The Sunday Leader

Black January And Counter Moves By The Government

Another “Black” month got added to the Sri Lankan Calendar last Wednesday. After the infamous “Black July”, now its “Black January”. After President J. R. Jayawardne’s contribution in making the month of July, a “Black” month, President Rajapaksa took his turn in making the month of January, “Black”.  The  media organisations, 7 of them, decided to call for a “black” protest against this government’s attacks on media and media personnel and thus ended up declaring January a “Black” month. They vowed to mark each January as a “black” January from now on.

Lasantha Wickrematunge, Attack on MTV/ MTB Studios and Prageeth Ekneligoda

Surprisingly, since the first swearing in of Rajapaksa as President on 19 November, 2005 and the subsequent appointment of his brother, a former military officer as Secretary of Defence, media and media personnel have found January, a very bad month. The first victim was a freelance photo journalist from Trincomalee, Subramaniam Sugirdharajan who contributed to “Sudar Oli”. He was killed by an unidentified gunman on 24 January, 2006 in Trincomalee. It was Sugirdharajan who provided photographs to the Tamil media on the killing of the 5 youths in Trincomalee, early January, 2006. Then comes the attack on the “MTV/MTB” media complex at Depanama, Pannipitiya, the killing of Lasantha Wickramatunge, founder Editor of this news paper, the Sunday Leader and the abduction and disappearance of journalist/cartoonist Prageeth Ekneligoda, all in the month of January over a period of years.

Venue taken over

The alliance of media organisations was therefore more than justified in declaring a “black protest” on 25 January, and so was its campaign  for public awareness and support. Posters were up in the city in advance, announcing the protest and also against a counter government propaganda onslaught that declared the protest as “Tiger” manipulated. The ITN was used excessively to slander the media organisations as a proxy of the LTTE rump within  the Tamil Diaspora, using the names of journalists who were forced to flee the country to save their lives, though not confined to the months of January alone. The Lake House Sinhala daily “Dinamina” on Monday carried a front page distorted main news item, which said, Lankapeli, a former Lake House employee and a long time media activist, was the only Sinhalese who went to pay his last respects to the Tiger leader Prabhakaran’s father, at his death. Money for the protest, the news report and other media campaigns was pumped in by the LTTE sympathisers it was said, while the Media Minister said the government would reveal to the public more about Tiger funding of some of the journalists, but true to form no names were revealed.
There was meanwhile a difference of opinion brewing within the government as to how this whole campaign should be handled. Basil Rajapaksa, who since of late seems to be towing a moderate and cautious line within the Rajapaksa family,  did not want to tread a confrontational line. His argument seemed clear. “Do not play into these agitating forces. The government needs to be projected as a democratic government  to attract investment”. He is widely spoken of as the force behind the Kelaniya Pradeshiya Sabha Members who were called up by the SLFP disciplinary committee to present their part of the story against Minister Mervyn Silva, who is also the Kelaniya SLFP Organiser and a socially accepted political thug.
“The problem with this regime is that there are too many powerful Rajapaksas,” quipped a Minister from one of the ruling alliance’s many political parties, when asked why such a hyped campaign was launched against the “black protest” by media organisations. Despite Basil’s differing stand, a decision was taken, say these insiders, to let loose a “street protest” as a  counter to  the black protest.  The  strategy was clear and was said to be backed by defence experts who believe, protests have to be curbed fast and soon, before they go viral and out of control. The only novelty in the strategy is that, instead of going for an outright physical attack, it was decided the police would be used to move for legal sanctions, while a group of goons and pro-regime union members would go out on the streets against the “black” protest by media organisations and to occupy their venue. They would also have the benefit of the State media campaign. Thus on the day of the protest, this pro government group was set up within the precincts of the Fort Railway Station, ahead of the time announced by the media organisations.

Police use double standards

That strategy did work. While the pro government picket was not considered as disturbing the peace,  police went to Court against the media protest and were given a restraining order by the Fort Magistrate who said, the black protest can be held under 3 conditions. One – the venue cannot be changed, two – no protest march is allowed and hence they would have to restrict themselves to the precincts of the Fort Railway Station and three – roads to be used by people and traffic cannot be disturbed nor blocked.
While the Magistrate was dependent on information submitted to Court, the Police proved they are wholly inefficient and stubbornly ignorant of what is happening in and around the city. They moved that the protest organised by the “Platform for Freedom” should be stopped as it would disturb the peace. This was what the media broke as news, after the Court laid restrictions on the protest. But the “Platform for Freedom” was in no way involved in the protest, apart from sympathising with the issues raised by the media organisations.

Wrong organisation

Speaking to this column, one of the five Conveners of the “Platform for Freedom” said, “This is sheer madness. They even got the names of organisers wrong. If the police do not know who is organising the protests, even after posters are publicly displayed, then it proves they are only acting on political dictates and not on actual information.” Asked what “Platform for Freedom” would do for this unwarranted implication by a Court order, the source said, they are contemplating legal action for wrongly dragging them into this case, to prove how inefficient and irresponsible the police is, in performing their duties.
While the few heavy weights within the regime now stand disturbed because of increasing protests and agitation that crop up almost every where, the State owned and State controlled ITN had a news clip late Thursday night that gave much hype to a protest launched in a private company in the Katunayake Free Trade Zone. Contacted by this Column, the FTZ Union leader Mr. Marcus said the government, is now scared of workers getting organised in the free trade zones, after the government was forced to back down on the Employees’ Pension Fund Bill, despite the two thirds majority they hold in parliament. Therefore, he said, these companies are given the authority to use all dirty tricks in suppressing the rights of workers, going to the extent of using force, violating the law and getting officials to tow their line of action. “Money talks,” he said.

Employers protest  

The anti union picket organised by the company owners was one such crude intervention taken as a normal event by the authorities. The reason why it went on air from a government controlled TV station sends out a signal to other workers in Katunayake that union action would no longer be welcome. Asked about their reaction as a trade union, Mr. Marcus said they are now working on a complaint to the ILO and already, most such information has been sent to their international trade union affiliates. That perhaps is another issue Basil as Minister of Economic Development would have to burn the mid night oil on.
The hard liners within the regime say they should be tagged as having “links with the Tamil Tigers” within the Diaspora and curbed. Not falling in line with  this strategy, is another group in the regime, led by a very influential social activist, in fact a classmate of one of the Rajapaksa siblings, who wants to counter this overt Sinhala bias. This group wants sanity to prevail.They feel the anti-Tiger slogan would not work any more, in post war Sri Lanka. With a direct link to President Rajapaksa, this group though small but yet  powerful by having access to the highest in the regime, feels the LLRC recommendations need to have a credible follow up and pronto at that. There had been a slow and silent lobbying for an independent mechanism. There is also talk of canvassing TNA support for such a scheme to be implemented.
How far can this new effort in setting up an independent mechanism with the approval of President Rajapaksa go? Basil went on record last Wednesday saying “no police and land powers” to Provincial Councils. He instead offered police protection and land for use. For the sixth time, President Rajapaksa’s assurance to the Indian central government on the full implementation of the 13th Amendment, this time given to visiting Indian Minister of External Affairs, Krishna, is doomed to hit the rocks.

Playing one against the other

Basil’s position on devolution, which is like Gotabhaya’s 13 “Minus” is talked of as a family compromise. He had been told it is said, to tow the same line with elder brother Gotabhaya on devolution. The family obviously cannot afford to show their disagreements in public. Some SLFP ministers play on such divisions, whenever they get an opportunity, said a Rajapaksa loyalist. Yet the affiliates of the two brothers have opposing interests. For example it is seen at the Fisheries Ministry where the NAQDA chairman is more with the Deputy Minister than with the Minister, and so getting close to Gotabhaya. Why Gotabhaya ? Because, those in the know say, Minister Senaratne and Basil were classmates at Ananda College. Therefore the next option? Go to the other sibling to implement their own agendas. That perhaps is why Minister Senaratne’s invitation to an aquatic trade fair in Kerala in May, is being down played by the NAQDA Chairman according to insiders.
With the seams coming apart in different places in the Rajapaksa quilt, for different reasons, what is not being assessed is the role of the Opposition. Ranil Wickremesinghe has still not been able to have his men fall in line. His slant in giving more focus to their former Common Presidential Candidate Fonseka, has given space for the Sajith-Karu group to address the UNP rank and file by way of positioning themselves as the most conspicuous “anti government, anti Rajapaksa” voice. The duo went before the media, to call for a broad alliance of forces against the Rajapaksa regime. This despite Jayasuriya stressing that he is not in the “Sajith” group. A Ranil fan asked, “Where else can Karu go?” The answer to that question is probably  what Karu is contemplating.
The Rajapaksa’s face absolutely no threat with these fragmenting Opposition parties, including the JVP. They would not waste time on them. What would perhaps make the Rajapaksa regime work overtime, is finding the right answer to the international campaign on war crimes and accountability led by the Tamil Diaspora. The month of March is said to be crucial. Civil society groups in Colombo are also gearing up to have their position on the LLRC and accountability registered at the UN Human Rights Council sessions in March. They too want an independent international inquiry into allegations of crimes, on the grounds that within Sri Lanka, there is no credible and effective agency that can play an independent role on such sensitive investigations. A strong argument, that will not go un-addressed.

Ban Ki-moon and connections

Within the defence agency, with a carefully hand-picked few working on international relations, they seem to feel the “accountability” issue pushed by the Tamil Diaspora and other international human rights groups, will be compromised by the US and NATO countries. They have gained influence with the UN Secretary General presumably via the Indian External Affairs Ministry bureaucracy and that was how Major General Shavendra Silva, Deputy Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka was selected to be in Ban Ki-moon’s Special Advisory Group on UN peace keeping. The first Sri Lankan to be so appointed, regardless of his conduct in war which is accompanied by many allegations. As contacts and influence go, Sathish Nambiar was contracted to the Sri Lanka army as a military consultant on strategy. His brother Vijeya Nambiar is the most trusted, Chief-of- Staff to Ban Ki-moon and he had played a key role during the last phase of the war. Inner City Press a UN accredited media group in New York, had gone on record to say, Ban Ki-moon’s son in law, an Indian ex military officer who had also been in Sri Lanka with the IPKF, also plays an influential role now, within UN politics.
The problem, insiders say, is that  the Rajapaksas do not have a person to lead a strong campaign in diplomatic circles and therefore are burdened by working through proxy agencies and PR firms. They lack a Kadiragamar for that work, said a close relative. But they will go on. They have South Africa’s support and that country has made it very clear that any resolution from Canada would be opposed at the UN Human Rights Council Sessions. Illogical, but it is so. March would thus get postponed to June and the international community works just like that. With the Opposition in SL playing no role in any of it, the Rajapaksas can manage, said the same source, if the ground swell can be controlled. That seems to be the priority right now.

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