Kath Noble

The Jaffna air

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on October 2, 2013

Why so many people are still living in IDP camps in the North

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAHaving emphasised in last week’s column the importance of land in the Northern Province, I headed for the area in which it is most under dispute – Jaffna.

Unlike Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu, Jaffna is densely populated. Jaffna has 553 inhabitants per square kilometre, compared to 81 and 25 for Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu respectively.

Another difference is that most land is privately owned in Jaffna, while there is still a lot of land that is vested in the state in Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu.

That land disputes are most serious in Jaffna was made clear earlier this year when hundreds of people protested against the acquisition of their land to regularise the High Security Zone around the Kankesanturai port and Palaly airport. The Security Forces have occupied the area for decades, but it was never gazetted and their continued presence became a legal problem for the Government when the Emergency Regulations were allowed to lapse in 2011.

Cases have been filed in the Supreme Court by high profile individuals such as the Bishop of Jaffna and the son of the late Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, as well as by many of the remaining 30,000 IDPs.

The rationale for taking over people’s land in Jaffna was to facilitate the activities of the Security Forces in fighting the LTTE. They wanted a buffer around their key bases, forward defence lines and main supply routes at least as big as the reach of Prabhakaran’s most powerful weapons.

The Government claims to agree that the requirements must be different now that there are no longer any MBRLs trained on the Security Forces.

It quite correctly points out that the extent of the Kankesanturai and Palaly High Security Zone has been reduced already.

The state and other media regularly report on ceremonies to hand back land, usually accompanied by statistics that seem to demonstrate that things are moving in the right direction. For example, on September 7th, the Daily News quoted Major General Mahinda Hathurusinghe of the Jaffna Security Forces Headquarters as saying that they had returned 136 houses and 175 acres of land to their owners the previous month, making a total of more than 4,200 plots since 2009.

They say that they are doing their best to reduce their presence to the minimum possible.

However, as the TNA points out, the 6,300 acres of land that is now being acquired as the final area of the Kankesanturai and Palaly High Security Zone is equivalent to more than two thirds of Colombo city. It says that the maximum that it can agree to is zero.

It is not clear how progress is going to be made if the two sides continue in the same pattern.

Debates that centre around the needs of the Security Forces are generally very difficult in Sri Lanka, as a result of the generation long conflict and the losses incurred in it.

I would not attempt to contribute here.

Anyway, I believe that it is not only or even really primarily a matter of the extent of land being occupied by the Security Forces.

It is at least equally important to see what is being done in the occupied land and what has been done for the people who have been displaced from it. After all, if they were perfectly happily settled elsewhere, there would be no dispute or at least whatever dispute there was could not be very emotive.

And since the country is supposed to be working towards reconciliation, this would seem to be the most crucial issue.

To that end, I visited both the High Security Zone and a camp of IDPs last week.

Of course it is not possible to roam freely around the High Security Zone. But the Army has built and is operating a hotel in the middle of it, and anybody who is willing and able to spend between Rs. 2,000 and Rs. 8,000 for a night can get a sense of what is going on in the brief journey from the gate at Maviddapuram to the beach.

Dinouk Colombage has said in an article published in Groundviews that only Sinhalese can stay in the resorts run by the Security Forces – there are now at least 15, of which about half are in the North and East. However, I found more Tamils than Sinhalese at Kankesanturai.

Among them was a young couple from Jaffna and a family of expatriates who had come to inspect their property near Tellipallai, which has been released from the High Security Zone.

(Incidentally, since he has also stated that there were multiple checks on the A9 in the run-up to the election, given what I said last week about not having been asked what I was doing or where I was going at any stage of my journey to Kilinochchi, I should point out that there were none at all for people who travelled as I did by train. Whether this was an oversight on the part of the Security Forces, since the train had only just started to run beyond Omanthai, I cannot yet say. I hope not.)

The hotel at Kankesanturai is of course very nice. As I was told within a few minutes of my arrival, Mahinda Rajapaksa has stayed there five times already.

Ridiculously, it even has a jogging track!

I must say that I didn’t feel much like going for a jog or even a bath in the undeniably beautiful ocean with an audience of dozens of soldiers.

The hotel is in fact staffed entirely by soldiers, from the ladies at reception to the waiters and the cleaning staff. Soldiers are also in the process of building an extension to the existing building, to add a billiard room, gym, spa and a number of luxury suites.

They live in the homes of the IDPs.

It is difficult to decide which must be most disturbing for them – living in the midst of abandoned buildings, which must serve as a constant reminder of the war and what people have lost, or renovating the ones that they have taken over for themselves. Travelling through the High Security Zone, there seem to be as many houses newly plastered and painted with new roofs, windows, doors and other fittings including regimental placards as there are houses in ruins with trees growing where their owners used to live.

For the IDPs, that soldiers are getting so comfortable there is clearly worse.

It doesn’t cost anything to stay in an IDP camp.

I had wondered with all the talk of surveillance whether the IDPs would be ready to accommodate a foreigner, but they did not hesitate except to worry about my comfort. Indeed, my sharing their experience was a source of considerable entertainment, as they made jokes about their ‘attached bathrooms’ – the piece of bare earth outside their huts to which they carried a bucket of water for me to wash my face before going to ‘bed’.

Of course I was given one of the very few actual beds in the camp, in the smartest of its huts.

It was better made than the temporary shelter I stayed in last week near Kilinochchi, since many of the men although originally also farmers as IDPs have been working as masons, carpenters and labourers in the construction industry, but it was about two thirds of the size, while it had to accommodate three times the number of people.

The camp is seriously overcrowded.

For nearly 100 families, there are ten toilets and one somewhat private bathing area.

There is virtually no open space at all, and I don’t believe that anybody could visit and not become utterly depressed at their plight.

As the women told me, in such circumstances, they cannot do the kind of work that would be possible in their own places to bring in extra income, such as stitching, growing a few vegetables or raising chicken. Women-headed households, which are quite common in Jaffna, face major problems in making a living.

Men can earn about Rs. 1,000 per day for 20 days per month, they said.

They have lived here since 1990.

Ironically, they are now under pressure from the owners of the land on which they established the camp to leave, so that it can be sold for development. They too desperately want to go.

The Government has offered them plots near Keerimalai, but they say that it is no good.

As I played ‘football’ with a boy of about six in the narrow alley between his family’s hut and the next – what we were kicking actually looked more like a very old, deformed plastic box – I wondered what these people would make of the Army’s hotel at Kankesanturai. In a way, I hope that they never see it. That so much effort has been put into it while they have been left to languish in such a miserable camp would surely be too devastating for them.

I was completely disgusted.

I believe that the Security Forces should not get involved in economic activities, because amongst other things they have a major unfair advantage – their salaries do not have to be recovered from the income earned.

In the North, it is even more reprehensible, when people are struggling so hard to rebuild their lives.

Despite various statements in the media to the contrary, the Security Forces are still running even tea shops outside key tourist attractions in Jaffna.

They must give it up. Such opportunities should be left for IDPs.

If the Government insists on maintaining the current numbers in the Security Forces, which is what makes it important to find new ways to occupy them with no LTTE to fight, it should understand that when the Security Forces do business on land that belongs to other people, they are going to create even more resentment than ever.

The only way to avoid the very reasonable anger of the IDPs is to resettle them in much better conditions than they could expect in their original villages.

Unfortunately, the Government is both heartless and mindless.

This article was not published by The Island.

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A view from somewhere near Kilinochchi

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on September 25, 2013

Reflections on the first election to the Northern Provincial Council

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERACampaigning for the Northern Provincial Council was so miserable that I decided to spend election day as far away from politicians as possible.

Both the UPFA and the TNA disappointed. Two months ago, I wrote a piece saying how bright the future would be if the totally useless discourse of patriots versus traitors could be done away with, as seemed to be happening with the TNA having nominated Justice Wigneswaran as its chief ministerial candidate and the UPFA talking of putting forward Daya Master. But within days of publication, the UPFA had done a u-turn and declared that no former members of the LTTE would be included in its list, leaving it free to equate the TNA with the LTTE and argue that a TNA victory was bound to lead to the establishment of a separate state.

The TNA behaved no better, doing its best to restore the links with the LTTE that it had so successfully severed during the nomination process, with Justice Wigneswaran going to the extent of calling Prabhakaran a hero – very heroic, wasn’t it, shooting people who weren’t willing to die shielding him from defeat?

As I watched television the night before the election, almost every other sentence referred to the LTTE.

Yet there is no such organisation in Sri Lanka today.

What can be found are Tamils, and they are worse off as a community than they were three decades ago. The LTTE failed them, whether they realise it or not, and it is up to those of us who care about the country to ensure that the TNA does not do the same.

I am hopeful, but the election campaign was a reminder of how dangerous politics can be.

With that in mind, I spent election day trying to understand what life is like for the people who suffered the most in the war.

Because it is this same group who will suffer if the TNA cannot sustain the peace.

A couple of around the same age as my parents welcomed me for the weekend in their home a few miles outside Kilinochchi.

They don’t yet have a house, but they have managed to put together a fairly decent makeshift structure from whatever they could find or were given. They have built dry walls from the bricks of their old home around a new wooden frame, and covered it with a roof of tin sheets, palm leaves and plastic. Inside there are three ‘areas’ – a space roughly four foot by ten foot for cooking on an open fire, around ten foot by ten foot arranged as a ‘living room’ and six foot by ten foot for sleeping. (During my stay, much to my embarrassment, they slept in the ‘kitchen’.)

In their four acre property they have a well, which needs to be repaired but is still offering up water, albeit not of a very enticing colour. Anyway, we drank from it. They don’t yet have a proper toilet either, so we also carried water from the well to another makeshift but quite reasonable arrangement some distance away in the bush.

They are still waiting for help with basic infrastructure, but their situation is not desperate.

Incongruously, they already have electricity, and a television and a fridge and various other ‘luxuries’ provided by their children, who have lived near Colombo for years.

This support from relatives is vital, since they have very little income. They make a ‘living’ by running a vegetable shop in the Kilinochchi market, but I saw for myself that there is not enough custom to sustain all of the traders. How they are going to continue even this poor existence as they age further and are unable to cycle the quite considerable distance into town on a daily basis, I don’t know. They hope to clear their land and start cultivation when the rains come next month, but that too is no life for the elderly, and all of the youth of the area are busy looking for opportunities to get out.

Starting to build their lives again at 70 years of age is a pretty appalling prospect.

In terms of basic infrastructure, many of their neighbours are better off, with numerous newly constructed houses to be seen in the surrounding area.

Almost everybody seems to have received bicycles and household items from NGOs.

Some have also been given farming equipment and animals.

It is interesting to note that while the husband believes that the reason they have not yet received many of these things is that allocations are being made according to the number of members in the family, the wife feels that they are being discriminated against by their local government official, curiously enough for not having given their children to the LTTE.

They voted for EPDP.

A friend of mine living abroad wanted me to ask them why they support a party that according to allegations made to the American Embassy ran or runs prostitution rings for the Army. I told him that these people have never heard of Wikileaks – the source of the story. They don’t know English and they had never used the internet before I helped them to have a chat with one of their sons over Skype.

For me, such questions are tantamount to harassment.

Neither he nor I paid more than a brief visit to the Vanni when it was under the control of the LTTE. We did not experience the fighting up close. And we did not live in Manik Farm.

These people went through all of that.

Anyway, in those days, the TNA was supporting the LTTE, which is proven to have done much worse.

The suggestion seemed rather intolerant, and indicative of the politics of people like us who are generally quite ungrounded in the various realities of Sri Lanka.

It was a real pleasure to see the old couple go out to vote on Saturday, and to talk to many others who found time in their days to do the same. The mood in Kilinochchi seemed upbeat, as indeed it had on Friday and did again on Sunday. People went about their business as usual after voting.

The Government must be congratulated for accepting the inevitability of a TNA victory and ensuring that election day passed more or less without incident. In Kilinochchi, the Campaign for Free and Fair Elections reported that thugs attacked one of its monitors who objected to food being given to voters by EPDP, but otherwise there was very little to complain about. Of course something like 90% of the posters on view in Kilinochchi were for the SLFP, plus another 5% for EPDP and only 1% for the TNA. But that just goes to show how useless it is to ruin the environment and spend money that generally has to be earned via untoward activities trying to win over the public with posters. The result in Kilinochchi was almost the exact opposite – the TNA received 82% of the vote and got three councillors elected, while the UPFA received 17% of the vote and got one councillor elected.

There were more serious incidents elsewhere in the Northern Province, but even they compared favourably with the norm in Sri Lanka and with the experience in the other two provinces that went to the polls on Saturday.

The result itself, combined with the high turnout – 73% in Kilinochchi – did more to demonstrate the return to normalcy than any of the Government’s rather silly propaganda.

Indeed, I was very happy to note on my way from Colombo that no member of the Security Forces attempted to find out where I was going or what I was doing – as they should have understood long ago, this only reinforces the feeling that they have something to hide.

The Omantai checkpoint was a symbol of the disunity of the country.

The major problem in Kilinochchi would seem to be the shortage of business, largely due to the fact that the entire population was displaced and in the process lost everything they owned.

That is why land is so important – it is the only capital that people have, and very few of them are in a position to buy anything other than the ‘essentials’ that it produces. Acquisition by the Security Forces for their quite bewildering array of camps in the North is bound to be a major source of ongoing conflict so long as no reasonable alternatives are found by means of a genuinely consultative process. This should also include some effort to assess the environmental impact, since the camps must at the very least place an additional burden on water supplies in what is a relatively dry area. The impact on the livelihoods of the people affected by them must also be considered.

The TNA position on the military presence in the North is clearly ridiculous – they insist on a return to pre-1983 levels – but the Government should understand that it is in its best interests to settle the issue once and for all.

Even they can’t possibly believe that all of the land they are occupying is genuinely needed.

Not far from where I spent the weekend, the Security Forces have set up a training camp – an assault course is visible from the road. Obviously that need not be in the outskirts of Kilinochchi.

(Incidentally, the only minor road to be paved in the area leads right up to the gate.)

But land alone is not enough, and the TNA must immediately get going on its promised comprehensive plan for the development of the Northern economy. The UPFA did not get much beyond transportation, which is useful but certainly not sufficient – at the moment, it is mostly used to transport goods from the rest of the country into the North and people from the North out.

Fortunately, Justice Wigneswaran and his colleagues will soon realise that they have no future as politicians if they can’t persuade Tamils to continue living with them.

This article was not published by The Island.

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Sri Lanka’s economic hotchpotch

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on September 18, 2013

How the Government is increasing tariffs to promote local industry while simultaneously negotiating free trade deals

carsThe Government’s economic policy is quite a mystery. It combines elements of what economists regard as completely contradictory ideas, unencumbered as it is by any clear ideology or even vaguely worked out plan of action.

Consider its approach to international trade.

Last week, the Indian media reported that India’s largest car maker Maruti Suzuki is to decide on whether to set up an assembly unit in Sri Lanka by the end of this financial year. It would be its first overseas venture.

Its chairman was quoted as saying that the initiative is being considered in the wake of significant increases in tariffs by the Sri Lankan authorities. Maruti Suzuki exported 15,000 vehicles to Sri Lanka in 2011/12, accounting for half of the 29,000 new cars sold in the country – preowned vehicles made up the remainder of the total market of 59,000 vehicles. But sales have dropped sharply.

Import duty on cars has been increased from 120-291% to 200-350%, while import duty on threewheelers and twowheelers has been increased from 51-61% to 100%. Excise duty has also been increased.

Sri Lanka is the largest export market for Indian cars, earning them $800 million in 2011/12, so manufacturers have responded with considerable concern.

Typically, it has been portrayed as a move to undermine India in favour of China. The story in the Business Standard referred to a $20 million investment by a Chinese company in an assembly unit in Sri Lanka, suggesting that the changes in the Sri Lankan tariff regime were part of the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration’s enthusiasm for all things Chinese.

That Sri Lanka has moved closer to China in recent years is undeniable.

China has become Sri Lanka’s biggest donor. As Saman Kelegama of the Institute of Policy Studies noted in a recent speech, China provided 25% of the Government’s foreign assistance in 2010, up from virtually zero a decade ago. The major donors in 2000 were the Asian Development Bank with 27% and Japan with 20%, which now account for only 11% and 13% respectively.

He repeated the long list of projects in which China has been involved – from the not so appreciated Norochcholai coal power station to the as yet unproven Hambantota port and airport via the Southern and the Colombo-Katunayake expressways, the Moragahakanda hydro power and water supply project and the surely purely decorative Nelum Pokuna theatre.

India is extremely keen for people to draw attention to the potential dangers of depending on Chinese aid, and Saman Kelegama referred to a couple. He said that the interest rate is generally high, while China usually insists on the use of Chinese workers.

He also claimed that technology transfer was relatively limited, compared to Indian assistance.

These may indeed be problems, but at least as I have argued in previous columns the Chinese don’t have grand ideas about how the Sri Lankan economy should be run, as is still the case with the West and Western influenced multilateral institutions like the Asian Development Bank.

One problem that he didn’t note is the lack of transparency, with the details of projects undisclosed and thus opportunities for corruption multiplied.

Really there are no great deals to be had with aid. All countries give while expecting to receive – now or later – which is why trade and investment is so crucial.

We’ll come to that shortly.

But it is not only China that has been providing more funds to Sri Lanka of late. India is now the second biggest donor, accounting for 15% of foreign assistance in 2010, again up from very little a decade earlier. Indeed, the increase in Indian finance to the Government may very well be a direct result of the increase in Chinese finance, since India is trying hard to avoid any erosion of its influence.

Sri Lanka’s links with India have been growing too.

If there is a competition between India and China in Sri Lanka, both are winning when it comes to economics.

And the changes in tariffs on vehicles play no part in it.

They are actually elements of a surprisingly positive yet completely unpublicised effort to promote local industry that has seen four assembly units being set up since 2006, not just involving Chinese firms but involving Indians and Koreans as well, according to a paper on economic policy under Mahinda Rajapaksa by Australia based economists Premachandra Athukorala and Sisira Jayasuriya.

The authors would appear to be gung-ho neoliberals, so they are not very keen on either the policy or Mahinda Rajapaksa, but they do suggest that it has had an impact.

It certainly shows that there is an alternative to the Government’s most common practice of offering investors a whole lot of freebies if they deign to come and do business in Sri Lanka, as I discussed a couple of weeks ago with regard to its plans for higher education.

This is what I mean when I say that its economic policy is a hotchpotch.

And one can’t even rely on the mess to remain the same over time – its shape and dynamics are constantly changing.

Last week, as Maruti Suzuki was talking about setting up an assembly unit in Sri Lanka to get around the increased vehicle tariffs, the Government announced that it was pursuing a Free Trade Agreement with China. According to a statement by senior Communist Party member Liu Yunshan on the occasion of his visit to Sri Lanka, negotiations have been going on for six months already, although this is the first the public have been told about it.

Without a proper plan for the economy – dreaming of making Sri Lanka the centre of the world as in the now infamous five hubs strategy doesn’t count – it will be extremely difficult for the Sri Lankan side to do a good job.

Since China thinks much further ahead and a lot more seriously about literally everything, there are plenty of reasons to be worried by this news.

The Free Trade Agreement with India did not turn out to be very helpful in securing for Sri Lankan businesses access to its huge market, despite the hype put about by the Government and its ever willing supporters in the media. As I have discussed in other articles, its major success was in helping Indian manufacturers of a couple of products using raw materials from Southeast Asia to circumvent high tariffs in India by temporarily basing part of their processes in Sri Lanka – trade which slightly improved Sri Lanka’s balance of payments while it lasted, but came to an abrupt end when India changed its tariff regime.

China’s huge market is likely to be at least as difficult to crack.

Meanwhile, with a Free Trade Agreement, Chinese goods that Sri Lankans are already buying in bulk would enter the country without tariffs, making them cheaper and thus more attractive for consumers, but also reducing the already very limited revenue of the Government and using up even more valuable foreign exchange.

Of course, the Government may not actually sign – this may end up like the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement with India, which has been negotiated for almost ten years and finally appears to have been dropped.

It’s not generally considered a good omen when not getting around to or not being able to decide on a course of action is regarded as the best possible outcome.

This article was published in The Island on 18th September 2013. The internet version may be accessed here.

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Another job for the TNA

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on September 11, 2013

On the party’s manifesto for the Northern Provincial Council elections and its responsibility to lead the Tamil community away from armed struggle

fireA couple of weeks ago, I said that the TNA should intervene with Tamil Nadu politicians on behalf of the fishermen of the North. They should explain that there is no point in having a devolved administration if it cannot solve the immediate and urgent problems of the people who vote for it, and one of these is poaching by the trawlers of Tamil Nadu.

Sadly, there is no mention of the issue in the TNA manifesto for the upcoming provincial council election.

The only reference to fishermen suggests that their livelihoods are at risk not because all the fish in the seas from Puttalam to Trincomalee are being scooped up by somebody else, but due to restrictions by the Security Forces.

Of course just because the Security Forces claim that there are no longer any bans or pass systems in place doesn’t mean that they are not making life difficult for fishermen. The acquisition or occupation of land on the coast is another very important way in which their livelihoods are being affected, and a recent survey of former IDPs by UNHCR says that 3% of respondents (25% of families who make their living from fishing) cite military restrictions on their activities as a major impediment.

But that is not the whole story.

Given that according to the same UNHCR report, around 90% of Northern fishermen live below the already impossibly low official poverty line of Rs. 3,641 per month – Rs. 120 per day – one would have thought that a little more careful consideration of their fate should be a priority for the TNA.

In fact, there are many omissions in its manifesto, and many points on which it deserves to be pulled up, as Dayan Jayatilleka has done in an article that appeared in The Sunday Island, focusing on the way in which it treats the LTTE.

As he points out, it would have been better not to mention the LTTE at all than to include such uncritical and deceitful references.

One paragraph of the manifesto stands out: ‘While no progress was being made on the political front to solve the burning national issue, the LTTE continued its armed struggle. Though initially there were several military outfits, since 1987 the LTTE emerged as the sole military force in pursuing the struggle. Successive governments entered into negotiations with the LTTE and in February 2002 the LTTE and the Government of Sri Lanka signed a Ceasefire Agreement and later agreed on a set of principles called the Oslo Communiqué. However, the ceasefire did not last and hostilities broke out between the government forces and the LTTE with the military confrontation coming to an end on 19th May 2009.’

Of course the election that the TNA is about to contest is for a body that itself constitutes political progress, thanks to the 13th Amendment. Claiming otherwise is just stupid.

Even more stupid is continuing to whitewash the crimes of the LTTE.

Navi Pillay gave some good advice in her press briefing at the end of her tour of Sri Lanka – she called on the diaspora not to glorify the LTTE. She made a point of describing the LTTE as a ruthless, murderous organisation, and noted that her only other visit to the island had been to attend a commemoration of Neelan Tiruchelvam, who was assassinated by an LTTE suicide bomber in July 1999.

As she could have added, he is one of many Tamils to have fallen victim to the LTTE.

The latest is Senthilkumaran Ratnasingam, who set himself on fire outside the United Nations office in Geneva on Thursday. LTTE websites claim that he did so because he was disappointed with the outcome of Navi Pillay’s mission.

Obviously she isn’t going to change her opinion of the situation in Sri Lanka as a result of his actions, so he has wasted his life.

Indeed, such violence simply confirms that she was right to address the issue of extremism in the diaspora.

Dayan argues that its manifesto suggests that the TNA is being guided by elements of the diaspora who continue to support the LTTE – presumably in the hope of a reincarnation – or by such feelings within its own ranks or vote base.

If that were the case, why did it nominate Justice Wigneswaran as its Chief Ministerial candidate?

Some observers have claimed that the TNA’s choice was strategic, to conceal its real intentions, but such a strategy should surely have included presenting a less controversial manifesto. It is much easier to ignore a manifesto than to ignore the Chief Minister.

On balance, I believe that the party does want to move in a conciliatory direction, although obviously it could and should be doing so a lot more quickly and clearly.

But after three decades of war, optimism has to be combined with caution.

One of the reasons I argue that the TNA must be bolder in setting a new course for its community is that the people who will suffer the most if the political system breaks down again are of course the Tamils. The TNA has a special responsibility to ensure that it makes democracy work for them, whatever obstacles are put in its way by the Government.

Having supported the LTTE, whose efforts on behalf of Tamils involved an awful lot of them being killed, the TNA cannot complain that this is an unreasonable expectation.

Anyway, there is no alternative to reconciliation.

The TNA has to guide its people away from the armed struggle, whether they are here in Sri Lanka or in the diaspora, and it has to do so before any more 35 year old fathers of three decide to turn themselves into human candles. People take such extreme steps because they have been misled about the situation. They have been convinced that it warrants the sacrifice of their lives, and that their actions will contribute to some kind of change.

They are wrong on both counts, and it is up to the TNA to put them right.

That means being honest about what the LTTE did and didn’t do, and what the consequences were for the Tamil community and why.

It also implies refraining from exaggeration. After all, the real problems are bad enough.

One relatively small example from the manifesto is the section on law and order. There are clearly many reasons to worry about what is happening in the North, and I have written in these columns about incidents like the attacks on the Uthayan newspaper and the disruption of the TNA’s public meetings by thugs apparently connected to or supported by the regime. The North must also be suffering the results of a phenomenon that is affecting the whole of Sri Lanka – the politicisation of the Police. I have expended quite some effort in discussing in particular the way in which the Police stand by while Sinhalese extremist groups attack Muslim holy places and property. Given this behaviour in the South, it would be foolish to imagine that the Police are doing a brilliant job in the North.

But is there a specific crisis, as the TNA suggests?

I don’t know, but the UNHCR survey referred to at the beginning of this article would seem to suggest otherwise. It says that only 1% of former IDPs had experienced a ‘serious security incident’ involving a family member since their return (the fieldwork was done between November 2012 and March 2013). At the same time, 54% felt that safety had improved, while another 36% believed that there had at least been no deterioration.

The research also finds that 89% of respondents would report a crime, while 75% of those who had visited a   police station in the previous year were satisfied with the result.

Only 4% of respondents described the relationship between the Police and the community as bad – 50% said it was good.

However, the report also states that only 60% of women feel safe to stay at home without men being present.

Of course it doesn’t exactly confirm what G.L. Peiris claimed in his response to Navi Pillay’s statement either, that Northerners are essentially happy with the role and presence of the military – 16% were generally positive and 29% were generally negative, with 43% considering that it is not a problem and 12% expressing no opinion.

This may be just the way politics works, but some people take it seriously.

This article was published in The Island on 11th September 2013. The internet version may be accessed here.

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Come on over, everything’s free in Sri Lanka

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on September 4, 2013

How the Government is planning to replace free education with Free Education Zones

highwayForeign investors must imagine that this country is a vast, uninhabited wasteland. Because if they are willing to start a business here, they are literally deluged with gifts. They get a conveniently located piece of real estate, hooked up to all of the necessary services, for very little or sometimes nothing, while they are earnestly reassured that the Government is working really hard to ensure that they can come and go smoothly via the most modern of infrastructure – brand new ports and airports, a network of expressways and so on. And no matter how much they make in profits, they won’t be asked to pay so much as a rupee in tax.

No doubt they are delighted to find that the scenery is quite nice too. They can congratulate themselves on their good fortune while reclining on a palm-fringed beach, champagne flute in hand.

This week, it is the future of Sri Lankan youth that they must pretend to care about.

A few days ago, this newspaper carried a report of an announcement by the Secretary to the Ministry of Higher Education regarding what he described as ‘Free Zones for Education’. The Government is planning to establish five of them – in Gampaha, Hambantota, Puttalam, Trincomalee and Kilinochchi.

Naturally, these are not going to be zones in which education is free but zones in which companies will be free to sell education without any of the normal controls.

They are to be given 100 acres each to set up their campuses.

If the agreement already reached with the University of Central Lancashire is anything to go by, they will also be offered a fifteen year tax holiday, followed by ten years in which they will pay at a concessionary rate. Twenty five years later, they may perhaps be ready to compete with other businesses.

I hardly know where to start.

The Government relies on two arguments to justify bringing private universities to the country. First, it says that it doesn’t have enough money to expand access to the existing state universities, so a lot of young people are missing out on the opportunity to get a degree. Secondly, it says that students whose families can afford to pay for their higher studies are currently sending them abroad, which means that Sri Lanka is losing precious foreign exchange.

For the sake of argument, let us assume that there is absolutely no possibility of increasing the budget allocation for higher education, although this is obviously not the case.

What is the degree that students can expect to get from these private universities?

If it is to be of value to young people, it must help them to get a job. If it is to be of value to the country, it must equip them with the skills needed to develop the economy.

Is it going to do either?

At the moment, there are more degree-holders in Sri Lanka than suitable employment for them. That much is obvious from the fact that there are ‘trade unions’ for unemployed graduates. What happens as the number of young people going to university increases? The University of Central Lancashire is expecting to enrol 10,000 students when it commences operations in Sri Lanka. Since there are currently only 25,000 places to be had in state universities per year, even a single institution in each of the five zones would boost the number of graduates threefold.

The more people have degrees, the less use they are to job seekers as indicators of intelligence and the capacity to work. They have to provide sought after training.

This is also obviously the case with regard to their contribution to the country’s development.

And for training to be sought after, it has to be of good quality. Employers are not stupid – they know what is being taught and how, or they very soon find out.

We may immediately rule out the possibility of standards being guaranteed by regulation, since the state has demonstrated very little interest in managing corporate activities to date and it is not likely to develop the capacity to do so in the near future.

So what is the plan?

The Government seems to believe that quality can be assured simply by offering incentives to good institutions to encourage them to come to Sri Lanka. It says that the freebies referred to above are only for ‘reputed international universities’.

That statement itself is a bit doubtful, given that the first agreement to be signed was with the University of Central Lancashire. The United Kingdom has 48 of the top 400 universities in the world, according to the most respected ranking, but the University of Central Lancashire is not one of them. In fact, I would suggest that even the majority of British people have never heard of it.

But even if it is providing a perfectly reasonable education in the United Kingdom in a few subjects, which is quite possible, why should we assume that it will be able to do the same in Sri Lanka?

There are three problems.

First, doesn’t Sri Lanka have different training needs to the United Kingdom? The curriculum of any programme offered in this country ought to be different if it is going to help its participants to find a job, and also if it is going to contribute to the development of the nation. That is common sense, since the two countries are at very different stages and have very different economies.

In fact, this draws attention to a larger problem. Who is going to decide which courses will be offered in private universities? Their choices will be guided by what young people are willing to pay for now, or at the most what they are likely to be willing to pay for in a few years. They will follow the trajectory of the economy, not play a role in shaping it, as higher education led by state universities should attempt to do.

Secondly, who is going to teach in Sri Lanka? Are Sri Lankans currently working in British universities going to come ‘home’? Are British professors going to move to Sri Lanka? Private universities will more likely face the same recruitment problems as the existing state universities – even if they offer higher salaries, which remains to be seen, the jobs will not be secure.

Finally, what incentive will private universities have to do a good job? Demand from young people for higher education is so strong that they will constitute absolutely no check on the quality of the courses.

There may be many problems with state universities, but at least their objective is education.

If there really is a need to expand access to higher education beyond the capacity of the budget, the next best option is to offer additional places at state universities on a fee-paying basis to students with the next best marks, not to allow companies whose sole motivation is making a profit to decide who gets to study what and how.

Both options have the same close to zero chance of stopping young people going overseas to study – the main reason they go is not to get a degree but to try to settle there permanently.

So much for the Government’s logic.

I am not sure whether even the Minister believes it. More likely is that this entire debate is being conducted because some businessmen see the higher education market as potentially extremely lucrative.

And they are probably Sri Lankan.

While a lot is now being said about the Government’s handouts to foreign investors, especially in the light of the appallingly low level of taxation in the country, one question that is never asked is how many of them are actually Sri Lankans. These days, it is not only the West that has multinational corporations. Sri Lanka too is developing its share, and they are in a prime position to exploit such opportunities. They can send money out of the country today and bring it back to a very warm welcome tomorrow.

This article was published in The Island on 4th September 2013. The internet version may be accessed here.

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Time for the TNA to step in

Posted in The Island, The Sunday Leader by kathnoble on August 28, 2013

Why Tamil politicians must defend the interests of the Tamil fishermen of the North and East

Northern fishermenOne of the reasons people dismiss the support of Tamil Nadu politicians for Tamils in Sri Lanka is their complete lack of concern for the immediate welfare of the community. Where they are going to get their next meal doesn’t matter. Unless their problems can be used to blame the Government, they are ignored.

Last week, I said that Karunanidhi was right to focus on the need for a political solution and the full implementation of the 13th Amendment in recent protests aimed at getting India to boycott the Commonwealth Summit in November. It is an entirely reasonable demand, and he will be doing everybody a favour if he can marshal the emotions of 72 million Tamils in Tamil Nadu into a campaign that can actually deliver, rather than misleading them into thinking that they are helping by continuing to call for Eelam – and in the circumstances another devastating war.

But he is absolutely wrong on the other issue that he raised – the arrests of Indian fishermen by the Sri Lankan Navy.

Everybody other than Tamil Nadu politicians agrees that the treatment of fishermen who cross the international boundary has improved considerably since the end of the war. On the whole, the Navy is not shooting at them, as it no doubt once did – it would seem to have understood the rather obvious logic that sending people to jail for their crimes is far more effective than killing them when one wants to secure the support of their elected representatives. Better very late than never!

And the Government has clearly been trying to minimise the length of time it takes to send them back to India. Their incarceration doesn’t usually last more than a few days, and they are rarely made to pay more than a token fine, which is a much better deal than they get from any other country.

Of course even that is undesirable, and it is worrying that the Government is now apparently thinking of getting tougher.

These are poor people. They can’t afford fines, and they can’t afford to be kept away from their livelihoods.

But it is the job of the Indian government to look after them. The Sri Lankan government has to look after poor Sri Lankans, and the fishing communities of the Northern Province are some of the poorest in the country, having been very badly affected by the three decades of conflict in Sri Lanka.

That many lives were destroyed by the war is well known – certainly by Karunanidhi.

He should also know that their livelihoods suffered more or less the same fate. Fishing has always been a major part of the Northern economy. In 1980, the North supplied 50% of the national catch, but the catch in the Northern Province had fallen from almost 100,000 MT to just 15,000 MT by the end of the war. The restrictions imposed by the Security Forces in an attempt to prevent the smuggling of weapons and militants across the Palk Strait made it very difficult for fishermen to survive.

And although the sector is recovering, the catch has still only reached 60,000 MT.

Meanwhile, the catch in the rest of the country has increased considerably, so that the Northern Province now contributes about 12%.

Most fishermen in the North have only basic equipment, while many from the Mannar, Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu districts who were caught up in the final battle with the LTTE lost whatever they had when they were displaced.

They are far behind where they were three decades ago.

Even more importantly, they are far behind the Indian fishermen who cross the international boundary.

In Tamil Nadu over the same period, the catch has gone up from 375,000 MT to nearly 615,000 MT. Fishermen have moved from the small boats that used to dominate the industry to trawlers, which sweep up everything in their path. Sri Lankan fishermen say that these new methods not only destroy their nets and damage their boats – the trawlers move about at such high speeds that they can easily run into them in the dark – but also risk the sustainability of fisheries in the North.

They are surely right.

After all, Indian fishermen are so keen to come to Sri Lankan waters precisely because there aren’t enough fish in their own. They have overexploited their resources.

A decidedly uninspiring editorial in The Hindu on Friday suggested that a solution could be found through negotiations between Indian and Sri Lankan fishermen. It said that Indian fishermen believe that Sri Lankan waters are their ‘traditional fishing grounds’. Well, no doubt they aren’t alone – I bet that Sri Lankan fishermen believe that Sri Lankan waters are their traditional fishing grounds too!

In fact, Indian fishermen are proposing an ‘open seas’ policy, with set times for Indians and Sri Lankans to fish wherever they like.

Of course they are.

Sri Lankan waters haven’t yet been overexploited. Opposition by Sri Lankan fishermen to such a disingenuous proposal is therefore absolutely understandable, and it is stupid to ask them to agree to the extension of what is already a serious problem.

Indeed, at least some of the violent incidents in the recent past have occurred between fishermen themselves.

Tamil Nadu politicians try to pretend that the cause of all the angst is Kachchativu – the island in the Palk Strait that was ceded to Sri Lanka in 1974. An extremely belated and totally useless competition has now emerged between Karunanidhi and Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, with the latter passing a resolution in the state assembly in May calling on the Centre to take back Kachchativu and the former responding in a matter of days with a petition in the Supreme Court seeking the same thing, on the grounds that the agreement was never ratified by Parliament.

Whether or not they have a point doesn’t matter, since we are not talking about just a few square kilometres.

Indian fishermen are not only crossing the international boundary near Kachchativu. According to Sri Lankan fishermen, they come right up to the mainland, and move as far down the western side as Puttalam and as far down the eastern side as Trincomalee – about one third of the coastline.

And they say that 2,000 trawlers come almost every day.

This weekend, Karunanidhi intensified his efforts by reiterating his demand for the Centre to establish a naval base in Tamil Nadu, specifically for the purpose of protecting Indian fishermen.

But it is alternative livelihoods that they need, not an armed guard.

Rather than encouraging them to believe that they can go on paying so little attention to the environment, he should be busy working out a genuine solution for the fisheries sector of Tamil Nadu. He must also explain to the fishermen that Sri Lankan Tamils need not only a devolved administration in the North but also ways to make a living.

Unfortunately, the politicians who are likely to run the Northern Provincial Council have not been willing to speak out either.

The TNA intervenes on many crucial and urgent matters, and it deserves praise for addressing problems of importance to the whole country in addition to the concerns of the community that it represents. Its leaders have made some excellent speeches on the impeachment of the Chief Justice, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution and other important topics. These are all very necessary. But it does not excuse them from taking action on this issue.

The debate on the fishermen of the Northern Province must not be left to Tamil Nadu politicians and the Government of Sri Lanka, or it will never end.

This article was published in The Island on 28th August 2013 and republished without permission by The Sunday Leader on 1st September 2013. The internet versions may be accessed here and here.

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A few thoughts for Navi Pillay

Posted in The Island, The Sunday Leader by kathnoble on August 21, 2013

Why the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights should focus on the politicisation of the legal system and excessive policing of protests and dissent rather than allegations of war crimes during her upcoming visit to Sri Lanka

naviandothersAs the Commonwealth Summit draws closer, the world is going to turn its attention to the situation in Sri Lanka. It is a major international event, and people will want to know what is happening in the host country. When Mahinda Rajapaksa stands up to welcome his fellow heads of government, talking about their shared values and vision, he will give them the perfect opportunity to ask questions – principally, do we really have anything in common with this administration?

Some campaigners have already decided on the answer. They want a boycott, and in the next few months they will be working hard to persuade key individuals – in particular David Cameron and Manmohan Singh – to stay away.

Whether or not they succeed is not very important. What matters is the issues that they raise in the process.

Navi Pillay’s visit will set the tone. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, who is due to arrive in Colombo this weekend, has had plenty to say about Sri Lanka since she was appointed back in 2008. But this is her first trip to the island. She will spend a week here, meeting various officials, politicians and activists, and her report will form the basis of the next round of discussions in Geneva, as well as informing the positions of the Secretary General and member states. It is also to her opinion that the international media will turn for an assessment of how the Government should be treated – like a naughty child or like an armed and dangerous criminal.

And she has a decision to make.

She can continue to focus on allegations of war crimes, in step with the Transitional Government of Tamil Eelam, which last week renewed its call for an investigation in a letter to the new United States Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power.

But that would be ethnically polarising. Sinhalese overwhelmingly reject the idea of international oversight of the way the war was fought, many of them believing that such intervention would not be honest or reasonable. There is a feeling that Sri Lanka is being singled out, and that sense is strengthened by the memory of what most people regard as a much worse episode in the country’s history – the response to the JVP uprising in the late 1980s, resulting in the deaths of thousands of Sinhalese – that did not generate anywhere near as much of a reaction.

In any case, Navi Pillay getting involved in efforts to seek justice for war victims only makes them less likely to succeed, by pushing Sinhalese back into their narrow conception of nationalism, which is most ably represented by Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The other option would be for her to stress issues of concern to everybody.

At the moment, the vast majority of people in Sri Lanka could agree on two points with regard to human rights. First is the need for the authorities to crack down on crime and in particular on politically connected criminals, or in other words to depoliticise the legal system. Sri Lankans from all communities are fed up with selective policing. They have been appalled by the revelations from Deraniyagala – the latest example of politicians abusing their power, with villagers describing the situation in recent years as a ‘reign of terror’ by the Pradeshiya Sabha Chairman. Most of them are also disgusted by Sinhalese extremist organisations, whose attacks on Muslims have been allowed to go on for several months now.

They would feel the same about politically connected criminals from the Tamil community if they had heard about them.

The second point on which there is consensus is the need for the authorities to go easy on protests and dissent. The killings in Weliweriya shocked the nation in a way that no other excess by the Security Forces has done in a very long time.

Delivering a strong message on these issues would show that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is on the side of the majority of the population.

Majority does not mean the majority community. It means looking after the interests of the powerless, whether they be Sinhalese, Muslim or Tamil.

International solidarity with or support for struggles against the powerful cannot help if it does not take account of the context in which they are going on. It has to respond to the prevailing attitudes in the society, working intelligently to change them over time, acknowledging that it is not just a matter of telling people what to do – they have to be convinced.

The Transitional Government of Tamil Eelam is the perfect example of how to fail.

One of its other demands is a referendum in the North and East on the establishment of a separate state. It says that Tamils should be free to decide their own destiny, just as the Scottish will do next year when they vote on whether or not to leave the UK. But it is not that simple. The Scottish have persuaded the English to accept it. And this effort was needed, because our people could never be completely apart from each other and would not want to be – our lives are intertwined through centuries of sharing the same small island. We have to get along.

Likewise, the Tamils of Sri Lanka have to live with Sinhalese and Muslims.

Of course things can be imposed on small countries from outside, but history shows that this does not tend to work out as intended.

Navi Pillay must concern herself with both means and ends.

Pressing the Government to act on the two points referred to above can open space for others to work, including representatives of the Tamil community.

One person who now seems to have grasped the importance of such an approach is Karunanidhi.

The DMK chief is not known for his measured approach to Sri Lankan issues. But despite the fact that India is fast approaching a parliamentary election, which generally encourages parties in Tamil Nadu to issue ever more radical statements on Sri Lanka in competition with each other – being a matter of foreign policy, they know that they do not have the power to actually do anything, so they can say whatever they like – Karunanidhi has chosen to stress entirely sensible demands of late.

His revival of the Tamil Eelam Supporters Organisation last year did not bode well, but in the protests that he led a few weeks ago calling for India to boycott the Commonwealth Summit, it was a political solution and the full implementation of the 13th Amendment that was stressed.

This is good news for Sri Lanka.

These are things that the Government can and must agree to, and the extra pressure that it is going to be subject to in November if applied in the right direction has a chance of bringing results.

This article was published in The Island on 21st August 2013 and republished without permission by The Sunday Leader on 25th August 2013. The internet versions may be accessed here and here.

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Yet another despicable act

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on August 14, 2013

How the Government is encouraging Sinhalese extremists to attack Muslims

Ravana BalayaIt doesn’t take many people to destroy a country. This is a lesson that we have to learn, and we have to do it fast, while the hard won peace in Sri Lanka is still more or less intact.

On Saturday night, a mob attacked a mosque in the Grandpass area of Colombo. The respected journalist DBS Jeyaraj has said that he believes that it was carefully planned. According to his report, thugs from outside the area met at the local Buddhist temple, then made their way clandestinely through land occupied by Sinhalese to the back of the mosque. On hearing the bells of the temple being rung, they started throwing stones and bottles at the building. Another group – led along the main road by monks, shouting that Sri Lanka is a Sinhala Buddhist country and Muslims should be thrown out – joined the attack.

The temple continued ringing its bells, drawing an even bigger crowd of Sinhalese from the neighbourhood, who were told by their local priests that the mosque was in the process of being destroyed. They went along to help.

By this time, the gates of the mosque had been torn down.

The Police – who had been assigned to protect the mosque in the wake of a demonstration by the Ravana Balaya – stood and watched. DBS Jeyaraj says that they may even have encouraged the mob.

The mosque was saved by the arrival of local Muslims, who were determined to protect their place of worship.

This is when the authorities decided to intervene.

What concerned them was not the prospect of the destruction of a mosque, even though the Government had agreed after the dispute with the Ravana Balaya that it should be allowed to remain – thanks to the intervention of Deputy Minister Faizer Mustapha, president of the SLFP’s Muslim unit and the SLFP’s co-organiser of the Colombo Central electoral division. (Mahinda Rajapaksa himself was party to the discussions, along with Prime Minister and Minister of Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs D.M. Jayaratne.) Instead, they were worried about the safety of the Sinhalese gathered outside the mosque.

A very similar thing happened again on Sunday afternoon.

Although on Saturday night the authorities had promised the Muslim community that prayers could be conducted in the mosque on Sunday itself, they did not keep their word. The Police closed access to the area.

Local Muslims had planned to gather and march to the mosque at 3.00pm in protest.

However, by 2.30pm, a group of Sinhalese outsiders had managed to enter the area without being stopped by the Police, and they started attacking Muslim homes and residences. Individuals too were targeted.

This resulted in clashes between the two groups.

At that point, the STF got between the Muslims and Sinhalese, preventing the violence from escalating. The Sinhalese group decided to back down, and they were escorted out of the area.

Meanwhile, thugs had arrived in neighbouring Maligawatte. They smashed threewheelers belonging to Muslims and started to make threats against the mosque, saying that Muslims should go to the one in Grandpass instead. Again, when Muslims heard what was happening and rushed to the scene in large numbers, posing a threat to the Sinhalese, the STF appeared to calm the situation.

No doubt the situation needed calming, but this should have been done at a much earlier stage.

Remember that it was on July 9th that the Ravana Balaya insisted that the Grandpass mosque should be closed within a month, so there was every reason to expect an attack this weekend.

Sinhalese extremist organisations try to hide their involvement in specific acts of violence after they take place, but they are quite open about their support for what they describe as ‘taking the law into their own hands’ – even the statements that they issue to deny knowledge of an incident refer to the failure of the authorities to deal with problems like unauthorised construction of places of worship, unethical conversions and uncontrolled funding of NGOs. They often talk of acting as ‘unofficial law enforcement officers’.

That a mob turned up to destroy the Grandpass mosque on August 10th was no surprise.

Of course the Government is to blame.

Every country has its lunatics. Last week, one of the most popular videos circulating on the internet was an interview by an Australian television channel with a candidate in their upcoming general election. The woman – a member of the fringe One Nation Party – managed to expose her ignorance and utter foolishness in a matter of just a couple of minutes. She said, ‘I don’t oppose Islam as a country, but I do feel that their laws should not be welcome here in Australia.’ Hopefully she is not interested in ‘visiting’ Islam either, because she is going to find it difficult to get a ticket!

She rose to prominence after being arrested for sticking labels on Nestle products in a local supermarket that said, ‘Beware! Halal food funds terrorism.’

On being asked about this in the interview, she said, ‘Only 2% of Australians follow haram.’ According to her, halal certification is very different from the actually virtually identical system of labelling kosher food for Jewish Australians, which she believes is perfectly acceptable. She said, ‘Jews aren’t under haram – they have their own religion that follows Jesus Christ.’

The lunatics of the Ravana Balaya are probably no more idiotic than this woman.

The difference is that the Australian government is not helping her. Indeed, she is being prosecuted and on being convicted she would not have been allowed to contest, but this is now a formality – the outcry generated by the interview has forced her to withdraw from the race.

She would be sent to prison if she even just talked about destroying a mosque.

In Sri Lanka, such people are invited for tea with the President.

The country is very fortunate that Muslim leaders have responded so responsibly to these provocations, but it would be a mistake to assume that they will be able to contain the anger and frustration of their community indefinitely. We have to do everything we can to stop this campaign immediately.

This article was not published by The Island.

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How did it come to this?

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on August 7, 2013

A look at why the people of Weliweriya came onto the streets in the first place

Dhammika PereraOnce again, the Government is desperately seeking an excuse. The Army has shot dead at least three people on the streets of the Gampaha district in the process of breaking up a protest. Dozens of others are still undergoing treatment for their injuries.

Unsurprisingly, it has been doing its best to put the blame on what it calls ‘subversives’ – the new terrorists. Ministers have told the press that the villagers of Weliweriya were on the verge of calling off their agitation, with the Government having agreed to close the factory that they say is responsible for polluting their water pending the outcome of tests. The Government claims that the confrontation with the Army took place only after the arrival of outsiders, who instigated the crowd to attack.

To support this version of events, we have been ‘informed’ that some months ago more than 100 workers associated with a JVP trade union were sacked by Dipped Products.

So far, so utterly predictable.

A certain section of society is ever ready to believe such conspiracy theories, and to accept that the use of massive force is either unavoidable or actually roundly deserved.

This we know for sure by now, since there have been a number of very similar incidents in the recent past – one man was killed when workers from the Katunayake Free Trade Zone took issue with plans for a pension scheme for the private sector in May 2011, and another died when Chilaw fishermen protested against the increase in fuel prices in February 2012.

Of course it is unacceptable to deploy the Army to manage demonstrations, but after the war victory there is a tendency to think that soldiers are the only ones who can get things done – in the same way as some people want the Defence Secretary to be in charge of everything from garbage collection to university curricula and teacher training to agricultural development, tourism, the reconstruction of the Vanni, the preservation of the nation’s cultural heritage and the future of the Buddha Sasana. What naivety! But this is not the most important argument, since the Police have shown that they are equally capable of killing unarmed demonstrators.

Taking issue with the absolutely extraordinary use of live ammunition seems largely pointless too, the same thing having been said many times already.

Instead, let’s think about why there was a protest in the first place.

Even if the story of JVP intervention were true, it could not have happened if the Government had responded to the concerns of the villagers in the proper manner – they would not have come onto the streets.

The complaint against Dipped Products for releasing chemicals into the environment was not made last week. The villagers have been concerned about their water supply for some time, and they had petitioned the authorities on several occasions.

If a timely and transparent investigation had been conducted, the accuracy of the charge would have been ascertained long ago. Action could have been taken.

Why was it not done?

Well, one cannot help but think that it is because the factory is owned by Hayleys, which is controlled by Dhammika Perera.

All regimes have their favourite millionaires, but the current administration with its utter lack of concern for even keeping up appearances has blurred the boundaries between the public and private sectors more than ever before. Dhammika Perera – a man who by his own admission controls 10% of Sri Lanka’s publicly listed companies – was in 2007 appointed as the Chairman of the Board of Investment. In his first press conference, he declared that the Board of Investment had been too focused on attracting foreign investors. He said that he wanted to give locals the same benefits. No kidding!

How can we be surprised at the pathetically low level of tax revenue in Sri Lanka when corporate bosses are put in charge of deciding who gets tax holidays?

And please don’t dare to imagine that these are the only capable people in the country!

Dhammika Perera once explained to this newspaper how he started off in business. It was 1987, he was 19 years old and his mother had given him Rs. 500 to buy a pair of shoes. Instead, he spotted an opportunity to ‘invest’. He lent the money to a pavement hawker who used to sit outside his uncle’s restaurant in Pettah in return for a share of his profits. According to Dhammika Perera, this brought him Rs. 200 per day for months – a total of Rs. 74,000.

What is this if not appalling exploitation?

He used his windfall to acquire the slot machines that eventually made him a ‘casino king’ – he now owns three of the four licensed outfits in Colombo, for whose further development Beira Lake is soon going to be made into a no-go area for us ordinary mortals.

The fourth casino is the one that is going into partnership with billionaire James Packer, who apparently can’t afford to pay taxes either.

No wonder Sri Lanka can’t afford to maintain its free health and education systems!

Meanwhile, by the way, Dipped Products has recorded an increase in profits of a massive 40% in the first quarter of this year.

On what basis did it sack more than 100 workers, as the Government has been telling us to make its excuse for the crackdown by the Army a little more credible? Isn’t it illegal to get rid of employees simply because they are members of a trade union, whether associated with the JVP or otherwise?

Why wasn’t it prevented?

Dhammika Perera claims that the secret of his success is that he personally looks into all plans before deciding on investments. Yet despite owning a couple of dozen of the nation’s biggest companies, he still has time to be Secretary to the Ministry of Transport – a position that he has held since he left the Board of Investment in 2010.

Of course he’s not the only businessman to have become so unhealthily close to the Government. There are many.

The neglect of the complaint against Hayleys that brought the people of Weliweriya onto the streets was no aberration. It has become the rule.

Unlike with Ranil Wickremasinghe, the prioritisation of corporations over citizens is not ideological. The Government doesn’t bother to think about what it is doing. It simply asks who are its friends and who are its enemies, and decisions are taken accordingly. There isn’t really any such thing as ‘policy’ – Mahinda Rajapaksa believes above all in flexibility. That means that he decides what to do on the basis of what he thinks that he can get away with.

This sounds democratic, but it is a very dangerous thing so long as politics in Sri Lanka remains uncompetitive.

Tragedies can keep happening. The people of the Gampaha district may be appalled by the way in which they have been treated, but they will probably still vote for the Government.

This article was not published by The Island.

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Sweeping thugs under the rug

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on July 31, 2013

Why campaigns for justice have to be honest if they are to be successful

Khuram ShaikhAn awful lot of effort is being put into bringing the killers of Khuram Shaikh to trial. The British aid worker died in Tangalle in December 2011, having been set upon by a group of men at a party in the hotel in which he was staying. His girlfriend was raped.

Of course the people who did it should be punished. His brother is doing what is both right and natural in using every opportunity to press the Government to move ahead with the investigation. And his MP, Simon Danczuk, should be congratulated for taking his job as a representative of the British people seriously – in addition to speaking and writing about the case, he has now visited Sri Lanka a number of times, most recently last week as a member of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association delegation.

It is also virtually guaranteed that they are correct in thinking that without this pressure, very little would happen. The main suspect is the Chairman of the Pradeshiya Sabha – a member of the UPFA.

But what is everybody else doing?

The British government is pretending to think that this incident suggests that Sri Lanka is a dangerous place for foreigners, having incorporated it into their travel advisory in an extremely dubious manner. It says, ‘Organised and armed gangs are known to operate in Sri Lanka and have been responsible for targeted kidnappings and violence. While there is no evidence to suggest that British nationals are at particular risk, gangs have been known to operate in tourist areas. A British national was killed during a violent attack by a gang in a tourist resort in December 2011.’

All of these sentences are factually accurate, but they don’t go together – Khuram Shaikh died because he got between some drunkards and a woman, as happens on a regular basis throughout the world, including in Britain.

What is specific to Sri Lanka is that when they have political connections, they expect to get away with it.

This is what the British government would say if it were genuinely interested in justice.

It is what the international media should say too.

The case has generated significant coverage, particularly in British newspapers. They are most concerned about what they describe as the extraordinary delay in the prosecution of Sampath Chandra Pushpa Vidanapathirana and his associates – 18 months on, proceedings have yet to get underway in the High Court.

Actually, this is completely normal in Sri Lanka. But nowhere do journalists attempt to put the incident in the proper context.

Last week, a short film on the murder of Khuram Shaikh was published by The New Yorker. Mysteriously, it spent most of the 15 minutes suggesting that his parents are racists, on the basis that they didn’t attend his brother’s marriage to a white woman, while his family have avoided telling them that Khuram Shaikh spent his last minutes trying to defend his girlfriend – another white woman. Surely there are better ways to raise such issues than exposing people who have lost a child to violence!

In the brief interlude in which it touched on the actual case, the documentary implied that cover-ups are a result of the war victory, whereas Sri Lankans know very well that this is hardly a recent phenomenon, even if it has been getting worse under Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Why worry about these details? Why not just be happy that the Government is being forced by all this attention to take action against at least one set of thugs?

Well, dishonesty begets dishonesty.

The Government is really quite stupid. It should have realised from the beginning that doing nothing was not an option, given that Khuram Shaikh was British.

But now that it has understood the situation, it is certain that the trial will go ahead eventually. What is not at all sure is whether the perpetrators will be found guilty, what sentences they will be given, under what conditions these will be served and whether they will at some point be given pardons – the traditional method of getting out of such fixes.

Finally, this is also what is going to happen with regard to war crimes.

When the Government realises that it is going to be impossible to avoid the issue altogether, it will decide which handful of incidents are the least problematic for it to look into, a few scapegoats will be identified and prosecutions will commence. If they are lucky, the accused may even be offered some kind of compensation for the inconvenience.

This is not justice.

Nor does it help to ensure that exactly the same fate doesn’t befall somebody else.

At some point, the international community will either get distracted or profess to be satisfied with what is bound to be an unsatisfactory outcome if the real nature of the problem is not exposed, and that will be the end of the matter.

In this way, something can actually be worse than nothing.

Khuram Shaikh’s case is the tip of a huge iceberg – politics in Sri Lanka is riddled with thugs, and the Government’s tolerance of their antics is legendary. Keeping up with developments in Kelaniya alone is enough to drive a person to despair. Most recently, we have been informed that former DIG Vaas Gunawardena extorted several million rupees from Mervyn Silva’s parliamentary secretary – who is apparently at the top of the Police hit list of drug traffickers – to refrain from pursuing him on drugs and firearms charges. Meanwhile, still ongoing is the investigation into the murder of Pradeshiya Sabha member Hasitha Madawala, allegedly by the same parliamentary secretary’s nephew, using a gun supplied by his uncle. Mervyn Silva’s coordinating secretary is also alleged to have been involved.

Surrounded by such characters, no wonder the man is so keen to attack journalists!

And like almost all Sri Lankan politicians, he is as at home in the UNP as in the SLFP, having served as an MP under Chandrika Kumaratunga and Ranil Wickremasinghe as well as Mahinda Rajapaksa.

What politicians and their hangers-on get up to in the North and East is rarely even brought to our attention.

This is the proper context to the murder of Khuram Shaikh, without which there is no hope of doing anything more than encouraging thugs to check the passports of the people they are thinking of beating up to be sure that they are not British.

He deserves a better legacy, and that is not the responsibility of his family.

This article was published in The Island on 31st July 2013. The internet version may be accessed here.

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