Tuesday, January 24, 2012

In Sri Lanka, Eknelygoda asks that humanity trump cruelty

By Bob Dietz - Asia Program Coordinator | Committee to Protect Journalists

A couple of weeks ago, I described the terrible incidence of anti-press abuse that has come each recent January in Sri Lanka. Media activists have come to call the month "Black January" for good reason, as this email message details:

The Alliance of Media Organizations, spearheaded by the Free Media Movement, has earmarked January 25, as Black January Day on account of the numerous attacks against the media unleashed by the government in the past three years, especially in the month of January. These include the murder of Sunday Leader editor [Lasantha Wickramatunga], the fire bomb attack on Sirasa/MTV studios and the attack on Rivira editor Upali Tennakoon in 2009, [see CPJ's Special Report: Failure to Investigate], the disappearance of Prageeth Eknelygoda, the sealing of Lanka newspapers and the detention of its editor in 2010, and the arson attack on Lanka eNews office in 2011.

January 24 marks the second anniversary of the disappearance of Prageeth Eknelygoda, a cartoonist and columnist for the pro-opposition Lanka eNews website. The case is among several anti-press attacks that are tied up in court hearings without substantive law enforcement action. Eknelygoda's wife, Sandhya, and two sons have gotten no word from any official body of the Sri Lankan government, from the lowest police desk to the highest levels of the ministry of justice, about what happened to the journalist.

On Tuesday, as she did last year, Sandhya Eknelygoda will take another step in pressing the government to conduct an investigation into her husband's disappearance. Here is the plan, according to an email message sent over the weekend:

Women have taken the initiative to commemorate the second year of the disappearance of Prageeth Eknaligoda and of all the other disappeared persons on the 24th January 2012, in front of the Fort Railway Station at 4.30 p.m.

They will sit down in deep silence to make their protest to the murderers and the destroyers of these valuable lives, with the firm determination to eradicate this inhuman and barbarous culture of revenge and criminality against humanity.

The most interesting feature would be the procession of women moving to the church in New Chetty Street, Kochcikade to invoke the blessings of Virgin Mary, Prajapathi Gothami, Goddess Paththini, and Goddess Kali.

All sympathy and support is welcome to share in this symbolic gesture of this heroic effort of these women who are suffering daily with the awful and unbearable loss of their loved ones.

On January 25, 2011, Sandhya Eknelygoda submitted a petition calling on U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and other U.N. officials to encourage the Sri Lankan government to investigate the disappearance of her husband. The request to the U.N. has been unmet.

In March 2011, CPJ and four other groups sent a letter to Ban asking him to direct the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and UNESCO, which oversees press freedom, to look into the case of Eknelygoda. There has been no meaningful response from the United Nations. Sandhya Eknelygoda's personal appeal to the president's wife, Shiranthi Rajapaksa, has also gone unanswered.

Consider this vast indifference. What can this soft-spoken mother of two teenage boys possibly do? Yet her words this year invoke a faith in humanity that transcends the cruelty she has experienced, as she calls on like-minded women to "sit down in deep silence ... with the firm determination to eradicate this inhuman and barbarous culture of revenge and criminality."


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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Sri Lanka: Further repression of media, civil society, minorities

Human Rights Watch

The Sri Lankan government in the past year failed to advance justice and accountability for the victims of the country’s 26-year-long civil conflict, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2012. While Sri Lanka’s war-ravaged north and east became more open, the government deepened repression of basic freedoms throughout the country.

The government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa continued to stall on accountability for abuses by the security forces, threatened media and civil society groups, and largely ignored complaints of insecurity and land grabbing in the north and east, Human Rights Watch said. The long-awaited report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), published in December, largely absolved the military for its conduct in the bloody final months of the war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which ended in May 2009.

“In 2011, accountability remained a dead issue, the media faced increasing censorship, and the long-standing grievances which led to the conflict were not seriously addressed,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Sri Lankans face a lack of justice, weak rule of law, land grabbing, and a censored media from a government that is increasingly authoritarian.”

In its 676-page report, Human Rights Watch assessed progress on human rights during the past year in more than 90 countries, including popular uprisings in the Arab world that few would have imagined. Given the violent forces resisting the “Arab Spring,” the international community has an important role to play in assisting the birth of rights-respecting democracies in the region, Human Rights Watch said in the report.

The government’s failure to hold perpetrators of abuses accountable remained a key issue throughout the year. No one was prosecuted for atrocities committed during the conflict with the LTTE. The government ignored the findings of a Panel of Experts report, commissioned by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, which found rampant abuses by both government forces and the LTTE, and called for an independent international mechanism to investigate laws-of-war violations. The government insisted instead that its LLRC would be the mechanism to address wartime abuses, though the mandate, composition and procedures of the commission were deeply flawed. The LLRC effectively exonerated government forces for laws-of-war violations, rehashed long-standing recommendations, and took no concrete steps to advance accountability.

The commission’s findings stand in stark contrast to those of the UN Panel of Experts, the UN special envoy on extrajudicial executions, and nongovernmental organizations, including Human Rights Watch. Although the LLRC found that government shelling resulted in civilian casualties, an allegation that the government had strenuously denied, it did not even consider the repeated attacks on civilian areas and hospitals as possible indiscriminate attacks prohibited by the laws of war, Human Rights Watch said.

“The abuses by government forces detailed in the UN Panel of Experts report are strangely missing in the LLRC’s findings,” Adams said. “Even the LLRC’s useful recommendations seem destined to join those of other Sri Lankan commissions that got filed away and ignored.”

Free expression in Sri Lanka was under assault in 2011. The editor of a Jaffna-based newspaper was beaten with iron bars by a group of unidentified youths in late July. Also in July, a team of Radio Netherlands journalists were harassed by police and later robbed and attacked at gunpoint by men in a white van, a notorious symbol of terror in Sri Lanka. The chairman of the Sunday Leader, whose brother Lasantha Wickrematunge had been gunned down in 2009, received a phone call from President Rajapaksa who threatened to attack him personally in response to articles in the Sunday Leader about high-level corruption. In December, two human rights activists, Lalith Kumar Weeraraj and Kugan Muruganathan, disappeared, apparently abducted while en route to a planned protest rally in Jaffna. Weeraraj’s father stated that his son had received anonymous phone calls prior to the protest telling him that he would be eliminated if he continued his political involvement.

In November, the government-owned Daily News announced that the government would issue guidelines and a code of conduct for the country’s media. The Media Ministry called on all news websites to register. At least five websites critical of the government were subsequently blocked inside the country.

“A free media is an essential building block of a democratic state,” Adams said. “The Rajapaksa administration is putting this in jeopardy by reacting to criticism with heavy-handed measures.”

The government says that there has been meaningful progress on reconciliation, but there is little evidence to support that contention, Human Rights Watch said. Talks between the government and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) on distribution of powers remained stalled through most of 2011. While campaigning ahead of elections in Jaffna in June, members and supporters of the TNA were attacked by army personnel wielding rods, batons and sticks.

There were some improvements for the Tamil population in the north and east in 2011. Freedom of movement to the north has allowed for greater access by humanitarian, local human rights and media groups, as well as by families. However, the government took inadequate steps in 2011 to normalize living conditions. Security in the region remained poor, with alarming incidents reported of gender-based violence and enforced prostitution. The unsettling attacks mid-year by “grease devils” – unidentified male assailants – exposed the vacuum in the security forces’ ability to respond adequately to civilians’ needs for protection. The heavy military presence in the north and east was a continuing source of distrust among the largely Tamil population.

The issue of land, one of the central problems undergirding the decades-long conflict, remains unresolved. Although the cabinet in April passed a circular intended to address the issue of land ownership and competing claims, particularly for those who fled during the war, little was done to implement its provisions.

Further, the government failed to appoint a National Land Commission, as required under the 13th amendment to the constitution. Reports of land-grabbing by the military in the north and elsewhere in the country increased through 2011. In some cases, the military provided some compensation, but sporadically and only when initiated by the owners, not the occupiers.

“The government has barely made an effort to address the grievances of the Tamil population,” Adams said. “Instead of the government facilitating greater dialogue, Tamil political representatives are subject to threats and harassment.”

Most of the nearly 300,000 displaced persons illegally confined in military-controlled detention centers after the war were able to leave by early 2010, but many have still not been able to return to their previous homes or communities. About 57,000 people live with host families, and another roughly 53,000 remain in the camps, in part because de-mining activities have not yet been completed in their original home areas.

By December, the government had released all but about 1,000 of the nearly 12,000 LTTE “surrenderees,” alleged combatants and supporters that it was detaining without charge or trial, and claimed that those remaining would be released by mid-2012. The government says these former combatants have been rehabilitated and trained to enter civilian life. The government said another 1,000 “hardcore” LTTE members are being held at Camp Boosa. The conditions for all of these detainees are not known.

Allegations of mistreatment and torture in custody have not been investigated.

The Emergency Regulations were allowed to expire on August 31, but the 1979 Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and other laws and regulations permitting detention without charge for up to 18 months leave an abusive detention regime in place.

Local government elections held between March and October further consolidated the hold of Rajapaksa’s United Freedom People’s Alliance party. It won control over 270 of the 322 local authorites contested. As in previous years, the president relied on close family members to strengthen his hold on government. Various Rajapaksa brothers remain as cabinet ministers with important portfolios. Opposition parties were effectively sidelined.

Sarath Fonseka, the former army commander who challenged Rajapaksa during the 2010 presidential election, was sentenced to an additional three years in prison after his current sentence expires in January 2012.

“As the Rajapaksa government has strengthened its grip politically, basic rights protections in the country have deteriorated,” Adams said.


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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Armed men on nocturnal terror visits to deter students’ struggle

By Leon Berenger | The Sunday Times

It was around 10.20 p.m. on Monday (16), when a group of students had just finished their dinner and were preparing to call it a day, when it all happened. A group of around 15 to 20 persons, some of them masked and armed with assault rifles and hand guns, stormed the hostel situated in Homagama, and informed the occupants that they were searching for an ‘underworld leader’.

The armed men immediately went around searching the building that also serves as an office of the university student organization, dragging out those already in bed, and assembling all the occupants in the inside verandah.

“Ko Sanjeewa Bandara,” the leader of the group demanded from those assembled. “Oka pathayalaya nayakek, kiyapan koheda inne,” (The fellows is an underworld leader, tell us where he is) the leader of the group demanded from the students.

“We told the men that Sanjeewa Bandara is the leader of the Inter-University Students Federation (IUSF) and not an underworld leader, and also that he was not a resident of this particular hostel,” Nuwan Jayaweera told the Sunday Times.

“We further informed the men that, if it is Sanjeewa Bandara they were looking for, it was easy to trace him as he appeared at news conferences, students protests all over the city at day, and could be easily spotted,” he said.

“This infuriated him, and he warned us to close down the place within a day, or face the consequences, which he promised would be ugly,” Mr. Jayaweera added.
According to the students present, the armed men were widely believed to be from the Army Intelligence, and the motive for their late night visit was purely aimed at intimidating the organisation that is in the forefront of the ongoing student protests throughout the country.

When the armed group left after about 45 minutes, during which time they searched the entire place, the students followed them, only to turn back after the ‘invaders’ raised their rifles and threatened to open fire.

During the raid, the students also observed that more armed persons had ringed the building from several sides. “Shortly after the incident, we made a complaint with the Homagama Police, but nothing has come out of the investigation, and we do not expect any positive results either. Even the police by now, would be aware of the identity of the men,” Mr. Jayaweera added.

The Homagama incident is not an isolated one, with students’ groups and others claiming that such late night, and even day visits by armed persons to private households, are widespread in many parts of the country.

The homes targeted are those of university student leaders and hardcore activists behind the wave of protests that was triggered-off by the proposed setting up of private universities in the country, among other issues.

One such home visited was the one belonging to Miss D.A. Perera, a fourth-year student of the Arts Faculty at Sri Jayawardenepura University.

“Two mufti-clad men entered my shop that adjoins my home and made inquiries about my eldest daughter who is attending Sri Jayewardenepura University,” said K.A. Perera, a staunch supporter of the left movement.

“They were decent in their approach, as they identified themselves from military intelligence. However, they were also giving a message. I suspect, the visit may have been different, if I was not present that day,” he said.

“The two men wanted to know my political affiliations and that of my daughter. I told them that I do not belong to any major political party, but instead, follow the left path, and that would not change,” Mr. Perera added.

“In the meantime, I was expecting such a visit at any moment. Even my daughter cautioned me towards this end, adding that the homes of several students had already been visited,” he said.

The two men later left the Perera home after a chew of betel, saying that they too had a job to do, but not before the grocer spotted a piece of paper in their possession, with a list of names and addresses.

IUSF President Sanjeewa Bandara alleged that some 250 homes from all parts of the country had experienced such visits from the beginning of this month, and that the trend was continuing.

“In most cases, the occupants of the homes were asked to get their children off the street protests, or face the consequences. In some cases, there were repeated visits to a particular household,” Mr. Bandara added.

He said that, the homes targeted belonged mainly to student leaders and other frontline activists behind the protests, and in some cases, even that of demonstrators caught on camera and from television grabs.

He added that, the intruders were working in collaboration with the local Grama Sevakas, where they collected personal information of an individual student, before moving in at night. “In addition to that, they were also in possession of students’ personal files taken from the administration section of each university. What is even more damning is that they spread false rumors among the villagers, that this particular student is connected to international groups sympathetic to the separatist Tamil cause,” Mr. Bandara told the Sunday Times.

Waruna Rajapaksa with the ‘People’s Struggle’ movement and Western Provincial Councillor, warned that the student crisis had come to a frightening point, with the army getting involved to stifle democratic rights.

“Instead of addressing the issues at hand in a democratic and fair manner, the Government has opted for a military solution. “It is like using a sledge hammer to squash an egg”, is how Mr. Rajapaksa described the current approach by the State.

“The students involved in the Homagama case are affiliated with our movement, and therefore, were concerned of the unfolding developments,” Rajapaksa said.

Rajapaksa’s People’s Struggle movement is a breakaway faction of the left-leaning Janatha Vimukthi Perumana (JVP).

However, in this case, the JVP and the dissidents have united to condemn the involvement of the army in suppressing student actions, and have warned, that the issue could develop into a full blown crisis, should the Government insist on a military approach to solve the problem.

“The Government is bankrupt of ideas and solutions, and has therefore, opted for the military approach. This should never be the case. The authorities must have a re-think, before moving in on this particular direction,” JVP leader Somawansa Amarasinghe said.

He warned that, if the Government has its way with this so-called private universities to be opened in the country, it would mean the death knell of free education, starting from the primary to the halls of higher education.

He added that, the budgetary allowance for free education in the country was just 1.6% of the GDP, a pittance when compared with the allocations to other sections. “Very soon, the parents will be called on to provide the desk, chair and even the piece of chalk to the classroom.

The Government is bankrupt for ideas and solutions to the burning issues faced by the people. It is not only the student crisis, but the increasing burdens forced on the people, like the cost of living and the high unemployment rate are issues the State must look into at the earliest,” Mr. Somawanasa added.

He said that, looking at the present trend the Government is taking towards the university crisis, it will soon bring out the army to stifle anyone who dares oppose the establishment, be it trade unions or whatever.

In conclusion he added that, the students must be allowed to exercise their democratic rights without hindrance, while the Government must make a genuine effort to look into their problems and try and bring about solutions at the earliest.

Dr. Nirmal Devasiri with the Federation of University Teachers Association (FUTA) said that propagating revolutionary ideas was not illegal and is allowed within a democratic framework. “It is ‘madness’ to link the present student uprising to terrorism. No sane person will think of an armed struggle in the present scenario. Young people must be given the opportunity to express their political beliefs,” he added.

He added that, late night visits to the homes of students will only bring out negative results. “We have seen this in the past, and it should not be allowed to happen again,” Dr. Devasiri cautioned.

He said a student had informed him that his house experienced such a visit simply because he was studying at a university. “This is ridiculous” Dr. Devasiri added.

Meanwhile, Leader of the House, Nimal Siripala de Silva informed Parliament that certain international elements were trying to bring about a regime change in the same manner as they did in Libya.

“These so-called international-group-funded forces to take to the streets in Libya and they are making a similar attempt here,” he said without elaborating.

He was responding to questions by the Opposition that the Government was trying to undermine students’ rights In a public statement made earlier, former JVP frontliner and presently a Government minister, Wimal Weerawansa lashed out at the heads of universities for mishandling the situation.

Higher Education Secretary Dr. S. Navaratne said they were not aware of any army involvement- such as the home visits, etc.

He added that, the planned meeting between the university authorities and student leaders on Saturday last week, could not take place, as they- the student representatives, did not show up.

Earlier, Dr. Navaratne cautioned that other interested elements were seeking to ride on the student issue, purely to enhance their personal agendas. “This will never be allowed to be the case” he said.

The Army, however, vehemently denied that soldiers were involved in covert operations such as visiting the homes of university students.

Army spokesman Brig. Nihal Hapuaarachchi said such operations were the job of the police, as it is a civilian matter, and the Army has nothing to do with it. He urged persons who experience such a visit, and suspect it was from the army, to bring the matter up with the nearest police station at the very earliest.

Govt. pits Army against students to block protests

Students and activists belonging to the ‘People’s Struggle’ movement were, this week, furious, after authorities used the Army to block a protest campaign in the heart of the Jaffna Peninsula.

The group made up of some 800 activists had traveled to the north in 12 buses, but was intimidated, harassed and were forced to turn back halfway through their journey, a spokesman for the group said.

He said their convoy was stopped at some seven checkpoints and were told that the road to Jaffna was not motorable as a bridge had collapsed.

At one checkpoint, the group was told that a suicide jacket had been found in the vicinity and that to proceed further was a risk. “It was clear that these foolish stunts were made to prevent us from going ahead with our leaflet campaign to be held in Jaffna town”, the spokesman added.

The group’s campaign was aimed at calling on the authorities to indicate the whereabouts of two of their activists, Lalith Kumara Weeraraju and Kugan Muruganathan, who were abducted late last year in Jaffna.

© The Sunday Times

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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Sri Lanka’s defence secretary targets workers and youth

By K. Ratnayake | World Socialist Web Site

In a recent speech, Sri Lanka’s Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse highlighted the “threat to our national security” posed by attempts to “create [political] instability” as in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

Remarks by the top defence official, the brother of President Mahinda Rajapakse, are an ominous warning that the government is refocusing its police-state apparatus, built up over a quarter century of civil war, against protests by workers and youth.

The defence secretary’s speech, entitled “Future challenges of national security in Sri Lanka,” was delivered in Colombo on January 11 before top military officers, state bureaucrats and others. It was widely publicised and broadcast on all private and state television stations on January 13.

Gotabhaya Rajapakse was chiefly responsible for prosecuting the government’s communal war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), along with former army commander Sarath Fonseka, who has since fallen out of favour and been imprisoned on trumped-up charges. Rajapakse is part of the military-political cabal—including the Rajapakse brothers, senior generals and state bureaucrats—that runs the government.

The timing of the speech was significant. Unrest among workers and youth is growing. In the same week, thousands of university students held demonstrations to oppose the government’s privatisation of university education. Plantation workers also held protests against the imposition of increased workloads.

On Tuesday, university teachers came out again to press for a salary increase and to show opposition to a private university bill. On Wednesday, thousands of the electricity and water board workers demonstrated in Colombo, demanding higher wages. The government is calculating how to suppress these struggles.

Rajapakse began his speech by referring once again to the “threat” of the revival of the LTTE abroad and in the country. Such comments are mandatory as the government needs to constantly stir up anti-Tamil communalism—the chief weapon used by the ruling elite for decades to divide the working class and rural poor, and block a unified struggle to defend living conditions and democratic rights.

The government restarted the war in 2006 and up until the LTTE’s defeat in May 2009 constantly exploited the “threat of terrorism” to justify the suppression of strikes, with the assistance of the trade unions.

The defence secretary warned his audience that although the LTTE had been crushed, “not to take it for granted” that it could not re-emerge. He claimed there were “on-going activities” of LTTE-linked organisations outside Sri Lanka—naming groups such as the Transitional government of Tamil Eelam, the British Tamil Forum and the Tamil Eelam People’s Assembly.

Rajapakse declared that the aim of these groups was “winning international opinion for the separatist cause, increasing international pressure on Sri Lanka in various areas, and pushing for international investigations into war crimes to undermine the efforts of the ‘democratically’ elected government.”

Pro-LTTE groups are engaged in a futile campaign to seek the support of the “international community” for a separate capitalist state of Eelam in the North and East of Sri Lanka. All the major powers, including the US, backed the war against the LTTE. They have rejected the formation of a separate Eelam and virtually dropped any demand for an international inquiry into the military’s atrocities during the war.

Without providing any evidence, Rajapakse claimed that “there is a possibility …terrorists will reorganise within this country.” Pro-LTTE groups abroad, he said, were aiming to “encourage and facilitate the resumption of an armed struggle in Sri Lanka.” There were detainees who could not be rehabilitated, including those whose “terrorist intentions may remain unchanged.”

The purpose of this “terrorist threat” is to justify the maintenance of the country’s huge military machine and police-state apparatus. The defence secretary declared that it was “of critical importance to maintain a strong [military] presence in areas… used by the LTTE for terrorist activities.” He added: “[M]aintaining a sizeable army and establishing camps in strategic locations throughout Sri Lanka is essential.”

Rajapakse then made clear that the government’s real concern was not the re-emergence of an armed LTTE, but the rising levels of social discontent. He declared that the “more realistic potential threat to our national security is the possibility that certain groups may strive to create instability” in Sri Lanka through indirect methods.

The defence secretary continued: “[H]aving seen political change accomplished in countries such as Tunisia, Egypt and Libya through uprising, some parties … might resort to such activities even here…we have already seen certain groups encouraging students to take to the streets in various protests in the recent past.”

The reference to the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt is significant. The revolutionary upheaval in Egypt in particular saw the involvement of broad layers of workers in opposition not only to the Cairo regime’s anti-democratic methods but also to the austerity agenda being imposed.

In Sri Lanka, as in Egypt, there is a deep social chasm between rich and poor. The Rajapakse government is imposing the demands of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for privatisation, deep inroads into public spending and the lowering of wages and conditions. These measures are provoking growing opposition among workers, youth and rural poor.

The government is well aware that the trade unions are increasingly unable to contain workers. At the same time, the main opposition parties—the United National Party and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP)—are becoming as discredited as the government. That is why the government is preparing the state apparatus in advance to crush any protests.

The defence secretary declared that Sri Lanka was a “democratic nation” but lectured workers and youth not to exercise their democratic rights to defend their interests. In reality, Sri Lanka remains a police state. All the anti-democratic powers that were employed during the war—including arbitrary arrest and detention without trial—remain in force despite the formal ending of the country’s state of emergency. Thousands of Tamil youth remain in custody without charge, two years after the end of the war.

The Socialist Equality Party warns that the Rajapakse regime will have no hesitation in using the security apparatus against the working class and youth. Just as the opposition parties supported the civil war, so they will fall in behind any crackdown on protests and strikes that threaten the capitalist order.

The working class must prepare for the coming struggles by building a revolutionary leadership directed at abolishing the capitalist system that is the root cause of war, social inequality and attacks on democratic rights and at establishing a workers’ and peasants’ government to implement socialist policies. Such a perspective is only possible by uniting the struggles of working people in Sri Lanka with those in the Middle East, Asia and internationally for a world planned socialist economy. That is the program for which the SEP fights.


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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Sri Lanka: Tea rich but nutrient poor


Tea in Sri Lanka is one of the country's biggest cash crops, but families working on tea estates are among the nation's poorest in terms of earnings as well as nutrition, say experts who back regional approaches to tackle nutrition disparity.

One in every five children younger than five is malnourished nationwide and one in six newborns has a low birth weight, one cause of infant deaths, according to a recent study from the Colombo-based Institute of Policy Studies (IPS).

But the situation is worse for children of tea estate workers, with one in three classified as underweight and 40 percent of babies born with too-low weight, IPS noted.

Ramasamy Ramakrishnan, 46, a tea estate worker and father of five, and his wife, who is also a tea harvester, earn US$130 monthly to support a family of seven, including five school-aged children.

"It is difficult. We survive somehow. But I cannot find any other job," he told IRIN.

His family is among the one-and-a-half million people - or some 5 percent of Sri Lanka's 21 million population - who work in the tea sector, according to government estimates.

The most recent national poverty study conducted in 2009-2010 noted that 11.4 percent of these families lived below the national poverty line of 3,028 Sri Lankan rupees per month, or roughly $27.

Income nutrition cycle

Household income plays a major role in determining nutrition levels of under-fives, with those among the country's poorest 20 percent three times more likely to be malnourished as those in the richest quintile, noted IPS.

In the government's most recent demographic and health survey (DHS) conducted in 2006-2007 some 17 percent of under-fives surveyed were stunted - a sign of chronic malnutrition and lack of nutrients.

Nuwera Eliya District - 150km south of the economic capital of Colombo - and the adjoining Badulla District, which both have large tea plantations, recorded the highest stunting rates nationwide that year, 44 and 33 percent respectively.

Angela de Silva, a lecturer at the University of Colombo's Faculty of Medicine and vice-president of the Nutrition Society of Sri Lanka said poverty and poor living conditions created an inter-generational cycle of malnutrition.

"The disadvantaged kid grows up to be a disadvantaged mother, often with early marriage, teenage pregnancies or starting off pregnancy with both micro- and macro-nutrient malnutrition; in turn she has a low birth-weight baby and poor pregnancy outcomes."

Regional approaches

Sri Lanka's government has programmes that promote exclusive breastfeeding in the baby's first six months - recommended by the World Health Organization to boost a child's lifelong nutrition - and provide nutrients and supplements to vulnerable populations, including pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers and infants, in government clinics.

There are plans to "fine-tune" this breastfeeding promotion to target regions where malnutrition is high, said De Silva.

Education levels and mothers' knowledge about basic healthcare play a major part in determining their children's nutrition levels, said Kumari Navaratna, a senior health specialist at the World Bank's Colombo office.

"The primary caregiver for a child is the mother and evidence again and again is showing that if the mother is knowledgeable on appropriate feeding and caring practices, she is able to provide the best care to the child."

Regional targets

The Nutrition Society of Sri Lanka and Ministry of Health have advised taking into account regional economic and nutrition disparities as well as varying knowledge levels when tackling malnutrition.

Since May 2011 the government's National Nutrition Council has established a multi-sectoral pilot project in areas with high malnutrition, including Nuwera Eliya District.

District health, agriculture and livestock departments are designing regional nutrition interventions, including growth monitoring programmes and child-friendly clinics.

Government welfare policies dating back to independence in 1948 have largely failed to achieve long-term nutrition improvements, said Muttukrishna Sarvananthan, head of the Point Pedro Institute of Development in Sri Lanka and research fellow at Monash University in Australia.

"Government welfare policies should focus on the quality of outputs rather than the quantity of inputs, which has been the case hitherto."

To tackle malnutrition, policies have focused on handouts, such as nutritional supplements, without considering vulnerable groups' needs separately, or policy efficacy, said Sarvananthan.


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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Bleak future for Sri Lankan Tamils: Gordon Weiss

Photo courtesy: Ross Tuttle

Interviewed by G Pramod Kumar | Firstpost Politics

Eleven months after the bloody war in Sri Lanka that led to the complete rout of the LTTE amid intense civilian suffering, a great piece of journalism shook the conscience of the world: The Cage, authored by Gordon Weiss who was the UN spokesperson in the country at the time.

Written with arresting clarity of purpose and a racy style, The Cage unequivocally overturned the Sri Lankan government’s stand that there were no civilian deaths in the final days of the war. Besides the vivid description of the final phase of the war with chilling details of brutality, suffering and deaths, it provided an incredible perspective of the genesis, evolution and the culmination of the deep-rooted rift between the Tamil and Sinhala sentiments in Sri Lanka, that found violent expression in the decades long civil war.

The extensive references, meticulous documentation, the bold way of directly naming people like the Rajapaksas, and the unrestrained narration of the unique instruments of oppression in Sri Lanka make the book a gripping, but tormenting experience.

It was The Cage along with a sensational Channel Four Documentary (The Killing Fields) that exposed the veil of secrecy behind the war. The book also provided context for the UN Panel report and has been accepted as a reliable account of what exactly happened during the final days of the war in 2009, when a tiny piece of piece of land in the North of Sri Lanka was under siege by military forces. It is prescribed reading in many universities.

Weiss has worked as a journalist and with international organisations, particularly in several conflict and disaster hotspots for two decades now. Committed to a non-partisan stand, he is equally severe in his views on the LTTE. So much so that a Tamil nationalist group recently disrupted the launch of the Tamil version of his book in Chennai, prompting Arundhati Roy, who was present at the event, to say “annihilation of debate is annihilation of politics.”

Firstpost spoke to Gordon Weiss in Sidney last week.

Excerpts from the interview:

It has been seven months since The Cage was published. What was the aftermath of the book? What happened in these seven months?

The book was released a month after the UN Panel report. So it provided the broader description of the whole Sri Lankan conflict on which the report sat. The UN report was a technical report. Since then, it was published in Australia, and the UK and was distributed in Sri Lanka and India. There is now a Tamil version in India. Next year it goes in for a vintage edition in the UK, a US/Canada edition and so on. The book has been picked up widely. Accordingly to a number of a people I spoke to, it is generally an accepted version of what happened in Sri Lanka. That was my intention – that this draft of history should be laid down at this point in time.

Was there a formal or informal reaction from Sri Lanka?

There was no formal reaction. There was only an informal reaction in the sense that that I have generally been damned by the establishment in Sri Lanka and its proxies in Australia. That was always anticipated, no surprise about that.

You had told me earlier that this book was written with a narrow purpose of overturning the false notion that no civilians had been harmed during the final phase of the war. The book established there were deaths of innocent people. Are you satisfied with the impact of the UN panel report, your book and the Channel Four documentary? Are you satisfied with the efforts of redress by the international community?

One thing was to overturn the notion that nobody died, or at least that the government was not responsible for anybody dying. But another thing was to imagine what the future of Sri Lanka is, and how that might be best served. The alternative, which was the government version, that there has been no deep suffering of those civilians in Sri Lanka, is not a recipe for moving forward successfully. That is my personal and professional take on it.

That a great many people died is at least the basis for taking the reconstruction and healing forward in Sri Lanka. Many oragnisations and observers inside Sri Lanka have critiqued the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) process and said that it effectively is a whitewash, even though it is well constructed and well argued. So, quite what the next step would be remains to be seen. But I am certainly satisfied with the fact that this book successfully took head-on, the erroneous notion that only a few civilians had died and that the government was not responsible for any of those deaths.

Do you think there will be some international process to take this forward? Because Sri Lanka has been resisting it all this while saying that they are competent enough to handle this.

I think that it would be foolish to lay any bet on what will happen next. I think the ground clearly exists, for any basis of fairness and equivalence with other similar international situations, for an international investigation, but I think it would be foolish for anybody to bet on whether there will be one. I say this because international affairs are inherently political, and even more so, than domestic affairs. The international judicial process is a far more unreliable creature at this point in time than any domestic legal process. I think it will be foolish for anybody to bet on precisely on what’s going to happen in the next six months, or a year, or two years.

You have referred to the record of the UN Human Rights Council on the issue. Nothing has happened in the Council largely because of China, India and the countries which Sri Lanka is friendly with. Do you think anything could have been done differently or anything can happen now?

Absolutely! And I think its very clear to people who were saying a year and half ago that nothing was going to happen without India or China saying so. It is now very clear to most people that those positions are subject to political evolutions. India has clearly moved its position. It has been explicit in some sense that there ought to be real progress from Sri Lanka in examining what happened. There is a lot of evolution around China as well. China expects to be taken to be a statesmanlike global player and a part of that statesmanship is its role and function in international hotspots. We have seen this evolution in its position in the Arab Spring. So China shows some considerable signs that those people who feel that its historical position of noninterference is monolithic and unmovable are mistaken because there is plenty of room for evolution in China. It will have a knock-on effect on Sri Lanka as well.

That is an interesting observation. So could we expect something positive happening in the Human Rights Council?

I think so. I think that is the next possible step. I think people will wait for that. My personal view of this when I left Sri Lanka, was that any process of any sort would take a very long time. So I think there has been a lot of anxiety from a lot of quarters about how quickly this process will come about, if there is going to be a process at all. I never thought that a process like this will be fast. I always thought that if there was going to be any movement of an internationally led examination in Sri Lanka, it would take between five and ten years. So I continue to hold to that position.

But I have been rather surprised at how swiftly things moved along in some sense. The Channel Four documentary took me by surprise. Channel Four obviously put considerable resources into conducting careful examination of available evidence. I hadn’t expected that when I started writing my book. When I left Sri Lanka, it was all bathed in confusion on as to what precisely had happened in the siege zone in 2009. Now a year and half down the track, after the publication of my book, when I read newspaper reports I see that it is generally accepted that there were very high civilian deaths.

You said there is political evolution happening and China itself is changing. Can you expand on that a bit, because Sri Lanka’s trade and political ties with China are very strong. India, although a long-term ally of Sri Lanka, is struggling to catch up with the Chinese influence.

I can only try and detect signs of movement. What I tried to sketch out in the book was the influences that impelled that movement in one way or another. The examples of Beijing Consensus playing out will not stop. But I think anyone who assumes that what happened in 2009 was because of China’s role in Sri Lanka is an open cheque is mistaken, because I don’t think China’s cheque is ever open or blank. It is always conditional. And it is always a matter of where China’s interests lie at any given time.

So, any examination of Sri Lanka is going to play out in terms of interests. And that is a very complex calculation to figure out. The movement changes in the UN human Rights Council all the time – it changes between the players all the time and it changes according to domestic developments. India is a democracy, its position is based on what happens domestically.

In terms of healing and reconciliation, at the core of the problem is this vicious ideology, the heady mixture of religion, politics, nationalism, irrational fear and xenophobia. In your opinion, how is the process of reconciliation and healing moving? Will there be a fair reconciliation?

I don’t see things changing in Sri Lanka in the short to medium term. I think that my prognosis for Tamils is a reasonably gloomy one. A great deal has happened both in terms of the security situation and economic colonisation of the North to make the movement between Tamils and Sinhalese relations more difficult. At the same time, from what I have read, there is a detectable acceptance amongst a broader segment of the thinking Sinhalese community that the government version of what went on is not the accurate version or the true version.

There are a lot of very decent people in that segment who I think are questioning the cost of that final phase of the war, or at least or second-guessing the cost of the final phase of the war. There is a very broad space in which healing needs to take place. The kind of monolithic narrative of this great conquest of this terrible terrorist organisation of 2009 with almost no blood spilled, as the greatest refugee rescue operation in history – thats been pretty much thrown out of the window by now. That at least creates a better basis for whatever form of healing or whatever form of reconciliation is going to take place in Sri Lanka. Not ideal, but a better basis. But, this is all guesswork in a sense because I have not been to Sri Lanka since 2009. It is only what i am reading from afar. It is essentially unlikely to change in the next 5-10 years.

I have heard reports of “heterogenisation” of the Tamil areas, perhaps to change the demography.

That is one of the things that I guessed in my book. That there would be a lot of militarisation of the north, which they have done, and that they would encourage, particularly military families, to move up into the north. Verifying these kinds of subtle changes in land holdings, the establishment of businesses, in influence of economic life and in control of public services is very difficult. You can see the complexity of it in the Israeli-Palestinian situation. My guess is that “Sinhalisation” is going on, and yes that would make it very difficult for Tamils to have any increased political leverage in the short term

Your informed view on how should the international community move on in terms of a credible enquiry into the alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka?

I think the LLRC gave the answer themselves when they said they were unable to arrive at any conclusions on some of the most important aspects of the final phase of the war. The aspects over which there are big question marks. So, they have never said they were not capable of arriving at any conclusion. Instead, they have argued that the evidence has just disappeared. I think a number of outside observers will say that there is evidence. It is just that the international inquiries being conducted in Sri Lanka have a long history of internal inquiries that don’t go anywhere very much particularly given the fact that there is no witness protection in Sri Lanka.

One thing is what happens there, and the second thing is the progress of the international legal framework that restrains governments from carrying out an unhindered war on their internal population. That is the health of international treaties around the wars of law and humanitarian law as well as the Rome statute of governing the International Criminal Court

The last few days of the war are still unclear. You also didn’t pursue that much in the book. Post the book, or even while writing the book, did you you have some clearer idea of what had happened in the last few days? I am sure some of the people, not only in the command positions, but also outside them knew what happened.

Well, one thing is what happened to the bulk of the civilians there, and I stand by the descriptions that I gave in the book of what might have happened because there was extremely fierce fighting going on over a very small area where there were tens of thousands of civilians. The second thing is what happened to people during the so called “white flag incidence” and there seems to be mounting evidence that there were executions. I myself have seen incontestable evidence of executions. So, I think it is pretty obvious that there was wrongdoing in terms of the capture of some senior elements of Tamil tigers, and the disposal of those people. But, there is a long way to go before we have sufficient evidence of the full picture of what happened to the civilians in those days.

It is clear that there were a lot of civilian deaths. It is also reasonably clear that there was some attempt for the LTTE leadership to surrender but all of them were executed. As you mentioned, it might never come out, unless somebody in the establishment comes out with some revelations. Is there any chance of some evidence or conclusion coming out on that?

I don’t know. As I said, the latest evidence I saw, which was a video showing one particular leader alive in custody and later dead, is sort of incontestable evidence that there was foul play in relation to some captives at least. So, if then one extends that to this story of dozens who were said to have been surrendered and then executed, I think there is very compelling circumstantial evidence to show that it happened. But evidence coming out is one thing and having that evidence presented, tested and assessed to obtain a proper judicial conclusion of that evidence is quite a separate matter.

What do you think about the regrouping of the extreme Tamil elements, the LTTE in different forms? I could see some of that in poetry because there is some fantastic poetry indicating very strong sentiments out there. We can see this happening all the time in different parts of the world and in India, for instance in Tamil Nadu, we have very strong supporters of the LTTE. What do you think is the possibility of this movement regrouping and assuming a different form? What do you think is the future of the whole ideology that was behind the LTTE?

The ideology has been given a fertile ground on which to thrive as a result of 2009. I don’t think the LTTE has just melted away. I think precisely the same LTTE elements play out in the diaspora, a lot angrier, a lot more convinced of the arguments that they always made about genocide in Sri Lanka. I think there is a vastly increased sense of anger out there. Their ability to wage a war in Sri Lanka has been absolutely crushed. I don’t think they have that ability at all.

Instead, I imagine what they are doing now is that they are turning their attention to soft forms of undermining the government in Sri Lanka. One way is through encouraging the international investigation and the so called war crimes trial. Another way is in using relatively sophisticated propagandising, and reaching out to the media and government representatives in countries where they are based. And it ought not to be a surprise given what went on in Sri Lanka in 2009.

I think that one of the arguments that I make in the book is that a lot of the wind might have been taken out of the sails of this resurgence of activity, but if there had been an acknowledgement of what happened at the end of the war, if there had been a frank investigation that said: look this was a terrible war, very bloody, this is what happened, this is why it happened and this is our defence of that position, it would have helped the reconciliation considerably.

If there had been a genuinely good intentioned effort to settle differences between the Tamils and the Sinhalese, the moment was in 2009. They could have said: look a lot of civilians have died in this unavoidable war, we bear our unfortunate responsibility, this is what happened. If there had been a full and frank discussion in Sri Lanka on what had happened, the position would have been different. But since the end of the war there has been a consistent, clever and rather cynical covering up by the government. And that has only served to enrage the LTTE remnants and inflame the Tamil diaspora which supports them. I don’t think I am any surprised. I think that only makes the case stronger for an international investigation.

About six months ago Firstpost interviewed Pathmanathan, the LTTE’s financial and arms man. He appeared to be justifiably pro-establishment and had said: we have to move forward, forget about the past etc. Do you have, at any point in time, any inkling as to what was his role and how he was brought back to Sri Lanka? Also, any idea about his role now and what happened to all the money and assets that he was supposed to handle?

I really don’t have any idea. I wish I knew. It’s an interesting and rather fascinating facet of the collapse of the LTTE, but I really don’t know.

They must have been sitting on a lot of assets.

I imagine so, they must have been sitting on a lot of money, a lot of intelligence and a great deal of expertise, and I think a complex and very smooth running organisation. But, it was centered around a small number of some very competent people and with the death of the military leadership and with the sweeping up of some elements of the diaspora it has been weakened.

But I don’t think it by any means has gone away. Here in Australia, I look at the Armenians, I look at the Assyrians, I look at the Palestinians, at the Jews and Bosnians. Everyone has their historic memories and they pass it on from generation to generation. They don’t just fade away. I am meeting with the Armenians and looking at them – and although it is almost a 100 years after what happened in Turkey, for them the wrongdoing is still fresh.

It may not have been a good thing. It may have been a marvelous thing if they had got on with their lives and forgotten what could have changed years ago. But the reality is that these memories are passed down from generation to generation. So I don’t think that’s going to go away or disappear for the Tamil population.

Whether it is going to matter very much for Sri Lanka in the future is really an open question. I think its not going to matter because the facts on the grounds have changed considerably and it will continue to change considerably. But I doubt that the anger that exists in the Tamil community would disappear for many years to come.

I am curious about the heroes of the book, for example the Bangladeshi UN security specialist. Where are they now, what are they doing?

People tend to disappear and get on with their lives. Going through some experience like that in Sri Lanka has a very profound effect on all the people who were involved. People want to forget about it, partly because they don’t want to deal with it, partly because they want to just go away and lick their wounds. A number of people they will carry it with them for a number of years.

Are you also going through the same emotions? I am reminded of the experience of Lt. Gen Romeo Dallaire who was the Commander of the UN Assistance Mission in Rwanda during the genocide in the early 1990s. His riveting account of what happened in Rwanda in his Shake Hands With The Devil was a mechanism to deal with his anguish and depression.

I think so. It doesn’t leave you. A part of it is left inside you, that is normal. This idea that people who go through awful events somehow heal themselves and get on is patently absurd. We are formed by our experiences, we are changed by our experiences.

It was a very intense effort. I collected materials and wrote at the same time. I didn’t do much when I was in Sri Lanka and it all happened when I was in Australia. So, it was just a solid 11 months before I delivered the final text, including three months for editing. It was an emotionally and physically demanding period. I am still getting my legs back after putting myself there.

I didn’t do it out of some desire to write a book, but I have to say that despite being a very costly exercise personally on a whole number of fronts, I still haven’t regretted one moment, my decision in sitting down and writing the book. I am glad I did it.

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