Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Southern journalists protest in Jaffna

Photo courtesy:

BBC Sinhala

In a rare public demonstration in northern Sri Lanka, once torn apart by war, hundreds of people have held a protest against what they say are attacks on freedom of expression there.

Seven media organisations from the south joined the protest held in front of the Jaffna Bus Stand. Former LTTE media spokes person Velayutham Thayanidhi widely known as Daya Master was also among the protesters.

Head of the Federation of Media Employees Trade Union (FMETU) Dharmasiri Lankapeli said “ government or its thugs cannot curtail the press freedom by attacking journalists.

Attacks on journalists

"Irrespective of ethnicity, all journalists will stand together against the attacks on journalists”.

He called upon the government to punish those who are responsible for attacks on journalists and media.

The crowd of journalists and media workers shouted a blunt message: don’t kill us. Saying it was the government that was intimidating their colleagues here in northern Sri Lanka, they marched carrying pictures of Gnanasundaram Kuganathan, a journalist who was beaten almost to death by a gang using iron bars.

Eyewitnesses said the police at first tried to stop the protest but held back as more joined in.

The government has announced the arrest of a man they say instigated the attack.

They say he’s a contract criminal linked to the underworld. But the editor of the newspaper on which the journalist works, said the wrong person was being blamed and he wasn’t satisfied.

Academic fled Sri Lanka

In recent days a prominent university academic who had returned to Jaffna from the United States after the war, has fled Sri Lanka for fear of his safety.

Professor Ratnajeevan Hoole, a scientist, says the government’s chief Tamil ally in Jaffna is running it as a personal fiefdom and stocking public life with his own stooges.

He had left Sri Lanka in 2006 on being threatened by the Tamil Tigers, whom he had criticised. The government accuses the Tamil media in northern Sri Lanka of ignoring a series of big development works it has undertaken.

© BBC Sinhala

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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Tamil killings were just collateral damage, says Sri Lanka

By Dylan Welch | The Sydney Morning Herald

The top Sri Lankan diplomat in Australia has rejected a call by the Foreign Minister, Kevin Rudd, for the United Nations to re-examine allegations of war crimes during the bloody end to the country's three decades of civil war.

Last month a spokeswoman for Mr Rudd called on the UN Human Rights Council to revisit the claims of war crimes and to ''examine whether their original findings on the civil war can still be regarded as well-founded.'' But the Sri Lankan high commissioner, Thisara Samarasinghe, said yesterday the allegations upon which Mr Rudd based his call - including video footage from a British documentary which showed unarmed Tamils being shot dead - were ''biased and unsubstantiated''.

''That is a statement made by your honourable Foreign Minister,'' Admiral Samarasinghe said. ''He had his reasons to make that request and it will take its natural course, if anybody is interested.''

Despite international criticism and a UN report finding claims of war crimes were ''credible'', the global body has yet to approve an investigation into claims that tens of thousands of Tamil civilians were killed in mid-2009, during the final phase of the conflict.

Admiral Samarasinghe, who was in charge of naval operations against the Tamil Tigers in early 2009, made his comments during an address at Parliament to present a Sri Lankan government report, Humanitarian Operation - Factual Analysis, which challenged the claims of war crimes.

Referring to civilians killed in that period as ''collateral damage'', Admiral Samarasinghe said calls for a formal international probe were inappropriate.

''It was not an international conflict, [it was an] internal conflict and we fought it ourselves and we manage our citizens and I don't see any reason why an international investigation should be carried out,'' he said.

Much of the international concern has arisen since Channel 4 in Britain aired a documentary, Sri Lanka's Killing Fields, in June showing unarmed Tamils being shot dead by men in Sri Lankan army uniforms.

It also showed images it said were evidence that Sri Lankan troops involved in a final push in May 2009 had raped and then shot dead female Tamils.

The footage was rejected as fake by the Sri Lankan government of the President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, but UN experts later declared it authentic.

© The Sydney Morning Herald

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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Sri Lanka: A brother out of control

Editorial | The Hindu

Two years after defeating the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and eliminating it as a military entity, Sri Lanka is still struggling to emerge from the woods on some important fronts. Two issues are predominant. One is the nature of the peace, and the efforts by the Sri Lankan government towards a political reconciliation between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority. The military victory over the LTTE, and President Mahinda Rajapaksa's strength in parliament, gave the government an unprecedented opportunity to put in place a progressive political framework to heal the wounds of a 30-year war, and address Tamil grievances that predate the war. That it has taken only nominal steps in this direction is a matter of concern even to friends of Sri Lanka, such as India, which stood by its military efforts against the LTTE.

The second issue, which has found strong voice in a recent documentary by a British television station, Channel 4, and in a United Nations report, has to do with the nature of the military operations in the final stages of the war in 2009. Both make allegations of war crimes against the Sri Lankan Army, accusing it of knowingly aiming fire at civilians such that thousands lost their lives, of killing captives in cold blood, and of possible sexual assault. It is shocking that instead of addressing these issues in the right spirit, a high-ranking official of the Sri Lankan government, Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a brother of the Sri Lankan President, has chosen to vitiate the atmosphere even more with his intemperate remarks against Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, and by attributing motives to the adoption of resolutions on Sri Lanka by the State Assembly.

Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa's comments, made in the course of an interview to Headlines Today television, reveal a troubling contempt for the Tamil minority. He has trashed “the political solution talk,” asserting, among other things, that it was “simply irrelevant” because “we have ended this terrorism in Sri Lanka,” making the egregious assertion that when the 13th Amendment was being drafted, “the government of Sri Lanka was not involved,” and proposing that with the LTTE “gone,” there was no further need to amend the Constitution.

President Rajapaksa would be well advised to distance himself swiftly from his brother's stream-of-consciousness on sensitive issues that are not his business. This includes an outrageous comment that because a Tamil woman, an “LTTE cadre” who was a British national, interviewed in the Channel 4 documentary was “so attractive” but had been neither raped nor killed by Sri Lankan soldiers, the allegation of sexual assault by soldiers could not be true. For this statement alone, Mr. Gotabaya Rajapaksa must be taken to task.

© The Hindu

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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

'Grease devil' panic grips Sri Lanka

By Bryson Hull | Reuters

Panic over nighttime assaults blamed on "grease devils" has struck across rural Sri Lanka, leading to the deaths of at least three people this week, prompting women to stay indoors and men to arm themselves, police and local media said.

Historically, a "grease devil" was a thief who wore only underwear and covered his body in grease to make himself difficult to grab if chased. But lately, the "grease devil" has become a nighttime prowler who frightens and attacks women.

"The story we hear is he comes and bites young women's necks and breasts. Despite several complaints, the police have failed to act on that and in fact in two places have released the culprits," a 36-year-old airline ticketing agent from the Hill Country district of Matale said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of upsetting authorities.

On Friday, police said they fired tear gas to disperse dozens of people who besieged a police station in the eastern town of Potuvil, demanding the release of four men who had captured and planned to lynch a suspected "grease devil."

Police had arrested the four after they beat officers who rescued the suspect from the mob.

Two men whom villagers identified as "grease devils" were hacked to death on Wednesday by a mob in the central Sri Lankan village of Kotagala, in a tea-growing area, police said.

A 22-year-old man hunting for a "grease devil" in the jungle died after stepping into an electric trap set for wild boars, the Tamil-language newspaper Sudar Oli said on Friday.

At least 30 incidents have been reported across seven districts from Sri Lanka's east coast and across its tea-growing regions in the central Hill Country. Police have arrested 47 people since last month.

"There is no grease devil as such. It is a human among us with an ulterior motive of stealing or to engage in some illegal activities," police spokesman Prashantha Jayakody said.

Jayakody also said some people with "mental disorders" were posing as grease devils: "In one instance, a person was arrested wearing more than 20 (pairs of) women's undergarments."

The panic has nonetheless been enough to prompt men to arm themselves with clubs and sticks to stand guard at night, and women to stay at home.

On Tuesday in the eastern village of Ottamavadi, six people including two police officers were injured in a melee after angry residents stormed a police station after the release of a suspected "grease devil."

Traditional Sri Lankan beliefs about spirits and devils remain strong in some areas, where invocations upon them to cure illnesses or curse enemies are common. Traditional devil masks remain favorite tourist souvenirs.

State TV has been broadcasting a photo of a man the police say is a suspect, his face covered in white greasepaint, with the message that the grease devil is not real.

© Reuters

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Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Sri Lanka: Confusion and obfuscation all round

By Dr Kumar David | South Asian Analysis Group

The political waters of this island have become very murky in recent weeks and there is no saying where things will end up by the end of this year or come early 2012. The principal actors themselves are not in control of events and the chips may fall in ways that even they cannot foresee.

The confusing signals of the recent period include:-

a)President Mahinda Rajapakse and his powerful brother Gothabaya (de facto number two in Sri Lanka’s hierarchy of power) are at cross purposes on core issues and this cannot continue for much longer.

b)The United States is upping the ante, and reading between the lines it is clear that GoSL is running scared; there will be no China to the rescue if confrontation becomes serious.

c)The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) won a landslide victory in July in local government elections and has taken the offensive threatening mass demonstrations unless the government agrees to devolution of power to the Tamil minority. The sixty-four thousand dollar question is what lies behind this stiffening of the TNA’s backbone.

d) The confrontation between Colombo and Madras which has been deteriorating since Jayalalitha’s victory has taken a distinct turn for the worse.

e)The equation between Colombo and Delhi is no longer a happy one where the later knowingly played cheerleader-in-chief to any and every misdemeanour of the former.

I will deal with only the first three items on this list today.

Gothabaya outflanks Mahinda

When the two most powerful persons in a government are close siblings and they make contradictory remarks on key policy matters it is usually a case of good cop – bad cop. It is a prearranged drama where the parties have agreed to take different stances in order to achieve agreed objectives. My instinct tells me that this is not the case this time, and permit me to crow that my intuition has earned a reputation of being spot-on. President Mahinda has gone on record numerous times since 2005 asserting that he is committed to substantial devolution of power to the minorities. He has given such assurances, repeatedly, to the international community and to Lanka’s powerful neighbour Delhi which was Colombo’s strongest supporter in the civil war against the Tamils. President Mahinda appointed an All Party Committee to report on devolution though its report is hidden away in the Presidential Secretariat, and he even set up a negotiating process with the TNA to work out a constitutional package, though predictably it collapsed recently.

Now quite out of the blues brother and Defence Secretary Gothabaya has firmly gone on record more than once that there will be no devolution of power to the minorities and said in no uncertain terms that the constitution as it stands needs no further amendment. Referring to the landslide mandate that the Tamils gave the TNA, Secretary Gothabaya has pointedly asserted that the Sinhalese gave the government an even larger mandate not to grant devolution, and that will be the final word on the matter. For the secretary in charge of the subject of defence to go out of the way and make such far reaching assertions on government policy in respect of minority and constitutional policy is most remarkable. To implicitly contradict the president and line up alongside the hard core chauvinist brigade in parliament is alarming.

I am quite convinced that this is not a prearranged game plan between the brothers. Brother Gothabaya is laying down the law and elder brother Mahinda is being compelled to toe the line. I am not suggesting that Mahinda was personally inclined to give anything substantial to the Tamils, but he has been playing a more nuanced game to pirouette around Delhi and the international community, both of whom were only too eager to be taken for a ride. To repeat myself, since this is important, this policy dissonance between the brothers is a game changer, it signals a modification in the balance of power in the government.

It is not that suddenly President Mahinda has lost his clout, nevertheless there has been a certain subtle shift of gears and it is worth watching how the power-pivot in the Sri Lankan state develops in the coming months.

The US flexes its muscle

According to one school of thought both Washington and Delhi had an understanding with Colombo during what has come to be known as Eelam War IV. The senior partners would not make a fuss about civilian casualties or other alleged brutalities but in exchange after eliminating the LTTE Colombo would show its good intentions by implementing constitutional changes and a substantial package of power devolution. Now Colombo has reneged on this promise (President Mahinda was doing it subtly, brother Gothabaya has gone brutally frank creating a stir) much to the annoyance of Washington and Delhi. Washington has shown itself to be fed up. A Congressional committee has called for the suspension of aid to Sri Lanka, criticism of the Sri Lankan government on human rights issues and war crimes investigation has become more strident and last week fighter aircraft from the USS Ronald Regan over flew Sri Lankan airspace in the opinion of the local air force – a frightened and embarrassed political establishment hotly denied it; what else could it do?

The United States has formally informed the Government of Sri Lanka that it wishes to have the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) report tabled at the UN Human Rights Council meeting in March 2012. It has not made a suggestion or a request but used the stiffer mechanism of delivering a demarche which is an official line of action carrying formal implication of, as yet unspecified, but possible follow up action in the event the demarche is ignored. It is less than an ultimatum but more than a remonstration.

Why has the US taken this step? It is not hard to guess the State Department’s line of reasoning. First, if the LLRC report is not a whitewash, then, not just the US, but everyone knows the government will not release it or will excise vital sections. In this case the demarche is intended to embarrass the government if it suppresses the report. Another possible reason is that the demarche puts pressure on LLRC commissioners, constraining them from crafting a document that blots their personal copybooks. If the LLRC report reaches the UNHRC it will need to stand beside the Darusman Report, Channel 4 videos and whatever else the Tamil diaspora can dig up in the next eight months and flaunt at the Council or in its corridors. If the LLRC report comes off as a lame cover-up, the personal reputations of the commissioners will be sullied. By giving notice that reputations will be on the line the US hopes to stiffen the honourable commissioners’ backbones.

The TNA grows a backbone

In a development that many Tamils consider welcome the TNA has become more assertive not only because of its victory in the local government polls but also because of developments in Tamil Nadu and the reflections of this event in Delhi. The Tamils have given the TNA a mandate but the government of Sri Lanka has made it clear that it will not budge on the devolution issue. What on earth is the TNA going to do? What is it going to tell its electorate? It cannot simply say “They won’t give us anything” and play dead thereafter. It has to mobilise the Tamils in a politics of protest; not the folly of LTTE style adventurism, militarism and terrorism, but mass political activity. TNA leader Sampanthan has given notice that if the government continues to trample on the rights of his people that he will do so, though to what extent the wounds of war have healed and the people of the North and East come out into the open remains to be seen. Eventually it will happen, but the matter has to be put to the test, as foxy old Sampanthan has discerned.

My guess however is that there is more than a testing of the waters in the TNA’s refurbished backbone; more than even taking heart from Jayalalitha’s tough line demanding war crimes investigations and sanctions against the Rajapakse regime. The fearful question for the Rajapakse government is has India (either in its Tamil Nadu or Delhi avatar) given the TNA a green light to up the ante on the political solution matter? If the answer is ‘yes’ the Sri Lankan government is playing with fire if it sends in the police with batons and the troops with tanks to “teach the Tamils a lesson” as the Sinhalese state regularly did from 1956 to 1987. This is another of the as yet unanswered questions that is aggravating the climate of extreme political uncertainty in the country.

The TNA for its part would be foolish to put all its eggs in the foreign support basket. It has to cash in on its election victory and begin work in its base areas among the people. Educating, organising, building structures and above all inducting a generation of young Tamils who can lead the movement when the old men pass on, are the urgent tasks that the TNA is now well positioned to undertake. It must cast its bread upon the waters. I am not wont to make biblical quotations, but this reminds me of another point. In their life before politics newly inducted TNA parliamentarians may have taken up litigations or campaigns that now sit ill with mass politics among the people. It is time to sever these connections and press on with activities that can unite the broad public.


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