The UPFA government’s popularity, both in Sri Lanka and abroad, will be measured today by an unusual yardstick — the outcome of yesterday’s polls for Sabaragamuwa, North Central and Eastern Provincial Councils. The main thrust of the government has been to demonstrate, both here and to the outside world, that despite criticism on a multitude [...]


Results of polls will shape Govt. policy on vital issues

= Monitors say widespread violations of election laws and violence marred polls
= HR groups hit out at Govt. report to UNHRC, Minister Samarasinghe now likely to go to Geneva

The UPFA government’s popularity, both in Sri Lanka and abroad, will be measured today by an unusual yardstick — the outcome of yesterday’s polls for Sabaragamuwa, North Central and Eastern Provincial Councils.

The main thrust of the government has been to demonstrate, both here and to the outside world, that despite criticism on a multitude of issues, the UPFA continues to enjoy the confidence of the people. Towards this end, the alliance’s seven-week campaign, where an entire cabinet of ministers had been deployed, was to ensure that it win a larger volume of votes, perhaps higher than previous polls.

There is little doubt that victory is on hand for the ruling coalition in at least Sabaragamuwa and the North Central provinces. Whilst a similar win cannot be ruled out in the Eastern Province, there is also the strong likelihood of a hung council with a strong edge for the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). The plum in the three polls yesterday is the one for the East. Barring the predominantly Tamil speaking north, the only other area in the country with a large minority concentration is the East. The voter strength is divided roughly in equal parts of Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims. That it is the first polls after the military defeat of Tiger guerrillas over three years ago adds significance because the Government’s reconciliation efforts are yet to get under way. A convincing victory there could be interpreted also as an endorsement of UPFA policy on Tamil issues. In equal measure, a defeat would deliver a different message.

A hung council will naturally mean a lot of political horse trading. With the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), an alliance partner of the UPFA, fielding its own candidates, the issue could become more contentious. Many questions arise. Will the SLMC back the UPFA or choose to close ranks with the TNA in forming a council? On the other hand, will the SLMC relent and make amends with the UPFA? The polls campaign has seen some bloody clashes with government backers engaging SLMC factions in cut throat battles. The bitterness of the UPFA leadership was reflected by Minister Dullas Allahapperuma. He declared publicly that his ministerial colleague and SLMC leader Rauff Hakeem said one thing to the cabinet and another to voters in the East. He was alluding to Hakeem’s remarks that some mosques had come under attack under the UPFA Government, a charge which President Mahinda Rajapaksa bluntly refuted during the polls campaign in Muslim-dominated Kinniya in the Trincomalee district. The polls outcome in the East notwithstanding, Hakeem’s own political future with the UPFA also becomes a critical issue.

New fissures have developed at the highest levels of the UPFA over matters relating to polls in the East. Some top rungers have questioned the wisdom of allowing SLMC and even the smaller National Freedom Front (NFF) to field their own candidates. This has split the UPFA votes. Speculation over the issue has heightened with the departure from Sri Lanka of Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa. He was in charge of the polls campaign in the East.

The polls are also a test of strength for the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). It is fielding candidates for the first time after a major split occurred in the party.

More than 3.3 million voters were eligible to vote at yesterday’s poll to elect 114 (108+6 bonus seats) members. Of them, 44 are for Sabaragamuwa, 33 for North Central and 37 for the Eastern Province. Some 100,000 officials and 21,000 police officers were deployed for duty. The largest number of eligible voters, 1,401,794 was from Sabaragamwa whilst East came second with 1,033,872 and North Central third with 900,872.

A disturbing feature of yesterday’s elections was a series of allegations by opposition parties that the UPFA misused state resources. They alleged that there were violent attacks on opposition candidates and supporters and claimed that Police in some areas were backing the UPFA by their inaction. These charges were underlined in a letter TNA leader Rajavarothayam Sampanthan wrote to President Mahinda Rajapaksa with copies, among others, to Elections Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya.

The allegations he made included:

= Candidates and supporters of political parties opposed to the UPFA – the ruling party — and vehicles in which they travelled have been attacked.

= Certain personnel claiming to be intelligence personnel have questioned persons engaged in electoral activities on behalf of political parties opposed to the UPFA — and warned them that they could face unpleasant consequences after the elections.

= Certain persons identified as the “Blue Brigade” have asked for the polling cards of voters, inspected the same, and warned them that they could face unpleasant consequences if they did not support the ruling party.

= Various development activities have either been commenced or declared opened and made functional after the receipt of nominations in the different districts by highly placed persons in the UPFA.

= Official vehicles have been used for electoral activities and official personnel have been used, sometimes without their free consent for electoral activities by highly placed persons in government corporations.

= Events could occur that would dissuade persons inclined to vote against the UPFA from exercising their franchise, that the voting could be manipulated and that the counting could be manipulated.

Presidential spokesperson Bandula Jayasekera did not react to the accusations made by Sampanthan. “Every day, the President receives hundreds of letters. He returned to Colombo only on Thursday night after the polls campaign. We have to check whether such a letter has been received,” he told the Sunday Times.

Rohana Hettiaratchchi, Executive Director of the People’s Action Front for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL), a body that monitored the polls, said that “illegal use of government property and funds including deployment of officials for promotional campaigns” was the highlight of polls related offences this time. He said 112 such complaints were received. The illegal use of government property was mostly reported from the districts of Trincomalee, Anuradhapura, Kegalle and Ratnapura. Added Keerthi Tennekoon, Executive Director of Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CaFFE), another body that monitored the polls: “Most of the violence has been directed against candidates and supporters of the SLMC. It is the UPFA supporters who have been accused of those incidents.”

He told the Sunday Times that Akkaraipattu (in the Ampara district) was the worst hit due to polls violence. “The situation is very similar to what we saw during polls violence in Kolonnawa in October last year,” he said.

In the Anuradhapura district, he alleged, there was misuse of state resources and manpower. During a meeting held by the Commissioner of Elections with political party representatives, we alleged that the Akkaraipattu Police were favouring UPFA candidates. It was thereafter that four police stations (Akkaraipattu, Sammanthurai, Pottuvil and Kalmunai) which were under one Superintendent of Police were brought under the temporary charge of an SSP from Colombo, Tennekoon added.
Violence by ruling party candidates or supporters using state resources has been a practice resorted to by successive regimes.

However, the growth in its intensity at the recent polls, particularly in the backdrop of a weakened opposition that is unable to counter it, assumes greater importance. It is not only an impediment to the conduct of a free and fair poll. A bigger issue is how such a phenomenon would continue to impact on all future polls, essentially conducted to demonstrate the government’s strength and popularity.

Those compulsions drive a ruling party to throw all its resources at successive polls whilst opposition parties have found themselves helpless. This indeed was the reason why some members of the main opposition United National Party (UNP) said they should boycott local and provincial polls. However, the leadership frowned on the idea since it would amount to the party abandoning its role as an opposition.

There is a significant feature in the outcome of yesterday’s polls for the two main contenders, the UPFA and the UNP. More than winning, the important factor will be the number of votes they received. This is in comparison not only with the previous PC polls but also the outcome of the last parliamentary elections. That is to determine whether or not more voters have endorsed their positions, a measure by which they will discern the strength of their power base. A poor voter turnout could also be contributory to such a determination.

Minister Dullas Allahapperuma, a key UPFA spokesperson who was in the forefront of the polls campaign, was also less optimistic of a victory at the Eastern Province. He told the Sunday Times, “We are confident in comfortably winning the North Central and Sabaragamuwa provincial councils. In the East the UPFA will certainly have the controlling power.” He forecast that the UPFA may have a shortfall of seats to meet the required majority of 19 seats to have control of the Eastern Provincial Council. “That will not be a problem. There are members who will support us to gain a majority,” he said. Allahapperuma declared that the SLMC “will have to make up its mind after the elections. We find there are several factions in the party. Therefore, they will have to discuss among themselves and decide on their future role. The Minister argued that issues such as the recent devastating drought are not going to deter voters from backing the UPFA. Relief has been provided to them. He said “overall we are going to win the elections.”

Tamil National Alliance parliamentarian Suresh Premachandran expressed confidence of a TNA victory in the East. He told the Sunday Times “the majority of Tamils in the East are now with the TNA. He added, “I was involved in campaigning activities. I travelled to several villages northwards from Pottuvil to Trincomalee. I found that the people are now supporting us in huge numbers. Though the government used force to win the hearts and minds of the people, not even a ten per cent vote share would go to it. The TNA will be the single largest party by winning a majority of the seats in the East. In the Ampara, Batticaloa and Trincomalee districts, the TNA is expecting three, seven and four seats respectively. In addition we are expecting the two bonus seats in the East by ending up as the party which gains the highest majority in the province.”

The main opposition UNP’s communications chief Mangala Samaraweera told the Sunday Times, “Even in remote areas we have conducted our campaign, people have demonstrated that they want a change. They were disgruntled and disillusioned. Some government supporters said they would not even cast their votes. This will mean a marked decrease in the UPFA votes.”
A convincing victory for the UPFA is as important outside Sri Lanka as it is within. In fact projecting “a positive image” was uppermost in President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s mind. At a breakfast meeting cum news conference at the Speaker’s Residence in Kotte, Rajapaksa declared, “If we paint a negative picture it will adversely affect the country. Therefore it is the media which can give this positive side. Today democracy has been restored in the North and East. We hope to hold provincial elections in the North.”

The remarks came in an event linked to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) 58th annual sessions in Colombo beginning September 12. Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe was also billed to take part in the event. Instead, he had deputed John Ameratunga, who now acts as opposition leader in his absence. Both President Rajapaksa and Deputy Speaker Chandima Weerakkody defended Ameratunga when a journalist raised questions from him on whether the UNP would support calls for probes on human rights issues during the CPA sessions. Both said Ameratunga had not taken up any such position though there were some calls in that direction. Ameratunga remained silent all the shile. These developments come with just seven weeks to go for the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Sri Lanka’s human rights record. The Government is keen to demonstrate that the people are with it notwithstanding criticism over human rights and related issues. That no doubt is a main reason for the conduct of the elections to the three provincial councils even before their terms had expired.

In what seems in-fighting within the government ranks, Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe, President’s Special Envoy on human rights issues, has been excluded from the Geneva team. This is when the UN Human Rights Council discusses Sri Lanka’s National Report on human rights and related issues in the past four years for the Universal Periodic Review (UPR).
It was Samarasinghe who formulated the National Report for the UPR. It has now been posted on the UNHRC website. The Sunday Times learnt that the External Affairs Ministry has stopped consulting Samarasinghe on matters relating to UNHRC or human rights issues. Nor has he been briefed on the visit next week by a UN team to assist the government in implementing the US-backed resolution passed at the Human Rights Council sessions in March. It may be recalled that External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris protested to President Rajapaksa about the role played by Samarasinghe during the Council sessions in Geneva. The move was to draw a rebuff from the President who noted that there were divisions when the government was battling a common enemy.

The Sunday Times learnt that Minister Samarasinghe lodged a strong protest with Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga. As a result, the External Affairs Ministry sought to retract a statement made to The Sunday Times last week by Secretary Karunatilleke Amunugama that there would be no representation at ministerial level when the UPR takes place in November. He now says there is no decision on the matter. However, he did tell the Sunday Times last week that the country’s permanent representative to the UN in Geneva, Ravinatha Ariyasinha would lead the delegation. There are now indications that Samarasinghe will be present to defend the National Report he prepared. Other officials travelling from Sri Lanka are Mohan Peiris, Legal Advisor to the Cabinet, Attorney General Palitha Fernando and an official from his Department. The UPR comes ahead of the Human Rights Council sessions in March next year when Sri Lanka’s follow-up action on the US backed resolution, will come up for discussion.

After an earlier refusal, the government has agreed to allow a team of UN experts to visit Sri Lanka next week to assist in matters related to the implementation of the resolution.

Robert Blake, US Under Secretary of State for South and Central Asia, will visit Colombo from September 12 to 14 to meet Government leaders to discuss bilateral issues and matters relating to the resolution. The new US Ambassador Michele Sison arrived in Colombo on Friday and will be on hand for the meeting. A State Department announcement in Washington said, “Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Robert O. Blake Jr. is travelling to Kathmandu, Nepal, from September 10 to 11; Male, Maldives, on September 12; and Colombo, Sri Lanka, from September 12 to 14, 2012. In Colombo, Assistant Secretary Blake will meet with Minister of External Affairs GL Peiris and other senior Sri Lankan officials to discuss a wide range of issues, including progress in implementing the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission Action Plan. Assistant Secretary Blake will also hold a roundtable meeting with civil society representatives and meet with business community leaders at the American Chamber of Commerce in Colombo, followed by a press conference at the American Center.”

Some of the significant highlights of the 27-page Sri Lanka National Report handed over to the Human Rights Council:

= Special emphasis has been given to regulating the activities regarding the management of land in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. The Ministry of Lands and Land Development has decided to resolve the land disputes in these areas by implementing a special programme of work. Specific Cabinet approval has been received for policy proposals relating to the matter. Directions have been given to temporarily suspend the distribution of land. Priority is to be given to those persons who have been displaced or fled from their natural locales or lost their land.

= An amendment to the Prescription Ordinance is being considered whereby displaced or disadvantaged owners of land will be exempted from the rules of prescription during a period of 30 years to enable them to defeat any adverse claims based on the running of time.

= With regard to matters of accountability, inter alia, the cases relating to 17 aid workers and the 5 students who met with their deaths in Trincomalee were referred to the Attorney-General to ascertain whether a prima facie case exists to launch prosecutions. The Attorney-General has advised the Inspector-General of Police to conduct further investigations.

= Additionally, the Sri Lanka Army has commenced investigations, firstly, by appointing a Board of Inquiry to study the LLRC recommendations and formulate a viable action plan to implement the recommendations that are relevant to the Army and, secondly, a Court of Inquiry has been appointed to investigate allegations of civilian casualties and the Channel 4 story, irrespective of whether the video footage was genuine or not. The Sri Lanka Navy has also initiated similar measures. These boards have commenced work and several witnesses have testified.

= The civil administration system in the North and East is fully functional with Government officials at the District, Divisional and grassroots levels being appointed and discharging their functions.

The response to Sri Lanka’s National Report has already come from 47 different stakeholders who met in Geneva last week. A summary prepared by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has the following among other highlights:

= Joint Statement 1 stated that the review period witnessed a further deterioration in the rule of law in Sri Lanka with challenges ranging from the increased centralization of power by the executive and politicization of independent institutions to the lack of investigation and prosecution into serious human rights abuses and the introduction of draconian security laws, all of which contributed to the consolidation of a culture of impunity. According to AI, impunity for human rights abuses is perhaps the greatest obstacle to reconciliation in Sri Lanka.

= Centre for War Victims and Human Rights stated that Sri Lanka had consistently failed to apply the rule of law and due process in prosecuting war crimes on both sides and in legal proceedings relating to prisoners. This was due to politicized, weak and corrupt police, public service and judiciary. .

= Human Rights Watch stated that since the war ended, the Government had not launched a single credible investigation into alleged abuses. The lack of investigation was conspicuous with regard to several incidents featured in two documentaries by the British television station Channel 4 showing gruesome images of apparent summary executions of captured and bound LTTE combatants.

= HRW and Joint Statement 14 reported that, despite strong evidence of involvement by state security forces in the execution-style slayings of five students and 17 aid workers in 2006, government inquiries had languished and no one had been arrested for the crimes. JS14 recommended the publication of the full report by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry.

= Joint Statement 7 noted that the remedy of habeas corpus in Sri Lanka had proved an ineffective remedy due to long delays in the disposal of complaints; lack of cooperation from security agencies such as the military, police and intelligence services; and increasing unwillingness of the judiciary to exercise its duty to protect the liberty of the individual. The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) recommended enacting habeas corpus legislation clarifying that the applicable standard of proof imposed on the petitioner is “balance of probabilities.”

= The HRCSL noted that the overcrowding of the remand prisons was due to the delay in prosecution, concluding investigations and lack of provision of bail or inability of the remandee to furnish bail owing to the stringent bail conditions.

= Amnesty International (AI) noted the establishment of Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) in May 2010 to investigate events between the February 2002 ceasefire with the LTTE and the end of the conflict in May 2009, which was, in the view of AI, neither independent nor impartial in composition or performance. AI also noted that the UN SG’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka, established in June 2010 reached similar conclusions, particularly in relation to the LLRC’s lack of witness protection.

= According to AI, the LLRC acknowledged that civilians, including those in hospitals, suffered directly as a result of LTTE and government shelling, but was unable to establish the facts about the conduct of the armed conflict. AI further alleged that the LLRC’s rejection of allegations that the Government had targeted civilians and deliberately downplayed the number of civilians caught up in the final phase of the conflict was not backed up by evidence. In addition, AI recommended that no amnesties be considered or granted to perpetrators of violations of human rights or humanitarian law identified by the LLRC investigations, regardless of their status or role in the Government.

A key player in the issues before the UPR review in Geneva is India, which together with Spain and Benin would formulate a final report on Sri Lanka’s National Report. That is for consideration by the Human Rights Council when their deliberations are concluded.

Tension between Colombo and New Delhi have increased over a number of issues. As exclusively revealed in the Sunday Times of August 12, the sale of a prime Kollupitiya property by a private party prompted a strong protest by the Indian government both in New Delhi and in Colombo. This was on the grounds that the External Affairs Ministry had sat on India’s request for permission to purchase the land thus placing a Chinese bidder to conclude the deal.

As exclusively revealed in the front-page lead story of the Sunday Times last week, one of the City’s major landmarks will be given to an Indian company for development on a 99-year lease for more than Rs. 4.9 billion. Though some sections described the move as an effort by the UPFA leadership to balance India, in the light of concerns over a Chinese firm purchasing a prime plot of land in Colombo, influential sections in the government discounted this move. Firstly, the Indian High Commission in Colombo, albeit the Indian government in New Delhi, the Sunday Times learnt, had no role in either facilitating or concluding the investment deal by the little known Indian firm. The Transworks Square opposite the Colombo Hilton has been given to a Colombo based subsidiary of KRRISH group for a “mixed development project” through a multi-storied office and commercial development complex. It is not immediately clear how the firm, not as well-known as the Tata or Birla group for example, secured the deal. Its website does not give the names of its board of directors.

On a recommendation made by President Mahinda Rajapaksa (as Minister of Finance and Planning) the cabinet of ministers approved a ten point proposal. They are:

1 For the Urban Development Authority (UDA) and the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL) to make available, the land inclusive of the old building (former Public Works Department) for the new Transworks Tower Development.

2 For the UDA to participate as the main facilitator of the project together with the Central Bank of Sri Lanka.

3 For the Central Bank of Sri Lanka to retain the lease hold rights of its 133.98 perches block while transferring the development rights of that portion to the UDA or the Joint Venture.

4 For the private sector investors/developer to be selected through a transparent process.

5 To undertake the project as a public private partnership without any monetary commitment from the Treasury towards this project.

6 For the project, once completed, to offer space from the new complex to the People’s Bank on a commercial basis.

7 For the selected local or foreign investors/developer to invest in the joint commercial venture on a BOOT (Build, Operate, Own and Transfer) basis on mutually agreed terms, where the total market value of the land and the Transworks Square building will be determined by the Government Chief Valuer; and

8 For the project once completed, to offer the Central Bank of Sri Lanka in perpetuity, 400 car parking spaces, 10 bus parking spaces and commercial space of 3,000 square metres in consideration of the capitalized price of the leasehold value of the land and in respect of CBSL’s initiation of the project and investment in its initial stages.

9 For preparation of detail project report and project feasibility study by the proposed public private partnership without any commitment from the Treasury.

10 To appoint a tri-party committee which comprises members of the CBSL, UDA and Ministry of Finance & Planning to examine the terms and conditions related to the proposed public private partnership in terms at (sic) economic viability and commitment from the government side.

The latest irritant in Sri Lanka-India relations is the attacks on Lankan pilgrims who were on a visit to Tamil Nadu. Whilst the government in Colombo has quite rightly been concerned about the actions by supporters of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jeyaram Jeyalalithaa, there appears to be a knee-jerk reaction by the Ministry of External Affairs in issuing a travel advisory warning pilgrims against visiting Tamil Nadu. It has not been able to discern between the actions under a state government and the strong position taken by the centre. The move has come with little or no consultation or even a protest to the Indian High Commission which represents the central government in New Delhi. This is whilst Sri Lankan Airlines, the national carrier, continued to operate flights to Chennai and Trivandrum despite the advisory. Together with Indian carriers, it operates some 40 flights per week to cities of Tamil Nadu.

President Rajapaksa was asked at the breakfast news conference on Friday: “Sri Lankans have been attacked in Tamil Nadu. Do you hope to take up the issue with the Central Government of India?”

Rajapaksa: “There has been a series of incidents. Our foreign policy is conducted with the central government and not with state governments. We have drawn the attention of the central government and got a positive response. I will be visiting India on September 19 and will take up the issue if I get an opportunity. The attacks are done by small groups. The Indian media and other parties have responded well.”

On Thursday, the Tamil Traders Association, a body representing Tamils of Indian origin closed their business establishments in Pettah. They marched to the Indian High Commission along Galle Road to hand in a protest letter to High Commissioner Ashok Kantha. It was a request to Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh and Dravida Munnetra Kazhakam (DMK) leader, Muthuvel Karunanidhi to take immediate measures to put an end to the attacks on Sri Lankan pilgrims. There was, however, no reference or a copy to Chief Minister Jayalalithaa. Interesting enough, the Colombo media offices were tipped off hours ahead of the protest by a state agency.

In this backdrop, the outcome of yesterday’s polls in three provincial councils will no doubt be a pointer to the UPFA leaders on how they will have to tackle issues, both here and outside Sri Lanka. For the voter who cast a ballot yesterday, either to empower the government or seek a change, there is a message too. That will of course depend on how a majority of them have voted.

No polls, but pals at temple

While, UPFA and UNP candidates were battling it out at the provincial council elections, President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Opposition UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe were having a friendly conversation at Gangaramaya yesterday when they visited the temple for the exposition of the sacred Kapilavastu relics. Pic by Romesh Danushka

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