Sunday, January 01, 2012

Sri Lanka’s ghosts of war

Courtesy: Karen Barbour | The New York Times

By Namini Wijedasa | The New York Times


The Sri Lankan government’s defeat of the separatist Tamil Tigers in 2009 ended a three-decade war that took tens of thousands of lives. But only now is the government beginning to acknowledge its huge human cost. Two weeks ago, a government-appointed reconciliation commission released a long-awaited report, giving voice to the war’s civilian victims for the first time.

From August 2010 to January 2011, hundreds of people appeared before the commission in tears, begging for news of their loved ones, many of whom had last been seen in the custody of security forces. A doctor spoke of how they managed to survive under deplorable conditions in places “littered with dead bodies and carcasses of dying animals.”

In October, I visited a rural school just 6 miles from Mullivaikkal, on the northeast coast of the island, where the army finally crushed the Tigers — an area still off-limits to civilians. The government says there are too many land mines to allow resettlement; critics say there are too many bodies in mass graves.

The classroom had a new roof, but more than two years after the war ended, its walls were still pockmarked with shrapnel, a window was shattered and the floor was cracked. Most students’ uniforms were discolored; many wore flip-flops and carried tattered bags. A 7-year-old with a deep scar across his back stared at me. A shell had landed while his family slept and his sister was killed, he told me in a thin voice.

One child after another spoke of injuries and deaths caused by shelling; of lingering wounds; of forced conscription by the Tigers; of poor widowed mothers; and of family members missing after being taken into state custody.

Since Sri Lanka’s independence from Britain in 1948, members of the island’s Tamil minority have insisted that they face linguistic, educational and employment discrimination from the Sinhalese majority, which controls the government.

The Tigers — a sophisticated, well-financed guerilla group that formed in 1976 and pioneered the technique of suicide bombing — sought to redress their grievances by violent means, with the goal of establishing an independent Tamil state. They routinely recruited child soldiers, killed Tamil dissenters and massacred Sinhalese and Muslims. In 1991, the group went so far as to assassinate the Indian prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, for having sent Indian troops to Sri Lanka in 1987 to enforce a peace accord. The Tigers held out against the Sri Lankan military until they were decisively defeated in May 2009.

Some journalists called Sri Lanka’s final battle with the Tigers a “war without witnesses.” Aid workers were asked to withdraw from the conflict zone months before the government defeated the Tigers. Only handpicked reporters, mostly from state media, were allowed to embed with troops. Those journalists knew what they must not write, for fear of losing access. The others relied on organized tours that were meticulously choreographed by the army — producing sanitized war coverage with the gory bits tucked away. As a result, there was no outside scrutiny of the controversial war.

But that did not mean there were no witnesses. As the army attacked, hundreds of thousands of civilians were trapped in between. They were the Tigers’ “human shield,” and a source for forced conscripts, including children. They were also witnesses.

More than 950 people testified before the commission and nearly 5,000 submitted written statements. Survivors spoke of displacement, incessant shelling and morbid fear. The commission’s report depicts a country where the rule of law is crumbling and where abductions, enforced or involuntary disappearances, protracted detention without charge and attacks on journalists continue. It proposes depoliticizing the police, disarming illegal armed groups and allowing a more independent media.

While the commission makes sensible recommendations and exposes grave atrocities committed by the Tigers against ordinary people, it also demonstrates that government troops shelled no-fire zones in order to neutralize rebel attacks from within.

The report is a valuable document, but regarding the war’s terrible final weeks, it is largely an apologia for the army. The commission admits only that “civilian casualties had in fact occurred in the course of cross-fire,” and blames the Tigers for most of them. The commission asserts that the government was confronted with an unprecedented situation — a massive human shield — that left it no other choice but to respond as it did.

However, on three separate occasions the government declared no-fire zones, giving the illusion of safety to hundreds of thousands of terrified civilians who fled into them. The rebels also went in, set up their heavy weapons among innocent men, women and children and proceeded to attack the military with gusto. The army retaliated and large numbers of civilians were killed.

Sri Lankans no longer need to pretend that the army didn’t shell zones where civilians were encouraged to gather, or subscribe to the fantasy that no innocents died when shells landed on or near hospitals.

If Sri Lanka wants true reconciliation, simply blaming the Tigers is not enough. The government, and the country, must take responsibility for the dead, mend the lives of the survivors — whatever their ethnicity — and stop the vicious cycle of ethnic strife by arriving at a political solution that meets, if not all aspirations, most of them. Until then, the end of the war will not bring true peace.

© The New York Times

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Sunday, January 01, 2012

Corruption as a tool of Rajapaksa rule

By Tisaranee Gunasekara | Deccan Chronicle

In October this year, President Mahinda Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka used his constitutional powers to grant a special pardon to a politician convicted of misusing public funds. The Appeal Court and the Supreme Court had upheld the conviction of Kesara Senanayake, a former mayor of Kandy. Rajapaksa’s timely pardon saved him from a year in prison and made him a free man.

This November, a bipartisan parliamentary committee accused a state entity, controlled by Presidential sibling minister Basil Rajapaksa, of massive financial malpractices. Last year, environmentalists accused the then air force commander of building an eight-roomed luxury house on a Unesco heritage site. Instead of being prosecuted for breaking the law, Air Marshall Roshan Gunatillake received a promotion, as the Chief of Defence Staff; he also got to keep his illegally constructed house.

Former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka, who became transformed from Rajapaksa-ally to Rajapaksa-foe within six months of winning the Eelam War, was found guilty by a military court of financial misappropriation, stripped of his rank, honours and pension and sentenced to a 30-month imprisonment. There was no presidential pardon for him.

These incidents are symbolic and symbiotic of a new Lankan reality. Under Rajapaksa rule, corruption has become systemic. It is ensconced at the core of the Lankan state as an indispensable tool of governance, a way to reward allies and punish enemies, a method of strengthening familial rule and promoting dynastic succession.

The Rajapaksa brothers, President Mahinda, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya and economic development minister Basil, occupy the commanding heights of the Lankan state. Blatant tolerance of official corruption is a key characteristic of this Rajapaksa-controlled state. Though corruption, including in very high places, is not alien to Sri Lanka, the current, openly blasé attitude is rather unprecedented. This attitudinal-shift has created a permissive atmosphere, in which official corruption, freed of the stigma and empowered by impunity, is flourishing.

In 2007, the state-owned Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) contracted hedging deals with five foreign banks. A ministerial sub-committee subsequently revealed that that the contracts were seriously flawed and if enforced would lose the CPC around US$800 million. The CPC chairman who made and defended the deal, Ashantha De Mel, is a Rajapaksa family connection. No legal action was taken against him even though the Supreme Court voided the deal as illegal, and blamed the government for appointing “an unqualified person who had not even passed the GCE Advanced Level examination to a responsible position like the CPC chairmanship”.

The Rajapaksa-tolerance of corruption, by their own, is encouraging opposition politicians to switch sides in order to evade legal action for financial (and other) misdeeds. Milinda Moragoda was a senior minister in the 2001-2004 UNP administration. In 2009, the Supreme Court accused him of acting in a manner “flawed and marred by various improprieties” when privatising the state-owned insurance giant, Sri Lanka Insurance. Despite this damning pronouncement, no legal action was taken against Moragoda. By then he had switched sides and become a minister in the Rajapaksa regime.

In its latest findings, the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) accuses Maga Neguma (Improving Roads), a state-funded entity under control of Basil Rajapaksa, of defaulting road-contractors of “a massive Rs 1.2 billion”. The defrauded contractors have not sought legal redress because they fear Rajapaksa’s ire, according to a COPE member: “We learnt that some of these contractors have paid huge commissions to certain politicians. They are unable to speak against this injustice openly. If they speak, they will be harassed in various ways…”, he told a newspaper.

The officials of Maga Neguma act as if they are above the law. They do not submit their accounts to the Auditor General; according to a COPE member, “they even produced letters from the Attorney General’s department to support their argument that the COPE has no powers to probe them”. Such arrogant insouciance is natural in a familial state. Lankan officials, like Lankan politicians, know that they can break laws and contravene rules with impunity, so long as they do not commit the cardinal sin of opposing the Rajapaksas.

The 17th Amendment to the Constitution set up seven independent commissions to promote good governance. The independent Bribery Commission so born was the entity which investigated the actions of former Mayor Senanayake (who visited Singapore with his wife, using municipal funds granted to him to attend a workshop in Taiwan). By the time the convicted Senanayake got his presidential pardon, the Bribery Commission that enabled his successful prosecution had lost its independence. The Rajapaksa-introduced 18th Amendment turned independent commissions into presidential appendages by empowering the president to hire and fire their members at will.

The 18th Amendment also placed the Elections Commissioner (and the inspector-general of police) under presidential control. The Elections Commissioner was disempowered from acting to prevent the misuse of state resources by government-politicians during election times. As the deputy elections commissioner explained, “With the passage of the 18th Amendment, the commissioner no longer had constitutional powers to appoint a competent authority to ensure balanced media coverage”. The 18th Amendment has thus rendered corrupt electoral practices partially legal, making it easier for the Rajapaksas to win elections.

Under Rajapaksa Rule, Sri Lanka is a state-in-transition from a flawed democracy into a One-Family State. Creating a new legality is an essential component of this transformation. This includes institutionalising and normalising corruption. In the emerging state, corruption is an instrument wielded with impunity by the Rajapaksas to enhance their power.

When rulers tolerate corruption and protect the corrupt, corruption, while remaining a crime in law, ceases being a crime in fact. As corruption flourishes in open sight and the corrupt get away scot-free, public perception of corruption too undergoes a radical transition. From a social-solecism corruption becomes a new norm. People begin to regard corruption as an esoteric issue which is of little relevance to them.

Such a public perception can become an insurmountable impediment to the creation of a mass movement against corruption, unless, and until, people realise that corruption impedes development and undermines their own living standards.

© Deccan Chronicle

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Sunday, January 01, 2012

Sri Lanka 'wheelchair tax' condemned by UK charity


The head of a UK charity that sent a consignment of wheelchairs to Sri Lanka has condemned the decision to impose customs duties of over $8,000 (£5,180).

Peter Thompson, of the Yorkshire-based PhysioNet charity, said the shipment for Tamil war victims also took more than three months to clear customs.

The Sri Lankan authorities said the delay was because paperwork for the shipment was not properly completed.

They said all shipments arriving in Colombo are subject to duty payments.

But Mr Thompson said the $8,000 (1m Sri Lankan rupees) that had to be paid in customs duties and port storage fees was unacceptable.

He argued that the delay in clearing the shipment - which contained 322 wheelchairs and other mobility items for disabled Tamil war victims - meant that the bill had to be paid before it was allowed to be transported to the north of the country.

The shipment was sent by PhysioNet in conjunction with a Sri Lankan Tamil charity based in the UK and the Roman Catholic church; together they met all of the costs of getting the consignment to Sri Lanka.

"But problems arose in Colombo when it took three months to clear the docks," Mr Thompson told the BBC.

"This is a record for the longest time one of our shipments has languished on the docks of a recipient country - and that includes some of the most corrupt and inefficient countries in Africa."

Mr Thompson said the Sri Lankan authorities appeared to put up obstacles every step of the way to prevent the shipment from being speedily delivered.

"Only following endless paperwork and the payment of $8,000 was the container released and allowed to be transported to the north of the country," he said.

"During the three months it took for these problems to be resolved, the demurrage charges were building up substantially in Colombo.

"It's difficult to conclude that this is anything other than a glaring example of the Sri Lankan authorities victimising the Tamil community."

The Sri Lankan government in May 2009 defeated Tamil Tigers rebels fighting for independence in the north and east of the country after a bitterly-fought war spanning two decades.

Mr Thompson said his charity hoped to send another shipment to Sri Lanka next year, "but only if there are some assurances that this unhappy experience will not be repeated".

A spokesman for the port authority in Colombo that handled the consignment said all imports - including those brought in for charitable purposes - are subject to import duties.

He said the delay in clearing the wheelchairs was because various government ministries had to give their permission before shipments to the north were allowed to go ahead.

© BBC News

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