By Roland Buerk
BBC News, Batticaloa
People in Batticaloa are voting in the first polls since the government drove the Tamil Tigers from eastern Sri Lanka.
The elections are for a municipal council and smaller local authorities in outlying areas.
But the party that is expected to win - the Tamileela Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal party (TMVP) - is made up of former Tamil Tiger rebels, and they have not laid down their arms.
Pradeep Master is a leading candidate for political office, standing in Batticaloa's local polls for the TMVP.
During the campaign he was out on the streets visiting shops and handing pamphlets to passers-by.
But at the age of 16, he was carrying an AK-47 for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, fighting in Sri Lanka's civil war.
The TMVP turned their backs on the LTTE, who want a separate state for Sri Lanka's Tamil minority, in 2004, but they have retained their regalia.
Like the rebels their logo is a roaring tiger's head.
The crossed rifles on the original have been replaced with a pair of shaking hands.
But the symbols are not matched by reality; the TMVP has not laid down its arms.
"Having weapons is not our wish," says Mr Master, 34, who in more recent years ran a Tiger education unit.
"But our members have been killed in Colombo, in high security zones, in courts, in public places and temples. So we had to take weapons into our hands.
"We will put down our weapons when a situation emerges where we get complete entry into a political framework and there is full security for us."
When it split from the Tigers, the TMVP was at first known as the Karuna faction led by their commander in the east, Colonel Karuna.
Their defection helped government forces to drive the rebels from the east in an operation that was completed eight months ago.
They also stood accused of recruiting child soldiers and carrying out abductions and killings.
In the run-up to the polls the TMVP's gunmen were notable by their absence from the streets of Batticaloa.
Instead there were thousands of police and soldiers deployed by the government.
Armoured personnel carriers cruised around the town and checkpoints had been set up on the roads.
But some people in Batticaloa say the elections cannot be free and fair.
Fr Harry Miller, an American Jesuit priest, arrived in the town in 1948.
He still has an attic office in the local St Michael's College where he was once principal, and runs a coconut plantation that helps pay for the Jesuits' work.
"Certainly, you cannot let people who are carrying guns take part in the election and these people are carrying guns," he says.
"They might not be waving them as freely as they did before, but the gun is their principle of existence."
Benefitting the people?
This election may be local, but it has wider significance on the island.
It is being seen as a dry run for a later province-wide vote in the east that the government says will be the foundation to devolve some power.
In combination with a major military offensive to crush the Tamil Tigers in the north by the end of this year or next, the Government hopes it will end the long running civil war.
"To destroy terrorism, one might say that the mechanisms we have used are not democratic," said Keheliya Rambukwella, a cabinet minister and the government's defence spokesman.
"But remember one thing, the final achievement that the government, its people, in terms of liberation, in terms of political stability, in terms of economic stability.
"The people have benefited at the end of the day."
Sunday, 9 March 2008
By Roland Buerk
Elections are to be held in Sri Lanka's eastern city of Batticaloa and surrounding towns in a vote the government says is key to restoring order in the area.
In the election, 101 council seats are up for grabs in the area that was recaptured by government troops a few months ago following decades of rule by the Tamil Tiger separatists.
Voting takes place on Monday after the military said heavy fighting took place between government troops and rebels over the weekend.
Keheliya Rambukwella, a government spokesman for national security and defence, said that the elections are an important step towards cementing democracy.
"Here you have democracy. There is serious development taking place. You have freedom of movement, but again, until the last six months, it was in the clutches of a major terrorist group,'' he said
Human rights groups say the government is irresponsibly rushing ahead with city and village council elections and believe violence and intimidation will taint the results.
Candidates have been unable to campaign due to fear of attack by rival parties, while armed groups have forced local officials to run as their candidates, rights groups say.
Dulani Kulasinghe, a researcher at the Colombo based Law and Society Trust rights group, said: "In such a situation, there is no possibility of free choice between candidates."
The government has sent 4,200 police officers into the area and each of the 285 polling stations will be protected by five officers.
Meanwhile, the government says at least 56 Tamil Tiger rebels and four government troops were killed in heavy fighting across the embattled north over the weekend.
Helicopter gunships were deployed against rebel strongholds in the northwestern coastal district of Mannar on Saturday, the defence ministry said.
There was no immediate word from the Tigers, but Puthinam.com - a pro rebel website - said the Tigers had killed 22 government troops and wounded a further 72.
It did not give Tiger casualties.
So far this year, the defence ministry has reported that security forces have killed at least 1,957 rebels for the loss of 117 government soldiers.
The casuality figures given by the government and the Tigers cannot be independently confirmed as journalist and rights groups are barred from the frontline areas.
Since 1983, the Tamil Tigers have been fighting to establish an independent state in Sri Lanka's north and east for minority ethnic Tamils who were marginalised for decades by governments dominated by the Sinhalese majority.
A 2002 ceasefire halted most of the fighting, but it has flared again in the past two years. The government recently said its ambition was to erradicate the Tiger group by the end of the year.
The Tigers were forced out last July when the government launched a major offensive which it says was supported by thousands of former Tamil Tigers, know as the Karuna faction.
Residents say that armed groups demand protection money, abduct civilians, forcibly recruit child soldiers and commit murders without fear of arrest.
India is planning to plant agents of its intelligence agency in the provincial councils to be set up in the Tamil-speaking northeast of Sri Lanka, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), an ultra nationalist political party, has alleged. Anura Kumara Dissanayaka, a JVP parliament member, told the weekly Lakbimanews Sunday that by forcing the Mahinda Rajapaksa government to fully implement the devolution package, contained in the controversial 13th amendment of Sri Lanka’s constitution, New Delhi was hoping to plant agents of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) in the provincial councils, which would be established in the Tamil-speaking northeast.
“India is trying to establish an economic monopoly here (in Sri Lanka), and they now need to have their representatives in Sri Lankan politics and obtain some political control too,” he said.
“We identified the 13th amendment as conforming to an Indian political agenda. The Indians were attempting to include RAW intelligence members in the northern and eastern provincial councils by this process,” he told the weekly.
The governments in the Sri Lankan northeast would be a proxy for India, Dissanayaka alleged.
He interpreted Indian President Pratibha Patil’s statement that there was no military solution to the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict as a bid on the part of New Delhi to thwart Sri Lanka’s successful military operations against the Tamil Tiger rebels in the north.
What India was doing was a repetition of what it did in 1987, when it stopped the Sri Lankan army from defeating the LTTE, Dissanayaka asserted.
India had then intervened militarily, and forced Sri Lanka to sign an accord under which power was devolved to a Tamil-speaking northeastern provincial council. Amidst street protests, the Sri Lankan constitution was amended (13th amendment) to enable this move, he pointed out.
Dissanayaka said any kind of devolution was “totally against the Mahinda Chintanaya agenda” or President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s 2005 election manifesto.
The JVP MP aleged that India had “swallowed a large chunk” of the Sri Lankan economy. India already owned 33 percent of the Sri Lankan petroleum market, he said.
“The agreement to build a coal-powered plant in Sampor by India is shrouded in mystery. Former Indian high commissioner Nirupama Rao told us that India would generate and distribute electricity and issue bills for the rate of consumption.
“We demand that the government should make public the agreement regarding the terms and conditions of the construction of the (power) plant,” Dissanayaka said.
He alleged that the Indian high commissioner in Colombo had mediated the recent meeting between President Rajapaksa and opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, where the president sought and obtained Wickremesinghe’s support for the full implementation of the 13th amendment.
“India is planning to control the Sri Lankan government in order to perpetuate Indian control over the Sri Lankan economy,” Dissanayaka maintained.
The JVP, which has 38 members in the Sri Lankan parliament of 225, holds the balance of power.
The United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) coalition government led by Rajapaksa’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) depends on the JVP for survival. The government cannot get any financial bill or financial measure passed by parliament without the JVP’s support or abstention.
At least 26 Tamil Tigers and six soldiers were killed in fierce clashes in Sri Lanka's embattled north, army said here on Sunday.
At least 10 LTTE militants were killed in clashes in Manthai area of North-western Mannar on Saturday by the army and air force gunships, the defence ministry said.
While three soldiers were killed in action, ten others sustained injuries in the incident, the Media Centre for National Security (MCNS) said.
Meanwhile, troops killed three militants in Karampekulam in Vavuniya on Saturday, the MCNS said adding two others were gunned down in Udayathikulam in the region.
One soldier also lost his life while another sustained injuries in the incident, it said. In another encounter, army troops killed four militants on Saturday in Vavuniya, the army said adding another rebel was gunned down in Periyavalankaddukulam area in the region on the same day.
Source: Times of India
By Somini Sengupta
Published: March 9, 2008
FOR 25 years, the dirty little war on this island in the Indian Ocean has stretched its octopus arms across the world. The ethnic Tamil diaspora has provided vital funding for separatist rebels; remittances from Sri Lankan workers abroad have propped up the economy; the government has relied on foreign assistance to battle the insurgency.
Today, a shifting world order is bearing new fruits for Sri Lanka. Most notably, China's quiet assertion in India's backyard has put Sri Lanka's government in a position not only to play China off against India, but also to ignore complaints from outside Asia about human rights violations in the war.
The timing is propitious. The government jettisoned a five-year cease-fire this year, and is now banking on a military victory over the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. In so doing, it has faced a barrage of criticism over human rights abuses and has lost defense aid from the United States and some other sources. And, in recent months, government officials have increasingly cozied up to countries that tend to say little to nothing on things like abductions and assaults on press freedom.
Sri Lanka's foreign secretary, Palitha Kohona, put it plainly when he said that Sri Lanka's "traditional donors," namely, the United States, Canada and the European Union, had "receded into a very distant corner," to be replaced by countries in the East. He gave three reasons: The new donors are neighbors; they are rich; and they conduct themselves differently. "Asians don't go around teaching each other how to behave," he said. "There are ways we deal with each other — perhaps a quiet chat, but not wagging the finger."
The Tamil Tigers, for their part, have succeeded in getting themselves classified as a terrorist group in many countries, including the United States, Canada and the European Union, making it harder for the guerrillas to raise money abroad.
At the same time, according to Kohona, Chinese assistance has grown fivefold in the last year to nearly $1 billion, eclipsing Sri Lanka's longtime biggest donor, Japan. The Chinese are building a highway, developing two power plants and putting up a new port in the hometown of the president of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Sri Lanka also buys a lot of weapons from China and China's ally Pakistan.
Chinese diplomacy in South Asia, grounded as it is in a policy of "harmony" and deep pockets, is of obvious concern to India. So are the sentiments of Tamils at home. Overt support from India for the Sri Lankan counterinsurgency program can be explosive among India's Tamils. But coming down hard on the government here could push Sri Lanka deeper into China's embrace.
"There is little choice," said Ashok Kumar Mehta, a retired general who was a leader of an Indian peacekeeping force in Sri Lanka nearly 20 years ago. "India's policy is virtually hands off."
Kohona, the Sri Lankan foreign secretary, noted that India's contributions had also grown, to nearly $500 million this year. India is building a coal-fired power plant and Indian companies have been invited to build technology parks and invest in telecommunications. New Delhi, like Washington, has shut the tap on direct military support, but it can still help with crucial intelligence, particularly in intercepting weapons smuggled by sea.
The picture in Sri Lanka is emblematic of a major shift from 20 years ago, when India was the only power center in the region. Now come China's artful moves in India's backyard. As C. Raja Mohan, an international relations professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, points out, China has started building a circle of road-and-port connections in India's neighboring countries, and it has begun to eye a role in the Indian Ocean, as its thirst for natural resources makes it more important to secure the sea lanes.
That offers countries like Sri Lanka ample opportunities. "Now the smaller countries have increasingly turned to China to influence India's strategic interests, and thus silence it on human rights issues," said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch. She cited Burma, where, in the 1990s, India pressed for democracy and watched the military junta sidle up to Beijing. "Now India is concerned about China's role in Sri Lanka because of control over the Indian Ocean," she said.
Iran is the latest entrant. Late last year came the promise of a whopping $1.6 billion line of credit, primarily to help Sri Lanka buy Iranian oil.
Washington still counts. Sri Lanka is sore at losing American military aid and development assistance. The United States has also irritated the government by pressing for United Nations human rights monitors after the visit last October of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour. She said at the end of her visit that "the weakness of the rule of law and prevalence of impunity is alarming."
That infuriated the government. Sri Lanka's mission in Geneva sent out acerbic opinion pieces published in Sri Lankan newspapers. One, an editorial in the pro-government newspaper, The Island, declared that "those UN knights in shining armor tilting at windmills in small countries should be told that the protection of human rights is next to impossible during a fiercely fought war." Still, criticism over human rights continues to dog Sri Lanka.
Last Thursday, a report by Human Rights Watch blamed the government for a pattern of disappearances. The same day, an international Group of Eminent Persons that the government had invited to monitor Sri Lankan investigations into human rights violations said it was leaving; it cited "a lack of political and institutional will."
The attorney general's office responded by saying that the government would reconstitute the panel with "an alternate group of eminent persons."
But however free Sri Lanka feels to dismiss Western concerns about human rights these days, there are still long-range costs it may find itself confronting one day. The real Achilles' heel for the government is looming economic trouble, as its war chest expands and inflation reaches double digits.
And in that, the world matters. For its failure to ratify certain international conventions, Sri Lanka already risks losing trade preferences with the European Union at the end of this year. And, however much China has risen in importance, Europe remains this country's largest trading partner.
By P.K. Balachandran, Colombo, March 9 :
A significant part of the forthcoming summit of South Asian heads of government would be shifted from Kandy in central Sri Lanka, to the capital city of Colombo, for "logistic and other reasons", an official said.
"A significant section of the summit will be held in Colombo for logistic and other reasons. A formal statement to this effect will be made later," Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohona told IANS Sunday.
The Sunday Times had quoted foreign ministry spokesman Ravinatha Aryasinha as saying the shift was necessitated by considerations of security, mobility and accommodation.
He said while the actual summit would be held in Colombo, the cultural programmes would be held, as planned earlier, in Kandy.
The summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), bringing together the heads of government of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Maldives and Afghanistan, was to be held entirely in the hill town of Kandy between July 27 and Aug 3.
Kandy, that houses the historic Buddhist Temple of the Tooth, was the capital of Sri Lanka prior to the take over of the country by the British in 1815. It remains the cultural capital of the majority Sinhalese-Buddhist community.
But Kandy had posed security and logistic problems. Its hill roads are narrow. There is not enough hotel accommodation to put up over 3,000 officials, support staff and journalists who are expected to descend on the tiny town that also attracts tourists in the summer months.
The government had a plan to spend SLRs.2 billion ($18.5 million) on making Kandy fit to hold the summit. According to The Nation weekly, shifting to Colombo would bring the expenditure down to about SLRs.600 million ($5.5 million).
Nevertheless, the government will have to spend SLRs.98 million (about $I million) to hold even the cultural events in Kandy.
The SAARC conference is an important event for Sri Lanka as a whole, and for President Mahinda Rajapaksa particularly, because it will show that the country is secure, though facing Tamil Tiger terrorism.
The government is of the view that its troops have gained an upper hand in the war against the Tiger separatists in north Sri Lanka. And although terrorist bombings are going on in Colombo and other parts of south Sri Lanka, the government has the manpower and wherewithal to sanitize the areas earmarked for the summit.
The Website of Lankapuvath, Sri Lanka's National News Agency was launched at the Galle Face Hotel on Wednesday. The Chief guest was Parliamentarian, Basil Rajapaksa, Senior Advisor to President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
The website is in Sinhala, Tamil and English along with audio and video clips
B. Muralidhar Reddy
COLOMBO: Sri Lanka will release 47 of the 59 Tamil Nadu fishermen detained by its Navy after they strayed into its waters on Thursday. Official sources said two of the six boats seized too would be released and the other fishermen would be produced before a magistrate.
Fisherfolk of both countries straying into each other’s waters is a common occurrence and has been a constant source of friction.
“Tigers sneaking in”
Ever since the escalation of hostilities between the Sri Lanka military and the LTTE, the authorities have been warning Indian fisherfolk to stay away on the ground that the Tigers were exploiting the situation and sneaking in under the guise of fisherfolk.
Separately, in continuing clashes along the Forward Defence Lines in the north 12 LTTE cadres and a Sri Lankan soldier were killed.
At least 40 Tamil Tigers and one soldier were killed in fierce clashes in Sri Lanka's restive northern region, officials here said on Saturday.
While five rebels were killed in Kolmoodi area in Vavuniya on Friday, another five were gunned down in Mannar, the Media Centre for National Security (MCNS) said.
One LTTE cadre was killed in Madhu in Vavuniya on Friday, it said, adding another guerrilla was fatally shot during clashes in Periyavalandikulam area of Mannar.
Separately, one rebel was killed in Periyavalandikulam area in Mannar on Friday, the defence ministry said adding two LTTE cadres were shot dead in Thirukeeswaran.
One soldier was killed in a claymore mine explosion in an army tractor by suspected LTTE rebels in Buttala on Saturday morning, the MCNS said.
Meanwhile, the LTTE claimed in a statement that four army personnel were killed in Monragalla district in southern Sri Lanka.
Source: Times Of India