Thursday, March 17, 2011

How India kept pressure off Sri Lanka

By Nirupama Subramanian | The Hindu

India played a key role in warding off international pressure on Sri Lanka to halt military operations and hold talks with the LTTE in the dramatic final days and weeks of the war in 2009, confidential U.S. Embassy cables accessed by The Hindu through WikiLeaks showed.

The cables reveal that while India conveyed its concern to Sri Lanka several times about the “perilous” situation that civilians caught in the fighting faced, it was not opposed to the anti-LTTE operation.

They also show that India worried about the Sri Lankan President's “post-conflict intentions,” though it believed that there was a better chance of persuading him to offer Sri Lankan Tamils an inclusive political settlement after the fighting ended.

After its efforts to halt the operation failed, the international community resigned itself to playing a post-conflict role by using its economic leverage, acknowledging that it had to rope in India for this.

In the closing stages of the war, New Delhi played all sides, always sharing the concern of the international community over the humanitarian situation and alleged civilian casualties in the Sri Lankan military campaign, but discouraging any move by the West to halt the operations.

In January 2009, External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee made a “short notice” visit to Sri Lanka. The Indian Deputy High Commissioner in Colombo, Vikram Misri, briefed the U.S. Deputy Chief of Mission and other diplomats about the visit, in a cable dated January 29, 2009 (189383: confidential).

At a two-hour meeting at President Rajapaksa's residence, attended by the army chief, defence secretary and other top officials, Mr. Mukherjee stressed he was in Colombo with “no objective other than to ensure that human rights and safety of civilians were protected.”

Mr. Misri told the diplomats that while domestic political considerations were a factor in the Indian calculus, “New Delhi is deeply worried about the humanitarian crisis in the Vanni. He added that Indians throughout the country, not just in Tamil Nadu, are troubled by the high level of casualties sustained by Tamil civilians caught in the crossfire.”

From Mr. Mukherjee's statement at the end of his visit, it was clear that India did not oppose the operations. “I stressed that military victories offer a political opportunity to restore life to normalcy in the Northern Province and throughout Sri Lanka, after twenty three years of conflict. The President assured me that this was his intent.”

Indian theme

This was to remain the Indian theme, except for a brief period in April 2009, when New Delhi, under pressure in the context of elections in Tamil Nadu — the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), a partner in the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA), was feeling the heat of the Sri Lankan operations — made an attempt to press for a pause in the operations, if not a cessation.

In a meeting with U.S. Embassy Charge d'Affaires Peter Burleigh on April 15, 2009, Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon said the Sri Lankan government had made clear it “did not want a UN Envoy in resolving the conflict with the LTTE, nor was the GSL interested now in direct negotiations with the LTTE or in a cease-fire”, which is in a cable sent on April 15, 2009 (202476: confidential).

The Foreign Secretary told Mr. Burleigh that the Indian government had advised Sri Lanka against rejecting all such proposals out of hand and “offered a suggestion that the GSL consider offering an amnesty to all but the hard core of the LTTE.”

But he also pointed out there were questions about what constituted the LTTE's core and what modalities would be used to make such an offer.

The Foreign Secretary “acknowledged that the space for such discussions was small and flagged President Rajapaksa's electoral considerations as militating against anything that could be viewed as a concession to the LTTE. ‘Quiet diplomacy' outside of Sri Lanka faced serious challenges and the Sri Lankan government would have to ‘be dragged, kicking and screaming' to talks.”

Mr. Menon highlighted another problem: in “India's view, the group was sending conflicting signals and there was a real question as to who spoke for Prabhakaran”. He also questioned whether Prabhakaran understood the situation he faced.

Ruling out the possibility of Indian involvement in any such process between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government, Mr. Menon told the U.S. official that the ongoing elections in India made such efforts “impossible.”

Still, he left Mr. Burleigh with the impression that India was not opposed to the idea of talks at that late stage.

“He asked whether the U.S. was interested in such talks and said India would think about participation, perhaps with other states under UN auspices, in an effort to obtain a peaceful conclusion to the conflict,” the charge wrote in the cable.

Three weeks later, U.K. Special Envoy for Sri Lanka Des Browne, visiting New Delhi on May 6-7, heard from Foreign Secretary Menon and National Security Adviser (NSA) M.K. Narayanan(cable 206806: confidential, May 13, 2009), that while there was “domestic political pressure” on India to do more on Sri Lanka due to the ongoing elections (the Tamil Nadu Assembly election was on May 13), “there was little anyone could do to alleviate the fighting as Sri Lanka government forces moved towards the end game of defeating the LTTE.”

A British High Commission contact briefing the U.S. Embassy political counselor on this meeting said the Indian officials were concerned about the humanitarian situation, but “were more upbeat on chances to persuade President Rajapaksa to offer Tamils a political solution once fighting had ended.

The two Indian officials were “slightly more optimistic of the chances to persuade President Rajapaksa to offer the Tamils a genuinely inclusive political settlement once fighting had ended. It was the Indians' impression that President Rajapaksa believed this was his moment in history, i.e., a chance to bring peace to the island for good, but that the Sri Lankan Army was an obstacle, having been emboldened by its victory over the LTTE.” They told Mr. Browne that if Sri Lanka did not implement the “13th Amendment Plus” devolution plan quickly, a new terrorist movement could quickly fill the vacuum left by the LTTE's defeat.

Their advice to the British special envoy: it was “useful to have Sri Lanka on the UNSC's agenda, and to issue periodic Presidential Statements, but it would be counterproductive for the UN to ‘gang up' on Colombo; providing Rajapaksa with a rationale for fighting off international pressure would only serve to bolster his domestic political standing.”

On May 15, the U.S. Charge met Mr. Menon again for “a discussion on the urgent humanitarian situation” in Sri Lanka, in a cable sent on May 15, 2009 (207268: confidential).

Acknowledging the “dire situation,” the Foreign Secretary said pressure needed to be put on the Sri Lankan government to avoid civilian causalities. But once again, “he cautioned that bilateral diplomacy would be more effective than highly public pressure in the UN Security Council or the Human Rights Council.”

For a ‘pause'

By then, under pressure from UPA coalition partner and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi, New Delhi had already tried to get the Sri Lankan government to go easy on the war-front.

On April 23, Mr. Burleigh wrote (203792: confidential) of his meeting that day with the Indian Foreign Secretary.

Mr. Menon told him that in a phone call to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton later that day, External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee would propose that the U.S. and India coordinate an international effort to force the Sri Lankan government “to take appropriate political steps to bring stability to Sri Lanka and a return to normalcy in the Tamil regions.”

He told Mr. Burleigh that the Indian Cabinet had decided to make “a new appeal to pause military operations” and provide relief to civilians trapped in the war zone.

Mr. Menon and Mr. Narayanan then made a quick visit to Colombo on April 24. On their return, the NSA told Mr. Burleigh, in a cable sent on April 25 (204118: confidential), that the Sri Lankan President had “more or less” committed to “a cessation of hostilities”.

Mr. Rajapakse would make the announcement on April 27 after consulting his Cabinet. Mr. Narayanan asked the U.S. to “keep quiet” about it until it came.

The announcement did come, but not for a cessation of hostilities. Declaring that combat operations had ended, the Sri Lankan government announced heavy-calibre weapons would no longer be used. The Defence Ministry warned this was not a cessation of hostilities or ceasefire, and said the push into a 10-km swathe of land where the LTTE leader and the members of his inner circle were holed in would continue.

Briefing Delhi-based diplomats during his May 6-7 visit, Des Browne, the U.K. special envoy, said he believed Sri Lanka could be forced through monetary inducements to accept a post-conflict role for the international community, according to the cable sent on May 13, 2009 (206806: confidential).

“At the end of the day they'll want the money,” Mr. Burleigh quoted the U.K. special envoy as saying. Mr. Browne noted that the government had expended “vast resources” for the war, and emphasised India's “unique role” in the post-conflict scene.

But it appears that the U.S. was worried India might shy away from such a role, and Mr. Burliegh suggested in his cable that “the time is ripe to press India to work more concretely with us on Sri Lanka issues.”

© The Hindu

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Thursday, March 17, 2011

US threatens Sri Lankan government over war crimes

By Sampath Perera | World Socialist Web Site


The US assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, Robert Blake, has warned the Sri Lankan government that its leaders could face international war crimes charges arising from the final stage of the country’s civil war, which ended in May 2009 in the defeat of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

In an interview with AFP in Colombo on February 28, Blake pointedly referred to Libya, noting that accusations against Muammar Gaddafi had been referred to the International Criminal Court.

Feigning US concern over human rights violations and the settlement of internally displaced persons during the civil war, Blake stated: “[I]f Sri Lanka is not willing to meet international standards regarding these matters there will be pressure to appoint some sort of international commission to look into these things.”

Blake’s statements are entirely hypocritical. The Obama administration is not only responsible for its own civilian atrocities and the other war crimes it is continuing to perpetrate in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and elsewhere; it is also complicit in what has happened in Sri Lanka.

Washington fully backed President Mahinda Rajapakse government’s war against the LTTE, providing military and intelligence support. The Sri Lankan military’s savage bombardment of the area controlled by the LTTE in northern Sri Lanka killed 7,000 civilians between January and May 2009 according to UN estimates. The International Crisis Group put the death toll much higher, at 30,000 to 75,000 civilian deaths. At the end of the war, 280,000 displaced civilians were illegally detained in military-run camps. Thousands of Tamil youth were dragged into secret detention camps.

The US and European powers raised the human rights issues only during the final stages of the war, not because of sympathy for Tamils but to undermine Beijing’s influence in Colombo. China had emerged as a major supporter of the Rajapakse government’s war, providing funds and weapons to strengthen its economic and political influence.

In his interview, Blake added: “The United Nations Security Council unanimously passed a resolution against Libya on Saturday night. One of the provisions of that resolution was to refer Muammar Gaddafi to the International Criminal Court so that they could investigate alleged war crimes and abuses against his people. So this is a common thing.”

A former US ambassador to Sri Lanka, Blake claimed he “didn’t mean a direct comparison” with Sri Lanka. Nevertheless, he added “around the world there is an interest in assuring accountability for crimes that have been committed”.

Blake further insisted that “accountability” for war crimes could not be “swept under the carpet” and noted: “If you look at longstanding cases like what happened in Serbia and cases like that, eventually people were brought to justice for the crimes they committed.”

The White House official was referring to former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, who was forcibly brought to trial. In reality, not only Milosevic but also the US and European powers and their client regimes in the former Yugoslavia were responsible for breaking up that country and the resulting communal violence.

It is true that Rajapakse and his ruling cabal and the military hierarchy have committed war crimes. The working class and the Tamil masses, however, cannot expect any justice from the Obama administration. Blake’s statements are a thinly-veiled threat that Rajapakse and his closest collaborators could be hauled before an international investigation unless they toe the line of the US.

In another sign of mounting US pressure on the Rajapakse government, on March 1, the US Senate unanimously adopted a non-binding resolution presented by Robert Casey, a senior Pennsylvanian Democratic senator, calling for “an independent international accountability mechanism to look into reports of war crimes”.

Toward the end of 2009, a US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations report signalled a policy change toward Colombo, suggesting that the human rights issues be played down in order to combat China’s influence. Declaring that “the US cannot afford to lose Sri Lanka” and citing the island’s location in strategically important sea lanes, the committee proposed that the US should not have a single agenda of human rights. The report particularly mentioned China’s close relations with Sri Lanka.

Nonetheless, the Obama administration retained the human rights complaints as a card to play against the Colombo government, while endorsing Rajapakse’s own inquiry, a hand-picked Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC).

Blake’s intervention indicates US concern over the Rajapakse government’s continued leaning toward China. The London-based Times observed last November that “Chinese banks are enthusiastic buyers of Sri Lankan government bonds.”

By mid-2010, China’s overall “assistance” to Sri Lanka topped $US3 billion. Chinese investment in the tourism industry hit $1 billion early this year after Shangri La and the China Aero-Technology Import Export Corporation signed agreements to build luxury tourist hotels.

China has become a major trading partner. Sri Lankan exports to China rose from $59 million in 2009 to $80 million in 2010. During the same year, Chinese two-way trade with Sri Lanka rose to almost $2 billion and Chinese exports to Sri Lanka nearly doubled.

Another serious concern for the US, and also India, is that China is completing the construction of a large harbour at Hambantota in southern Sri Lanka, as part of its plans to have port facilities across the Indian Ocean to protect Chinese shipping routes.

Also irking Washington is the fact that the Sri Lankan government has close relations with Gaddafi’s regime in Libya. Rajapakse visited Libya twice during 2009, in April and September, obtaining a pledge of $500 million in financial assistance toward development projects. In January this year, Rajapakse’s son Namal, who is a member of parliament, met Gaddafi in Tripoli and invited him to visit Sri Lanka.

On March 5, Rajapakse’s media director, Bandula Jayasekera, issued a press release stating that Gaddafi had phoned the president. According to the statement, Rajapakse advised the Libyan dictator to “establish peace in Libya as soon as possible and safeguard the lives of Libyan people”. It was an ostentatious declaration of support for Gaddafi’s efforts to crush the opposition to his regime.

The Rajapakse government is desperate to avert even the hint of a war crimes probe. On February 23, a Sri Lankan delegation led by Attorney General Mohan Peiris and External Affairs Secretary Romesh Jayasinghe secretly met UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the UN panel advising him on war crime charges in Sri Lanka. The delegation urged the UN not to make an adverse report. Last year, the government declared the UN panel “unacceptable” and refused to cooperate with it.

The Colombo government has made no comment on Blake’s threat. It has expressed regret at, but not condemned, the US Senate resolution. In a further attempt to placate Washington, Rajapakse met with US ambassador Patricia Butenis on March 8. This is a signal that Rajapakse is seeking an accommodation with the Obama administration. He knows full well that the US government’s real concerns are not war crimes but its strategic and economic interests.


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Thursday, March 17, 2011

Sri Lanka: NGOs face funding gap and Government scrutiny

Inter Press Service

Lack of donor funding, state phobia against western NGOs, and restrictive work permits for foreign aid workers have together hit the operations of several dozen Sri Lankan NGOs and their foreign counterparts.

British-government funded agencies and AusAid, an Australian government agency, have reportedly reduced their funding of local NGOs. U.S.-based Care International is also cutting its local staff in Colombo. Officials at these agencies could not be reached for comment.

"The government wants a hands-off policy from donors, and thus prefers countries like China which provides assistance without being too concerned [about other issues]," said Harim Peiris, a Colombo-based political analyst and a one-time spokesperson for former President Chandrika Kumaratunga. China is second to Japan as Sri Lanka’s largest lender of development assistance.

"There is a lot of downsizing [of staff]," a veteran aid worker here who declined to be identified told IPS. "I don’t have numbers but I can tell you that any NGO involved in governance, post-conflict peace or post-war trauma related work will have a problem with the authorities," who "not only track the work of such NGOs but also often visit their offices."

The most affected agencies are involved in governance, peace building, conflict-resolution and post-war trauma counselling. "Anything that is considered political or empowering people to establish their rights is anathema to the establishment," the aid worker said, adding that he is afraid to get exposed, as any NGO worker critical of the establishment will be "in trouble."

Nearly two years after the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) ended the bloody insurgency by Tamil rebels demanding regional autonomy for their community, the government is still cagey about western-funded NGOs - particularly following criticism by human rights groups and civil society organisations regarding conduct of government forces during the last stages of the conflict.

Dozens of civilians were reported to have died in crossfire during the last stages of the conflict in May 2009, and rights groups say better government planning could have averted this. President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his ministers have repeatedly rejected claims of large-scale civilian casualties.

A meeting conducted in secret on Feb. 23 between a government team and a U.N. Panel advising Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on the Sri Lankan human rights situation illustrates Rajapaksa’s worry over alleged human rights violations. The meeting, which was held in New York and revealed by the influential Colombo-based Sunday Times newspaper, so far hasn’t been denied by the government.

J. Weliamuna, a well-known human rights lawyer and former director of Transparency International’s Colombo office, told IPS that the situation concerning NGOs is worsening. "The government sees everybody as a challenge and has a phobia against NGOs," he said, adding that the government views civil society as its only challenge since the opposition is weak.

© Inter Press Service

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Thursday, March 17, 2011

Supreme Court to Decide on Sethusamudram Ship Channel Plan

By P. Manoj | Live Mint

The shipping ministry is ready to process a 90% escalation in the cost of the stalled Sethusamudram ship channel project, but a final decision will rest on a ruling from the Supreme Court, two ministry officials said.

The court is hearing plea filed by individuals and groups opposed to the project—which requires slicing through a reef between India and Sri Lanka that’s considered sacred and ecologically sensitive.

“Once the R.K. Pachauri committee submits its report and the Supreme Court allows the work to continue, a meeting of the public investment board and the Union cabinet will be held to approve the revised project cost of Rs.4,600 crore,” said one of the two shipping ministry officials mentioned earlier.

The earlier project cost of Rs.2,427.40 crore approved in 2005 has been fully utilized, necessitating a revised bill for the project, he added. Only about 40% of the total project work is completed. The near twofold rise in costs is mainly a result of higher dredging prices over the two years of delay in executing the project.

A second shipping ministry official confirmed the development. Both the officials did not want to be identified. A spokesperson for the shipping ministry declined to comment.

Billed as India’s Suez Canal, the Sethusamudram project is expected to reduce the sailing time between the country’s east and west coasts by as much as 30 hours, or 424 nautical miles, by creating a channel between the Indian mainland and Sri Lanka. A nautical mile is 1.82km.

Currently, ships have to endure a long detour around Sri Lanka due to the presence of a reef known as Adam’s Bridge, or Ram Sethu.

The Sethusamudram project involves boring a 167km long, 300m wide shipping lane connecting the Gulf of Mannar and Bay of Bengal via Palk Straits and Palk Bay, cutting through Adam’s Bridge.

Hindus consider the reef sacred. They believe Ram’s army built a bridge from near Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu to be able to reach Sri Lanka for an epic war. Environmentalists fear the project will destroy the sensitive ecology and marine life in the region.

Dredging in the Adam’s Bridge region had to be stopped following a Supreme Court order on 31 August and 14 September 2007 asking the government to set up an expert panel on the matter.

Work on the non-controversial Palk Straits region continued till July 2009.

The Centre set up a panel of experts headed by Pachauri, director general of The Energy and Resources Institute, a non-profit body working on sustainable energy, to consider an alternative alignment for the project. The panel is yet to submit its report. Pachauri did not respond to an email sent on 10 March seeking comments on the status of the work entrusted to the committee and a possible time frame for submitting the report.

The Sethusamudram project required dredging 82.5 million cu.m of sand and rocks from the sea bed. When the work was stopped in 2009, only 33.99 million cu.m had been dredged, but the cost was fully utilized. Dredging for the new lane started on 2 July 2005 and was to be completed in 180 weeks, or about 3.5 years.

Experts say the stoppage will undo the work already done.

“Whatever work has been done has been undone,” said G.Y.V. Victor, a certified dredge master and secretary general of the Eastern Dredging Association of India. “If and when the dredging work re-starts, it has to begin from scratch because the areas that were dug to create the new lane must have accumulated silt by now.”


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Thursday, March 17, 2011

Sri Lanka: Young Tamils in Mannar and Jaffna still live in fear

By Melani Manel Perera | Asia News

Young Tamils living in Sri Lanka north-western districts (Mannar and Jaffna in particular), children of the thirty-year conflict that ended in 2009, say they feel like a minority and live in fear. Despite President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s continual proclamations that all citizens are equal in those areas and are treated equally by the government. "There are no clashes between Tamil and Sinhalese," say some young people speaking at a Leadership Training Programme held in Negombo in the past days. "But we do not feel the freedom spoken of by the government. We do not feel we belong to a free nation. And there are still many incidents of murders and disappearances that make us live in suspicion and fear. "

"If the conflict really is over as described by the government – they continue – why are they still inspecting some areas, breaking into the homes of Tamil without notice and without giving any explanation?".

In many cases, the government seized the land in the High Security Zones (HSZ), offering alternative accommodation for families who lived there. This is the case of the Catholic villagers in Mullikkulam: "About 250 families, originally from the village - says a young man – have been scattered throughout the district. They were fishermen, farmers, ranchers and wealthy families. Now they are living like nomads but do not want to accept 'alternatives': they are determined to return to their lands. " Unofficial sources report that the government wants to build a naval base right in the village of Mullikkulam.

Another important issue is the lack of an effective program of assistance for war widows and their children. "Daily charity – says one young boy - can not be a solution."
Young people launch a final appeal: "Until we feel we are living in freedom, without any restriction, as our parents remember in their stories, we can not say we are doing well. What we should really feel is that we are truly part of this society. "

© Asia News

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Thursday, March 17, 2011

Political rivalry behind Police arrest of Batticaloa journalist

Tamil Net

Sri Lanka Police Tuesday morning arrested Puvi Rahumathulla, Chief Editor of “Vaara Uraikal”, a weekly magazine published from Kaathankudy in Batticaloa district, at the instigation of a Deputy Minister in the Sri Lanka government who charged that Rahumathulla was carrying out election propaganda after the deadline on Monday midnight violating the instruction of the Commissioner of Elections. Rahumathulla is currently being detained in the Kaathankudy Police station and is expected to be produced before the Batticaloa Magistrate, sources said.

Civil sources said the arrest of the journalist is due to political rivalry.

The “Vaara Uraikal” magazine has been publishing news reports about alleged irregularities and corruption in development works carried out in the Batticaloa district by state agencies.

The journalist was attacked two years ago in 2009 by the ruling party supporters. His was house smashed by a group of armed men in 2010.

An armed gang led Deputy Minister M.L.A.M. Hisbullah had attacked the journalist in February and he was admitted in the Batticaloa Teaching Hospital.

Police have still not arrested the suspects even after their identities were revealed.

© Tamil Net

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