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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