Saturday, June 25, 2011

Politicians’ “fear” of freedom of information - CRCMO

By Melani Manel Perera | Asia News

Sri Lanka needs a bill to protect freedom of information, even if politicians “fear” such a law and would rather see us “kept in the dark”, the Citizen’s Rights and Collective of Media Organization (CRCMO) said at a press conference held last Wednesday in Colombo. In fact, the group noted that Sri Lanka is the only country in South Asia that has no ‘right to information’ law, something that has already been adopted in more than 80 countries in the world.

Now more than ever, there is “a need to empower people” and develop a political culture in which all agencies of the government are “accountable to the people”. For this reason, CRMCO is organising an ‘Awareness Raising” day for 5 July.

Being informed on all issues is an essential prerequisite to keep politicians accountable and limit any possible abuses of power, it said.

For Gamini Viyangoda, a member of the organisation, “The government is always trying to keep people in the dark. However, citizens have a right to know what happens to them and in what circumstances.”

In September 2010, opposition lawmaker Karu Jayasuriya introduced a Freedom of Information bill to parliament. At the time, the government put the proposal on hold, promising that it would draft its own bill.

Seven months later, nothing has been done. Hence, last month Jayasuriya submitted his own proposal, again.

© Asia News

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Saturday, June 25, 2011

Sri Lanka: war atrocities - Who, Us, What?

By Satarupa Bhattacharjya | Outlook India

Are you still afraid to kill a terrorist?” asks a man, most likely a soldier, in Sinhala to the one standing next to him, with his gun pointed at three blindfolded people, their hands bound, naked and kneeling on the ground. Gunshots are heard, the three prisoners flop to the ground, their heads drenched in blood. Gruesome images emerge in quick succession—naked and possibly sexually abused dead women being dumped into a trunk, heaps of dead bodies of child soldiers of the LTTE, streams of blood flowing out of hospitals located in no-fire zones which the Sri Lankan government forces allegedly shelled, repeatedly and deliberately, killing countless civilians. To this carnage the LTTE too contributed, its suicide bombers detonating amidst civilian crowds or maniacally shooting at people trying to escape its control.

These are some of the horrific images from the Channel 4 documentary, Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, which depicts the relentless bloodbath in the final months of war between the LTTE and the government in 2009 that claimed, third-party figures suggest, over 40,000 lives. It took Channel 4 two years to source these grotesque images, apparently caught on mobile phones and small cameras by victims and perpetrators (as war trophies). Not only does the film echo incidents mentioned in a UN panel report released two months ago, it also appears to belie the post-war statement of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, “Soldiers carried guns in one hand and the human rights charter in the other.”

In Sri Lanka, though, the veracity of the documentary has been challenged. Asked whether he found the visuals shocking, Sri Lankan army spokesperson Maj Gen Ubhaya Medawala told Outlook, “What is shocking is that Channel 4 fabricated such a story. It was designed to tarnish the country’s image and that of its armed forces.” At a press conference last week, external affairs minister G.L. Pieris said, “The Channel 4 video footage on Sri Lanka is a part of a vicious, politically motivated campaign against the country.” These views have the endorsement of the average Sinhala on the road, from rickshaw drivers to workers at departmental stores to young professionals. They feel that western governments are “victimising” Colombo and, more importantly, that reopening old wounds would only hurt the process of reconciliation.

But for many Tamilians, the walk down the road to reconciliation must include justice for those who suffered state brutality. Rajan Hoole, a founder member of the University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna), feels the Channel 4 film is “partly the consequence of the government keeping international observers fight a war without witnesses, and then failing to respond to the worldwide concerns for the civilians during and after the war and adopting a course of total denial.”

Colombo’s concerted attempts to bar independent observers has been borne out by former UN spokesperson in Sri Lanka Gordon Weiss’s comments in the film. He accused Colombo of “intending to remove independent witnesses” from the north as fighting peaked between 2008-end and early ’09. The UN was asked to get out of the war zone by the Rajapaksa government which said it could not guarantee the safety of its staffers. In his book out now, The Cage, Weiss writes, “...I believe that the tactical choices the Sri Lankan army was directed to make, and which contributed to the deaths of so many civilians, warrant a credible judicial investigation of the kind that the Sri Lankan state, in its current guise, is no longer capable of mounting.” About the film, former foreign ministers of UK and France, David Miliband and Bernard Kouchner, recently wrote, “If foreign policy is about anything, it should be about stopping this kind of inhumanity.”

Sri Lankan ministers and media commentators here are quick to counter such opinions: what about Libya where nato’s air-raids are even killing children? Have you forgotten Iraq and Afghanistan? Young Facebook users, born well after the civil war began, talk about the West’s “hypocrisy” in status messages. This isn’t to suggest that there is no dissenting voice from the Lankan political class. Former foreign minister and opposition parliamentarian Mangala Samaraweera told Outlook, “The government’s denial of human rights violations may lead to its further isolation in the international defence of sovereignty, nobody has the right to ill-treat its own citizens.”

The documentary, available on YouTube, has outraged the ever expanding circle of critics abroad. When it was screened at the United Nations Human Rights Council, Geneva, in the first week of June, some viewers cringed; one cried openly. The British House of Commons even debated whether the visuals could be considered as evidence of war crimes. Last year, talk about rights violations prompted the European Union to suspend its trade concessions to Sri Lanka.

But the government remains seemingly unperturbed. A fortnight ago, the Sri Lankan army had organised an anti-terror international seminar in Colombo, touting its model of counterinsurgency and winning encomiums from many participants. And on the sidelines of last week’s 15th St Petersburg International Economic Forum, Rajapaksa was assured of support from Dmitry Medvedev and Hu Jintao, his Russian and Chinese counterparts. With Chinese investments in major infrastructure projects here growing and now with Russia’s GAZPROM ready to explore oil and gas off the island’s Mannar coast, a new axis is on the move.

The growing Chinese influence has further weakened the Indian approach which, many here contend, was anyway weak on multilateralism in Sri Lanka. Says Dr Hoole, “When India places the onus on bilateral relations, the human and political rights of the Tamils tend to become hostage to Sino-Indian rivalry, as appears the case now.” Tamil National Alliance parliamentarian Suresh Premachandran feels that India’s foreign policy in Sri Lanka has failed, pointing out how New Delhi has been unable to get a devolution package for the north and east. He adds, “India had satellite images of the war...its government knew how many people were killed. India must decide whether it wants to isolate itself from the Sri Lankan Tamils.” With the government change in Tamil Nadu and AIADMK leader Jayalalitha’s negligible influence over the UPA, it scarcely matters that the state assembly recently passed a resolution asking New Delhi to impose economic sanctions on Colombo.

Even pro-government Tamil politician Dharmalingam Siddarthan says human rights issues, if left unattended, would further widen the gap between the Sinhalese and the Tamils. Despite the civil war ending in 2009, the island remains a nation at war with itself.

© Outlook India

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Saturday, June 25, 2011

Jack-boots in the island country

By Karthick Ram | Himal South Asian

As much as we would like to forget certain unsavoury events of the past, they refuse to let go of the present. They keep coming back to haunt us, shaping the way to the future. Totalitarian states are scared of the past. The past always raises questions and dictators hate questions. They shoo the past away through all means possible. And the best way to do that is through discipline and mind control. Control as such would ensure submission and obedience. The individual is taught to obey and execute, not to think and question. Dictators all over the world practise this art. Sri Lanka is on its way to perfect it. A country that desires uniformity in race, now requires its youth to follow a uniform pattern in thought and action.

Introducing the ‘Leadership Training Programme’, an obligatory three-week course for university entrants. Trained by the best in business – men in military uniforms. Training to be held at your friendly neighbourhood Lankan military camp. Send in your child and he will turn out a patriot. Even if he comes from the other community.

And university students of the other community, the Tamil community, received a pleasant surprise when they found summons for this course lying at their doorstep – written in Sinhalese. A Tamil contact from Colombo pointed out the comic aspect of this. ‘Imagine Palestinian students getting summons in Hebrew for a military training course from the occupying Israeli army,’ she said. The parallel seemed apt. Israel requires all its citizens above the age of 18 to attend compulsory military training. The rigorous course at the Israeli Defence Forces lasts 3 years for men and 2 for women. Besides the physical drills and conditioning of the body, the army drills in a state of paranoia and conformity into the trainees. ‘Look! You are engulfed by Arabs! Love your country! We need to kill if we need to live!’ At the end of the course, most Israelis buy this. A nation of zombies is created and to challenge this requires not just phenomenal courage, but also phenomenal creativity. Agamben’s famous state of emergency becomes the state of mind for an Israeli citizen. Lanka follows similar path…

As far as racialization is concerned, the Sri Lankan military outshines their Israeli counterpart. Over 98% of the Sri Lankan Armed Forces is Sinhalese. They are celebrated heroes of the chauvinist sections of the Sinhalese population, who consider them the ‘saviours of the Sinhala-Buddhist race’. If they end up as educators, one can already imagine the kind of lessons that will be taught. A BBC report has said that the training will include ‘physical drills and conflict management’ in order to ‘increase mental and physical fitness’ among students. It is the mental part that is the most worrying. In a country where left-liberals speak in the language of conservatives and conservatives are rabid fascists, a mentally fit Sri Lankan is a Sinhala nationalist. And that is how the Army would train its students. To become ‘authentic’ Sri Lankans.

The timing seems ironical. On18 May, Tamils world over mourned the massacre of over 40,000 of their kin by the Sri Lankan armed forces two years ago. Ever since its ‘victory’ over the LTTE, the Sri Lankan army has systematically destroyed all traces of the rebel outfit’s existence. ‘Peace’ in Sri Lanka was the name of camps where over 300,000 Tamils were detained in pathetic conditions. ‘Unity’ meant repeated sexual assaults of captured Tamil women and forced pregnancies. And ‘Order’ meant torture and executions. Veracity of this was proven by different footages of the Lankan Army’s brutalities on the Tamils. While international agencies like the Permanent People’s Tribunal and the United Nations have lambasted the Sri Lankan government for its (mis)conduct of the war and its wanton targeting and abuse of Tamil civilians, the Sri Lankan government seems to be desperate to project an image of a united country. And this is why when the recent UN report accused the government of committing war crimes in its military operations against the Tigers, the government went head over heels to mobilize international support to prevent prosecution of those involved.

While such antics were played out in the international circus, the local theatre in Sri Lanka had a different drama. A seminar on ‘Defeating Terrorism’ was held from 31 May to 3 June. Co-sponsored by China, the event was attended by military representatives from over 40 countries including India, Pakistan, Russia, Kenya and other countries who have had quite flawed democratic traditions. The top personnel in the Sri Lankan Defence sector have credited their success to the militarization of the country’s society. Sri Lanka’s external affairs minister has asked for a reworking of international laws in a way that would enable governments like his to combat terror more effectively. Those who have seen the execution videos from the last stages of the war on the LTTE, where captured men and women were paraded naked, abused and then shot, can have an idea of how a ‘war on terror’ approach based on the Sri Lankan model would be.

The move to involve students in courses conducted by the military is an attempt to defuse, especially among the Tamils students, any attempt to protest the past actions of the Lankan state. Considering that the Tamil liberation struggle led by the LTTE was itself assisted by an active student community, Sri Lanka would love to erase all possibilities of some likeness of the past re-emerging. The military apparatus that it seeks to incorporate in universities, then, is not an isolated aberration but is part of the very aberration that is the Lankan state.

A Tamil from Jaffna said over chat that he would send his son to India for graduation and then, if possible, abroad. ‘We have seen what the army has done to our people. It is not right for the murderers of our children to become their tutors. It is not right.’ But it is. In united Sri Lanka, it is.

© Himal

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Saturday, June 25, 2011

Tigers caged but Tamils' tale goes on

By John Zubrzycki | The Australian

All insurgencies end in negotiations, argue those in favour of talking with the Taliban to end the conflict in Afghanistan.

After a decade of war and no sign of a military solution, only a political settlement with moderate Taliban can achieve long-sought stability and pave the way for a withdrawal of Western troops.

But what happens when there is no middle ground, no moderates to appeal to and a bitter ethnic divide driven by nationalistic chauvinism on the one hand and an ingrained persecution complex on the other?

Sri Lanka endured 26 years of civil war and 70,000 deaths before the army achieved what many thought impossible: it crushed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, one of the 20th century's most tenacious and violent insurgent groups.

In May 2009, Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and most of his top lieutenants were killed in a final bloody battle in the northeast of Sri Lanka. So proud was the government of its achievement that it held an international conference in Colombo earlier this month to showcase its military-led model for defeating insurgencies.

But there is a downside to using force as a first and last resort, even when the enemy as violent and fanatical as the Tamil Tigers.

In April, the UN released a damning report that outlined suspected war crimes committed against civilians by both sides in the conflict. About 40,000 people were killed in the final months of the war as the Tigers herded thousands of civilians on to a narrow strip of land bounded by the ocean on one side and a lagoon on the other where the guerilla group made its suicidal last stand. The Cage, as it became known, resembled a vast internment camp for 330,000 desperate civilians who endured a five-month-long siege.

The UN report charged the Sri Lanka government with repeatedly shelling safe zones set up to protect civilians, including hospitals and food distribution lines. The Tamil Tigers were accused of holding civilians as human shields, recruiting child soldiers and firing on those who tried to flee.

Gordon Weiss's The Cage: The Fight for Sri Lanka and the Last Days of the Tamil Tigers documents in chilling detail the lead-up to this tragedy and its brutal aftermath. As the spokesman and communications adviser to the UN mission during the final years of the conflict, Weiss, who is Australian, witnessed an unfolding drama that would have far-reaching implications for the region.

The present debate over asylum-seeker policy was largely provoked by the sudden rise in Tamil boatpeople arriving in Australia in 2009 and 2010 to flee the conflict and its aftermath. If anyone has any doubts about the push factors driving that spike in arrivals, this book is essential reading.

But Weiss's study of the Tamil conflict is also an accessible and compelling narrative of Sri Lanka's often violent and tortured history. Ceylon, as it was known at the time, achieved independence in 1948 without the bloodshed experienced by India and Pakistan. The first Sinhalese majority government under D.S. Senanayake was an enlightened administration that incorporated the island's minority groups, the Tamils, Burghers and Muslims.

But this golden era was short-lived. Sinhalese nationalism that had been simmering below the surface manifested itself politically with the passing of the Sinhala Only Act in 1955. The act sparked riots that left several hundred Tamils dead and was an ominous taste of a much bloodier and drawn-out conflict.

A new constitution introduced in 1972 further restricted the rights of Tamils, who began agitating for an autonomous homeland in the north and east of the country through the Tamil United Liberation Front. Tamil youths, disillusioned with the failure of peaceful resistance, began to take up arms.

In July 1983, after the government displayed the bodies of 13 soldiers killed by a landmine, troops in Colombo went on the rampage targeting Tamil homes and businesses. Up to 3000 Tamils were killed and thousands more sought refuge in government-controlled camps or fled abroad.

Aided by elements of this new diaspora, the Tamil Tigers grew to become one of the world's most feared and effective guerilla groups.

It was the Tigers who perfected the technique of suicide bombing as a means of terrorising a population for political ends, counting among their victims India's prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, who had sent an expeditionary force to Sri Lanka in a failed bid to crush them.

At the height of their insurrection, the Tigers had their own navy, a rudimentary airforce using specially converted Cessnas and small, highly effective suicidal penetration teams.

Weiss pulls no punches in tackling the atrocities committed by the Tigers. But he is equally scathing about the failure of the successive Sri Lankan administrations to deal with the aspirations of the Tamil minority and brutal tactics employed by the Sri Lankan Army to quash the rebellion.

He also details the desperate attempts by a UN convoy in the final weeks of the war to assist those civilians trapped in the Cage. Despite the government's insistence that it was pursuing a policy of "zero civilian casualties" by honouring the no-fire-zone status of the enclave, Weiss presents sufficient evidence to quantify the charge that war crimes were committed by the Sri Lankan Army.

But the UN does not emerge unscathed. When the UN Human Rights Council was issuing numerous resolutions condemning Israel's invasion of Gaza, it could barely muster one on Sri Lanka despite credible allegations of war crimes.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon failed to use the UN's moral authority to denounce the tabulated killing of civilians, in the interests of keeping open channels of communication with the Sri Lankan government, and also of humanitarian access.

This proved to be a tragic mistake. As Weiss points out, the UN's excuse that casualty reports could not be verified, unwittingly supported the deceptive "zero civilian casualties" narrative the Sri Lankan government maintained.

Could the civil war have been averted? If the grievances of Tamils had been addressed in the years after independence through constitutional safeguards as well as social and economic development, Weiss believes it could have. Even after the war started opportunities for a negotiated settlement were constantly stymied by inflexibility of the Sri Lankan state on the one hand and the violence and nihilism of Prabhakaran on the other.

The defeat of the Tigers, however, does not necessarily mean peace will prevail. Weiss's depressing conclusion, backed by ample evidence, is that Tamil grievances are being addressed with government-backed tyranny as the state extends a hegemonic hold over all aspects of civil society.

Weiss's book will not be popular with the government in Colombo, but there is nothing in it that will give succour to the Tamil cause as espoused by the Tigers.

Its value lies in its dispassionate analysis of the cause of Sri Lanka's tragic civil war and how such conflicts can be avoided.

John Zubrzycki is a senior writer on The Australian. He covered South Asia for the paper from 1994 to 1998.

© The Australian

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Saturday, June 25, 2011

Sri Lanka's Killing Fields continues to make waves

Channel 4

One week after broadcast, Sri Lanka's Killing Fields has been watched by over a million viewers in the UK* and over 270,000 views worldwide on VoD. The film has been viewed on 4oD in over 30 countries.

On Tuesday, the film was screened to diplomats and US media in New York. United Nations missions from the US, India, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and East Timor attended. The Sri Lankan government sent a delegation of eight with Mr Palitha T.B. Kohona, Ambassador & Permanent Representative of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka to the United Nations and Brigadier Shavendra de Silva both speaking after the film.

During his response to the film, Mr Palitha T.B. Kohona said: "Even if you counted all the people who are dead on that video, I do not think you could come up with a total of 100. That is not to suggest that others were not hurt or died, they may have, but even if you counted every single body that was in that video I do not think you can come up to a total of 100."

He went on to refer to a statement released by the military saying; "The military will look into any instances that can be substantiated where soldiers have broken the law. And there are instances which we saw on that screen which were not very pleasant and which may be brought under the criminal law of the country and the military have said that, very categorically, that they will deal with situations like that. And, of course, to suggest that Sri Lanka cannot handle its own shortcomings is extremely paternalistic and extremely colonial, we can handle our own shortcomings."

On Wednesday, there was a well-attended Sri Lanka event at the House of Commons. Jon Snow introduced clips from Sri Lanka's Killing Fields and Channel 4 News Foreign Correspondent Jonathan Miller chaired a discussion. On the panel were Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister Alistair Burt MP, Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Human Rights Ann Clwyd MP, Yolanda Foster from Amnesty international and the film's director Callum Macrae. Attendees included Siobhan McDonagh MP, Andy Love MP, Jim Dowd MP, Lee Scott MP, Yasmin Qureshi MP, Mike Gapes MP, Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Susan Miller and Former MP, Joan Ryan.

The critically-acclaimed investigation into the final weeks of the quarter-century-long civil war between the government and the secessionist rebels, the Tamil Tigers, featuring devastating new video evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity has already provoked comment from Prime Minister David Cameron.

The response from viewers has been overwhelmingly positive making it the most appreciated Channel 4 programme in the last seven days.

© Channel 4

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Thursday, June 23, 2011

No information for relatives on Sri Lanka missing

BBC News

Hundreds of people in Sri Lanka's north who responded to a police announcement about relatives held in detention say they have been given no information.

Ten days ago police said they would give details about those detained in the war, which ended in May 2009.

BBC Sinhala has learned of only one man out of hundreds who went to the former war zone of Vavuniya and actually found out where his relative was.

Thousands of families are still seeking loved ones two years after the war.

Almost all of them are Tamils, living in the former war zone in desperation because of their missing husbands, sons or daughters, correspondents say. Some have been missing for many years.

Police say information will only be made available to "close relatives".

Police spokesperson Prishantha Jayakody said three centres - in the north, south and in the capital, Colombo - which would provide details of people held by the police Terrorist Investigation Division (TID).

Many saw their loved ones forcibly conscripted by Tamil Tiger militants. Of these, correspondents say, many were thought to have come out of the war alive but were detained by the government and have not been seen since.

In Vavuniya, part of the former war zone, thousands went to find out the fate of their loved ones, our correspondent says. Because of the large numbers of people turning up, only 200 people a day were able to make inquiries.

"My 26-year-old son Pradeep was taken by the Criminal Investigation Department when he went to Colombo to get his passport. That's all we know," Mylu Shanmugathas from Tellipalai told BBC Sinhala's Dinasena Ratugamage in Vavuniya.

He has been missing since 2008. Mr Shanmugathas has been to police stations, military camps and human rights offices in search of his son.

'Disappeared' demonstration

The man who was told where his son was immediately boarded the first train out of town to the southern city of Galle, where his son was being held, our correspondent says.

Others said they were looking for the sole breadwinner in their family.

"There is no one to provide for me. Who will look after me or care if I fall ill?" said one Tamil woman whose son had gone missing since being taken by police in 2007.

TID officials in Vavuniya say that they are unable to provide details of the "disappeared".

Meanwhile in another northern town, Kilinochchi, people have tried to organise a demonstration asking where their missing relatives are.

The organisers told the BBC that the army obstructed the event, sending away more than half of the 150 parents who tried to attend before letting a smaller protest take place.

It was not immediately possible to reach the Sri Lankan military spokesman for comment.

The Committee for the Investigation of Disappearances Sri Lanka says that it has recorded details of more than 5,000 disappearances since 2006.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa says about the same number of people are being held in "rehabilitation centres" on suspicion of being former Tamil Tigers.

© BBC News

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Thursday, June 23, 2011

China to provide aid worth USD 1.5 bln to Sri Lanka

PTI | India Report

China will provide aid worth USD 1.5 billion to Sri Lanka to improve its infrastructure, which was badly damaged during the 30-year-old civil war with LTTE.

The fund will be used within three years for the construction of roads, bridges, water supplies, irrigation and power project, Cabinet spokesman Anura Yapa said here today.

The Cabinet had approved the move to sign a MoU with the China Development Bank for the purpose, Yapa said.

External Affairs Minister G L Peiris on Tuesday said that the government was looking forward to renewed cooperation with China in pursuance of President Mahinda Rajapaksa's meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao at St Petersburg, Russia last week.

Chinese have extended extensive funding support to Sri Lanka in recent years. The biggest of them are the new port and airport being built in Hambantora, Rajapaksa's home base.

© India Report

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Thursday, June 23, 2011

The island nation has a split personality

By Iftikhar Gilani | Tehelka

The Sri Lankan government’s decision to delay offering political package to Tamil-dominated north and eastern provinces has caused much heartburn in India. Apprehending its repercussions in Tamil Nadu, where the state Assembly, on two consecutive days, passed separate resolutions on the issue, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh sent National Security Advisor Shivshankar Menon, foreign secretary Nirupama Rao and defence secretary Pradeep Kumar to impress upon Colombo the urgency of an early solution to the power-devolution and rehabilitation concerns.

India’s views is that despite Sri Lankan forces having successfully wiped out the militant face of separatism, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the separatist mindset and yearning for empowerment and preserving ethnic identity remains strong in the minds of Tamils. After stamping out militancy, the political sagacity demands to attend to bruised egos. Instead, the game plan of Colombo seems to assimilate Tamils in the larger Sri Lankan identity and forget granting any political autonomy or self-rule to the region.

What haunts India is its own track record. Sri Lankans are whispering that they have studied India’s experiences of wiping out insurgencies and separatism. Over the past 60 years, India has tackled insurgencies, militancy and voices of separatism in a similar fashion. Right from the 1950 Delhi Agreement between Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah and Jawaharlal Nehru, 1975 Indira Gandhi-Sheikh Abdullah Accord, 1986 Rajiv Gandhi-Harchand Singh Longowal Accord and other agreements with insurgent groups in the Northeast, the government of India has hardly kept the commitment. The sublime principle is that once the uproar, disruptions or insurgencies are over, forget the issue. This dangerous mindset keeps the issue ignited for future generations.

A top Sri Lankan diplomat unequivocally said that the focus of his country was on reconciliation and reconstruction. Amongst a host of measures, he mentioned setting up of a Commission of Reconciliation, which will seek a restorative, and not retributive, justice. In other words, military personnel involved in heinous crimes and massacres will be reprimanded and allowed to escape from the jaws of justice.

So far, Sri Lanka has shown the numbers of surrendered LTTE cadres to claim that it has brought normalcy in the region. Out of 11,260 surrenders so far, Colombo claims to have rehabilitated 6,500 cadres. The government is banking on increasing economic activity to keep Tamil nationalism at bay. In a typical government of India approach towards Kashmir problem, Sri Lankan diplomats have adopted 1995 PV Narasimha Rao line that anything short of separatism is acceptable. But, like the Indian government, Sri Lanka also feels shy of opening up its cards and putting the political package to parliamentary scrutiny.

It is believed that Sri Lankan leaders have told Indian negotiators to give them time to evolve a system of governance. They are now openly telling Indian interlocutors, that the Indian standards and concept of centre-state relations were not applicable in the island nation. They maintain that Colombo was ready to increase the Tamil representation at the centre to assimilate them with the majority Sinhalese community, but it will not grant autonomy to Tamil-dominated regions to make it susceptible to secessionism at any time in future.

The Indian team in Colombo met President Rajapakse, external affairs minister GL Peiris, defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse, among other officials, and also the leaders of various Tamil political parties, which are not part of the government. After the talks, Menon was quoted as saying that “the quicker Sri Lanka can come to a political Arrangement, in which all communities are comfortable, the better it will be for everyone. We will do whatever we can to arrive at it”. Tamil National Alliance spokesperson and Parliament member Suresh Premachandran said that the “Indian team did not suggest any political settlement but assured ‘full support’ for the Tamils’ demand for a life of dignity and security in Sri Lanka”.

Menon clarified that the 13th amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution, dealing with power-devolution, was ‘their amendment’: “We struck the India-Sri Lanka Agreement and gave them an enabling environment. Now, if they want to do better than the 13th Amendment let them do it. They all must feel comfortable with it,” he said. The Sri Lankans are also reluctant to implement the 13th amendment, which is already a part of Constitution. Though it should be an obligation for Colombo to implement this law, it is getting lost in political lexicon. The lawmakers now say that the 13th amendment could be a process to begin with, and a political package can be built on this amendment. The Sri Lankans also talk about New Delhi not supporting Colombo on the Darusmann Report on war crimes, which was commissioned by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. In the past two years, when India was a member of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, New Delhi had not publicised its support for the report, yet it was pushing for the Sri Lankan case with fellow members.

In Colombo, Menon clarified that Sri Lanka did not seek India’s support on the Darusmann Report. According to him, India was against singling out nations at the UNHRC, and that the veracity of reports of 40,000 civilian casualties at the hands of the Sri Lankan armed forces could be questioned. In the global context, talking out against ‘singling out’ of a nation is a significant Indian position on ‘war crimes’ and human rights violations.

The Colombo discussions between India and Sri Lanka naturally referred also to the fisher folk’s issue, which could be a real thorn in the bilateral relations, independent of the ethnic issue and negotiations in Sri Lanka. Post-war, the problem of fisher folks from the two countries sharing the Palk Strait has become a livelihood issue. The Joint Working Group of officials from the two countries met in New Delhi recently, and the representatives of fisher folks too have been exchanging visits, to understand the inherent problems, before being able to address mutual concerns.

Notwithstanding the revival of the India-Sri Lanka ferry service between Thuthookudi and Colombo and host of measures to promote people-to-people contacts, there is no choice, but to discuss and implement a political package, where the Tamils of the north and eastern provinces feel politically, culturally and emotionally empowered. Otherwise, the ghost of LTTE may return. While helping Colombo to attain this objective, India should also look at its own track record.

© Tehelka

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Thursday, June 23, 2011

Sri Lanka’s bloody secret

By Salil Tripathi | Live Mint

In 2009, the Sri Lankan army decided to move forward relentlessly to annihilate the Tamil Tigers. The government had tacit Western support and access to weapons from China, and India was not about to help the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), despite the exigencies of coalitions, particularly when the coalition was led by a party (Congress) whose leader, Rajiv Gandhi, the LTTE had assassinated in 1991.

And so when Sri Lanka declared victory on 16 May that year, there were few tears shed for the LTTE. Sure, human rights groups condemned the army, but they would, wouldn’t they? The LTTE had earned few friends in its long campaign for Eelam. Sri Lanka was getting praise: military analysts wanted to learn from Sri Lankans how the war was concluded. One lesson that seemed to be emerging was to expel providers of humanitarian assistance, non-government organizations, journalists, and other foreign busybodies, and swiftly, brutally, clinically complete the job. First-hand accounts began to emerge, and slowly, the carefully crafted narrative—of Sri Lankan military’s precision, of the Tigers’ capitulation, and their use of women and children as human shields—began to unravel.

First were those videos on YouTube. Grainy and sporadic, those short films suggested that the Sri Lankan army had used brute force. The Sri Lankan government dismissed the allegations, but then in January this year, The New Yorker magazine published Jon Lee Anderson’s meticulously researched piece, where Anderson let facts speak for themselves, reporting what witnesses saw, and what some politicians boasted about.

Then a panel of international experts—Marzuki Darusman of Indonesia, Yasmin Sooka of South Africa, and Steven Ratner of the US—who were appointed by the United Nations (UN) secretary general Ban Ki-Moon, concluded there were credible allegations of war crimes. Their report said as many as 40,000 civilians may have died in the final stages of the war. It took the UN several weeks to make the report public; Sri Lanka, meanwhile, launched an aggressive campaign to discredit the report, even as it was being circulated surreptitiously, first among officials, then lawyers, academics, experts and others. I read it two days before it was finally made public. It told on a grand scale what those videos conveyed piecemeal.

A month earlier in a European city, I had met two journalists living in exile. They described the circumstances in which they operated during the final stages of the war. They used cellphones to film bombings, uploaded the videos with brief narrations, and promptly left the scene because Sri Lankan forces had the means to identify where the signals were emanating from, and once they had tracked down the location, they attacked the place with reasonable accuracy. I found their account credible; it also explained why those videos had jerky camerawork and why they ended so abruptly, making it difficult to piece together the images into a coherent narrative.

Now, the British TV network Channel 4 has added to the good work of Anderson and the UN panel through a shocking film, Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields. If what it shows doesn’t constitute crimes against humanity, nothing does. Two particular incidents stand out: hospitals with Red Cross insignia were hit, but that wasn’t collateral damage. As per the laws of wars, relief agencies send coordinates of civilian locations and safe zones, including hospitals to the combatants, so that such places, where doctors and nurses work against overwhelming odds to treat the wounded, are protected from harm. Attacking such places is a war crime. But soon after the coordinates were sent, those hospitals were attacked. At that stage of the conflict, only one side controlled the airspace.

There are other images, of men and women, who were stripped naked, sexually abused, and shot. One haunting image is of a young Tamil Tiger, made to squat, insults hurled at him in a language (Sinhala) the soldier may not have understood. He is in uniform, and he may have committed crimes himself. But there are rules under the Geneva Conventions about how prisoners of war are to be treated. You can see the raw fear in his eyes, which dart from one person to another in the film. And then you see his blood-splattered face, now still. In another sequence, you see Isaipriya, an anchor on a clandestine LTTE propaganda channel. In the next image, she lies naked and dead, more gruesome than any image in a Goya painting. You hear Gordon Weiss, former UN spokesperson in Sri Lanka, and William Schabas, a leading expert on war crimes, say that the film presented a compelling case for criminal investigation and prosecution.

But don’t expect the UN Human Rights Council to do much. In late May 2009, within a week of the war’s end, the council passed a resolution commending Sri Lanka. Twelve countries, mainly Western democracies, opposed that travesty of a resolution; 29 countries voted for it, including China, Pakistan, and Russia. And India.


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Thursday, June 23, 2011

Getting away with murder in Colombo

By Eric Ellis | The Age

When governments kill the people they are mandated to protect and help prosper, what is the world's tipping point for outrage? How horrific must despotism be to compel the ''international community'' to pursue and prosecute national leaders whose regimes commit war crimes?

In the Bosnian war of the 1990s, it was incontestable; Srebrenica, the largest mass murder in Europe since the Holocaust, a massacre directly witnessed by the very international peacekeepers deployed to stop it. Two Serb leaders, Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, are on trial in The Hague, the evidence against them overwhelming.

Rwanda in 1994 was also a no-brainer - a million Tutsi slain by their fellow Rwandan Hutu in a genocide openly planned as state policy by the then Hutu-led government in Kigali. Almost 100 Rwandans have been indicted by the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal. After Darfur, Sudan's President Omar Hassan al-Bashir became the first sitting head of state to be formally charged with war crimes, and today in oil-drenched Libya, the Atlantic powers and their Arab allies will drop more bombs on Muammar Gaddafi's Tripoli, to stop him murdering his countrymen.
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But what of Sri Lanka and the appalling end of its 30-year civil war between the mostly Sinhalese state and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the notorious Tamil Tigers? Through April-May 2009, thousands of Tamils were corralled to a supposed safe haven, a sand spit in the island's remote north-east that they were told would be a sanctuary. These were not Tiger combatants but neutral innocents. And they would die en masse under shelling in what the Colombo government had assured them and the world was a ''no-fire zone''.

"This was Sri Lanka's Srebrenica," says Gordon Weiss, an Australian who was the UN's spokesman in Sri Lanka through the war's end and aftermath. Now home in Newcastle after breaking with the UN, Weiss has just published The Cage, a book about the Sri Lankan war that is as damning of the UN's acquiescence in the atrocities that Colombo's forces were perpetrating, as it is of the regime that ordered them.

Weiss has no argument with Sri Lanka's central right to reclaim sovereign territory. His issue is how it murderously went about it. Weiss is right to say that the world is better off without the Tamil Tigers. They recruited child soldiers, brainwashed conscripts into taking cyanide capsules when captured, perfected the suicide bomber-assassin and terrorised Tamils into paying for their war by extracting ''liberation taxes'' from the diaspora. Refusal to part with a third of a Tamil emigrant salary in Sydney or Toronto meant intimidation of relatives back home.

Colombo claims there is no evidence of war crimes from when it vanquished the Tigers in 2009. But that's not true. An incriminating body of verified material cannot be ignored. Indeed, this material is more damning than anything made public by the International Criminal Court in its pursuit of the Gaddafis. Unsurprisingly in this era of portable media, much has been provided by Sri Lankan soldiers in trophy videos they filmed themselves. Last week British TV station Channel Four screened the most compelling evidence yet - a documentary called Sri Lanka's Killing Fields. It's a towering piece of journalism, verifying atrocities committed against Tamil civilians by Sri Lanka's military in nauseating detail: systematic murder, rape and torture of innocents and the surrendered, direct targeting of hospitals and clinics in the no-fire zones after Colombo received their co-ordinates from a neutral Red Cross.

In screening its program late at night, Channel Four apologised for the gruesome content but said it owed it to history to air horrors that the democratically elected government in Colombo denies ever happened. Footage inevitably made its way to YouTube, and the station has kept open the geo-lock on its website to allow the world to see it. For its part, Colombo condemned the program, and claimed the aired footage was the fictional handiwork of diaspora Tigers and Western stooges.

Far from being pursued for war crimes, Sri Lankan leaders insist they should be congratulated, boasting that in the West-led global war on terror, they have been the most successful prosecutors of it. Colombo now hosts how-to conferences while exporting anti-insurgency strategies to places such as Pakistan.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brother-cronies of their elected dictatorship look near-untouchable. China runs their defence in the UN, ballasted by $3 billion of sovereign investment Beijing has staked in their home town of Hambantota, now vying with the Gold Coast to host the 2018 Commonwealth Games. Victory has been sweet, and Sri Lanka is now a safer, though in many respects more sinister, place than it has been for years.

But at what moral cost? By UN estimates, as many as 40,000 people died on that blood-drenched beach in April-May 2009. And as the case builds against the Rajapaksas, people such as Gordon Weiss ask why Australians are more agitated about what happens to their cattle in Indonesia than about the death of so many innocents in Sri Lanka's killing fields?

Eric Ellis is a foreign correspondent specialising in Asia. From 2001-2008 he covered Sri Lanka as Fortune magazine's south-east Asia correspondent.

© The Age

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Thursday, June 23, 2011

We must not turn away from graphic documentary

By Chris Cobb | The Ottawa Citizen

The images are truly shocking.

Summary executions of bound and gagged young men, the aftermath of rape and murder of young women, and the bloodied corpses of children.

They are civilians, and among the 40,000 victims killed in Sri Lanka two years ago shortly after the government locked its doors to the outside world and set about dealing with its Tamil problem.

There is none of the familiar TV editing when the image stops a split second before the final act. What viewers see during the 60-minute Channel 4 documentary Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields are likely the most horrific scenes ever shown on a mainstream television documentary.

Killing Fields, shown in the U.K. on Tuesday and online through this weekend, has stirred intense though ultimately muted debate over how much graphic imagery is too much.

The documentary is another powerful example of how images shot by a simple mobile phone can have nation-changing impact.

The stated aim of the documentary producers is to push for an independent investigation into those alleged atrocities against civilians during the final weeks of Sri Lanka’s 2009 military campaign against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) — otherwise known as the Tamil Tigers.

And many believe that an outcome of that investigation would be a trial for crimes against humanity with Sri Lanka’s political and military elite in the dock at the International Criminal Court.

On the basis of this documentary, lauded by British Prime Minister David Cameron earlier this week, the prima facie case is strong.

The graphic footage, shown in the latter portion of the documentary, was shot by government soldiers on cellphones and helmet cameras — sick video trophies of the “cameramen” committing murder while filming themselves pulling the trigger or of fellow soldiers doing the same. And images of the bodies of naked civilians being tossed onto the back of trucks while the soldiers make disparaging and sexist remarks.

British Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt said he was “shocked by the horrific scenes” and demanded the Sri Lankan government respond.

The response of President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government was swift and predictable: The footage is fake and the documentary was made to deliberately discredit the Sri Lankan army.

In what would be a laughable comment if the circumstances weren’t so horrific, the Sri Lankan Defence Ministry accused Channel 4 of failing to meet “standards and fairness” expected of a respectable TV network.

Doubtless expecting the blowback, Channel 4 had the footage authenticated by independent video experts. It’s real right enough.

United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, Christof Heyns, has called the documentary evidence of “definitive war crimes.”

In an interview with the British daily The Independent, C4’s head of news and current affairs Dorothy Byrne said: “I don’t urge you to watch this program. It’s horrific. The images will remain in your mind, maybe for years.”

The documentary was shown close to midnight in Britain to protect children from the images.

“But there are probably many adults who shouldn’t watch,” Byrne said. “People who can’t watch horrible stuff on the news. I would definitely say pregnant women shouldn’t look at it. I would rather I had never seen it.”

And Jon Snow, a respected veteran of British TV journalism called the story “the most important I have ever reported. I have reported civil wars before, not least in Central America in the 1980s, but I have never seen such graphic evidence, often at the hands of government soldiers themselves, of what have all the hallmarks of war crimes.”

The late-night showing to protect children and the sensitive is meaningless in the Internet age. Channel 4 immediately posted the documentary on its website ( after Tuesday’s broadcast for all to see at any time they choose. It has also been segmented on YouTube.

Dramatic footage shot by Tamil civilians shows the apparent systematic shelling of hospitals while civilians are being treated.

Many of those attacks came after army commanders had been given co-ordinates so they would not accidentally attack the hospitals but, according to one UN official, the Sri Lankan army deliberately attacked hospitals — mostly temporary hospitals deprived of drugs and medical supplies — at least 65 times.

Killing Fields also makes the point that the rebel Tamil Tigers were no innocents. They often used their own people as human shields, holding terrified women and children at gunpoint, and — as we clearly see in the faces of dead Tiger soldiers piled into wagons — many children had been recruited as fighters.

Should the worst of the images have been shown?

Absolutely. The outpouring of outrage across the world, and the calls for a long-overdue independent inquiry, are evidence enough of the documentary’s positive impact.

It is harrowing and ugly but the power of this mix of smart journalism and new media to set the wheels of international justice in motion trumps all else.

© The Ottawa Citizen

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Thursday, June 23, 2011

‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields’ – shocking the UN into action

By José Luis Díaz | Amnesty International

As we prepared for the screening today of the Channel 4 film, “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields” at Amnesty International’s United Nations office in New York, our main worry was the size of the turnout.

We had already seen the cancellation of a separate screening for the media at UN headquarters because it would have clashed with the UN General Assembly vote – decided only a few days ago – giving Ban Ki-moon a second term as Secretary-General.

The fairly sizeable audience that eventually made it to the screening was surely not expecting to learn much that was new: the events at the end of the war in Sri Lanka in 2009 have been well documented, and the documentary was broadcast in the UK last week before being put on the web.

Still, no one is really prepared for the gruesome, heartrending and nearly unbearable images, captured by victims and sometimes by perpetrators, of civilians under deliberate attack and summary executions.

The film shocks you into silence. And so it was today: during the screening there was hardly a sound from the audience of diplomats, journalists and human rights workers, not even the otherwise ubiquitous pecking on smart phone keys.

The only noise came from the scribbling of the Sri Lankan ambassador to the UN and his deputy, who took notes in order to respond to the film.

Dr Palitha Kohona and Major General Shavendra Silva headed a 15-member Sri Lankan delegation to the screening. Silva is featured in the film, because in 2009 he headed the Sri Lankan army’s 58th Division, accused, among other things, of executing LTTE leaders attempting to surrender.

Their defence of the government was curious. In essence, they maintained that if the international community has done almost nothing to establish accountability in Sri Lanka – unlike the case of Sudan or Libya – it is because nothing untoward has happened there. But, as the saying goes, facts are stubborn things, including those recorded by mobile phone video cameras and detailed in reports by the United Nations, Amnesty International and others.

Even Kohona was forced to admit that in part, saying, during the discussion after the screening, that the film seemed to show some violations that would be looked at. A small concession, perhaps, but one that needs to be seen in the context of decades of basically sham national commissions of inquiry and “lessons learned” panels.

Meanwhile, as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon begins his second term our hope is that he stops sitting on a report drafted by experts he appointed and governments strongly back their call for an international investigation into the outrages perpetrated two years ago in Sri Lanka.

© Amnesty International

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Thursday, June 23, 2011

Sri Lanka: Never ending search for the missing

By Dinasena Ratugamage | BBC Sinhala

They came in their hundreds in search of their loved ones. Almost all returned empty handed.

Nearly two thousand Tamils have visited the police in the northern Sri Lankan town of Vavunia over the last ten days to find details of those missing during the war and since the military declaring it's victory over Tamil Tigers more than two years ago.

Ten days ago Sri Lankan police announced they will release information about those held by the police to relatives.

Police spokesperson SP Prishantha Jayakody told BBC Sandeshaya that the information will not be made available to "any body other than the close relatives".

Three centres established in the north, south and the capital Colombo will provide details of those held by the police Terrorist Investigation Division (TID), he said.

Only one man out of thousands who went to the centre in Vavunia was told where his son is. As soon as he was told that the detainee is held hundreds of miles away in the southern town of Galle, he rushed to board the first available train out of town.

Due to the large number of relatives approaching the Vavunia centre, police only meet 200 people each day.

Journalists barred by the police were only able to talk to desperate and tearful relatives by the wayside.

Those who were unable to gather information of their missing relatives were desperate.

"My 26 year old son Pradeep was taken by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) when he went to Colombo to get his passport. That's all we know," Mylu Shanmugathas from Tellipalai told the BBC after his search since 2008 drew a blank once again.

Mr. Shanmugathas has been to police stations, military camps and human rights offices in search of his son.

Some were looking for their sole breadwinner.

"There is no one to provide me. Who will look after me or care if I fall ill?" cried a frail looking Tamil woman who said that her son had gone missing since been taken by the police in 2007.

The Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) in place since 1979 gives the authorities power to hold detainees for 90 days incommunicado.

The defence secretary is the sole authority to renew or revoke a Detention Order (DO) under the PTA.

Brother of the president Gotabhaya Rajapaksa currently holds the position.

United Nations, European Commission and India alongside human rights organisations have called for the repeal of teh PTA.

TID officials in Vavunia say that they are unable to provide details of the 'dissapeared'.

The Committee for the Investigation (CID) in Sri Lanka say that they have recorded details of over five thousand dissapearances that took place since 2006.

Relatives in Vavunia keep coming to the TID information centre daily with gradually diminishing hope.

Leading the Sri Lankan delegation Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe told the UN Human Rights Commission in early July that over five thousand suspected Tamil Tigers are held in what he called rehabilitation centres.

© BBC Sinhala

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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Sri Lanka regime rejects press freedom bill

AFP | Google News

Sri Lanka's ruling party used its parliamentary majority Tuesday (21) to defeat an opposition-initiated bill to grant greater media freedom, a parliamentary official said.

President Mahinda Rajapakse's United People's Freedom Alliance, which enjoys a two-thirds majority in the 225-member assembly, shot down the Freedom of Information Bill presented by an opposition lawmaker, an official said.

"The combined opposition voted for the bill, but the government overwhelmingly voted against it," the official said citing Tuesday's proceedings in the legislature.

There was no immediate comment from the government which maintains a state of emergency which gives sweeping powers to police and security forces to detain suspects for long periods.

The opposition had presented the bill after accusing the government of trying to stifle media freedom in a country where 17 journalists and media employees have been killed in the past decade.

There is no formal censorship in Sri Lanka, but rights groups say many privately-run media institutions are self-censoring for fear of intimidation from the authorities.

Opposition parties accuse the government of maintaining emergency laws, even two years after security forces crushed Tamil Tiger separatists in May 2009, to suppress political opponents.


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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Sri Lanka's Groundviews back online after takedown

By Bob Dietz | Committee to Protect Journalists

Sanjana Hattotuwa, the founder of the citizen journalism website Groundviews messaged me this morning to say that the site is up and running again after suddenly going down within Sri Lanka

In his message, Hattotuwa said:

'Reports indicate Groundviews, Vikalpa [Groundviews' partner site in Sinhala] and Transparency International are now accessible again through Sri Lanka Telecomm's ADSL network. Could have been a dry run for future action, could have been someone who flipped a switch without being told to do so, could have been a signal to us to shut up. But this was no mistake, or a random technical glitch.'

Transparency International's reporting on corruption in Sri Lanka has longed angered the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, and it didn't earn much favor when it honored Attotage Prema Jayantha, better known by his pen name Poddala, with one of its Transparency International Integrity Awards in 2010.

Groundviews is a mandatory daily check-in for anyone looking for a critical but balanced viewpoint on Sri Lankan affairs. I've always been surprised that it has been able to keep running, given what has happened to other sites. Lanka eNews' office was burned to the ground, its editor driven into exile, and its staff still living in Colombo arrested, harassed, and threatened. TamilNet, a news site run by Tamil Sri Lankans living in exile, has been blocked since 2007, though Groundviews does supply a workaround on how to access it.

As one commenter on the Groundviews site said after the announcement that it had been shut down: "It was bound to happen wasn't it?"

© CPJ Blog

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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Sri Lankan academics protest for pay increase

Associated Press | The Straits Times

Hundreds of university teachers have marched on streets in Sri Lanka's capital to demand a pay increase.

The protesters carried banners and placards on Colombo's main roads ON Tuesday before a rally at a public auditorium.

Nirmal Ranjith Devasiri, president of the Federation of University Teachers Association, said they decided 'to come to the streets' as authorities have failed to solve the salary dispute.

He urged authorities to take prompt action without crippling the university system.

There was no immediate comment from the government. In recent weeks, officials have said the pay increase demanded by university teachers is unjustifiable as it would lead to further salary anomalies within the state sector.

© AP

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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Sri Lanka: Replacing investigations with gossip

Photo courtesy:

By Basil Fernando | Asian Human Rights Commission

There are discussions about Prageeth Eknaliagoda's abduction and disappearance that go something like this: Was he a journalist or was he not a journalist? Was he a great journalist or was he a lesser journalist?

Was he abducted and made to disappear due his activities as a journalist or was the abduction and disappearance unrelated to his journalism?

One wonders what MORAL ISSUE is involved in asking such questions and in making such distinctions.

It appears that some maintain that the abduction and disappearance would be of lesser significance if he was not a journalist, and of greater significance if he was a journalist; lesser significance if he was not a great journalist than if he was a great journalist; lesser significance if he was not abducted and made to disappear for his journalistic activities rather than if he was abducted and disappeared due to his journalistic activities.

The moral issue: Is the abduction and disappearance of a person who is not a journalist less important or less significant than the abduction and disappearance of a person who is a journalist?

If that be the case, what is the scale on which such moral grading might be based?

On the other hand, if there is no such basis to make a distinction about the moral wrong involved in an abduction and disappearance what is this whole debate about?

It appears that the whole aim is to say that there is no point in persisting with the call for a credible investigation into the abduction and the disappearance of Prageeth Ekneliagoda.

However, what is the moral logic involved in this objection? There is none at all.

The demand for an investigation into a crime (in this instance a universally recognized heinous crime), should be the most natural thing, irrespective of the status or the profession of the person. The state bears responsibility for accounting for all persons, irrespective of their job title.

What is the actual moral issue involved?

The state's failure to credibly investigate the abduction and disappearance of Prageeth Ekneliagoda: That is the issue raised by the campaign on Prageeth's behalf led by his wife and family and supported by others.

The continuity of this demand for a credible investigation seems to irritate some persons.

Why should such a demand irritate anyone?

The government's irritation against such a demand for a credible investigation is not difficult to understand as such a demand is a direct criticism of the failure of the state to investigate. It may even imply that the government's is deliberately obstructing the call for an investigation which would support the accusation of the family that the government is responsible for the abduction and disappearance in the first place.

Blaming the wife for calling for investigations into the disappearance of her husband:

The underlying target of those who engage in attacking this campaign is the wife of the disappeared person. It is one of the most basic moral rights of persons who love a family member to demand justice for their loved ones. A society that does not even respect this right is very rotten indeed.

Prageeth Ekneliagoda's disappearance points to one of the greatest moral and legal wrongs in Sri Lanka relating to disappearances. It is a heinous crime under international law but it not a crime under Sri Lankan law. The state refuses to conduct credible investigations into this particular crime, which obviously means that the state has reasons not to investigate this particular crime.

Sri Lankan intellectuals also show no interest in stopping this great moral wrong. Some directly or indirectly support the government in this regard by attempting to stop campaigns calling for credible investigations into allegations about disappearances.

Replacing investigations with gossip

Investigative journalism may be dead in Sri Lanka but gossip journalism thrives. The kind of gossip that is created is cheap; some may argue that gossip is always cheap.

One writes that Prageeth was a pauper and was broke and is therefore in hiding to make up a case for claiming refugee status in a developed country. Another writes that he is a rich land owner with means and therefore not a working journalist.

When Richard Soyza was abducted and killed someone said in parliament that he was killed due to a homosexual problem. It is well known that Richard's mother spent the last years of her life disgusted with the kind of society where justice had no moving power.

This kind of thing is published as serious journalism. Whoever is behind the disappearance of Prageeth must be having what he thinks is the last laugh. Of course, dead men cannot answer accusations and for that very reason greater restraint is entertained in making accusations against the dead. But this is not so in Sri Lanka.

Right to Truth

Prageeth's family and also the public has the right to know the truth. That is not something to laugh at. There is no sense in trying to make a joke out of a disappearance.

There is some kind of a cultural root from which such cheapness arises. It has happened not once, but tens of thousands of times. Everyone knows that there has been tens of thousands of disappearances in the South, North and East but there has been no expression of outrage, only cheap gossip.

What is that cultural root? It is worth examining at one time or another.


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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

'Sri Lanka not isolated' says SL Foreign Minister

By R. K. Radhakrishnan | The Hindu

Despite a sustained campaign against Sri Lanka aided and abetted by some nations, the country did not stand isolated — this was the message sent out from the St. Petersberg Economic Forum, said Sri Lankan Foreign Minister G.L. Peiris here on Tuesday.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa had met several world leaders on the sidelines of the forum and they all had assured him of their support for the on-going peace process, said Professor Peiris. He added that Russia and China, two permanent members of the United Nations Security Council who had been steadfast in their support for Sri Lanka, reiterated their commitment to its unity.

When it was pointed out that they could not do much more than voice their protest over the NATO attacks on Libya, he said Sri Lanka and Libya were two different situations and could not be compared.

Concerted campaign

Prof. Peiris said there was a sustained and diabolical campaign by some people based abroad to destabilise Sri Lanka by interfering with the reconciliation process and stopping the President from travelling abroad.

“The object of this campaign is to prevent the President from travelling. The diabolical designs of these elements are to prevent reconciliation from happening,” he said. Referring to the case filed in a local court in the United States against Mr. Rajapaksa, he said an elected executive head who had sovereign immunity should not have been summoned by a court unaware of its jurisdiction.

Secretary to the President Lalith Weeratunga said Mr. Rajapaksa had met his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev for the second time within a year. The meeting underlined the “unshakable relationship” and Russia made it clear it would stand by Sri Lanka. Mr. Rajapaksa's meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao was the fifth in the last four years. Mr. Hu invited Mr. Rajapaksa to visit China. Both leaders also discussed issues of economic development, now that Sri Lanka was poised to reap the peace dividend.

On Kachchativu

Breaking its silence over a Tamil Nadu Assembly resolution on the State Revenue Department impleading itself in the Supreme Court case on Kachchativu, Sri Lanka said Kachchathivu was a matter related to the Centre. “Tamil Nadu does not have any authority over Kachchativu,” said Prof. Peiris adding there was no need for anyone in Sri Lanka to feel agitated over the Tamil Nadu Assembly resolution. In India, the Constitution provided certain powers for the Centre and certain others for States and this was an issue in the realm of the Centre, he said. Hence, “a cerebral response is required, not an emotional response”. He was quick to add that he had greeted Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa on her assuming office and wanted cordial relations with the State.

© The Hindu

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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Tamil journalist bound, shot, during Sri Lankan civil war

Committee to Protect Journalists

Video footage of a Tamil journalist apparently executed in the final stages of Sri Lanka's bloody civil war underscores the need for an urgent international inquiry, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

The U.K.'s Channel 4 has screened amateur footage of the body of Tamil news presenter Shoba, indicating that she was shot and killed during the government's final military surge in the northeast. Shoba, who went by one name, also reported under the name Isaipriya or Isaippiriya for the media division of the secessionist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), according to Channel 4 and the pro-LTTE TamilNet news website. "Her role was as a journalist rather than a direct fighter," Channel 4 reported.

The footage, shown June 14 in the documentary "Sri Lanka's Killing Fields," shows Shoba's body, half-naked with her hands bound, among the corpses of Tamil Tiger rebels apparently captured, and executed by Sri Lankan government forces. The manner of Shoba's death is not shown, although several point-blank executions of bound prisoners were filmed in the same location. Channel 4 reporter Jon Snow said in the documentary that Shoba's body was found among some that "appear to have been raped or sexually assaulted, and then murdered."

Channel 4 first released extracts of the footage, which it dates to May 18 or 19, 2009, in December 2010. TamilNet reported relatives had identified her as the woman shown. The Sri Lankan government denounced the videos as fake, according to the documentary. "The footage has since been authenticated by the United Nations, though the Sri Lankan government refuses to accept that," Channel 4 says in the film.

"Channel 4 has provided solid evidence that Shoba was murdered and that a war crime may have been committed," said Bob Dietz, CPJ Asia program coordinator. "Moreover, Shoba was reportedly working as a journalist. It is essential that an international inquiry make use of this and any other evidence to investigate and prosecute those responsible."

The Sri Lankan Ministry of Defense website lists Shoba as Lieutenant Colonel Issei Piriya, a Tamil Tigers communications leader killed during battle by its 53 Division troops on May 18, one day before the government announced victory.

British war crimes lawyer Julian Knowles told Channel 4 that the tied hands, absence of weapons, and the arrangement of Shoba's body and others found with her undermine that claim. "It's difficult to think of a mechanism how they could have died other than a cold-blooded execution," he said.

Both TamilNet and Channel 4 say that Shoba, 27, was a working journalist. TamilNet posted an excerpt of Shoba's reporting for O'liveechchu, the Tigers' videomagazine. "Shoba remained unarmed and did not take part in combat," the website said, citing its unnamed local correspondent who has since left Sri Lanka. "She never carried a gun and her physical condition did not permit her to go to the battlefield. She always had either a camera, a pen, or a notepad," Channel 4 reported, citing Shoba's colleague. Shoba suffered from a heart condition, according to Channel 4 and TamilNet.

The Sri Lankan government prevented journalists from accessing the conflict zones, according to CPJ research. Some of the footage in "Killing Fields" was obtained by eye-witnesses, usually Tamils in the conflict zones, using mobile phones and small cameras, according to Channel 4. Others were recorded by soldiers as "grotesque war trophies." The documentary put the video of Shoba in this category.


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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Channel 4 documentary: Sri Lanka’s “Killing Fields” and what was the UN doing?

By Usha S Sri-Skanda-Rajah | South Asian Analysis Group

The film, billed as “one of the most shocking films ever screened by Channel 4” did, true to its word make “a powerful case for bringing those guilty of war crimes in Sri Lanka to justice.” It had an explicit message to the UN and the international community:

Unquestionably the next step to Channel 4’s (C4’s) documentary on ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields’ is to start the wheels of justice moving. Establishing an independent international inquiry should be the logical and most pressing first step that needs no second thought – decidedly it should be the natural response of every civilized human being, let alone any member of the UN Security Council and Human Rights Council. The UN cannot flounder and fall short of the mandate for which it was created.

The time has come to go after those perpetrators still living the good life after presiding over what is now perfectly clear to be acts of war crimes and crimes against humanity - tantamount to genocide.

Any move by the international community to merely allow Sri Lanka to investigate its own or make an UN sponsored independent inquiry, conditional upon the government’s consent, as Ban Ki-moon said, should be ruled out. And as Sam Zarifi of The Independent said in Sri Lanka: Confronting the Killing Fields: “It would be a sad day for the authority of the Secretary General if he could only authorise investigations approved by the government under scrutiny.” Countries that think that these are viable option must heed these words and take note that the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) appointed by the president has no mandate to probe war crimes.

The “distressing” images of true events in the programme, described as the “most harrowing” some viewers had ever seen, together with the UN Advisory Panel of Expert’s (the Panel) findings should galvanise world powers, to go beyond prejudices and alliances, act decisively, entirely on the evidence and evidence alone. In truth the documentary provided visual evidence and testimonies in support of the Panel’s findings, thereby reinforcing the conclusions of the Panel that “there were credible allegations of serious violations of human rights and humanitarian law committed by both parties that amounted to war crimes and crimes against humanity.”

The documentary was factual as much as it was disturbing; there was no dramatization; there was nothing “fake” about it as the Sri Lankan government may have the world believe. The images were real; the people were real; the dead bodies were real; the injuries were real; the targeted bombardment of No Fire Zones was real; the mass summary executions were real; the torture and abuse were real; the carnage and destruction was real; the state terrorism inflicted on innocent civilians was real; the fear was real; the depravation was real; the hunger was real, the lack of food and medicine was real; the pain, suffering and trauma were real; the cries for help were real; most of all the abandonment of a people by the very organization fated to protect them was real.

Try as it may, there is little the Sri Lankan government can do to redeem it self from this indefensible crime. Its response to the documentary is laughable and insulting to most people’s intelligence.. Its statement said it “is concerned about the distress the images, without any guarantee of their authenticity, might have caused to the viewers,” adding that it was “an exercise...carried out by a small section of international media at the behest of certain parties with vested interests, …and caters only to the interests of separatist forces living outside Sri Lanka... the final objective of which is to push Sri Lanka back to war, by way of lacerating the wounds that the country is attempting to heal.” Accusing Channel 4 of “inciting hatred among the different communities in Sri Lanka, including future generations, and thereby, adversely affect the ongoing national reconciliation processes,”

This was no invention by C4. The reaction of the rest of the British and world media to the documentary is in direct contrast to the Sri Lankan government’s claim in its statement that it was “an exercise carried out by a small section of the international media.”

The gruesome and horrific images of Sri Lankan forces knowingly bombing and shelling three No Fire Zones’ which the government itself designated as safe zones where civilians were encouraged to congregate, attacking hospitals which were clearly marked including make shift hospitals, the coordinates of which were given to them by the Red Cross, would have left no doubt in the viewer’s mind that the crimes were intentional. There were images of terrified civilians including children and infants taking refuge in shallow bunkers to avoid fire; of doctors and medical staff trying desperately to save lives without let, performing amputations without anesthetic; of men, women, the elderly and children slaughtered indiscriminately; of others barely alive with serious injuries and body parts missing; of the obvious trauma of children seeing their loved ones dying in front of them; of the agony of those who could not leave their bunkers to grieve for the dead; of mothers and fathers losing their children; of the depravation of food water and medicine, blood and surgical supplies; of men and women being executed; some naked with their hands bound behind their backs; others tied to trees and shot at point blank range; of more mass executions; of dead bodies of naked women being loaded in to trucks; of young people being taken away never to come back; of a man tortured in the most gruesome manner and then found dead; of LTTE members executed after they were taken prisoner or had surrendered; of Sri Lankan soldiers behaving like psychopaths.

The authoritative statements in the documentary more than substantiate the authenticity and accuracy of the events that took place and culpability of the perpetrators.

The UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions Christof Heynes verified the new video’s authenticity to the United Nations Human Rights Council while the old one was authenticated earlier by his predecessor. Heynes has also called for an international investigation, after recognizing earlier the video showed evidence of “serious international crimes”.

Further a lawyer with international human rights expertise, Prof William Schabas points out attacking hospitals is a serious violation. “A hospital is totally off limits” he says, and goes on to draw a clear distinction between legal and illegal acts in war: “Combatants in a conflict have a duty not to target civilians and are only allowed to target military objectives. And when they go outside what is purely justified by military necessity, then they are already in the range of illegality.”

Referring to the mass summary executions the Professor said “In what ever form, it’s prohibited by law, it is murder,” adding that in this case there is “strong circumstantial evidence that torture and killings took place.” His final comment that “unpunished crimes leave wounds that return and prevent society from healing and moving forward,” seemed ominous.

Steve Crawshaw, Advocacy Director Amnesty International (AI) spoke of the need to protect civilians at all costs. “One of the absolutely core principles of the laws of war is the need to protect civilians, he said. The constant targeted bombardment of civilian facilities, hospitals and “No Fire Zones” is well documented throughout the film. Video footage of “increased shelling and incursions by Sri Lankan troops bringing death and terror to crowded civilian camps,” is in itself ample proof. The fact that air strikes had been a regular occurrence is corroborated by one of the 8 or 9 UN workers in Killinochchi, former UN staffer Benjamine Dix. He talks about “the number of air raids” that was conducted “pretty much every day, quite often at night time,” even during the time the UN was still there until it was asked to leave by the Sri Lankan government in September 2008.

The documentary meticulously and chronologically has pieced together the events, with the help of video footage and eye witness accounts to show how Tamil civilians had to move from one No Fire Zone to another. It’s by piecing together the civilian movement from supposedly one safe zone to another that one had a semblance of the ever increasing death toll in the final few weeks which the Panel has concluded to be 40,000; which some sources believed to be much higher.

The programme did not fail to point out that the law applied to both sides in the conflict. “The laws of war do of course apply equally to both sides,” said Jon Snow the documentary showing footage of a “government center for displaced persons” where he alleged a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber killed civilians and soldiers: “On the 9th of February a female Tamil Tiger suicide bomber killed a large number of Sri Lankan soldiers and Tamil civilians in this government center for displaced people; and in the No Fire Zones too they defied the laws of war,”

Jon Snow stated, referring to alleged crimes committed by the Tigers that included using civilians as human shields: “We know from available evidence that the Tamil Tigers were killing people in order to stop them from leaving,” Gordon Weiss told the programme. Aerial shots given to C4 taken by the Sri Lankan government showing Tigers allegedly firing on the ground to prevent civilians attempting to leave were hardly visible to the eye.

The documentary raised the issue of “command responsibility” and the fact that the “military command structure in Sri Lanka” went “all the way to the highest offices in government.” This meant “responsibility could ultimately lie with President Rajapaksa and his Defence Minister and brother Gotabaya,” it concluded - the president being the Commander in Chief of the Sri Lankan armed forces.

The documentary reveals the Sri Lankan government’s master plan to get rid of international witnesses. The official UN spokesman at that time Gordon Weiss believes “the Sri Lankan Government’s motive was not the safety of UN Personnel,” when it asked the staff to leave Tiger controlled areas: “The government regarded the UN as impediments to their conquest of the Tamil Tigers. By removing those organizations there were no longer international witnesses to what was coming; their intention was to remove independent witnesses,” stating he personally thought “it was a mistake.”

The documentary begins and ends with the pathetic and heartbreaking images of desperate Tamil civilians begging the UN workers not to leave. The Sri Lankan government had asked the UN to “leave Killinochchi and the Tiger held areas” in September 2008 as they claimed they could no longer guarantee their safety. Th UN’s decision to leave according to Gordon Weiss, “was a mistake” and as The Independent’s Tom Sutcliffe wrote “a move interpreted (in the documentary) as a pre-meditated plan (by the government) to remove inconvenient witnesses.”

UN staffer Benjamine Dix was choking with emotion when he shared his feelings with C4 about the UN leaving. “For me that was personally the worst moment of my life. It seemed like their greatest hour of need; there was an army sitting at their door step waiting to take the town and we drove out; that was a very difficult time for us, a real sense of abandonment of these people,” he said, pointing particularly to one girl in the crowd amidst waving hands.

On 15th Sept 2008 when news that the international staff were leaving spread, a crowd had gathered, “please don’t leave, they cried, pleading not to go, I ran my camera along the waving hands and there was one girl at the end she wasn’t shouting or chanting but there was real sadness in her face – I was quite emotional - her face captured the real emotion at that point. The Brahmin laid it on the line – we don’t care about our food, shelter and water, we’ll take care of ourselves we need international eyes on the ground to see what’s happening here. If you leave we will all die – the knife is at our throat.”

“Those pleas fell on deaf ears at the UN” Jon Snow said.

The documentary referred to the Panel’s conclusions on the UN leaving: “The UN report now acknowledged the removal of their staff left virtually no international witnesses in the area – which meant a path was opened for the Sri Lankan government forces to launch a final offensive in to the Tiger held areas for the next four months where hundreds of thousands of civilians would be bombed herded and corralled; into an ever decreasing area of land and in these killing fields where tens of thousands of them were destined to die targeted by deliberate government fire,”

Jon Snow said leaving viewers feeling outraged that the slaughter could have been prevented. The part played by the UN in the abandonment of these hapless Tamil people was plain to the eye and seemed inexcusable. As I wrote earlier in my article Acid Test for UN and the International Community, it’s abundantly clear the UN had failed in its duty to protect civilians. I mentioned the Panel’s criticism of the UN’s political organs and bodies “for failing to take action that might have protected civilians,” chiding the UN for lack of transparency for not releasing casualty figures and quoting the report’s conclusions: “In the Panels view the public use of casualty figures would have strengthened the call for the protection of civilians while those events in the Vanni were unfolding.”

And so the documentary asks “will anyone be brought to justice for these crimes?” putting the onus on the UN and the international community. C4 believes that would “depend a great deal on the international community and the UN itself. “The tens of thousands who were killed beg the question of the UN – what was it doing at that time and was it enough?” Gordon Weiss thinks “it wasn’t enough.”

“Quite recently the Security Council voted unanimously for Libya to be referred to the International Criminal Court in The Hague,” Steve Crawshaw of AI said, adding, “contrast that and the complete and utter silence and inaction on scores of thousands dead in Sri Lanka (the difference) is absolutely striking. I think it is inexplicable and morally quite indefensible.”

In all this the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon’s actions need examination. “He has rejected his own committee’s recommendations that he set up” Jon Snow said. “If he has no authority then the UN Security Council itself must implement the call,” he stated.
The UN has a duty to clear its name of complicity and restore its credibility.

The entire Channel 4 team of ‘Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields’ must be congratulated. Jon Snow, the presenter must have been mindful of the task at hand. Summing up his experience as the team ventured to “piece together an account of what happened in the closing weeks of Sri Lanka’s civil war,” he spoke of his involvement in events affecting history. “Once or twice in a reporter’s lifetime, a journalist is allowed by events to participate in a project that can affect history,” he said calling ‘their’ efforts “a painful, and complex team achievement.”

The apparent faith the team had in their mission to expose the horrific crimes that took place is reflected in those words. They know the sheer gravity of the responsibility they owed to the public to reveal what they knew, the need for seeking the truth and for justice to be served. C4 has made a powerful case for bringing those guilty of war crimes in Sri Lanka to justice. They end with one nagging question: “The survivors are looking to the international community for justice, will they be failed again?”

The ball is now in the international community’s court!” Hope justice prevails.

Usha S Sri-Skanda-Rajah is an expatriate Sri Lankan Tamil based in Canada.


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