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Archive for September 24th, 2004

We have just had a wake-up call but we are still snoring. On September 15, Secretary of State Colin Powell announced the release of the US State Department’s Report on International Religious Freedoms 2004. Punctiliously researched and documented, soberly written, it contains a section several pages long and quite critical of the situation in Sri Lanka. Significantly it is also sharply critical of the LTTE.

It would be the height of civic irresponsibility for the Sri Lankan mass media not to carry the full text, in Sinhala and Tamil translation as well, given its source, its implications and the possibility that our more myopic politicians and baser drives may take us into a minefield.

In the report’s Executive Summary the segment on Sri Lanka comes in ‘Part I: Barriers to International Religious Freedom’, in the section ” State Neglect of Societal Discrimination Against, or Persecution of, Religious Minorities’, and reads as follows:

“There was an overall deterioration of religious freedom due to the actions of extremists. In late 2003 and early 2004, Buddhist extremists destroyed Christian churches and harassed and abused pastors and congregants. There were over 100 accounts of attacks on Christian church buildings and members, several dozens of which were confirmed by diplomatic observers. NGOs have reported that in the majority of cases, the police failed to protect churches and citizens from attack. In May an MP of the Jathika Hela Urumaya party presented a draft anti-conversion bill to Parliament. In June, the Minister of Buddhist affairs presented a separate draft anti-conversion bill to the cabinet. It was not formally approved; however it was sent to the attorney General for a review that was ongoing at the end of the period covered by the report. There has been considerable public discussion of the bills, and many government officials expressed their concern about such legislation”.

The website of the US Embassy in Japan carries in the section US Policy and Issues, a story by David Shelby, Washington staff writer, on the International Religious Freedoms Report, a story which is posted on the State Dept’s other, more general websites as well. The pertinent quote reads:

“Sri Lanka’s constitution permits the free practice of religion as well, but according to the report, actions of religious extremists have resulted in a deterioration of religious freedom. In particular, the report raised concerns about attacks on Christian churches by Buddhist groups. While the government condemned such attacks, it has apparently done little to prevent them from continuing”.

Just two sample quotes from the international press will provide a glimpse of the damage our extremists and those who pander to them, have inflicted on the image of Sri Lanka, the Sinhalese and the Buddhists. ‘In … Sri Lanka there was “state neglect of societal discrimination against or persecution of minority religions”.’ (AFP, Washington, in ‘The Australian’, Sept. 17, p.12) “Sri Lanka’s Constitution permits the free practice of religion as well, but according to the report, actions of religious extremists have resulted in a deterioration of religious freedom. In particular, the report pointed out instances of attacks on Christian churches by Buddhist groups” (Indo-Asian News Service, Washington, Sept. 16).

Most important is the statement in the Report of the US Government’s conduct, which implicitly indicates a cost if Sri Lanka resumes its journey on this path:

“Embassy representatives met repeatedly with Government officials at the highest level, including with President Kumaratunga, to express the US Government’s concern about the attacks on Christian churches and to discuss the anti-conversion issue. On several occasions, the Assistant Secretary for Human Rights, Democracy, Labour and the Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom discussed the anti-conversion issue with the country’s ambassador to the United States”.

A clear warning signal: don’t cross the line by turning either Bill into law, and don’t burn churches.

The basic demographic fact that the Tamils had 50 million co-ethnics in neighbouring India, the region’s superpower, imposed a heavy punishment on the Sri Lankan state and its majority for having been myopically discriminatory.

Now, the country with the world’s largest number of Christians is the USA, sole superpower and mightiest power in history.

What could be the costs of continuing to pick on the Christian minority that has two billion co-religionists (I got it wrong in my review of ‘The Passion’: the one billion figure is for the Catholics alone), 1/3rd of humanity? If the majority in Sri Lanka were Muslims or Hindus, with access to the sheer numbers, wealth, natural resources, market, self-sacrificial militancy and dispersed global presence of those communities, then such confrontation may be sane. But that just isn’t the case.

The report will not go away with the Bush administration, which I fear, doesn’t look like its going away. If it’s a Bush presidency, the Christian Evangelicals have influence; if it’s Kerry, it’s the Catholics. I don’t recommend that the Stars and Stripes be burnt in Vihara Maha Devi Park or that JHU or PNM/JVP monks besiege the American embassy demanding that the US Govt. ban the State Department report.

Anuruddha Thilakasiri

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LTTE’s elusive renegade eastern commander Karuna suffered a devastating blow when Wanni forces killed his elder brother and deputy in a pitched battle in the uncleared Annadmali in Batticaloa early yesterday.

The attack and heavy fighting came amidst reports that the LTTE’s Wanni leadership had sent reinforcements to the east for the past few days and weeks and finalised plans for a major attack on the Karuna faction after loyalists of the renegade leader had launched a series of attacks on LTTE cadres.

Military sources said Wanni cadres reportedly launched the attack on Karuna’s cadres led by Karuna’s 40-year-old brother Vinyagomoorthy Sivanesathurai alias Reggie as part of a fresh campaign by the LTTE leadership to knock out the renegade faction.

They said the battle began late at night and after several hours of heavy fighting Karuna’s brother and two other frontliners Kuilanan and Eleen were killed on the spot at Annadmali.

Later Wanni cadres had brought the bodies to Illipadichchenai and some reports said Reggie’s body was burnt.

Five Wanni cadres including two females were also killed by the Karuna faction which had offered fierce resistance to the attack, the sources said quoting reports from the area.

But Military Spokesman Sumedha Perera said that while information had come to the troops about the confrontation between the two factions and at least three deaths, the casualty figures had not been confirmed.

Reggie had launched several attacks on the Wanni cadres since his brother was virtually forced to leave the east by the Wanni faction after an LTTE crackdown in March this year.

Since then, a large number of Wanni cadres including several senior members were killed in a series of attacks by the Karuna faction.

The latest clash came soon after representatives of the Army and the LTTE met in Batticaloa on Tuesday to discuss the situation in the east including LTTE allegations that sections of the military were backing the Karuna faction.

At this meeting the senior most Army officer strongly denied the LTTE allegation and challenged the Tigers to provide evidence if they had any.

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LTTE’s elusive renegade eastern commander Karuna suffered a devastating blow when Wanni forces killed his elder brother and deputy in a pitched battle in the uncleared Annadmali in Batticaloa early yesterday.

The attack and heavy fighting came amidst reports that the LTTE’s Wanni leadership had sent reinforcements to the east for the past few days and weeks and finalised plans for a major attack on the Karuna faction after loyalists of the renegade leader had launched a series of attacks on LTTE cadres.

Military sources said Wanni cadres reportedly launched the attack on Karuna’s cadres led by Karuna’s 40-year-old brother Vinyagomoorthy Sivanesathurai alias Reggie as part of a fresh campaign by the LTTE leadership to knock out the renegade faction.

They said the battle began late at night and after several hours of heavy fighting Karuna’s brother and two other frontliners Kuilanan and Eleen were killed on the spot at Annadmali.

Later Wanni cadres had brought the bodies to Illipadichchenai and some reports said Reggie’s body was burnt.

Five Wanni cadres including two females were also killed by the Karuna faction which had offered fierce resistance to the attack, the sources said quoting reports from the area.

But Military Spokesman Sumedha Perera said that while information had come to the troops about the confrontation between the two factions and at least three deaths, the casualty figures had not been confirmed.

Reggie had launched several attacks on the Wanni cadres since his brother was virtually forced to leave the east by the Wanni faction after an LTTE crackdown in March this year.

Since then, a large number of Wanni cadres including several senior members were killed in a series of attacks by the Karuna faction.

The latest clash came soon after representatives of the Army and the LTTE met in Batticaloa on Tuesday to discuss the situation in the east including LTTE allegations that sections of the military were backing the Karuna faction.

At this meeting the senior most Army officer strongly denied the LTTE allegation and challenged the Tigers to provide evidence if they had any.

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Security in the Kalutara Courts has been tightened since Wednesday and body searches by the police are the order of the day while the case of a gang-land killing is being heard at the Magistrates Court. There is suspicion that arms and explosives could be smuggled in to the courts by the rival parties.

Two notorious gangs involved in the case are suspected of a number of killings in Kalutara North police division, police said.

Rumour mongers naturally had a field day spreading a story that there was a bomb in the courts and that litigants and lawyers were asked to leave the Magistrate Courts as the bomb disposal squad had been summoned to defuse it.

Senior lawyer in the Kalutara Bar Bandula Weerasinghe said “At no time was there a bomb scare in the Court house” and confirmed it is the work of the rumour mongers. A veteran lawyer with over four decades of practice was quoted as saying that it was the first time that he was subjected to a body search in the Courts premises.

(http://www.island.lk/2004/09/24/news20.html)

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The producer of a proposed reality TV show called Fantasy Island appeared in court Thursday, accused of threatening terrorist attacks against Australian targets in the name of Osama bin Laden.

Charles Gant, 42, allegedly spoke of impending attacks in telephone calls to the Australian High

Com-mission in Singapore and media companies days after the September 9 bombing of Australia’s embassy in Jakarta, the court heard.

Gant was arrested Wednesday at his home in Queensland state by federal police counter-terrorism agents, police said.

The Egyptian-born promoter was the creator and proposed star of a reality television dating show, Fantasy Island. It was not clear whether the show has yet been filmed.

Crown prosecutor Anthony Gett said Gant used his mobile phone to make threatening calls to the Australian mission in Singapore and several media organisations.

In one call Gant allegedly identified himself as Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden and said Australian offices in Singapore and Malaysia would be bombed.

“The bomb that happened in Jakarta is going to happen in Malaysia and Singapore,” he said, referring to a September 9 suicide bombing in the Indonesian capital that killed nine people.

“I called to warn you of more attacks on Australian consulates in Malaysia and Singapore,” he was quoted as saying.

In another call, Gant allegedly told a media group: “You Westerners know what you’ve done and you will pay for your sins.

“The attack in Jakarta is just the first, more will follow in Singapore and Malaysia.”

“Listen to me you are all Australian pigs and you will die,” he allegedly told a telephone receptionist at Fairfax Newspapers in another call.

The charges against Gant carry a maximum 12-month prison term.

Gant’s lawyer said the charges were based on circumstantial evidence and would be vigorously defended. The suspect was denied bail and remanded in custody pending another hearing on October 8.

Outside court Gant’s elderly mother, Marie Dubois, pleaded her son’s innocence. “He’s a good boy, he’s never done anything wrong, he’s not a terrorist,” she said.

(http://www.island.lk/2004/09/24/news8.html)

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In the world’s fight against terrorism, the use of force and violence by a State should be the last resort, Sri Lanka’s President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga said this afternoon at a Headquarters press conference. Calling terrorism “the most dehumanizing, the most horrendous phenomenon of our times”, she stated that there were, nevertheless, alternative ways of handling it. She said that U.S. President George W. Bush, in his speech before the General Assembly earlier today, seemed to argue that the main strategy of meeting terrorism in the world is through force, a view with which she disagreed, states a media release from the Presidential Secretariat.

The release continued: Asked by a journalist what perspective Sri Lanka has to offer the world about the strategies to use in the fight against terrorism, she said her government believed that the way to resolve conflict was through negotiations and dialogue. “Even if the expression of the conflict may take the most horrendous terroristic forms, we believe that there are justified reasons for it”, she said, arguing that legitimate grievances must be considered apart from the acts of violence. She said there was, perhaps, no better organization than the United Nations to identify and address the root causes of terrorism. The international community could deal with Al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein more effectively and more durably using this approach.

When asked whether the results of US elections might affect Sri Lanka’s willingness to offer assistance in Iraq, she stated that, “whoever is the President of the United States, we will not send troops to Iraq because we do not believe that war is the solution”.

The Government of Sri Lanka continued to seek a negotiated solution to the country’s own armed conflict, which had lasted for two decades. A ceasefire had held for two-and-a-half years, she said, though she accused the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) of some violations. In particular, she said the Tigers were responsible for child conscription and the illegal collection of taxes in the north and east of the country.

Ten years ago, her Government had made the first overture to the Tigers to resolve the conflict through a negotiated settlement, she said. Since then, various governments had attempted negotiations; however the Tigers repeatedly had “kicked the process in the teeth and walked away”, she said.

Currently, the LTTE was not engaged in a direct dialogue with the government, but its leaders had reiterated a commitment not to go back to war. She said the Government of Sri Lanka also remained committed not to go back to armed conflict. “We remain committed to the concept that we do not like war”, she said. “We are determined to do our maximum to persuade our adversaries, the LTTE, to engage in the process of negotiations in order that we can together formulate a satisfactory and lasting solution to the conflict.” The government of Norway continued to play an active and dynamic role in pursuing talks with the LTTE.

The Tigers would like to see what they call an “interim, self-governing authority” established before continuing discussions about a final resolution of the conflict, she said. Her government was “not satisfied” with this approach, and would prefer to discuss what would be the shape of a final solution before establishing any interim arrangement. She mentioned that there were proposals for interim arrangements in various constitutional reform proposals her party had put forward. Her Government continued to view the extensive devolution of power, “a kind of federal state”, as the key to resolving the conflict. This proposal was first offered by her government nine years ago in the form of a new draft constitution. She did not know what else the government could do short of handing over the country to the LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran.

She thanked the international community for its support of the peace process, mentioning the European Union, the United States, India, and Japan. Donors had responded to a conference linking development with peace with a large amount of funding for development projects in Sri Lanka’s war-affected areas.

The government also had restructured its development programme to prioritize rural development, including roads, electricity, drinking water, and housing. Sri Lanka enjoyed good education and health indicators, she said, with statistics comparable to those in the developed world. Literacy rates stood at 95 per cent, average life expectancy was age 73, and infant mortality was low.

In response to a question about the role of women, she noted high levels of women’s participation at every level of Sri Lankan society. The exception was in government, where the proportion of women in Parliament and in provincial councils remained very low. “Male chauvinism reigns supreme in the political arena”, she said.

(Issued by the Presidential Secretariat)

(http://www.island.lk/2004/09/23/news11.html)

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Pledging Sri Lanka’s commitment to the global effort against terrorism, President Chandrika Kumaratunga yesterday expressed the belief that substantial progress could be made on the draft Comprehensive Convention of International Terrorism and the draft Convention on Nuclear Terrorism. This was at the 59th sessions of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

“Terrorism in all its manifestations must be condemned and fought relentlessly and globally. While no cause justifies terror unleashed upon the innocent, such outrages must make us redouble our efforts to address their root causes and seek political and socio-economic explanations and solutions to them. We are currently engaged in this task in Sri Lanka.”

(http://www.island.lk/2004/09/23/news13.html)

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