Tag: Colombo


504132Mahinda Rajapaksa's surprising defeat


NEW DELHI: After a decade in power, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa — who declared elections two years ahead of schedule in a bid to seek a third term in office — has been roundly defeated.

Early trends indicated almost immediately that the opposition candidate, Maithripala Sirisena, was on course to win the 50 percent needed for a victory.

Rajapaksa tweeted his acceptance of the results, and said that he was looking forward to a peaceful transition of power.

The verdict has shocked commentators and common people alike. This election was Rajapaksa’s to lose. It had been the soon-to-be former Sri Lankan President’s decision to call for early elections. He seemed to enjoy widespread support because of his role in ending the Sri Lankan civil war.

How did the gamble go so wrong?

Things began to get complicated from the get-go. The day after Rajapaksa declared the elections, Sirisena — a former Health minister in Rajapaksa’s cabinet and widely perceived to have been the ‘Number 2’ in Rajapaksa’s party — quit the government and declared his candidacy.

Other important defections followed.

The country’s main party of Buddhist monks, the Sri Lankan National Heritage Party (JHU), pledged support to Sirisena, delivering another blow to Rajapaksa, who retained the support of the Bodu Bala Sena, or Buddhist Force.

Then a key minister and his minority Muslim party quit the coalition government. Industry and Commerce Minister Rishad Bathiudeen, leader of the All Ceylon Muslim Congress, said that he was switching allegiance to Sirisena.

Bathiudeen explained his switch by alleging that Rajapaksa had failed to restrain radical Buddhist groups involved in attacks on mosques, churches and businesses run by religious minorities in the Buddhist-majority country. “I asked the president to stop these religious hate attacks, but he failed to take action against offenders,” Bathiudeen told reporters in Colombo.

Although Muslims, the second largest minority in Sri Lanka after Hindu Tamils, account for only 10 percent of the electorate — they are be a key vote bank when the Sinhalese vote is split, given that both Rajapaksa and Sirisena are members of the majority Sinhala Buddhist community.

The country’s largest Muslim party, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, followed. Ameer Faaiz, a leader of the party that represents minority Muslims in overwhelmingly Buddhist Sri Lanka, cited the Rajapaksa administration’s “intolerance toward religious minorities” and disagreement with his style of rule. The decision served a major setback for Rajapaksa as with it more than 20 lawmakers and ministers defected to the opposition.

More bad news came soon after. Tamil National Alliance leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan said his party will back Sirisena because Rajapaksa failed to bring to a close the country’s long-standing ethnic conflict, despite ending 25 years of civil war in 2009.

“We are inclined to the view based particularly on the performance of President Mahinda Rajapaksa in the past, that we would rather repose our faith in the joint opposition candidate Mr. Maithripala Sirisena, rather than expect what has not happened in the past 10 years to happen hereafter,” Sampanthan said.

More recently, last week, the key defender of Sri Lanka’s controversial casino policy — Faizer Mustapha, a president’s counsel and deputy minister of investment — quit the government and declared his support for the opposition.

The opposition managed to unite themselves under Sirisena and develop a list of tangible promises. The joint opposition agreed to a Memorandum of Understanding. If Sirisena wins, Sri Lanka’s Presidential system will be replaced by a parliamentary system within one hundred days. The 18th amendment to the constitution will be appealed — meaning that crucial institutions such as the police and judiciary will regain their independence. The 18th amendment, passed in 2010, also eliminated presidential term limits, allowing Rajapaksa to run for a third term.

Sirisena also made an effort to distance himself from perceptions of corruption and nepotism that have come to be associated with the governing party. Announcing a series of reforms, Sirisena vowed to stop Sri Lanka from “moving towards a dictatorship.” He raised issues such as the rising cost of living, wages, corruption, the rule of law, and the welfare state.

This is important because although Rajapaksa continued to enjoy support because of his role in ending the civil war, allegations of corruption and nepotism sprung up. Two weeks after Rajapaksa was re-elected, the losing candidate — a leading general in the fight against the LTTE — was jailed. The government took legal action against the opposition and critics, and reports on the curtailment of press freedom continue to pour in.

Rajapaksa also appointed his two brothers to head major government ministries and his cousins as ambassadors to key countries, including Russia and the United States. Another brother was appointed Speaker of Parliament.

In fact, during the run up to the elections, civil rights groups and the opposition rang alarm bells accusing the government and the security establishment of coercing voters. The army, they said, was being deployed to deter Tamils from casting their vote against Rajapaksa in the country’s north. Further, in the few weeks leading to the elections, recordings surfaced where anonymous callers — appeared to be connected to the security establishment — issued death threats to leading human rights activists who were campaigning for the opposition.

Perhaps because of the perceived attempt at concentration of power, Rajapaksa’s share of votes plunged in the by-elections and provincial elections last year. The decision to announce the elections two years ahead of schedule is linked to this, with Rajapaksa gambling on the belief that he stands a better chance of being re-elected now, as opposed to waiting for two years and risking a further decline in support.

Wrong move, but who would have known?

Source: thecitizen.in

Sri Lanka rattled by planned UN rights resolution

By Amantha Perera

COLOMBO, Feb 29, 2012 (IPS) – Strung across the main road leading away from the international airport is a banner that has an intriguing message: ‘USA, Pls Do Not Support Terrorism’.

Most of the other large billboards and banners on the same stretch are also directed at visiting tourists, but these are less political and exhort them to visit beach locations or buy jewellery.

The banner is part of a government campaign to thwart or at least discredit a United States-led resolution to be tabled at the ongoing session of the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) that began in Geneva on Monday.

The resolution calls on the Sri Lankan government to detail how it plans to act on the recommendations made by its own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), according to U.S. assistant secretary of state for south and central Asia Robert Blake.

The LLRC was set up in May 2010 by President Mahinda Rajapaksa to inquire into the civil war and related events between 2002 and May 2009, when the conflict finally ended. It presented its final report in November 2011.

The Sri Lankan government has steadfastly rejected international intervention into the conduct of the final phase of the war, despite mounting allegations of rights abuses. So far, it has successfully resisted all attempts to bring on international scrutiny.

In May 2009, as the war was ending and government troops were mopping up the remnants of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, Sri Lankan diplomats in Geneva were able to quash a resolution at the UNHRC calling for an international inquiry.

The South Asian nation, backed by India, China and Russia, was then able to get passed a counter-resolution hailing the victory of government forces.

Since then, however, the diplomatic atmosphere in Geneva has changed. Colombo appears shaken by the impending resolution, with high-ranking government officials publicly dubbing the move by the U.S. as intrusive intimidation.

“President Rajapaksa had challenged the conflict management theory introduced by some Western countries. They have named Sri Lanka a country engaged in human rights violations,” youth affairs minister Dullas Alahapperuma told media a day before the Geneva sessions were to start.

“At a moment when they should be supporting Sri Lanka’s revival, they are trying to impose their will on us,” Alahapperuma complained.

Mahinda Samarasinghe, minister and leader of the Sri Lankan delegation at Geneva, said as the sessions began: “We are of the view that this (resolution) could be perceived as undue interference with internal processes of recovery and reconciliation containing strong elements of prejudgement and the application of double standards.”

The government, Samarasinghe said, had in fact begun to implement some of the LLRC recommendations. He was referring to the army and the navy setting up internal inquiries to ascertain whether there were any rights abuses.

Separately, the attorney-general’s department too has begun interviewing some of those who gave evidence at the LLRC.

However, rights activists say that the government needs to show a consistent intent that it is serious about carrying through the LLRC recommendations, rather than reacting when calls for international scrutiny are heard.

“It has to set up an apex body, with possibly the president at the head, to carry out the recommendations. Then it would be clear that the intent is there,” Jehan Perera, executive director of the Colombo-based advocacy body, the National Peace Council, told IPS.

Perera believes that despite the criticism, the final report of the LLRC does give the government a vital entry point into national reconciliation after three decades of civil war. “It is a very important document, one that gives a lot of opportunities.”

Other activists say that widespread protests – some 150 were held in various parts of the country on Feb. 27, mostly organised by ruling party legislators – were unlikely to create any kind of pressure in Geneva.

“I don’t think protests here will change anything in Geneva. Any resolution in Geneva is usually negotiated for several months and weeks,” Ruki Fernando, head of the human rights in conflict programme at the advocacy body, Law and Society Trust, told IPS.

Fernando felt that the government was trying to drum up support by harping on charges of a foreign conspiracy against an independent leadership.

“I think it’s misleading to call this a resolution against Sri Lanka,” said Fernando. “How can a resolution that calls for the implementation of our own LLRC’s recommendations, dealing with accountability issues that the LLRC couldn’t address and having an action plan and road map with specific timelines be against Sri Lanka?”

No official version of the resolution has been made available, but leaked drafts indicate that it will call for the implementation of the LLRC recommendations.

In August 2011, the government acknowledged for the first time, in a report, that there were civilian casualties in the final phase of the war, but did not give any numbers.

The report was released soon after a U.N. experts panel spoke of tens of thousands of people having been killed in the last months of the war and deliberate shelling of civilians.