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POLITICS: Sri Lanka’s Turnaround Could Signal New Beginning

COLOMBO, May 11 2010 (IPS) - For a country that has had quite a few run-ins with global giants in the diplomatic arena, the last fortnight has witnessed somewhat of a turnaround for Sri Lanka.

The South Asian island state has received accolades from several diplomatic heavyweights and organisations for recent actions initiated by President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Rajapaksa’s grant of a presidential pardon to journalist Jayaprakash Tissainayagam, who had been sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment, was quickly commended by the international community.

Tissainayagam, who belongs to the minority Tamil community, was convicted by the High Court of Colombo in August 2009 on charges of receiving funding from the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and instigating communal violence through his writings. The website editor and opinion writer’s arrest and subsequent conviction elicited wide international criticism.

Sri Lanka’s foreign minister Gamini Peiris said that the pardon – announced on World Press Freedom Day last week – showed that the new government of President Rajapaksa was committed to upholding civic rights.

The Tissainayagam pardon was specifically welcomed by the United States, France and several international media watchdogs.

“We, with our European partners, strongly condemned the sentence of 20 years in prison which had been passed against him last August and expressed our deep concern with the Sri Lankan authorities on several occasions,” the French foreign ministry said in a statement welcoming the pardon.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) also welcomed the pardon, albeit cautiously. “While this is potentially very good news, our enthusiasm is muted until the details are made clear,” Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator, said.

However, details of Tissainayagam’s pardon remain unclear. Neither he nor his lawyers have made any public comments since it was announced while sources briefed on the pardon told IPS that the lawyers were in discussion with the Attorney General’s Department on the technicalities of the pardon.

Notwithstanding his pardon, Tissainayagam’s passport remains with the government, raising questions on whether he is free to travel within and outside the country.

Still, local media rights groups said the President’s move should bode well for the future of the media. “It is a welcome move and we hope the current trend continues,” Chulavangsha Sirilal of the local media rights group Free Media Movement told IPS.

Three days after Tissainayagam was pardoned by the President, journalist Ruwan Weerakoon, who was on remand, was released on bail. Weerakoon was arrested on charges of collusion with Sarath Fonseka, the former army commander and defeated presidential candidate now facing charges of corruption and plotting to overthrow the government.

Within the same week of Tissainayagam’s pardon, the government also relaxed the emergency regulations that had been in place since 2006, when then foreign minister Lakshman Kadirgamar was assassinated by the Tamil Tigers.

Some of the regulations that were removed included the provision on the imposition of curfews, those requiring households to give information about their members and the power of security forces to enter private property for searches.

Other provisions restricting the conduct of public meetings and printing of propaganda material were likewise eased, according to foreign minister Peiris.

He was quick to note, however, that the relaxation of the regulations had nothing to do with attempts at thawing icy relations, especially with the West.

“We do not believe that there is a need to continue with those particular regulations. The situation in the country is settled,” he told the media.

President Rajapaksa has also announced that he will set up a special commission to look into the final phase of the war against the Tamil Tigers that ended in May 2009. Sri Lanka has staved off international criticism and even attempts to initiate international inquiries on possible war crimes committed during the 25-year conflict with the LTTE. The planned commission will determine if any such violations took place, according to the President’s Office.

The government has also strongly objected to moves by the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to set up an advisory committee on Sri Lanka. It said that the country’s situation was fast returning to normal and development work had been accelerated now that the second Rajapaksa administration had taken office.

The Sri Lankan government has not been loath to lock horns with international big boys even in the face of financial losses. Earlier this year the European Union (EU) scrapped a preferential trade facility – the Generalized System of Preferences Plus (GSP+) tariff regime – that allowed exports from Sri Lanka to the EU to gain concession exceeding 100 million U.S. dollars in 2008.

The EU said Sri Lanka had violated international human rights conventions. Sri Lanka had objected to the EU sending a fact-finding mission to investigate the country’s human rights record. Suspending the concession, the EU said that if Sri Lanka fulfilled certain criteria, then the GSP+ concession would be reinstated.

Whether President Rajapaksa’s recent decisive actions – including the grant of a presidential pardon to journalist Tissainayagam – will help bring that about is well worth watching.

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