Wednesday, January 12, 2011

146,679 people unaccounted for in the Vanni War: Bishop of Mannaar

Photo courtesy:

Tamil Net

According to records of the SL Government Agent offices of Mullaiththeevu and Ki’linochchi districts, the population of Vanni was 429,059 in October 2008. The total number of people who got into SL government control after the war was 282,380, according to UN update as of 10 July 2009.

“Due clarification should be made regarding what happened to 146,679 people, which is the discrepancy between the number of people who came to government controlled areas between October 2008 – May 2009 and the population reported to be in Vanni in early October 2008,” said the Catholic Bishop of Mannaar, Rt. Rev. Dr. Rayappu Joseph in his submission to the LLRC Saturday. The Bishop has also raised the issues of militarization, colonisation, land grab, Sihalicization, Buddhicisation and civil as well as human rights abuses that take place in the Tamil land following the war.

The LTTE, other armed Tamil groups and the war, are not the cause, but only results of the conflict. Their actions were prompted by the failure of successive governments to respond favourably to Tamil’s efforts to resolve their problems through peaceful and political means. Roots of the conflict and reasons for the war that caused so much pain, destruction and polarization dates much further, the Bishop pointed out.

Citing the case of Rev. Fr. Jim Brown, whose case of disappearance in 2006 was part of the mandate of a previous presidential commission proved futile, the Bishop said “we must express our disappointment that previous Commissions of Inquiry have failed to establish the truth into human rights violations and extrajudicial killings they were inquiring and bring justice and relief to victims and their families.”

“Although establishing the truth is not explicitly mentioned in your mandate, we believe you will share our conviction that there can be no genuine and lasting reconciliation without truth,” the Bishop told the LLRC.

Commenting on colonisation activities the Bishop said: “There is suspicion amongst historical inhabitants in the district that these are part of a government plan to bring about demographic changes in terms of ethnic and religious composition of the districts and the Northern Province as a whole. Such efforts in the past have been a key factor that led to the conflict, war and violence and as we try to move towards reconciliation, it is crucial to learn lessons from the mistakes made in the past and not repeat such mistakes.”

While expressing his disapproval over limiting the amount of money spent on each permanent house in the North and East to 3,25,000 which is hardly enough for decent housing, the Bishop also has cautioned against possible obstacles to the Indian plan to build 50,000 houses.

© Tamil Net

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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Dark days are back in Jaffna

By Sutirtho Patranobis | Hindustan Times

In January, 2010, Jaffna was thrown open to Lankan citizens after decades of isolation. Passing through the former LTTE capital, Kilinochchi, thousands flocked to the peninsula in rickety buses over the potholed A9 highway. Jaffna residents were beleaguered by the sudden attention from southern tourists and traders but it seemed acceptable in exchange for a post-war sense of normalcy.

A year later, that sense of normalcy is dipping. A spate of murders - some suspect extra-judicial killings -- and abductions around the district have brought back dark fears. What is deepening the fear is that the crimes were committed even though the district is still under tight security - or at least enough number of well-armed policemen and military personnel are seen to be on duty.

Opposition leader, Ranil Wickremasinghe told Parliament that an all-party delegation should be urgently sent to the Tamil heartland to assess the situation. Government minister, and Tamil politician, Douglas Devananda added that "a fear psychosis" was prevailing. Tamil parliamentarians submitted a list of 15 incidents reported in less than two months.

Among the most shocking incidents were the beheading of a young man, killing of a Hindu priest and the murders of an education department officer and an environmentalist.

The response from the authorities was immediate and innovative: leaflets were distributed and announcements made asking the citizens to be wary and take care of themselves. Women were asked to wear imitation jewellery and homeowners asked to keep a light bulb on at night; don't go out alone at night, residents were warned.

"Such violence were the daily events when the government troops were locked in fierce war with LTTE but the re-emergence of the dark era even after the military defeat of the LTTE has raised a million dollar question on the motive of such organised crime," Journalists for Democracy, a group working in exile, said in a statement.

Last week, the government announced that it would recruit Tamil personnel for its police force; a move that would probably improve policing in Tamil-dominated north and east where lack of communication between Tamil citizens and Sinhalese policemen is a sharp hindrance against policing. Currently, less than 5% of Sri Lanka's 85,000 policemen are Tamils.

© Hindustan Times

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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Sri Lanka: Media freedom still distant

By Amantha Perera | Inter Press Service

January is indelibly linked to the tumultuous recent history of the media in Sri Lanka. Two years ago, on Jan. 8 Lasantha Manilal Wickrematunge, editor of the The Sunday Leader newspaper, was murdered while on his way to work.

The two-year murder investigation has not yielded any credible indications or pointers to the identity of the assassins, who fled after waylaying Wickrematunge’s car on a public road in broad daylight. The blame game instead has been in full swing with charges and counter-charges flying around.

Wickrematunge was a staunch critic of the administration of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and in a posthumous editorial published after he was killed - but reportedly written by him before the event - held the government responsible for any harm that may come to him. The government has flatly denied it was in any way connected to the murder.

When the assassination took place in 2009, Sri Lanka was a country in flux - a 25-year bloody civil conflict was reaching its end with the military poised to defeat the separatist Tamil Tigers. Four and half months after the Wickrematunge murder, the Tigers were no more, following final battles fought on a narrow beach front along the country’s northern shore. During the ensuing one and half years - as the island adapted to the absence of war - the media landscape also changed.

The reporting climate is still far from being conducive to assertive journalism, but has improved from what it was during the final phase of the war.

There has been a decline in the number of recorded attacks on the media, and no assassinations of journalists were reported last year.

Sri Lankan journalists can now travel in parts of the war-devastated north that are open to the public and report. During the final years of the war, between mid-2007 and May 2009, independent reporting from these areas was impossible.

Large areas in the north still remain out of bounds and foreigners need to seek government approval to travel and report in the north - some receive it, some don’t.

An international network filmed a long documentary report on demining work in the former war zone last October, and several foreign correspondents have also travelled to and filed from northern Jaffna. On the other hand the BBC has complained that it has been barred from hearings of a government commission looking into the conduct of the last days of the war.

"The situation has improved, we admit that " says Sunil Jayasekera, the convenor of the Free Media Movement (FMM) the country’s foremost media rights group. "But the lack of attacks and the absence of killings do not mean that we have an environment of media freedom, there is a long way to go for that."

Paris based media rights group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has welcomed "the fall in the number of physical attacks, threats and cases of imprisonment" in its year ending situation report from Sri Lanka. But the press freedom group also echoed Jayasekera, warning that self-censorship is still common.

According to RSF at least 55 journalists and media workers fled the country during the last three years. Some have returned and recommenced their work. Others have returned for short stints to visit family. Most have remained overseas.

One journalist who fled the country in mid-2009, but returned for a short time last year, told IPS that he felt safe enough to visit but not to work. His predicament illustrates the current uncertain reporting climate. "I have thought of coming back, but still feel not quite sure of my safety," he told IPS on condition of anonymity. He had to leave the country following indications from management that his security was at risk.

Jayasekera says that there are still high levels of anxiety and journalists continue to look over their shoulders. "There is a lot of political involvement in our media, there are political affiliations among owners as well as journalists. That is not a good environment within the media," he said.

The journalist who spoke to IPS on condition of anonymity said that the Wickrematunge murder drove fear into others. "He was the strongest critic of the government, but he was also an internationally known journalist and a powerful figure. Once he was killed, everybody else started questioning ‘if this can happen to Lasantha, it can happen to us.’" That fear is yet to fully disappear.

The inconclusive Wickrematunge murder investigation and the disappearance of cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda still hang over journalists like dark clouds. Ekneligoda disappeared in January 2009 and so far his whereabouts have remained unknown.

The RSF report says that the government is not promoting full editorial freedom and attacks against journalist are still reported. Photographers covering an anti-government protest by undergraduate students were assaulted by uniformed police officers in December.

"If there is one conclusive investigation into at least one of these two high profile cases, it will go a long way to ease fears among journalists," Jayasekera said. "We live in an environment where we can only report what governments or those in power wish to make public," he said, "we have to make the government legally bound to release information to the public."


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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Price rises deepen discontent in Sri Lanka

By Saman Gunadasa | World Socialist Web Site

Working people in Sri Lanka have been hit hard by a wave of price increases, especially for food and other essential items. While food prices are rising internationally, the impact has been compounded by the government’s austerity measures, including a wage freeze and cutbacks to price subsidies.

The official inflation rate rose from 4.3 percent last July to 7 percent and 6.9 percent in November and December respectively, according to Sri Lanka’s Statistics Department. Prices for basic food items, however, have increased far more quickly. Officially, food prices rose by 10 percent in November and December compared to the corresponding months the previous year.

Coconuts and coconut oil, which are an essential part of the local diet, jumped in December by around 63 percent compared to same month in 2009. Most vegetables went up by 5-50 percent. Onions—another basic item—rose by around 30 percent. Egg and chicken prices increased by 10 and 30 percent respectively. Prices for wheat flour—the country’s second staple after rice—and sugar both went up by 15 percent. Fish prices soared by 20-30 percent, and cooking gas by 3-6.5 percent.

To deflect discontent, the government claimed that the price hikes are due to “natural” or “seasonal” fluctuations. Heavy rain and floods have affected onions to some extent. But the government has taxed all the imported essential food items. Increases in global food prices and other inputs such as fertiliser, along with related intermediary services such as warehousing and transportation, have contributed to the sharp rises.

Sri Lanka Coconut Growers Association president Anton Fernando admitted that the low use of fertiliser in coconut cultivation, due to high prices, was the main reason for decreased production. In addition, increased taxes on maize imports, used for feeding poultry, affected the price of eggs and chicken.

On top of these price rises, the government will increase electricity charges by 8 percent from this month. This hike is a result of the government’s withdrawal of the fuel subsidy to the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB), one of the IMF’s requirements for the CEB’s “restructuring”. Higher electricity charges will further drive up the prices of almost every essential item.

In his New Year message, Rajapakse indicated that more attacks on living conditions would follow. He insisted that sacrifices were necessary to “raise the position of our country in the world”. He added: “There will no doubt be a considerable increase in the sacrifices needed to those made to gain victory in the last five years.”

Rajapakse was referring to the Colombo government’s civil war. In July 2006, just seven months after assuming office, Rajapakse restarted the war against the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). A military victory was ultimately achieved in May 2009 at the cost of tens of thousands of civilian lives. The government imposed the financial burden of the war, compounded by the global recession, on the back of the entire working class. Its measures included a wage freeze imposed from 2006.

To avert a balance of payment crisis, the government was forced to obtain a stand-by loan from the IMF in July 2009, which is conditional on cutting the budget deficit to 5 percent by 2012, half the 2009 level. The budget deficit was slashed to 8 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) last year and must be further lowered to 6.8 percent this year.

To achieve these targets, the government has begun increasing taxes on essentials, while lowering taxes for big business and foreign investors, slashing price subsidies and privatising basic infrastructure. After a 10-day assessment visit in early December, an IMF team declared that the government was on the “right track”.

The Central Bank estimated that GDP grew by 8 percent last year, while the IMF’s calculation was 7.5 percent. This growth was mainly due to increased economic activity in the war-torn north and east, including the resumption of farming and fishing, and growth in the tourism and telecommunication sectors. This expansion, which is fragile in the context of deepening world crisis, has not improved the living conditions of the working people.

According to the latest official statistics, average real household income has fallen over the past four years. According to the Household Income and Expenditure Survey, average household income was 26,286 rupees ($US240) in 2006-07, and it nominally increased by 35 percent to 35,495 rupees ($311) in 2009-10.

When adjusted for inflation, however, household income fell by 2.5 percent during this period. In the plantation sector, average household income nominally increased by 32 percent to 25,649 rupees, but in real terms dropped by 4 percent.

While prices are skyrocketing, the government announced only a 5 percent increase on the monthly salary allowance and a 600-rupee cost-of-living allowance for public sector workers in last November’s budget. Pensioners were given a small increase of 300 rupees a month. Rajapakse abandoned his own promise in last January’s presidential election of a 2,500-rupee monthly pay increase for public sector employees.

Hard-hit plantation workers spoke to the WSWS. From a Hatton tea estate, S. Velu rejected the official claim of higher household income. To achieve the income figure reported by the government, three members of the same family living together would have to work for 22 days and fulfil all the production targets set by the plantation companies. He said such a situation was rare, and most families were living in dire poverty.

Velu explained: “After all deductions, including the cost of a pay sheet, last month my take-home salary was 6,000 rupees. My wife got 6,500 rupees. This amount is hardly sufficient. We need at least 15,000 rupees for household food expenses.”

The tea plantation worker pointed out that union leaders had joined the government, claiming they would push it to meet the needs of workers. “But prices are increasing daily and nobody talks about that. President Rajapakse promised that, after the end of the war, people would get a better life. However, now the living conditions are worse than during the war.”

Another plantation worker A. Mahathevan, 33, a father of four, explained that salaries were hardly enough for food, making it difficult for workers to provide education for their children. “We are fed up with all the trade unions and political parties,” he said.

Plantation trade unions, including the Ceylon Workers Congress, Up-country Peoples Front and National Union of Workers, are coalition partners of the government and support its measures.

Other unions have also diverted the discontent of workers into futile protests. The Trade Union Confederation, which claims to be “independent”, launched a petition campaign before the November budget calling on President Rajapakse to implement his promised wage rise. Since Rajapakse rejected the request, the union body has kept completely silent.

Last month, the opposition Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna-led private sector Inter-company Employees Union held a conference to discuss wage demands. Union leaders rhetorically criticised the high cost of living, but did not announced no campaign to defend the living standards of workers.

The WSWS also spoke to Lakshmi, a female worker in the Katunayaka Free Trade Zone (FTZ) near Colombo. She works for an artificial flower manufacturing company, which exports to European markets. Lakshmi explained that she could not pay for accommodation and food with her monthly wage of just 12,000 rupees, which includes all incentives and overtime payments.

A worker from another FTZ factory, Texlan, said: “We cannot live on our income. The government suppresses our demands. There’s no democracy. The trade unions are betraying us. We are not afraid to come onto the streets to fight for good wages. There should be a viable leadership to follow.”


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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Rain triggers Sri Lanka mudslides

Al Jazeera

At least 16 people have been killed in flash floods and mudslides in Sri Lanka, as monsoon rains have swamped parts the country.

The Disaster Management Centre said on Tuesday that more than 120,000 people have been forced from their homes and were living in camps. Many were staying in government buildings set up as makeshift lodgings.

The eastern and northeastern areas of the country have been worst hit, with vast areas of rice paddies destroyed.

The government has deployed the air force and navy to drop food and rescue stranded residents, mainly in the district of Batticaloa.

Al Jazeera's Minelle Fernandez, reporting from the capital Colombo, said sustained rains in recent days had hampered rescue efforts.

"Another problem has been the saturation on the ground, the very slow pace at which flood waters are receding," she said.

"In the future, livelihoods will be affected. Over 130,000 acres of paddy land have been washed away. Drinking water wells will also be affected, lots of them have been polluted and contaminated."

Sri Lanka depends on monsoon rains for irrigation and power generation, but the seasonal downpours frequently cause deaths and damage property in low-lying areas.

The island's two main monsoon seasons run from May to September and December to February.

© Al Jazeera

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