Monday, August 01, 2011

Sri Lankan journalist critical after murderous attack

Photo courtesy: Tamilnet

By R.K. Radhakrishnan | The Hindu

A senior journalist of a Tamil newspaper based in Jaffna, who was attacked on Friday evening, continues to be in a critical condition.

Gnanasundaram Kuhanathan (59), the news editor of Uthayan, was beaten up by unidentified men with iron bars and left for dead near his home. This was the second such attack on a Uthayan journalist in the past two months. A reporter from the paper S. Kavitharan was attacked on May 28. Uthayan supports the TNA, which openly supported the LTTE.

“There have been four murders of journalists in Sri Lanka since 2008 in which a link with the victim's work was clearly established, and a well-known cartoonist Prageeth Eknaligoda has been missing since January 2010,” said Reporters Without Borders, in a statement.

The Tamil United Liberation Front strongly condemned the attack. “This is not the first time that Mr. Kuganathan had faced this ordeal. On an earlier occasion too, an armed group broke into his office and demanded to know his whereabouts,” said V. Anandasangaree, president, TULF. It is very unfortunate that harassment of journalists, particularly in Jaffna, is on the increase and goes on unabated… The Police should go all out to detect the culprits who seem to be of the same gang repeatedly getting engaged in this type of activities, purely for money and not out of any personal animosity on the journalists,” he added.

According to the Sri Lankan News Agency Lankapuvath, President Mahinda Rajapaksa has order the country's top police official, IG N.K. Ilangakoon to investigate the incident.

© The Hindu

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Monday, August 01, 2011

Channel 4 stands by credibility of eye witnesses

By Janith Aranze | The Sunday Leader

In an exclusive interview with The Sunday Leader via email, the Channel 4 journalist featured in the new footage released this week, Jonathan Miller, has steadfastly stood by the credibility of the eye-witnesses featured in the film. Miller who conducted the interviews with the two eye witnesses is in no doubt of their credibility. “We do not air allegations from witnesses, (particularly allegations of this nature) without first authenticating their bona-fides to the high standards expected of us by our lawyers, and the British broadcasting regulator, Ofcom,” Miller told The Sunday Leader.

He went onto explain that it is now up to others to judge the credibility of the eye witnesses. “My editors and I are more than satisfied with the credibility of the eye-witnesses. It is up to you to decide whether to trust the integrity of our journalism when it comes to your judging their credibility,” he said.

Miller also stated that he simply cannot reveal how he got in contact with the two eye-witnesses for fear of their safety. “These witnesses were in fear of their lives, and remain so. So fearful were they that we agreed to their total anonymity, which included our using actors’ voices to disguise their identities. We take our responsibility to protect our sources very seriously. One was prepared to be identified as an army officer, the other was not prepared to be identified at all,” Miller states.In the new film aired this week on July 27, two men from the Sri Lanka Army’s 58th Division according to Channel 4, were interviewed on what they had witnessed during the last stages of the war. The two eyewitnesses had their images completely concealed and their voices had been muted fully and dubbed over with English actors’ voices.

One eyewitness reportedly from the 58th Division claims that Brigadier Shavendra Silva addressed his brigade telling them he had received a telephone call from the Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. Shavendra Silva had told his officers that the orders from Gotabhaya Rajapaksa were to finish the job by whatever means necessary. The eyewitness reportedly claims Shavendra Silva said, “This is a very decisive day for us. Last night I got a call from the Defence Secretary, he said we only have a small chunk of land to capture. Do whatever it takes, by noon I should hear good news from you. If you need any further instructions call me, finish it off in the way it has to be done.”

The second eyewitness, reportedly an officer in the SLA’s 58th Division claims that Tamil Tiger leaders were ordered to be shot by Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and Brigadier Shavendra Silva.

Quote, “Two majors were ordered to receive the Tiger leaders. The Defence Secretary phoned Brigadier Shavendra Silva and ordered him not to take them prisoner but to kill them. I can confidently state those who ordered the killing were Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and Brigadier Shavendra Silva,” unquote… the eyewitness recollected.

At the end of the film, Jonathan Miller is shown having doorstepped General Shavendra Silva, currently Sri Lanka’s Ambassador and Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN. Miller confronts Silva outside the United Nations building in New York and questions him about alleged war crimes committed in Sri Lanka.

Silva vehemently denies the claims saying, “It is only you and your channel that are accusing us of war crimes, nobody else is.” Gotabhaya Rajapaksa has also since said that the British Government should take action against Channel 4 for what he described as ‘irresponsible videos.’ Rajapaksa had immediately denounced the video saying it has misleading information. “They quote two people claiming to be soldiers and alleging that the executions were done by us. These are false propaganda,” he stated.

© The Sunday Leader

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Monday, August 01, 2011

Sri Lanka: Over 600 war children still missing

By Amantha Perera | IRIN Asia

More than two years after Sri Lanka's decades-long conflict officially ended, the whereabouts of 630 children are unknown, according to a government database.

Most went missing during the final phase of the war that ended on 18 May 2009, when government forces declared victory over the now defeated Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who had been fighting for an independent Tamil homeland since 1983.

According to reports cited by the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), 64 percent of those missing were recruited by the LTTE while 30 percent were last seen behind government lines.

During the last phase of the war, more than 300,000 civilians were displaced from areas once under Tiger control, popularly known as the Vanni.

When they poured into camps set up in Vavuniya, just outside the theater of fighting, many parents were desperate to find their children.

"There were women crying outside my office, asking me to find their children," Piencia Charles, the most senior government official in the Vavuniya District, told IRIN.

In December 2009, Charles set up the Family Tracing Unit within the Vavuniya Divisional Secretariat.

"It's something I felt I had to do. There was no mechanism in place to search for these kids. The parents were in so much pain," she said.

UNICEF assisted the unit with additional human resources, training and a simple database to support the unit's work.

To date, more than 600 children have been reunited with their parents through the unit, with 13 cases pending and under verification.

Another 34 names given by parents have been matched with those on the database, with officers now trying to locate the children.

Recently the number of people coming to Charles for help in finding their children has decreased. However, tracing those still on the list will take time.

"The parents have returned to the villages. The children could be in a foster home or a detention centre. There is lot more paper-work and leg-work now," she said.

One mother's story

Kulasekran Kugamathi, a single mother-of-three, has just returned to her village Allankulam, about 70km from Vavuniya, but continues to search for her eldest son, who was 16 when he "volunteered" to fight with the LTTE in early 2008 so that his two younger brothers could continue with their education.

Thousands of child soldiers were believed to have been recruited and used by the LTTE during the last phase of the conflict, according to the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers.

"I haven't heard from him since. I know he is somewhere, but I have to work. I don't have the time or the money to look for him," the 44-year-old said in frustration.

Saji Thomas, a UNICEF child protection specialist based in Vavuniya, says once the unit receives information about a child, the details are checked against a database. When a match is found, unit officials interview the child and parent to ensure the relationship is authentic.

"Once the unit is sure, then court proceedings begin to hand the child back to the parents," he said, describing the whole process as a challenge. "Global experience shows that tracing can go on for years sometimes," Thomas said.

Although the unit's mandate is limited to children, it also maintains data on missing adults, with close to 2,000 names registered already.

"I am looking for some funding to set up a unit to trace the missing adults. Maybe by the end of this year I can get something going," Charles said.


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Monday, August 01, 2011

Sri Lanka: Holding back popular rebellion

By Kishali Pinto Jayawardene | The Sunday Times

During the past week, we have seen an incongruous if not remarkably imaginative theory being propounded by government propagandists. In brief, this theory attempts to interpret the defeat of the ruling party in local government elections in the north and the east to vindicate the argument that the regime is committed to a democratic Sri Lanka.

Their contention per se is that if the regime was as anti-democratic as is made out by its (apparently) overly excitable critics, then a victory for the government in these areas would have been secured by hook or by crook, as is said in common parlance. But, as they argue, the fact that this was not the case only goes to show that the state of democratic governance in the country is not bad as it is made out to be.

Fundamental irregularities in the electoral process

This theory is remarkably imaginative at several different levels. Most obviously, it bypasses the fact that the recent local government elections, was not even remotely satisfactory when assessed against universal standards of free and fair elections. As much as all elections in Sri Lanka, whether national, provincial or local government, are tainted by intimidation, thuggery and extensive use of state resources by the ruling party, this latest election too displayed these traits in unfortunate abundance.

We may accept these fundamental electoral irregularities as inevitable with scarcely a murmur. This indicates only that we have abandoned our sense of what is democratically right. It certainly does not mean that this country’s electoral administration or plain governance is all that it should be. Surely the surfacing of the dead bodies of people who have been ‘disappeared’ even two years after the ending of active fighting in these areas, the continued abductions of persons and the attacks on journalists, tell a different story? The severe assault of the Uthayan’s news editor this Friday is just the most recent case in point.

As has been frequently stated in these column spaces, it is not enough for the government to maintain that its officers, police or the military, are not responsible for these attacks. On the contrary, it is a duty cast on the government to investigate these occurrences according to law and take all preventive measures possible.

But as we have seen in the past, this responsibility is shrugged aside in the north and east as well as elsewhere. When tremendous public discontent is evidenced, as in the case of the Katunayake Free Trade Zone attacks, a committee of inquiry is appointed and in other instances, a Commission of Inquiry is established. Yet the government’s stringent duties of investigation, prosecution and punishment under the normal criminal law are disregarded. In the meantime, reports of committees and commissions come to naught. We do not even see their contents.

Singularly dishonest argument

Quite apart from this now habitual democratic dysfunctionality, to contend that the results of the local government elections in the former war torn areas testifies to the government’s democratic credentials is both oxymoronic and profoundly dishonest.

This Presidency has been singularly able in bringing about the almost wholesale defeat of the opposition, the silencing of its internal critical party voices and the general tethering of the media, the judiciary, professionals, civil society and the trade unions. Most relevantly, albeit uncomfortably, it has managed to do this not only by brute force or by a totally unscrupulous lack of respect for the Constitution as seen by a despicable 18th Amendment but also through a combination of street smart tactics and shrewd political maneuvering. This is something that detractors of the incumbent President who like to focus on his deceptively homespun Medamulana roots may not readily concede. Nevertheless, this remains a reality.

In effect, even though we certainly had Presidential authoritarianism in the past, Presidential rule post 2005 was executed to an extent that exceeded even those previous excesses. But this execution was calculatedly and not frivolously planned. The administration’s reaction to the now shelved pension bill shows its street savvy sense very evidently. This is not a government that can be dismissed for its bullyboy tactics, however much we may see it thumbing its nose at the United Nations, among others and justifiably shudder at the sheer crudity of these gestures.

Failing of street savvy tactics in the north and east

For most of the post war period, this shrewd and calculated combination of street savvy tactics succeeded in crippling any viable opposition. For example, though significant electoral irregularities during the Presidential and Parliamentary elections last year undoubtedly impacted on the numerical counts of the vote, maintaining that a different electoral result would have resulted was a more complex question, given the political mood at that time.

Yet the reason why this calculatedly anti-democratic strategic combination failed in the north and east this month is not because the government magnanimously permitted free and fair elections as its ludicrously optimistic defenders would like us to think. On the contrary, it was because two missing elements in the balance of power in the rest of the country were present in these former conflict areas and prevailed over all other considerations. First, the Tamil people were in no mood to be won over by superficial rhetoric which sought to replace genuine post war reconciliation needs with a development drive that resulted in the filling of the coffers of the politically powerful while doling out small concessions for the communities. As one woman voter in Jaffna said to a wire service after the polls ‘"Since the war ended, we feel Tamils are being treated like slaves…I am not saying that the LTTE did better, but we are not comfortable now" (Reuters, July 29, 2011).

Second, many of the Tamil voters saw a political party which they could vote for in opposition as representing their interests, however limited that choice may have been. The fact that the rest of the mainstream opposition fared so miserably is unsurprising given their total lack of direction and leadership.

Of course, abandoning its combination of charm and threats (largely successful electorally in 2010), the government may have gone all out and done a ‘Wayamba’ style election in the north and the east this time around. But given the current regional and international dynamics, this would have been unwise to the highest extent possible. And whatever may be believed of this administration, the risks it runs are far from being foolhardy. Likewise, we may anticipate the means that it will now inevitably employ to make sure that the local government results are not converted to a threat politically.

Warning that past tactics may not always hold good

So when we are requested to take notice of the government’s democratic credentials in ‘permitting’ a free and fair local government election in the north and east, it is difficult not to rudely snigger. The fact of the matter is that this was the first major occasion on which the government realized that its strategies may not work in terms of controlling electoral opinion. This is a warning that it will do well to take heed of. Post elections, political analysts have dwelt on the polarization of political opinion between the north and the east and the rest of the country. There may be some truth in this. Yet the perception that the electorate outside the north and east continues to be solidly behind the government may not necessarily continue to be the case.

With increasingly gargantuan corruption, rising economic woes and confrontations with sectors of society ranging from trade unions to university academia, past tactics of capturing public opinion may not always hold good. In discussions mid this week with some practitioners of the Matara Bar for example, considerable disaffection with the way that the country is being run, (emanating even from those who supported this regime at last year’s polls), was clearly evident.

It may also not always be possible for the government to cling onto that exceedingly useful international war crimes cry. Even in the absence of an effective opposition therefore, it may become increasingly difficult for the regime to hold back popular rebellion. And it is certainly opportune for President Mahinda Rajapakse at least now, to realize the value of safeguarding constitutional democracy for the good of his own administration, if the good of the country is no longer a persuasive reason.

© The Sunday Times

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Monday, August 01, 2011

Gated communities slam down the gates: Polarization with a vengeance

By Dr.Kumar David | Lakbima News

There were a total of 23 Pradesiya Sabhas and Urban Councils in Tamil majority areas up for grabs on 23 July (Jaffna District 16, Killinochchi 3, Amparai 2, Mullaitivu 1 and Trinco just 1 Tamil majority UC). The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) or a TNA alliance won every single one; well not quite, three small island sabhas, which were locked down and rigged by a politico-military operation, went to the UPFA in its Douglas avatar. Typical of the emotions of the Tamil man would be Nallur, rightly you will say hidebound Nallur if the discussion was about social matters, where the vote divided 81% to the TNA and 17% to Rajapaksa’s UPFA. This for better or worse is the fact of the matter; Tamils en masse rejected Rajapakse’s regime and reposed their confidence in a nationalist alliance.

The other side of the story is equally dramatic. Every council or sabha in the rest of the country (Sinhalese majority) was won by the UPFA usually with 60 to 65% share and in a few cases above 70%. The UNP was locked down to its core 30% - that is, it failed to win any floating votes - and the JVP was stuck at about 4%. All this has been commented on profusely and I will not repeat any of it. I have a different take on what lies at the root of the two communities raising barriers, locking gates and turning their backs on each other. Let me place it before you.

Post-war sentiment

It would be natural to expect sentiments to freeze and mutual communal aversion to harden as a consequence of the events of the final months of the ethnic civil war. But this is not quite what I am saying. The nuance I am driving at is that in the two years after May 2009 mutual aversion between the communities has deteriorated further; this is my point. There are several reasons on each side so let me lay them out systematically.

The Tamils along with the International Community (and two add my two cents worth, yours faithfully too) are firmly convinced that, broadly, the Darusman Report is factual and the Channel 4 videos are not fakes. The Tamils, obviously, hold that war crimes were committed since the people then trapped in the Vanni have now returned and mingled, carrying their tales with them. When the President makes preposterous claims (missionaries of old who came with Bible in one hand and sword in the other, likewise “our brave soldiers advanced, Human Rights Charter on their lips and rifle slung gently over shoulder”, or “not one civilian” was slaughtered), prospects of trust and respect breaks down irreparably. The Rajapaksas, the UPFA (three grovelling left parties included) and hangers-on like Douglas, are finished so far as the Sri Lankan Tamils are concerned, not only because of the war, not only because of the final stages of the war, but now also because of the Gobblesian proportions of their lies.

The second reason for hardening on the Tamil side is the military and political status in the north and the east. The overwhelming anti-government Tamil vote was, in fact, an endorsement of TNA leader Rajavarothiyam Sampanthan’s (RS) statement in Parliament on July 7 and the eight page document that TNA-MP Sumanthiran tabled in the House a few days later. The Tamils clearly said: “Yes that’s right, that’s exactly what’s being done to us and that’s how we feel about it”.

Readers with an interest in politics need to apprise themselves of these statements since they mark something of a watershed. RS used a tongue in cheek rhetorical device, quoting from Rajapaksa to prove that Rajapaksa is doing nothing of what he promised re a political settlement to the ethnic conflict. I say rhetorical because I guess RS, like I, has no faith in the President. The second part of his statement was more interesting. RS declared that he would step out and lead civil disobedience if the oppression of his people does not end. It seems that foxy old RS was able to read the leaves about the outcome of the local government elections. The repression is the subject of Sumanthiran’s piece deals with militarisation, land-grabs, military assisted settlements, denial of livelihood opportunities, military occupation of churches, beatings and break-up of lawful meetings and more. Over a hundred examples were reported.

The South rallied behind Rajapakse

Nor did the hardening of the Sinhalese behind Rajapaksa, the military and the regime come as a surprise for parallel reasons. International pressure for war crimes investigation is mounting, the government is boxed in and cornered like a feral animal, its erstwhile patron and mentor, Delhi has abandoned it. Tamil Nadu is turning on the heat relentlessly, buddies on the sidelines, Beijing and Moscow are not cheering as loud as they used to, and the West is getting tough and rough. These are times when communities feeling the threat, knit closer and rally round the leader. Whether leaders are criminals or otherwise is not important, protecting the identity and emotions of the community is what matters. This is not the exception but the rule when emotions of social pathology are aroused.

Recently we have seen this happen several times in former Yugoslavia when war criminals faced deportation to The Hague. In the cases of Milosovic, Kardzic, Mladic, Valahovljak, Rajkic, Karagicm and many others, whether of Serb, Croatian or Bosnian origin, the natives rallied round their man and swore support. Ariel Sharon, the butcher of the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refuges camps, was hailed as a hero and later elected Prime Minister of Israel. The Japanese worship at shrines of mass murderers of millions of civilians in the 1937-38 invasion of China and World War II convicted war criminals.

Identity consciousness is not a rational emotion, it is a deeply buried psychosis, not particularly Sinhalese, Tamil, Turk or Tunisian - not everyone is mentally equipped to be Marxist or rationalist. Lanka has got a bad attack and that portends no good. Rajapaksa will concede bu__er-all to the Tamils, who in turn will reciprocate their revulsion. I guess we are in for a few more tough years.

© Lakbima News

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Monday, August 01, 2011

ACF Massacres: Justice in limbo

Photo courtesy: Tamilnet

By Abdul H. Azeez | The Sunday Leader

On August 4, 2006 17 members of Action Contre La Faim (ACF or Action Against Hunger) were brutally shot and killed in Muttur in the midst of the war between the Sri Lankan Army and the LTTE.

Their young, promising lives were lost in an instant as each of them were executed at point blank range with their faces turned to the ground.

Four of the victims were 24 years old and the oldest was 54. They were four women and thirteen men, and eleven were under the age of thirty. The killings of the 17 workers are said to be the most serious crime perpetrated against a non-governmental organisation. Four years after the massacre the perpetrators have yet to be brought to justice.

Three judicial proceedings followed the executions but none yielded results. In 2008, after much deliberation about the likely success of the Sri Lankan judicial proceedings, ACF decided to withdraw from the country in order to detach itself from Sri Lanka. Since leaving the country ACF started making noise in the international arena and in 2009 called for an international inquiry into the matterwhile continuously denouncing legal proceedings here.

K. Ratnavale, the lawyer who represented the families in the Presidential Commission hearing and also represented ACF in the criminal courts told The Sunday Leader that the commission’s proceedings were ‘bungled’ by the ‘meddling’ of the Attorney General’s Department. He alleges that important evidence was disregarded and ignored. ‘There were several key witnesses from the victims’ families who could have given important information about what happened,’ said Ratnavale adding that witness protection programs were disrupted and finances were not provided for video conferencing with those family members who had fled abroad.

“The AG (through his representative) was basically operating with a conflict of interest, on the one hand playing the role of prosecutor while at the same time trying to protect elements of the armed forces,” he accused.

Meanwhile the victims families have been left with no one to turn to. Some have chosen to forget the injustice done to their kin and move on with their lives as best as possible, while other still hope for justice and closure.

Mahindana Wasanthan of Muttur lost a sister in the massacre; Kovarthani Kanavaratnam was 28 and single and died of gunshot wounds as the ACF base she was working in was overrun by armed men. Wasanthan is resigned to never getting closure over her sister’s death. She says that when ACF left the country the last hope of the victims families vanished along with them. “The CID (Criminal Investigation Bureau) came and had an inquiry immediately after the incident. We were then asked to come to Colombo for another inquiry. Though we went for that, we heard nothing from the CID, Police or any other authority afterwards.”

Rasaiah Thurarajah lost his only son when 27 year old Pradeepan was shot dead in the attack. His daughter has left the country and is in the UK. “After the presidential commission called us for a hearing on 1st April 2008, we heard nothing from the authorities. It was only through a BBC report in 2009 that we found out that the commission was to reconvene.” He is still eager for justice but with ACF out of the country and legal proceedings at a virtual standstill, he does not know how if this will ever happen.

The commission, though ostensibly done with their inquiries, is yet to release its report. According to Ratnavale this may never happen. “The inquiry was not satisfactory and it was far from impartial,” he said. He added foreign experts brought into the commission soon resigned expressing their inability to work with it and saying, “the government is not interested in bringing out the truth’.

© The Sunday Leader

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