(Formerly called IRIN) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • UN flags warning signs in Sri Lanka as it debates civil war impunity

    Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war came to a violent end a decade ago, but the conflict’s unresolved aftermath continues to reverberate through political upheaval and unchecked attacks on minority groups, warns a UN report to be discussed in Geneva today.

     

    Sri Lanka has made “virtually no progress” on probing allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity, according to the report, which is to be tabled at the Human Rights Council in the latest examination of the government’s stalled reconciliation promises.

     

    The 1983-2009 conflict largely pitted the military and political leadership, dominated by the Sinhalese Buddhist majority, against insurgent fighters from the mostly Hindu Tamil minority. But rights monitors and analysts say years of impunity for civil war-era abuses are also widening cracks elsewhere in Sri Lankan society.

     

    “The risk of new violations increases when impunity for serious crimes continues unchecked,” the UN report warns.

     

    Last March, mobs of Buddhist demonstrators attacked mosques and Muslim-owned houses and businesses in the central city of Kandy, fuelled by hate speech and rumours that had spread over Facebook and other social media. The government declared a state of emergency and temporarily shut down social media networks. The violence left two dead and hundreds of homes damaged, but no one has been convicted for their roles in the riots, despite dozens of initial arrests.

    “The lack of accountability for past actions likely contributed to the return of violence against minorities.”

    Alan Keenan, a Sri Lanka analyst with the International Crisis Group, calls Buddhist-Muslim tensions “a second fault line” that threatens to explode. Today’s report before the Human Rights Council calls last year’s violence a “very dangerous pattern” moulded by the failure to prosecute past abuses.

     

    “The lack of accountability for past actions likely contributed to the return of violence against minorities,” the report warns.

     

    Stalled promises

     

    The civil war ended in 2009 when the military crushed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, known as the Tamil Tigers. Previous UN investigations found evidence of “gross violations” of international rights laws on all sides of the conflict, including thousands of civilian deaths in the military onslaught that ended the rebellion.

     

    In 2015, Sri Lanka’s current government pledged to accelerate reconciliation efforts and probe war-time abuses, but rights groups say promised reforms have been slow or non-existent. For example, a government body tasked with investigating the disappearances of tens of thousands of missing people didn’t begin its work until last year, while plans for a national truth commission or to provide reparations for war-time abuses have also stalled.

     

    Rights groups draw a direct line between post-war impunity to continuing abuses and political crises that hamper the country today. For weeks last year, Sri Lanka was mired in political deadlock after President Maithripala Sirisena appointed former leader Mahinda Rajapaksa, who oversaw the violent military offensive that ended the war in 2009, to the position of prime minister.

     

    After weeks of protest, the impasse was only quelled after the country’s Supreme Court reversed Sirisena’s decision to dissolve parliament, Rajapaksa resigned, and the current prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, returned to office.

     

    Finding the missing

     

    Sri Lanka’s missing persons may be the most visceral example of the country’s lingering post-war trauma. It’s also one of the only instances of progress when it comes to the government’s reconciliation efforts.

     

    Rights groups say tens of thousands of Sri Lankans are missing since the 1980s. The government created the Office on Missing Persons in 2016, but it didn’t appoint commissioners or finance its budget until last year. The office’s role includes tracing missing relatives, investigating disappearances, and making recommendations on reforms and reparations to the government.

     

    But the office itself says it faces “distrust and scepticism” among the families it’s trying to help, fuelled by the “failure of successive state institutions to provide families with truth, justice and reparations”.

     

    Finding answers for families with missing relatives, the office said in its first report last year, “is taking place in a polarised context where even the need to address the issue of the missing and the disappeared is questioned by segments of society.”

     

    Transitional justice

     

    Four years after Sri Lanka’s promised reforms, the UN says the fledgling Office on Missing Persons is effectively the “only functioning transitional justice mechanism” in the country.

     

    The government has passed legislation to set up an office for reparations, but rights groups say it will be hampered by excessive government oversight and funding restrictions, leaving the body prone to political interference. A promised truth-finding commission has also seen years of delays.

     

    There has been even less progress on one of the most important – and contentious – measures: holding people accused of war crimes to account. Successive Sri Lankan governments have resisted pressure for an international or hybrid court to investigate alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity.

     

    But there has also been little appetite to investigate such crimes in the country’s domestic courts. Instead, the UN report cites “worrying instances of political interference in the judicial or investigative process”, which raises questions about the justice system’s ability or willingness to investigate complex cases.

     

    Alleged crimes committed by Tamil Tiger fighters have also gone unaddressed. The rebel group is accused of civilian massacres, using suicide bombers, and recruiting child soldiers, but, like the broader reconciliation promises, Amnesty International says the government has also made “no progress” to address these abuses.

     

    “We have nothing to atone for”

     

    When President Sirisena was elected in 2015, he was seen as a reformist who promised to accelerate reconciliation between his country’s divided communities.

    "The voices that try to talk about the possibility of a united Sri Lanka... are weak minority voices in all communities.”

    But analysts say most reconciliation issues are intensely political, with nationalist Sinhalese forces, chief among them the would-be prime minister Rajapaksa, linking reparations and prosecutions to Sinhalese nationalist identity.

     

    “The sense among many Sinhalese among the military and among a lot of the political leadership is: ‘We beat the terrorists. Perhaps a few people suffered in the process, but we have nothing to atone for,’” said the Crisis Group’s Keenan.

     

    Even seemingly simple measures like vacating military-occupied land in former conflict areas, or releasing political prisoners, has been “grudging and slow”.

     

    Keenan says what’s missing is a government committed to changing long-held nationalist beliefs in both Sinhalese and Tamil communities.

     

    “The voices that try to talk about the possibility of a united Sri Lanka where all communities are equal and respected, where minority rights are enshrined in the constitution – those are weak minority voices in all communities,” he said.

    (TOP PHOTO: Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, right, speaks with former president and current opposition leader Mahinda Rajapaksa after the presentation of the 2019 budget to the parliament by Sri Lankan Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera, in Colombo on 5 March 2019. CREDIT: Ishara S. Kodikara/AFP)

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    UN flags warning signs in Sri Lanka as it debates civil war impunity
  • In Sri Lanka, old land issues and a new prime minister highlight post-war traumas

    Sri Lanka’s civil war ended nearly a decade ago, but Maithili Thamil Chilwen’s barren plot of land still resembles a battlefield.

     

    There is only a mound of dirt where her home once stood in Keppapilavu village in the country’s northeast; the rest is just dirt, gravel, and broken shards of doors and windows from her demolished home.

     

    Sri Lanka’s military occupied thousands of hectares of land during and after the country’s bitter 26-year civil war, which came to a brutal end in 2009 when the military crushed remaining Tamil fighters here in the north. Almost a decade later, rights groups say reconciliation between the country’s majority Sinhalese community and its Tamil minority is at a standstill, and occupied land is one glaring example.

     

    Thamil Chilwen, an ethnic Tamil, said the military seized her property at the end of the war. It took almost nine years, until earlier this year, for the military to give it back. But by then, her home and fields were destroyed.

     

    “We were happy when the military told us we could go back to our land. But when I saw the state of the land, I had to cry,” she said.

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    Portrait of a woman in Sri Lanka
    Aaquib Khan/IRIN
    Maithili Thamil Chilwen says she can’t grow any food on her damaged land in northeast Sri Lanka’s Mullaitivu District. The army occupied her land for nine years, and she found her home and fields destroyed when she was allowed to return this year.

    The military has been slow to return land to civilians, or to even acknowledge just how much territory it still occupies. It’s symptomatic of wider post-conflict fissures across the country: rights groups say Sri Lanka’s government hasn’t taken significant steps to address rampant war-era abuses – including enforced disappearances and thousands of civilian deaths in the conflict’s final months.

     

    Hopes for national reconciliation took another blow last week when the country’s president, Maithripala Sirisena, abruptly appointed the controversial former leader who oversaw the 2009 military offensive, Mahinda Rajapaksa, as prime minister. The surprise move has locked Sri Lanka in a political crisis: the ousted prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, has vowed to stay in office; government ministers who support him have denounced his dismissal as “an anti-democratic coup”.

     

    Human Rights Watch said any return to office for Rajapaksa raises “chilling concerns” for rights in the country. Rajapaksa is accused of widespread rights abuses, particularly in his role overseeing the military offensive that crushed the Tamil insurgency.

     

    “The current government’s failure to bring justice to victims of war crimes under the Rajapaksa government reopens the door for past abusers to return to their terrible practices,” said the group’s Asia director, Brad Adams.

     

    For most Tamils, a return to their ancestral land is one key part of finding justice, says Ruki Fernando, a Colombo-based rights activist who has documented war-time disappearances.

    More than 40,000 people remain displaced since the end of the war, mostly concentrated in the Tamil heartlands of northern and northeastern Sri Lanka.

     

    “It’s about culture and religious life. It’s where they buried their ancestors,” Fernando said. “It’s their identity.”

     

    Alan Keenan, a Sri Lanka analyst with the International Crisis Group, says land is among a range of issues that have largely gone unresolved over the last decade.

     

    “Most Tamils don’t feel that they have gotten as much they were promised in terms of dealing with the legacy of war, having their land returned, discovering the fate of their tens of thousands of missing relatives, having crimes committed by the military addressed judicially,” Keenan said. “For a whole range of things, they think they didn’t get what they were promised.”

     

    Reparations

     

    Estimates for the amount of land occupied by the military vary wildly. The military last year said it had returned roughly 20,000 hectares of private and state land in the north. In a report released this month, Human Rights Watch said the government claimed the military was occupying about 48,000 hectares of private and state land in the north and east.

     

    Rights groups say the military has converted some of the occupied land into for-profit businesses. They have set up plantation farms, restaurants, and even resorts catering to tourists, in addition to large military bases.

     

    An army spokesman did not respond to IRIN’s requests for comment. But in an interview with the Indian newspaper The Hindu this year, Mahesh Senanayake, the Sri Lankan army chief, said 80 percent of occupied land has been returned. He claimed the military had been the only organisation capable of running key services in the north after decades of war.

     

    “The government machinery was not functioning for decades,” he said. “There was a big gap and our services are needed to address it.”

     

    Early this month, President Sirisena ordered the release of all civilian land by the end of the year. However, rights groups say such promises have gone unfulfilled for years.

     

    Sirisena was elected in 2015 on the back of a reformist agenda to boost reconciliation between the divided Sinhalese and Tamil communities. When he came to office, Sirisena broke from his predecessor and promised to set up a national truth commission, an office to investigate missing persons, and provide reparations for war-era abuses.

     

    The government has held public consultations to solicit feedback on reconciliation, and legislated the creation of an office for reparations. But rights groups say progress has been achingly slow, even before last week’s political crisis. The UN’s special rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism last year said government actions on transitional justice have “ground to a virtual halt”.

     

    Analysts say Sirisena has been reluctant to push a reform agenda too forcefully in the face of resurgent Sinhalese nationalism. Rajapaksa, the former president, is popular among Sinhalese nationalists; the political party he leads nearly swept local elections held in February, seen as a bellwether for the current political mood in the country.

     

    “The government is afraid the Sinhala constituency will be unhappy that they are giving back the land, that they are shrinking the footprint of the military,” Keenan said.

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    Portrait of a white haired man
    Aaquib Khan/IRIN
    For the last year, Arumuham Weluthapillayi, a Hindu priest, has led a protest against the army’s occupation of land in Keppapilavu village in northeast Sri Lanka.

    In a country that has held an uneasy peace since the civil war’s remarkably violent end in 2009, there are signs of discontent. A Tamil nationalist party, the Tamil National People's Front, also made significant gains during the February elections here in Sri Lanka’s north, where it took control of the two largest councils in populous Jaffna district.

     

    In Keppapilavu village, an army tank sits outside an imposing military base surrounded by tall cement walls. A few metres away, a group of men and women have held a protest for the last year, under tents made of tin and tarpaulin.

     

    Arumuham Weluthapillayi, a Hindu priest, started the protest last year with other displaced families. He says half of his land is still occupied by the army – in addition to homes, places of worship, schools, a cemetery, and numerous shops around the village.

     

    This area was once a stronghold of the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, commonly known as the Tamil Tigers. But nine years after the insurgency was routed, Weluthapillayi says he can’t understand why the army hasn’t left.

     

    “The war is over,” he said. “There are no security issues. Why are they still here?”

    (TOP PHOTO: Sri Lankan newspapers in Colombo on 27 October 2018, showing front page headlines of Sri Lanka's former president Mahinda Rajapaksa being sworn in as the new prime minister. CREDIT: Lakruwan Wanniarachchi/AFP)

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    “Most Tamils don’t feel they have gotten as much as they were promised”
    In Sri Lanka, old land issues and a new prime minister highlight post-war traumas
  • Sri Lanka disaster authorities failed to issue early warnings for storm that killed 202 people

    As floodwaters recede in Sri Lanka after monsoon rains killed at least 202 people and forced more than 80,000 from their homes, questions are being asked over the government’s failure to put in place preparedness measures that could have saved lives.

    The death toll could still rise after the storm lashed the country at the weekend, causing the worst flooding in 15 years. The United Nations says 96 people remain unaccounted for, and more rains are forecast for this week that could trigger additional landslides.

    “We seem to reinvent the wheel with every disaster,” said Mahieash Johnney, a spokesman for the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society.

    As the monsoon storm approached the west coast of this teardrop-shaped island nation off the southern tip of India, the Red Cross put 10 of its district branches on high alert, ensuring that staff and volunteers would be prepared to assist once the wind and rains hit.

    Government agencies, however, took no preemptive measures.

    The deployment of disaster response teams, mainly from the armed forces, came only after the floods and landslides were reported, said Pradeep Kodippilli, director for early warning at the Disaster Management Center.

    The DMC is the main government agency that oversees and coordinates early warnings and disaster preparedness. Yet, the agency did not broadcast any warnings before the storm arrived to communities in areas that were vulnerable to floods and landslides.

    Kodippilli said the DMC relies on information from by the Irrigation Department on floods and the National Building Research Organisation on landslides, but his agency received no information from either body.

    Nor did reports from the Meteorological Department predict the intensity of the approaching deluge, according to DMC director general G L S Senadeera.

    He told IRIN that, on 25 May, the DMC received forecasts for the normal amount of monsoon rain, about 150 milimetres for the following 24 hours. Instead, 550 milimeters of rain fell in some areas between 9 pm on 25 May and 5 am on 26 May.

    “The low pressure system just changed so suddenly, there was no time for anyone to communicate, issue warnings or effect evacuations,” he said. “It was so sudden and quick.”

    As the disaster unfolded, the DMC began sending out mass text messages to warn of floods in different areas. The Irrigation Department and the National Building Research Organisation also issued alerts. But no alerts were issued, and no evacuations were carried out before the storm arrived.

    Lacking technology

    Lalith Chandrapala, director general of the Meteorological Department, said the department doesn’t have Doppler radar capability, which allows for the accurate forecasting of the direction and velocity of storms.

    For the radar to be effective, stations would have to be located around the country. Senadeera said that Sri Lanka had only one such station, but it had broken down. The government plans to set up two stations with Japanese funding within the next two years, he said.

    M. Thuraisingham, director general of the Irrigation Department, said the department does not have the technology to predict flooding in most areas. Sensors that warn of rising waters have been installed on a few rivers, including two that burst their banks this week.

    “We have flood sensors on the rivers and that is what we use,” he told IRIN, adding that the department had been able to warn some communities downstream.

    That didn’t help communities upstream like Udugama, a town on the Gin Gaga River, 35 kilometres inland from the west coast.

    “There was no warning, it was raining during the night of the 25 and 26th and suddenly the floods came,” said Lalith Perera, at a Buddhist temple where his family had fled, because it sits on high ground. “We had to run with whatever we could grab.”

    At a 30 May disaster assessment meeting attended by IRIN in the southern town of Matara, Minister of Law and Order Sagala Rathnayake admitted that the government had failed to warn people before the disaster unfolded.

    “It is the duty of the Departments of Meteorology and Irrigation to record and maintain rainfall figures, but there has been some sort of breakdown in the reports getting through to us,” he said.

    Bangladesh and Myanmar

    After lashing western Sri Lanka, the storm continued on into the Bay of Bengal, picking up strength as it went. It was dubbed Cyclone Mora by the time it hit the Bangladesh coast, with winds of 120 kilometres per hour and gusts up to 148 kilometres per hour. The government there has reported two deaths.

    Bangladesh was far more proactive than Sri Lanka in preparing for the storm. Authorities advised people in the districts of Cox’s Bazar and Chittagong to move to 538 cyclone shelters, and they put cash and food stocks aside, the UN reported.

    The day before the storm made landfall, the government evacuated almost 300,000 people, said the office of UN Resident Coordinator Robert Watkins. It is unclear if Rohingya were evacuated from camps where they have been living since fleeing repression and violence in neighbouring Myanmar.

    “Initial reports suggest damage to shelter in camps sheltering Rohingya refugees, is severe in makeshift settlements,” said the resident coordinator’s office.

    UNICEF said that about 10,000 huts in two Rohingya camps had been completely flattened. Along with 32,000 registered refugees, about 400,000 unregistered Rohingya live in Cox’s Bazar District. They include about 74,000 who arrived since the Myanmar military launched counterinsurgency operations that have been accompanied by accusations of severe rights abuses in Maungdaw, a district on the frontier with Bangladesh.

    Across the border, Rohingya who have living in camps since fleeing their homes during violence in 2012, were also disproportionally affected.

    The UN aid coordination body, OCHA, said relief workers were still assessing the storm’s impact, but initial reports suggested “a significant number of longhouses and other camp infrastructure, including latrines and temporary learning spaces, have been destroyed or severely damaged.”

    Just days before Cyclone Mora struck, OCHA highlighted the vulnerability of the camps, which were built to provide temporary accommodation, but “are now in a bad state of repair”.

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    (TOP PHOTO: Residents of Udugama wade through flood waters on 27 May, a day after 550mm of rain forced a nearby river to burst its banks.)

    Sri Lanka disaster authorities failed to issue early warnings for storm that killed 202 people
  • UPDATED: Drought may leave 80,000 Sri Lankans in need of “life-saving” food aid

    Close to one million people in drought-hit Sri Lanka may be in “urgent need of food assistance” with tens of thousands needing “life-saving support”, according to a draft assessment by the government and the UN that has yet to be made public.

    Sri Lanka has been dealing with its worst drought in decades over the past year, and people are reaching the breaking point. In a situation report on Monday, the Disaster Management Center referred to 1.2 million people “affected” by the drought. In the draft emergency assessment, the language is much stronger.

    “Over 900,000 people are in urgent need of food assistance,” says the draft assessment obtained by IRIN and dated 7 March. Of those, about 80,000 people may need “urgent life-saving support”.

    The drought is affecting 23 of the island nation’s 25 districts, across all nine provinces.

    Already, many families are being forced to “eat less preferred food, limit portion sizes, reduce number of meals per day,” according to the draft report, which was produced by the government’s disaster management and relief authorities in cooperation with UN agencies, including the World Food Programme and the Food and Agriculture Organization.

    “Irreversible coping strategies such as taking children out of school and selling of livelihood assets could be further increased as a result of the exhausted nature of food consumption based coping strategies,” the report warns.

    *Sadhana Mohan, a WFP spokeswoman, cautioned that the findings presented in the draft emergency assessment are preliminary and the data has yet to be finalised, although the survey does indicate the seriousness of the situation.

    "We know that the drought situation is of serious concern for a significant segment of the population, which has been affected by the worst main harvest in 40 years," Mohan told IRIN.

    The assessment says every third household out of the affected population is struggling to access drinking water. The government announced it began delivering drinking water to 180,000 families on 2 March.

    Intermittent rains are expected to arrive late this month or early April, followed by the monsoon. Yet, they will not alleviate the problems faced by farmers who have lost their rice harvest to the drought.

    “The biggest issue we have right now is the shortfall in the rice harvest,” Disaster Management Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa told IRIN. “We are calculating the losses and importing stocks.”

    He said the government is planning an assistance package for affected farmers but didn’t provide any further details.

    The assessment says the government has also committed eight billion rupees (about $52 million) for a “cash for work” programme.

    According to the assessment, only 10 percent of farmers affected by the drought have produced seeds to sow for the next rice harvest, compared to more than 80 percent who are usually able to do so.

    Debt has spiked among the affected population too, with more than 60 percent saying they owe more than $1,200.  

    “Government of Sri Lanka should consider to negotiate with the financial institution for the possibility of interest free extensions to settle the loans,” says the draft assessment.

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    (TOP PHOTO: Just before the monsoon rains a young tractor owner ploughs a rice paddy field as the sun sets in Kilinochchi in 2012. CREDIT: Anomaa Rajakaruna/IRIN)

    *(This story has been updated to include comment from the World Food Programme)

    UPDATED: Drought may leave 80,000 Sri Lankans in need of “life-saving” food aid
    A draft emergency assessment obtained by IRIN outlines failed crops, debt and hunger
  • How ready are Indian Ocean nations for the next big tsunami?

    On Boxing Day 2004, a 9.2-magnitude earthquake struck off the west coast of Sumatra, triggering a tsunami with a series of waves up to 30 metres (100 feet) high that killed an estimated 230,000 people in 13 countries. Today, almost 12 years later, tens of thousands of people from Indian Ocean coastal communities will evacuate their homes in an exercise to establish how prepared the region is for the next "big one".
     
    The two-day drill involves 24 countries, including many of those that suffered the worst devastation in 2004, and will see at least 10 of those carry out a practice evacuation totalling about 50,000 people.
     
    The exercise and subsequent evaluation are an attempt to find out how well the regional tsunami warning system, which began operating in 2011, is working.
      
    “In terms of scale, at least in Indonesia, this is unprecedented,” said Puji Pujiono, a disaster risk reduction advisor with the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.
     
    He told IRIN that 3,000 people from various Indonesian agencies are involved, and the drill is being carried out in four districts vulnerable to tsunamis.
     
    “The exercise is meant to test the standard operating procedures and communication links at all levels of the warning chain,” said Andi Eka Sakya, director general of the Indonesian Agency for Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics, known by its Bahasa acronym BMKG.
     
    He told IRIN the simulation would gauge whether “agencies, community organisations and citizens groups are able to work together to prepare for the evacuation after a tsunami warning is issued by national and local authorities.”
     
    What will happen?
     
    Today’s exercise involves a quake similar to the one in 2004, off the coast of Sumatra. Tomorrow’s will simulate a 9-magnitude earthquake in the Makran Trench in the ocean south of Iran and Pakistan, according to UNESCO, which is responsible for coordinating the tsunami warning system’s governance.
     
    About 7,000 people will be evacuated from 14 Sri Lankan villages, while about 8,000 students will participate in simulated evacuations in Oman. In India, about 35,000 people will take part in evacuations from 350 villages over the next two days.
     
    “Simulating tsunami waves travelling across the Indian Ocean, both exercises will be conducted in real time lasting about 12 hours,” said UNESCO. 
     
    Earlier this year, authorities had the opportunity to see the system at work after a magnitude 7.8 quake off Sumatra on 2 March set off warnings in several countries.
     
    In Indonesia, the BMKG sent its first bulletin within five minutes, warning local and regional authorities of the temblor. Ten minutes later it followed up with a tsunami warning bulletin, which was cancelled half an hour later, according to Sakya, the agency’s director general.
     
    That’s the way the warning system is supposed to work at an agency level. On the ground, the response was mixed, Sakya said in a May interview. In some communities the evacuation was orderly, while there was confusion and panic in others.
     
    “Some sirens had been turned on by the local officers, but then, after misinterpreting the tsunami information, they turned them off,” he said.
     
    Reactions in other countries from the March quake should become clearer once a survey by UNESCO’s Indian Ocean Tsunami Information Centre is completed. However, the survey is hampered by a poor response rate from the 24 countries that were asked to take part; only 14 had responded as of the end of July.
     
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    (PHOTO: A tsunami evacuation sign in Sri Lanka. CREDIT: Amantha Perera/IRIN)
    How ready are Indian Ocean nations for the next big tsunami?
  • After devastating floods and landslides, Sri Lanka plans new building code

    Sri Lanka will enact a new, nationwide building code to mitigate the risks of future floods after heavy rain inundated the capital city, Colombo, and triggered landslides in the mountainous central region, killing about 200 people.

    Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake blamed the worst of the flooding in the capital on illegal landfills and construction, which filled in marshlands and other drainage areas. Without those areas, the city was unable to absorb the heaviest rains in a quarter of a century, which struck last week and caused about $2 billion worth of damage. 

    In addition to protecting drainage areas, the government will ban new construction in areas susceptible to landslides.

    “There will be a new building code effective from June 1 (under which) environmental approval has to be obtained that the construction is not on a dangerous area,” Karunanayake told reporters in Colombo on Wednesday. 

    While Colombo was hardest hit in financial terms, most of those who died were from three villages about 120 kilometres northeast of the capital, in the district of Kegalle. Officials say 66 of the 101 bodies recovered were pulled from a river of mud after a hillside collapsed there, engulfing the villages. 

    "The sound was like a monster coming down the hill. It was evil. It was like he was eating everything in his path,” said Nimal Chandrasiri, who survived the tragedy. 

    At least 100 more people are still missing, but there is little hope now that any are still alive. 

    Jagath Mahedra, head of the Disaster Management Centre office overseeing Kegalle, said warnings had been issued about possible landslides. “The problem is that some of these hillsides are heavily populated and it is almost impossible to move them to safer areas,” he said. 

    Initiatives to make Colombo safer from flooding, and other areas safer from landslides, are also likely to have limited effect for those already in harm’s way, admitted Karunanayake, the finance minster.  

    While the new building code should prevent construction on the city’s remaining drainage areas, the government can do little about the tens of thousands of families living on those that have already been filled in. Likewise, the code will not affect existing buildings in landslide-prone areas: it will only prevent future construction in risky areas. 

    “Yes, we are talking about them (those already living in flood-prone areas),” he said. “But what are we going to do, are we going to break (their homes) down?”  

    Karunanayake said the government is drawing up plans to potentially rebuild between 23,000 and 30,000 houses that were destroyed or damaged throughout the country. He estimated the total damages from the flooding to be between $1.5 billion and $2 billion. 

    Some of that will be recouped through disaster insurance, which the government purchased last year. But the payment will only come to a maximum of 10 billion rupees, or about $68 million, Karunanayke said. 

    Those who lost family members will be eligible for a payment of 100,000 rupees (about $700), while those with damaged or destroyed properties could claim as much as 2.5 million rupees (about $17,000).

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    After devastating floods and landslides, Sri Lanka plans new building code
  • Sent back by Australia to debt in Sri Lanka

    Vaithilingam Lingarajan spent the war years plying the seas off the northern coast of Sri Lanka in his small fishing boat. It was only once the conflict ended that he decided to flee the country, making a failed bid for Australia that has left him destitute and facing possible criminal charges.

    Lingarajan is one of more than 1,400 asylum seekers who have returned since 2009 because Australia rejected their applications, according to the Sri Lanka’s Criminal Investigation Department. Another 4,310 Sri Lankans who did not apply for refugee status were sent back when the Australian or Sri Lankan navy intercepted their boats before reaching Australian waters.

    Many returnees face crippling debt after spending large sums to pay for the journey, and they can be fined 100,000 rupees ($700) for attempting to emigrate illegally. Some left Sri Lanka for economic reasons, while others, like Lingarajan, planned to claim asylum in the dangerous aftermath of the civil war.

    Ethnic tensions exploded in Sri Lanka in the early 1980s when the Tamil Tigers began fighting for an independent homeland for the Tamil minority, which had suffered discrimination under the Sinhalese majority. The conflict finally ended in May 2009 after the Tigers were routed from their last stronghold in Mullaittivu, where Lingarajan lives.

    He had managed to escape being pulled into a conflict that even spilled into ocean, where the Sea Tigers, the rebels’ marine division, staged audacious attacks on government naval vessels. But after the war, security agents began searching Tamil communities for anyone with connections to the defeated rebel group. Some people were simply questioned, while others disappeared.

    SEE: Sri Lanka’s torture machine continues in peacetime

    One visit from security officers in 2013 was enough to persuade Lingarajan to make a life-changing decision to take a boat to Australia. As a fisherman, he said he wasn’t afraid of the perilous ocean journey. The worst part came later, after the Australian coastguard intercepted the boat and sent the passengers to a processing centre on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea where he was locked up with hundreds of others.

    “It was terrible,” Lingarajan said. “There were people who could not think of anything other than being returned home. They were so scared, they had nightmares.”

    Lingarajan came back to Sri Lanka late last year and has begun fishing again, but this time as a labourer on someone else’s vessel. He sold his own boat to pay for the trip, as well as his nets and his wife’s jewellery. He gambled on being able to work in Australia and build a better life for his wife and four children. Instead, he owes the 500,000 rupees ($3,500) that he borrowed to make the trip.

    Australia’s campaign

    Australia is keen to convince others that they will meet a similar fate if they try to make the same journey. In December 2013, Australia launched Operation Sovereign Borders, intended to ensure that no one arriving in Australia by boat without a visa would be allowed to settle in the country.

    In Sri Lanka and other countries, newspaper advertisements and large billboards started appearing, containing messages in local languages such as: “You will not even get a chance to step on to Australia… Think twice before you waste your money. Don’t get fooled by people smugglers.”

    Australia also began providing assistance to Sri Lanka’s security forces, including the gift of two patrol boats in July 2014. Australia’s Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Scott Morrison commended what he described as ‘very close cooperation’ between Australian authorities and Sri Lanka’s police and navy towards preventing illegal boats carrying asylum seekers,” according to a Sri Lankan government statement at the time.

    Of the 53,000 “illegal maritime arrivals” between 2009 and 2013, more than 10,000 said they were Sri Lankan citizens, according to information provided to IRIN by Australia’s Department of Immigration and Border Protection via the Australian High Commission in Sri Lanka.

    “Since OSB began in 2013, every Sri Lankan boat that has attempted to come to Australia illegally has failed,” said the department, which requested that IRIN quote an unnamed “spokesperson”, but provided no rationale for anonymity. 

    In addition to trying to convince Sri Lankans to stay at home and sending them back if they reach Australia, the country has directed more than 100 million Australian dollars ($71 million) since 2009 for reconstruction in areas affected by the civil war, the department said.

    The relatively small amount of aid provides little comfort to Lingarajan, who is now trying to eke out a living in Mullaittivu, where the government waged a final assault on the Tamil Tigers back in 2009.

    “My main concern is paying off my debt. Every cent goes into that,” he said. “It is afterwards that I can think of anything else.” 

    ap/jf/ag

    Sent back by Australia to debt in Sri Lanka
    Sri Lankans who made failed bids for asylum after the civil war return home, saddled with debt and facing criminal charges
  • Sri Lanka war crimes in the spotlight as UN rights chief visits

    Sri Lanka's president is unlikely to cave in any time soon to pressure for international participation in a war crimes tribunal, as the United Nations rights chief urged today. But he could turn the situation to his advantage by offering up less controversial reforms to win back domestic political support and satisfy the international community.

    UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein spoke at the end of a four-day visit to Sri Lanka, where he travelled to check on the government’s progress on implementing recommendations in his report released last September. The report documented alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated by both the government and the rebel Tamil Tigers in the last two years of a decades-long war that ended in 2009.

    See: Will UN report bring justice for Sri Lanka’s war victims?

    It recommended a series of reforms intended to breathe life into Sri Lanka’s ailing justice sector, including the creation of a truth and reconciliation commission and an office dedicated to investigating the fate of thousands of people who disappeared during the war.

    More controversially, it also called for the creation of a hybrid court comprised of Sri Lankan and international officials – a suggestion that was dismissed by hardliners as well as reform-minded president Maithripala Sirisena.

    Zeid stuck firmly to that position in his statement today.

    “Sri Lanka has many excellent judges, lawyers, and law enforcement officials,” he said. “But over the years the system they depended on, and which depends on them, became highly politicised, unbalanced, unreliable.”

    Justice denied

    Many Sri Lankans agree. In fact, justice sector reform was one of Sirisena’s key campaign promises.

    Since he came to power in a surprise win a year ago, many in the country have lost confidence in Sirisena’s commitments to investigating abuses during the war and to promoting reconciliation between the mainly Buddhist majority ethnic Sinhalese and minority ethnic Tamils, who are mostly Hindu.

    See: Sri Lanka’s torture machine continues in peacetime

    Sirisena’s government is accused of making little progress on cases of corruption and abuse allegedly committed by members of the former government, which was led by the hawkish Rajapaksa brothers – Mahinda, the former president, and Gotabhaya, the former defence minister – who oversaw the brutal end of the war.

    “There is a sense that the sheen is off the government, the sense that people are beginning to lose some trust in this process,” said Alan Keenan, a Sri Lanka analyst with the International Crisis Group.

    Acting on some of the other recommendations in the report could be a way for Sirisena to burnish his fading reputation, Keenan told IRIN. He said the overarching goal of implementing such measures is to help “rebuild the integrity of the justice system”.

    That goal appeals to Sri Lankans from various ethnic and religious groups who in the 2015 elections abandoned the Rajapaksa brothers in droves. Those included minority Muslims who were targeted in a series of attacks in 2014 by mobs stirred up by Buddhist nationalist groups. At best, the government did little to protect Muslims, and some rights groups claim it provided tacit support to the nationalists.

    “All communities have suffered and they all have an interest in rebuilding the system,” said Keenan.

    Economic benefits

    In addition to shoring up domestic political support, enacting reforms contained in the UN report would bring economic benefits. The European Union is currently reviewing Sri Lanka’s progress on human rights with an eye to restoring access to the Generalised Scheme of Preferences, which allows imports from developing countries at preferential rates. Sri Lanka lost its privileges in 2010.

    Likewise, Sri Lanka is keen to have the United States return access to funding from the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which provides grants of as much as $500 million over five years to selected countries.

    Progress on implementing the less controversial recommendations could provide political and economic returns, as well as give Sirisena some breathing space by delaying the tougher decision about whether to allow internationals to participate in a tribunal. But Sirisena can’t dodge the question forever. Eventually, Sri Lanka will need to make a decision, and it’s bound to alienate one side or the other.

    Supporters of the military and the Rajapaksas are vehemently opposed. They demonstrated in the streets during Zeid’s visit to make it clear that they will not accept foreigners judging military men. But many victims of wartime atrocities will accept nothing less.

    “An internationalised, hybrid justice process is absolutely vital if it is to gain the confidence of the torture survivors we treat and for the Tamil community as a whole,” said Sonya Sceats, director of policy and advocacy at Freedom from Torture, a group that works with torture survivors.

    “They will have no confidence in the process if there is no international participation,” she told IRIN.

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    Sri Lanka war crimes in spotlight
  • Ex-Tamil Tigers go jobless in Sri Lanka

    Almost seven years after the end of Sri Lanka's decades-long civil war, the majority of former Tamil Tiger rebels are struggling to find jobs despite billions of dollars of extra investment in their regions.

    Sivalingam Ruvendradass, who spent three years in a government “rehabilitation” programme, which is compulsory for former Tamil Tigers and provides them with education and vocational training, now looks back at wartime with some fondness.

    “Then at least I was getting something from the Tigers,” he told IRIN.

    Despite his training in carpentry, steady work was impossible to find when Ruvendradass returned home to Vallipuram, a village near the Tigers’ former political and administrative centre of Kilinochchi.

    “There are new highways, new railroads, new electricity and phone lines, but no jobs,” said the father-of-three, who makes a living by rearing chickens and doing odd jobs.

    Billions invested

    This wasn’t how it was supposed to be.

    The previous government under Mahinda Rajapaksa poured $3.5 billion into Northern Province alone, most of it into large infrastructure projects like roads, railways and electricity, according to the Central Bank. The spending was meant to promote reconciliation through economic development in the war-torn region.

    "It would show our resolve for co-existence,” said former president Rajapaksa in a 2011 speech inaugurating the construction of a new railway line to the north. “What we are attempting now is to breathe new life into the heart of the nation, to start the journey that would unite the entire nation.”

    Analysts say the government programmes to develop the war zone have largely failed to stimulate the job market. That’s because most of the money has gone toward infrastructure projects, while neglecting employment generation initiatives such as tax breaks to encourage factories to move into the area, and moves to boost business development like low interest loans and training.

    “I have always maintained that the focus needs to be on promoting private enterprises within the region – supporting small and medium entrepreneurs there (to) grow through finance, technology and market access,” said Anushka Wijesinha, chief economist at the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce.

    Central Bank figures show that between 2010 and 2012, when the large construction projects were at a peak in the former war zone, only 5.8 percent (24,303) of the 422,111 jobs created nationally were in Northern Province.

    Muttukrishna Sarvananthan, who heads the Point Pedro Institute of Development, a research institute in the northern city of Jaffna, criticised the former government for employing mostly military personnel as labour in public projects. The strategy “deprived jobs for local people, especially youths,” he said.

    Jobless former fighters

    There are around 12,000 former combatants, mostly in the Northern Province, who have been released after undergoing rehabilitation programmes, according to the Commissioner General of Rehabilitation. Only around 3,000 have gained permanent employment, most in the civil defence force under the police department.

     

    Two of the worst hit districts during the conflict, Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi in the Northern Province, have been plagued by high unemployment since the fighting ended in 2009. Kilinochchi suffers from the highest national unemployment rate at 7.6 percent, compared to the national average of 4.3 percent, according to national the Department of Census and Statistics.

    Officially, the unemployment rate is 5.3 percent in Northern Province and 4.9 percent in Eastern Province, another former Tamil Tiger heartland that is struggling to recover from the war. True unemployment rates in both provinces are likely far higher.

    Even the department itself warns that the numbers are untrustworthy. “These figures are to be treated with caution as the corresponding CV (coefficient of variation) values are high,” it said in a labour force survey published last September.

    Economists also point out that the department uses a very low threshold to tabulate the employment rate. Anyone working at least one hour during the week in which the survey was conducted is considered to be employed.

    “Such a low threshold gives an artificially higher employment rate which is deceptive,” Sarvananthan said. “Moreover, unpaid family labour is considered employed, which also overestimates the employed population.”

    What next?

    Experts agree that promoting the development of small and medium-sized businesses is key to creating jobs in the former conflict zone. “The real game changer will be bringing in substantial new private investment into these regions,” said Wijesinha of the Chamber of Commerce.

    The new government of President Maithripala Sirisena, which took power a year ago, is promising programmes to stimulate employment, although it has yet to launch any.

    "We want make the North and East part of a larger national development programme,” government spokesman Rajitha Senarathana told IRIN. “We want to attract foreign investment while providing livelihoods training. There are also plans to provide loans and other assistance with donor funding."

    Ruvendradass hopes the government will launch programmes to specifically create jobs for those who fought in the war. Former Tamil Tigers like him find it extra hard to gain employment. “We carry a certain stigma,” he said.

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