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September 05, 2006

Sri Lanka: All hopes that post-Tsunami Sri Lanka would find peace have come to nothing

Posted by Clifford Bastin

After the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami, there was hope that this tragic event might be the impetus for Sri Lanka's politicians to find a lasting solution to the island's conflict. These hopes have now been conclusively dashed. Armed conflict has resumed in Sri Lanka, Clifford Bastin reports.

In the immediate aftermath of the 2004 Tsunami there was some hope that a tragedy wrought by nature might provide the stimulus to resolve the man made catastrophe of a civil war that since 1983 had cost 64,000 lives. Yet, instead of reinvigorating the stalled peace process, which had been initiated in 2002, the tsunami accentuated differences and created fresh sources of antagonism.

At a time when events in the Middle East have dominated the global news agenda the return of war to Sri Lanka has gone little noticed. This contrasts strongly with the attention the island received in the days following the Tsunami. The media caravan has long moved on and there has been virtually no space for another conflict of limited strategic consequence and unappealing intricacy and intractability.

By the end of 2005 the Cease-fire Agreement (CFA) had become virtually moribund as violations perpetrated by both the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) became every day events. From December to the beginning of July 2006 a low intensity war claimed over 800 lives. As July came to a close high intensity war had resumed, with ground offensives, aerial bombing and naval engagements causing the loss of many hundreds more lives.

In December 2005 the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE ) stepped up attacks on soldiers and sailors in the north and east of the island, often using roadside fragmentation mines (Claymores) with devastating effect. The Tigers - implausibly - denied involvement, describing the land attacks on Sri Lankan forces as spontaneous popular resistance. In January a Sri Lankan Navy (SLN) fast attack boat was sunk by Sea Tiger suicide craft off Trincomolee with the loss of thirteen sailors. The LTTE and Tamil civilians were also sustaining casualties. Amongst their number was a senior Tiger military Commander and a Parliamentarian, from the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), a group supportive of the LTTE. While killings during the CFA were nothing new, the growing frequency and severity of clashes marked a significantly deteriorating situation.

Unexpectedly, international peace facilitators succeeded in getting the parties to talks in Geneva in February. The likelihood of a breakthrough was remote but a willingness to talk at all suggested a mutual desire to step back from the brink.

Days before the Geneva meeting President Rajapakse made certain that no break-through accord could be anticipated by flatly ruling out the LTTE objective of a separate Tamil Homeland. While offering some devolution, any final settlement would only be acceptable in the context of a unitary state. Rajapakse's election had been secured with the support of the Janata Vimukti Peramuna (JVP) and the Jatika Hele Urumaya (JHU), both hard-line Sinhalese nationalist parties - the first Marxist and populist and the second religious and conservative, dominated by Buddhist monks. The price of JVP and JHU support was the rejection of federalism and although these parties had not joined the governing coalition their continuing support was valuable to Rajapakse.

Controlling large swathes of the north and east, the LTTE already considers itself to be in control of a de facto state. Its political wing responded angrily to the President's pre-Geneva statement. For the LTTE a unitary state meant:

Sinhala Parliament, Sinhala Constitution, Sinhala Judiciary, Sinhala Bureaucracy and Sinhala Armed Forces ruling this country.
The LTTE claims that in such a state:
the Tamil people would continue to face a cruel genocide.
These restatements of mutually antagonistic positions did not augur well for the first high-level encounter for three years.

The Geneva talks had limited objectives focusing on securing a reaffirmation of the CFA and its more effective implementation. Initially the outcome of two days of talks appeared to have been a qualified success with further talks scheduled for April.

The LTTE committed to

taking all necessary measures to ensure that there will be no acts of further violence against the security forces and police.
They thus tacitly acknowledged involvement in the attacks of December and January.

Similarly the Government declared that it would:

take all necessary measures in accordance with the CFA to ensure that no armed group or person other than Government Security Forces will carry arms or conduct armed operations.
This unambiguously referred to the forces of Colonel Karuna - a former Eastern Commander of the LTTE who broke ranks in 2004 and according to the LTTE has been working hand in glove with the security forces in mounting attacks on Tiger cadres. Though perhaps numbering no more than five hundred men, the Karuna faction has been a considerable thorn in the flesh of the LTTE. While the Government deny collusion with Karuna, the Tigers maintain that security forces have been aiding his men, who - given their ethnicity and knowledge of Tiger methods and terrain - have proved a potent strike force. The disarming of paramilitary groups has been a core issue for the LTTE and therefore the Government's pledge to act was extremely significant.

As well as Karuna there are four other paramilitary groups, three Tamil and one Muslim, which Anton Balasingham, the Tigers' chief theoretician and based in London, alleged are:

sustained, supported and controlled by the Sri Lankan military.
Optimism was generated not only by the seemingly positive outcome of the talks but also by the relatively cordial manner in which they were conducted. The Norwegian Peace envoy, Erik Solheim, said the result was:
above my expectations ... confidence had been built over the two days.
The leader of the Government delegation, Nimal Sripala de Silva, said the talks were:
a victory for both sides.
Almost as soon as the talks concluded relations quickly soured. The pledges made by both sides were undermined by sharply divergent interpretations of what had actually been agreed and by the subsequent conduct of the parties. On returning to Colombo, de Silva claimed that the CFA had been amended at Geneva, a prior demand of the hard-line Sinhalese parties. The LTTE had expressly refused to consider altering the CFA and refuted the assertion that amendments had been agreed. Within two days the Tigers were accusing the Government of failing to interdict armed members of the Eelam Peoples Democratic Party (EPDP), a rival Tamil group travelling within Government controlled territory. The Government countered by accusing the LTTE of acting provocatively in building a bunker close to a military checkpoint in Trincomolee district.

Things went from bad to worse, such that a second Geneva meeting in April became unlikely. Anton Balasingham, commented that:

The violence of the paramilitaries has escalated many fold.
He claimed that after the first Geneva meeting such groups had launched several offensive operations against Tiger positions aided and abetted by the Sri Lankan military. For Balasingham, the Government's inability or unwillingness to disarm Karuna made peace talks
a meaningless and futile exercise.
In early April a leading Tamil politician, Vanniasingham Vigneswaran, was shot dead in Trincomolee. In 2005 he had led a campaign for the removal of a giant Buddha statue close to the central Trincomolee bus stand. The erection of the statue had caused considerable tension in a town divided roughly equally between Tamil, Muslim and Sinhalese. Vigneswaran was lined up to replace the assassinated parliamentarian Joseph Parajasingham, killed at a Christmas Eve church service and who represented the Tamil National Alliance, closely allied to the LTTE.

The violence was by no means one way. In late March eight SLN sailors perished when their patrol boat approached a Sea Tigers vessel suspected of transporting arms south of Mannar on the northwest coast. To avoid capture the Tigers detonated their craft taking the patrol boat with it. Tiger cadres - whether on land or sea - are ordered to avoid being taken alive and all must carry a vial of cyanide around their necks.

Prior to the scheduled second round of talks in April, shootings and Claymore mine blasts - for which the LTTE continued to deny responsibility - killed a number of army, navy and police personnel. Ulf Henricsson - Chief Monitor of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLLM - and a former Swedish General - commented of LTTE denials relating to Claymore attacks:

I am quite sure that they could not be launched by any other organization than the LTTE.
On 12th April a bomb blast in a market in Trincomolee killed 16. It did not discriminate between ethnic groups - Muslims, Tamils and Sinhalese, including children were among the dead. In reprisal Tamil shops were burned and a further five people lost their lives. The Army accused the Tigers of trying to inflame communal tension and provoke a backlash while the LTTE denied responsibility.

The results of local elections in early April had provided sweeping gains for the governing coalition parties of the United People's Freedom Alliance, which won 225 of the 266 contested councils. Referring pointedly to the JHU and JVP, the state owned Daily News said the results represented a vote against those:

espousing the interests of specific cultural groups.
Some commentators dared hope that a diminished dependence on Sinhalese nationalist parties might enable the President to adopt a more conciliatory approach to the peace process, but there was no discernible change in stance.

Violence perpetrated by both sides continued to gather momentum. On 22nd April six Sinhalese villagers working in paddy fields in Trincomolee district were abducted and shot. By this time prospects of a second Geneva meeting had evaporated despite the strenuous efforts of the Norwegians.

Ostensibly, Norway's peace facilitation became bogged down in a farcical wrangle regarding the transport of senior LTTE commanders in the east, to a pre-talks meeting in Killinochchi in the north. The Government had refused to transport LTTE military leaders in army helicopters after the assassination of Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar in August 2005. The Government offered a private helicopter, which the Tigers rejected as not sufficiently large, nor could it fly high enough. A seaplane was suggested, but transporting the commanders to the plane by road was not deemed secure enough. The Tigers said they would use their own sea vessels, which the government ruled out. A civilian ferry was proffered, which was to be accompanied by SLN boats with SLMM Monitors aboard, but at the last minute the Tigers objected to the naval escort.

It was clear that there was little appetite for a second face-to-face meeting and that the transport issue was not the real stumbling block. The LTTE felt that the GoSL had reneged on commitments to disarm paramilitaries. The head of the Tiger Peace Secretariat commented:

While our people are being killed and our shops are being looted we are not going to Geneva.
In late April a female suicide bomber seriously wounded the head of the Sri Lankan Army, Lt. General Sarath Fonseka, as he left Army Headquarters in Colombo. The bomber killed eight others including soldiers and civilians. To gain access to the Army Hospital within the base, the bomber had made herself appear heavily pregnant. The contention that the bomber was indeed pregnant did the rounds for many weeks and was not dispelled by the authorities. Subsequent tests, however, proved the claim unfounded.

The attack naturally enraged the military establishment and in the first official military action since the 2002 CFA, the Sri Lankan Air Force (SLAF) launched retaliatory strikes against LTTE positions. Indignantly and with not a little hyperbole the LTTE described the limited bombing missions as "unprovoked" and "genocidal" attacks. The LTTE claimed that the bombing caused 40,000 to flee the affected areas in the Trincomolee district, although subsequently the SLMM found this figure to be a considerable overestimate.

The BBC by broadcasting the inflated and uncorroborated figures incensed many Sinhalese. Quite unfairly many Sinhalese allege that the Corporation has a pro-Tamil agenda and it is remarkable how widely this view is held.

Bias Brainwashing Corporation
BBC Stop Supporting Terrorism in Sri Lanka
were slogans seen on banners in a demonstration by Sinhalese exiles outside Bush House, London in Mid-May. Yet in the context of a complex conflict where information is tightly controlled and manipulated by all parties, the BBC generally acquits itself well.

On 11th May the LTTE made an audacious attempt to sink a ship transporting over 700 soldiers between Trincomolee and Jaffna. Around fifteen Tiger vessels, including suicide craft, attempted to sink the Pearl Cruiser, but were repulsed by SLN Fast Attack Craft (FAC) and SLAF planes. One of the defending FACs was sunk with the loss of seventeen sailors while the Sea Tigers also lost boats and around forty cadres.

The SLMM was outraged given that it had a cease-fire Monitor on the troop ship and another aboard an escort vessel. It lambasted the LTTE for putting Monitors in danger, for provoking the navy and for committing a gross violation of the CFA. It ruled that as a non-state actor the LTTE had no business being at sea,

as the sea surrounding Sri Lanka is a Government controlled area.
The SLMM further resented the Tigers warning Monitors to keep off SLN boats in future. The LTTE denied they had intended to attack the troop ship and insisted that they were entitled to have access to the sea adjacent to land areas under their control.

The naval confrontation prompted the European Parliament to pass a resolution deploring the "gross" violation of the ceasefire and the endangering of the Monitors. The Parliament dismissed the LTTE's claim to be the sole representative of the Tamil people and argued for political pluralism and the expression of alternative political voices in the North and East. The continued recruitment of child soldiers and the LTTE's forced taxation of the Tamil Diaspora in the European Union also earned condemnation. The GoSL did not escape criticism from Strasbourg, directed at its record of human rights violations and for its failure to follow through on a mechanism to distribute Tsunami relief to the north and east.

At the end of May the LTTE was added to the European Unions list of terrorist organizations and banned. The ban further isolated the LTTE and was much resented by the organization. Canada, with a sizable Tamil community, had banned the LTTE in April. In doing so it caught up with the USA, Britain and India. Shortly before the Canadian ban the New York based Human Rights Watch had published a report that presented evidence of LTTE intimidation and extortion of the resident Tamil community in Canada to generate funds.

Some analysts have been sceptical that the bans would modify LTTE behaviour. In the past the Tigers have exhibited little regard for international opinion and reputation within their own community may be of greater import than how they are regarded internationally. There is an inherent danger that isolating the LTTE may make it less, not more likely that they will engage in the peace process but indulgence has not tamed them, hence the international community has been left with few choices. Martin McGuiness of Sinn Fein has met several times with key LTTE figures. In his view it was a

huge mistake for the EU to demonize the LTTE and the political leaders of the Tamil people.
Shortly after the abortive attack on the Pearl Cruiser in May, thirteen civilians were murdered on the island of Kayts, close to Jaffna. Six members of one family were shot as they slept; the victims included a four-month old baby and a four-year-old boy in a village 500 metres from a SLN base. Some local sources accused SLN personnel of involvement in collusion with armed cadres affiliated to the EPDP, a party forming part of the ruling coalition. The government implicated the LTTE. It goes without saying that assessing accusations, counter-accusations and denials in such circumstances requires considerable circumspection. For the protagonists truth takes on an elastic quality rather as it does in the literary genre of magic realism, where veracity is peripheral to the flow of the narrative. Amnesty International commented in a report in May that
there is a disturbing pattern of incomplete or ineffective investigations, with the result that perpetrators of such violence generally operate with impunity.
Credibility drained away from the ceasefire as murders, abductions and ambushes became dispiritingly routine. The day after the EU ban on 30th May, twelve Sinhalese construction workers were shot dead near the eastern town of Batticaloa and two policemen were wounded in a mine attack in the north.

Surprisingly both sides agreed to attend talks convened by the Norwegians in Oslo on 8th June to discuss the state of the CFA and in particular to establish how the security of SLMM personnel could be guaranteed. The publication of a SLMM report (, reviewing CFA implementation was delayed until after the Oslo meeting had taken place. It noted that the LTTE and GoSL had both failed to fulfil commitments made at Geneva. The LTTE were admonished for the suicide attack on the Army Commander and for provoking a major naval engagement. It noted that the LTTE had intensified child recruitment and abductions to bolster its forces. The report criticised the GoSL for not taking action against the Karuna faction, stating:

There are a number of indications that the GoSL is actively supporting the Karuna group. Known Karuna supporters have been seen moving to and from SLA camps.
The SLMM report also indicated that its inquiries into a number of killings had been obstructed or that the military had failed to collaborate.

The day before the Oslo meeting a bomb blast near Batticaloa killed ten Tamil civilians on their way to market in the village of Vadamunai, followed by the routine trading of accusation and counter accusation.

What transpired in Oslo tried even the patient Norwegians. Although aware before departure of who was in the Government delegation, the LTTE representatives declined direct meetings, saying their counterparts lacked the authority to strike a deal on altering the modalities of cease-fire implementation.

The LTTE had been enraged by a number of developments not least that the GoSL had failed to deliver on pledges to disarm the Karuna faction. The EU ban led it to demand that SLMM Monitors from EU member states Sweden, Finland, and Denmark be replaced as they could no longer be considered impartial. As these comprised 37 of the 57 monitors and their departure would leave only Norwegian and Icelandic monitors the demand would effectively mean the end of peace monitoring. Although the Tigers granted an extension until 1st September, Finnish, Danish and Swedish members announced their intention to withdraw during August. The LTTE had deeply resented the SLMM's ruling that the sea was under the jurisdiction of the GoSL thus limiting its own access to waters it felt entitled to use freely.

These were just some of the long litany of grievances the LTTE articulated in a communiqué following the Oslo debacle. The Tigers intimated that the post-2002 phase of the peace process was closing and that they had relinquished hope of internationally brokered talks producing an acceptable outcome.

In earlier peace talks subsequent to the 2002 CFA, the LTTE had agreed to explore solutions based on internal self-determination but within a federal structure as part of a united Sri Lanka. In the June 2006, post-Oslo communiqué there was no mention of federal structures nor internal-self determination within a Sri Lankan State.

Through June and July the conflict continued to intensify. Although not disowned by either side the CFA had been rendered meaningless. On 15th June sixty-four people, including fifteen children, died when two Claymore mines affixed to a tree were detonated as a public bus passed by. The attack took place in a predominantly Sinhalese area fourteen miles south of Vavuniya, a Government held town close to areas controlled by the LTTE. The Government attributed responsibility to the Tigers and started bombing and shelling LTTE positions. The LTTE denied involvement in the bus attack, condemned it and suggested government backed paramilitaries had been responsible. Whoever was responsible the death of so many civilians marked the highest death toll in a single incident since the CFA.

A week later the Catholic Bishop of Mannar accused the Sri Lankan Navy of forcing their way into a church in where 200 refugees were sheltering, shooting and detonating grenades, killing one and injuring many more. The Bishop also described a rampage through the same village where fishing boats were burned and five fishermen were shot. The Bishop wrote in a letter to the Vatican:

Today I buried the six civilians murdered by the Navy at Pesalai yesterday.
The Government said that the church had been regrettably caught in crossfire following a SLN-LTTE clash.

At the end of June the third most senior officer of the SLA and two bodyguards were killed by a suicide bomber in the outskirts of Colombo. The killing followed the assassination of two senior LTTE commanders in the east of the country.

Since the election of President Rajapakse, no detailed proposals for resolving the conflict have been presented. Pressure has come from India and elsewhere to produce a road map outlining Colombo's route towards conflict resolution. In July the President established an All Party Committee (APC) with the object of formulating devolution proposals that could command broad support among southern parties. Yet consensus is likely to prove elusive since the JVP and JHU adamantly oppose both devolution and federalism and insist on the maintenance of a unitary state. The main Tamil party in Parliament, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) - which is close to the LTTE, has not been asked to participate and the Western Province Peoples Front, a small party representing Tamils of Indian origin, has withdrawn.

The largest opposition party the United National Party (UNP) is not participating. It is furious that the President has lured four UNP parliamentarians into the Government ranks with offers of ministerial posts. The latest W. B. Ekanayaka was sworn in as Deputy Minister for Highways and he is unlikely to be the last defector. Party allegiance is fairly weak in Sri Lanka and the rewards of office are considerable hence MPs can prove eminently persuadable.

The almost insuperable obstacles to achieving a southern consensus do little to encourage the LTTE to engage in protracted negotiations with the GoSL who may be unable to secure parliamentary or popular ratification for any resulting agreement.

At the end of July the SLA launched a ground offensive in Trincomolee district, the first such action since the CFA. The GoSL accused the LTTE of closing the Mavilaru sluice gates of a major irrigation project preventing water reaching 15,000 largely Sinhalese villagers and vast areas of paddy field. Villagers in LTTE held areas stated that the Government had placed an embargo on building materials and fuel. The protestors also said that the Government had failed to provide adequately for 25,000 people displaced by earlier fighting and demanded the end of harassment and intimidation when crossing through police and army checkpoints.

A statement from the LTTE later focused on the Government's failure to implement an Asian Development Bank funded scheme to supply water to the area. Whether these were genuine grievances or a strategy to provoke confrontation is unclear. Tensions rose when the Venerable Athureliya Ratna Thera, the monk leading the parliamentary group of JHU, went to the area and urged the SLA to take offensive action to get water flowing again. To resolve the water crisis the head of the SLMM travelled to Kallady and met with Tamil villagers and the LTTE but when the SLAF dropped bombs nearby the meeting hastily broke up.

Six days of artillery bombardments and bombing preceded the SLA offensive. In one aerial attack a number of LTTE officials and cadres were killed when bombs were dropped on a Conference centre close to Batticaloa. At the time of writing the SLA had still not reached the sluice gate despite days of heavy fighting. The LTTE has allowed water to flow again but army efforts to reach the gate continue. A Government spokesman said:

If water goes down the canal, it is because of the Sri Lankan security forces and not because of the Tigers.
Fighting has been intense in and around of the town of Muttur. Here sixteen Tamils and one Muslim employed by a French NGO, Action Contre La Faim, were shot at close range, four of the victims were women. Relatives are blaming the security forces and the Government has ordered an investigation. An Australian pathologist has been given observer status, but it remains to be seen if the culpable will be apprehended. There is considerable international interest in the case. Bill Clinton, who visited the country post-tsunami, has commented on the case and the French Government and NGO community are following developments closely.

Fighting has spread to the Jaffna peninsula, viewed as the cultural and political heartland of the Tamil people. In 1981 almost a million people lived there and the local economy was relatively prosperous. The war has reduced the population to less than half what it was two decades ago and the economy has been devastated. In 1990 the LTTE compelled the Muslim population to leave Jaffna within 48 hours and 100,000 did so - leaving the area overwhelmingly Tamil. From 1990 the LTTE controlled Jaffna until 1995 when Government forces re-took it. Today the 40,000 government troops defending the Jaffna peninsula are separated from the rest of the island by Tiger controlled territory. The transport of men and material into the area has been disrupted as Trincomolee port has been heavily shelled and the Palaly airbase in the north of the Jaffna peninsula has also been bombarded threatening the vital air supply route. Intense fighting has taken place on islands to the south of Jaffna town. It is unclear what the objectives of the LTTE truly are, whether they are simply exerting more pressure or intend to attempt to re-take Jaffna.

Violence has also taken place in Colombo. The Tamil deputy head of the Government's Peace Secretariat, Ketheesh Loganathan, was shot dead at his home in the capital. An intellectual and former contributor to a think tank, the Centre For Policy Alternatives, his view of how the best interest of the Tamil population could be safeguarded contrasted starkly with those of the LTTE.

Two bombs in the capital have targeted a Tamil politician aligned with the Government who was seriously injured. A three-year old child who happened to be passing with her mother was killed. Another bomb caught the entourage of the Pakistan High Commissioner, killing military personnel and civilians. One view is that the attack was a blunder and that the High Commissioner was not the intended target. Alternatively it has been suggested that the Tigers were punishing Pakistan for supplying the Government with weaponry, though such an act against a neighbouring state would be reckless in the extreme.

On 14th August the LTTE alleged that the SLAF had bombed an orphanage in Mullaitivu district, killing sixty-one girls of high school age and injuring many more. The Tigers claimed that the victims were attending a residential first aid course. The Government vehemently denied attacking non-combatants saying that while the victims may have been young, they were child soldiers conscripted by the LTTE and what had been bombed was in fact a training and transit camp. A UNICEF team visited the camp and saw no sign of military activity. The team visited a local hospital where a hundred sixteen to nineteen year-olds, mostly girls, were receiving treatment for wounds. The SLMM inspected the site and reported seeing the bodies of nineteen young people and finding:

no evidence of a military installation or weapons.
Government spokesman, Keheliya Rambukwella, dismissed UNICEF and SLMM findings, stating:
They have not sent people with any war experience to study the place.
Fearing reprisals government schools across the island were ordered to close for two weeks.

The UNHCR has estimated that the number of people displaced by the recent fighting to be 135,000, most existing in makeshift shelters with limited sanitation. Since April nearly 7,000 have fled to India. Prior to the recent upsurge in fighting the UNHCR had calculated that there are 315,000 long-term internally displaced in Sri Lanka, 67,000 of whom live in camps. There are thought to be around 125,000 Sri Lankan refugees living overseas, over half of them in India.

While it scarcely came as a surprise, the collapse of the cease-fire is nonetheless, hugely disappointing. A historic opportunity to break from a past of limited economic development and ethnic strife has been squandered. The protagonists remain so far apart that no negotiated outcome is currently in prospect. Conceivably only a decisive change in the military balance or a meltdown of the already fragile economy could prompt the resumption of dialogue.

Failure has resulted not from a lack of will or engagement on the part of international donors and mediators. International efforts to help secure the peace and assist post-tsunami reconstruction have been strenuous and sustained. The world might now step back and leave the island to work through its discontents. This may be what its hapless political elites may warrant, but it is certainly not what its long suffering people need.

A senior American soldier recently said of Iraq that the warring factions would only turn away from conflict:

when they start to love their children more than they hate their enemies.
Children could certainly use a break in Sri Lanka, as could so many more of its people. These are dark days indeed in this corner of the Tropics.

To read Clifford Bastin's previous reports from Sri Lanka, see Sri Lanka after the Tsunami.

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