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September 30, 2008

British Tamils Forum: Emergency Meeting with International Development Minister Rt. Hon Shahid Malik MP

Emergency Meeting with International Development Minister Rt. Hon Shahid Malik MP

Following a joint press release issued last Friday (26 September 2008), by Minister responsible for the Department for International Development (DFID) Rt. Hon Shahid Malik and Foreign Minister responsible for Africa, Asia and the UN Rt. Hon Lord Malloch Brown and the press statement issued by the British Tamils Forum (BTF) as response on Saturday (27 September 2008), an emergency meeting was held with members of the Forum this afternoon (30 September 2008) at the DFID Minister’s Office.

Minister Shahid Malik said that the British Government is very concerned that they believe for over two weeks no food supplies have reached the Vanni. He has requested for reasons from the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) why the 60 Lorries that were supposed to have been sent to the Vanni yesterday, have not left as yet. He said that he was expecting answers within 48 hours.

Minister also said that an assessment team that was dispatched by his department to assess the ground situation on the requirements for humanitarian aid and access for food supplies has returned back to the UK recently and is expected to brief him of their findings later today.

He said that his department will fund this growing humanitarian crisis through their humanitarian aid budget. British Tamils Forum submitted an estimated requirement of c£20.0m for immediate relief efforts. This estimation was submitted in conjunction with local Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) currently working within the Vanni area. Minister agreed to look at this estimation along with the DFID assessment team’s own estimation before deciding on any figures.

Minister agreed that one of the fundamental reasons for such large scale internal displacement is due to the indiscriminate aerial bombardment of the Tamil areas. It was also noted that it is unfortunate this ‘man made’ human disaster has to be funded through British tax payer’s monies.

Minister said that the British Government feels and is committed in helping and aiding this developing human catastrophe within the Tamil areas of Sri Lanka . This aid, he categorically said will not be channeled through the GoSL but will be channeled through local and international NGOs like the ICRC. He further said that the British Government does not agree with the GoSL’s general assessment that all local Tamil NGOs which are currently working within the Vanni area are all controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

September 29, 2008

Gamini Fonseka: Monarch of the Sinhala Movieland

The fourth death anniversary of Sri Lanka’s film legend Gamini Fonseka falls on Sep 30th.

This article, first written in 2004 is presented here as tribute to the memory of a man who lives in the hearts of many:

By D.B.S. Jeyaraj

Sembuge Gamini Shelton Fonseka was born in Dehiwela on March 21st 1936 as the third child of William and Daisy Fonseka; After initial schooling at a Presbyterian institution he went to St. Thomas’s College, Mt.Lavinia. He made his mark there not as a Thespian but as an artist of repute. He was capable of caricaturing school masters mercilessly. [- contd..Click for full article]

Bomb Attack on Human Rights Lawyer indicative of a dangerous trend

A Statement by National Peace Council

On Saturday night an unidentified gang lobbed two hand grenades at the residence of Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL) Director and Attorney at-Law J.C Weliamuna. Mr. Weliamuna’s residence is located in close proximity to a police station (Kohuwela), and an army camp (Kohuwela-Pepiliyana road. The attack demonstrates the blatant disregard criminals now have for regular structures of law and order.

The National Peace Council of Sri Lanka condemns the grenade attack on the residence of J C Weliamuna. The NPC views this attack as part of a broader assault on human rights, good governance, accountability and integrity in public life and thus demands stern action be taken against those responsible. We are particularly saddened by this attack as it had taken place at night, when his family and two young children were present. Mr Weliamuna has been a colleague and partner in work we are doing. We appreciate his courage and commitment to the rule of law and to integrity in public life.

Mr. J.C. Weliamuna is presently involved in a number of cases which deal with infringements upon fundamental rights and public interest litigation. Of particular interest are pending cases which involve government officials and member of the police force. Furthermore, last week Mr. Weliamuna made submissions to the Supreme Court, stating that a fellow lawyer had been subjected to death threats for fulfilling his professional duties.

The attack on Mr. Weliamuna is thus suggestive of a dangerous trend of intimidation and interference in the country’s legal processes. The NPC views this attack as an attempt to harm and intimidate a lawyer and civil society activist and to possibly send a warning to all advocates of human rights, good governance, accountability and integrity in public life. This act of violent intimidation can be interpreted as a thinly veiled attempt to silence critical and dissenting voices in the country.

We join the Free Media Movement (FMM), civil society activists and the Bar Association of Sri Lanka’s (BASL) in condemning this attack as an act which threatens not only us all but the very democratic values upon which our respective professions and institutions are founded.

The plight of the thousands of internally displaced people

A Statement from Catholic Bishops’ Conference In Sri Lanka:

At the plenary meeting of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Sri Lanka (CBCSL) held on 22 September 2008 the Bishops shared their concerns about the plight of the thousands of internally displaced people as a result of the ongoing war in the districts of Mulaitivu and Kilinochchi.

We appreciate the efforts taken by the government to ensure that food and other essentials reach the internally displaced However, we also understand that sufficient stocks of food do not reach the people due to certain hindrances, Thousands of people are living under trees and open spaces without shelter anti access to water and sanitation difficulties in transporting essential commodities have resulted in fuel, food medicine, shelter materials etc being in short supply Education of the children has been disrupted It was noted that as a result of aerial bombing several innocent civilians have been killed. The trauma that the people, particularly the children, undergo is noted to be unprecedented.

Therefore, we earnestly urge the government and the LTTE that utmost care be taken to protect the lives of innocent civilians. It was noted that the LTTE is not permitting the civilians to come out of Mulakivu and Kilinochchi. This is a very unfortunate situation. We ask the LTFE not to hinder the innocent civilians from proceeding to safe areas as the war is escalating and the lives of these innocent people are greatly endangered The innocent civilians must not be used as human shields,

We strongly urge that every effort be made by the government to be conscious of this situation and meet the humanitarian needs and take meaningful steps to take the people out of this trapped situation. We also recommend that some alternate measures such as zones of peace be taken to ensure the safety of the innocent in the districts of Mulaktivu and Kilinochchi.

We plead that humanitarian laws be respected by everyone, and that institutions such as schools, hospitals and places of worship be carefully avoided in the combat
We wish to reiterate the position that we have always upheld that lasting peace can be realized only through a negotiated political solution which recognizes human dignity and equality ensuring the legitimate rights and aspirations of all citizens.

BishopVianne Fernando President
Bishop Norbert M. Andradi OMi
Secretary General
Catholic Bishops’ Conference Catholic Bishops’ Conference
.-

September 28, 2008

SLMC disturbed over Army Chief’s comments

Sri Lanka Muslim Congress yesterday issued a statement expressing its protests over certain remarks made by Army Commander Sarath Fonseka recently to Canadian newspaper ‘National Post’.

“I am disturbed by the strong anti-minority sentiments expressed by Army Commander Sarath Fonseka during his interview and his assertion that Sri Lanka belongs to the Sinhalese,” SLMC Leader Rauff Hakeem said in a statement.

“The nature of the attack on the minorities in the interview borders on racism.  His request for minorities not to make demands is totally uncalled for and only goes to create a fear psychosis among the minorities at this critical juncture of the conflict,” the SLMC leader said in the statement.

“Even in the armed forces and the police one gets Muslims and Tamils holding even top positions and serving the country with a strong sense of commitment.   These comments are an insult to Muslims and Tamils who have shed blood and sweat to gain independence for this country and helped to develop Sri Lanka,” Mr. Hakeem said in the statement.

“Even the ordinary Muslim and Tamil in this country have their own contributions to society.  They have added a lot to the vibrancy of the Sri Lankan economy and culture.  It is a crime to say that they do not deserve equal treatment as Sinhalese,” said the statement.

Mr. Hakeem maintained he would rather have had the Army Commander let the politicians comment on the political issues since remarks of this nature only go to break the bridges built between communities after a lot of hard work.

CPA Statement On The Recent Comments By General Sarath Fonseka In Canada's National Post

Statement by Centre for Policy Alternatives

The Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) is deeply concerned by and strongly disapproves of statements made by the Commander of the Sri Lanka Army, General Sarath Fonseka, in an interview with Stewart Bell of the National Post newspaper of Canada, published on 23rd September 2008.

In this interview, General Fonseka has made some disquieting observations of a highly political nature. Among other things, General Fonseka has stated that,

“I strongly believe that this country belongs to the Sinhalese but there are minority communities and we treat them like our people…We being the majority of the country, 75%, we will never give in and we have the right to protect this country…We are also a strong nation … They can live in this country with us. But they must not try to, under the pretext of being a minority, demand undue things.”

These sentiments, which General Fonseka has made public on several other occasions in interactions with local and international media, are cause for alarm in at least two respects. Firstly, the fact that the Commander of the Army feels free to represent his personal opinions and enter into public discussion about policy matters that are constitutionally the proper domain of the political executive, and indeed is allowed to do so repeatedly without any restraint by the political executive. Secondly, the highly contentious and insensitive nature of what is apparently an ideological perspective that is held by General Fonseka about the nature of the Sri Lankan polity, the political anatomy of the conflict in Sri Lanka, and the means of its resolution.

In regard to the first concern, it should be noted that while constitutional practice in Sri Lanka leaves much to be desired from the perspective of both democratic values and postulates of constitutional government, one cardinal principle of democratic government that has at least hitherto been adhered to is that of civilian control over the military. Thus policy-making and the political direction of any governmental programme involving the military are matters for elected officials of the executive, who are, moreover, responsible and accountable to Parliament and the people for both such policy and the conduct of the military within the framework of government policy, the law, and the Constitution. A necessary implication of this principle is that members of the armed forces desist from engaging in political debate through public expression of private opinions. The military is enjoined by legal duty and constitutional obligation to the direction and control of the civilian political executive; it is not their task either to make policy or to express preferences.

We recall that on the one occasion in this country in which the military attempted to overstep its role in 1962, that attempt was brought swiftly, firmly, and decisively under control by a democratically elected and legally constituted government led by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, which is also the principal party of the current governing coalition. For General Fonseka to be given the unbridled leeway to volunteer political opinions about the ethnic conflict is therefore not merely a clear violation of a fundamental principle of democratic government; it also suggests that the present government does not apprehend the chilling dangers of allowing military men to venture into the arena of political debate. It is because of the fact that Sri Lanka has succeeded in upholding the principle of civilian control over the military that we have escaped the unfortunate experiences of neighbouring countries such as Pakistan.

Quite apart from this departure from established principles about the proper boundaries of civil-military relations in a democracy are the contumelious political opinions of an ethnic-ideological nature that are evidently held, and abrasively articulated, by General Fonseka. By making politically uninformed statements about which community ‘owns’ Sri Lanka, General Fonseka demonstrates the discredited majoritarian mindset that views the Tamil and other minority communities with a lack of respect and dignity. It also displays his ignorance and utter insensitivity to the political aspirations of a people the government is claiming to liberate, aspirations based on equality and dignity. They also lend credence to the fundamental argument that military men necessarily do not have the competence to engage in public policy debates, especially about a matter as complex and fundamental in Sri Lankan politics as the resolution of the internal ethnic conflict in the context of ethnic and religious diversity.

General Fonseka’s opinions seem also to be inconsistent even with the avowed policy of the present government, expressed most recently this week by the President at the U.N. General Assembly, that the war is against terrorism and the LTTE, and not the Tamil people; that the restoration of democracy and development in the North and East is a priority; and that a political solution must be evolved through the APRC which involves devolution, power-sharing, and a recognition that Sri Lanka belongs to all communities.

For these reasons, we deplore and condemn in the strongest possible terms the abhorrent and unacceptable statements made by General Fonseka; call upon the President to take immediate action to prevent statements of this nature being made in the future; and to ensure that public confidence in the government’s commitment to and respect for the proper constitutional boundaries between the civil and military realms is restored.

The Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) was formed in the firm belief that there is an urgent need to strengthen institution- and capacity-building for good governance and conflict transformation in Sri Lanka and that non-partisan civil society groups have an important and constructive contribution to make to this process. The primary role envisaged for the Centre in the field of public policy is a pro-active and interventionary one, aimed at the dissemination and advocacy of policy alternatives for non-violent conflict resolution and democratic governance. Accordingly, the work of the Centre involves a major research component through which the policy alternatives advocated are identified and developed.

For more information, please visit http://www.cpalanka.org

September 27, 2008

D.B. Wijetunga: From Gentleman Farmer to Constitutional Monarch

By D.B.S. Jeyaraj

Wijetunga was not one who understood all the ramifications of the Tamil national question and did not advocate devolution of powers as a solution to the problem. At the same time he was not a rabid majoritarian chauvinist or Sinhala supremacist as portrayed by sections of the Tamil media on the basis of this provocative comment.

Click to read the full article here: From Gentleman Farmer to Constitutional Monarch

September 23, 2008

Sri Lanka is losing its soul to war

By Peter Foster

Predictably in a conflict which stirs such bitterness, my last post on Sri Lanka and an analysis piece I wrote in Saturday's paper on Sri Lanka's human rights record has generated a slew of emails accusing me of failing to understand the conflict and ‘siding with the terrorists.'

[Peter Foster]

I must preface this post, therefore, with the (I hope unnecessary) disclaimer that I hold no candle for the Tamil Tigers or their methods, which include recruiting child soldiers and the abduction, intimidation and extortion of Tamils both home and abroad.

But in the same breath, it must be said once again that Sri Lanka's war on terror does not absolve Mahinda Rajapakse's government of its basic responsibilities on human rights, any more than America's war against Al Qa'eda absolves the US of those same responsibilities at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and all those other secret little hidey holes where the CIA and its proxies beat and water-boarded suspects in the name of ‘freedom and democracy'.

I'm fully aware that the Bush Administration has questionable grounds to preach on this subject, but Richard A. Boucher, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs was right when, after a lengthy denunciation of the Tamil Tigers, he told a meeting of South Asian leaders (SAARC) in Colombo this August:

 "The violations of human rights, the horrible killings of the terrorist groups -- we [the US] absolutely condemn them and are very clear in our commentary, in our human rights reports, about that.

 "But that does not mean that everyone is allowed to do it. It is very clear, especially for a government that is democratic, for a society that does have a strong democratic tradition, that we all need to live up to our highest ideals, we all need to live up to our founding principles."

 Put America's hypocrisy to one side for a moment and absorb the truth of those words.

What disturbs me about Sri Lanka now - and long time readers of this blog will know the genuine affection in which I hold the country - is that the fabric of society, Tamil and Sinhalese, is being torn apart in the name of achieving a ‘total victory' over the Tamil Tigers.

Even if that were possible - and most neutral observers doubt that it is, notwithstanding recent military gains by Sri Lanka forces in The Wanni - is the military victory worth the wider price currently being paid?

Today my email inbox contains two stories, which illustrate the true price of war in Sri Lanka.

The first, from the Asian Human Rights Commission, is part of a common theme and concerns a man called Nishantha Fernando, 36, who was shot dead by two men on a motorbike on Saturday while driving in his van with his 11-year-old son. Mercifully, they left the boy.

Mr Fernando, a Tamil businessman, had made several complaints of bribery and torture against the local police, several of whom, including a senior officer, he had named in an on-going judicial inquiry. He'd been in hiding for some time and only recently dared venture back into the open.

There are almost too many of these kinds of murders to mention - which is why they receive so little news coverage - and they are now an almost daily demonstration of what Human Rights groups, the UN and most Western governments have described as the ‘culture of impunity' existing in Sri Lanka.

The second is a follow-up to the story I wrote in May this year about Keith Noyahr, a journalist on Sri Lanka's ‘Nation' newspaper who was abducted and savagely beaten after he written articles criticising Sri Lanka's army top brass, including by implication its chief, Sarath Fonseka, of using the army as a ‘private fiefdom'.

In the last few months it seems that that brave newspaper, which had dared on occasion to take a line independent of the Rajapakse government, has now been taken over a ‘kinsman' of the President and a keen-to-please supporter.

Earlier this month one of the last free-thinking journalists at the Nation, D.B.S (David) Jeyaraj felt compelled to resign from his position after an article which contradicted the government's own version of events in the war-torn north was not published.

In a long resignation letter he cited the "shameless sycophancy" of the paper's new controllers towards the Rajapakse Government which in practice amounted to censoring all ‘bad' news - military or political - while giving maximum profile to anything detrimental to the opposition UNP.

These are the actions of a society that is rapidly turning in on itself, led by a government unable to tolerate dissent, even from people whose love of their country (and I know several of those at the Nation and can vouch for their national loyalty personally) could never be doubted.

As Tamils in Colombo line up to register - a policy with a reasonable security justification, but extremely nasty overtones - I wonder what will be left, even if Mr Rajapakse claims his promised victory against the Tigers.

The cost of Sri Lanka's war will be counted in more than just blood and (increasing amounts of Chinese and Iranian) treasure.

Along with truth, the traditional ‘first casualty' of conflict, you can add justice, freedom of speech and any hope of an equitable and peaceful settlement of Sri Lanka's ethnic problem for years to come.

Even if the Tamil Tigers are driven into the sea; even if the elusive Prabhakaran is dragged, Saddam-like from his bunker and exported to India for trial, even then (as the American discovered in Iraq), the victory will not be won.

As I said above, I've always had affection for Sri Lanka, and I don't use that word lightly. I mean a feeling of genuine warmth and goodness, which any tourist who has visited Sri Lanka on holiday, will know is a characteristic of the Sri Lankan people.

This, for me, is why events in Sri Lanka are so sad. What is being done in the name of the Sri Lankan people is not only wrong and wrong-headed, but fundamentally antithetical to my experience of who the Sri Lankan people are.

As a distant bystander, I dearly hope that the chauvinist grand-standing of this Sri Lankan government, doesn't fool the Sri Lankan people into giving up the soul of their country to division and enmity for another generation.

[courtesy: Telegraph.co.uk-click to comment on Peter Foster's blog]

Nanuet man seeks to highlight plight of Sri Lankan minority

NANUET - A Rockland County anesthesiologist is renewing his efforts to get the international community to respond to unrest in his native Sri Lanka that he fears could become genocide against the ethnic minority.

Dr. Winston Panchacharam founded the International Tamil Center to lobby on behalf of Tamil civilians on Sri Lanka. Every year, he travels to India to discuss the situation, and holds talks and cultural programs in the United States.

More than 70,000 people have died in conflict as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in the north and east have for 25 years fought the government for the right to establish a separate state. The government has been accused of committing atrocities in its efforts to quell the insurgency. The militants have been accused of civilian killings.

The Tamils are in the minority in Sri Lanka, a southern Asian island in the Indian Ocean just south of India.

Of the estimated population of 21 million people, about 5 percent are Tamils. They and the ethnic majority Sinhalese used to live peacefully on Sri Lanka - then known as Ceylon - until the country gained independence from the British in 1948.

Shortly afterward, the government made Sinhala the national language and Buddhism the national religion.

Most Tamils are Hindu, and because many Tamils didn't speak Sinhala, they were automatically excluded from employment and education.

The disparity led to ethnic and political tensions, and the formation of rebel groups that engaged in fighting the government. Hundreds of thousands of Tamils fled the island.

A cease-fire was signed in 2002, but clashes broke out in 2006, and the agreement's termination in January of this year has resulted in renewed fighting and deaths. About 250,000 Tamils are thought to be displaced.

Human Rights Watch says the Sri Lankan government in responsible for widespread abductions and disappearances - particularly of Tamils who support the Liberation Tigers - calling the phenomenon "a national crisis," in a March news release.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam also was faulted in killings.

Amnesty International has issued similar reports, telling the U.N. Human Rights Council last year that safeguards "against torture either do not apply or are simply disregarded." The group said that "leads to a situation in which torture becomes a routine practice in the context of counter-terrorism operations."

Panchacharam, who is Tamil, experienced discrimination first-hand. As a doctor, he was refused pay increases, and he said the Sinhala proficiency exam was made much harder for Tamils to pass.

He left Sri Lanka for the United States in 1969.

"There was a lot of pressure, and when I submitted my resignation, the medical superintendent asked me 'aren't you ashamed to go and serve some other country?' so I said, 'I would rather be a second-class citizen in some other country than in my own country,' " Panchacharam recalled. "Now, I come here and I see that I am a first-class citizen, not a second-class citizen. I have lots of privileges here."

It is because of those privileges, he said, that he feels so deeply for the situation of the Tamils who remain at home. His conviction led him to successfully seek a meeting with then-Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1983.

India has a large Tamil population in the the southern state of Tamil Nadu. India tried to mitigate the situation in the 1980s by sending peacekeeping troops to Sri Lanka. Those troops were violently repelled, however, and the Liberation Tigers assassinated Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991.

The Tigers also assassinated Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993. The militant group has also carried out suicide bombings in Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital.

Panchacharam, who is now a resident of Nanuet, said he fears that genocide will occur unless the international community does something.

On Saturday, he will present a slide show, and an expert on the issue will talk about efforts to prosecute high-ranking Sri Lankan officials.

The update will follow a cultural program at his home.

"It's not politics," he said of his group's effort. "We are not talking about politics or a separate state or anything. This is purely a humanitarian issue." [courtesy: lohud.com]


September 21, 2008

Civil Society Field Mission to Vavuniya

A group of representatives from civil society organizations visited Vavuniya on September 11 th -12 th with the aim of assessing the human security situation in Vavuniya, and to collect information on the humanitarian situation in the Vanni and the possible influx of IDPs from LTTE-controlled areas to government-controlled areas. The group included representatives from Centre for Policy Alternatives and Women and Media Collective along with other individuals from other civil society organizations.

[An internally displaced Tamil collects drinking water at Poonthottam refugee camp in Vavuniya September 2, 2008 - Reuters photo via yahoo! News]

This report is in two parts. Section I focuses on the human security situation in Vavuniya. Section II discusses the humanitarian situation in the Vanni based on information received from persons who had recently visited the Vanni, those who had relocated from the Vanni and those who were still able to travel to and from there. The report concludes with a set of recommendations.

[Ethnic Tamils cross the road as an army personnel carrier approaches on the main Vavuniya to Jaffna road, in Vavuniya, about 200 kilometers (125 miles) north east of Colombo, Sri Lanka, Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2008. (AP Photo/ Gemunu Amarasinghe)-via Yahoo! News]

SECTION I: INCREASING INSECURITY AND RESTRICTIONS IN VAVUIYA

Militarization: In the wake of fierce fighting in the Vanni, Vavuniya has become a hub for the security forces. The Vanni Military Headquarters is based in Vavuniya. Hence there is a heavy presence of army, air force and STF, and a steady movement of personnel, vehicles and equipment in the district. The heavy militarization is intended to consolidate control of the area, but it has created additional problems for civilians who face further restrictions on movement and feel increasingly vulnerable due to the presence of military installations in close proximity to civilian areas. On 8 th September LTTE fired artillery shells targeting the Vanni military HQ (Joseph Camp). They simultaneously launched a Black Tiger commando raid and an aerial attack to which the Security Forces responded.

The camp is located in a civilian area.

In the wake of the attack side roads, which lead to the A-9 road that runs along the perimeter of the camp, have been dug up and blockaded. While there were no reported civilian fatalities, the incident has intensified the insecurity of civilians who are caught in the fighting or, who are in close proximity to the fighting. A section of the Vavuniya hospital has been converted into a military infirmary which also raises questions about the militarization of civilian spaces.

Multiple Armed Actors: In addition to the security forces, Vavuniya has become a centre for various armed groups. Multiple armed groups allied to the State are based in Vavuniya and over the recent months have re-established their presence and stepped up their activities. It is alleged that PLOTE, EPDP, TELO, TMVP (Pillayan), TMVP (Karuna) all have centres and cadres operating in Vavuniya. The LTTE is also said to operate in the town and in the villages of Vavuniya. The presence of these armed groups has made civilian life all the more difficult and insecure. Unlike in other areas where one group is the dominant force, Vavuniya has historically been carved up by multiple armed groups who divide the town and the outlying areas between them, extorting tax, carrying out patrols and involving themselves in the administration of daily activities. These groups are also allegedly carrying out various human rights violations.

The activities of these armed groups are contributing to a collapse of law and order within government-controlled areas. Given the state backing of these armed groups, civilians feel that there is little point in making complaints to state institutions such as the police. Villagers who have been subject to search operations and family members of disappeared/ abducted persons alleged that in some instances, the cadres of these armed groups accompany the security forces in their search operations and on occasion even wear military uniform, making it difficult to identify individuals and their associated groups.

Sharp rise in rights violations:

The presence of multiple armed groups carrying out various violations has made Vavuniya one of the most dangerous districts for civilians in Sri Lanka. In the last couple of months, reports of human rights violations including killings, disappearances, white-van abductions, extortions, and kidnapping for ransom have increased. The majority of victims are Tamils. While particular incidents get reported in the media, the overall human security situation in Vavuniya receives little attention. The lack of attention has contributed to consolidating a culture of silence and fear. The lack of independent investigations and convictions of perpetrators, have exacerbated the culture of impunity in the district.

During our two-day visit, several human rights violations were reported to us. One of the incidents was the discovery of the hacked body of a young male in Pattaanichoor, outside of Vavuniya Town on September 12. For August alone, 24 individuals have been reported missing, while 19 persons have been reported, abducted. These are merely the reported incidents. They do not capture the extent of violations in the district.

Abductions and Disappearances:

Abductions are increasingly taking place during the day time and there is widespread apprehension of the phenomenon of white van abductions. We were informed of a recent incident of a Sinhala person being abducted. In another recent incident, a tuition master was abducted en route to Vavuniya town. Apart from the armed groups, there was suspicion that the military and the CID were also abducting people. Given the presence of multiple armed actors, there may be different motives for abductions. Abductions for ransom are also reportedly quite common and the abduction of children for purposes of recruitment was also increasing. We were told that patrolling by UNICEF had reduced the incidence of child abductions in the day time, but that this had resulted in a change of strategy resulting in abductions taking place at night. It is evident, nevertheless, that an international presence does constitute a deterrent.

Disappearances are also on the rise. We met with families of individuals who had disappeared in 2006 and 2007 from the Kalamadu area. They have not received any information about the whereabouts of their family members. We were told that in most instances, although witnesses pass on information to a family member, they were reluctant to come forward and testify to a disappearance because they feared threats from the perpetrators and of suffering a similar fate. Since a number of those who have been disappeared are bread winners, in addition to the trauma suffered on account of disappearances, the loss has a serious impact on the survival of families.

Child and Youth Recruitment Drives:

Child recruitment in Vavuniya has reportedly intensified over the last three months. While most of the attention on this issue over the past year has been on the LTTE’s recruitment in the Wanni and the TMVP in the East, the incidents in Vavuniya have received little attention. Children (ie those under the age of 18) as young as 9 have been abducted and taken away by armed groups. We were told of an incident which occurred two weeks ago where groups of armed men entered the Cheddikulam Veerappan school and threatened to recruit school children. In a few instances parents have been able to negotiate the release of children but fear re-recruitment or arrest. Fear of child recruitment has forced parents to limit children’s movements, withdrawing them from school, stopping them from working in the fields or engaging in livelihood activities such as fishing and so on.

In some cases Tamil youth voluntarily join the armed groups. We were told of some instances where youth who did not have proper identification joined these groups in order to ensure their own security. It some instances it was alleged that NICs were withheld by the military following detention and release, restricting the movement of youth. In others youth with documentation originating in the Vanni were subjected to greater scrutiny and harassment and it was alleged that this has created a situation where youth were crossing over to LTTE controlled areas to avoid further persecution.

Search Operations and Threats to Human Security:

Search operations have also increased the insecurity of local communities. In some instances, army units engaged in search operations are accompanied by a person wearing a hood or mask who will nod indicating whether a person should be taken away. In villages surrounding Vavuniya Town the military has issued each family a photographic identification with all personal details including telephone numbers. In some cases these individuals are also recorded on video. Sometimes during search operations selected individuals are photographed. We were informed that individuals, who are afraid that they will be abducted, reportedly try to flee. Given the security situation in the country, they have limited choices: they have a slim change of securing asylum, or they have to try to flee into the Vanni. Others who migrate to areas including Colombo face further security threats and restrictions. Individuals who were associated with the LTTE during the peace process or are escapees from the LTTE are particularly vulnerable.

Torture:

We were also told of instances of torture. Some of the torture practices used include suspension from the ceiling, dunking in water and removing of finger nails. We were told by one organisation that over the last few months six to seven cases were reported each month. The cases of torture generally involved people between the age of 20-35 and included not just men but also a high number of women. These victims are not only fearful of reporting the cases to the police but are even wary of seeking medical treatment.

Extortion and Robbery:

Extortion is another significant problem. Traders, businesspersons and professionals are the chosen victims (following a strike by doctors and lawyers they have not been receiving any demands lately). The common modus operandi is a telephone call demanding the payment of various sums of money, the higher range starting from Rs.10 million to Rs.100 million to a specified bank account. Those who dare to make a complaint or refuse to pay are liable to be abducted and /or killed or their family members are liable to be abducted or killed. In the case of ransom demands over the phone, it is alleged that most of these calls come from one particular number and that payment of money is to one particular account. People we spoke to, suspect a particular para military group operating in the area, but they also stated that other groups as well as criminal elements may be resorting to extortion in a climate where there are no investigation of or apprehending of perpetrators relating to these incidents.
Due to the fear of receiving a phone call demanding money, many people with any means in Vavuniya have disconnected their phones and only switch them on to make a telephone call.

We were told that incidents of robbery have also increased. Individuals withdrawing large sums of money from their banks have been held up at gun point. It appears that those carrying out extortions and robberies have inside information of financial transactions as and when they occur.

War Related Violence Against Women:

While human rights of all civilians are threatened due to the escalation of war, militarization and collapse of law and order, insecurity of women in Vavuniya has become particularly frightening. According to HRC there have been increasing reports of women being abducted and severely tortured. We were also informed that a number of young women who have come out from the Vanni are either taken into custody or go missing.

A NGO, with field based work in Vavuniya reported that they had documented 14 cases of sexual violence in August 2008. The women were between the ages of 12 and 35 and the atrocities were committed both during the day as well as at night time allegedly by members of para militant groups working with the Security Forces. These women survivors of violence were however unwilling to make complaints to the police for fear of reprisal.

A significant number of women living in the district and in centres for displaced persons are single due the arrest, disappearance, killing or desertion of husbands. They are therefore compelled to earn a living for their family and dependents. This is particularly difficult for women living in centres for the displaced who have limited access to livelihood opportunities since these are taken up mostly by men. Prolonged periods in overly crowded IDP camps also makes these women/girls more vulnerable to sexual abuse. As a consequence young girls are forced to get ‘married’ at an early age and are vulnerable to underage pregnancies. In many instances, boys and men abandon young families burdening young mothers still further.

Women are also especially vulnerable to sexual assault in the process of searching for missing kin. We were also informed of instances where women searching for the disappeared have themselves gone missing in the process. In addition heavy militarization in and around the IDP camps and resettlement villages force women to submit to armed men’s sexual demands and provide sexual favours in order to avoid any harm to their family members. It is alleged that subsequently some of these women become sex workers.

Men who abuse women and who are perpetrators of rape and sexual assault use their connections to paramilitary groups to block family members seeking any remedial action. This has further exacerbated the culture of impunity in the area.

One of the most lucrative businesses in Vavuniya now is the brewing of illicit alcohol. Women blame alcoholism to increasing domestic violence and sexual harassment against women in IDPs camps, NGO workers also identify increased insecurity, militarization and the culture of violence prevalent in the area as factors for the increase in familial violence. We were told that women were afraid to make complaints to the police either of the physical/sexual abuse or the illicit breweries. A woman activist who spoke openly against illicit alcohol brewing was shot dead by a para-military member. Community activists say due to prolonged displacement and the violent culture there has been a complete breakdown of social structures which gave some form of protection to women.

Lack of a proper forum to make complaints:

Victims’ families rarely report crimes to the police due to fear of negative repercussions and reprisals. In May 2007, five boys from Poombuha were picked up by the security forces while they were fishing. Three older men who were witness to the incident were threatened with death and have not come forward to make a complaint to the police. Family members of the disappeared boys have made complaints to the HRC, the ICRC and the Civil Monitoring Mission but have no news of the whereabouts of their children. Groups working with victims also told us that in some cases where the victims were willing to make a complaint, the police would not entertain complaints against the security forces or armed groups operating with state backing. NGOs do provide assistance to some of the victims or family members and but they are wary of undertaking particular forms of assistance like accompanying the affected persons to the police station. These groups also stated that they too have received threats and are therefore wary of taking up some of these cases.

Victims and family members it seems, prefer to make complaints to the Human Rights Commission and the ICRC or to other actors whom they trust. Both the ICRC and the HRC have been able to trace some people arrested and detained by the police, but in many cases, they have not been able to trace missing people. The HRC informed us that the police now send them a list of those detained on a regular basis. However, where a person was missing or abducted by unknown persons or by white vans, information of the person’s whereabouts are unknown and the security forces and police deny any knowledge of the victim. Family members however feel that these disappearances/ abductions occur with the knowledge of or at least due to lack of commitment of the police and the security forces to put a stop to such incidents - since the district has a large complement of armed forces personnel and is strewn with security camps and check points.

There are no proper statistics on disappearances, abductions and killings, and the Human Rights Commission, which receives many complaints, do not make available any public reports. It was very clear that people have little or no faith in the police or legal system and that they want an independent mechanism where they can not only report crimes and follow-up cases, but also where they can find protection for themselves following a complaint.

There is a high level of distrust and not just of the authorities and of armed groups. In a meeting with NGOs a representative responding to a question on threats to NGOs told us that “we don’t know whom we can trust.” Even within organizations people are wary of sharing information. At a community level the security situation and the presence of armed groups has deepened distrust as families fear that members from their own community may have complained about them to the security forces or to an armed group. Even victims of violence are nervous of talking to each other.

We also spoke to some Sinahalese villages living adjacent to the Poontottum camp for the displaced. They too live in insecurity. However, unlike the majority Tamil community, they fear attacks at the hands of the LTTE and the presence of the armed forces and home guards in and around their village adds to their sense of security.

Due Process:

During our visit, representations were also made regarding lack of due process which is undermining /denying justice for both victims of human rights violations as well as those suspected of involvement in terrorist activities.

Lawyers that we met also raised a problem faced by persons taken into remand custody for allegedly possession of hand grenades under the Offensive Weapons Ordinance. It appears that 30 -35 such persons have been in the remand prison in Vavuniya for more than 2 to 3 years without being charged. Applications for bail under this Act is to the Court of Appeal which is based in Colombo. Given the security situation and the costs involved, these remandees are not able to file bail applications in Colombo.

The team was informed of the near break down of the law and order in the area. Many violations are not independently and effectively investigated and large numbers of perpetrators roam free. We were also informed of alleged increased interference and politicization of the investigative and judicial processes which has impeded the successful completion of investigations, further exacerbating the culture of impunity. Some of the state backed armed groups had set up parallel courts to which individuals are being forced to go to as a results of complaints being made by others.

We learnt that the case against a police constable and a soldier in relation to the killing of five students of the Agricultural Farm in Thandikulam in 2006 has been transferred to a court in Anuradhapura, much to the concern of the witnesses and aggrieved parties. According to some lawyers there is an increasing practice, which they claim is not unique to Vavuniya, where of cases involving human rights abuses are transferred to Colombo or to Sinhala majority areas. The argument is that their own safety and security is at stake. However in a climate where the freedom of movement of Tamils is restricted, where the threat of indiscriminate arrest and detention is high, where Tamils cannot easily find accommodation in the south, the affected persons and witnesses then face numerous problems following up on these cases and appearing in court. These cases therefore drag on indefinitely or are dropped, resulting in complete denial/ subversion of justice.

Freedom of Movement

Within Vavuniya:

Restrictions on the freedom of movement emerged as a serious concern during our visit. NGO workers and other civilians – farmers, traders, teachers and professionals all recounted numerous obstacles to free movement in and out of Vavuniya District as well as within the District.

Every village within the district is monitored carefully and travel between areas require notification and permission. Anyone visiting from outside has to be registered immediately and if not, they will be taken into custody. Due to these restrictions Vavuniya people are wary of spending the night with family members and friends. Reportedly, even a spelling mistake in their ID card or in any other identification document can constitute a cause for suspicion or even detention.

Livelihoods have also been affected by the restrictions. Many people in the area are farmers involved in paddy cultivation and their paddy lands are situated inland in jungle areas. In many instances they have to surrender their ID cards to the military when they go to the paddy fields and this makes them more vulnerable to arrest and detention. Some young people who had gone to work in the paddy fields have got arrested and some have gone missing. In other areas, farmers are unable to access their paddy lands at all, which they have cultivated taking loans due to the heavy military presence and escalation of violence. Many of them are now unable to repay their farming debts. They also indicated that a number of Thrift and Credit Co-operative Societies have begun litigation against them in an attempt to recover their loans. 75 cases from the Kalmadu area alone are pending in the courts.

Due to the existence of multiple army check points villagers involved in particular livelihoods such as firewood collecting face challenges in moving around. An army point near their village will grant them approval while another army patrol who comes across them in the brush will accuse them of not having asked for permission. Restrictions on movement after 6 p.m. also prevents parents from looking for children who may be delayed in getting back home, increasing their risk of being abducted or forcibly recruited by militant groups.

In the Sinhala Village of Nedikula we were told that displaced persons from Poonthotam who work in the village as day labourers were not allowed in by the military in the days following the attack on the Vavuniya military headquarters.

Entry into and exit from Vavuniya:

Restrictions on the movement of people and goods in and out of Vavuniya District is also causing severe hardship to ordinary people apart from negatively impacting on the economy in the area. Entry into Vavuniya District is through check points at Thekkawatha, Erattaipariyakulum and Medawachchiya where stringent security checks are carried out.

At Madawachchiya all commuters have to leave their vehicles and transfer to a different vehicle on the other side of the check point whether going from south to north or north to south. Public transport – trains and buses, which usually carry passengers all the way to Vavuniya as well as private vehicles are subject to this procedure. All persons are then required to go through a search and registration process before crossing the check point. All commercial and other goods are subject to a security check where goods have to be unloaded, unpacked, checked, repacked and reloaded resulting in inordinate delays and the perishing and loss of quality of fresh foods. This process can take between one to four hours depending on the traffic and on who and what is being transported. Consequently it is seen as an additional burden and infringement of fundamental rights. While the added expenses are reflected in the relatively higher prices charged for goods transported from the south, traders in Vavuniya complained that they were experiencing loss of business and profit. The Chamber of Commerce, Vavuniya has made a request from the Major General that an SF officer be present at the place where packing of goods takes place in Vavuniya followed by an escort to the checkpoint to avoid the huge delays and loss of quality of food.

The Chamber has also requested an increased security forces personnel at the Medawachchiya train station to facilitate the speedy checking of goods being transported by train. Both these requests have so far not been met.

As part of the security measures recently introduced, the Colombo - Vavuniya train service has not been proceeding beyond Medwachchiya since November 2007 causing further inconvenience and hardship to civilians as well as traders and businessmen in the area. This means that all those intending to proceed to Vavuniya from Medawachchiya train station as well as those wishing to take the train from Vavuniya to Colombo have to take alternative transport between the Medawachchiya train station and Vavuniya, crossing the Medawachchiya check point. Three wheeler drivers and private bus owners have started to exploit this situation to their own advantage and are charging highly inflated rates. We were told that it can cost anything between Rs. 80/- and 200/- to ply the short distance.

Challenges faced by NGOs:

NGOs operating in Vavuniya also face number of problems. We were informed by a collective group of NGO members that materials for shelters such as cement, roofing sheets and aluminum, including aluminum cooking pots have been restricted for the past two months, hampering humanitarian activities including the repair of houses of IDPs in existing camps.

We also heard unconfirmed reports of two aid workers being arrested and detained overnight. Other NGO workers told us that they need to get permission from the military to go to some villages.

NGOs and INGOs felt that they still have very cordial cooperation with the civil administration of Vavuniya but when comes to security clearance and access to certain areas; they are faced with many difficulties. Also when a new regiment is deployed, due to their lack of familiarity with the work undertaken by the NGOs/ INGOs, projects get blocked. For example in Kalmadhu the military has stopped an IDP housing project.

Sense of isolation:

Most people we met welcomed our visit and stressed the importance of a political solution to the ethnic conflict and the importance of change of attitude on the part of the majority Sinhalese community towards the problems faced on a day to day basis by Tamils.

Communication is restricted as CDMA phones have been cut off and mobile phones operate only between 6pm – midnight in Vavuniya. This adds to the sense of isolation and marginalization of the people in Vavuniya.

SECTION II: DETERIORATING SITUATION IN THE VANNI

Withdrawal of international agencies:

The visit took place a few days after the Government letter on 8 th September instructing the United Nations and other international organisations to withdraw from the Vanni area. The instructions were first issued on the NGO Secretariat website and refers to a letter dated 5 th September and numbered SMOD/320/DEM/GEN(45). It is reported that the letter, which came from the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, Public Security, Law and Order, Gotabaya Rajapakse, instructed all UN and non governmental agencies to withdraw and that no NGO staff were permitted to travel beyond the Omanthai check point. The letter also stipulates that NGOs need to remove all their equipment and all staff who are not permanent residents of the Vanni.

None of the agencies that the team met in Vavuniya had actually seen the letter. By the time of the visit, withdrawal from the Vanni had already commenced and many of the expatriate staff had already moved to Vavuniya as per instructions issued by the headquarters of the various agencies. The UN had to temporarily suspend its withdrawal due to protests by civilians in the Vanni. There were news reports that the Government had agreed to the end of September for complete withdrawal and there was the possibility that some agencies, most notably the ICRC, had been able to negotiate with the Government to continue to stay on in the Vanni. On 16 th September it was reported that all the expatriate UN staff had been withdrawn.

Many representatives of the different agencies affected by the relocation order, the team spoke to in Vavuniya, were distressed by the withdrawal but felt that they had no choice as their headquarters had issued them instructions. One humanitarian worker felt that ‘the agencies had let the civilians down.’ Although statements were issued by key international agencies in response to the order, persons we met in Vavuniya and others who had returned from the Vanni felt that the speed with which the UN and other agencies commenced withdrawal raised concerns about their ability to effectively negotiate with the Government.

While agencies referred to their presence being dependent on Government invitation, their response also raised concerns about their ability to honour their primary duty to assist with humanitarian work, especially at a time when it was most needed. The speed with which withdrawal took place further highlighted the limited space for engagement with the Government and the inability of UN and I/NGOs to stand strong on key principles.

The presence of the UN and international humanitarian agencies in the Vanni is critical for a number of reasons. Their primary function to provide humanitarian assistance in the form of basic and supplementary food stuffs, shelter material and other essential items had become all the more important, especially as more people were displaced and increasingly unable to support themselves, and the cost of basic items such as fuel rose sharply impacting civilian life and public services. Being in the Vanni, agencies are better able to ensure that the supplies go directly to the affected persons. In calling the agencies to leave the Vanni there is a big fear that, despite its assurances the Government is planning to use siege tactics and increase the restrictions on food and basic goods.

The presence of internationals also serves as a deterrent, however limited, against human rights violations by both sides. The international presence in the Vanni meant that the agencies were able to monitor the actions of the LTTE on the ground and that civilians were able to report violations to them which they could in turn raise with the LTTE. However, limited this action might have been it provided some system of redress. Their very presence serves as a deterrent as they are effectively witnesses to the actions of both sides on the ground. Furthermore, their presence in a place such as Killinochchi meant that civilians could seek shelter feeling a bit more secure, as neither side wants to be seen as directly targeting a location concentrated with international humanitarian agencies. According to the IASC, since May there are 19, 875 displaced families. People whom we met told us that without agencies being present in the Vanni both sides are freer to use more brutal tactics be it human shields or indiscriminate bombardment.

Although emotions were high in Vavuniya, there are serious concerns that at the Colombo end the response was muted. According to some reports the response of agencies at forums such as the CCHA was not to challenge the orders. The entire episode calls to question whether agencies whose mandate is to serve the humanitarian needs of the people are in fact interested in their primary responsibility or are more determined to ensure compliance so as to secure the right to work in Sri Lanka. Furthermore the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies, has played an extremely inadequate role in actively lobbying the Government for humanitarian protecting space. As the main national civil society representative for humanitarian agencies it has the primary responsibility of advocacy on behalf of and in solidarity with the affected communities of this country.

The security of local personnel working for international agencies:

The staff members from the Vanni whom we spoke to claimed that they had to leave friends and even colleagues behind, and expressed serious concern on the plight and security of all those who are trapped in the Vanni.

Some of the international agencies noted that not all their local staff had left the Vanni with them. Most of the local staff who are not from the Vanni had come out but the situation of those from the Vanni is extremely difficult. The LTTE has reportedly allowed some local staff originating from the Vanni to leave but their immediate family - spouse and children have not been permitted. This has placed the local staff in a horrendous situation where they have to choose between individual safety and staying with their family. In other instances the LTTE has refused to let local personnel out of the Vanni. We were also informed of a case of a local staff member of an INGO who is a non resident of the Vanni and is presently being detained by the LTTE on the grounds that individual has been in the Vanni for over five years and therefore is considered a Vanni resident.

Some of the international agencies we spoke to clearly stated that they had reached agreements with the LTTE that in a situation where they had to evacuate they would withdraw their local staff with their immediate families. Thus, the refusal of the LTTE to respect these promises is a serious breach of faith. In addition to the emotional trauma and the security threats of remaining in the Vanni, there are also concerns that local staff will be threatened and forcibly recruited by the LTTE. Aid personnel have faced this threat of recruitment over the last two years and international actors were able to negotiate their release, to varying degrees of success. With their withdrawal these staff will be vulnerable to recruitment and it seems they will lose their immunity as humanitarian agency personnel.

This issue still needs to be addressed. It has been reported that some of the local personnel who do not move out will be linked up with the District Secretary’s office without them becoming government employees. Yet, agencies have not made clear that these individuals will continue to be staff members even though the agencies will no longer be working in these areas. If they are considered staff members then they may benefit from the protection
that is due to them as humanitarian actors. It is unclear whether either the Government or the LTTE will continue to recognize the protection due to them as humanitarian actor.

Shrinking humanitarian space:

The withdrawal of humanitarian agencies from the Vanni is a significant development in the shrinking of humanitarian space. Yet, it is also one event in a whole series of developments which have made humanitarian work increasingly difficult and dangerous. Humanitarian actors have faced a whole string of restrictions. Those imposed by the Government side include difficulties obtaining work permits and visas, as well as restrictions on the number of vehicles that they can bring into the Vanni and security checking of vehicles going into and out of the Vanni. From the LTTE side, agencies were also subject to security checks and on at least one occasion they seized vehicles belonging to an international agency (Norwegian People’s Aid). The security checks and the seizing of material are serious breaches of the principles of neutrality under which the UN and other agencies operate. The LTTE imposed serious restrictions on the movement of local personnel working for international agencies who are Vanni residents out of the Vanni. Any such individual seeking to leave the Vanni had to leave a guarantor who took the responsibility of ensuring this person’s return. Even more threatening was the recruitment of agency staff by the LTTE. The LTTE’s imposition of a one person per family policy as opposed to abduction of individuals for recruitment made it more difficult for agencies to secure their release, especially when these agency personnel announced that they would be resigning from their jobs.

The intensification of military operations in the North and incidents of violence have seriously impacted operations. The severe restrictions on movement at Omanthai from August 2006 resulted in humanitarian agencies finding it increasingly difficult to move material, equipment basic needs and personnel in and out of the Vanni, which had a serious impact in terms of humanitarian operations. Given that the Vanni is the focus of military ground operations, artillery, aerial and claymore attack, agencies have had to suspend operations in particular areas and severely restrict travel. For example, shelling in July/August 2008 in Ackarayan area had resulted in agencies having to move east from the area and suspending operations in those areas. There was also the incident where a claymore attack on 30 th August 2008 damaged a FORUT vehicle which was traveling on the A9 road in the Vanni. Even the agency offices in Killinochchi are not safe. The personnel from one agency whom we met told us that burning shrapnel had also fallen into the compound recently but their office had not publicly commented on it. The issue of security in the Vanni had thus become more of a serious issue for humanitarian actors. The Government claimed that a key reason for calling on agencies to withdraw from the Vanni was that it was unable to guarantee their security. The attacks described above made this point clear to agencies.

With the rising numbers of attacks there was an agreement between the Government and the UN in February 2008 to create a safe area called the ‘siege box’.The siege box was meant as an area that was safe from artillery fire and shelling and one which was meant as a safe haven for humanitarian actors and civilians. With increased attacks in other parts of the Vanni, more and more IDPs started moving into the area. Due to the indiscriminate bombings, there were also five attacks reported between November 2007 and February 2008 which hit the siege zone. We were informed that at a meeting on 27 th August, Major General Jagath Jayasuriya, Vanni Commander had agreed to respect the siege zone. A week after the assurance, the siege zone was attacked. Though at different meetings numerous assurances were given to respect the siege zone and humanitarian space, the space was increasingly becoming threatened.

In times of conflict humanitarian actors and their space is protected by international humanitarian law, namely the Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocols. Both the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE are covered by international humanitarian law and need to abide by them. The Government which ratified the Geneva Conventions in 1959, enacted corresponding national legislation in the form of the Geneva Conventions Act 2006. A criticism of the Act is that it has left out Common Article 3, a mini convention in itself which governs internal conflicts. Regardless, it is now commonly accepted that Common Article 3 has become customary international law and thereby applies to all actors irrespective of ratification and whether incorporated into national legislation. In addition, other international and national instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and corresponding national legislation such as the ICCPR Act 2007 Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement and the Fundamental Rights Chapter in the Constitution of Sri Lanka guarantee the rights of civilians and IDPs and protect their rights including equal treatment and freedom of movement. Though there is an international and national framework in place, recent incidents raise concerns whether the Government and the LTTE would respect and abide by their obligations.

Situation in the Vanni

The team was able to meet with some of the agencies working in the Vanni, other individuals who had recently visited the area, and those who had come out of the Vanni the day we were in Vavuniya. The overall impression was that there is a grave humanitarian situation and that even though many of the displaced and the population at large, at least in the more populated areas, were receiving basic food stuffs, there were fears that the situation over the next months would become very serious, with more displacement, possible shortages of essential foods and attacks on IDPs and other affected persons.

The civilian population in the Vanni is effectively trapped. Over the last year at least, the LTTE has placed severe restrictions on civilian movement. Civilians wishing to leave the Vanni had to leave a guarantor who would have to take the responsibility of ensuring the return of that individual. With the on-going military operations civilians have not been allowed to move out of the Vanni and only a small number have been able to escape, mainly by sea with some cases of reported arrivals from Trincomalee or to Mannar. Persons who had been in the Vanni spoke of the helplessness of these civilians who have no way out. In recent weeks the LTTE has increased restrictions of IDP movement and apparently was not allowing movement from Killinochchi northwards. The overall restrictions on civilian movement are a grave violation of international humanitarian law by the LTTE. There are serious concerns that the LTTE is using the civilians as a human shield.

At present the Inter Agency Standing Committee (IASC) has stated that there are over 160,000 IDPs in the Killinochchi and Mullativu Districts. Many IDPs have been displaced multiple times in the recent past. As the fighting moves northwards civilians have been forced to keep moving. As the military forces advance from the West and South the civilians are forced into a smaller territory. While the security forces insist that they are strategically targeting LTTE positions, civilians have been victims of the military operations. While civilian casualties to-date are not many, we were told that people fear heavy civilian losses as the military advances and if there is a push to claim Killinochchi and the other key points in the Vanni. The fear is that the security forces will intensify their use of artillery and aerial power which will result in a number of civilians being killed. There was also added concern that the shelling will be used to induce civilians out of the Vanni, but it is unclear whether the LTTE will allow the civilians out.

In such a context the issue of civilian protection is critical. One proposal we were told of was the creation of a humanitarian corridor whereby civilians would be allowed to leave the Vanni. The other was for the creation of a safe zone. While the ‘siege box’ in Killinochchi did not work, there were discussions about alternate sites at which the LTTE would have to provide assurances that it would not place its military cadres and weapons and the security forces likewise, in respect of attacks.

We were told that there were particular set of IDPs including approximately 30,000 IDPs from Manthai West and Madhu area who had been displaced as many as ten times over the last year. With each displacement their situation becomes more serious as they are forced to use their limited savings and sell their possessions like jewelry in order to pay for transport to move from one area of displacement to another. We were also informed that due to shelling, several shops in the Vanni were damaged and have closed down. As a result civilians and IDPs who could afford to purchase items were limited in their options.

Until the UN /INGOs were ordered to relocate to Vavuniya, these agencies were attempting to address the humanitarian needs of the IDPs as well as the local population. Food and shelter were already a major problem. Proper shelters could not be built as people were forced to be constantly on the move. Even prior to the UN/INGO relocation WFP food supplies for IDPs were only adequate for 2 weeks of every month as only 20 lorries of supplies including non food items (NFIs) were given MOD clearance to cross to the Vanni. Prior to the relocation of international agencies, a staple diet consisted of rice and dhal.

Other items such as fish, spices were seen as luxury items and many IDPs had no access to them. Actors who were recently in the Vanni informed the team that while IDPs had found shelter in public buildings, with host families and in welfare camps, there were some IDPs who did not have adequate shelter. There were some people living under trees. The team was informed that IDPs have a saying which is “the sky is our roof and the saree our wall.” Shelter material such as aluminum sheeting is not allowed by the Government into the Vanni.

PART III: CONTIGNECY PLANS FOR A HUMANITARIAN CRISIS?

In case of civilians trapped in Vanni

While the Government appears to be preparing for a mass exodus out of the Vanni it is unclear if this will take place in the near future. A major obstacle is the LTTE. It is refusing to allow the civilians to flee and to leave itself exposed to the security forces. This is a esrious violation of international humanitarian law. A second set of issues relate to the fears on the part of the Vanni residents of how they will be treated by the Government once they move out of LTTE controlled territory. Even though the Government insists that all Vanni residents are welcome, people fear that they will face serious consequences as most families have someone in the LTTE. Hence, they fear that they will walk out of the Vanni straight into detention centres and worse that they could be disappeared. Many of the civilians especially the youth have received military training or have family members in the LTTE so could be accused of being LTTE. The experience of IDPs who have already fled the Vanni, who are currently in quasi detention centres such as Kalimoddai and Sirikundel seems to confirm this suspicion. The Government insists these are welfare camps even though there are serious restrictions on movement and only a fraction of the more than 700 people sent to these centres have been able to move out and seek shelter with host families.

The GOSL contingency plan only addresses a possible influx of IDPs from the Vanni south to Vavuniya. There is so far no humanitarian plan for civilians displaced within the Vanni who are either trapped or who to choose to remain there. With the relocation of UN Agencies and INGOs there is now serious gap in terms of humanitarian assistance for the civilian population in the Vanni. Even while the UN is making a distinction between relocation and evacuation, the GOSL has so far not guaranteed a safe passage back or access to the Vanni for humanitarian purposes as of 14 th September 2008.

Instead, the discussions have focused on the Government sending supplies through the Government Agents. WFP is currently planning to transport food supplies from stores in Trincomalee and Colombo to Vavuniya in the expectation that food supplies to the Vanni can be maintained with GA and security force authorisation through the Northern Lorries Association. But there has been no decision on this matter yet. When we spoke to relevant persons in Vavuniya they indicated that there might be a possibility of one or two of the UN actors being allowed to bring convoys into the Vanni but there was no discussion of these teams staying there. While this latter proposal is positive when compared to the alternative, there are serious concerns as to monitoring of the distribution, the capacity of the government GA based networks in the Vanni to distribute to distribute food and other essential goods. According to the Kilinochchi GA only 25% of government servants are currently present in the district. 2 However, it remains a grave concern whether all essential goods including medicines can be delivered, given the long process for movement and the time taken to check vehicles at the Omanthai checkpoint.

It is also clear that steps need to be taken to ensure the protection of convoys, including both sides agreeing to humanitarian corridors in order to ensure that the convoys can move during brief ceasefire periods on agreed transport lines. As seen with the East, there was a high dependency on I/NGOs to provide for the affected and IDPs. Unless the Government takes appropriate steps we were told that the civilians could face the prospect of starvation. The possibility of food being used as a weapon of war was raised in a number of the conversations.

In Case of a Mass Exodus to Vavuniya:

As the military offensive against the LTTE in the Vanni continues, the GOSL is anticipating that approximately 150,000 to 200,000 persons from the Vanni will become internally displaced persons. In order to address this humanitarian crisis, the GOSL has been in the process of drawing up a contingency plan for the past several months. At a structural level, a district level CCHA was set up in Vavuniya, chaired by the Acting GA for Vavuniya and present GA in Mannar, Mr. Nicholas Pillai which should result in more de-centralized and on the ground decision-making. The district level CCHA comprises the military, UN and I/NGOs.

The team was informed of several plans that were being discussed in the event of an influx of IDPs from the Vanni. Measures are being put in place to receive civilians crossing the Omanthai checkpoint at Omanthai Maha Vidyalaya. All civilians will be screened, registered and issued ID cards by the security forces and the police, similar to what was seen in the East in 2007. The ICRC and UN will be allowed to monitor this process. Those suspected to be LTTE, will be taken into custody. There is however a significant difference from the East in that there appears to be a clear focus in ensuring that there will be severe restrictions on civilians fleeing the Vanni. The IDPs who are screened and not believed to be LTTE will be sent to a transit camp for 5 days reportedly before being sent to a permanent welfare centre in Vavuniya. 6 transit camps have been so far identified. The three permanent ‘welfare centres’ are to be located in Manik Farm, Karuvalpuliyankulam, and Kalwadinakulam where the land is currently being cleared and prepared.

It is striking that no families are supposed to seek shelter with host families. It should be noted that in the East a large number of IDPs stayed with host families which made it easier for the Government and humanitarian community to cope with the crisis. Instead, in Vavuniya IDPs who want to live with friends and relatives or leave the country will not be given the choice to do so, but it will be mandatory for IDPs to be housed in the camps being set up by the government and their freedom of movement will be closely monitored. The restrictions in Kallimoddai and Sirukondal are examples where movement has been restricted.

There is also concern of the ability to provide adequate shelter to IDPs fleeing the Vanni. The 6 transit camps so far identified can only accommodate approximately 300 persons each. i.e. 1800 persons in total. The GOSL assumption is that the flow of IDPs will be gradual. In case of a large influx of IDPs all at once there will be a serious shortage of transit shelter for these people. The camp sites themselves are in question as there are serious concerns with the proximity of the camps to army camps and the presence of mines. It needs to be noted that the Government and humanitarian agencies had prepared contingency plans last year but the Government has doubts and is proposing alternate sites which are more problematic. While the Government is speaking about its disaster preparedness, like in the East it is essentially relying on INGOs and NGOs in providing most of the basic needs from rations
to shelter to water and sanitation.

In addition, if there is a large influx of IDPs, there are serious concerns on other services such as providing food, water, sanitation and health care. For example, 3000 additional tons of food will be required to feed the estimated influx of IDPs into Vavuniya. Current stocks in Vavuniya are not adequate for this purpose. The WFP has requested that security restrictions be eased to facilitate the transport of food supplies to Vavuniya in the coming weeks from stores in Colombo and Trincomalee. Medical supplies for three months are available in Vavuniya to cater to the needs of the local population and a further buffer stock of three months has been requested for the need of a future influx of IDPs. A list of out of supply drugs has also been forwarded to WHO. The Vavuniya hospital is however severely understaffed to deal with the needs of the Vavuniya population and an influx of IDPs is likely to put medical care under severe stress. At present 50% of the nursing cadre is vacant. Only 46 doctors are on duty despite the need for more than 100 doctors. There is only one Maternal Health Officer for the whole of the Northern province. Ward facilities will also come under stress with an increase in the IDP population, but it is expected that UNHCR will assist in construction of semi permanent wards.

Committees comprising GOSL, UN, INGO, NGO and SF personnel have been set up to take care of the welfare of IDPs in relation to protection issues, food, education, shelter, health and nutrition, water and sanitation, non food items, camp management and logistics. There are however several problems with the GOSL contingency plan. There is an assumption that all civilians crossing into cleared areas will come through Omanthai and there are no plans publicly for setting up camps in the Trincomalee and Mannar districts.

The screening and registration of civilians also raises concerns of security and human rights protection. As seen with the East, screening resulted in civilians being identified as LTTE recruits and supporters and being detained for long periods without adequate recourse to the law. There are concerns that civilians who were forcibly trained by the LTTE or who have family members in the LTTE may be targeted by the security forces. Registration of civilians
also needs to be done in a manner in which information is not used to subsequently target those individuals. While the ICRC and UN maybe able to monitor this process, there must be security guarantees for the civilians and a transparent process established.

[An internally displaced Tamil rests at Poonthottam refugee camp after several days' walk to reach a government-controlled area in Vavuniya September 2, 2008, after fleeing from a Tamil Tigers-held area during heavy fighting between government troops and rebels-Reuters Photo via Yahoo! News]

Recommendations:

Human Rights Situation in Vavuniya

• The Government needs to strengthen law and order in Vavuniya and ensure that the rule of law prevails

• Measures should be established to ensure a civilian presence in the form of senior citizens during search operations so as to reduce fears among civilians

• The Human Rights Committee in the District Secretary’s office which includes the District Secretary, the military commander, the Human Rights Commision,needs to be activated to take up these issues.

• A mechanism has to be created to ensure the protection of children who had been recruited and then released and those who were vulnerable to recruitment or arrest following de-recruitment.

• International agencies to increase their presence in Vavuniya and ensure more effective monitoring of the human rights situation.

• Various delegations from the South, including business leaders, religious leaders, professionals and artists, should visit Vavuniya in order to break the isolation

• International missions should increase the number of visits to Vavuniya

Freedom of movement in Vavuniya

• Ease entry/exit restrictions including movement of vehicles

• Streamline security checking of trucks transporting goods. There should be a security force presence during the packing of vehicles. They should then be sealed until unloaded to avoid delays and the hassle of repeated checking and unpacking.

More personnel at packing and unloading points including at the Medawachchiya train station could ease delays.

• Recommence Vavuniya-Colombo train to ease travel to and from Vavuniya

• Reduce restrictions which make it more difficult for civilians to carry on livelihood activities such as farming, firewood collection.

For contingency plan in case of influx from Vanni

• The Government needs to provide security guarantees for civilians coming out of the Vanni

• If any individual is suspected of being a LTTE member and needs to be detained, the authorities should ensure that it is done in keeping with the Presidential Directives, including the provision of a receipt to the next of kin.

• The ICRC and the Human Rights Commission should be present to monitor the screening process

• Civilians should be allowed to choose where they wish to stay, including with host families and not put in special welfare centres such as Kalimoddai and Sirikundel, which operate like detention centres.

• Ensure that concrete steps are taken to prepare and implement contingency plans capable of dealing with large numbers (100,000+) plus. Measures include looking at alternate sites, make provisions for IDPs to stay with host families to reduce numbers to be located in camps, streamline security checks and ensure that supplies needed for IDPs including shelter material can be brought into the Vanni.

• Ensure the security of IDPs including the location of camps (away from military targets), safety of the sites (de-mined), security of the camps (humanitarian agencies and the Human Rights Commission having an active protection role)

Dealing with IDPs and other affected communities in the Vanni

• Both sides need to ensure that they do not target civilians and engage in operations that put civilians at risk.

• The LTTE must ensure the free movement of civilians from the Vanni

• The Government and the LTTE must agree on a humanitarian corridor to allow civilians out of the Vanni

• A special area within the Vanni needs to be accepted and established as a no-violence zone for the protection of civilians by the Government and the LTTE.

• A humanitarian corridor needs to be negotiated whereby trucks can transport of goods and supplies into the Vanni during agreed times without being attacked

• The Government needs to ensure that adequate supplies of essential goods including medicine and shelter material needs to be brought in as stocks limited to a few weeks.

• The Government should allow the United Nations and international agencies the right to work and stay in the Vanni. At the very least the ICRC agencies should be allowed to access the Vanni, transport goods and monitor their distribution.

• The LTTE must allow local staff originating from the Vanni working with humanitarian agencies or their families to move out of the Vanni. Humanitarian agencies and diplomats need to engage in advocacy to ensure the safety of all humanitarian actors whether they be they expatriate or local.

Click here to Print PDF format of this report: Field Mission to Vavuniya


September 20, 2008

Cut it off and kill it

By Dayan Jayatilleke

A patriot would feel a thrilled quickening of the heart at the news that a spearhead of the Sri Lankan armed forces is nearing Kilinochchi. A traitor would not. A realist would know that there’s a long way to go before the war is won and many a pitfall to avoid. A fool would not.

I am in no position to venture an opinion as to whether our Wanni offensive has reached a point of irreversibility, and we have checkmated the LTTE.  I do know however, that there are several things we have to watch out for.

 

The IPKF once dominated all the areas we are seeking to recapture from Tiger control, but that did not prevent the LTTE from prevailing. The difference between the Sri Lankan armed forces and the IPKF is, however, obvious. The IPKF was under the constraints sourced in the influence of Tamil Nadu. The Sri Lankan security forces operate under no such constraints.  Even more basically, the IPKF had India to go back to, but the Sri Lankan forces have no country to retreat to.

 

The war is not won by the Sri Lankan state nor lost by the Tigers so long as Prabhakaran remains alive, just as the war in Afghanistan was not won so long as Osama Bin Laden, Ayman Al Zawahiri and Mullah Omar stayed alive. Instead of finishing the job in the Tora Bora Mountains , the US-led allies diverted their attention needlessly and heedlessly, to Iraq . 

 

We must be wary of the efforts by the LTTE to mislead, delay and divert. The Tigers will use any intermediary—both sincere and insincere—adopt any guise and any combination of carrots and sticks, to confuse us so they can escape and live to fight another day.

 

In 1995, when Operation Riviresa was nearing completion and Jaffna was about to be liberated, an approach was made using an eminent religious intermediary to permit the people to evacuate. This was agreed upon without due heed to the possibility that the LTTE would exfiltrate together with the people. This cunning exodus of the LTTE to the Wanni in the wake of Riviresa was followed the very next year by the overrunning of the Mullaitivu camp.

 

This had its more dramatic antecedents, though. In 1987 Prabhakaran’s escape from Operation Liberation was facilitated by Indian intervention, itself catalysed by pressure from Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MG Ramachandran. One year later, IPKF jawans were dying at LTTE hands, and a few years later Shri Rajiv Gandhi was blown to bits on Tamil Nadu soil by an LTTE suicide bomber. In his effort to retrieve Sri Lankan sovereignty from the IPKF presence, President Premadasa also contributed to saving Prabhakaran from the IPKF, and paid the supreme price at Prabhakaran’s hands on May1st 1993.

 

Therefore, what should be Sri Lanka ’s attitude and policy towards the Tiger army now trapped in its own lair except for the occasional foray? It should be that of Gen. Colin Powell, the topmost US military officer during Gulf War One –Desert Storm—which was under the operational command of Gen Schwarzkopf. When asked about his strategy for fighting and defeating the Iraqi armed forces, Powell replied: “First we cut it off; then we kill it.” That, rather than territorial acquisition, must be the primary goal of strategy.

 

This is not to say that the liberation of territory is insignificant. Here two distinctions must be drawn. The first is between primary and secondary. The primary goal of strategy must be “the annihilation of the living forces of the enemy”, which is North Vietnam’s General Vo Nguyen Giap, anticipating and practising decades before against the French and US forces, what US commander Colin Powell was to articulate more crisply decades later during the Gulf war: cut it off and kill it.

 

The second distinction that we must observe is between war and politics. In politics, unlike in war, the territorial consideration is of primary significance.  The reunification of the national territorial space by the Sri Lankan security forces under the political leadership of President Mahinda Rajapakse (assisted by Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse), building on but going far beyond the contributions of his two elected predecessors, is an achievement of historic proportions. That assertion is not a jingoistic hurrah but a simple, literal application of the late Edward Said’s interpretative recapitulation of Antonio Gramsci, (among other things) the finest political scientist of the last century: 

 

On the other hand, far more than Lukacs he was political in the practical sense, conceiving of politics as a contest over territory, both actual and historical, to be won, fought over, controlled, held, lost, gained.” (Edward Said, `History, Literature and Geography`, in Reflections on Exile).

 

This may come as something of a surprise to the Sri Lankan intelligentsia, a noisier one of whose number recently opined that an obscure Trotskyite trade unionist named Ted Grant, not a single of whose writings are taught in the Political Science courses of any university of my acquaintance on four continents, was a vastly better political thinker than Carl Schmitt, who is present in any serious scholarly debate on political theory.  Schmitt’s seminal work was pre-Nazi takeover, during the Weimar Republic, and decades later in the 1960s, while his Nazi affiliation is as relevant to his status as a political thinker as Martin Heidegger’s was to his status as a philosopher.  Carl Schmitt major contribution to the field of political theory was nothing less than to define the essence of “the political”.

 

I digress, but not too far. The liberal intelligentsia is continuing to foster, even at this late hour, a dangerous myth, namely that the Sri Lankan state has been pushed to devolve power due entirely or primarily to the military campaign of the Tigers and that with the weakening of that factor, the poor Tamils will be left naked to their enemies.

 

This not only fails to correspond to the facts, but what is worse, the facts line up to contradict that assertion.  The military campaign of the Tigers and other Eelam guerrilla groups in the early 1980s did not push the Sri Lankan state into devolving power, as plainly evidenced by the APC of 1984 and the GOSL stand at Thimpu in 1985.  In the 1990s, the Tigers conventional or quasi-conventional military capacity did not squeeze any reform from the Sri Lankan state, be it under Premadasa or Chandrika. They merely pushed back the latter’s proposed reforms by generating a Southern backlash. The LTTE’s proto-state, which a Colombo political science academic recommended be accorded parity of status, did not scare any radical or structural reform out of the state.

 

The allied notions of Tamils enjoying self –respect because of the LTTE, and the fear of the Tigers preventing a repeat of July ’83, belong in the same trash-can of nonsensical argumentation. Be it devolution or deterrence, there was and is one factor at play, and that is most certainly not Prabhakaran or the LTTE. The repeated renewal of the war by the Tigers has left the Tamil people in unprecedented disarray and decline, with their self-respect dented by the kind of security measures that any country imposes against suicide bombers drawn from one identifiable community. As for deterrence, the citizenry have taken everything the Tigers can throw at them by way of terrorism and are prepared to take more, until victory.

 

What the Colombo columns and Diaspora-driven drivel fails to recognise is the massive fact that is responsible for all the positives attributed to the LTTE: India . The Sri Lankan state was well on its way to dealing with the Tigers military capacity during Operation Liberation in 1987, when it was rudely interrupted by its neighbour. Devolution was the result. When the Sri Lankan parliament endorsed the 13th amendment and actually held Provincial Council elections, the military power of the Tigers which so enthrals the Tamil (and Sinhala pacifist) intelligentsia was being suppressed by the IPKF-- so the LTTE was not the propellant or source of those reforms. It’s not Kilinochchi; it’s Delhi , stupid.

 

This too has to be understood dialectically. The fact of that devolution was the result of Indian pressure while the limits of that devolution (provincial autonomy within a unitary state) were the result of Sri Lankan counter-pressure. Therefore Tamil pressure on India and Indian pressure on Sri Lanka cannot yield reforms beyond a certain point, and that point is the limit imposed by public opinion. Unrealistic commentators argue that the followers of the two major parties accept that which is laid down by the party leaders -- but this view is a snapshot of the conduct of the parties’ loyalist base, not in any way a reading of public i.e. broad national opinion. This is why leaders such as President Chandrika, who brought forward advanced ideas of state reform, did not and could not implement those ideas. That is also why the majority voted against a bipartisan elite consensus in favour of federalism and in favour a frankly unitary platform at the Presidential elections of 2005.

 

Liberal opinion on Sri Lanka, be it Sinhala, Tamil or Muslim, local or foreign, has to ask itself whether we need yet another enlightened proposal for reform which remains on the drawing board, or a realistic proposal which is supported by public opinion polls and has a chance of making it past the Parliament, the courts and a referendum if needs be. What is most prudent in the short term is an APRC proposal that does not require that risky third step of a referendum – given the axiomatic character of the absence of bipartisan consensus in Sri Lanka .

 

If the Indian factor has its limits, what then is the internal lever in post-war Sri Lanka , which can deliver realisable reform in the field of interethnic relations? Is there one? Contrary to the “culture of complaint” (again Edward Said, citing Robert Hughes) of Colombo ’s cosmopolitans, there is indeed. The electoral marketplace, the value and weight of minority votes in a system of proportional representation and elections at four tiers of the polity, from municipal to presidential. In a word, democracy.

 

(These are the personal views of the writer)   

September 18, 2008

These are the best years of our forces - Gota

Q: You will soon complete your third year as Secretary of Defence. What is your assessment of these past years and the role you played there?

Within these three years we’ve achieved a lot. I wouldn’t call these my achievements but it was those of the security forces. I think personally that the people elected the President primarily to solve this problem, and not for anything else. The people despite their silence were unhappy about the trend in the country and wanted the kind of change President Rajapaksa could bring. You can see this clearly in the voting pattern. 

When we took over there areas referred to as LTTE controlled areas; they were not accepted by any country, leave alone Sri Lanka. This is one country and for one part to be called LTTE’s is certainly not acceptable. We have been able to bring a lot of these areas under our control and the real victory here is the Eastern province. We’ve had elections there and established a democratically elected provincial government and started a development process. This is a major achievement. The weakening of the LTTE and their sea Tiger capabilities,  were areas not tackled for a long time. Maybe smuggling by the LTTE still continues, but in the last year alone we destroyed 10 of their ships and as of today we have  complete domination in the sea around Sri Lanka. The Navy has changed its tactics and we’ve been very successful against the LTTE.

And anyone can see our achievements on the ground. And also our success in the air whereby we’ve been able to completely destroy much of their assets and destroy many of their key leaders and we have captured their sea Tiger bases and training camps on a daily basis now. The main thing is that we’ve been able to be accurate in our targets, with no damage to civilians, even though some have tried to paint a different picture. Even the LTTE has not been able to show any civilian casualties because of this.  Infact on Wednesday we took a target in Kilinochchi located inbetween a UN organization. Even the UN had commended our ability to target it precisely. Our success has been because of our ability to assess the situation at the beginning very accurately. We did a complete military assessment before we started on the offensives; none of this is done ad-hoc. This was because we wanted to make sure that nothing would weaken the Jaffna peninsula after we had control like we did in the East after it was cleared. We knew we needed extra troops once we came to the Wanni, which is why we planned it in a way that we had the troops. We started a recruitment programme to bring in more cadres but looked essentially at troop welfare because this was an aspect overlooked before.

Q: How would you differentiate between the role of Secretary of Defence in a war torn country as opposed to that of the President as the Commander in Chief?

In our Constitution itself, the Secretary of the Ministry is the chief accounting officer and the one responsible for implementing the policies of the government. My responsibility is exactly that. This is all I’ve been doing for the last two years. Of course it is also my responsibility to help the Defence Minister to formulate the policy with the assistance of the three service commanders, which I did. The first thing we did when I was appointed was to assess the entire security situation in the country and on that basis formulate the policy. My responsibility was the execution of that policy.

Q: Looking back at the last 25 years of the war, which operations brought the biggest dividends for the Sri Lankan government and which would you rate the biggest debacles?

Looking at the successes I’d rate the present period as the best we have ever had. Of course in the past too we have had some successful periods while other proved not so. Liberating the Jaffna peninsula has been the foremost to me, because it is the most strategic to the Northern province, with Trinco, Kilinochchi and Mulaitivu following after. Taking control of Jaffna has been a great success for us. I suppose losing Elephant Pass was strategically one of the biggest debacles, then Wanni, Mulaitivu and Pooneryn would be seen as serious debacles. Of course there are the ones where we unnecessarily gave in like the Eastern province, the surrendering of the policemen. These are incidents we could’ve prevented easily, but happened simply because we had no proper vision.

Q: Government assesses that it will bring the entire Northern Province under its control soon. There is a fear among Tamils that a military victory could prove fatal to any devolution of power.  Do you believe in a political solution to the conflict?

What form of devolution is looked at or the very question of a political solution doesn’t fall within my purview. That is for the politicians. But it’s not correct to say the Tamils are in fear because the President has shown through the Eastern province, when many countries in fact advised him against it, that he is sincerely committed to a political solution. Similarly we will have the same program for the North. People don’t appreciate what happened in the East; they have underestimated it. Because, unlike in many similar instances all over the world, the President didn’t put his stooges for the East. Karuna is not a creation of President Rajapaksa. He didn’t select Karuna and made him a political stooge and plant him in the East. They are part of the LTTE and long before President Rajapaksa was elected they broke away from the LTTE due to their own reasons and all the President did was to help Karuna reorganize. He had to give power to someone and he thought they were the best for the job. He only helped them; it was the people who elected them. Karuna is from the area and a leader of the LTTE for the East. The President merely worked with them at this election to get them in to the democratic process. There is a difference in the TMVP. They came on their own and was not created by the government. It was a major success for the government but it was not based on any ethnic basis, because the worst thing is to divide and contest on a community or religious base. It’s very impressive to play with these words like the federal system. But what is most important is what the people in the areas want. Giving different powers to the areas will not solve the problem.  The basic problems of the people are far more grave than this. These political solutions are not the solutions for the people; they are for the interested politicians. This is especially so in this part of the world. The US is demarcated in to different states because it’s a huge country. But when you divide regions based on community or religious grounds is never the solution.

Q: Over 80, 000 Muslims were expelled from North by the LTTE in 1990 and now this displaced population- mainly settled in Puttalam district- has risen to 150,000 creating a major demographic distortion in the district. What plans are underway to resettle these displaced Muslims in their original lands?

Resettlement is not my area. I believe people should be able to live any where they want. I feel however there are these organized settlements which we have to be careful about. There are so many people coming from the North and East and settling down in the Western province. If its voluntary that’s fine. But I’m not so sure it is not an organised move. Its important to check if the LTTE is organizing it. They have no means of income but they are paying huge sums and settling down. Where is the money coming from? The strange thing is that when the govt. does it it, becomes govt. sponsored settlement but when an NGO does it, it become right. That is also wrong. This has the potential to change the demography. 

Q: Right now bitter battles fought in Wanni area by the Army and the LTTE and the INGOs seem to be in a dilemma over the order to leave the area. What welfare measures are in place for the civilians now trapped in Wanni?

Again NGOs are not my subject except those in operational areas. Most these NGOs are there for various development projects; but given the ground situation there is no possibility of continuing this work. So they need to come out of there. Next more importantly is the security threat. This is very relevant when you look at what happened in Muttur. The parents of those killed blamed the NGOs decision to keep them there despite the situation. We don’t want to get in to the same situation. Certainly when they can do their work again they can go back. The responsibility of the UN primarily becomes that of the host government. We’ve asked them to come out of Killinochchi and relocate in Vavuniya. This is not withdrawing but relocation. The problem is that these foreign analysts don’t know the geography of the country. They think its like Africa and this is some 1000 km move. And don’t forget that even foods and medicines given by UN is still distributed by GAs. Medicines go through govt. hospitals. This system can happen equally effectively from Vavuniya. Then they say they can’t monitor if it goes to the right people. What is the monitoring that happens with the miniscule staff already? Still if they want they can go with the convoys and monitor the distribution. Don’t forget; with no UN system in place, food distribution happened quite effectively in Vakare or Thoppigala by the AGAs.

Q: India earlier this week expressed concerns about the civilians in the Wanni and has continued to maintain that a military solution would not suffice.

This is the problem; anybody will express concern without understanding this whole process. When you say NGOs and a humanitarian crisis you must analyse and say how many of the NGOs were involved in humanitarian work. We have asked them to say what humanitarian work they were doing so we can fill that gap. All we need to do is to arrange the system so that these GAs can come to Vavuniya and collect these goods. The main problem is that people outside don’t know the ground situation here. The fact remains that we can’t change the military plan to suit the UN or NGOs. Military plan must go on. It is then our responsibility to look after civilians, which is why we’ve asked them to come out.

Q: Despite having F-7 interceptors and latest technology, the air force has failed to throw a real challenge to LTTE air power. There are negative reports on the aptitude of the radar system. What really went wrong for the LTTE to outsmart Air Force on seven occasions?

During the last few years especially the LTTE was targeting the Air Force primarily. Why? Because that was proving the biggest threat to them. Why was the Army Commander or the SLAF camps and assets? Because although they have these planes we have complete air superiority. This was a major problem for them. There is no challenge for the SLAF really. I wouldn’t say anything went wrong with our air defence systems. The first time this threat was posed we got a lot of assistance from many countries on how to face this situation. Their assessment was that this was a difficult task because there is no counter for such unsophisticated planes. The air defence systems available now are for more sophisticated ones and not this type of low flying planes. These planes are not even used in conventional warfare because they can’t do much to change the military balance. All it can do is to create a fear psychosis in the people. It can’t do any big damage. There’s no use in going for a highly sophisticated interceptor because it can’t do anything; all we can do is to go at a very crude level solution; which is what we have done. Given this taking that air craft down the last time was a big success. Compare its failure to do any damage the 7 times it came with how effective our 6oo odd sorties carried out in this year alone.

Q: The reported use of CS gas by the LTTE causes serious concerns. Have intelligence reports indicated the possibility of LTTE using stronger chemicals?

No. We are prepared for any situation. It’s not a major threat according to our reports. We are preparing ourselves for any contingency.

Q: The intensity of the international community campaign on human rights seems to be tapering off. What factors contributed to this shift in the approach of the international community towards the government?

Because they now realize that this was because of the bad publicity spread by the LTTE. Of course the govt. was weak in this area. This is the responsibility of the Foreign Ministry, with support from Sri Lankan living abroad irrespective of ethnic divisions. Even the Tamil diaspora is misinformed. When you speak of the international community the main thing is to identify who is most important to us. India is the most crucial for us. Any govt. must give priority to India. India is 100% with us and we understand their concerns and will not do anything that will affect their security. We have the best relationship with India. India also understand why we have to have the relationship with Pakistan and China. Then comes the South Asian region and then the US, UK and the EU. But these countries are all prosecuting terrorists and putting an end to fund raising. This is because our human rights record is excellent. Our forces are not a terror group. You never heard of our troops going and indiscriminately firing at entire villages because there is a good education program on distinguishing between the civilians and terrorists. This is not an easy thing. Its not easy preventing a explosive laden vehical from entering Colombo. These control measures are absolutely necessary despite the inconveniences. Although all Tamils are not LTTE almost all LTTE is Tamil. This is a fact. So obviously the Tamil community get targeted, but not purposely.

Q: There had been reports to the effect that you would join main stream politics as three of your brothers have already done. Do you have any plans to enter parliament?

No. I have no interest in politics.

Q: What are the key differences you note in the Army then and now in terms of man power, hardware and morale and even procurement which has raised certain queries?

One of the main things we’ve concentrated as a crucial measure was troop welfare, from schooling for their children and housing for families to their care after injury. We in fact created a separate unit under one Minister for  this purpose alone and the day to day problems. Housing and education are primary in welfare and we’ve taken concrete measures towards this end. We’ve already started a 1500 house scheme in Anuradapura, which is a separate city in itself; with solidly built houses and all the infrastructure facilities in place, which alone cost Rs. 1 billion. Our aim is to give it free if possible or otherwise at a very nominal fee. There is also a loan scheme from the Ministry given without interest. There is a special fund set up ‘api venuwen api’ to facilitate these projects. There is another project is to give them land. We have started a special school for defence services children. This is a very well equipped school with all the modern facilities. We will start similar school in Kurunegala soon.

Then on the inquiries on procurement and all these charges, so we’ve started an institution to carry out these functions. Because when you do purchases in military hardware through a third party and private parties get involved, there are these situations. So we’ve created an institution which will be the intermediate party which will work with these parties and the governments in procurements. We are encouraging more government to government deals as much as we can. But the way it happens in the world is that be it China or the US, though these are government deals they are essentially run like private companies. They have formed companies because it is still a business. It’s a major industry. So we’ve created a similar unit to handle this with minimum participation from third parties. This is easy to tell but so difficult to do. But we have started it and it has produced very good results. If you study it closely it is a very good thing. This is something that I was concerned about and I consider this a major success.

Another area is retirement where sometimes after retiring after 22 years they are comparatively young and they go and join these private security companies, where they are not paid well. This is why we started a private security company from the Ministry where these people can be employed. There is no profit motive in this at all. We want to give a good service and in turn a good salary to the employees. We’ve recruited retired security personelle so far and for the moment we are handling government institutions only. This is a good welfare measure as well.[dailymirror.lk]

Joint Civil Society Statement on Withdrawal of International Agencies from the Vanni

The Government’s letter to agencies on 8thSeptember 2008 instructing all aid workers, including members of the UN agencies who are not residents of the Vanni, to leave the Vanni, has led to the severe curtailment of humanitarian work in the area at a time when the need for such services is greater than ever. The primarily Tamil civilians of the Vanni who have been facing the full onslaught of the military offensive of the state and the retaliatory attacks of the LTTE, are trapped in a situation which is not of their choosing. As citizens of this country, they deserve to be treated with the dignity and respect they are entitled to, and certainly they are owed a chance to save their lives.

Recent reports indicate that almost 200,000 civilians are trapped in the Vanni, many of them displaced several times from their homes and villages that were in the path of the advancing army. Most of these IDPs have been denied freedom of movement by the LTTE and by the armed forces in flagrant violation of humanitarian norms. There are disturbing reportshighlighting the severe restrictions imposed by the LTTE on the mobility of civilians, resulting in entire communities being trapped in areas of intensifying conflict. IDPs fleeingthe Vanni into areas controlled by the state security forces find themselves placed in specialcentres such as Kalimoddai and Sirikundel with serious restrictions on their movement.

In this context, it was only the presence of a few humanitarian agencies that ensured that the basic needs of the affected communities in the Vanni such as food, water, shelter and health care were met. Although throughout the years of the conflict, humanitarian agencies have worked in partnership with state agencies to provide essential services to conflict-affectedcommunities in the north and east of Sri Lanka, over the past two years we have seen an erosion of this partnership. Various restrictions on the transport of goods and personnel imposed on humanitarian agencies by the security forces, citing security concerns, have been mirrored by the actions of the LTTE who have imposed their own controls on humanitarian assistance, particularly the movement of local personnel working for the UN and of international agencies in the Vanni.

The instruction for humanitarian actors to withdraw from the Vanni at the present juncture raises concerns not only because of the serious repercussions for the IDPs and affected populations living in the Vanni, but also due to apprehensions relating to the Government’s contingency plans in respect of assistance to these communities if they are forced by the LTTE to or choose to stay in the Vanni.

In addition, the continuing and intensifying military offensive creates grave concerns regarding the safety and security of the persons who are living in the Vanni at the present moment. On 30thAugust five civilians were killed and others injured by a shell that landed in Puthumurippu in Killinochchi district. Out of the dead, two were children, a two year old child and a one month old baby. Shelling on 2nd September injured more IDPs in Puthumurippu. As the military operations intensify, we fear that IDPs and civilians will findthemselves in greater danger.

As concerned citizens of Sri Lanka, we call on all the parties to the conflict to respect humanitarian norms and guarantee the safety and well-being of the civilians living in the areas of the Vanni where the conflict is raging at present.

We urge the Government to withdraw its instructions for humanitarian agencies to vacate the Vanni and appeal for a more humane approach to the situation. We call on the LTTE to ensure the freedom of movement for all civilians and uphold its commitments to humanitarian agencies.

We also urge the Government and the LTTE to:

- Respect and provide for the freedom of movement of civilians, staff of humanitarian agencies and their families, and medical teams as well as of transport of essentialitems in, to and from the Vanni;

- Ensure that humanitarian agencies are provided access to all IDP sites and their security guaranteed;

- Ensure that IDP sites are located away from military camps or other targets'

- Support independent monitoring of the delivery of humanitarian assistance to the affected communities in the Vanni; and

- Abide by international and national legal frameworks which provide for the protection of civilians and non combatants, such as the UN Guiding Principles onInternal Displacement.

Joint Statement by civil society organisations

including:

-Centre for Policy Alternatives
-INFORM Human Rights Documentation Centre
-Mothers and Daughters of Lanka
-National Peace Council
-Rights Now Collective for Democracy Women & Media Collective

- September 17 2008

September 17, 2008

Reviewing “Aba”: Motherland, Patriotism and Modern Heroes

By Sivamohan Sumathy

"For the motherland" was the final call made to the audience at the close of the film Aba as the young ‘hero, historically the would be Pandukabaya, holds high and in a majestic position, a ‘sacred’ sword at the top of a rising hill, framed by towering mountain peaks all around him. Why did I go to see Aba?

My curiosity was first raised by an interview I watched about the film, an interview with Jackson Anthony the director of the film. In that interview Mr. Anthony claims that a true hero is one who fights for his motherland.

 

[Dr. Sivamohan Sumathy-file pic]

I of course have no idea what the motherland means in actual terms to struggling people. I grew up as a child and young person alongside Tamil nationalism and have seen only its destructive side. The interview was clearly propagandist, unabashedly so. But it also spoke of the film as one of its kind in Sri Lanka and spoke of it as occupying an iconic status within Sri Lankan films.

I puzzled about this; how a serious artist could label patriotism as an empowering sentiment particularly at this current juncture, when the country is at war with itself. I was even more curious about the particular nature of its call. Is the texture of heroic patriotism in the film one of a revolutionary spirit? Is it of a martial nature? Is it about peace and compromise? And importantly, whom does it try to mobilize in its claims to grandeur and epicness? In other words, what is the texture of its hegemonic call?

So, with these questions in mind, I went to see the film. My point of entry into the film is through semiotics and by positioning myself as a viewer. For the purposes of analysis, I create a position for myself as a ‘disinterested’ viewer. A disinterested viewer may be a myth. But as we are discussing ‘myth’ in any case, I shall say that this construction of a disinterested viewer will not be without interest to the reader.

The film I am told is an avowedly patriotic one, and its semiosis does suggest a manipulation of all the signs of patriotism, not the least, the resounding call to fight for one’s motherland. Historically speaking, the call to protect the motherland sounds anachronistic.

The film abounds in historical anachronisms. But that is not my focal point. I am not too interested in the construction of a historically ‘true’ picture of the period. The anachronistic details are in the service of a ‘true’ patriotism—the call to fight for the motherland as Jackson Anthony suggests.

As I returned from the theatre, a friend asked me about how the film was and I said, "If I were to sum it up in one line, I would say that it is a film with a singular lack of all feeling. "It fails as a patriotic film" I said. In turn I was told that the film was drawing large crowds to its fold. But I stick to my analysis; ‘crowds’ go to watch films for many reasons.

People’s curiosity might have been aroused by the approbation given to the film by President Rajapaksa. There can be other reasons. I am also a ‘crowd.’ In speaking about crowds and crowd, and the various reasons for its failure and success, I am also thinking of ‘crowd’ as a metaphor and as a subject. What does the film mean for ‘crowds?

My analysis relies rather heavily on the semiosis of the film and its place within the genre of patriotic films that we are generally used to, the semioses of the standard icons of patriotic films of the western and Indian film industries; I also wish to in turn examine the connections between the ideological bent of those films and Aba.

I do not wish to get into a discussion of films like Ben Hur, Mughal e Azam, Roja and similar films that are hegemonically nationalistic and patriotic. I will for the purposes of this review merely focus on connecting the filmsemiosis, its thrust and the different registers of patriotism that are available at this current moment, politically and aesthetically.

My desire to situate the film within the genre of patriotic and heroic films is prompted by Jackson Anthony himself. At the interview, he spoke a great deal about heroism as a trait, a genre and drew parallels between Spider Man, Bat Man and the likes and Aba. Also, given the semiosis of the film, when one notices the borrowings of motifs from say a film like Lord of the Rings, the compulsion to view it as part of the genre of modern commercial/non-commercial films about heroism is amply justified.

For any progressive thinker the film will pose major ideological issues. But the issues I raise are of a slightly different nature though they impinge on the imperatives of the former as well. Generically speaking, the film fails in my view, as creating a compelling aesthetic for patriotism.

The rhetorical impress of the film accompanies the imperatives and prerogatives of a small ruling elite or group, in an unmediated and unqualified manner. Its failures I will hold are not dramatic or tragic. They spell the danger that is usually hinted at by the rise to success of mediocrity. The very failure of a patriotic aesthetic that I discern in the film is what is driving its success within the current moment of politics. Its ‘failure’ aesthetically and its purported success ‘politically’ underscore the growing trend of totalitarianism and fascism in the south. These may be strong words, but I am unable to find other terms to describe the culture of fear and political quietism of our times.

Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel says Dr. Johnson. In the film we may see scoundrels but no refuge. As I left the cinema hall I was acutely puzzled. Why did it fail to evoke ‘feeling’ (for me)? At one level this has to do with the lack of a concerted ideological vision for the film. A mish mash of technological manipulations of grandeur, borrowed without a grounding principle of motif and borrowed rather arbitrarily from orientalist films and from say films like Lord of the Rings, the film fails to register any lasting identification of the viewer with the subject, the ‘motherland.’

I have been puzzling over this for about a week. The film is produced on a large canvas, with panoramic compositions of landscape (motherland?). It builds up a sense of the grandeur of the kingdom evoking awe at the ruling Sinhala dynasty, corrupt as it is; the spectacular invocations of myth and the supernatural underlines the awesomeness of the spirit of resistance. Yet, the film fails to create a lasting subject and identification either with its protagonists and young hero or with the land, purportedly oppressed and marginalized.

Why has it failed to evoke this sense of pathos at suffering and victimization? Is it the mediocre acting? The portrayal of young Aba is weak indeed, and that of the rest rather pedestrian. But the weakness cannot be attributed to the individuals’ understanding of their characters and portrayals. There is a semiotic ‘weakness’ in the film, a looseness, a glossy and uninvolved treatment of the subject that leaves one at the end of the film really cold and untouched by any of the phenomenal happenings.

They are too phenomenal to make sense to a modern viewer. Let me do a more involved analysis of the film’s narrtology and its import for the modern Sri Lankan subject.

The film is linear in form, and relies on a linear narrative development.

Yet, the narrativity of the film—the story telling process and the progression of the cinematic narrative-is weak; and as much as the film tries to make up for this by technological glitz, the film fails to rise to the greatness of vision that it purportedly tries to achieve. For one, the film’s call to patriotism lies outside its diegesis, outside the story within the film.

The film draws upon, for an understanding of and identification with the heroism of the story, a knowledge of ‘history’, the knowledge that Aba as Pandukabaya would form the dynastic rule, bringing the native, the Yakkha and the aristocratic together into a ruling dynasty; it is in this assumption that that the pathos and the heroics of the film lie. The film relies too heavily on this knowledge and on the unmediated acceptance of this ‘truth’ of history; given this all too ready reliance, the film does little to evoke a sense of participation on the part of the audience with the life story of the hero Aba.

For me the film’s semiotic misery lies in its failure to grasp the idiom of patriotism cinematically in the construction of the modern subject as a patriotic one. A patriotic film has to work at gaining the consent of the viewer toward its ideological message. It has to centre a hero who is convincing and meaningful. Also, within the ‘democracy’ that popular film has unleashed, what is usually termed populism, consent has to be worked at through a negotiation, through a sharing of perceptions. Semiotically, the modern hero has to win the consent of the public at some level, at the level of patriotism or at the level of revolution/revolt.

We no longer take a hero for granted, even one provided tailor made by ‘history.’ The tragic and the heroic have to be invented over and over to win over, to gain consent. One sees that in all the Jesus films and the Roman films applauding and extolling the virtues of ‘Hellenic’ and ‘Christian’ values. Aba supposedly works at both levels but in fact churns up a thoroughly reactionary (read ‘feudal’) idiom to couch its vision in. In comparison with other iconic films espousing patriotism and heroism, Aba remains static, undynamic in its narrative development.

What does the film hold for the film goer? He is a man of the city, the town, the village. He is a small person. Nobody cares for him any longer in this city. He is tired when he gets back from work. He has family or other material cares. He comes with disbelief to the film. The film has to centre his concerns to obtain belief. Let me elaborate on this displacement. The film places the hero as a child in the care of a community. But this hero, except for dancing and swimming in the stream and getting involved in useless displays of fighting, exhibits no trace of leadership in his character.

What does the community, he of the ‘crowd’ get out of this child, this hero? Is he there as a son of this soil, the mother land? Is he the oppressed, the resistant, citizen and subject? The community apparently makes great sacrifices. But these sacrifices are neither celebrated nor mourned for in the film. The weakness in the composition of the story and the tenuousness of the link between his-story and the visual narrative makes one question the ideological basis of the patriotism involved. The film centres the young man Aba; and in its inexorable logic, destiny. Given this, it is heedless of all else, and dangerously, of the people, the oppressed.

There is a scene in the film where the King and his brothers, enraged at discovering that the prince was still alive, order the burning of all villages in order to bring the young men out and to destroy them indiscriminately. One would have expected a feeling of great emotional strain at this potentially gut wrenching sequence, at the great injustice done to the people. Yet, despite the panoramic frames and composition, or precisely because of them, the scene fails to create tension and identification.

The film’s linearity is under great strain as well. The story is nice but rather thin. Parallels to the story abound in Indian and other mythologies. One is reminded of the Krishna story. I am certain similar stories exist in the ‘Russian’ folk lore and Greek and Roman mythology. But in modern versions of Krishna, even in the most ludicrously patriotic and conventional ones, there is a concern for the people and the love between Krishna and the community is carefully detailed in song and dance.

Some years ago, I saw a spectacular theatrical production of the Irish myth of ‘Baliol’; the story is almost the exact same as that of Aba. While the play rests on the spectacle and the spectacular like Aba, the play works at bringing alive a ‘folk’ idiom to construct the subject of the oppressed. In the film, the ‘folk’, the people, the natives, the Yakkhas are portrayed in a lifeless robotic manner, bereft of character and substance. The only rationale for their existence, apart from the silly antics that they take part in, is that of serving the prince in exile and protecting him.

"For the motherland"—rhetorically that is the motif that sticks. It’s a recurring cry, and is accompanied by an overpowering glossy panoramic landscape. But the landscape does not foreground oppression; it foregrounds the divine and the greatness bestowed upon the young prince by the divine.

The divine does not negotiate with the people for their consent. The divine negotiates only with the rulers and the ruling dynasty. The artificiality of the figure of Pandula Brahmana and the school he runs for disciples with its Sanskrit chanting might be historically anachronistic. But that does not bother me too much.

They all jar because the depictions of these institutions reinforce the hand of a divine, of a power beyond that of the people, one that is disassociated from the people. The divine is heedless of the concerns and the welfare of the people. The strained linearity of the film relies too heavily on creating an aura of greatness around Aba but without creating a rationale for that aura, for that greatness.

Heroes exist for the benefit of the people; at least in the common understanding of patriotism. But in Aba the land as motif, signifies on the glory of the prince (to be) and does not give succour to the people. Conversely, land is not an oppressed character here.

On the other hand, the film calls for an identification with history as we know it.

The patriotism, failed as it is, lies in that call. It makes a call to the viewer to identify himself/ herself with the dominant narrative of (Sinhala) history, turning that history into one of aristocratic/dynastic/feudal destiny rather than that of a liberation of a people. The music score is grand, operatic and overpowering, lending to the sense of ‘unfeelingness’ that the semiotics evoke. A barren historicity predominates in the end.

Here I would like to turn my attention to the current moment of our history, the history of war making and the making of histories. The hero as Jackson Anthony says is one who fights for his motherland. In this, he is in great agreement with some of the worst scoundrels of this world, including Prabakaran. But the point I make is not about Prabakaran here.

My query is about the war mongering culture besetting the country today. The call to heroism and patriotism can be looked at through an analysis of our cultural and political context and through an analysis of "Who is the modern hero." And here lies the rub—the contradictions of our times and of the film.

We are often told that the soldier is a hero and that he is a people’s hero. We are told this in excoriations by the President and by the endless stream of song and visual representation on television and in other places glorifying war. But this hero, and the sacrifices that this hero makes point to other figures who are greater heroes; leaders of the country, who are protected by the divine (and the soldier).

What is the political significance of a film today that upholds the figure of a hero who is for the most part protected by the sacrifices made by other ordinary people and whose sacrifices are not even properly narrativized. What is the political significance of a hero who does not fight, but at every turn is saved by divine intervention?

The film does not record the suffering of the people at any great length; its only focus is on the prince, and the need to save the prince. What is so great about this hero, who brings suffering to the people?

The film’s ‘final’ signification, its meaning and meaningfulness today is part of the hegemonic undertaking of hero making as divine. Does this have a resonance with the texture of our political culture, what I call the political culture of dominance and acceptance—a political culture of increasing hostility toward democracy and the democratic principle.

Sociologists of film, like Siegfried Kracauer and others have noted the connections between German expressionism and the rise of Nazism. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu are some examples of this. Here I want to look at the salience of our film for questions of democracy. Does the film create an idiom of nobility and aristocratic splendour where heroes exist for their own sake, for their own dynastic (already existing or emerging ones) gratification?

I will not ordinarily make comparisons between a visually uninspiring film like Aba and one of the most powerful visual representations of darkness and light such as Nosferatu by Murnau (1922). But am compelled to do so given the direction my review is taking: totalitarianism. In Nosferatu what we see is the collapse of the conventional notion of an accepted common or garden variety of power, the rule of law and order, which is to be undermined by dark forces. Nosferatu is prescientic in its representation of the ‘dark’ forces, with its ambiguous take on the forces of admixture of magic and science that are to envelope Germany.

There is little that is prescientic about Aba. Yet, it has apparently received the acclaim and patronage of President Rajapaksa (in the sense that he organized a show for ministers as I have been informed) who today lords over an increasingly repressive political apparatus; While the might of the Rajapaksa regime might be very transient and have nothing to do with the ‘dark’ times to come, the transient idiom of power that we are accosted with today, bespeaks a hegemony of moral and ‘dynastic’ might. It bespeaks a culture of political quietism and submission that one witnesses in the days before the hey day of Nazi rule.

Political leadership today is at one level disassociated from the democratic principle. Within the culture of war and war mongering that we live in we see Prabakaran using people as human shields and the politicians of the country at the highest levels ensconcing themselves in barricaded castles and deserted streets while ordinary people face the wrath of shelling and of suicide bombers, in the north, the east and the south. The meaning of a hero has to be negotiated through this understanding of political leadership and the modern subject. The film works within this culture, extolling a non-democratic political leadership.

Let me get back to the idea of heroes. In the play Galileo Brecht discusses heroes and heroism and the challenges prompting and driving one toward heroism.

Does Galileo fail in the ‘heroic’ task of challenging the authority of the Church? Who is the modern hero? The hero in Aba is of a thoroughly retrograde nature. He might belong partially to a peripheral and resistant community. But his heroic ambition is not to serve the people, but to usurp the throne. What are the challenges that we face today that calls upon us to perform heroic tasks?

As an academic and a cultural activist, I look to other academics and cultural activists for an answer, a response.

Film has long been a hegemonic force in our midst. But both film and theatre have had the power to raise questions as well, about hierarchy, authority, injustice and above all, of the hegemonic and counter hegemonic work of culture. What is the task facing Galileo today?

Here I am thinking of Saumya Liyanage and Nadeeka Guruge both of whom played pivotal roles in the film. Saumya Liyanage played the role of Habara, a crucial Yakkha character. Nadeeka Guruge did the score for the film. Both friends of mine on the cultural scene and persons I have long associated with progressive thinking; of challenging the system. But here they fail the test of heroism, unfortunately. As Galileo says in the play, ‘it is unfortunate we need heroes today."

Today, when people are being called traitors when they challenge authority and journalists are threatened and incarcerated for their right of assertion, we may need to think of an activism of counter-hegemony. It’s not merely political work. It is also ‘artistry.’ I shed no tears over the failures of the film. Whether it is a box office hit or not is not my concern. I know that it is not going to whip people up to sign up for the war.

But I was a bit saddened to see Saumya Liyanage act the ‘savage’ in the stupid orientalist fashion of third rate Hollywood films. I recently met him at a pan university meeting and asked him about what prompted him to act in the film and why he acted in that disgusting fashion, which was not only ludicrous but also contributed to the feel of the superficiality of the film.

I would like to close this review with a note on another film, a film annoyingly patriotic, but stirringly revolutionary in its visual compass, Alexander Nevsky (1938) by Eisenstein. Alexander Nevsky is considered by most critics as one of Eisenstein’s weakest and most patriotic of films, more patriotic than Ivan the Terrible Part I. Like Aba, the depiction of the hero is rather unconvincing.

But the film retains the character of the epic throughout; its cinematic language suggests a contrariness that is of epic proportions harking back to the ideological content of say Battleship Potemkin. The single hero in Alexander Nevsky might have been weak. But there was another heroic subject in the film, the people of the land.

While I understand the ludicrousness of drawing parallels between Aba and Alexander Nevsky, even if it is done with the intention of undermining the value of the former, I bring in the parallel in order to elucidate my point. I also draw this parallel because of the way Jackson Anthony in the interview spoke of the film as an epic of Sri Lankan cinema. For an epic, we need an epic subject and that subject has to have meaning for our times. The hero in Alexander Nevsky is the people, the people of the land. Its landscape and panoramic scenes are devoted to foregrounding the people as a totality of subject, a collective subject.

If it’s patriotic at one level at another it breaks with the Hollywood tradition of projecting a single hero. Alexander Nevsky may point toward Andrei Rublev by Tarkovsky; one can find overtones of its war scenes in Akira Kurosawa’s epic films, Ran, Throne of Blood and Kagemusha, a point little noted by most critics. Unlike Nadeeka’s resounding harmonic orchestration, Prokofiev’s haunting quizzical tone inserts a spoken idiom into the martial chording, coding, bringing out the pathetic, and the ‘folk’ as concerns of the people.

One is almost tempted to say that Eisenstein produced a subversive film, exploiting the allowances made for culturalists by the Stalinist regime. Despite the grandiose claims made by Jackson Anthony about the epic stature of Aba, the film fails to rise to any such great heights.

He fails to grasp both in his film making and in his later pronouncements, the contradictions inherent in the visioning of the film’s hero and the material. He hails the film as an iconic tribute to heroism and patriotism, but makes his vision for patriotism, feudal and paternalistic. Ultimately it’s mimicry that predominates, a poor mimicry of history, myth, technology and modernity.

I would like to end with one last query.

What is the import of the film for a non-Sinhala person?

Subtitled in English, the film invites non-Sinhala speakers too to view the film on a mass scale. I wonder here whether for a non-Sinhala speaker and a non-Sinhala person this hero fighting for the motherland could be somebody fighting against the Sri Lankan state as well?

To a Tamil viewer and a bemused Tamil viewer at that, Aba may seem like a call by Prabakaran and the LTTE to fight for the motherland. Tamils have only a scanty knowledge of ancient Sinhala history; and the story of Yakkhas, a marginal minority, fighting for their motherland, overthrowing an oppressive rule might sound a positive chord in the nationalist mind. The motherland concept has long caught the imagination of Tamil nationalism. But such a reading, though quite plausible, is not something I actively seek to promote as this would not in any way be subversive or radical. Such a reading begs the same kind of questions raised above.

But I am not remarking on this facetiously. It raises an important related question. What is the mother land, and who are our heroes?

Where are they today? How do we perform heroism today in a time of war, abductions, murder, displacements, forced child conscription, caste, class and gender dominations and the increasing hold of a totalitarian regime on the lives of ordinary people. How do we remake heroes who are in active struggle against authoritarianism and oppression?

(Dr. Sivamohan Sumathy is attached to the English Department at the University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka)

Buddhist Monks in Lanka: To stand or not to stand

by Sarath De Alwis

The leader of the JHU has told parliament that Buddhist monks never stand up even before kings. This is a statement that indicates the symptoms of a malignant cancer whose roots run deep in the body politic of our island nation.
 
As a practising Buddhist who follows the Dharma to the best of his ability, I am compelled to make some observations on the statement made by JHU Leader and Member of Parliament, Ven. Ellawala Medhananda whose attire of a saffron robe does not provide irrefutable proof that he is a Buddha Srawaka.
Before proceeding further, let me draw the attention of the reader to a conversation that occurred between the Buddha and Maha Kassapa Thero who is regarded as the father of the sangha after the passing away of the Buddha. It is recorded in the Samyutta Nikaya 16.11.
 
The enlightened one gave Kassapa Maha Thero the following three exhortations as his first formal introduction to the Dhamma.
 
"You should train yourself thus Kassapa: A keen sense of shame and wrong doing (hiri-ottappa) shall be present in me towards seniors, novices and those of the middle status in the order. ‘Whatever teaching I hear that is conducive to something wholesome, I shall listen with an attentive ear, examining it, reflecting on it, absorbing it with all my heart.’ Mindfulness of the body linked with gladness shall not be neglected by me! Thus should you train yourself."
 
Then both Master and Disciple walked towards Rajagaha. On the way the Buddha wanted to rest and Maha Kassapa folded his double robe in four and requested the Master to sit on it "as this will be for my benefit for a long time." The Buddha sat down on Kassapa’s robe and said "soft is your robe of patched cloth, Kassapa." Hearing this Kassapa responded "May the Blessed One, O Lord accept this robe of patched cloth out of compassion for me!"
 
"But Kassapa, can you wear this hempen, worn out rag robes of mine?" Full of joy Kassapa said "Certainly, Lord I can wear the Blessed One’s rough and worn out rag robes."
 
This exchange of robes bestowed a great distinction on the Venerable Maha Kassapa, an honour not shared by any other disciple. The commentary explains that the Buddha’s intention was to motivate him to observe Dhutanga, the austere practices, from the time of his very admission into the Bhikku Sangha.
 
The purpose of narrating this episode is to establish two salient points that escape our lay Buddhists. The saffron robe is not something the Buddha exhorted the sangha to adopt. The robe that the Buddha offered Kassapa was made from a shroud that he had picked up in a cremation ground and in asking Kassapa whether he could wear that robe was to satisfy himself that his disciple was able to fully commit to the austere practices that the use of such a robe would entail.
 
The other point I wish to make to my fellow Buddhists is that wearing a saffron robe and going through various ceremonies such as Upasampada in ritualistic practice does not make them any different from the average layman unless he is in true pursuit of renunciation and has truly extricated from their minds the subtlest roots of craving to adopt the Dhutanga — the special vow of austerity conducive to simplicity, contentment, renunciation and energy.
 
The Buddha often applauded those monks who observed these vows. In fact the exchange of robes between the Master and the disciple occurred when Kassapa Thero was proceeding to higher ordination.*
 
Now I would like to deal with the subject of higher ordination. Despite the many claims of the institutionalised sangha in our country of preserving Theravada Buddhism without interruption the fact is that due to various historical reasons which cannot be described in detail (due to space), the most oppressive persecution of the sangha was unleashed by the patricide king Sithawaka Rajasinghe, which was the determinant factor.
The historical reality was that the higher ordination (Upasamapada) among the Sangha had become totally extinct. It was due to the efforts of the Most Venerable Welivita Sri Saranankara Sangharajha Thero that the higher ordination was re-established in Sri Lanka with the help of King Kirthi Sri Rajasinghe.
 
The higher ordination ceremony was conducted by a special mission of Maha Sangha brought from Siam under the leadership of Upali Maha Thera. While the higher ordination ceremony and the restoration of the Sasana were achieved in the manner in which it was carried out, it contained the seeds of its deterioration that we witness today.
 
The Sri Lankan monks who received the higher ordination were from the aristocracy of the Sinhala society and were drawn from families including that of Kobbekaduwa, Welivita, Hulalagomuva, Bambaradeniya and Tibbotuwawa. In the Upasamapada ceremony of 1753, some non Goigama persons were offered the higher ordination.
 
However, this concession of admitting non Goigama persons to the order of the sangha was short lived. A rule was introduced that to confer the higher ordination the person should have purity of caste on both paternal and maternal (ubhaya kula) sides. Lay members of the higher castes were reluctant to pay the respects due to a monk to one who did not belong to their social strata.
 
This impasse was finally resolved by a few samanera monks from the low country who belonged to castes other than Goigama setting up their own nikayas where they could ordain whoever who sought ordination or higher ordination. The result was the formation of two additional nikayas in addition to what was now generally referred to as the Siyam Nikaya.
 
In the Siyam Nikaya the ordination was conferred on three categories of persons. Kinsman pupils (gnathi shishya), pupils (shishya) and some who claimed indirect relationship. **
This allowed the viharayas in the Kandyan Kingdom to ensure dynastic succession of their viharayas with vast land holdings by ordaining nephews, grand nephews who may have been offspring of brothers or sisters.
 
These parochial attitudes of the sangha who professed to follow the preachings of the Buddha, whose doctrine was essentially based on impermanence of life and matter, renunciation of craving and greed, the noble eight fold path etc., soon resulted in the Siyam Nikaya itself fragmenting itself.
 
What is tragic is that the followers of the Buddha who gave Maha Thero Kassapa his hemp robe that he had picked up from a cremation ground, are striving to ensure dynastic succession of places of worship of which they are only temporary custodians. These are the germinal seeds of Sinhala Buddhism.
 
We can well understand the Member of Parliament Ven. Ellawela Medhananda Thero claiming that a monk never stands up before kings. That is his mindset. This writer will not regard him as a Buddha Srawaka either. However I wish to beg him to desist from distorting history.
 
The first Sangharaja Welivita Sri Saranankara Thero was accused of conspiring to murder the king. The Sangha Raja Thero was not part of the conspiracy but was aware of it and did not inform the king. An angry king imprisoned the Sangha Raja Thero but later pardoned him. (Saranankara Sangha Raja Samaya by Kotagama Wachissara Thero Page 185)*** However, even in the time of kings, sangha was not above the law.
 
Sabba papassa akaranan:
Kusalassa Upasampada;
Sa chitta pariyodapanam:
Etan Budhanusasanan.
 
"Evil swells the debts to pay,
Good delivers and acquits:
Shun evil, follow good; hold sway
Over thyself. This is the way."
 
Sources:
 
* Great Disciples Of The Buddha by Nynaponika Thera and Helmuth Hecker — edited by the Bikku Bodhi
 
** Sacerdotal Succession Of Sri Lankan Buddhist Monks by Kapila Pathirana Vimaladharma
 
*** Saranankara Sangha Raja Samaya by Kotagama Wachissara Thero

Mocking Non-Sinhala Persons as Humour on Teledramas

Mr. Hameed Abdul Karim has written a very sensible comment about negative portrayal of Muslims on Teledramas  and I feel that it should be read by all TV stations in this country because it is of utmost importance to all concerned.
 
Let me begin with a sincere apology to a fellow human being who very correctly felt insulted by the stupidity of TV station for telecasting such an idiotic programme depicting an imaginary "Thambiya" who mispronounces the Sinhalese words to cause hilarity among the blue-blooded Sinhalese audience – giving them a feeling, probably, of superiority over the Muslims. …...........

A Sinhala youth – so assumed because of his fluency in the language as opposed to the ‘Thambiya’s’ faulty Sinhalese – enters the ‘kade’ and remonstrates with the ‘Thambiya’, telling him he won’t go ‘bunk load’ if he obliges the poor boy. But the recalcitrant ‘Thambiya’, looking over his eyebrows in a wily sort of way, insists he be paid his ‘Salli’ for the item. And the message here? ‘Thambiya’ is greedy! Then in a ‘gallant’ move our Sinhala youth turns hero. ….......................The message is clear. The Sinhalese are good – the Muslims are bad. I switch channels."

Mr. Hameed Abdul Karim also says, "It is sad that the producers of such anti-Muslim telegramas don’t realise that all such propaganda productions have their side effects. In this case the producers are teaching young Sinhala boys that it’s okay to demand something for free from a ‘Thambiya’ and it’s okay also if a Sinhalese youth actually steals from a Muslim."

These are the very boys who in later life enter university and create every possible harm including entering high security zones defying police warnings. When they are baton-charged and finally tear-gassed the MP’s who come to power using communal slogans and thuggery blame the armed forces for preventing student violence in both streets and schools of higher learning. Then the youth become a law unto themselves, uncontrolled and uncontrollable.

To come back to "The TV Muslim". The Sinhalese in general, unlike the Muslims, and Tamils, are monoloingual. They hardly know even their Sinhala language properly. Ask any Sinhala boy or girl in a university for the number of letters in the Sinhala alphabet and you will be surprised at the ignorance!

 They pretend to know English, yes even the TV actors and announcers. Look at the way they says "Mata coal ekak denna", they pronounce phone like ‘horn’, and dozens more! Nobody laughs at them but they will readily laugh if a Tamil or a Muslim mispronounces a Sinhala word!

Psychologists will tell you that both inferiority and superior complexes are the two sides of the same coin. The Sinhalese who do not know English feel very inferior in the company of the Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims who know English.

Take the so called humour on Sinhala TV screens. All they can do is to mock at the non-Sinhalese! The commonest way is to reproduce a Muslim or Tamil pronunciation of a Sinhala word. But the Sinhala TV viewers do not know that there are enough Tamil and Muslim people who speak better Sinhala than the Sinhalese themselves!

In 1958 I was teaching at Christ Church College in Dehiwala and our Sinhala teacher was one Mr. Arumugam Pillai who had graduated in Sinhala, Pali and Tamil! During the Emergency 58 (vide Emergency 58 by Tarzie Vittachi) Tamil homes and shops were looted and burned by the Sinhala mobs. I was a witness!

When the mobs reached the home of Mr. Arumugam Pillai his wife had gone elsewhere for safety. Mr. Pillai in his perfect Sinhala and Pali began to talk to the mob leader who had described himself as a good Buddhist! The mob did not know that Mr. Pillai had read the Tripitaka both in Pali and Sinhala. He had only to ask a few questions from the mob leader on Buddhism and the ‘good Buddhist’ went away before his followers learnt about his ignorance of Buddhism! I won’t be surprised if in later years he entered Parliament the way the thugs do!

Mr. Hameed Abdul Karim may not know that our TV script writers are a dozen a dime. Take a bottle of poison, a pistol or two, a boxer, some rowdy boys with rowdy haircuts and shaves, one or two weeping women, a few young girls who look sex-starved, and blend them together into a dine paste and you get a popular teledrama.

Sri Lanka has no TV channel that shows good humour. All they show is domestic quarrels and weeping women! When I question the viewers they saym "Vena mokuth thiyanawada balanna?" or,is there anything else to watch.

So Mr. Karim, don’t expect clean, cultured TV Productions because then the Sinhala Mudalalis won’t sponsor them. The more uncultured, stupid a teledrama is the bigger the chance of success at the next local Oscar Awards!

UK Foreign Minister Lord Mark Malloch Brown - Meeting with Tamils

“UK Government believes that minorities in any country must have their right to practice the fullest and impossible expression of self determination”.....“We are extremely concerned about how this government behaves and treats the Tamil community. We are using all the means available to us to press the government to do otherwise” – UK Foreign Minister Lord Mark Malloch Brown

Rt. Hon Lord Malloch Brown who is the Deputy Foreign Secretary and also the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister who has specific responsibility for Britain's relations with countries in Asia and Africa – including Sri Lanka attended a meeting yesterday, 15 September, organised by the Harrow (West) Member of Parliament and Parliamentary Under-Secretary of Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform Rt. Hon Gareth Thomas to discuss the current situation in Sri Lanka with his Tamil constituents. This meeting was also attended by Hon Robert Evans Member of European Parliament for London, Member of Parliament for Leicester (East) and the Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee Rt. Hon Keith Vaz and Harrow Councillor and Leader of the Association of Tamil Councillors Thaya Idaikadar.

Well over a thousand Tamils turned up for this meeting from all over London. As the hall including the balcony could only hold just about a thousand people, due to Health and Safety Regulations a few hundred Tamils who came late had to stand outside the building to show solidarity.

Lord Malloch Brown in his introductory speech said that it is enormously important that Ministers like Gareth and he should have more of such opportunities to understand the concerns of people. It is therefore very appropriate that they met with the Tamil community considering the current situation in Sri Lanka for the Tamils.

He said that he was in Sri Lanka in July and he went there for two reasons (1) to see for himself on how the situation was evolving and secondly because he was criticised in the government circles in Colombo for his strong statement at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) meeting in March this year protesting against the human rights violations of the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL). This resulted in an invitation given by both the President of Sri Lanka Mahinda Rajapakshe and the Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama.

He said that both sides (the Government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam - LTTE) were party to breaking of the Cease Fire Agreement and it is wrong to blame just the one side for the breakdown. The government has won a significant victory in the East of Sri Lanka and has held an election with partial participation of some political parties due to the security situation. “I wanted to see the local government myself”. On the one level the situation is secure and peaceful than before. However, he did not see political reconciliation that will bring everyone to the democratic political process.

In the north however where the fighting is heaviest is resulting in large numbers of displacement of people. The government’s order for United Nations and other INGOs (International Non Governmental Organisations) to leave this area is leaving the international aid efforts being severely affected and for the international community unable to independently verify the real situation on the ground. Our High Commissioner in Colombo has made repeated representations to the GoSL seeking assurances for free flow of food and medical supplies to the people of North. Both sides should allow access to the international humanitarian workers to help the people of North. “We are extremely concerned”. We have through the Secretary General of the United Nations and our High Commissioner made representations to both parties to ensure free and safe access remain opened for humanitarian workers to assist the people of North.

British Government’s overriding position is that there is no military solution to this problem in Sri Lanka. This problem should be resolved by finding a political solution. This message was relayed by me to the President, his brother the Defence Minister, the Foreign Minister and the Chairman of the All Party Representative Committee (APRC). UK government funded a trip of members of the APRC to visit Northern Ireland to see for them at first hand of conflict resolution. The aim was to aid the thinking so that they will come with innovative solutions and to re-start the political process.

We believe people of Tamil areas to have political self-government within a united Sri Lanka. - This comment prompted a few in the audience to abruptly stop clapping that almost started. The Minister joked looking at the direction where the clapping originated and said “great sentence except for the last couple of words” meaning that the audience did not appreciate the ‘united Sri Lanka’ bit of his statement.

As part of European Union the UK government believes that minorities in any country must have their right to practice the fullest and impossible expression of self determination. The thousand or more Tamil crowd erupted by clapping and jeering.

We will urge the GoSL to re-start the political dialog. We believe both sides were responsible for the breakdown of the Cease Fire Agreement. Both sides lost the trust of each other. Both sides should make gestures and concessions to be able to re-start the political process.

Lord Malloch Brown’s speech was followed by questions and answers.

Sample of the questions and answers in summary are given below. Most times, more than three or four questions were answered at the same time.

1. International Governments including my government Britain, keep saying that there got be a negotiated settlement. For us, lay people, this soft, and behind the scene diplomacy isn’t working. If anything, things have got worse for us Tamils – Government of Sri Lanka has become more hard-line. Do you have any evidence to suggest that your approach is working? And why do you keep carrying on the same path, whilst you know it isn’t working?

2. Approximately, 40,000 British Tamils stood in pouring rain for ‘Pongku Thamil’ (Uprising of Tamils) day at Roehampton Vale sports ground and demanded that our Government should recognise Tamils right for separate homeland in Sri Lanka. Who do you think that the British Government should listen to, British Tamils - your own citizens, or a failed state that is tens of thousands of miles away?

3. Could you please spell out the position of the British Government with regard to the elections in the East? Does Britain regard that Eastern election as legitimate? And does the British Government recognise the Para-military administration that is terrorising the population in the East with guns and abductions?

Firstly I understand your anger towards the government of Sri Lanka. But we must also acknowledge that it is a democratically elected government and therefore it is not an authoritarian government to be classified as a failed state in that sense. It is not like this government is unpopular in the country. It is very popular in large parts of the country. Sadly it is not so in the Tamil parts of the country.

It is a democratically elected government which has chosen to prosecute a military campaign against a separatist group. We need to recognise the reality that Britain is a long way away from Sri Lanka but we have certain means and tools available to us to influence but it is beyond our powers to force a solution to this problem.

There are certain persuasion tools if you like, for example the European Union has GSP+ which Sri Lanka enjoys as a trade preference. This is a very powerful tool. If Sri Lanka wants to continue to enjoy this benefit then they need to implement all of the 27 human rights covenants and conventions. We are pressing Sri Lanka through the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and we are using all these channels to press the GoSL but there are no easy answers to this problem.

All we can do is force the resumption of political talks. We can by pressing a democratically elected government to deal with its minorities in a proper way.

4. You were one of those who were instrumental in getting the Government of Sri Lanka evicted from the powerful 47 member UN Human Rights Council. We as Tamils will always be grateful for your commanding speech at the Council meeting in March 2008. However, since then there have been many human rights violations that have taken place in Sri Lanka. You have been pressing for a permanent presence of UNHRC office in Sri Lanka. We all know that the present government has formally rejected that idea. What further actions do you intend taking along with the Commonwealth member states and the European Union to condemn the rejection and enforce such an office in Sri Lanka?

5. Withdrawing the GSP Plus offers a great opportunity for UK to demonstrate its public dismay to the Government of Sri Lanka of Sri Lanka’s appalling human rights track record and its inability to implement the main 27 international conventions & covenants. EU withdrew GSP plus from Republic of Belarus in June 2007 for lack of evidence of its full implementation of the relevant conventions of the International Labour Organisation. Could you give us an assurance that Britain, along with its EU partners, will take this issue seriously and demonstrate our dismay to Government of Sri Lanka when GSP Plus is due for renewal later this year?

6. You went to Eastern Sri Lanka and shook hands with Pillayan who is still a leader of an armed Para-military group. The Tamil Diaspora was very disappointed with that act of yours. You may wish to defend yourself saying you need to meet everyone to bring about a lasting peace in Sri Lanka. If that is the case, why did you not feel it is important to meet Prabakaran the leader of LTTE and get his views? Is it not the time to lift the ban on LTTE to create an atmosphere to facilitate peace talks bearing in mind the LTTE has never broken any laws in Europe, USA or Canada in short anywhere in the world?

We have been pushing for a permanent presence of the UNHRC office in Sri Lanka. We will continue to push for this through the new head of UNHRC as we did through her predecessor just as we press for firm action against child soldiers’ issue. We will keep going on that.

We certainly take the GSP+ issue very seriously. On the one hand it costs Sri Lankan workers their jobs but on the other hand GSP+ is a trade concession, preference granted to certain countries in return for those countries’ compliance of certain human rights covenants and conventions. The ball is in the Sri Lankan court to demonstrate that they are in compliance of all those conventions and covenants. Both Gareth and I as Trade Minister and Foreign Minister have already shared this view with our Sri Lankan counter-parts, even recently. They have to do a lot to secure the extension of GSP+. It will be a collective EU decision.

Regarding Pillayan, he was a man involved in acts of terrorism previously and it is a real issue about our approach to him should be. Yes he is been elected in a flawed election. Nevertheless an election it is. There were security problems for all parties to participate. However he is an elected local government leader and on those grounds that I met him. Meeting somebody doesn’t in anyway mean endorsing their position. If it did we couldn’t meet a lot of leaders around the world.

As to why I didn’t meet the LTTE leader Prabakaran, for one he is not exactly easy to find under the current circumstances. Also he is a leader of a proscribed organisation. We will maintain contacts, such contacts to advance peace. This government fully supports proscribing the LTTE.

7. United Nations estimates that over 250,000 internally displaced people in Wanni which is the LTTE controlled area. In the first 15 days of August over 38,000 people were displaced. Government of Sri Lanka has ordered the humanitarian agencies to withdraw from Wanni. What is the British Government doing about this unfolding tragedy without saying that “we, the British Government is doing all what we can by pressing the Government of Sri Lanka to send food and medical supplies” - When is any British aid going to reach Wanni?


8. When Kosova became an independent nation you are on record for saying Kosova is an exception? Could you please explain how the Tamil’s case for independence is different to the one of the Kosovan’s?

9. In the entire history of the world, only 3 countries have used aerial bombardment against its own citizens – Soviet Union in 1920 to 1930 to suppress internal decent. Sadam Hussein against the Kurds in Iraq and Indonesia against the people of East Timor. Sri Lanka is the fourth. How is the British Government protesting against such a violation of human rights of the Tamils? Why isn’t the current government doing what the John Major’s government did for the Kurds by creating a safe haven?

10. At various points in the past our government has implemented sanctions against various governments such as Zimbabwe, Iran, Iraq and Pakistan etc. to condemn and to register protest. How many more Tamil lives have to be lost and how many more Tamils have to be displaced before Her Majesty’s Government implement sanctions against the Government of Sri Lanka? When will it be the right time to implement sanctions against Sri Lanka?
British aid and British humanitarian assistance will continue. Humanitarian Assessment Team has been dispatched to assess access routes and the ground situation.

As Foreign Minister I come across all sorts of minorities in different parts of the world wanting to cease existence with the majority and form self government. We cannot support every one of them as fragmenting nation states will be difficult to sustain international affairs.

Right now we have been very clear in supporting a large measure of self government within a united country. If ultimately more to happen and the Tamil Region is to become an independent state we will support that only if the whole of Sri Lanka felt that it is the best way to sustain peace between the two communities. We will not do it against the will of the majority Sri Lankans.

Regarding indiscriminate aerial bombardment, we have been pressing on human rights violations by the GoSL. We will through the UN Secretary General, through UN Human Rights Council and through the GSP+ mechanism we will keep the human rights issue live until it is resolved. We are determined to put international pressure on either side to ensure human rights are not violated.

At this point Rt. Hon Gareth Thomas MP announced some details of what the Assessment Team will do. He said that by speaking to NGOs, INGOs, UN and ICRC the team will find out the real ground situation. From their report is what my department will decide how best to channel supplies and funds to assist the internally displaced people of Vanni.

11. If you apply the same principles that were applied to proscribe the LTTE as a terrorist organisation to GoSL, do you agree that you will have to proscribe the GoSL as a terrorist state?

12. What do think that the proscription of the LTTE has achieved with regard to the conflict in Sri Lanka? Do you agree that time has come to re-visit the issue of proscription?

13. If you agree that the government of Sri Lanka was wrong to unilaterally withdraw from Cease Fire Agreement then please tell us what have you done to put that right? And what has been the result of your actions?

14. Did you know that 95% of Tamils voted in 2004, for LTTE as their sole representatives?
We are extremely concerned about how this government behaves and treats the Tamil community. We are using all the means available to us to press the government to do otherwise. However the current government remains as a democratically elected government in power at the moment. Government of Sri Lanka was elected through a ballot box.

It is not for Britain to solve the problem. Just like in Zimbabwe, both parties within the country with the help of the big regional neighbour like the Republic of South Africa have to solve their own problems.
Since 2001 when the LTTE was proscribed there has been only a single attempt to de-proscribe in October 2007. This was rejected by the Home Secretary in February 2008. Appeal against this decision is possible.
As far as I know the LTTE has never stood for a democratic election. (People shouted TNA’s mandate...TNA’s mandate)

15. What is Britain doing about the internally displaced people and why can’t Britain take this matter through the UN Security Council?

16. As journalists are prohibited by the government from reporting from the Vanni and other parts, did you realise that the information that you are getting is at least 6 months out of date. As a journalist who worked both in Sri Lanka and in the UK I am asking what if any the UK Government has done to prevent journalists being killed, abducted and arrested?

17. Britain played a major role in proscribing the LTTE within the European Union. It is a well known fact. Britain with its imperial past which created this turmoil in Sri Lanka. You created this problem by merging more than one kingdom that existed into a single country. Now you better sort it!

It is a judgment that the British Government has made to deal with this issue through the UNHRC rather than the UN Security Council. It is a tragedy that such a large number of people have been internally displaced. Through UN, ICRC and others we are seeking from both parties to ensure safe passage and access for supplies of food and medicines to reach the affected people.

You are absolutely right that there should be access given to journalists. We are constantly pressing through the EU and the UN to protect against these abductions and disappearances.

We do not have the right to tell any country how to rule or run their country. All we can do is with our international partners we can press for better governance and compliance to human rights laws.

At this point Rt. Hon Gareth Thomas MP declared that the Foreign Minister will be leaving now to engage in other official matters. Just when the two Ministers were coming down the stage stairs, a young Tamil stood in front of the crowd and chanted “we want Thamil Eelam”...”we want Thamil Eelam”....”our leader is Prabakaran”... The crowd repeated these slogans very loudly and clearly.

Hon Robert Evans Member of European Parliament related his experiences during his various visits to Sri Lanka. He was non-apologetic for his team’s press statement after their recent visit to Sri Lanka as an EU Delegation. He explained the various excuses that the GoSL gave to delay and possibly shorten their trip to the East of Sri Lanka where he was scheduled to meet Pillayan, the new Chief Minister and spend time exploring the ground situation without any government agents present. He said that they were amazed how the government claims on the one hand that the East has been ‘cleared’ yet the delegation was not allowed to travel to Batticaloa (East of Sri Lanka) due to security problems. In the end, the delegation never went to the East of Sri Lanka at all.

He also said how he found the LTTE running a very efficient general administration and hospitals within the Vanni area soon after Tsunami struck Sri Lanka.

The meeting came to a close soon after 8.30pm.

September 16, 2008

Negative Portrayal of Muslims on Teledramas

by Hameed Abdul Kareem
 
A few days ago, while switching channels on the idiot box, I happened to come across a scene in a tele-drama, where a Sinhalese boy was demanding some item or the other for free from the ‘mudalali’ seated at the cashier table at a ‘Thambi kade’. The ‘mudalali’ happened to be one of those stereotyped Muslims depicted so often in movies and on TV programmes.

Our ‘Thambi Mudalali’ was portrayed wearing a ‘Thambi’ prayer cap and had a beard that covered his entire chin and yes, he carried a huge pot belly and wore a tight white banian to complete the picture of your standard TV Muslim. 
 
Unmoved by the poor boy’s pleas, the unfeeling ‘Thambi Mudalali’ demands money for the thing the boy wants. The boy then becomes sullen. What’s the message here? ‘Thambiya’ is heartless. All the while the ‘Thambi Mudalali’ is speaking in heavily accented Sinhala, which maybe the case with a few Muslims from the outstations but wholly untrue of a majority of us.
 
To cap it all, the ‘Thambiya’ mispronounces the Sinhalese words to cause hilarity among the blue blooded Singhalese audience – giving them a feeling, probably, of superiority over the Muslims. But this is not about good manners, is it? It’s about brainwashing the Sinhalese with negative images of the Muslims or ‘Thambiyas’. 
 
I wonder how they would react if similar programmes were televised in Britain, casting the large Singhalese migrants living there in the same light?
 
Now back to the tele-drama. A Sinhala youth - so assumed because of his fluency in the language as opposed to the ‘Thambiya’s’ faulty Sinhalese - enters the ‘kade’ and remonstrates with the ‘Thambiya’, telling him he won’t go ‘bunkload’ if he obliges the poor boy. But the recalcitrant ‘Thambiya’, looking over his eyebrows in a wily sort of way, insists he be paid his ‘salli’ for the item.
 
And the message here? ‘Thambiya’ is greedy! Then in a ‘gallant’, move our Sinhala youth turns hero. He filches the item the boy is clamouring for and hands it over to him, in the process telling the ‘Thambiya’ something that I just couldn’t gather. The grateful Sinhalese boy runs away with whatever he had wanted as happy as ever, with the helpless ‘Thambiya’ still crying for his ‘salli’ like as if his whole life depended on a few bucks.
 
The message is clear. The Sinhalese are good - the Muslims are bad. I switch channels. Thank God for the remote control. I had had enough of anti-Muslim propaganda for one day and I had still to watch Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News later in the day.  
 
 It is sad that the producers of such anti-Muslim tele-dramas don’t realise that all such propaganda productions have their side affects. In this case, the producers are teaching young Sinhala boys that it’s okay to demand something for free from a ‘Thambiya’ and it’s okay also if a Sinhala youth actually steals from a Muslim for the happiness of one of his ‘brothers’.
 
And yes, its okay, if young Sinhala children run away with property they jolly well know is stolen. Is that the message TV producers want to convey to their large audiences, especially the youth and thus set the stage for perpetual conflict.
 
All these anti-Muslim propaganda movies make Muslims feel like aliens in the land of their birth. Muslims are projected as parasites living off the big hearted Sinhalese who have given up so much for their well being. That in sort is the ‘history’ that is being drilled into the minds of the Singhalese – especially children.
 
Television is a powerful medium. It creates lasting images. And so, instead of dehumanising Muslims, wouldn’t it be better if this powerful medium shows Muslims and all other minorities in a better light and thereby promote better understanding among the different communities living in the country?
 
After all, there are Muslims in virtually every profession. Wouldn’t it be a good idea to show a Muslim surgeon going about his work; or a Muslim charted accountant making his contribution to society and family?
 
If democracy means what it’s supposed to mean, then people must be free of stereotypes in the media. Such pigeonholing gives them a warped impression of a section of their countrymen which will in turn alter their behaviour towards them.
 
Tele-drama producers have a bigger sense of responsibility and must make it a point to avoid stereotyping of any religious or ethnic group, not only of ‘Thambiyas’.
 
If nothing is done to stop the vilification of Muslims on TV, people might believe there is a sinister motive behind such stereotyping.

September 10, 2008

International PEN's Writers in Committee protests the detention of Tamil journalists

By International PEN's Writers in Committee

International PEN's Writers in Committee protests the detention of Tamil journalists V. Jasikaran and J. S. Tissainayagam, who have been held for six months under terrorist legislation, apparently for their critical writings. PEN is also seriously concerned about allegations that both men have been subjected to torture and ill treatment by the Sri Lankan authorities in Colombo. International PEN seeks assurances of their well being, guarantees that their basic rights are being respected and demands that they are given full access to all necessary medical care as a matter of urgency. International PEN calls for the immediate and unconditional release of both journalists, in accordance with Article 19 of the United Nations International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to which Sri Lanka is a state party.

According to International PEN's information, on 6 March 2008 V. Jasikaran, a Tamil journalist, owner of the E-Kwality printing works and reporter for the news website Outreach Sri Lanka (http://outreachsl.com/en/), was arrested with his wife V. Valamathy, by the Terrorist Investigation Division (TID) in Colombo. The following day, on 7 March, Tamil journalist for the Sunday Times newspaper and editor of Outreach Sri Lanka, Jayaprakash Sittampalam Tissainayagam, was also arrested by the TID, following a visit he made to the offices of the TID requesting information about the detention of his colleague. There were no detention orders for their arrests. Initial reports suggested that V. Jasikaran and J. S. Tissanayagam were accused of receiving money from the Tamil Tiger rebel group; however it is widely believed that the two men are targeted for their reporting and analysis on the ongoing conflict between government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) in the northern part of the country. Several other Tamil journalists have been arbitrarily detained since 7 March 2008, including three contributers to the website www.outreachsl.com. They were released after being questioned. According to Amnesty International, 'The Emergency Regulations, issued by the President, introduce broad-based and vaguely-defined "terrorism" offenses, which have been used to silence critical journalists and generally suppress freedom of expression in Sri Lanka.'

J.S. Tissainayagam was held under renewable 90-day detention orders for five months before being charged on 25 August 2008 as follows: 1) offences under the Prevention of Terrorism Act: in respect to printing, publishing, and distribution of the magazine North Eastern Monthly, between 1 June 2006 to 1 June 2007; 2) offences under the Prevention of Terrorism Act in respect of bringing the government into disrepute by the publication of articles in said magazine; and 3) the violation of Emergency Regulations by aiding and abetting terrorist organisations through the raising of money for said magazine. It is said that North Eastern Magazine was known to be a pro-Tamil English-language publication that closed down over a year ago. It was not considered to be pro-LTTE. His trial is due to start on 18 September 2008.

On 19 March, J. S. Tissainayagam filed a complaint before the Supreme Court, claiming that since his arrest he had been tortured, suffered discrimination because of his ethnicity and denied equal protection under the law. He is held with very limited access to his family, legal representation and to information on his case. J. S. Tissainayagam requires surgery for a detached retina and he has been denied full access to the medical care he needs. He is being held in very poor prison conditions, which together with high levels of stress and exposure to light could seriously damage his sight.

Fellow Tamil journalist V. Jasikaran has also reported being subject to torture since his arrest. On 23 June, V. Jasikaran stated in court that he had been assaulted by members of the TID and the police during his detention. Reports say that V. Jasikaran's wife, who is also detained in the case apparently solely for her association with V.Jasikaran, had undergone an operation shortly before her detention, and has been denied access to medical care.

It is not yet clear if V. Jasikaran and his wife have also been charged.

BACKGROUND

The Writers in Prison Committee recommends Amnesty International's report 'Sri Lanka: Silencing Dissent', available in http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/info/ASA37/001/2008
The International Federation for Journalist (IFJ), has a video campaign for J. S. Tissainayagam's release. To see "Release Tissa" visit http://asiapacific.ifj.org/en/articles/free-tissainayagam

Click: For the BBC's country profile on Sri Lanka

RECOMMENDED ACTION

Please send appeals:

* Expressing serious concern about the detention of J. S. Tissainayagam and V.Jasikaran, who appear to be held solely for their legitimate journalistic activities, and calling for their immediate and unconditional release in accordance with Article 19 of the United Nations International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights;

* Urging the Sri Lankan authorities to ensure that J. S. Tissainayagam and V. Jasikaran are not tortured or ill-treated, and that are allowed unrestricted access to their families, defence and the specialist medical care they require while in detention;

* Expressing concern about an apparent pattern of repression against journalists and human rights activist in Sri Lanka.

Appeals to:

1) His Excellency the President Mahinda Rajapaksa
Presidential Secretariat
Colombo 1
Sri Lanka

Fax: +94 11 2446657
Salutation: Your Excellency

2) Hon. Amarasiri Dodangoda
Minister of Justice and Law Reforms
Ministry of Justice and Law Reforms
Superior Courts Complex,
Colombo 12
Sri Lanka

Fax: +94 11 2445447
Salutation: Dear Minister

3) H. M. G. S. Palihakkara
Ambassador
Permanent Mission of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka to the United Nations

#630, 3rd Avenue (20th Floor)
New York 10017
United States America
mail@slmission.com
Fax +1 (212) 986-1838

Please copy appeals to the diplomatic representative for Sri Lanka in your country if possible.
***Please contact this office if sending appeals after 9 October 2008***

For further information please contact:

Cathy McCann at International PEN Writers in Prison Committee

Brownlow House, 50/51 High Holborn, London WC1V 6ER
Tel.+ 44 (0) 20 7405 0338
Fax: +44 (0) 20 7405 0339, email: cathy.mccann@internationalpen.org.uk

Cathy McCann
Researcher, Asia/Middle East
International PEN Writers in Prison Committee
Brownlow House
50-51 High Holborn
London WC1V 6ER.
Tel.+44 (0)20 7405 0338
Fax: +44 (0)20 7405 0339
www.internationalpen.org.uk

Civilians at risk as aid workers are told to pull out

Statement by Amnesty International

Tens of thousands at risk as government tells aid agencies to leave war-torn Wanni
 
The Sri Lankan government's decision to tell United Nations (UN) and non-governmental aid workers to leave the war-torn northern Wanni region will put the lives of tens of thousands of people trapped between the two sides of the conflict at risk, Amnesty International warned today.

Sri Lankan staff of international aid agencies left behind in the Wanni fear that the withdrawal of international staff will make them more vulnerable to abuses by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), commonly known as the Tamil Tigers.

Amnesty International has also received credible reports that the LTTE has prevented civilians from moving to safer places in government controlled areas. The LTTE are also now actively recruiting children in the camps for the newly displaced.

Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International's Asia Pacific Director, said:

"Aid agencies provided a lifeline to tens of thousands of trapped civilians. If aid workers are pulled out of the region, food, shelter and sanitation supplies have even less chance of reaching civilians most in need.'

Aid workers in the Wanni told Amnesty International that they feared the government lacks the capacity to provide basic essentials and safety for those who have had to flee their homes as fighting has intensified between Sri Lankan forces and the LTTE. Seven international aid agencies, including the World Food Programme, were providing emergency food assistance in the Wanni.

'The Sri Lankan government has now assumed total responsibility for ensuring the needs of the civilian population affected by the hostilities are met. If the government is telling aid workers to pull back, then it must show it has the capacity to feed and protect its own citizens left behind,' said Sam Zarifi.

Amnesty International called on the Sri Lankan government to allow independent international monitors into the Wanni to oversee and ensure that convoys with food, medical and other essential supplies enter into the area, as well oversee the distribution of such supplies.

'Independent monitors are essential to help ensure that basic necessities are reaching those in need, without discrimination. Without independent monitors in the region, there will be a complete void of information about any casualties or the state of shelters," said Sam Zarifi.

Despite government claims about setting up humanitarian corridors allowing for the safe passage of civilians out of the Wanni, Amnesty International has only received reports of unrestricted passage through the Omanthai checkpoint. Under international law, the government should ensure that people know where these corridors are and how they can reach them.

Background

· On 8 September, the government announced that it could no longer ensure the safety of aid workers in the area and requested that United Nations and humanitarian agencies staff move out to government-controlled territory.

· Under international humanitarian law, both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE are obliged to treat those not taking active part in the hostilities humanely at all times, and without discrimination. In addition to prohibiting directing attacks at such people or carrying out indiscriminate attacks, this provision includes the obligation to ensure that humanitarian supplies reach all of those who need it.

· The United Nations has begun shifting international workers from Kilinochchi to government-controlled Vavuniya. The International Committee of the Red Cross has issued a statement that it plans to continue assisting those in need, regardless of location.

· The Sri Lankan military has launched a major offensive to reclaim areas of the north and east previously controlled by the LTTE. Families have been displaced several times while fleeing from aerial bombardment by government forces.

Vavuniya raid would not turn the tide

By B. Raman

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which is increasingly under pressure due to a war of attrition waged against it by the Sri Lankan Armed Forces in the areas controlled by it in the Northern Province, launched a surprise land-cum-air attack on a vital military complex of the armed forces at Vavuniya, about 260 kms North of Colombo, in the early hours of September 9,2008.

Even after allowing for the usual exaggeration by the spokesmen of the Armed Forces in projecting the progress made by them, it is evident from independent reports that the LTTE has been forced to fight a defensive battle to retain the territory under its control and to prevent a weakening of its conventional capability due to the loss of its weapons holdings during the battle and its inability to replenish them through smuggling from abroad. While the morale of the LTTE's experienced officers and cadres remains high, it has not been able to reverse the tide of the battle against the armed forces. Even its wing responsible for mounting acts of terrorism in Sinhalese territory has been facing difficulty in mounting spectacular terrorist strikes due to a shortage of cadres trained in suicide terrorism and low stocks of explosives.

While the Army's oft-repeated hopes of being able to defeat the LTTE decisively on the ground by the end of this year seem over-optimistic, the tide of the war continues to be in favour of the army. There are two questions involved---- defeating the LTTE conventionally and destroying its capability for continuing its struggle for Tamil Eelam through acts of terrorism. The achievement of both these objectives will depend upon a critical weakening of the morale and motivation of the LTTE officers and cadres, leading to increasing desertions and splits in the organisation. There are no signs of such a weakening of the morale and motivation. Despite the repeated and ruthless use of air strikes against the LTTE by the Sri Lankan Air Force (SLAF) and despite the vast superiority in numbers and equipment of the armed forces due to regular flow of supplies from Pakistan, China, Israel and even India, the LTTE has been fighting doggedly, inflicting increasingly heavy casualties on the Army, which is not admitted by the Government. Thus, the attrition is on both sides. The only advantage enjoyed by the Army is that it is able to make good the attrition through material procured from Pakistan, China, Israel and India with money given by Iran, whereas the LTTE has not been able to make good the attrition.

The continuing strong morale and motivation of the LTTE officers and cadres and their ability to take the armed forces by surprise became once again evident from the spectacular and audacious attack jointly mounted by the planes, the artillery and suicide commandoes of the LTTE on the Vavuniya military complex, which co-ordinates the operations of the Armed Forces against the LTTE. It was as spectacular and audacious as a similar attack on an SLAF base at Anuradhapura in October last year and as well-planned and well-executed.

The operation, which lasted about three hours, started with a sustained artillery attack in the dead of night followed by bombing by two aircraft ( Zlin 143 )of the LTTE and this was followed by the infiltration of the complex by 10 suicide commandoes (Black Tigers), five of them women. All of them died during the attack, but not before killing 11 personnel of the security forces and badly damaging the equipment kept in the complex, including an Indra radar supplied by India. Among those injured were two Indian radar technicians. It is not clear whether they had been permanently attached to the radar station or come there on a short visit to do the periodic maintenance of the radar. The injuries sustained by the two Indian technicians were not life threatening, but required initial hospitalisation at Colombo.

While the LTTE has stated that both its aircraft returned safely to base, the SLAF has claimed that one of its fighter planes (F-7s) ,which had taken off from the Katunayake airfield near Colombo on gettng information of the approach of the LTTE planes ,managed to chase one of them as they were returning to their base after the bombing and shot it down over the skies in the LTTE-controlled Mullaittivu area. However, the SLAF spokesman ( Squadron Leader Sanjaya Adhikari ) admitted that it had no video coverage of this engagement in proof of its claim.

As it did after the Anuradhapura raid of last year, the SLAF has tried to project the LTTE raid as a fiasco, which failed in its objective. However, independent reports say that as had happened in the past, the SLAF was once again taken by surprise and was slow to react. The LTTE aircraft managed to drop their load of bombs in the vicinity of the radar station and flee from the scene without being intercepted by the SLAF planes.

While the Air Force version of the incident claimed that the Indian-supplied radar did not suffer any damage, the version given by the Sri Lankan Navy in its web site did admit some damage to the radar, but it claimed that it was slight. A web blog run by the Sri Lanka Naval Intelligence said: “ Reports indicated that the radar system was slightly damaged after a bomb fell close to it. Two Indian nationals operating the radar system were injured in the blast.”

The two LTTE aircraft were over the complex for about six minutes. During this period, any SLAF aircraft taking off from Katunayake could not have reached Vavuniya and intercepted the LTTE aircraft.

While the Sri Lankan Armed Forces repeatedly exaggerate their successes and play down their losses, the LTTE generally gives a factual account of the battles. Even if it did badly in the battles, it does not try to cover up its failures. This is one of the reasons for the high credibility enjoyed by the LTTE's statements in the eyes of its cadres, the Tamil population and diaspora abroad. The LTTE version of the Vavuniya operation has more credibility than the version put out by the Sri Lankan Armed Forces.

Even if it is established that the radar has been severely damaged, if not destroyed, this should not affect the on-going ground operations of the Sri Lankan Army. The mastery of the skies enjoyed by the SLAF during day time ensures that the LTTE planes could not pose a threat to the troops engaged in battle. The absence of a radar would not also affect the punitive air strikes made repeatedly by the SLAF on LTTE-held positions. The successful Vavuniya raid would be a morale-booster for the LTTE cadres, but would not turn the tide of the battle against the armed forces. (10-9-08)

(The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. E-Mail: seventyone2@gmail.com )

September 09, 2008

Release Tissa: IFJ Launches Video Campaign to Free Sri Lankan Journalist

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and its local affiliates in Sri Lanka today launched an online campaign video condemning the arrest and indictment of senior Tamil journalist J.S. Tissainyagam, whose passed his sixth month in jail on September 7.

All individuals and organisations are invited to join the campaign to Stop the War on Journalists in Sri Lanka and watch the "Release Tissa" video at http://asiapacific.ifj.org/articles/free-tissainayagam to help generate international support to end the attacks on free media in Sri Lanka.
Tissainayagam was arrested on March 7, 2008, while working as the editor of the online magazine www.outreachsl.com.

After being held for five months without charge, Tissainayagam has been formally indicted by the High Court of Sri Lanka under emergency and anti-terrorism laws, according to the Free Media Movement (FMM), an IFJ affiliate.
The indictment reportedly refers to the printing, publishing and distribution of the North Eastern Monthly between June 1, 2006, and June 1, 2007; alleged offences to do with bringing the Government into disrepute; and the violation of 2006 Emergency Regulations with regard to allegations of aiding and abetting terrorist organisations through raising money for the magazine.

"The indictment against Tissainyagam in a country where journalism and journalists already face extreme threats marks a dangerous turning point for freedom of expression and the right to information in Sri Lanka," IFJ Asia-Pacific said.

"The IFJ joins the international press freedom community in supporting our Sri Lankan colleagues who continue tirelessly to fight for the safety and protection of their colleagues and friends, including Tissainyagam."
For further information contact IFJ Asia-Pacific on +612 9333 0919

The IFJ represents over 600,000 in 122 countries worldwide

September 08, 2008

Tamils in Sri Lanka: Time to ponder a new future

By Dr.  Rajasingham Narendran

"When you clench your fist, no one can put anything in your hand, nor can your hand pick up anything," – An African proverb.

We, the Tamils of Sri Lanka, have reached a defining moment once again in our post-independence history.  What we want to be as a people vis-a- vis the other peoples and what the other peoples want to be vis- a- vis us, will define what the future holds for us in Sri Lanka.  Our position in the socio-politico-economic life in Sri Lanka is currently defined in terms of terrorism and terror, instead that of hapless victims of pernicious majoritarianism.

Our struggle to free ourselves from the grips of this scourge has failed because of poor leadership offered by our politicians and militants. Our inability as a people to influence the direction in which we were led has also contributed in no small measure to our situation today.  The circumstances under which the demand for Ealam arose and militancy came to dominate our lives as a people no longer exist. The times, context and our circumstances are different now. The time is now to heal our mortal wounds (To put it more bluntly, the time has come for us to lick our mortal wounds!) to survive and thereafter re-invigorate, rejuvenate and re-invent ourselves as a people.  We cannot continue to fight any longer for what has become the LTTE’s (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) cause and heap more misery on ourselves.  There is a time to plough, a time to sow and a time to reap. There is also similarly a time to fight, a time to make peace and a time to accept defeat.  We have to change our political, social and economic aspirations to suit the times and circumstances we are presently in and envision for the future.  The imperative now is to survive as a people, both quantitatively and qualitatively.  If we fail to take up this challenge, we may end up as a footnote in the history of Sri Lanka.  This is not a time to debate and research how the Sinhala majoritarian governments have failed us, but to understand why we missed several excellent opportunities to resolve our problems pragmatically and hence failed ourselves.

The attempts to trivialize the grievances of the Tamils, especially by a generation of Sinhala men and women, who grew up during the Tamil militancy and are largely unaware of the circumstances that seeded it, is sad indeed.   The loathsome terrorism that increasingly dominated Tamil militancy does not negate in any way the terrorism that  Tamils were subjected in their everyday life, since the late 1950’s.   The Tamils who were victims of the ethnic riots and the unbridled violence associated with these,  assaulted and maimed on trains, stoned by men including Buddhist monks while being escorted as refugees to the north and east, called ‘Para-Demalas’ to their face,  insulted in deplorable language by Buddhist monks on their climb to pray at Kathiramalai in Kathirgamam/Kataragama, know what it is to be unprotected by  their  government and its security apparatus because they were Tamils, and subjected to the derision of their fellow citizens. The Tamils who were denied University admission, at the end of a youth sacrificed preparing for it, know the pains of being discriminated and the frustrations associated with it. Those Tamils, who had gained high marks at the ordinary and advanced level examinations, remember the insult they suffered when the likes of Cyril Mathew attributed these to favouritism by Tamil examiners! The obstacles created for the Tamil entrepreneurs who wanted to invest in industry in the north and east cannot be forgotten. I (also a victim of the 1977 riots in Kandy) remember the late Senior Superintendent of Police- M.Shanmugam- a Tamil, who had bravely led the defense of Kandy against the JVP (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna) in 1971, reduced to utter helplessness in the face of insubordination of his Sinhala junior officers, during the height of the 1977 anti-Tamil riots! There are thousands of such instances that can be narrated, which could run into volumes.

This is not the time to rehash these.  This is the time to move on while remembering this past, as a lesson for the future.  The refusal to concede Tamils have genuine grievances that are unique to them as citizens by a strident minority among the majority community is unfortunately one stumble block to national reconciliation in Sri Lanka.  It is time for Sri Lanka as a 'nation state' to learn the lesson, if she has not learnt it yet, that she must convince her minorities that it is worthwhile for them to remain within, if she is to avoid disintegration, if not now, but some time in the future.  The vast majority of the Sinhala people are beyond rebuke.  They were also bystanders in the political drama that has unfolded since independence.  They are not at fault for what befell Tamils in independent Sri Lanka, as much as the majority of Tamils are not responsible for the terrorism and brutality unleashed by the LTTE and other Tamil militant groups. Tamils as a people have to build bridges to reach this silent, bewildered, scared, confused, honourable and decent majority among the Sinhala people.  We have to come to know each other better. We have to lose the fear of each other. We have to re-discover each other as a people, as we have been estranged for too long.  We have much to contribute to each other as fellow citizens. We should be friends, partners and competitors, not enemies. 

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE) have been the dominant force in indigenous Tamil politics over the past three decades. The traditional Tamil political parties have been marginalized over the same period.  Their existence is irrelevant to the  indegenousTamils in Sri Lanka today, as they do not have the political space to function independently and do not have the leadership capable of  bravely chartering a new course.  The fragments of the other Tamil militant movements masquerading as  democratic formations, are propped up by the government  of Sri Lanka and survive at its mercy.  The LTTE is in a defensive mode today, fighting for its own survival  in the territorial and politico- military space it had bravely and brutally carved for itself at great cost to the Tamils, over three decades.  Even if the LTTE, overcomes the odds stacked against it by the Sri Lankan armed forces and the other forces- both internal and external- aligned with the government, it is no longer relevant as a liberation movement. It has earned itself a nuisance-curse value in the future of the Tamils, by its callous brutality, absence of a realistic vision , total lack of political acumen and moral principles, unbridled arrogance and a lack of respect for the people it claims to represent. The LTTE has led us for three decades  on a ‘ Wild Goose chase’ that has  almost destroyed us as a people. The LTTE has become an unbearable burden we have to unload from our shoulders. The sooner the better!

The following paragraph from the book 'Roots' by Alex Haley is worth repeating here, in relation to the situation with the Tamil militants.  Kunta Kinte the central character in the novel reminisces on the slave masters in the United States and the white men and black men who hunted for slaves in Africa, "As much as he hated slavery, it seemed to Kunta that no good could come of the white folks giving guns to blacks. First of all, the whites would always  have more guns than the blacks, so any attempt to revolt would end in defeat. And he thought about how in his own homeland, guns and bullets had been given by the toubub (white slave hunters) to evil chiefs and kings, until blacks were fighting blacks, village against village, and selling those they conquered- their own people-into chains."  The similarities to events in Sri Lanka are frighteningly obvious!

What the Sri Lankan governments began has been taken to the desired conclusion by the LTTE and other Tamil militant groups.  The LTTE and other Tamil militant groups have been better auxiliaries to  Sri Lankan governments than  Sinhala goons and thugs. Why the LTTE has failed in its avowed mission has been analyzed by many from many angles. While there are yet many Tamils who harbour illusions about the LTTE, this is the result of their ignorance of facts or inability to reconcile with realities. The LTTE –a  military cum political organization- is the one among many, those Tamils under forty  years of age have known all their lives, and unless alternative and acceptable democratic formations emerge, their- especially those in the Diaspora- sympathies may continue to be with the LTTE. The LTTE and other existing  Tamil political formations are irrelevant to the future of the Tamils. This is a fact we have to be cognizant, when formulating our thoughts about the future. While the sympathy, concern, assistance, expertise and investment of the Tamil Diaspora are necessary and are to be appreciated and welcomed, they should not be in a position to decide what is good on the political front for the Tamils living in Sri Lanka.  These are the Tamils who have chosen to live in Sri Lanka, by willful choice or by not having the opportunity to choose.  These are the Tamils who have lived through three decades of horror. These are the Tamils who have been caught in the jaws of a nutcracker for almost all their lives. These are the Tamils who will continue to live in Sri Lanka, come what may.  The Tamil Diaspora should not be permitted to play a decisive role in our affairs any longer.  Their grievances, hate, revenge and dreams should not continue to be our burden. They live in the past with reference to Sri Lanka and have not experienced the present.  Their lives, lifestyles and aspirations are now different from ours. They are Tamils of Sri Lankan origin, but no longer Sri Lankan Tamils. They are our kin, but not our fellow citizens. They no longer know what is good for us.  The unstinted and unquestioning support of the Diaspora, bordering on reverence, undoubtedly led the LTTE astray and to its alienation from most Tamils living in Sri Lanka.

The indigenous Tamils are worse off today in all aspects of life, compared to the situation three decades back. We are a minority that is in retreat and  decline, not only in numbers, but in all qualitative and quantitative aspects of life that delineate us as a people. The Tamils of so-called Indian origin, have no doubt made tremendous progress over the past three decades, principally due to the pressures the government had come under on account of the Tamil insurgency in the north and east and the acumen of the late Saumyamurthy Thondamen, to use these circumstances to wrest benefits for his people. Unfortunately, the Tamils of Indian origin no longer have such a sagacious leadership and are saddled with a self-centered, corrupt and visionless one. The Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) is on the decline and is led by men of poor caliber, who are unable to re-invent the party to lead the increasingly better-educated and  upwardly mobile Tamils of  Indian origin.  Unless a new leadership emerges among these Tamils soon, the frustrations building up in the face of blinkered and insensitive governance and poor leadership could explode into violence of a new type.

A new, democratic, educated, mature, pragmatic and wise leadership has to emerge from among the Tamils- both indigenous and of Indian origin that will be acceptable to not only the Tamils, but the other peoples of Sri Lanka as well.  Tamil politics, while defining itself, has to merge into the national politics of Sri  Lanka.  We cannot afford to be the permanent outsiders in Sri Lankan politics any more.  While the problems of the Tamils should be the concern of Tamil politicians and political formations, the problems of the Sinhalese, Muslims and the other peoples of Sri Lanka should be their concern too! I am sure, when this happens, our problems will become the concern of the Sinhala polity too. The frog in the well attitudes that have defined the politics of the Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims of Sri Lanka have to be over come at the earliest, if we are to prosper as a nation. There have to be two hands to clap and two hands to shake hands!

September 03, 2008

A gem among journalists

Navamani Editor M.P.M.Azhar

By D.B.S. Jeyaraj

It was in April 1977 that I entered mainstream journalism by joining the Colombo Tamil newspaper Virakesari as a trainee journalist.

On my second day at work I was assigned to cover an agriculture related conference held at the Agriculture Research and Training Institute (ARTI) Auditorium at Wijerama Mawatha.

[M.P.M.Azhar]

When I went to the venue I found the conference was a closed-door event, restricted to government officials alone. The press was not allowed in and no scribe was anywhere around.

Possessing romantic notions of intrepid journalism, I tried to creep in quietly, but was detected and unceremoniously ejected (this was 30 years ago; nowadays I would be locked up under the PTA on account of my ethnicity). I was asked to leave the premises.

I returned to office disappointed and dejected. It was around lunch time and the Editor, News Editor and Chief Sub Editor were not around. I must have cut a forlorn figure as I sat alone dejected about failing to complete my mission.

A valuable lesson

It was then that one of the Virakesari’s senior reporters observed me for a while with a smile and then walked across to me. It was M.P.M. Azhar. He patted my shoulder and asked whether I had gone out on an assignment. I told him about what happened.

He laughed and said in Tamil, “No problem. You can easily find out what happened there.” I was, of course, puzzled about how one could get the information without being physically present at the meeting.

Azhar then telephoned some of his contacts and asked them to help me. He also helped me identify some conference participants through the official directory and told me how to approach them on the phone.

Soon I was busily picking up information from multiple sources. Azhar then instructed me how to turn the information I gathered into a news story. I did so, and when the News Editor returned to his desk, I had filed my copy and got an appreciative nod from him.

I went up to Azhar’s desk to thank him for his help. He brushed it aside and said in Tamil, “Remember, it’s best if you can see things for yourself firsthand. But even if you can’t be on the spot, there are ways and means to get to know what happened.”

I learned a valuable lesson then that one need not be physically present, on the spot, to know and write about what had happened.

The lesson that I learnt then is still applicable on a larger scale nowadays as I write about Sri Lanka from Canada.

Down memory lane

Upon hearing that veteran journalist Mohammed Pichai Muhammad Azhar had passed away, my mind went down memory lane. I recalled the incident narrated above and many others during my close association with him.

Azhar, whose soul departed on August 28, was 62 years old at the time of his death. He was a man who regarded journalism as a profession and vocation.

Azhar, who began dabbling in journalism at the age of 18, went on to found his own newspaper 12 years ago. He was the Founder Editor of the Tamil weekly Navamani, which means nine gems.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that Azhar was indeed a ‘gem’ in both his personal and professional capacity. It was my good fortune that this man took a liking to me in my tenderfoot days and took me under his wing.

As far as journalism was concerned he was friend, philosopher and guide to me as I cut my teeth as a cub reporter. In those days there was no college or academy to teach journalism. It was basically a skill you acquired on the job.

It was a harsh, tough world out there and cynical veterans had little time or patience to teach raw recruits. I was indeed lucky that Azhar became my mentor. I was privileged to learn many tricks of the trade from him. He encouraged and advised me and was proud of my progress.

He would take me to Parliament with him and allow me to watch proceedings even though I was not accredited officially to cover Parliament. This was possible then as security had not become a problem those days

Azhar also introduced me to many Muslim politicians. It was through Azhar that I first met people like Dr. Badiuddhin Mahmood, Bakeer Markar, Abdul Majeed (Muthur) Naina Marikar and A.C.S. Hameed. My first meeting with M.H.M. Ashraff was also due to Azhar.

I remember enthusiastically bombarding a senior politician with questions, displaying my knowledge. He promptly clammed up. Later Azhar admonished me gently saying, “Never show politicians you know more about a subject than them. Pretend to be an ignoramus”.

Guru and friend

He always monitored my career. This continued even after I joined the English language media. Azhar would offer both praise and criticism whenever he felt it was necessary. Later when I ran my own Tamil weekly in Canada, he was one of my primary sources of information.

After the Tigers unleashed violence and stopped the paper, I became a columnist for English newspapers in Colombo. Once again it was Azhar and senior journalist N.M. Ameen that I turned to for gaining an insight into Muslim politics. I also bought the Navamani regularly to keep myself informed of Muslim affairs.

Though his name was spelled in English as ‘Azhar’ he was called ‘Azwer’ in Tamil. I always called him “Azwer Naanaa” (Elder Brother).

I know that some people use the term “Naanaa” derisively when referring to Muslims. For me, it was a term of respect and endearment.

The Virakesari years of my life were a pleasant period. The two Muslim journalists were Azhar and ALM Sanoon. There was the photographer Nazeer and drivers Farook and Salahuddeen. We got along famously.

During my years at Virakesari, I often visited his home then at Maligawatte. Many are the meals I have had at his place then and I have also interacted with his family members.

Azhar lost his wife a few years ago in a motor accident. He was very close to her and was shattered by her death. He also sustained injuries and had a phobia of three-wheelers thereafter.

He leaves behind his mother, brother, son and four daughters. My deepest sympathies to them and other family members, as I share their sorrow over this irreparable loss.

Mohammed Pichai Muhammad Azhar was the nearest to a ‘guru’ during my formative years as a journalist. I was privileged to have him as a fraternal friend. This article therefore is a humble tribute to honour his memory.

Islamic renaissance

Azhar was one of two sons who lost his father at a very young age. His mother struggled to bring up the children in Maligawatte. While his brother Nizam became an entrepreneur, it was printer’s ink that ran in Azhar’s veins.

The Muslim youths of Maligawatte underwent an electrifying change when the pedagogue Al Haj Mukthar A. Muhammed of Weligama took up residence there.

This was a period of Islamic renaissance. Due to Mukthar’s efforts, an organisation, Majlis Islam, was set up. This in turn paved the way for the formation of the Muslim United Front.

Azhar was an executive committee member of this organisation. Some of the other prominent members were Sri Lankan Ambassador to Iran M.M. Zuhair, Attorney-at-Law Farook Thaheer, School Principal N.M.M. Razeen and Azhar’s brother Nizam.

This organisation began publishing a journal titled Puthumai Kural (New Voice) and later another, Eluchi Kural (Resurgent Voice), in Tamil.

Azhar was an editorial board member and contributed extensively to these journals. This was his journalistic baptism. His entry into professional journalism came in the late sixties of the last century when he joined the Thinapathy, run by the Dawasa group of newspapers.

Azhar always acknowledged the late Thinapathy Editor S.T. Sivanaygam as his ‘guru.’ He made his mark as a reliable reporter and soon graduated to being Parliamentary correspondent.

When the MD Gunasena group was sealed under the emergency in 1974 during Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s time, Azhar was out of a job. It was then that he joined the Virakesari.

Azhar was at the Virakesari when he married in 1976. His wife was from Malwana, the land of Rambuttan.

The Thinapathy resumed publication in 1977 but Azhar opted to remain at Virakesari.

The journalist

He was a reporter known for his accuracy and speed in filing copy. He could cover all the essentials with a great economy of words.

He was a Parliamentary correspondent for more than 25 years. He saw many politicians come and go. The quiet, soft-spoken Azhar was highly respected by Tamil and Muslim MPs. He seldom made mistakes and covered proceedings without giving cause for complaint.

At the Virakesari he was well-known for his lobby column ‘Paralumandra Palahani’ and political column ‘Arasiyal Athirvettugal.’

Azhar was also involved with the publication Uthayam run by the UNP Muslim Youth League. He was a founder member of the Muslim Media Forum and served as Treasurer from its inception.

Azhar was a devout Muslim with great social and political consciousness. He also felt deeply for the plight of the Muslim community in Sri Lanka.

The community has many grievances that needed to be articulated and redressed. It has been long felt that the community required a national newspaper to voice and address particular concerns.

Several people including T.B. Jayah and Naleem Hadjiar recognised this need and attempted to rectify it. Despite their best efforts, the birth of a newspaper for the Muslims remained a mirage.

Finally, the mantle fell on Azhar’s shoulders. With the help of two committed Muslim businessmen, M.C.M. Rizwie and Thaha Muzammil, Azhar commenced publishing the Navamani in 1996.

There were many pessimists. Yet, the Tamil broadsheet Navamani has survived mainly due to the dedication and hard work of Azhar and other idealist employees.

Navamani

Despite its popularity and valuable contribution to society, the newspaper ran into financial difficulties a year ago. Azhar and colleagues struggled to keep it going, sometimes working without remuneration.

The Muslim Media Forum stepped in and enlisted support from the community to keep it afloat. A new company was formed and funds were raised. People rallied to help Navamani. The crisis was overcome.

The mainstay of Navamani was the column ‘Arangathukul Antharangam’ and its balanced editorials. They were written by Azhar.

There are different shades of political opinion among Muslims and the newspaper gave coverage fairly to all. No Muslim politician was able to accuse the paper of being partisan to a particular party or politician.

Many Muslim leaders consulted Azhar on important issues. His advice was valued highly.

The late M.H.M. Ashraff was associated with Azhar from the days of Eluchikural. The need for a Muslim party was often discussed at Azhar’s home.

The birth of a renewed Sri Lanka Muslim Congress under Ashraff’s leadership was welcomed by Azhar. He made it a point to take me along with him for the inaugural session. The fragmentation of the SLMC after Ashraff’s tragic demise was a very troublesome matter for Azhar.

The Navamani newspaper also gave wide coverage to the problems faced by Muslim localities, particularly those tiny enclaves amidst overwhelming Sinhala and Tamil majorities.

The difficulties and dangers faced by Muslims of the north east were given full exposure. Recently, the paper campaigned hard for a Muslim to be appointed as Eastern Province chief minister.

Muslim viewpoint

Educationists, writers, poets and artistes among the community were also afforded a forum by Navamani.

The Navamani was unique in expressing the Muslim viewpoint on crucial issues. It was both an index as well as maker of Muslim opinion. As a result, the newspaper enjoyed wide readership among Muslims.

Most Muslim majority neighbourhoods had organisations called Navamani Vasagar Vattam (readers’ circle).It was a popular, people-based newspaper.

Azhar’s dream was to develop the weekly into a daily. He would often tell me that I should write regularly for the paper once it became a daily. Alas! That was not to be during his lifetime.

He was a God-fearing Muslim who observed the tenets of his religion. I have rarely heard him speak ill of anyone. Even his political criticism was sweetly, and not bitterly, expressed.

He seldom got angry but when he did it was like a volcano erupting. But it was righteous anger and everyone kept quiet on those occasions.

I have never known him to be a schemer or plotter getting into cliquish office politics. He always steered clear of such petty activity.

A true gentleman

He was a gentle man and a gentleman among journalists. A real gem of a person. I shall miss him. His death is a great loss to the Muslim community as well as to Tamil journalism.

Azhar was engaged in morning Subuhu prayer and reciting the Kaleema when he had a heart attack and a stroke.

Al Haj M.H.M. Azhar’s mortal remains were taken from his residence in Wellampitiya and buried at the Maligawatte Muslim burial grounds on the same day.

May the Almighty be merciful and grant him Jennathul Firdous.

DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at: djeyaraj2005@yahoo.com

 

September 02, 2008

Aug 30: International Day of the Disappeared

Statement by Amnesty International

In observance of the International Day of the Disappeared (which falls on August 30 each year), Amnesty International issued on Aug. 28 a report entitled:  "Asia Pacific:  Enforced disappearances in the Asia Pacific region must end".  Below are the Sri Lanka entry and the recommendations from the report.

Sri Lanka

There is a widespread pattern of enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka with several hundred cases reported in the last 18 months alone. In June 2008 the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID) noted that in two months 22 people had disappeared, 18 of them in May. Families complain that fear of reprisals prevents many from reporting cases to the official bodies. By the end of 2007, 5,516 cases of enforced disappearances remained unresolved according to WGEID.

15 May 2008 was the last day anyone saw Sebastian Goodfellow, a driver for the aid agency Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC). It is feared he has been abducted, possibly by an armed group operating with the tacit support of the security forces. NRC reported his possible enforced disappearance to the Cinnamon Gardens police station in Colombo. His family reported the same to the police in the eastern city of Batticaloa, where he is normally based. Sebastian’s case is not an isolated one. Professor Sivasubramanium Raveendranath, the Vice Chancellor of the Eastern University, disappeared from a high security zone in Colombo on 15 December 2006. Reverend Fr. Thiruchelvan Nihal Jim Brown disappeared in Allaipiddy parish in Jaffna on 20 August 2006. The cases of Sebastian Goodfellow, Professor Raveendranath, Reverend Brown and many others remain unsolved and must be promptly and impartially investigated.

Perpetrators of enforced disappearances continue to walk free. Three Presidential Commissions of Inquiry into the Involuntary Removals and Disappearances of Persons were established in the 1990s. They received about 30,000 complaints. The proceedings of the Commissions were not made available to the public and the main recommendations, including the repeal of emergency regulations, were ignored. The Commissions submitted lists of suspected perpetrators but this resulted in only a handful of convictions. No independent body has been established to investigate these violations, giving perpetrators the confidence of impunity.

Recommendations

As the cases above demonstrate, enforced disappearance and impunity for such crimes is widespread throughout the Asia Pacific region. In the first instance all governments should officially condemn the use of enforced disappearance and make clear to all members of the police, military and other security forces that the practice will not be tolerated under any circumstances. In addition, Amnesty International calls on governments in the Asia Pacific region to:

  • immediately end all enforced disappearances;

  • immediately reveal the fate and whereabouts of all persons subjected to enforced disappearance;

  • immediately release all surviving persons subjected to deprivation of liberty in violation of international law, unless they are charged with a recognizably criminal offence. Those who are not released must be brought promptly before a regular civilian court, charged with a recognizably criminal offence, and if remanded by the court, held in an official place of detention with access to lawyers, family members and the courts and given a fair trial without imposing the death penalty;

  • investigate all cases of enforced disappearance and ensure that the perpetrators are brought to justice, in fair trials without imposing the death penalty;

  • sign, ratify and implement the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances and make enforced disappearance a criminal offence under national law. States should also make the declarations set out in articles 31 and 32, recognizing the competence of the UN Committee against Enforced Disappearances;

  • Victims of enforced disappearance, which includes the families of disappeared persons, must be assured full reparation for their suffering.

    To obtain the entire report as well as other documents published by AI for the International Day of the Disappeared, please click here