Sunday, December 20, 2009

For Sri Lanka refugees, a rough return

By Erika Kinetz - Three years ago, Vairamuttu Bavani left her home in eastern Sri Lanka to attend her cousin’s wedding in the north.

She did not make it back until September.

Trapped by the civil war, Bavani, a Tamil, lost six members of her family and both her legs to a bomb. She spent months detained in an overcrowded refugee camp. And she remains under tight scrutiny by local authorities, who have visited her almost every day since her return from the northern Vanni region, she said.

“They ask me where I went in the Vanni and what I was doing there,’’ said Bavani, 25, who spends her days seated on the floor of her sister’s house, fighting boredom.

Bavani is one of tens of thousands of refugees who are struggling to rebuild their lives in postwar Sri Lanka, often under tight control from the government. During the final months of the war, nearly 300,000 mostly Tamil civilians were trapped between rebels and advancing government troops, and these refugees are now in various stages of limbo.

The quarter-century war cost 80,000 to 100,000 their lives, as the Tamil Tiger rebels fought for a separate state for Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority. After the rebels lost in May, the government herded the remaining civilians, along with straggling rebel fighters, to overcrowded camps.

Rights groups and Western governments decried conditions in the camps, saying they amounted to an illegal form of collective punishment.

Faced with mounting international pressure and advancing monsoon rains that would have caused havoc at the low-lying camps, the government recently unlocked the camps, saying most of the remaining 127,000 refugees are free to go home once they register with authorities. The government has vowed to close the camps by the end of January.

Even those who have returned from the camps say they have been told not to travel without police permission, and security officers visit their homes to question them regularly. Many wait, painfully, for news of loved ones who vanished or were taken by the military for questioning.

Rights groups worry that the government’s surveillance of refugees and its failure to provide them with better livelihoods will exacerbate the ethnic tensions that fueled the conflict.

“It’s alienating the 300,000 displaced and their relatives,’’ said Meenakshi Ganguly, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. “They’re all going to feel like they’re living in a state where they are not trusted and don’t belong. That’s a highly dangerous situation.’’

Sri Lanka’s Hindu Tamil community, 18 percent of the country’s 20 million people, has complained of decades of discrimination at the hands of the Buddhist Sinhalese majority. Sri Lanka’s president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, promised to address the lingering tensions after the war ended. Now he says he will address them after elections, scheduled for Jan. 26.

Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara, a military spokesman, said refugees are not under surveillance, and that police only bring returnees in for questioning if there is reason for suspicion.

“If they have been harassed, they should have informed the authorities there,’’ he said.

Rishard Badurdeen, Sri Lanka’s resettlement minister, said refugees do get support from the government and charities.

Refugees being resettled in the north, swathes of which were flattened during the final battles, get tin sheets from India to help rebuild their homes, $219 in cash from UNHCR, and six months of dry rations from the World Food Program, said Badurdeen. Farmers get additional agriculture grants, he said.

Those sent home to the east are eligible for food rations.

Many refugees bear deep hatred for the Tamil Tigers. They say rebels shot civilians who tried to flee the war zone and stole their children to replenish the ranks of dying fighters. UNICEF has accused the rebels of forcibly conscripting more than 6,000 children.

“Raising children in that area was like raising cattle and sending them to slaughter,’’ said Sugadas Rajvathani, 34, who returned to her sister’s house in Trincomalee, a port town in northeastern Sri Lanka, on Oct. 30.

She and her three children had spent months in flight. There was no food.

One man sold his motorized three-wheeled rickshaw for two coconuts, she said.

When rebels came, she hid her children in ditches, placing a metal sheet and a cooking pot on top for camouflage.

The children say it was hot and hard to breathe inside.

One night, rebels came to a tent next to theirs and shot dead a man who tried to keep them from taking his son, she said.

The boy, enraged, began to shout: “Let’s teach them a lesson!’’ Rajvathani recalled.

The villagers gathered sticks and hoes to fight.

In the commotion, Rajvathani and her family fled across a lagoon to government territory.

“We had to ignore bodies falling in front of us and walk on,’’ she said.

“Everyone had to save themselves.’’


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Sunday, December 20, 2009

Sri Lanka’s war heroes battle for a clean image

A presidential election in Sri Lanka next month will see two former allies from the country’s bitter civil war slugging it out, but their record on corruption, not the battlefield, might swing the final vote.

President Mahinda Rajapakse and his former army chief Sarath Fonseka are set to face each other at the ballot box on January 26 in the first national elections since the end of Sri Lanka’s 37-year-long ethnic conflict in May.

Official campaigning opened on Friday in what promises to be a bitter and highly personal battle between the two architects of the victory over Tamil Tiger rebels that ended a war the United Nations estimates cost up to 100,000 lives.

Rajapakse, 64, told his first campaign rally on Friday evening that he will “wage war” against corruption and triumph in the same way as he finished off the Tigers, who were fighting for a Tamil homeland in the north of the island.

In a similar vein, Fonseka has promised to stamp out the pervasive graft that both candidates agree is stalling post-war economic recovery.

For Fonseka, the root of corruption is the president’s family. The former general and his backers have made much of a pledge to oust what they call the “family oligarchy” of Rajapakse.

This “oligarchy” sees one of the president’s brothers as the ports and aviation minister, another handling post-war reconstruction and the third being the all-powerful defence secretary. Rajapakse’s eldest son controls a national youth movement.

“The corruption stems from the family rule of the Rajapakses,” Fonseka said while launching his campaign on Friday evening. “I will end the culture of corruption and jail those responsible.”

Rajapakse, who refutes corruption allegations, called the election two years ahead of schedule, hoping to benefit from his popularity after the end of Asia’s longest running ethnic conflict.

He has since sought to shift his popular image, ordering posters of himself on the battlefield with military top brass and army commandos to be replaced by larger-than-life cut-outs of him dressed in squeaky clean white national dress.

The recently-won war has caused international problems for Rajapakse, who has resisted demands from Western nations for a war crimes probe into the final stages of the conflict with the Tigers following UN reports that 7,000 Tamil civilians died in the first few months of this year alone.

He has since turned to China, Iran, Libya, Myanmar and Pakistan for support.

In contrast, Fonseka, who says he would glady submit his wartime behaviour to scrutiny, has the backing of Sri Lanka’s right-wing United National Party, which in turn has close ties with the West and Japan.

He is also strongly supported by a Marxist party which has connections with China.

Both men are seen as nationalists drawing support from the majority Sinhalese community. It is unknown how the minority Tamil population, which makes up 12.5 percent of the country, will vote in January.

The Berlin-based Transparency International’s (TI) Sri Lanka branch said graft had emerged as a major campaign issue because of the unprecedented level of abuse of state resources by those in power.

“Both sides will talk about stamping out corruption because they know it is a major campaign issue, but what we need is guarantees that they will deliver,” said TI’s chief in Colombo, J. C. Weliamuna.

TI reported last week that Sri Lanka’s economic recovery has been slowed by graft, violence and a culture of lawlessness.

“The opposition is attacking the incumbent and capitalising on corruption,” said Sumanasiri Liyanage, senior lecturer of economics and politics at the Peradeniya University in central Sri Lanka.

“The president will have to explain why corruption flourished and democracy declined during the war.”

© Khaleej Times Online

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Sunday, December 20, 2009

Minister's Sri Lanka holiday outrages rights campaigners

By Jane Merrick - Ben Bradshaw, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, has raised eyebrows by taking a Christmas holiday in Sri Lanka days after the British government condemned the Colombo administration for its poor human rights record.

Gordon Brown last month blocked Sri Lanka's attempt to host the next Commonwealth summit, and last week David Miliband told the Commons that there remained ongoing concerns about the island's government after a crackdown on the Tamil population earlier this year.

Despite this, Mr Bradshaw, wearing a straw hat, checked shirt and jeans, arrived at Colombo airport on Friday morning for a Christmas break in the country.

Human rights campaigners questioned why Mr Bradshaw, whose ministerial responsibilities include tourism, was supporting Sri Lanka's travel industry by holidaying there. Human Rights Watch called on him to make a public statement disapproving of President Mahinda Rajapaksa's clampdown on Tamils. A spokesman for the organisation said that, while the cabinet minister is free to travel around Sri Lanka, tens of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) still face restrictions on their movement – despite some relaxation in the rules this month.

Mr Bradshaw paid around £1,600 for a business-class ticket for the 10-hour flight. He left Heathrow on Thursday just before snowstorms hit – causing delays and cancellations – and arrived in Colombo on Friday, to be met by temperatures of around 31C.

The minister's choice of a far-flung destination and long-haul flight, with its sizeable carbon footprint, just as the Copenhagen climate talks were peaking, will earn him no points with environmental campaigners.

The 25-year on-off civil war between Tamil separatists and government forces ended in May, with victory for President Rajapaksa. But his hardline military crackdown led to 280,000 displaced people being held in camps in the north of the country.

At the Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Trinidad last month, the Prime Minister had a showdown with Mr Rajapaksa over Sri Lanka's wish to hold the next meeting in 2011, forcing him to withdraw in favour of Australia.

The Foreign Secretary, in a written statement to the Commons last week, said that, according to the UN, after the Sri Lankan government lifted restrictions on those in camps, more than 158,000 IDPs had been released, but more than 100,000 were still detained.

Mr Miliband said there were "serious concerns" over the human rights situation in Sri Lanka and urged Colombo to agree an inclusive political settlement with the Tamils.

Referring to the blocking of Sri Lanka's summit bid, Mr Miliband added: "The most important thing for the UK was that the host for each Commonwealth summit demonstrably embodies our shared values – including respect for human rights and democracy."

James Ross, legal and policy director of Human Rights Watch, said last night: "[Mr Bradshaw] should travel around, all over the country, and then publicly express his disapproval of the fact that there are still tens of thousands of Sri Lankans who cannot do the same thing because they are being held in detention centres.

"If he is going to go to Sri Lanka he should speak out and publicly honour the British government's concerns about the situation there."

A spokesman for Mr Bradshaw declined to comment last night.

© The Independent

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Sunday, December 20, 2009

Sri Lanka still waiting for its peace dividend

By Erika Kinetz - Inside, there are no victims, no killers, and no questions. There are only bright white lights and the click-clack of sewing machines in this new garment factory in war-torn eastern Sri Lanka.

Outside, the land is littered with memories from the island's quarter-century civil war: Five farmers shot dead in March. Fifteen buried in a ditch. A massacre in a nearby mosque.

"I have people who were in border villages and people who were combatants. They basically killed each other," said Theodore Gunasekara, general manager of Brandix's factory in Punani, which lies on an empty stretch of road 13 miles (22 kilometers) northwest of the coastal city of Batticaloa. "There is a lot of bad blood. When you come into Brandix, you leave the past behind."

Hostilities ended in eastern Sri Lanka nearly two years before the war reached its brutal conclusion in May, making the region the front line of Sri Lanka's postwar revival.

There have been signs of progress. Hotels are expanding as Sri Lankans from the south flock to an area they haven't been able to safely visit in nearly three decades. Rice and dairy production are rising. Bridges, built with Saudi, Chinese and Japanese money, are being inaugurated. Locals say they can watch tarmac roads grow by hundreds of yards (meters) a day. At night, the lights of small boats flicker in the dark sea: People are fishing again.

Yet growth has not eased the ethnic tensions that fueled the conflict. Nor has prosperity filtered down to the streets, where Sri Lanka's peace will ultimately be won -- or lost.

Hope that Sri Lanka will enjoy a quick peace dividend has helped send Colombo's main stock index up nearly 50 percent since the end of the war. But peace alone won't guarantee lasting growth, critics say. Also needed: more foreign investment and tourism revenue, companies getting access to larger markets, and the government shifting spending from the military to development and tax cuts.

By these measures, Sri Lanka's prospects look less promising.

Last year, Sri Lanka got $889 million in foreign direct investment. During the first half of this year, it got just $252 million, according to the Board of Investment. Officials say the decline was largely caused by the global financial crisis, which dried up financing for risky markets. They expect investment to rebound in 2010.

But a frustrating tangle of permits and licenses, persistent corruption, and a quiet sense that anti-Western feeling is rising haven't helped either, foreign diplomats and businesspeople say.

The government's brutal conduct at the end of the war may end up costing Sri Lanka market access. Europe is expected to decide in January whether to revoke Sri Lanka's duty free access because of alleged human rights violations, which would hit the nation's $3.3 billion garment industry hard.

Sri Lanka is also not in any hurry to dismantle its war economy. The military now employs about 250,000 young people who would have a hard time finding jobs elsewhere. The government said in October it wants to raise military spending by 20 percent, a move it justified to the IMF by saying many troops are needed for nonmilitary activities, like mine clearance.

The government has made a special effort to develop the east -- long claimed by the Tamil minority as part of their historical homeland -- in an attempt to turn the province into a model for the nation's postwar development.

Last year, provincial elections were held and now officials are trying to lure investors with hefty tax breaks and cheap land. The Ministry of Investment has signed nine deals in the east under a special incentive program and 18 more are in the works. Donors have poured in at least $500 million in international aid.

Since May, kidnappings and extortion have also decreased. Last year, 137 people -- mostly businessmen targeted for ransom money -- were kidnapped in Batticaloa district, 19 of whom were later found dead. So far this year, 31 have been abducted for ransom, and most have been released, according to the Foundation for a Peaceful Co-Existence, a local NGO that tracks violence.

But more than two years after the conflict ended in the east, many still say they are little better off economically -- or politically -- than they were during the war, which pitted the aggrieved ethnic Tamil minority against majority Sinhalese.

Shopkeepers say people still don't have money to spend. In some cases business has actually gone down because of Sri Lankans overseas sending less money home, the rising price of gold and increased competition.

"There is not much difference between wartime and now," said Mohammed Fatullah, 40, who runs a dress shop in the port town of Trincomalee. "People need jobs and money for my sales to increase."

The region is awash in land disputes, which are exacerbating ethnic suspicions and slowing development.

Local Tamil politicians and business people also complain the Sinhalese-run central government wields too much control over economic development. Many fear the government will use its influence to further dilute Tamil regional power, by favoring Sinhalese business owners and bringing in Sinhalese employees.

"Yes roads and bridges are being made, but who is doing it?" said R. Rajarammohan, head of Trincomalee's Chamber of Commerce. "Even the employees come from outside. If we are going to improve the economy, there must be a sure method where the existing business community is given a chance to participate."

Brandix, Sri Lanka's largest garment exporter, was the first to open a garment factory in the east after hostilities ended. Today, the $2 million factory is a hopeful outpost for the young women in the area, who say they have no other job options, and for officials eager for prosperity to put to rest decades of ethnic and religious strife.

But the 16-month-old factory is propped up by hefty subsidies and has yet to turn a profit.

It gets cheap land from the government and a five year tax holiday on 70 percent of Brandix's overall revenues. USAID helps pay for training.

Monthly expenses are about $70,000, and in good months, revenues are close to $30,000.

Executives hope that will change soon, as the global economy recovers and employees get faster and more experienced.

They say the Punani factory is a testing ground to see if they can make the business work in former conflict zones in the East and North, which offer untapped labor pools to an industry that has struggled to find workers.

Like Sri Lanka itself, the factory must negotiate complex ethnic, religious, caste and linguistic divisions.

It employs 200 Tamils, 112 Sinhalese and a few dozen Muslims. The managers are Sinhalese and must speak to Tamil staffers through a translator.

At first, the girls stuck with their own. Months of team-building exercises -- think volleyball games and dance parties -- and a zero-tolerance policy for ethnic slurs have helped blur those lines. Two young women who made racial comments were fired.

Outside the factory on a recent Wednesday, 41 young women sat at long metal tables. Most had traveled one to two hours to get here. War ended their education and killed their loved ones. Some were kidnapped by rebels to serve as soldiers and lost their childhoods too.

Now they want jobs.

"There are no job options for the young people in my village," said Kumarasamy Thanapriya, 19, whose father doesn't earn enough to support the family of 5. "I haven't learned any skills. There's no way I can do anything. We came here to learn."

She, like the others, badly wants to come inside.

Associated Press writer Krishan Francis contributed to this report.

© AP

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