Monday, April 12, 2010

Sri Lanka: Another election passes by

By Kishali Pinto Jayawardene - So another general election has passed by with a historically low voter turnout in Sri Lanka's history. This does not augur well for the so called first general election to be held in a post war environment after some three decades of active internal conflict.

Stranglehold on democratic processes

However, the record absentee voter percentage was not surprising. Given the stranglehold that the ruling administration had imposed on the democratic processes, many who were thoroughly disillusioned with the situation stayed away from the polls. Great numbers were not particularly interested either in seeing what the final outcome of this Thursday's General Elections was. The contrast with this election and January's Presidential Election could not, indeed, have been greater.

Much distasteful water has, of course, passed under the bridge since January. The fate meted out by the Rajapaksa administration to the former Army Commander and erstwhile common candidate for the Opposition at January's Presidential polls showed what would happen if a strong challenger throws down the electoral gauntlet. The lacklustre campaign mounted by the United National Party and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna in the run up to the General Elections was an inevitable byproduct of what happened consequent to January's Presidential elections. Confronted with the extreme anti-democratic actions of the government, the Opposition collapsed like the proverbial pack of cards.

No doubt, this unhappy subversion of the electoral processes is as much due to the omissions in the Opposition camp as well as due to commissions by the ruling administration. More than anything else, it was the ludicrous position and complete lack of public faith in the Commissioner of Elections that gave rise to the low rate of voter percentage this Thursday.

Perilous months ahead

The months ahead will no doubt be the most perilous for Sri Lanka's democracy. We heard talk of reform of the Constitution in a manner that raises considerable disquiet. For long, this country has grappled with the question as to whether proportional representation (PR) should be continued in its present form, whether we should go back to the first past the post or adopt a combination of the two, whether to have by elections, whether to have multi member constituencies and if so, on what basis and whether to have reserved constituencies and if so, the basis of reservation, namely whether it should be on race, religion, age etc.

A fundamental underlying principle is whether these reforms should apply across the board to all categories of elections or to any particular elections and if so, which type of elections. The questions also included as to whether (if PR is to be retained), it should be national PR, provincial PR or district PR and further as to whether two ballot papers are to be issued to each voter, one to choose the party and one to choose the individual and in the latter event, whether cross voting is to be permitted. Significantly, in the event of PR, is the choice to be left entirely to the party or is the electorate to be given some voice in the selection of candidate?

Other questions also include whether to make the production of the National Identity Card or other recognised means of identification compulsory for voting, whether to require candidates to make deposits at the time of nominations, to appoint a delimitation commission in case of constituencies being re introduced and the nature of such a commission.

The integrity and accountability of the electoral process

Yet, amidst all these complicated and complex questions of electoral systems, the very integrity and accountability of the election process remains unaddressed. While clarifying the system of elections in force in Sri Lanka is a matter of the first importance, guaranteeing to some extent at least, the proper working of the framework within which elections of any kind can be held in this country, is by far more important.

A singularly vital question in this sense is the lack of the Elections Commission and the almost total disregarding of the directives of the Commissioner of Elections reducing him to a pathetic position where he is compelled to openly admit that he has virtually no substantive authority. In all elections as well as this recent general election, we saw public property being abused to a horrendous extent. The Elections Commissioner was powerless to prevent this. The law was violated with impunity by those who should know better.

Other vital areas of law reform impacting on the accountability of the electoral process vis a vis political parties include the need for all political parties to be obliged to maintain regular accounts clearly and fully recording therein all amounts received by them and all expenditure incurred as is, for example, the requirement in Germany. This was, in fact, a major proposal put forward by the Law Commission of India, when considering reform of India's electoral laws. (Law Commission of India, One Hundred Seventieth Report on Reform of the Election Laws, May 1999)

The Law Commission recommended that the audited accounts be submitted to the Elections Commission before the prescribed date every year with the Commission being required in its turn to publish the said accounts for public information. The Commission reasoned that it was important to introduce an element of transparency and openness in the financial matters of political parties, being backed in this regard by a powerful judgement of the Supreme Court in Gajanan Bapat v Dattaji Meghe (1995, SCC, 347).

India has legal provision requiring candidates to keep separate accounts of all expenditure incurred by him or her from the date of nomination to the date of election but these provisions were made nugatory by later amendments to the Representation of the Peoples Act, 1951 which exempted expenditure of the parties and supporters of candidates from disclosure. The amendments were passed in order to offset the effect of another judgement of the Indian Supreme Court in Kanwarlal Gupta v Amar Nath Chawla (1975, 3 SCC, 646) which ruled that the section applied in its ambit to political parties and friends or supporters of candidates.

One question in this respect remains as to whether actions of commission and omission covered by offences, corrupt and illegal practices of individuals acting as agents of parties should result to the discredit of such parties rather than only the individuals. Parties themselves should be made to suffer severe penalties.

Tinkering with electoral systems

This tinkering with systems of elections without addressing the serious lack of integrity in the electoral process needs to stop. This General Elections's low voter turnout surely teaches us this very salutary lesson.

Are we serious at all about making any changes to the veritable disasters that now pass for elections in this country?

© The Sunday Times

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Monday, April 12, 2010

'Himal' and 'Economist' detained without any legal authority

By R. Wijewardene - Contraband; any item which owing to its nature is illegal to posses, import and distribute.

The word typically refers to hazardous items including narcotic drugs and firearms, but in Sri Lanka the government has now decided to include magazines in the list of dangerous items no longer welcome in the country.

Last week the entire consignment of the April 3rd issue of The Economist magazine was seized by the Customs along of with copies of the less well known Himal magazine.

Precisely why as respected a magazine as The Economist had been classed along with heroin, and pirated CDs as contraband to be seized by Customs initially baffled even seasoned observers of Sri Lanka’s arcane import procedures.

The Economist is not known to be highly dangerous or addictive. However it subsequently emerged that the magazine contained an article titled “Imperfect Peace” on Sri Lanka that might have been perceived as critical of the government.

The article dealt with the government’s insistence that all foreign aid now be channeled through an agency headed by Basil Rajapaksa.

The less well known Himal magazine also contained an article “1982 all over again,” that was less than favorable to the ruling party, drawing comparisons between the government’s present election campaign and the notoriously corrupt election of 1982 held during J.R. Jayewardene’s deeply authoritarian presidency. It seems that it was on account of these ‘anti government’ articles that the decision was taken to prevent these publications from circulating in the country.

“The shipment was detained by Customs who informed us that they had orders not to release the consignment,” said Vijitha Yapa, owner of the well known chain of bookshops and distributor of the two magazines.
“The Economist was eventually cleared however we were informed by the Media Centre for National Security that the Himal magazine could not be cleared for import. I have no idea on what basis the magazines were detained. As far as I know publications are not censored at present.”

Magazines, and newspapers have faced detention before. However on what basis the import of certain publications is restricted remains unclear. As the country does not have an official censorship regime for printed matter.

According to Yapa “The orders come from the Media Centre for National Security.”

Lawyer Upul Jayasuriya however insisted that the “Media Center for National Security has no authority to ban books and magazines as there is no censor board for publications. The detention has no legality whatsoever. This is just another symptom of the country’s descent into lawlessness,” he said.

Indeed in a country where hundreds are detained without charge, and where the Constitution is flouted on a daily basis the detention of a few magazines might seem like a trivial issue.

However the seizure of the publications is significant as it reveals that the country has reached the point of almost total authoritarianism. Legality is no longer relevant and matters of right and wrong have now been reduced to a much more base and primitive logic – that which is favorable to the government is good and anything critical of the government is bad.

This attempt to have even the import of magazines restricted reveals the government has now reached a point where it is looking to actively restrict the awareness of the population. Essentially, reviving the ancient practice of book burning.

Worst of all however is that simply restricting the import of the magazines is unlikely to prove effective. Both Himal and The Economist are available for free online and easily accessible to the English speaking public. In fact banning the magazines only afforded them more publicity, and drew the attention of far more of the public than would normally read The Economist or the virtually unheard of Himal.

“It was a real miscalculation,” said Yapa “more people read those articles than would have been the case if the magazines had been allowed to circulate freely.”

While the government’s failure to prevent people from accessing the article in this case is heartening it remains deeply troubling that such a flagrant attempt was made to prevent reputed publications from circulating within the country.

And there is now every chance the government will move to further restrict the dissemination of knowledge, opinion and information within the country. With a host of websites already blocked and publications seized at the border it appears the country is on the verge of entering a new dark age. Certainly a return to book burning appears to be a real possibility — after all why should anyone read anything beside the Mahinda Chinthanaya?

© The Sunday Leader

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Monday, April 12, 2010

Elections and media in Iraq and Lanka

By Kumar David - The March 2010 elections in Iraq were factious, frenzied and fought fiercely. Now the national assembly is on a knife edge; 91 for Iyad Alawi’s coalition, 89 for Nouri el-Maliki’s, and 145 distributed among a quarrelsome gaggle. The radical cleric al-Sadr’s group collected 65 and a Kurdish coalition 50. Now there will be weeks of horse-trading to get a working coalition. A very different outcome from the one sided presidential election of January 26 and presumably a similar parliamentary outcome, by the time you read this. The bigger contrast is the feisty vibrancy of the Iraqi media compared to Lanka’s pliant version. The worst is TV; Lanka’s sycophantic Kim-il-sung style airwaves sing eternal hosannas to mighty Rajapaksa.

There are lessons in the first shoots of noisy and venal democracy taking root in Iraq, much in contrast to the authoritarianism spreading in every space in this country. Newspapers sprouted in hundreds during the Iraqi elections; diverse, fractious, sectarian, and feverishly hostile to the other side. There was no such thing as a balanced or impartial rag, but there were so many that what any one newspaper did not provide the media as a whole amply accomplished. The press was fearlessly vocal, perhaps excessively savage since it did not need to cringe. No state owned or American chauffeured white vans roamed the streets collecting disagreeable scribes who dared thumb their noses at crummy politicos or the military. In our lovely motherland columnists who speak their mind, NGO types who critique the regime, in fact all animals with backbones, had better watch their step.

Did not enjoy the pleasure of visits by the CID

There are dozens of TV channels in Iraq; sectarian, diverse and prone to ruction. Stacks of channels supported each of the different electoral slates. Studios opposed to the government did not enjoy the pleasure of visits by the CID nor attract midnight incendiary devices courtesy the state. Indeed it was prime minister el-Maliki who grumbled that state owned TV was unfair to him and he is now complaining that the elections commissioner was prejudiced. To us locals this sounds like happenings on planet Mars.

Going different ways

Iraq and Lanka are both nations with more in common than simultaneous election cycles; both are coming out of a war both are multi-ethnic. There are three major groups in Iraq; Shia Arabs (60-65%), Sunni Arabs (20%) and Kurds (15-20%); Iraqi Kurds are not Arabs, but they are Sunni Muslims. The American war of aggression is downright illegal but now that Saddam is gone a Pandora’s Box has opened. The commotion spewing out is chaotic but such are the birth pangs of a messy democratic order and the sooner the Americans get out and leave it to the Iraqis to sort themselves out the better. There will be more violence and conflict but over time Iraq will muddle through to tumultuous democracy and serviceable pluralism though the ongoing post-election machinations are quite revolting.

Why is it that a vile and corrupt dictatorship is not taking charge as American forces withdraw? This is a pertinent question since foreign invasions, imperialist or otherwise, usually leave behind client dictatorships a la Latin American banana republics, or the South Korean and South Vietnamese dictatorships. The world has changed and mighty America too must now suffer the glare of world public opinion. It is answerable for the outcome in Iraq, a blot on its escutcheon will be intolerable; ditto Afghanistan. The relationship between world opinion and what even the high and mighty can get away with has changed in the last two decades. America cannot, for the sake of its own credibility, leave behind vile dictatorships in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Where one does see vile regimes take root is in so-called sovereign nation states, protected from the glare of world opinion, which contrive to play great powers off against each other. There is a lot of traction in that business; Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Burma, North Korea, and so on. The list is long and Lanka too stabilises itself, despite alleged atrocities, by playing the same game. Hence we have the paradox of countries which suffered the horrible misfortune of foreign invasion (over 1.5 million people died due to war in Iraq including the victims of a decade of sanctions) emerging from this hell as relatively more democratic societies, while regimes such as ours use sovereignty to hunt their own people.

Unfortunately there is a more fundamental reason than mere concealment from the outside world. Personalities, JRs, Rajapaksas, Bandaranaikes, governmentalexcess and even the slide to despotism are but surface manifestations of something deeper. I do not want to sound fatalistic but there have been social and ideological processes fermenting in the bowels of our nation for decades of which persons and governments are mere manifestations. The gut process is the surfacing of the petty bourgeois to a location from which it held sway over the state. Disastrously, a chauvinist Sinhala nationalist ideology, which accompanied and underpinned this process, placed ethnic conflict centre stage. The rise of contemporary authoritarianism and these historical processes are inseparable. This is a big topic that I must leave for another day.

What is to be done? First let it sink into our heads that there is a long haul ahead. The slide to dictatorship will drag on for some years; therefore we need to buckle down to a long war of political attrition. This realisation is the first step; second and more important, let it sink in that we must change the ways in which we act.

Stop behaving as if we live in a democratic polity - leave that to suicidal columnists! Watch your step, be careful what you say, to whom, and when, and what, and where.

Know that your phone is tapped; it’s a police state - OK! None of this means shrivelling up in fear; on the contrary it means precisely the opposite, that is, changing our behaviour with even greater determination to salvage our common humanity. Remember old Socrates - he defined courage as “presence of mind”.

© Lakbima News

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Monday, April 12, 2010

Rajapakse wins again, but battle for unity remains

by Amal Jayasinghe - It seems Sri Lanka's president, Mahinda Rajapakse, just can't stop winning. His ruling party's landslide triumph in parliamentary elections this week capped a trio of historic victories following the military defeat of Tamil Tiger rebels a year ago, and a thumping presidential re-election win in January.

Now with his ruling United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) in firm control of parliament, the opposition divided and his main political rival under court martial, his position appears unassailable.

The alliance may have fallen just short of the two-thirds majority that would have allowed Rajapakse to amend the constitution, but with a predicted 140 seats in the 225-member house, it would only need 10 outside votes to make up the required number.

The UPFA secured 117 seats in Thursday's poll and is expected to win at least half of the 45 that have yet to be declared. The main opposition United National Party (UNP) was reduced to 46 seats.

But while the president may have tightened his already formidable grip on power, analysts say he still faces serious challenges in genuinely uniting the Indian Ocean island, especially when it comes to its large Tamil minority.

In his campaigning for the parliamentary election, Rajapakse had asked the electorate to grant him an unequivocal mandate that would put aside political divisions in the pursuit of economic growth after decades of ethnic conflict.

In terms of seats, that mandate was delivered, but on the back of a record low turnout of just 55 percent that raised questions over his claims to have the country behind him.

"This turnout shows people have lost faith in the system," said author and political commentator Victor Ivan.

"The president has a serious challenge before him to restore that confidence and address outstanding political issues," Ivan said.

Previous parliamentary polls have registered average turnouts of around 75 percent, even when voters were faced with the threat of attacks by the Tamil Tiger rebels who routinely attempted to disrupt the electoral process.

The lack of voters this time around was quickly seized upon by the opposition as evidence of widespread dissatisfaction.

"For the first time, we have a parliament which has no mandate from the people," said UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe.

The clearest signal of the divisions that remain came from the Tamil minority, which has always been deeply suspicious of Rajapakse's nationalist leanings and also turned out in record low numbers.

The president had campaigned in the Tamil heartland of Jaffna and Wanni with promises of billions of dollars to rebuild the regions worst affected by the long war with the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

But his party failed to win a single Tamil district, with Tamil voters instead electing 12 MPs from the moderate Tamil National Alliance, which wants greater autonomy for the Tamil minority.

"The results show that Tamils have no confidence in the (majority Sinhalese) government," said human rights campaigner Nimalka Fernando of the National Democratic Council. "The electoral map shows the divisions very clearly."

With his second presidential term secured and a powerful parliamentary majority, Rajapakse would have no excuses for failing to deliver on pledges to address Tamil grievances, Fernando said.

"We have a situation where he can act now," Fernando said. "But it remains to be seen if he will deliver on the promises of peace and national reconciliation."

The Tamils are demanding a genuine devolution of political power, as well as redress for their complaints that discrimination by the Sinhalese majority has deprived them of jobs and education.

"The president's next move will decide the direction of the national (ethnic) question," said Colombo University history lecturer Nirmal Devasiri, who warned that failure to resolve the Tamil issue could lead to fresh ethnic conflict.

Rajapakse's response will also be carefully monitored outside Sri Lanka, with Washington pressing the president to bring the minorities into the political mainstream.

"I think it's important for the administration of President Rajapakse to reach out to the Tamils," US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Robert Blake told the BBC in an interview.

"It's important that they feel they're going to be able to live a future of hope and of opportunity," Blake said.


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Monday, April 12, 2010

Sri Lanka: Thousands Of IDPs Prevented From Voting

Photo Courtesy of Anupama Genegoda/Perambara

By Cassandra Mascarenahas - Over 30,000 people in the districts of Vavuniya and Mullaitivu were denied their right to vote at the parliamentary elections that were held last week according to TNA member Suresh Premachandran. “This was not a democratic election, there was much confusion amongst the voters in Kilinochchi, Vavuniya and Mullaitivu when it came to voting on Thursday – the government denied the people of these areas of their right to vote,” proclaimed Premachandran.

Thousands of Internally Displaced People (IDPs) who were resettled in Jaffna were told that they would have to return to Vavuniya and Mullaitivu to cast their vote and were provided buses for this purpose. The buses however were halted and turned back in Kilinochchi.

In another similar situation, resettled people in Mullaitivu were refused polling cards to vote In that area and were told that they had to go back to the Vavuniya camps to vote, throwing the people into confusion and as a result many people did not end up casting their vote.

Despite these problems, the voters in the North and North-East managed to show their support for the Tamil National Alliance as the TNA managed to get 13 seats, the highest number of seats received by a party in the North-East.

Premachandran was hopeful that the TNA would receive a National List seat as well although he admitted that it was hard to confirm anything at this point.

© The Sunday Leader

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Monday, April 12, 2010

Low turnout and invalid votes mark first post war general polls

By Satarupa Bhattacharjya - Sri Lanka’s first post-war Parliamentary general elections were held last Thursday with an abysmally low turnout of voters. While at the time of writing this report on Saturday afternoon, the official percentage of voters who cast their votes was unknown, independent observers estimated it to be between 50 and 55 per cent of the total 14 million plus registered voters (island wide).

The nodal agency for conducting polls – the department of elections – had marked the turnout at 76 per cent during the last general elections of 2004. In a statement released last Friday, the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) said, such a low turnout (55 per cent) was last witnessed in the Presidential election of 1988. “This could be the lowest turnout figure in recent history as most Presidential and general elections have had an average of 65 to 70 per cent.”

As voting closed at 4 p.m. on April 8, the CMEV said that its observers had recorded 84 major and 202 minor incidents of poll-related violence and malpractices. Rohana Hettiarachchi, executive director, People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL), said, his organisation was “concerned about the relatively low turnout of voters.”

Rauff Hakeem, Opposition candidate from Kandy where elections have been annulled and re-elections have been called due to alleged malpractices, told the Sunday Times, “The low turnout shows peoples’ lack of faith in the credibility of the electoral process.”

Independent and random visits by the Sunday Times to polling centres in Colombo on April 8 also seemed to suggest the low turnout. Thrustan College in Colombo 7 for instance had witnessed only 50 per cent turnout of the total 1535 registered voters at around 2.30 p.m. on the day of elections. While the turnout was 40 per cent of a total registered voters of 1268 at around 3 p.m. at the Ramakrishna Mission School in Wellawatta.

But apart from the apparent lack of enthusiasm in the process to elect members of the seventh Parliament, the other telling aspect of the recent polls was the rise of invalid votes. A random selection of electoral divisions in different districts would show that invalid votes ranged from 1283 in Colombo West to 6606 in Colombo Central. But the deficit was wider when results of entire electoral districts were considered. For instance, 53,000 invalid votes were recorded in Kurunegale district while in Matara district, the difference between votes polled and valid votes was about 20,000. Following the 2004 general polls, the department of elections had rejected 5.46 per cent votes as invalid. That was then against a total of 12 million plus registered voters (island wide).

Analysts tend to think that votes often turn invalid either due to sparse knowledge among average voters about this country’s complex system of voting or their outright rejection of all available choices of people and political parties. This analysis is of course made in the assumption that malpractices have not taken place. A ballot paper would become invalid when the voter had either not marked the political party or independent group or has marked more than three preferences against the numbers of candidates mentioned at the bottom of the paper. For instance, a typical ballot paper used in any of the polling centres in Colombo district last week, would have been about two feet and two inches long with 42 political parties and independent groups listed on it.

At the bottom, there would be a list of numbers from which the voter would have to choose his three preferences of candidates corresponding with the party or independent group, he/she would have voted for. The onus – to remember numbers of candidates – would lie with the voter as the ballot paper would not show names of candidates.

A detailed list naming candidates and their corresponding party/group numbers would of course be displayed on a board at the entrance of each polling centre. In last week’s elections, as many as 7,620 candidates were in the fray for 196 seats in the 225-seated Parliament. The remaining 29 MPs would be nominated from a separate National List. A total of 336 political parties/formations had participated in the recent elections apart from 301-odd independent groups. These groups with usually imaginative election symbols such as a bunch of bananas or turtle or a steam iron are, officially, not affiliated to any particular political party.

It is interesting to note that while there are 66 major recognised political parties in Sri Lanka, hundreds actually contested the elections. The recognised political parties too had their share of interesting mascots. The Socialist Equality Party for instance used a pair of scissors as its election symbol while the Sri Lanka Vanguard Party had an envelope and the United Socialist Party used the three-wheeler or tri-shaw as is known in the local lexicon. Explaining the system of proportional representation is the Article 99 of the 14th amendment to the Constitution.

According to this, “The recognised political party or independent group which polls the highest number of votes in any electoral district shall be entitled to have the candidate nominated by it, who has secured the highest number of preferences, declared elected.”

Special Polling Officers (SPOs) who are usually government workers act as supervisors for the elections. Their duties commence on the day of the polls and end in the counting centres where they accompany sealed ballot boxes along with police personnel. The department of elections conducts a brief training for the SPOs to familiarise them with election procedures prior to the polls. On an average, the department of elections pay each SPO, Rs 6,000 for two days of work including facilities such as food and drinking water. In government parlance, officers present at the counting centre who finally announce results as the counting continues are called returning officers.

Each counting centre of an electoral district accommodates up to 10,000 registered voters. Colombo, for instance, had three counting centres. The counting usually commences at each centre only after the last ballot box assigned to it has arrived. Usually, 1000 to 1500 registered voters are accommodated in each polling centre. More than 11,000 polling stations had been set up for last week’s elections which were guarded by a minimum of three police personnel each.

According to the department of elections, a total of 45,692 voters displaced by the war had registered for last week’s polls. With 26,582 displaced voters, Puttalum had recorded the highest number, followed by 15,817 persons from the Wanni. But PAFFREL which had deputed 8339 stationary and 1256 mobile observers along with 16 international monitors from the Asian Network for Free Elections island wide, said that displaced voters in Vavuniya had to face hardships as they had not been informed about the location of polling centres. In a statement, PAFFREL said, “In Vavuniya district there was some confusion among displaced voting population as to where they should go and cast their votes. Some of them took buses to Kilinochchi as they had done so during the Presidential election in January, only to find that their polling stations had been shifted to Vavuniya.”

While paper ballots are still used in Sri Lanka, electronic voting machines (EVMs) have taken over electoral processes in many other countries including India. Officials of the department of elections had told the Sunday Times earlier this year that a prototype EVM was offered to Sri Lanka by an Indian firm Bharat Electonics three years ago but political parties here are yet to consent to the use of EVMs. Universal suffrage or the right to vote at 18 years came to Sri Lanka in 1931 when the country, still under British rule, had voted to elect members of the then State Council. This country’s first Parliamentary general elections were held in 1947 – a year before Independence - when the department of elections was also institutionalised.

© The Sunday Times

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Monday, April 12, 2010

Sri Lankan tells of asylum death voyage

Twelve of Pararasasingam Paheertharan's fellow travellers drowned, including brothers aged 13 and 14 employed as crew, after people-smugglers herded him and 38 other Sri Lankan Tamils on to an ill-equipped fishing boat for an ambitious journey across the Indian Ocean.

In the first interview about last November's tragedy, soon to be examined by the West Australian coroner, Paheer said the people-smugglers promised passengers they would be transferred to a bigger vessel after two or three days sailing from Negombo, on Sri Lanka's west coast.

"After 10 days travelling we realised we were deceived by them," he wrote in an email after The Australian visited him in detention on Christmas Island last week.

"After 27 days travelling, our vessel had a hole -- we tried to remove the ocean water but we couldn't control it," Paheer wrote.

He emptied two oil canisters, tied them together and hung on in big waves after the boat sank 350 nautical miles northwest of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands on November 1.

Most survivors were taken aboard the LNG Pioneer, while others were rescued by the Taiwanese fishing vessel Kuamg, which was first to respond.

The former student union activist told how he was rescued at 3am on his 32nd birthday after eight hours in the water.

All 27 survivors, including a 15-year-old boy, remain in detention on Christmas Island.

Paheer and four other survivors await a decision on their claims for asylum, while seven have received initial rejections and can ask for an independent review.

"We never forget it, every day at night we see our people, who are shouting `please help us' from the ocean," he said.

Paheer is among those asylum-seekers who typically pay up to $US10,000 ($10,700) to try to get to Australia from Indonesia or, in his case, from Sri Lanka.

One Customs officer told The Australian he was astonished that so many dilapidated asylum boats made it as far as they did.

The dangers of the journey from Negombo to Christmas Island did not bother the people-smugglers who took Paheer's money, and for Paheer it seemed worth the risk.

Paheer recalled how, as a passenger who spoke good English, it was his job to radio for help at about 1am on November 1, when it became obvious the boat was in trouble.

Nine hours later, a fishing boat appeared. "We waved towards it, it came near us, we explained our situation, then the boat captain said `we informed the Australian government, they sent a ship'," Paheer said.

"Around 6.30pm we saw a ship coming towards us -- unfortunately before the ship came near us our vessel sank.

"I saw that some of us were swimming towards the ship, others shouting here and there, in front of me I saw three people sink into the ocean."

One body was recovered. Those who died included the boat's captain and his young nephews, brought to work as crew. A rescued 19-year-old arrived at Christmas Island with the other survivors last November believing his father had been rescued by another boat.

It was a police officer's duty a few days later to tell the young man his father was not coming, and was believed drowned.

© The Australian

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Monday, April 12, 2010

Sri Lanka: Rs. 605 Billion For Defence

In the four years from 2006 to 2009, Sri Lanka’s total defence expenditure amounted to Rs. 605 billion or U.S.$ 5.5 billion; an average of Rs. 151 billion or U.S.$ 1.4 billion per year, about 3.5 to 4% of G.D.P, Central Bank of Sri Lanka’s (C.B.S.L.’s) 2009 Annual Report said.

With the long awaited peace now in place, Sri Lanka will be able to finally create opportunities to unleash its potential to grow rapidly and usher economic prosperity to its people who have suffered from terrorism for several decades. Peace is a vital prerequisite in achieving sustainable economic growth and alleviating poverty. This is because of the adverse repercussions associated with war, which ranges from the destruction of physical wealth to the loss of human lives. In addition, wars divert resources from productive sectors to not so productive sectors.

Hence, peace is paramount as the real benefits of economic development and freedom can be enjoyed only in times of peace.

© The Sunday Leader

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Monday, April 12, 2010

Aiding and abetting to kill plurality in ‘patriotic’ Sri Lanka

by Kusal Perera - “I’m worried about an opponent who uses ‘nation building’ and ‘the military’ in the same sentence.” said George W. Bush Jnr. in Nov 06, 2000, referring to Al Gore and then to journalist Mickey Herskowitz, he said “One of the keys to being seen as a great leader, is to be seen as a Commander-in-Chief.”

So, the military has nothing to do with “nation building” and a great leader has to be seen as a Commander in Chief. This same logic of Bush would also explain that, “an Army Commander is no nation builder and also, a Commander in Chief, though seen a great leader would not necessarily build nations.”

Leaving any and all comparisons and such formal logic aside, we have had no great leaders and have not been building a nation, for citizens of this island known and named as Sri Lanka. “Nation building” is what we failed in, all through our past 62 years since independence from the British. We have failed in building a nation, where all citizens in their plurality – Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim and any other – could honestly and proudly feel they own and share it equally. A nation State that treats all as equals and provides opportunities to all, irrespective of all diversity in this society.

Politically, we have been moving away from such grand socio-political stability in a democracy, required for economic growth and development. After six decades and plus, moving away from plurality in politics, we have ended up by alienating and polarising ethno – religious societies and depriving the minorities of their rightful representation in the legislature too.

One fundamental, or cardinal rule in establishing the legislature under the Soulbury Constitution was respecting the plurality of our society. Therefore a “Delimitation Commission” was established which had to create new electorates for the new parliament, that was going to be the first elected parliament of independent Ceylon. This Delimitation Commission was provided with guidelines by the State Council which gave the Order for electoral formulation in 1946. In its 41st Section the Order said, “in any area of a Province a substantial concentration of persons united by a community of interests, whether racial, religious, or otherwise but differing in one or more of these respects from the majority of the inhabitants of that area”, the Commission should create an electorate to ‘”render possible the representation of that interest”. It also empowered the Commission to create multi-member electorates where communal groups were so intermixed as to render the carving out of a separate electorate for them, impossible.

The democratic spirit of this State Council Order in 1946 which accepted the plurality of this society and arranged for its representation in the legislature, was politically killed by the Sinhala leadership in the first parliament itself. When geographically demarcated constituencies that respected ethno religious representation were being tampered with to return pro-Sinhala representation1 to parliament, there were still a spread of minority representation in parliament from other areas. Representation brought through multi member constituencies created in different parts of the country like in Colombo Central, Colombo South, Mutur, Batticoloa and Akurana, along with other single member seats also providing enough crowding of minority votes to elect minorities to parliament. Balangoda, Beruwala, Harispattuwa and Borella were some such single constituencies.

Colombo AGA division (now Divisional Secretariat area) that has over 57% non Sinhala population, previously returned mixed representatives to parliament from 04 constituencies – Colombo North, Central, South and Borella. The 02 constituencies, Central and South elected 05 MPs between them as multi member constituencies. This guaranteed a fair representation for Tamil and Muslim citizens in Colombo, when they had 03 to 04 elected MPs from a total of 07 elected MPs.

In a multi ethnic society, such plurality in representation was a necessary healthy arrangement for democratic political life. De-limitation Commissions that came thereafter too, also worked on the premise of the Order in Council of 1946, to maintain such plurality.

Meanwhile the other political advantage then was the presence of a sizeable representation of elected MPs from the Left political parties who stood for minority rights on uncompromising democratic principles. They were very vocal and actively against the 1948 Ceylon Citizenship Act and was so, when the Language Act of 1956 was brought to parliament that made Sinhala the only official language. The old Left leadership strengthened the voice of the minorities, both in and out of parliament, a political reality that is wholly and functionally absent now.

The official representation of minorities, Tamil and Muslim representation in both the governing and opposition parties then stood around 29% to 21%, starting from the first parliament that had 101 MPs through the 1960 parliament that had 157 MPs, to the National State Assembly after 1970 that had 168 elected representatives.

This was being gradually eroded through “Sinhalisation” of the State and the establishment of a social ideology for a Sinhala nation, contradicting the very principle that established this representative democracy with independence. A gradual reduction in representation of minorities from areas, predominantly Sinhala was in the making. There was also the creation of additional Sinhala constituencies in 1981 in the East, like Seruwila in Trincomalee and Ampara in Digamadulla.

The two mainstream political parties, also aided this process of dropping minority representation from other electorates, while fielding minority candidates in North and East, in an apparent bid to encroach on Tamil nationalistic representation. Electorates like Kadugannawa (1956 – C.Abdul Sameed Marikkar), Akurana (1970 – A.C.S. Hameed MP), Balangoda (1977 – M.L.M Aboosally MP) Harispattuwa (1977 – S.H. Abdul Cader MP) and Galagedara (1960 July – Abdul Jabaar MP) that once had minority MPs representing them, don’t even get minority nominations any more, within the PR system.

The last parliament elected at the 2004 April elections therefore provided only a 16% minority representation, from all political parties. Worst is, for the first time in parliamentary history it had an extreme Sinhala representation with the JHU fielding Buddhist monks and returning 09 of them as MPs. Their first attempt at getting elected gave them only a single MP from the national list in year 2000, when Champika Ranawaka forced their party president Senior Attorney at law and respected politician but a Christian, S.L. Gunasekara to back out not only from being nominated, but from their political party as well.

This parliamentary election on April 08, has basically returned a parliament that is ideologically Sinhala Buddhist, not only with a much reduced minority representation, but with a dominant Sinhala representation from constituencies that usually allow better minority representation, like from Colombo, Kalutara and Kandy districts.

This 2010 parliamentary election left Kalutara district without its Muslim representative for Beruwala and Bandaragama Muslims. It left Colombo district Muslims with only 01 MP, when they usually have 03 MPs and Tamil representation has also dropped from 02 to 01 in Colombo. Kandy district results that would have to wait re-polling in Nawalapitiya, is also speculated to have a reduced minority representation this time.

On the flip side, especially from the UPFA the ruling party, had a more robust Sinhala representation from Colombo. The list is heavy on the top with those who are extreme Sinhala nationalist in their approach to war and power sharing. The usually minority accommodating UNF(P) was also left without their Muslim representation and a reduced Tamil representation to one in Colombo. The sad part of it all is the unusually weak Tamil voice in a parliament that once saw a very respectable Tamil leader, Appapillai Amirthalingam as the Opposition Leader.

This is no accident in a low polling election. This is conscious accommodation of Sinhala dominance in power politics with the Rajapaksa regime compromising with Sinhala extremism for its dynastic survival. With Sinhala extremism used to mobilise the Sinhala South for a war that not only decided the fate of the once formidable LTTE but also the future of the Rajapaksa regime, it brutally concluded the war leaving a human tragedy in addition to the unsolved political conflict. It is now extending its political dominance to the legislature in the absence of war and an armed conflict.

The necessity to have such political power over the State was always evident in the Western Province with the emergence of Hela Urumaya politics. With a growing trade and commerce capital in and around Colombo after the economy was opened up in 1978, the Sinhala business community felt the need to control that business that also had Tamil and Muslim business presence. The 1983 pogrom on Tamil people in Colombo and Kandy was precisely that. Targeting of Tamil businessmen like K. Gunaratnam and setting fire and looting most groceries and boutiques of Tamil people, was proof.

Concentration of “Sinhala Veera Vidhana” cells in Colombo among the Sinhala trader community and the National Movement Against Terrorism (NMAT), also a terrorising outfit politically related to the Hela Urumaya getting foot holds in Colombo, was apparently the extended politics of the 1983 July pogrom. That was conscious mobilising of the Sinhala trader community against Tamil business.

That was evident in 2004 April elections, when JHU fielded Buddhist monks as their candidates. It was only in the commercial hub of Colombo and its periphery where the Sinhala trader community is in competition to establish their dominance that JHU managed to secure 07 of their 09 MPs. Even in districts where over 90% Sinhala Buddhists vote, like in Moneragala, Hambantota and Anuradhapura, they failed miserably.

Political power in this centralised State is where the wealth is accumulated, in the Western Province (WP) and not in the rural constituencies. It’s in the WP where the Sinhala power bloc has now taken hold with its Sinhala trader community. After the war, in this first parliamentary elections, that Sinhala dominance is now evident in the legislature with its own Sinhala calling.

The Cabinet of Ministers that would endorse the politics of the Rajapaksa regime, would thus reflect the Sinhala character of the newly elected parliament and in turn the politics of the Sinhala trader community. This regime would therefore need more than a heavy push to even make it glance at the minority issues. Especially the unsolved Tamil issues.

‘Success’ has many fathers wrote one time Secretary of Defence, Austin Fernando in his very revealing public record on the 2002 cease fire agreement and its peace initiative, titled “My Belly is White”. Yet this success with Sinhala dominance would have only one father in a regime that would not allow any sharing of credit for its pursuit of war and its final victory. Its the Rajapaksa regime that now fathers this Sinhala political campaign for supremacy, waiting to be tested on its ability to hold this as a single Nation, leave alone developing it as a democratic, Nation State with equal space for all.


1. Both the 1948 Indo-Ceylon Citizenship Act which turned plantation sector Tamil people into nonentities and the changing of demographic pattern in the East through large scale agri schemes in favour of large Sinhala settlements, provided for more Sinhala MPs in parliament. e.g. 07 Tamil MPs elected to the first parliament in 1947 from N’eliya, Maskeliya, Kotagala, Nawalapitiya, Badulla, Bandarawela and Aluthnuwara electorates were replaced by 07 Sinhala MPs at the next general election in 1952.

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