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Sri Lanka and US
eye deeper ties
WASHINGTON: The surprise defeat of Sri Lanka’s authoritarian
leader and the new government’s early steps to end repression have stirred US hopes that the South Asian island nation
can revive ties with Washington and distance itself to some
degree from Beijing.
Under former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, relations with
China intensified, with heavy Chinese investment in the
strategically located island along busy sea lanes between the
Persian Gulf and East Asia. Once-robust ties with the US deteriorated sharply, even as President Barack Obama pushed to
engage nations across Asia and consolidate America as a
Pacific power.
Washington took an important step toward rebuilding the
relationship with the Monday arrival of the top diplomat for
South Asia, the first visit by a senior State Department official
since former Rajapaksa ally Maithripala Sirisena won Jan 8
Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian
Affairs Nisha Biswal
elections. “Sri Lanka can count on the United States to be partner and a friend in the way forward,” Assistant Secretary of
State Nisha Biswal told reporters, speaking alongside Foreign
Minister Mangala Samaraweera. She said the new government has already taken many positive steps but “there is a lot
of hard work ahead and some difficult challenges.”
She also noted that no country in the world buys more Sri
Lankan products than the United States. Samaraweera is
expected to visit Washington later this month. Obama wants a
deeper partnership with Sri Lanka and US officials say the early signs are promising. Within a week or so of taking office,
Sirisena rolled back restrictions on the press and civil society.
He also vows to reduce powers of the presidency that been
inflated by Rajapaksa when his popularity ballooned during
the ending of Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war.
Strained relations
US-Sri Lanka relations were strained over Rajapaksa’s reluctance to investigate thousands of reported civilian deaths in
the final chapter of the quarter-century conflict in 2009, when
government forces crushed Tamil rebels who had been fighting for an ethnic homeland. Sirisena has been cautious about
promising action on accountability, but he did offer an early
fig leaf to minority Tamils, who supported him at the polls,
when he quickly replaced an unpopular ex-military governor
appointed by Rajapaksa in the former battle zone in the north
of the country.
The new government also says it is reviewing one of a
series of major Chinese-financed infrastructure projects: a $1.5
billion land reclamation for a “port city” in the capital,
Colombo. That’s a blow to Beijing’s progress in winning an ally
in the Indian Ocean. But officials in Colombo are also being
careful not to alienate Beijing. Rajitha Senaratne, a Cabinet
spokesman, said Sri Lanka does not “need to tilt towards any
“China has been a historical friend of ours, India is also the
same,” he told The Associated Press. “Our exports go to the E.U.
and US” The new government assured India it will not align
itself to any world power. Two recent port calls by Chinese
submarines at a Chinese-built terminal in Colombo, one
before a visit in September by China’s leader Xi Jinping, fueled
speculation that Beijing’s wants a “string of pearls” or port
access along sea lanes linking the energy-rich Persian Gulf and
economic centers in eastern China. The submarine visits
spooked India, which lies just 30 miles from Sri Lanka and
shares US uncertainty about Beijing’s intentions as China’s military power grows.
Strategic reasons
Washington has its own strategic reasons to be interested
in Sri Lanka. A 2007 agreement, sealed before relations with
Rajapaksa soured, permits the US and Sri Lanka to exchange
nonlethal supplies and refueling during humanitarian operations and joint military exercises. The US has a significant economic stake in the nation of 20 million people. US financial
institutions are major investors in Sri Lankan bonds, and the
US is the second-largest market for Sri Lankan exports.
“The United States should keep up the pressure on human
rights and reconciliation with ethnic minorities,” said Bharath
Gopalaswamy of the Atlantic Council think tank. “But that
should not be the only thing the relationship is built on. It has
to be broader engagement.” Sri Lanka also wants a better relationship with Washington. Rajapaksa’s government spent liberally on US-based lobbyists but with little apparent impact.
Acrimony with the US and others over human rights deepened when a U.N. body last year approved an investigation
into reports of civil war atrocities. The results are due in March.
Sirisena will be walking a fine line at home and abroad in
how he responds. He’s managing an unwieldy coalition of
majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils, and the government
could face parliamentary elections within months. — AP
BEINJING: Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping hold a meeting at the Great
Hall of the People. — AP
Xi praises India,
Russia relations
Talks enter new stage of growth
BEIJING: Chinese President Xi Jinping yesterday hailed his
country’s relations with India and Russia as Beijing looks to
increase its heft on the global diplomatic stage. Twin visits
by New Delhi’s foreign minister Sushma Swaraj and Sergei
Lavrov from Moscow come on the heels of a high-profile
trip to India by US President Barack Obama last week, and
with Russian leader Vladimir Putin globally isolated over
the conflict in Ukraine.
Xi told Swaraj that China-India ties “have entered a new
stage of growth” since he visited in September. “The positive side of China-India relations has been growing, the
momentum of our cooperation has been strengthening,”
he added. China and India are the world’s two most populous countries but ties between the nuclear-armed neighbors are still characterized by mutual suspicion, in large
part as a legacy of a brief but bloody war in 1962 and a
continuing border dispute.
‘Whole new level’
But Swaraj was similarly effusive, telling Xi that “relations between our two countries have risen to a whole new
level”. The Indian and Russian ministers’ trips to Beijing-for
a three-way meeting with their Chinese counterpart-came
after Obama last week visited India. The US and India share
an interest in curbing Beijing’s growing regional influence.
Although neither mentioned China by name during the
three-day visit, Obama welcomed what he called a “greater
role for India in the Asia-Pacific”. Freedom of navigation in
the region must be upheld, he added. Beijing claims sovereignty over most of the South China Sea. To Lavrov, meanwhile, Xi expressed his satisfaction with China-Russia ties.
Beijing and Moscow, allies and then adversaries during
the Cold War, have found common ground internationally
and often take similar stands at the UN Security Council
where they have permanent veto powers. They have also
forged increasingly closer economic ties as China is hungry
for the vast hydrocarbon resources of Russia, which is seeking stable markets amid Western sanctions over its annexation of Crimea and fighting in eastern Ukraine. “Over the
past year, we have together been advancing the development of the overall strategic relationship between China
and Russia,” Xi said.
“Our joint efforts have yielded rich results... our cooperation grows ever deeper,” he added. Lavrov pointed out
that Xi and Putin met five times last year. “The consensus
reached at the highest level between the two leaders has
played an extremely important role in pushing the development of relations in the right direction,” he said. — AFP
12,000 skulls
at prison
BEIJING: Men stand in front of a board with a 2015 Year of the Sheep mascot at a press conference for the China Central Television’s annual hours-long Spring Festival Gala. — AP
Lunar New Year TV gala
set for global audience
BEIJING: China says its annual Lunar New
Year gala TV show is all set to go international. State broadcaster China Central
Television says it’s making rights available
to foreign broadcasters for the first time,
and plans to promote the Feb. 18 show on
Twitter and other social media. CCTV touts
its annual hours-long Spring Festival Gala
as the world’s longest-running and mostwatched variety show. A staple of holiday
celebrations since the 1980s, the evening
show also has been widely mocked for
cheesy performances and stilted staging.
This year’s show will be broadcast in several languages, including English, Hindi,
Arabic, Portuguese and German, under
agreements with 24 foreign media outlets,
said Ma Runsheng, general manager of
CHNPEC, the CCTV-owned agency which
deals with its copyrights. Ma said greatest
hits from past shows - including the best
moments of traditional Chinese opera - will
be encapsulated to promote the gala on
YouTube, Google Plus and Twitter, which
are blocked in China.
“Our purpose is to make our gala avail-
able to more overseas Chinese and overseas foreign viewers who love Chinese culture and want to learn about Chinese culture through this festive celebration,” Ma
said at a news conference yesterday. This
year’s theme is “Family Harmony Yields
Success.” The gala is already broadcast live
on multiple T V channels and on some
Chinese websites. Last year, more than 700
million people watched the show live or a
replay a week later on CCTV or other channels, and 110 million people watched it
online, according to Zheng Weidong,
deputy managing director of CSM Media
Research, which pulls together ratings.
When the gala started in 1983, relatively
few Chinese families had their own TV sets,
but it evolved into a major annual viewing
event. Now, many younger viewers prefer
watching something else online. Last year,
to try to increase its appeal, organizers
hired acclaimed film director Feng
Xiaogang to direct it, but he reportedly
complained that he didn’t have the freedom to do what he wanted, and many critics gave the show a thumbs-down. — AP
PHNOM PENH: Cambodia’s UN-backed
court yesterday heard a former prisoner
say he helped dig up more than 12,000
skulls in mass graves outside Phnom
Penh, as the genocide trial of two Khmer
Rouge leaders continued. Nuon Chea, 88,
known as “Brother Number Two”, and former head of state Khieu Samphan, 83,
face charges over the killing of ethnic
Vietnamese and Muslim minorities, forced
marriage and rape during the 1975-1979
regime. In August, the pair were given life
sentences for crimes against humanitythe first top Khmer Rouge figures to be
jailed-after a two-year trial focused on the
forced evacuation of Cambodians from
Phnom Penh into rural labor camps and
murders at an execution site. The pair
have been accused of playing a critical
role in the “Killing Fields” era, a genocide
which left up to two million people dead
in the late 1970s.
Former prisoner Keo Chandara, 63,
said he helped exhume more than 12,100
skulls from eight mass graves at Kraing Ta
Chan prison in Takeo province, around 80
kilometers south of Phnom Penh shortly
after the regime fell in 1979. “We did not
excavate all the pits. I was ordered to dig
the up pits... I did the excavation at those
eight pits,” he said.
The prosecution witness also gave
graphic testimony of Khmer Rouge
cadres torturing prisoners including a
woman with metal pincers and then sulphuric acid. “She was screaming and there
were about 10 prisoners who were
ordered to sit and watch the torture,” Keo
Chandara said. “At that time they didn’t
take people through a court like this
court. They just simply killed people,” he
added. When the court resumed the
genocide trial last month, the prosecution’s first witness told judges that Khmer
Rouge soldiers slit the throats of hundreds of inmates at the prison and ate
their gall bladders. The complex case
against Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan
was split into a series of smaller trials in
2011 to try to obtain a faster verdict
against the pair given their advanced
ages and frail health.—AFP
China cult pair executed for McDonald’s killing
BEIJING: A father and daughter who belonged
to a fringe Chinese religious group were executed yesterday for beating a woman to death
at a McDonald’s restaurant, reportedly after she
rebuffed their attempts to recruit her. The pair
were among a group of five members of the
banned Quannengshen cult convicted of
attacking the woman, surnamed Wu, after she
refused to give them her phone number.
“For the crimes of intentional homicide, and
organizing an evil cult to undermine the law,
Zhang Fan and Zhang Lidong were put to
death,” the Intermediate People’s Court of
Yantai city said on its official microblog
account. China uses both lethal injection and
shooting for executions, but the method was
not specified. Zhang Fan was previously said by
state media to be Zhang Lidong’s daughter.
Followers of Quannengshen, whose name can
be translated as Church of Almighty God,
believe that Jesus has been reincarnated as a
Chinese woman. They refer to the ruling
Communist Party as the “great red dragon”. On
its website-where one section is headed “The
Maturer the People Become, the Sooner the
Great Red Dragon Will Collapse”-the group
describes the authorities as “the persecutor of
God and the enemy of God”.
The organization was outlawed by the government in the mid-1990s and its founders
moved to the United States in 2000, the official
Xinhua News Agency said. Shortly after the
May incident, an online video emerged showing a man resembling Zhang Lidong striking
out angrily with a pole, shouting “Damn you,
devil! Go to hell!” as a woman yelled “Kill her!
Beat her to death!” The three minutes of
footage, apparently shot on a mobile phone at
the McDonald’s in the eastern province of
Shandong, only included a fraction of a second
showing the person thought to be the victim.
The three others convicted over the attackincluding another daughter of Zhang Lidong’swere given prison terms ranging from seven
years to life. State media gave the executions
prominent coverage yesterday, with broadcaster
CCTV showing footage of the convicts in court
as well as replaying the attack film.—AFP
GUANDONG: This picture shows participants (center) competing in a tofu (beancurd) wrestling
competition. Participants, mostly women, fight it out in an inflatable pool which is filled with
nearly two tons of fresh milk and tofu, in a promotion to attract tourists for the upcoming
Chinese Lunar New Year holiday. — AFP
Prisoners escape by scaling
walls with tied bed sheets
NEW DELHI: Scores of inmates staged a mass
breakout from an Indian young offenders detention centre yesterday by tying bedsheets together and then scaling down the walls of the threestorey building, police said. A total of 91
inmates, including several convicted murderers,
managed to flee the facility in Meerut overnight,
although 35 have since been recaptured, said
the city’s superintendent of police Om Prakash.
“They removed an iron grille from a window
at the back of the building while police were
guarding the front,” Prakash said from Meerut in
the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. “This was
done so professionally that no one got a whiff,”
Prakash added. Those still on the run included
inmates convicted of crimes such as murder,
rape, theft and banditry, Prakash added. All are
aged under 18.
Police say the break-out was staged sometime between 1:00am and 3:00am and the alarm
was only raised when officers who were
patrolling near the centre spotted some of the
fugitives trying to flag down public transport.
Inmates from the same centre beat a policeman
to death in December after he objected to their
lewd behavior with a woman during a court trial.
More than 31,000 inmates are being held at
young offenders institutes in India, according to
the latest available set of official statistics.
Although they are meant to be under lock and
key overnight, inmates usually sleep in dormitories rather than individual cells.
Potential IS recruits freed
Meanwhile, Indian authorities have released
nine people who had been deported from
Turkey after allegedly trying to enter an area of
Syria controlled by the Islamic State militant
group, police said yesterday. Police in the southern city of Bangalore said the nine Indians were
released late Sunday, after they admitted during
questioning that they had planned to cross over
to territory controlled by IS but denied being
members of the organization, which is banned
in India.
“We set them free as no incriminating material or any evidence was found against them,”
Bangalore police chief MN Reddi told reporters
Monday. “No case was registered but they were
warned against making such attempts in future,”
he said. Turkish authorities detained the nine
people-a family of seven and two engineers who
were in the country on tourist visas-as they were
trying to enter Syria on Friday. Police quoted the
group as telling their interrogators that they had
only wanted to help civilians who had been
affected by the fighting in Syria and Iraq, large
parts of which are also controlled by IS.
Thousands of foreign jihadists are believed to
have joined IS which has seized swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria, ruling with a brutal version
of Islamic law. The group has murdered a number
of foreigners, including American, British and
Japanese hostages. India banned the Islamic
State group in December after police found a
sympathizer who was running a Twitter account
and was suspected of online recruitment.
Although India has the third largest number of
Muslims in the world, only a few are so far reported to have joined the militant group. — AFP