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4th June, 2006  Volume 12, Issue 47

First with the news and free with its views                                     First with the news and free with its views                             First with the news and free with its views                                    

 Focus

Save the Children

Denied the right to learn

By Sarasi Wijeratne

Internally displaced children living in camps or who have been resettled are......

More....


 More Focus

> US and British soldiers are no angels (World Affairs)

> To whose tune is Dayananda dancing?

> Peace brigades stranded on parade grounds (Serendipity)


Save the Children

Denied the right to learn

Internally displaced children sans education languish in camps

By Sarasi Wijeratne

Internally displaced children living in camps or who have been resettled are being denied their right to education.

A woefully inadequate number of schools and teachers, irregular transport links to schools, and little or no money to buy stationery and uniforms to go to school, is resulting in a generation of kids compelled to languish at home with no proper education even as villagers and national authorities point the finger of blame at a combination of bureaucracy and ad hoc government policy. 

In Sri Lanka education is compulsory for children up to the age of 14 and is in keeping with the Convention on the Rights of the Child. For many of the children in camps in the border areas of Kalpitiya, Mannar, Trincomalee,

Batticaloa as well as those who have been resettled like in the border village of Padaviya, in the Anuradhapura District, education has become a privilege and not a right for a multitude of reasons.

Their inhabitants call these the villages' history has forgotten.

Only up to grade 5

The majority of schools in these areas do not offer education up to Advanced Level and children initially have to attend a school offering education up to only Grade 5 as a result. Most children have to travel for at least four or five kilometres to go to a school where there is this level of education and even further for a higher level of education such as the Padaviya Madhya Maha Vidyalaya where there is education up to Advanced Level.

 Pre-school education in some settlements are said to be marginally better because those who are involved at this level of teaching were involved in it before they became displaced.

Even when there is a school offering some form of education there are difficulties of not having teachers, most significantly for the core subjects of mathematics, science and English. In one school reportedly, the children prepared for their O/Level exam without the help of teachers. Some figures recorded by the National Child Protection Authority reveal that out of 100 students who sat for an A/ Level exam only around 15 passed. Village elders complain of the lack of libraries in these schools  with very few books for students to use.

Villagers are also scathing of the bureaucracy which prevails when it comes to staff appointments. The perception rightly or wrongly is that when teaching and administrative staff appointments are political, these appointees do not want to develop the mental capacities of the children because they fear that they would become better than them.

Distance would not have become so much of an issue had there been transport links. The problem with both public and private transport in these areas is the scarcity. Buses are hard to come by, sometimes with only one bus leaving early morning and if the children fail to get into it there is no other transport. The only option left is to bear the harsh climate and either walk to school, cycle or get on a truck or lorry going in the direction of the school.

No return transport 

Many children who walk to school are afraid of coming across wild elephants, especially when returning home from school in the evening. Going back home unaccompanied in the evening has its own problems for girls. When hostilities break out between the LTTE and government forces transport comes to a standstill as the operators feel it is too risky.

Most families in these areas are poor, earning an income by working in the fields or as labourers. Money is scarce and parents are unable to afford school uniforms, shoes, stationery for use in school and even the bus fare which could be as much as Rs. 35 for a 10 km distance and is a reflection of the difficult conditions which prevail in these areas.

For many children, being an internally displaced person also carries with it a stigma of having to put up with name calling from their peers at school.

According to a NCPA source the conditions faced by children in camps and settlements are dire. "You have to see what they have to endure and it is very sad. They simply do not have the basics and there is no incentive for them to progress in life. What can children in these areas do by passing their GCE O/Levels or GCE A/Level? Unless they go to a big city academic study alone is of no use.

"They have to be equipped with some vocational training in addition to the standard subjects in the curriculum which they could then make use of to earn a living in their own villages. One of the reasons for children in these areas to drop out of school is the lack of future prospects.''

Future generations

This trend also propels future generations to take the same path. According to the NCPA, generations of a family could invariably end up doing the same menial job since there are no jobs available most of the time.

"Even people in the camps do not want to leave because there are no jobs and they would have no way of supporting themselves if they leave the camp where they at least get the bare minimum of dry rations to cook and eat, said this source. If they leave the camp they are not entitled to anything. Because prospects outside the camp are equally bleak and they prefer to stay in the camp where they are at least assured of some food," said the source.

After about one and a half years at a camp people are resettled. They are provided with basic facilities to live but that is all. There is no sustainable government policy and no long term planning.  For example if a toilet in a settlement breaks or if there is a tube well and it dries up that is the end of the story as there is no other way that they could repair these.

Because of this attitude there is no improvement in the living standards of these people, there is nothing to show that they have progressed in life.

They remain where they began.


To whose tune is Dayananda dancing?

The Election Commissioner's statement on the legality of the UNP's attempt to use an independent group to get elected to the Colombo Municipal Council raised many a question on the independence and  impartiality of  Dayananda Dissanayake.

While the voters of Colombo showed  Dissanayake what value they attach to his statement the state newspapers backed his statement publishing comments from government politicians approving his stand on the matter.

Commissioner's statement

Dissanaike's statement to the public in general but without any doubt aimed at the voting public within the municipal limits of Colombo, took great pains to point out that persons whose names do not appear in the original nomination list could not be permitted to be nominated to posts falling vacant upon the resignation of those who are duly elected.

The UNP slowly woke up from its deep slumber and hit back throwing a challenge to the Commissioner, reminding him that during his own tenure as Commissioner of Elections in 2002 one Nistar Faleel whose name did not appear in the original nomination list had been nominated in the same manner as is now sought to be done. The UNP also pointed out to the commissioner that similar appointments had been made for local bodies in Ratnapura, Naththandiya and Akkuressa in the past and during the term of the present commissioner.

The current prime minister too did not have his name on the national list at the last general elections. During that campaign it was publicly stated by the then President herself that Ratnasiri Wickremanayake's omission from the national list was by mistake and that he would be appointed to parliament when the Sandhanaya was returned to power.

Loss of civic rights

What most forgot and certainly the UNP missed out was that this was an Elections Commissioner under whose stewardship hundreds of thousands of voters lost their civic rights at the last presidential election in November. What ever the excuses trotted out by the Elections Department,  it is a fact that the system was manipulated to prevent voters of the UNP from exercising their voting rights to elect a president of their choice.

While all this happened the Elections Commissioner was silent and failed in his duty or neglected to bring to the notice of the public the illegalities that were happening under his very nose and required to be done under his own hand as the commissioner of elections.

The political man-

oeuvering  using the Commissioner of Elections was most apparent when the Commissioner's notice was used as a full page advertisement by the JVP - one of the political parties contesting the elections the very next day.

Questions remain unanswered

Several questions remain unanswered to a confused public arising from the Commissioner's statement which has been challenged by the UNP. 

First and foremost is the question as to which party i.e. the Commissioner or the UNP  correctly set out the legal position. While the Commissioner did not cite any legal provision the UNP for its part has cited Section 65 of the Local Government Elections Act.  If in fact there is a dispute and a need to interpret the law as it presently stands, did the Commissioner act correctly by publicly stating his position prior to an  election, which opinion if found to be wrong later may end in an injustice caused to the voters?

More important is the question whether the Commissioner himself  has acted independently and impartially. An objective look at the Commissioner's track record does not bring out any independence or impartiality on his part. His decision making as is most apparent now is to act passive or in favour of the party in power.

During the 2002 local electons, why was the Commissioner silent when the UNP, then in power contested the Ratnapura Council through another group after its nominations were rejected? In 2006 why does he state that the same procedure is wrong and go even further to issue a public notice to such effect?

Next, the question of the timing. The Commissioner's statement was on the eve of the closure of the campaign giving very little time for any party to challenge it. Was it deliberate and calculated to confuse the voter and give any particular party or candidate an edge? Didn't the Commissioner know, prior to that time that the UNP and the PA were both attempting to enter councils where their nomination lists were rejected, through independent lists? Was it not a fact well known to all parties several weeks ago?

What about his past actions? Did he not preside over the infamous Wayamba Provincial Council election and fail to declare that it was an invalid poll? Then the empty rhetoric on the part of the Commissioner to annul any polling where the voters were intimidated, pronounced prior to the Presidential Poll in 2005 and his lame excuse afterwards that no person made a complaint to him about the voter intimidation in the north and the east on the day of the election.

The Commissioner seems to have cleverly worked out his strategy of playing to the public sympathy highlighting his heart ailment and the fact that he has not been allowed to retire by the non activation of the independent commission for elections. Was his beseeching look at the newly appointed President at the Elections Secretariat and the impassioned plea on TV to allow him to retire, deliberately done to make him endear more and more to the public and gain their sympathy? Is that the strategy to gain the sympathy of an unsuspecting public and continue to carry out actions which favour one party of another? On the other hand can you trust a man who may be prone to favour just to get his retirement expedited?

UNP position

The UNP position has been now made public and the Commissioner has been branded as being biased and partial. The big question is 'where to' from here.

 Like all its previous campaigns is the UNP going to 'rest' with the satisfaction that a press conference has been held and the Commissioner's position challenged? Is the UNP going to wait for another election and further acts of the same nature to open its eyes and take action? Or is this the beginning of a sustained campaign to drive home the point, that the successive SLFP led coalition governments have blocked the appointment of an Independent Elections Commission because they have a man already in position who will cater to their needs?


 Peace brigades stranded on parade grounds

Colombo's peace brigades are in a quandary. It is not because the almighty Co-Chairs have warned that Sri Lanka is on the brink of a war. The reason is that the godfather - the international community - of the professors, doctors, doctors without doctorates, unemployable American graduates and the like have left them stranded on the parade grounds by their right- about- turn.  They do not know now in which direction to move.

For long years, the peace activists marched in step with the LTTE and the international community.  Now the European Union has banned the LTTE and the peace activists seem to be stranded with the entire 'international community' backing the EU ban.

The day on which the European Union ban was announced some peace activists who appeared on TV seemed stunned and unable to comprehend the reason behind the ban for the simple reason that they had not and still do not consider the LTTE to be a terrorist organisation. At least two of them were of the opinion that the ban would only 'harden' the stand of the LTTE and thus the ban would be an obstacle to peace.

What these gentlemen do not seem to have considered is that the LTTE had continued with its terrorism for more than two decades before the European Union ban. 

Hangman

An analogy about murderers and the hangman comes to my mind. It may be correct that the present hangman does not affect the homicide rate because most killers do not think of the hangman when committing crimes. But the removal of the hangman will not reduce the killings either. If at all his presence is some kind of deterrence that has been long recognised in many countries.

Peace activists should also consider why the ban on the LTTE in some countries do not seem to have any positive effect against terrorism. It is for the reason that the ban imposed had been cosmetic and there has been no reports of LTTE funds being frozen or seized nor a crackdown on LTTE fronts or their leaders.

Bala reigns

The LTTE is banned in Britain but Anton Balasingham and the Queen both reign in London receiving diplomats and representatives of foreign countries. The ban by the EU which has been very much sympathetic towards the LTTE and its fellow travellers seems to have upset the peace activists because this time the writing seems to be on the wall.

While peace activists are stunned and in a quandary, some Sinhala activists were delighted and somersaulting in joy rather mistakenly. Gone is the strident anti-Norwegian rhetoric demanding that Norwegians be kicked out and the Ceasefire Agreement be torn to shreds. An editorialist even suggested that the government be caned like the LTTE, if the government goes beyond its limits.

Those who have been at the receiving end of the stick know that it is easy to recommend canings but only the recipients of the stick on their behinds would say whether it is good or bad. We have witnessed reactions of successive governments  when at the receiving end from foreign countries and can say that the punishments were certainly not appreciated.

Action against Karuna

The EU has called upon the government to take action against the Karuna Group, which is now considered a saviour by some Sinhalese.  If action  is taken against this group, it will be  debatable because terrorism and violence of the LTTE flourished long before Karuna took up arms against his former boss Velupillai Pirapaharan. Whether Karuna would emerge as Velupillai Pirapaharan II in the event of a mishap to the Sun God should also be a factor to be considered by his fans in the south today.

Despite the affection of some Sinhala activists after the EU ban by the 'international community' it is unlikely that they could replace the peace brigades who have been great buddies of the foreign powers. This 'international community' has been the rice and curry, pol sambol and bread, travel agent, friend, guide and philosopher, tuition master and also a good paymaster of the peace activists.

No war, no peace

The point to be noted in these peace games is that peace becomes irrelevant if there is no war. Thus even though there may be a temporary set back to these peace brigades with hardliners like the JVP and JHU egging President Rajapakse along and with Karuna making his forays, the prospects for peace do not seem to be good but there will be great prospects for the peace brigades.

We presume that this is how events would turn out to be but only time will tell. Meanwhile the peace brigades should organise  a grand seminar in a five star hotel on: 'Does the EU ban on the LTTE enhance the chances for war?'

It would keep the home fires burning.


US and British soldiers are no angels

Armies of Third World countries are looked down upon contemptuously by most Western nations. They are considered indisciplined, untrained, non professional, ignorant, brutal among many other attributes. 

After 20 years of armed conflict in Sri Lanka which has finally attracted the ssattention of the West, we are quite familiar with this superior view from a moral pedestal. No doubt Third World armies including our Sri Lankan security services have at times qualified for such contemptuous views.

But Western armies with long years of traditions, professional training and equipped with the best of military hardware too have been found to have feet of clay on many occasions.

Desertions

One instance cited to show non professionalism of the Sri Lankan armed forces has been the large number of desertions which is said to be among the highest in the world. This is no doubt true. But surprisingly this week's statistics released by the British Ministry of Defence showed that the number of servicemen deserting the British armed forces has tripled since the invasion of Iraq.

A report in Britain's prestigious Telegraph said that this has raised fears of a growing refusal to serve on dangerous missions abroad. We are citing the British example not because we take delight in that the armed services of a nation that ruled an empire on which the sun never set is also susceptible to weaknesses like ours but to show that the world over there are soldiers who are human. The report quotes a British SAS trooper from Iraq as saying that 'hundreds of US servicemen have also deserted.'

No official reasons for desertion have been given but the report speculates that it is for domestic reasons such as the pressure of families fearing their safety. The issue of desertion came up during a debate in the House of Commons over a law that could result in those refusing to take part in a foreign occupation facing life sentences.

Massacre

The other incident which would reverberate around the world for quite some time will be the massacre of 24 Iraqi civilians in the town of Haditha, allegedly by the US Marines after a marine travelling in a vehicle had been killed by a wayside bomb.  It is alleged that after the marine was killed, other marines stormed three nearby wayside homes and shot dead 24 civilians ranging from grandparents to parents, children and grandchildren.

A 12- year-old girl who had escaped by feigning to be dead appeared on BBC on Wednesday  and gave a heart-rending account of how her family was brutally killed.  Sri Lanka has had the experience of being hectored by finger wagging Western politicians and diplomats who read out chapter and verse from texts such as the UN Charter on Human Rights. We certainly deserved all that but let the militarily and morally superior people of the affluent countries too realise that sadism and brutality are not the sole monopoly of the Third World.

Even more regrettable is the attempt to cover up the massacre. It came to light only after and exposure in Time Magazine.  John Murtha, a Democrat in the House of Representatives has accused the US Marines of seeking to 'cover up' the killings. 'We're fighting a war about America's ideals and democracy's ideals and something like this happens, they try to cover it up. It is as bad as Abu Gharaib, if not worse,' he had said.

A White House Spokesman had said that the US Marine Corps was taking a full and active role in investigating the allegations. The administration had promised full public disclosure of the results of a military probe.

The role played by the media in exposing this crime and the promise of a full investigation into the killing is to be commended but whether justice will ultimately be done to the innocent victims cannot be assured when a similar incident that occurred in Vietnam 38 years ago is considered.

Mai Lai

It took place on March 16, 1968 in the Quang Ngai Province of South Vietnam during the Vietnam war.

This province had been considered a haven for the Viet Cong fighting the Americans and the entire province had been bombed and shelled leaving most of the houses destroyed.

Mai Lai was one remaining village and it was suspected of harbouring a battalion of the Viet Cong. Lt. William Calley and his 'Charlie Company' were ordered to attack and destroy the village. On arrival at the village they found no insurgents, but Lt. Calley and his company fired on hundreds of defenceless civilians - old men, women, children and babies.

 The numbers killed had been estimated between 347 and 504. Dozens had been herded into a ditch and executed using automatic firearms.

Amidst this brutal slaughter the courage of a 24 year-old American soldier, Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson Jr. stands out. While the massacre was on, he had arrived at Mai Lai in his gunship along with two others and said that he would open fire on the American troops if they did not stop the attack on civilians and with the two other members of his crew directed the evacuation of this village.

It is estimated that by his action he saved at least 11 lives. For this outstanding act of heroism he was branded traitor by the military establishment and it took 36 years for him to be awarded the Soldier's Medal -the highest award for bravery in the army not involving direct contact with the enemy.

Calley convicted

What happened to Calley was a travesty of justice. Several letters were circulating among the administration officials about the massacre which were ignored until one representative  - Morris Udall raised the issue.

Calley was charged with pre-meditated murder and sentenced to life imprisonment, hard labour. However, two days later President Nixon ordered his release from prison, pending appeal of sentence.

He spent three and a half years under house arrest in his quarters at Fort Benning and freed on the orders of a federal judge on the grounds that he was following orders of his superior officer. Twenty six others who were involved were also charged but only Calley was convicted. Calley's case is an outstanding example that justice is not often done in the greatest democracy on earth.

There are many other instances of gross violation of human rights surfacing in Iraq and perhaps the same is happening in Afghanistan. Such crimes in times of war would have happened right through history. sss But these latest offences by American and British troops in Iraq show that Western soldiers are not always angels. Amidst them are war criminals too.


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