As Australia commences the clean-up from its devastating floods, world attention is finally moving to other major floods zones across the world. One of the worst hit is in Sri Lanka where flood waters are finally starting to recede in the worst-hit areas in eastern and northern-central parts of the island. Water levels are falling but monsoon conditions will last until mid-February. Low lying areas in the Districts of Batticaloa, Ampara, Trincomalee, Kurunegala, Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa were flooded due to torrential monsoon rain from Saturday, 8 January with up to 300mm falling daily in some parts for five days of intense rain. More than a million people were temporarily displaced by the rains that killed at least 43 people.
(photo:Sri Lankan disaster management centre)
Yesterday the country’s disaster management centre reported over a million people were affected. As the flood waters recede people have started to return home and 51,423 displaced people remained in 137 camps. This is adding to an already difficult situation in the north where 20,000 internally displaced persons remain in Government-run camps since the end of the Tamil Tiger conflict in 2009.
UN Assistant Secretary for Humanitarian Affairs and Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator Catherine Bragg will arrive in Sri Lanka tomorrow on a three day mission to supervise relief operations and to launch an international appeal for funding on 20 January. Bragg said her mission would highlight Sri Lanka’s humanitarian needs and she would advocate on behalf of the most vulnerable. The UN said it supported the Sri Lankan Government as it provided emergency supplies such as safe drinking water, food, sanitation and emergency shelter.
The floods have likely destroyed at least half of the season’s harvest in the eastern province, will also have a severe impact on agricultural livelihoods in a region still suffering the effects of the 2004 tsunami and recovering from the decades-long conflict. Over 200,000 acres of paddy cultivation have been completely destroyed and Disaster Management Minister Mahinda Amaraweera said today food prices would rise after the floods destroyed rice and vegetable crops. “We have a buffer stock of rice that is good for three months,” said Amaraweera. “That means there will be no immediate impact on the price of rice, but vegetables are already going up in price.”
Meanwhile many roads were impassable for the five days of heavy rain. According to a UK Foreign Office travel advisory some access roads to the east of the country are impassable. Areas in the central province such as Kandy, Nuwara Eliya and Badulla have experienced earth slips due to the rain. Drinking water is now scarce in the region and there is a large danger of water-borne diseases.
Sri Lankan aid workers say there could be outbreaks of dengue fever and cholera and buried landmines left over from the county’s long civil war may have become dislodged by flood waters. UN humanitarian coordinator in Sri Lanka Neil Buhne told AlertNet basic aid was still required and health risks were high. “A lot of people affected were quite poor to start with and now they don’t have much, so there is a serious need to support them when they move back,” Buhne said. “We are particularly concerned about food as these communities are pretty vulnerable and their food stocks have been destroyed so their usual source of income won’t be a source of income for a while.”
In the eastern town of Kattankudy, hundreds of flood victims besieged a government office yesterday complaining about unfair distribution of emergency food aid. The angry crowd attacked three officials in protests. “Officers were called in and we managed to bring the situation under control,” said a local police spokesman. “A decision was then taken to distribute aid through cooperative stores rather than government offices.”
The capital Colombo has been unaffected but some media including the Christian Science Monitor are hopeful hoping the floods will be an opportunity to aid the reconciliation process with the Tamil north. In his initial tour of flood-hit areas President Mahinda Rajapaksa visited Singhalese farmers but ignored Tamil areas. However with army troops rescuing civilians, distributing food and building temporary shelters, Rajapaksa said the government was sparing no expense. “The relief operations are going ahead and I have told the officials to ensure that there are no delays in distributing aid.”
The release began ominously with the words “effective immediately”. These two words had a double meaning. Firstly it showed Labor were not going to give anyone time to prepare, and secondly it was showing it was going to hide behind an instruction delivered in management-speak. The instruction itself was a knock-out blow “the Australian Government has today introduced a suspension of the processing of new asylum applications from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan.”
What did the unfortunate people of Sri Lanka and Afghanistan do to deserve this sudden treatment? Apparently, according to the breathtaking insouciance of the Government, there are “evolving circumstances” in these countries that “will mean that it is likely that, in the future, more asylum claims from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan will be refused.” Evolving circumstances is a fancy way of saying things have changed though even these weasel-words of this sentence did not dare claim circumstances have evolved necessarily for the better.
That arduous task was left to the sentences that followed. Looking through Asian politics with glasses so rose-tinted it matches their shameful embarrassment, the Labor Government has somehow concluded that wartorn Afghanistan is now safe for Hazaris and post-war Sri Lanka is safe for Tamils. Afghans will be surprised to hear about the “Taliban’s fall” and “durable security” (admittedly only “in parts of the country”). Meanwhile lucky Tamils have “hopes for further improvement and stabilisation in conditions.” Based on this flimsiest of evidence, the Australian Government has suspended the processing of new asylum claims by Sri Lankans for three months and Afghans for six months.
This is a breathtaking assumption for these “developments” that the facts on the ground simply do not support. In 2009, the worsening humanitarian crises caused by the American occupation and “surge” in Afghanistan and the Sri Lankan army’s brutal crushing of the Tamil independence movement has led to more desperate boatloads of Hazaris and Tamil refugees arriving. They will now be detained for three or six months as political pawns in an Australian game.
The blame for this shameful announcement can be shared equally between three pollyannas – Immigration Minister Senator Chris Evans, Foreign Minister Stephen Smith and Home Affairs Minister Brendan O’Connor. Nevertheless the release has the fingerprints of their mutual boss all over it. Kevin Rudd is enough of a foreign policy wonk to know this message about “evolving developments” is complete rubbish. But this announcement has nothing to do with the political situation in Afghanistan or Sri Lanka – even a cursory glance at either country would not support this spurious nonsense spouted by his three stooges Evans, Smith and O’Connor.
No, the real reason is that opinion polls are showing 64 percent of Australians are afraid of the refugee boats and want them “stopped”. These numbers are dangerous but not yet near Tampa territory and the last thing Kevin Rudd wants in an election year is an issue Tony Abbott can wedge him on. So his solution is breathtakingly efficient and hypocritical – Park the issue for six months until the election is over.
According to Evans et al’s presser, the Australian Government believes “asylum seekers should only be granted the right to live in Australia if they are genuinely in need of protection.” This has nothing to do with evolving circumstances and everything to do with treating every case on its merits. But the hysterical media reaction to a few dozen boats arriving on our northern shores has dusted off the fears that always seem to lie just under the surface of Australia’s fragile settler mentality. According to the UNHCR’s 2009 report, Australia / New Zealand had 6,500 asylum claims last year out of a worldwide total of 377,200 – barely 1.6 percent of the world’s refugees.
But this data is conveniently glossed over in the vapid heat over the asylum “debate”. Nor is the truth of conditions on the ground in Sri Lanka and Afghanistan of any local interest. Instead the agenda is set by dangerous stupidity from politicians such as Barnaby Joyce and fuelled by talk show hosts and tabloid editorials who speak only in the xenophobic language that panders to the fears of their readers and listeners. As a result, what we share as a people matters less than what we might lose as individuals. This is a human tragedy and not just for the asylum seekers. Kevin Rudd is to blame, but we are all indicted.
The main opposition the United National Party has accused the ruling party of campaign abuses and said it did not expect a free and fair election. UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe said Rajapakse’s administration had used state-owned cars and offices for campaigning and turned the government-run media into a party mouthpiece. “There was a suppression of private media [and] Journalists were attacked and abducted by those connected to the government,” Wickremesinghe said. “Editors were arrested and intimidated.”
The Government has also extended the country’s emergency laws by another month just two days before the election. The extension is the second since parliament was dissolved in February. The emergency has been in place since August 2005 when Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar in was assassinated. Opposition parties have questioned the need to keep the laws active since the military defeat of the LTTE in May last year. The government claims it needs the law to flush out remaining Tigers cadres.
The government is also jittery about the threat posed by jailed former army chief General Sarath Fonseka. A court martial was set to resume its hearings on Tuesday against the 59-year-old Fonseka who lost out to Rajapakse in the January elections. However the BBC has reported it has been adjourned because of an outstanding case lodged with Sri Lanka’s Court of Appeal challenging the legality of the courts martial. Another court martial charging the general of breaking army procurement rules is also due to resume on Tuesday but may also be adjourned on the same grounds. Fonseka has been detained since 8 February but is still running in tomorrow’s election as a candidate from the opposition Democratic National Alliance saying that all charges against him are politically motivated.
Fonseka has his supporters. The country’s influential Buddhist monks have said the government would regret its action after police arrested a dozen of their number who demanded the release of Fonseka. The National Bhikku Front accused Rajapakse of committing an “unforgivable sin” when police beat and arrested 12 monks staging a fast outside Colombo’s main railway station in support of Fonseka. NBF head Dambara Amila said “the government will have to pay for this.” The monks said they planned a mass rally to keep up pressure on the government.
But Rajapakse has gained the unexpected support of a doctor who drew world attention to civilian deaths during the war last year and who now is contesting the election for a pro-government party. Veerakathipillai Shanmugarajah, 40, was arrested for falsely spreading rebel propaganda following the army’s final victory over the Tamil Tigers. Now he’s running for parliament for a Tamil party called Eelam Revolutionary Organisation of Students that is supporting Rajapakse. Shanmugarah now prefers to talk about the future rather than the war. “I believe President Rajapakse is ideally suited to lead and rebuild our country after the war,” he said. “I will work to support him.”
There are also signs Rajapakse wants to create a new political dynasty in Sri Lanka as he grooms his eldest son Namal for high office. Namal is contesting the election in the family’s home southern constituency of Hambantota. Namal, who turns 24 on Sunday, promotes himself as an ideological successor to his father, and is hoping his father’s personal popularity will rub off on him and ensure a resounding poll win for his ruling Freedom Alliance party. According to his website Namal said he wanted “to protect for future generations the freedom won” by his father. Rajapakse Senior addressing a rally for Namal on Monday and images of the pair have been prominent in local newspapers and television.
The 64-year-old Rajapakse now has a second six year term to bed in his agenda and groom his successor. He and his allies are hoping to get 150 seats in the parliament election which will give him a two-thirds majority and the ability to change the constitution, though he has not signaled his intentions to make any changes yet. In his favour there is a resurgent post-war economy, propelled by a stock market that has gained more than 150 percent in 12 months, as well as accelerated development and foreign investment in government securities. Sri Lankans are likely to reward Rajapakse with a big win though he may find the hard work has just started.
But the international Tamil community is no mood to quickly forgive the Singhalese leader after his brutal suppression of the 25-year uprising last year. The Australasian Federation of Tamil Associations said the Tamil Diaspora continues to mourn Independence Day as it marks the beginning of national oppression. It says when Britain granted independence to Sri Lanka in 1948, it failed to provide a federal arrangement for Tamils and Singhalese to share political power. They say this paved the way for the majority to systematically and consistently discriminate and brutally oppress the Tamils and led to the struggle that followed. “The Sri Lankan state’s genocidal attack on the Tamil people in 1983 lead to a 26 year long armed conflict that ended on 18 May 2009 with the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam,” they said.
Similarly the British Tamils Forum dismissed Rajapaksa’s claim to want to resolve ethnic tensions. Suren Surendiran, a senior member of the Forum told Al Jazeera Rajapaksa has been saying that forever. “Mr Rajapaksa has proven to be a very oppressive and discriminating president. The Tamils are not celebrating today as an independence day,” he said. “Rajapaksa was not voted in the north and east, where the Tamils are – it’s their land.”
And while Rajapaksa was probably appealing in vain to the Tamils in the centre of the country, back in the capital 5,000 supporters of his defeated opponent, former army chief General Sarath Fonseka, took to the streets to protest the results. Rajapaksa has sacked a dozen senior military officers in the aftermath of the election. He accused the officers of breaching military discipline and siding with Fonseka. He also said they were plotting to stage a coup and assassinate him. Some of the officers were arrested after troops surrounded a hotel in Colombo last week claiming there were army deserters inside. Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama said it was a pre-emptive action by Fonseka. “[They were] trying to occupy premises in the city,” he said. “These are not done in a democracy.”
At a news conference on Saturday Fonseka strongly denied the claims of a coup but said a number of army officers had given him inside information during his campaign. “The information given by these officers pertained to efforts by the campaign managers of Mr. Rajapaksa to defame and assassinate me,” he said. Most of the officers forced to resign were closely aligned to him. In the election on 26 January, Rajapaksa defeated him by a large margin 58 to 40 percent.
According to the BBC there were a number of factors that helped Rajapaksa win so easily. They cited his “fiery rhetoric and sure popular touch” as well as his emphasis on the primacy of his role in last year’s war victory. There is also little doubt that ordinary people’s sense that their streets are safer than they have been for the past 30 years played a major role. But the Tamil minority voted in the main for Fonseka and ethnic tensions remain as strong as ever despite the end of the war.
There are also fears of a crackdown on democracy now that Rajapaksa has the best part of another seven years to rule the country. Media and human rights groups accuse him of closing and blocking news outlets and harassing, assaulting and detaining journalists who it claims were biased towards Fonseka. Human Rights Watch say that since the election authorities have detained and questioned several journalists, blocked news websites, and expelled a foreign journalist. At least one journalist has been assaulted and several have been threatened. HRW Asia Director Brad Adams said he feared the crackdown was just the beginning of a campaign to get rid of critical voices before the parliamentary elections due on 22 April. “Sri Lanka’s friends should tell the government that any crackdown on civil society will harm future relations,” he said.
The drama of the day started at 7am local time in Indonesia when an earthquake of between 9.1 and 9.3 magnitude struck the sea between the west coast of Sumatra and the small island of Simeule. The event lasted an unprecedented ten minutes tearing a massive rupture 1,600 kms long. Depending on who’s talking it was either the second or third highest magnitude earthquake of the 20th century. Either way it was immense. The shift of mass and the massive release of energy very slightly altered the Earth’s rotation. It caused the sea bed to rise several metres displacing billions of tonnes of sea water in the process.
Because of the north-south 1,600km fissure caused by the quake, the greatest waves went east and west. It took about a half hour for the wall of water to reach nearest landfall on the Sumatran Coast. Northern Aceh was worst hit with waves rising 20 metres high and travelling almost a kilometer inland. Some coastal villages were devastated losing up to 70 percent of their inhabitants. In all 167,000 were killed in Indonesia and another 37,000 listed as missing. An estimated 655,000 people were made homeless.
After another hour, the waves hit southern Thailand and its west coast islands. The waves swept locals and tourists off the beaches. 8,000 people died in Phuket, Phi Phi and elsewhere and a similar number were injured. At the same time the westerly-heading waves slammed 10m high into the east coast of Sri Lanka killing another 35,000 people and it made over a million and a half people homeless. A further 68 people died in Malaysia. By another half hour, it was taking severe casualties in India’s Tamil Nadu and Burma. The waves demolished railways, bridges, telecommunications facilities and harbours. The salt water contaminated large tracts of rich arable land.
And still it kept coming. After another 90 minutes, the tsunami engulfed the low-lying Maldives killing 100 people and displacing another 20,000. And two and half hours later still – some six hours after the original quake – the mammoth waves made landfall in Somalia. 300 people died there with 50,000 made homeless and many more livelihoods lost as 2,500 boats were destroyed. Most of the deaths were caused by asphyxiation from the silt and sand within the “black water” of the tsunami.
A massive worldwide relief operation began almost immediately. The biggest ever peacetime launch of military relief effort arrived in Aceh led by emergency teams from Australia, India, Japan and the US. Apart from immediate medical needs, the biggest threat was secondary death from famine and disease. One of the most important early tasks in Sumatra was to provide purification plants and potable water. This was difficult in a region where the Indonesian army was hauling over a thousand bodies a day from the rivers. Forensic scientists were stretched to the limit to identify the deceased. The process was complicated by sweltering heat, inconsistencies in data collection procedures used in various countries, and jurisdictional challenges. Port, road and transport facilities also needed to be restored.
Undermining the recovery effort was the influx of aid workers and media personnel who consumed scarce resources, making the cost of living soar. There were at least 500 journalists and news crews in the affected zone. And the sensationalism of much of the reporting added to the trauma of the survivors. Aceh did eventually recover and the tsunami had one unintended benefit; it brought an end to the long running war between the Indonesian military and Acehnese separatists.
Dealing with earthquakes will always be one of the perils of living in geologically active Sumatra. As recently as October, over 500 people were killed and thousands trapped under rubble when a 7.6 magnitude quake struck West Sumatra. But it will never forget the events of 26 December, 2004. The psychological trauma of confronting 20 metre waves is too deep. As one 10 year old girl told AFP “Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t forget. It’s the same for my friends who survived.”
The president offered some reassurance to those that stayed to listen. Speaking in both Sinhalese and Tamil, Rajapaksa said the defeat of the Tigers should not be seen as a defeat for the Tamil community. He also claimed that the protection of all people, Tamils included, was his “duty and responsibility”. He should now be given time to show whether he can live up to this duty and responsibility.
The west has a role to play here. The EU has demanded an inquiry into war crimes because of the high civilian casualties during the latter stages of the war. It also has the ability to withdraw lucrative preferential trade status worth $150m to Sri Lanka. But Rajapaksa will be hoping more favourable views will prevail within the commission as they did three years ago to help him win the war. In 2006 the EU froze all Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam assets in Europe. That decision was a body blow from which the rebels never properly recovered. Having once ruled almost a quarter of the country, they were gradually squeezed into a corner. Their defeat seemed inevitable from the start of this year when they were hemmed into the tiny north-east coastal jungles of Mullaitivu.
On Monday Sri Lanka’s army chief, General Sarath Fonseca announced all combat operations had ended in the north of the island. Tigers’ leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and several of his senior commanders were killed in a rocket attack in the final fighting. Fearing a last stand in an area the size of New York’s Central Park, LTTE official Selvarasa Pathmanathan issued an email to Associated Press that finally told the world the Tigers had surrendered. “This battle has reached its bitter end,” wrote Pathmanathan. “It is our people who are dying now from bombs, shells, illness and hunger. We cannot permit any more harm to befall them. We remain with one last choice — to remove the last weak excuse of the enemy for killing our people. We have decided to silence our guns.”
The silence of the guns caused an eruption of celebration in the south. UN General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon arrived in the capital Colombo on Friday in an attempt to influence Rajapaksa’s plans. Ban would have found the streets full of revellers delighted that the war was “over”. But he also knows there are 300,000 refugees in the north for whom the war is far from finished.
Ban is visiting the refugees who are spread out at dozens of massive government-run camps scattered around the north. Rajapaksa also needs to reach out quickly to these people to ensure his military victory will not be vain. He has drained the swamp of insurgents but they can easily find a new breeding ground. Rajapaksa has to quickly stop Tamils from re-grouping as a disaffected minority who could eventually begin the cycle of guerrilla war all over again.
There are some signs it is happening. Last week, Rajapaksa sent his wife Shiranthi to visit the main refugee camp at Manik Farm (which was already a city of 30,000 people by the end of April and at least twice as big today). The Sri Lankan broadcasting corporation reported Shiranthi handed over a consignment of emergency aid while “one thousand spectacles were also donated to persons with vision impairments”.
But they will need to give a lot more than spectacles for the Tamils to see the government is serious. Having Velupillai Prabhakaran out of the way helps. The 54 year old LTTE leader was an extremist who could not, or would not deal with the government. He was instrumental in introducing suicide bombing tactics such as the 1996 Central Bank in Colombo attack which killed 90 and injured more than a thousand. Prabhakaran’s death would also have been welcomed by India. He has been a wanted man there since the Tigers were implicated in the 1991 assassination of Rajiv Gandhi.
Yet India’s role in shaping Sri Lankan affairs remains crucial. Directly across the Palk Strait from the island live 60 million Tamils people in one of India’s most volatile and important electoral regions, Tamil Nadu. People from Tamil Nadu began migrating to Sri Lanka a thousand years ago but Indian Tamils still strongly identify with their fellow ethnics across the strait. Colombo has always baulked at Indian demands for a federal constitution in Sri Lanka but now might be the time to listen. In the Tamil Nadu capital of Chennai, Janata Party president Dr Subramanian Swamy reminded Sri Lanka again this week that a federal constitution was the best way to ensure Tamil rights.
Swamy is probably right, but a constitutional change will take some time to implement. In the meantime Rajapaksa has a large laundry list of reconciliation tasks to be going on with: quickly resettling the homeless, dealing with prisoners of war, ending the repeated security checks Tamils face in their daily lives, allowing freedom of speech in the media, and holding elections in the north as soon as possible. And he must do all this while preventing further bloodshed, convincing his own army it is necessary to compromise in victory, and persuading the west to support the nation’s redevelopment instead of probing into war crimes. Tricky times lie ahead. Mahinda Rajapaksa still has a lot of work to do to ensure his reputation as the saviour of Sri Lanka.