June 21, 2021
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Snippets From Sri Lanka

Colombo Capers

As India-Sri Lanka mark the “historic” importance of resuming a ferry service, a Channel 4 documentary grimly raises questions of gruesome war-crimes

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Colombo Capers

Dark waters
It was a little after dawn on last Tuesday when luxury liner Scotia Prince docked at Colombo harbour amid chants of Buddhist hymns. On board were around 200 passengers from India making, in most cases, their first visits to the island. The 12-hour-long trip was accorded “historic” importance by governments of both countries. The last passenger ferry service between Tuticorin and Colombo was heard of during the British raj. A ferry service had existed from Talaimannar in northwest Sri Lanka to Rameswaram in Tamil Nadu till the civil war begun here 30 years ago. An attempt to revive that route was in the pipeline, officials on both sides, say. The nine-decked US ship with many Indians among its crew and capable of carrying up to 1044 passengers was used in transporting Indians from Libya to Greece during the Arab Awakening in March. Sri Lankan tour operator A M Jaufer says, LKR 11,963 for a two-way ticket was a popular option. Tuticorin resident Balakrishanan came on a 60 per cent discounted fare due to old age. “I’m looking for trade,” he adds. Small businesses specialising in spices, chillies, onions and fashion accessories would be scouting partners on either side. Danalashwari from Madurai had a different agenda — sightseeing. She is among tourists that Sri Lanka would hope to have more of. Tourist inflow from India was 1,26,882 last year while Sri Lanka’s outflow to India was 2,39,995. Opening of duty-free shops inside the ship, increase in trips from India — two each per week now to three in future — would enable the service gain momentum, says a passenger associated with the Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Chennai. Hardliners appeared uneasy though. A section of the local media commentators cautioned their government against the ferry service saying Indian people and Indian products would swarm markets here. Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa asked the centre to scrap the service. The state assembly passed a resolution last week seeking economic sanctions against Sri Lanka.

War memorabilia
Allegations of war crimes against President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government grimly surfaced at another forum recently. A Channel 4 documentary of 50 minutes on Sri Lanka’s last days of war was shown at the UNHRC in Geneva in June first week. While diplomats can rarely be accused of betraying emotions, the film “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields” appeared to have made many cringe. According to the British TV channel’s footage of the screening, a viewer at UNHRC even cried seeing the gruesome images, some of which the UN had certified as authentic earlier. On June 14, the channel broadcast the same film at 11 pm, calling images the most horrific to be ever used by the network. Alleged summary executions of Tamil Tigers and images suggesting sexual abuse of women were shown. Sri Lanka's Ministry of External Affairs reacted saying, "The views expressed in the film are without guarantee of authenticity." Pro-LTTE website Tamil Net says, a group of exiled Sinhala journalists — Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka — helped Channel 4 make the film. Majority of the videos were shot on telephones or small cameras by Tamil civilians in the war zone and Sri Lankan Army personnel, themselves accused of war crimes, the channel claims. Channel 4 says the soldiers wanted to record the images as war trophies. The film used satellite pictures of no-fire zones where Sri Lankan government forces, according to an earlier UN panel report, repeatedly and deliberately shelled, killing countless civilians. One particular video — purportedly showing uniformed soldiers executing three LTTE fighters, a woman included — was dated May 15, 2009. Channel 4 says it had asked the Sri Lankan government for a response but the government declined to engage, questioning the channel’s credibility as a “fair” practitioner of journalism.

Ties that bind
Shivshankar Menon, national security advisor to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, says, “UNHRC is yet to take a view.” He answered when asked what India thought about the UN panel report released two months ago on Sri Lankan government’s accountability issues related to the war. Menon along with foreign secretary Nirupama Rao and defence secretary Pradeep Kumar were here last weekend to discuss bilateral issues such as violence against fishermen, India’s project of building 50,000 houses in five northern districts and a few in the central hilly areas and so on. At least 50 houses from the pilot project of 1,000, was likely to be completed by month-end, according to Ms Rao. At the end of their short visit, Menon addressed Indian reporters, saying that a political settlement for the minorities ought to emerge from within the country. “It is an internal process,” Menon insisted. Interestingly, as the troika went about their business in town, Pakistan’s high commissioner Seema Ilahi Baloch thanked Sri Lanka for helping Pakistan in the 1971 war against India by “opening up its refuelling facilities” and for extending “political and logistical support.” She was addressing the annual general meeting of the Sri Lanka-Pakistan Business Council. “The terror attacks on our high commissioner in 2006 and the terror attacks on your cricket team in 2009 have not marred our relations because they are rooted in history, bound by geography and cemented by the colour of our skin,” she told her audience. Her speech at the business meeting included Kashmir, “the dispute has to be resolved by peaceful means and in accordance with UN resolutions and the wishes of the Kashmiri people.”

Missing data
The controversial 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution had for long been the base document for discussions on political rights for Tamils. But two years since the end of war, stakeholders — the Rajapaksa government and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) — have clashed over it. President Rajapaksa rejected the idea of awarding police and land powers to a separate northern province and the TNA argued that such a model would make little sense. “We want effective power-sharing within the framework of a united Sri Lanka,” TNA leader Rajavarothiam Sampanthan told me and another Indian journalist at his office here, a few days ago. The government’s talk with the TNA on political devolution comes up for the seventh time on June 23. A key element of the TNA’s memorandum has been seeking data on civilian causalities, number of people who disappeared during past few years of the conflict, exact number of detainees and specific charges against them. Such data however have not been made available to the TNA yet. The alliance also harped on the need to demilitarise the north and east where they claimed army barracks were being set up amid the civilian population, on lands that belonged to war-displaced Tamils.

Defence studies
Leadership training programme for the country’s under-graduate students have been designed by the Ministry of Defence and made mandatory for university entrance. Civil society groups such as the Friday Forum argue that the curriculum intends to largely promote a “militarised Sinhala Buddhist society.” In a recent statement the Friday Forum said that while in certain countries the youth were expected to undergo periods of military training, it was “unaware of any other country where such training” was a “pre-condition for university admission.”

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