Thursday, April 15, 2010

Chinese inroads into Sri Lanka

By B Raman - Sri Lanka has a right to develop close relations with China and Pakistan. India cannot legitimately oppose it.

* At the same time, the Government of India has a duty to take note of the various aspects of the relations, which could be detrimental to our national security and evolve an appropriate policy response.

The policy response could be either actively countering their influence in Sri Lanka or actively promoting our interests in Sri Lanka or a mix of both.

* Another response could be in the form of a mix of incentives and disincentives– incentives to make it worthwhile for Sri Lanka to have closer relations with India than with China or Pakistan and disincentives if it is insensitive to India’s concerns and interests.

* A good incentive could be by making the huge Indian market easily accessible to the goods and services of Sri Lanka, by making it worthwhile for Sri Lankan students to study in India, by sharing our IT expertise with Sri Lanka, by encouraging networking between the corporate worlds of the two countries etc.

* A strong disincentive could be by using our traditional pressure points in Sri Lanka such as the dependence of Sri Lanka’s tourism economy on Indian tourists, the goodwill for India in large sections of SL society etc.

* Unfortunately, we are yet to work out a comprehensive and workable policy response.

* We are worried over the increasing Chinese influence and its implications for India’s security, but we do not articulate our concerns. We pretend as if Indian and Chinese interests will never clash in Sri Lanka and we try to give an impression that we can take it in our stride.

* Our policy response, if at all there is any, is ad hoc and not strategic with the immediate and long-term interests influencing the response.

* China’s policy, on the other hand, caters to its interests of today as well as its likely interests of tomorrow and the day after. There is nothing ad hoc about it.

* China is not a South Asian power, but has acquired a robust South Asian presence through its carefully-cultivated relations with Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Bangladesh and Nepal.

* China is not an Indian Ocean power, but it is seeking to acquire a robust Indian Ocean presence through its relations with Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Mauritius & Seychelles.

* India is a South Asian and Indian Ocean power, but its South Asian and Indian Ocean influence is being eroded by the increasing inroads of China at the expense of India.

* This presentation will focus essentially on China and not on Pakistan.The threat to us from Pakistan through Sri Lanka is more tactical than strategic, more subversive than military, more political than economic. China is a dragon, but Pakistan is still only a pinprick.

* We should be alert to the possibility of China and Pakistan acting in tandem in Sri Lanka and the Maldives to undermine the Indian influence, but there is as yet no evidence of this possibility becoming a reality, but it could in the long-term.Our policy response should nip this bud before it starts blooming.Beyond this caution, I will not say anything else on Pakistan in this presentation.

General Observations & Quotes

* Under President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Chinese presence and influence in Sri Lanka have increased.He has visited China thrice since assuming office. Increase in bilateral interactions and exchange of visits.Sri Lanka opened a consulate-its second one in China-in Chengdu, where Pakistan already has an active Consulate.The Chengdu Military Region coordinates China’s military strategy in South Asia.

* “China and Sri Lanka are long standing friends. China never deserted Sri Lanka in its times of distress”-Rajapaksa in April 2008 while inaugurating the construction of Sri Lanka’s National Theatre of Performing Arts to be built with Chinese assistance.

* “The friendly relationship between the two countries has stood long test and the two countries are tested friends. Sri Lanka has always firmly stood by and will never change its stance on one-China policy”-Rajapaksa on September 4,2009, while receiving a delegation of the Chinese Communist Party.

* “The Chinese Government endeavors to develop its friendship and cooperation with Sri Lanka on the basis of the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-Existence. Chinese enterprises are contracted to build the Hambantota port. Any vicious distortion of the normal business deal holds no water. Social stability, economic development and ethnic reconciliation of Sir Lanka serve the shared aspiration and fundamental interest of the Sri Lankan people. We sincerely hope this goal can be achieved at an early date” -.Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Ma Zhaoxu at his regular press conference on May 12, 2009.”

* 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. The new donors are neighbors; they are rich; and they conduct themselves differently. Asians don’t go around teaching each other how to behave.There are ways we deal with each other - perhaps a quiet chat, but not wagging the finger. Chinese assistance has grown fivefold in the last year to nearly $1 billion, eclipsing Sri Lanka’s longtime biggest donor, Japan” -Palitha Kohona, Sri Lankan Foreign Secretary as quoted by the “New York Times” dated March 9,2008.

Bilateral Trade

* Trade between the two countries has doubled over the last 5 years from US$ 660 million to US$ 1.13 billion, making China the second largest exporter to Sri Lanka and the 13th largest export destination for Sri Lanka’s exports.

* “We have paid far too much attention to the export markets in the US and now we need to move towards the Asian giant China. We have had an over dependence in the US market for our exports for too long,” Prof ADV De S Indraratna, President, Sri Lanka Economic Association.

* Sri Lanka exports coconut fiber products, natural rubber, tea, spices, precious and semi-precious stones and ready made garments to China. There has been a significant increase of Sri Lankan exports to China since 2000, mainly due to the bulky export of mineral sands as zicronium ores , coir fiber and electrical components etc. The exports of mineral sands rose from Rs. 10 million in 2001 to Rs. 226 million in 2008. Only 0.45 per cent of Sri Lanka’s total exports go to China, but 12 per cent of its total imports come from China.

Project Assistance-Hambantota Port

* The foundation for the construction of a modern port with Chinese assistance at Hambantota in southern Sri Lanka was formally laid in October,2007. The construction actually started in January,2008.

* It is a 15-year project to be completed in stages. The entire project is estimated to cost US $ one billion. The present Chinese commitment is for the construction of the first stage only, which is estimated to cost US $ 360 million. China has agreed to give 85 per cent of this amount at concessional interest. The balance is being contributed by the Government of Sri Lanka.

* The first stage of the 15-year (2008-2023) project is expected to be completed by the end of 2010. This stage envisages the construction of a 1000-metre jetty, which will enable the harbour to function as an industrial port for the import and export of industrial chemicals, fuel and heavy machinery. By 2023, Hambantota is projected to have a liquefied natural gas refinery, aviation fuel storage facilities, three separate docks giving the port a transshipment capacity and dry docks for ship repair and construction. The project also envisages that when completed the port will serve as a base for bunkering and refueling.

* The draught (depth) of the new harbour will be 16 metres against 15 metres in Colombo. A 230 metre passage-entrance channel will be created at the breakwater which is 988 metres long on the west end and 311 metres long on the east end.

* The Government hopes that as a refueling location Hambantota will have many advantages over the Colombo port or ports in South India. The construction has been undertaken by a consortium of Chinese companies headed by the China Harbour Engineering Company and the Sino Hydro Corporation.

* The project doesn’t have a separate consultant. The Sri Lanka Port Authority (SLPA) is functioning as the client-cum-consultant while the China Harbour Engineering Co Ltd is the contractor. In September,2008,there were 328 Sri Lankans and 235 Chinese working at the site-engineers, administrative personnel and others. The present number is not known.

* The first stage due to be ready by end 2010 will allow three ships to berth. The final stage, for which there is no offer of funding yet from China, is planned to accommodate more than 30 ships, which is the present capacity at Colombo.

* Reliable reports say that while the Sri Lankan authorities want Hambantota to emerge as a modern port with better facilities and efficiency than any of the ports in South India, they do not want the present importance of the Colombo port to be reduced. Colombo presently has the reputation of being the most modern and most efficient port in South Asia. They want this reputation to be maintained. There is no proposal at present to set up container yards and cater to container ships at Hambantota.

* The present Chinese interest is in the use of the docking and refueling facilities that would come up in Hambantota for their commercial and naval ships. There is no proposal at present for a Chinese naval base at Hambantota.

New Container Terminal at Colombo

* Chinese port operator China Merchants Holdings (International) is negotiating with the Sri Lankan authorities a contract for the construction of a new container terminal at Colombo. The company has bid for the contract jointly with a Sri Lankan company Aitken Spence.

Maththala Airport-Hambantota

* On November 27,2009, Rajapaksa inaugurated the construction of Sri Lanka’s second international airport at Maththala in Hambantota. The new airport will be constructed on a plot of 2,000 hectares in Hambantota district at a cost of US$ 190 million. The Government of the People’s Republic of China will provide financial assistance for the project with a soft loan through its Ex-Im Bank.. According to the Ports and Aviation Ministry, the construction of the airport will be completed in two phases. All basic facilities including runways, taxiways and parking facilities will be completed in the first phase to be completed by 2011. All other airport and aviation related facilities will be completed in the second phase. These include servicing and repairing centre for aircraft, hotels, pilot training centre, maintenance hub, private jet parking, and technical training centers. The Government hopes to commission the airport by the end of 2011 and land the first flight by December 2011.

Other Projects with Chinese Assistance

* The construction of the Colombo-Katunayake Expressway.( US $ 248 million)

* Improvement of the railways-US $ 100 million to be given by China’s Ex-Im Bank. Agreement signed on March 10,2010.

* Norochcholai Coal Power Plant (US$855 million)

* A flood protection system for Colombo suburbs of Kotte, Dehiwela-Mount Lavinia, Maharagama, Kesbewa and Moratuwa. ( US $ 59 million) To be given by China Construction Bank.

* National Theatre of Performing Arts in Colombo ( US $ 21 million)

* Sri Lanka’s investment promotion agency, the Board of Investment, announced in July,2009, it has signed a deal with China’s Huichen Investment to manage a special economic zone dedicated to Chinese investors. Huichen will invest US $28 million in the zone in Mirigama, north of Colombo, to improve infrastructure in the first phase over three years.The company, a conglomerate that specialises in infrastructure development and does coal and iron ore mining, will also market the zone and attract Chinese investors.

* More than 50 per cent of the funding received by Sri Lanka from abroad for construction and development projects since Rajapaksa came to power came from China.

* “Since 2007, Sri Lanka has been trying to launch a communication satellite. China has agreed to provide financial and technical assistance,” Executive Director of the Institute of Policy Studies, Dr. Saman Kelegama was quoted as saying in November 2009. In May 2009, Priyantha Kariyapperuma, Director-General of the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission, had said that the Government had begun work on a space programme hoping to launch two communication satellites. “The University of Surrey specializes in satellite technology having created about 35 satellites. They have made a presentation to President Mahinda Rajapakse and have entered into an agreement to transfer technology and knowledge to our universities,” he told the Island Financial Review. Kariyapperuma said a consortium of vice chancellors from universities with engineering faculties had been formed for this purpose. He said the Government planned to launch two communication satellites-a lower earth orbit satellite used mainly for images and a geo stationary communication satellite. The two satellites will be used not only for communication purposes but also for disaster management, agriculture planning, irrigation planning, town/urban planning and coastal conservation. He said the low earth orbiting satellite could be financed with domestic funds particularly from the Telecommunication Development Fund. The private sector would also be called to contribute to the development of the two satellites.

Chinese Project Assistance-Some Features

* All except a thermal power plant in Sinhalese majority areas.

* The Chinese have agreed to consider project proposals from the Tamil areas in future, including a proposal for improvement of road communications in the Jaffna peninsula.

Projects of Concern from India’s security point of view

* Hambantota Port: Though at present there is no talk of a naval base, it could emerge ultimately to cater to the requirements of Chinese oil & gas tankers and anti-piracy patrols.

* Communications satellite with Chinese assistance could be used for the collection of TECHINT about India’s nuclear and space establishments in South India.

Other Chinese Assistance

* One million U.S. dollars in humanitarian aid to help internally displaced persons.

* Technical assistance for demining operations in the Northern and Eastern Provinces.

* China’s humanitarian assistance is meagre. Its assistance focuses on areas which could benefit its strategic goals.

Chinese Military Equipment Supplied for Use Against LTTE

* Jian-7 fighter jets, anti-aircraft guns and JY-11 3D air surveillance radars .Average military supplies to Sri Lanka estimated at US $ 100 million per annum.

Exploration of Oil & Gas

* The policy of the Rajapaksa Government is whatever benefit is offered to India, an equal benefit will be offered to China. It offered one block each without bids in the Gulf of Mannar area to India and China for exploration.

India’s Response

* No public articulation of Indian concerns.

* It is not known whether there has been any private articulation through diplomatic channels and, if so, how strong & effective.

* With the SL Government having subdued the Tamils with Indian, Chinese and Pakistani assistance, India no longer has this pressure point in Sri Lanka.

* Economic pressure may still work because of the large flow of Indian tourists to Sri Lanka and their contribution to the Sri Lankan economy.

* The present Government in New Delhi will be disinclined to use economic pressure or engage in a robust response to counter the growing influence of China in Sri Lanka.

* One sees no prospect of reversing the gradual erosion of the Indian influence and the growth of the Chinese influence.

* India should not keep its economic presence confined only to the Tamil areas. It should be active in the Sinhalese areas too.

* India should vigorously exploit its advantages vis-à-vis China-huge Indian market next door to SL, our mastery of the English language, India’s robust corporate sector which should compete against the Chinese companies.

* The private sector can compensate for the lack of Indian Government activism in Sri Lanka. The SL Govt. first approached an Indian company for the Hambantota project. When the response was negative, they approached China.When they invited bids for a new container terminal at Colombo, no Indian company responded. Only a Chinese company did.

B Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai.

© Indian Defence Review

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Thursday, April 15, 2010

Indian banks looking to open branches in Sri Lanka

S. Bridget Leena - Indian banks are being roped in to provide a fillip to rebuild economic activity in strife-prone parts of northern Sri Lanka. Indian Bank may be the first to re-open its branch in Jaffna to serve the Tamil community. Indian Overseas Bank, which has a branch in Colombo, has plans to open more branches in the Island nation.

Mr T.M Bhasin, Chairman and Managing Director, Indian Bank, told Business Line that the bank is considering opening branches in areas with Tamil-centric population such as Jaffna and Kandy. The bank is studying various options on the capital requirement and other parameters of business growth, he said.

“We are yet to identify potential locations which would serve the Tamil population but are certainly looking at the option of setting up branches in Sri Lanka,” said Mr S.A. Bhat, Chairman and Managing Director, Indian Overseas Bank.

He said that there was a request from the government for banks to expand their network in Sri Lanka.

Indian Bank has two centres in Colombo, one handling domestic business while the other focussing on foreign exchange business. Domestic deposits for the bank in Lanka grew by 21.2 per cent to Rs 72.8 crore while advances reported a growth of 32 per cent to Rs 44.2 crore in 2009-10. Net profits were about Rs 7.2 crore in 2009-10. Although business operations of the bank in the Island nation are small when compared its Indian operations, now with the end of war, there are certainly signs of economic revival and growth, said Mr Bhasin.

It is interesting note that Indian Bank opened its first overseas operation in Sri Lanka as early as 1932. It served the ethnic Tamil community but had to shut its operations in Jaffna with the start of ethnic conflict during the early 1980s.

The actual implementation in terms of setting up branches may take a while, as regulators in both countries have to give their approval and other factors such as viability and capital requirement will have to be considered, said Mr Bhat.

© The Hindu Business Line

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Thursday, April 15, 2010

Sri Lanka: New parliament, new hopes, new fears

By Amantha Perera - Voter turnout in the Apr. 8 election was one of the lowest in Sri Lanka's post- independence history. But the result was a landslide win that has strengthened the hand of President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s administration like never before.

Of the 14 million eligible to vote, only 59 percent marked on the ballot card to select 225 members for the country’s Parliament.

The ruling United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) coalition was the clear winner. It already has 117 seats, a clean majority in the Parliament though 45 seats are still to be announced.

The main opposition party, the United National Party (UNP), secured 46 seats, the Democratic National Alliance (DNA), a coalition that backed the candidacy of former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka, five seats, and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), the main party representing the minority Tamil community, 12.

Fonseka, who contested while under military custody and facing charges of corruption and politicising the military, won from the Colombo district.

"We are humbled by the size of the repeated mandates given by the people and pledge to respond, in full measure, to the trust placed in us," Rajapaksa said in a message soon after it was clear that he had achieved an assailable majority.

Stalwarts from his coalition said that the executive presidency and parliament now had a chance to work together without one undermining the other.

"There has never been such a large victory, the people have spoken," said UPFA senior Dulles Alahaperuma at a press conference two days after the election. "The international community should respect the verdict and support government policies."

The Rajapaksa administration has thrived on standing firm against what it perceives as unwarranted international interference. It locked horns with the United Nations, United States, European Union and Britain when the armed forces’ conduct in the last phase of the civil war with the separatist Tamil Tigers came under scrutiny.

The most recent confrontation has been Rajapaksa’s opposition to moves by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to form an advisory committee on Sri Lanka.

The government said that the overwhelming victory was a sign of clear support for its policies and sought cooperation from opposition parties to press ahead with its development plans. Rajapaksa had made development a key campaign slogan.

"Campaigns have concluded and people have given their verdict and now it’s time to think clearly and plan a better future for people in the country," said Basil Rajapaksa, the president’s brother, who received over 425,000 preference votes.

The new government will have to deliver on the peace dividend and speed up reconstruction work in war-ravaged areas. Rajapaksa has hinted that he was willing to discuss with the Tamil minority ways to address its grievances.

Election observers concluded that polling was conducted in a free and fair manner. "Polling on Election Day took place in a generally uneventful manner, except for a few significant incidents," the People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL) said in its report at the conclusion of the polls.

"We conclude that despite this (incidents that undermined the election), the overall result does reflect the will of the electorate," the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) said.

But both groups noted incidents of vote-rigging and intimidation. "We wish to record our deep concern about incidents in which polling agents were evicted from polling stations, sometimes forcefully. Furthermore, there were cases of voter obstruction and alleged attempts to rig the results," CMEV said.

The Elections Commissioner has delayed issuing the results of the vote 45 seats where the worst incidents were reported.

Monitors have also raised concerns over the low voter turnout. The 59 percent turnout was a huge drop from the more than 70 percent recorded in January’s presidential polls. Over 74 percent voted during the last general election in 2004. PAFFREL calculated that the turnout in the April vote could drop to 54 percent after the final results.

Keerthi Thenakoon, the head of the Centre for Free and Fair Election (CAFFE), feels that the voters showed a distinct disinterest this time. "The presidential election was much more intense. There was more interest on the part of the voters as well."

The January presidential poll saw Rajapaksa face a challenge from Fonseka. The two were credited with leading the final battles against the Tigers, which had fought a bloody sectarian war for over two and half decades for a separate Tamil homeland.

Rajapaksa had gained widespread support for giving political leadership during the war and for refusing to bow to international pressure when the Tigers were down for the count. Fonseka was the man credited with leading the battle on the ground.

The war ended in May 2009. By December, the two had fallen out and Fonseka staked a claim for the presidency. In the end, Rajapaksa got 57 percent of the vote against Fonseka’s 40 percent. Subsequently, Fonseka was arrested by the military and is now facing a double court marshal.

"There was no such intensity with this election. Maybe the people had lost interest." CAFFE’s Thenakoon said.

UPFA member Allaheruma mused: "There was peace in the country and the winner was very clear. That may be the reason why we did not see many voting."

© Inter Press Service

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Thursday, April 15, 2010

Sri Lanka's parliamentary election : 'How great was my victory'

President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s ruling coalition has claimed victory in Sri Lanka’s parliamentary election, the first the country has held since the defeat of the Tamil Tiger rebels. A “triumph of democracy”, a jubilant Mr Rajapaksa called the result. A triumph for the president, to be sure; only the exact margin of his victory is unclear.

The election commissioner put off declaring the final result until April 20th, after reports of malpractice and violence forced him to annul the outcomes of several polling stations and suspend counting at others. Two districts, Kandy and Trincomalee, will have to wait till April 20th before they can be polled again.

As the results have trickled in, Sri Lankans were watching to see if the Alliance would win the two-thirds majority needed to change the country’s constitution. It will not—though it expects to fall just seven seats short of that goal—but Mr Rajapaksa’s United People’s Freedom Alliance has done well indeed.

When the official result is eventually announced it is unlikely to change the outcome of the election significantly. The Alliance has already taken 117 seats against the main opposition United National Party’s 46. Of the 225 seats in parliament, 196 are filled with elected MPs while the rest are shared based on the percentage of votes won by each party. Basil Rajapaksa, the president’s influential younger brother, said the president’s group was heading towards a “thundering majority”. The Alliance is now expecting to win as many as 142 seats.

Sri Lanka’s system of proportional representation makes the magical two-thirds majority hard to reach. But even without it there is no bar against pilfering MPs from opposition parties. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s last coalition was cobbled together with crossover members from several parties, including the UNP and the Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna.

The Alliance’s path was smoothed by the fact that the president’s main opponent, General Sarath Fonseka, was forced to conduct his group’s campaign from under heavy guard in a navy camp. Mr Fonseka is in military detention and faces two court-martials. Despite securing more than 4m votes in a presidential election in January, his Democratic National Alliance managed only five seats this time round.

With Mr Fonseka, his only serious challenger, out of the way and the rest of the opposition preoccupied with leadership struggles and intra-party fighting, Mr Rajapaksa is in an enviably stable position. His priorities now are to attract foreign investment and increase trade while defending his army against allegations of war crimes committed during the final stages of the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

Turnout was low all across the country but voters were particularly scarce in northern Jaffna and Vanni districts, the areas worst affected by three decades of war. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu of the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence said Tamil political parties need to “refresh and revitalise themselves” if they want to become serious contenders for power. If they fail at this, says Mr Saravanamuttu, Sri Lanka’s relief at having secured something like peace may be short-lived. In 1978 the country seemed to be blessed with a strong executive pursuing economic development in the hope that unity and reconciliation would follow. Instead Sri Lanka ended up with two violent insurgencies, the effects of which are still being felt.

© The Economist

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Thursday, April 15, 2010

Sri Lanka: EU urges probe on poll violence

The European Union, while congratulating the government on election victory, has urged Sri Lankan authorities to investigate violence on the election day.

Catherine Ashton, the deputy president and the Foreign Minister of the European Union, has congratulated President Rajapaksa and the government on the election victory.

“I also welcome the fact that these elections took place in a largely calm atmosphere,” she said in a statement.

The EU says it looks forward to working with the government on “implementation of its political agenda including national reconciliation.”

'Respect' mandate

It added: “The EU has noted reports of incidents on election day and trusts that the authorities will take appropriate action to ensure that these are properly investigated and resolved.”

The US and India earlier congratulated the president and ruling United People Freedom Alliance (UPFA) on the sweeping victory at 08 April polls.

“This victory, coupled with the President's win in January’s contest, provides a mandate to move forward on the important issues the President discussed during the campaign, such as national and ethnic reconciliation, decentralizing power, economic development, and securing human rights,” the US government statement said.

Out of the 180 seats declared so far, the UPFA has secured 117 seats while main opposition United National Party (UNP) won 46 and Tamil National Alliance (TNA) secured 12 seats.

The government this week urged the world leaders to recognise the magnitude of the victory and respect the people’s mandate.

© BBC Sinhala

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Thursday, April 15, 2010

Post-election Sri Lanka turns on critics

By Munza Mushtaq - Boosted by a yet to be finalized landslide victory in last week's Sri Lankan parliamentary elections, the United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) is already taking on the world, especially the West's finger pointing-over the South Asian nation's human-rights record.

Addressing a news conference in Colombo soon after registering victory, senior members of President Mahinda Rajapaksa's administration demanded "international forces" to stop dictating terms to Sri Lanka. "The international community must respect the people's mandate and we appeal to them not to bother us," said Transport Minister Dullas Allahapperuma.

Another senior government member, Dinesh Gunawardena, declared that anti-national forces were at work to oust the Rajapaksa government, and singled out Britain's Foreign Secretary David Miliband. "But they can't defeat us, and neither can they continue to dictate terms on us. The people are satisfied with President Rajapaksa and his government and they have re-elected us, these foreign nations should stop meddling their fingers in our internal affairs," he said.

The government's angry outburst also came just hours after the United States, while congratulating the Rajapaksa administration on its re-election, urged the government to ensure securing human-rights in the island. Sri Lanka also crossed swords with the British government after Miliband attended a meeting of a Tamil group in London that it considers a front for the defeated Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

"The United States congratulates President Rajapaksa and the United People's Freedom Alliance for their historic victory in the first nationwide parliamentary election in decades. This victory, coupled with the president's win in January's [presidential] contest, provides a mandate to move forward on the important issues the president discussed during the campaign, such as national and ethnic reconciliation, decentralizing power, economic development, and securing human rights," the statement issued from the US Embassy in Colombo said.

In the historic victory on April 8, the Rajapaksa-led party polled over 4.7 million votes, 60.43% of those polled to take 117 seats out of 196 in parliament, while the main opposition United National Party (UNP) garnered 46 seats from just over 2.3 million votes. However, record low turnout marred the ballot, with only half the total 14 million registered voters exercising their franchise.

Results in two districts out of the 22 in the country were annulled by the Elections Commissioner due to large-scale rigging, including allegations of ballot box stuffing by government members, and the final result is expected to be released on April 20, the day scheduled for the re-poll for the two districts.

The government is expected to obtain around 130 seats after the re-polling. However, Rajapaksa wants 150 seats in parliament (which will give him a two-thirds majority) so he will have the mandate to change the constitution to allow him to hold a third term. A president is permitted to hold only two terms under the present constitution.

The UPFA's general secretary, Susil Premajayantha, noted that it was the first time since 1978 that a single political party had won such a massive number of seats in a parliamentary election.

Last week's vote also elected many new and colorful faces to parliament, including popular Sri Lankan cricketer, Sanath Jayasuriya, several actors and actresses, a former beauty queen, the president's eldest son - and even a former army commander who is currently in military custody.

General Sarath Fonseka, the ex-army commander who steered the victory against the LTTE last May and was defeated as a presidential candidate, secured a little over 98,000 votes. His party, the Democratic National Alliance (DNA), said his election was the public's verdict that it was time the government released him from custody - an appeal flatly turned down.

Fonseka is in custody for allegedly committing military offences, including being involved in political activities while serving as the commander of the Sri Lankan army.

Meanwhile, as pressure mounts over human-rights violations allegedly committed during the final phase of the war against the LTTE, United Nations general secretary Ban Ki-moon has announced that he will go ahead with his decision to appoint an expert panel to advise on action concerning Sri Lanka's "accountability issues" during the conflict.

Rajapaksa last month telephoned Ban to declare the move as "unwanted and unwarranted", but many countries, including the United States, Britain and the European Union, back the UN chief's decision. The UN has also decided to send a senior official to Colombo this month with regard to setting up the expert panel.

Boosted by victory at the polls, Rajapaksa has promised to work towards reconciliation and development.

"The assured majority in parliament given by the voters encourages the government to proceed with its policies for the strengthening of peace and reconciliation, reconstruction ... and the overall development of the country to make it the center of economic and social progress in South Asia," Rajapaksa said.

Munza Mushtaq is a journalist based in Colombo.

© Asia Times Online

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Thursday, April 15, 2010

Sri Lanka: Islamic convert’s detention sparks debate on tolerance

By Feizal Samath - Issues of religious tolerance, the rule of law and freedom of expression in this mainly Buddhist country are being thrown into debate by the detention of a Sri Lankan Buddhist woman who converted to Islam and was writing a book on her conversion.

Sarah Malathi Perera, a 38-year old migrant worker who has lived in Bahrain for 20 years, was detained by police in Colombo under emergency regulations on Mar. 20, ostensibly over a book she had written and published on her conversion to Islam.

But police have since given different versions of the reasons for her detention, saying that the book was offensive to Buddhism or that she was being probed for links to Tamil militants and Musim extremist groups.

On Tuesday, police spokesman Prishantha Jayakody was even more vague. "She has been detained under emergency regulations but I don’t have details as to why she is in detention. Let me check and let you know," he told IPS. He was the same official who earlier gave different reasons for Perera’s detention.

The incident reflects a cultural and social intolerance that Sri Lankan society has never previously experienced, argues Dayan Jayatillaka, former vice president of the U.N. Human Rights Council and former chairman of the intergovernmental working group on the implementation of the Durban declaration against racism.

"How (else) should we begin to define a country in which an unarmed young woman, a woman who has not harmed anyone, is detained in a police station under emergency laws or anti-terrorism laws, for writing a book, and a book which does not call for violence against anyone?" Jayatillaka said in an interview.

Lakshman Gunasekera, president of the Sri Lanka chapter of the South Asia Free Media Association, says that as journalists, they are concerned that Perera has been arrested under emergency regulations. "Although I have not read her book, this is an issue that concerns freedom of expression," he said.

He added that this kind of reaction is more often seen in situations of serious religious fundamentalism and extremism like Pakistan, Iran or Afghanistan, where writers have been accused of blasphemy against Islam and subjected to verbal and physical attacks.

"This is a country where all religions are respected and tolerated. So why this intolerance?" said a women’s rights activist who declined to be named. Perera returned to Sri Lanka three months back to settle a land dispute concerning her elderly mother in Colombo. She has said she has analysed the spiritual substance of Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism and Christianity, and published a book entitled ‘From Darkness to Light: Questions and Answer’.

Sri Lanka’s 20 million people comprises 73.7 percent Buddhists, 10.9 percent Hindus, 7.6 percent Muslims and 6.2 percent Christians, and the rest from smaller ethnic groups. Non-Buddhists have the constitutional right to freely practise their religion.

But in recent years, the Jathika Hela Urumaya or JHU (National Heritage Party), a extreme racist party with little support in the country but with huge influence on President Mahinda Rajapaksa, has along with allied or similar groups been suspected of being behind attacks against largely Christian places of worship.

Perera, who wears a ‘hijab’ (dress that covers the body from head to toe), alleges that her arrest came after the courier company she was planning to use to send her books to Bahrain, tipped off the JHU, which in turn informed the police. JHU officials were not immediately available for comment.

Lakshan Dias, Perera’s lawyer, says his client has been informed that she is being detained on charges of offending Buddhism and possible links to Tamil militants and overseas Muslim militant groups. "She has been told that she has been detained under a 30-day detention order under emergency regulations. She has not been informed when she would be produced before a magistrate," he said.

Perera’s case points to a breakdown in law and order more than religious intolerance, some say. "People get arrested over some ideosyncratic issue and then once that happens, the system takes over and you can’t get out," said Jehan Perera, a columnist in the ‘Daily Mirror’ newspaper.

Under the Sri Lankan Penal Code, offences relating to religion include acts such as damaging or defiling a place of worship, uttering words or sounds or making gestures with deliberate intent to wound religious feelings and trespassing in places of worship.

Jayatillake said the response to Perera’s book could have been a critical review of it, not an arrest. "Isn't this against both Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on freedom of expression as well as the rights and freedoms recognised by the Sri Lankan Constitution? Who decides on arrests like this and what is the law transgressed?" Equally worrisome to some is the government’s use of emergency laws almost a year after its defeat of the separatist Tamil Tiger rebels.

"The Sri Lankan emergency means that people enjoy any personal or legal rights solely at executive convenience and discretion," said an activist who requested anonymity. "Accordingly, Ms Perera has been detained without trial, charge, bail or much access to family or lawyers and any legal or procedural safeguards."

© Inter Press Service

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