting on the testimony of many who had expressed anger that offenders with political patronage had escaped the reach of the law. It recommends, quite rightly, that the Department of the Police be de-linked from the Ministry of Defence. Moreover, it recommends that an independent permanent Police Commission should be established, to regain public confidence in the performance of the police service.

This recommendation has more than a trace of exquisite irony about it given that the President of Sri Lanka has not thought it fit or proper up to now, even to establish a National Police Commission in terms of the existing constitutional provisions, let alone talk of a permanent body of this nature. Here again, the core issue is independence from the executive. A police commission, whether permanent or for a limited period of time, should be completely separated from the executive. While separating the Department of the Police from the Ministry of Defence is an essential step, this cannot, by itself, address the problem.

But where the LLRC has not gone further most particularly is in addressing the subversion of the legal process with its related impact on the independence of the judiciary, (the ACF case is one excellent example), the bringing in of the Department of the Attorney General under the direct authority of the President and the 17th Amendment to the Constitution as well as its ill famed successor, the 18th Amendment. As the LLRC has opted to speak of the Rule of Law, these are fundamental components of that debate, particularly as in a postcript it has adverted to recent incident impacting on law and order.

Using the LLRC report to compel government accountability

Nevertheless and in conclusion, even though the LLRC Report may not be all things to all people, the Commissioners have undoubtedly arrived at difficult conclusions regarding the problem of impunity which would not have been easy given the tremendous pressure on them from all sides. It is also not proper to malign the Commission by stating that their recommendations merely echo past recommendations of previous commissions. This is to simplify the case.

Past reports of commissions of inquiry which were equally hard hitting concerning the duty to prosecute, mainly concerned actions of previous governments in power, not an incumbent administration. The Disappearances Commissions of the 1990's were good examples. In this instance, this is a Commission of Inquiry looking into impugned actions of a sitting government and in that respect, should be at least acknowledged for what it has tried to do, even if the conclusions may not satisfy all and sundry.

This column has repeatedly taken the position that even if the LLRC Report proved to be the best Commission report that we could ever have had, it would amount to nothing if concrete action is not taken to restore the independence and integrity of the police, the prosecutors and the institutions of justice. This action is not impossible provided that it is driven by public demand. It is not, after all, as if these concepts are alien to the Sri Lankan psyche.

The concerned public and civic action groups should now take this Report and practically use it for the restoration of this country's democratic institutions and in order to defeat this government's bland promises that specific incidents would be investigated and prosecuted. Given the President's oft repeated mantra that he would abide by the LLRC's recommendations without exception, he should be called upon to meticulously perform this task. The non-implementation of all its interim recommendations even at this stage is not reassuring and has invited censure by the LLRC itself. The burden is now upon us.

© The Sunday Times

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Monday, December 19, 2011

Your “privacy” is at stake !

By Kusal Perera | The Sunday Leader

"The right to privacy is our right to keep a domain around us, which includes all those things that are part of us, such as our body, home, thoughts, feelings, secrets and identity. The right to privacy gives us the ability to choose which parts in this domain can be accessed by others, and to control the extent, manner and timing of the use of those parts we choose to disclose.” - Yael Onn, et. al., Privacy in the Digital Environment, Haifa Center of Law & Technology

There was no space for such “privacy” within Saddam Hussein’s model of Bhath Socialist development. If State repression in Soviet Russia under Stalin was crude and brutal as some have written, then, State repression in Iraq under Saddam Hussein was meticulously ruthless. The un-embedded Indian journalist Satish Jacob who covered the Iraqi war, left this passing remark on the surveillance system that Saddam Hussein had for the Iraqi citizens, in his book titled From Hotel Palestine, Baghdad.

“According to him (Nadim Habbash, a retired senior civil servant), there were seven different institutions for surveillance. The Mukhabarat was the first one and its function was to keep a tab on every citizen. It had a dossier on every Iraqi citizen. No Iraqi was permitted to shift into a new home, unless he had taken permission from the Mukhabarat. In many cases, permission was withheld. Every Thursday, each person was required to pay a visit to his or her ‘minder’ and give information about neighbours, employers, colleagues, friends and even family members. This was one country where a son spied on the father and the siblings and the father spied on him!” (page 14)

That was “privacy” in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Here in Sri Lanka, it is uncertain how a majority of the citizens expected their privacy to be respected and honoured. May be the urban middle class consumer does expect a certain “privacy” status defined for his/her life. Whether they do or not, personal privacy remains a “Right” in this Democratic world. Privacy is benchmarked in its most general terms by the UN Human Rights Charter under Article 12, as [quote] No one should be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks on his honour or reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interferences or attacks.[unquote]

Added are provisions in The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Article 17, the United Nations Convention on Migrant Workers, Article 14 and the UN Convention on Protection of the Child, Article 16, that adopt “privacy” as a “Right” of an individual.

Privacy and information have a tight co-habitation. There are restrictions for all parties in gathering or collecting information. Citizens are not allowed access to information classified as “national security”. Governments are not expected to infringe on personal information that compromise individual privacy. This compromise between the citizen and the government s/he elects, is one serious factor that decides the depth of democratic life in a society.

That “Right” for personal privacy is one which is now at stake under this regime. If the report in the Daily FT of December 09, 2011 is right and no doubt it is, considering the source quoted as official, a digital “personal information” database is to be established under the authority of the Ministry of Defence, called the Geo Citizen Information System Project. Explaining the project, Colonel, Dr. Thiran De Silva, IT Advisor to Sri Lanka Army and Head of IT Centre for Research and Development of the Ministry of Defence had claimed, this digital data base would include all SL citizens living in the country and would include “even a month old child”.

Said to be the first of its kind in South East Asia, Colonel Dr. De Silva had said, a pilot project was concluded in Gampaha district, with grama seva officers trained for 12 months with divisional secretaries. This project is not just a personal information gathering effort. It would have family background of the individual and even details such as the road network, electricity, water and even the drainage system to compile a comprehensive data book. It would include satellite image of the person’s residency as well. Latest media reports say, when residents of Gampaha district queried from soldiers who visited to collect information, as to why such information is collected, the reply had been, “Go, ask the Defence Secretary”.

This without doubt, is a clear trespassing of individual privacy. The most valid question therefore is, who gave the MoD the authority to start such a project and under what law ? There is apparently no Cabinet approval for such a project and even if there is, that does not make trespassing on privacy, any legal. All what is known is that Minister of Economic Development, Basil Rajapaksa had thrown the idea for this project and that perhaps made Gampaha the pilot project district. What makes this project appear rather dangerous is not Basil’s idea, but its implementation under the MoD. Its relation to the militarisation that this country is now subjected to.

There is a very intimidating military presence the government had collected by waging war. That was justified during the war in the South, as necessary power in defeating “separatist, Eelam terrorism”. That has left a very heavy militarisation in the North and the East, the Sinhala South is not willing to accept. But sadly, they are now grudgingly falling victim to this same militarisation, gnawing their lives.

Today, there are notice boards in Colombo that inform “This land belongs to the MoD”. Why there are no such notice boards by the Social Services Department or the Education Department may not be, because they don’t have land in Colombo. This new MoD cult in post-war Colombo stands menacingly firm, to tell the people, it now authorises citizens’ lives.

That is what had given the military the arrogance to even ignore Supreme Court determinations. The assurance the AG gave the SC over a FR petition filed against illegal registration of persons in the North in February this year, was not adhered to, leaving the SC blinkered on an apparent contempt of their judicial authority. It is this arrogance of power that had the Commanding Officer of the Central Province making a statement on 14 December, the army would provide security to all lorries transporting vegetables, whatever way they are packed and will not be allowed arrest, while the government was yet to suspend the prohibition imposed on transport of vegetables other than in plastic crates.

With all civil institutes that need not be with the MoD, clustered under it, the security forces have thus come to play a significant role in civil administration and in the life of people, even in the South. Militarisation under this regime does not end, just there. To note a few, most would know,

• Security officers of high rank has been posted top positions in foreign diplomatic missions

• Security officers have been appointed to high administrative positions that should be held by persons from the Administrative Service (Ministry Secretaries, District Secretaries, etc.)

• Land in North and East has been brought under military supervision

• Fisheries in the North is still dictated by the navy

• Leadership training for university entrants have been brought under the military

• All security of universities and some State institutes are now with the “Rakna Lanka” security organisation listed under the MoD

• All major stadiums built with massive public funds are under the security forces

• Urban planning and development is now under the MoD

• A gazette notification allows establishment of STF camps in all 24 districts

• Security forces are given the opportunity to establish their own independent

economy through businesses (direct investments on five star hotels in Colombo and restaurants, cafes, farms run often by proxy in the North-East)

Regardless of the ignorant mood in the Sinhala South, it isn’t a joke when the SC is ignored by the police and the security forces, though in the North. It isn’t a joke when a Commanding Officer makes his own decision, irrespective of government policy. It is no joke either, when the military with the police launch their own search operation of resident areas without Emergency Regulations and without a search warrant obtained. Media reported that both the military and the police spoke persons confirmed they did search houses together in Colombo Modera on 06 December, on a tip off that some houses in that area had illegal “stuff”. But why did not they go for a search warrant and do it legally ? They don’t think they have to. That is the mind set of militarisation. In almost all countries where militarisation roles on regardless, the normal civil law is done away with. That thus allows for a gestating period where no law and order is kept by enforcement agencies. That is reason why there were so many custodial killings and murder in police cells. That is also reason why there were nine abductions reported during the last eight weeks. That also explains how a person abducted from a location in the West coast was taken across the country to finally drift dead to the beach in the East coast. The roaming of the “Grease devil” from Pottuvil in the East, via Kantale and Vavuniya to Putlam in the West had the police and the military accused, for that same reason. The most recent abduction of two youth activists in Jaffna on International HR Day and now, reports of death threats on Jaffna university student leaders and two in the academic staff through public posters put up around university precincts, is unchecked ghostly violence in a militarised society.

Subjecting the society to such violent assaults is a common path to militarisation. Military authority can not be asserted with normal civil law allowed to prevail. This necessitates much more detailed information of citizens, than required by a civil administration. That was what the Saddam Hussein regime proved in plain. They suspect every citizen and thus need as much personal information as possible, to keep a tab on social activities. Society after all, is a collective of citizens. That is precisely why, this digitisation of personal information with all such details, carried out by the army, reminds me of a quote, attributed to Bob Dylan – “The army does not start wars. Its politicians who start wars. The army only goes marching o’er them”. Not only o’er politicians, but o’er people as well.

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