- Monday, 17 November 2014
Last week there was an unexpected focus on events that took place 25 years ago and which had appeared to have fallen out of public memory. This was the Sinhalese militancy led by the JVP in a three year period of terror that gripped most of the country and excluded only the predominantly Tamil-speaking North and East. The general belief is that about 60,000 people perished in the period 1988-90. But there is no certainty about the figure. The numbers killed by the JVP were counted by the government at that time which gave precise numbers. These included 487 public servants, 80 of who were bus drivers, 30 Buddhist monks, 2 Catholic priests, 52 school principals, four medical doctors, 18 estate superintendents, 27 trade unionists, 342 policemen, 209 security forces personnel and family members of 93 policemen and 69 service personnel. But the numbers killed by the government side were not counted or shared.
The overwhelming present local and international focus has been on the final phase of the war against the LTTE and this has taken the country’s attention away from those terrible events. But suddenly the tragic past was brought back to life. The media ran several stories on what happened those days. In particular there was a vivid description of the last hours of the JVP leader Rohana Wijeweera when he was held in captivity by the government forces. It showed how he was interviewed by the political and military leaders of that time who had been at the receiving end of JVP violence. It showed how he was subjected to their violence. It showed how people can act when they hold absolute power of life and death over those who have been their enemies, and why the laws cannot be silent even in a time of war, or when the war has just been won.
- Monday, 10 November 2014
The readiness to politicize any issue came to the fore in the course of the landslide tragedy at Haldamulla. With presidential elections on the near horizon, there was competition to be seen as caring more for the victims than the other. The President, ministers, leaders of political parties and their party members all were seen on the media taking relief supplies to the area and commiserating with the victims. The government had the advantage as it could control access to the area. The media showed visuals of the relief supplies taken by the Democratic Party dumped on the side of the road as they could not gain access to site of the tragedy.
Both the government and Northern Provincial Council also expressed their intention to adopt the children who had been orphaned. The Northern Provincial Council even passed a resolution to that effect. On the other hand, the government said it would send the children to state orphanages. This hasty decision was in contradiction to the established policy of the Department of Childcare and Probation which is that children should be brought up in a family environment as far as possible. It is well known that state orphanages are poorly funded and generally under-resourced. The position of both the government and Northern Provincial Council were in violation of the “best interests of the child” which is the accepted norm both locally and internationally.
- Tuesday, 04 November 2014
EARTHSLIP DISASTER HIGHLIGHTS THE NEGLECT OF PLANTATION TAMIL COMMUNITY
The landslide that buried an entire village on Meeriyabedda Estate in Haldamulla, a tea plantation in Sri Lanka’s central hills is a tragic reminder of a marginalized ethnic minority and the failure of the democratic political system to address their needs. The plantation Tamil people have been discriminated against from the time of Independence from British colonial rule when they were denied their citizenship and continue to suffer from that legacy. The wealth they have produced has gone into the coffers of state and plantation companies, but inputs to upgrade the quality of housing for the plantation workers who toil under extreme weather condition has been minimal and often not meeting minimum requirements to enable them to lead dignified lives.
Even today the plantation Tamil community continue to be denied land ownership on the plantations where they have lived for generations and live in ramshackle “line houses” constructed during the colonial period. The media has reported that the affected community had been informed of the danger of earth slips and the need to relocate but they had nowhere else to go. There was negligence in the failure of state authorities to relocate the people to safer locations. The responsibility lies also with the trade unions which are meant to look after the well being of the plantation workers and who are part of the government. The government is improving buildings and infrastructure in the urban areas spending considerable amounts of money. As the plantation workers are the poorest segment of our society the government needs to take the responsibility to find alternative land and houses for them.
The National Peace Council is encouraged by the multi-pronged and national response to the catastrophe faced by the affected people, of whom an estimated 300 were initially believed to have been buried alive and as many as 80 children orphaned, although the government now claims the figures are significantly less. The security forces were quick the dig the area looking for survivors and for bodies, President Mahinda Rajapaksa paid a personal visit and humanitarian supplies have been sent by a number of private companies and organizations in addition to the government. Humanitarian agencies who have deployed staff on the ground also report that there is a substantial influx of relief items to the two safety centres (dry rations, cooked meals, drinking water, clothes, utensils, personal items etc). The All Ceylon Hindu Congress has offered to admit these children to Hindu College, Ratmalana on full scholarship which could be considered for those orphans who have no families to support them.
We note, however, that the government has decided to take steps to ensure that the orphans will be looked after by the state. While we commend the government’s willingness to take responsibility for the orphans, we believe that the better environment for them would be with their families or extended families rather than in state-run orphanages. We recommend that the orphans be placed with their relatives whose parental function is strengthened by state support both financial and adequate housing, and by monitoring. This will ensure that separation of families and the need for institutional care is minimized in accordance with international standards as advocated by the Tokyo-Seoul Declaration to Establish UN World Orphans Day of October 31, 2014. We also recommend that this tragic moment be utilized to address the deeper problems of the plantation Tamil community, especially their inability to own land and thereby improve their conditions of living.
- Monday, 03 November 2014
The Sri Lankan Airlines flight was full of tourists. But when the flight landed in Colombo nearly all of these passengers set off for the transit lounge. Their destination was not Colombo, which was only a stopover on the way to Maldives. That night Colombo airport was quite empty. The airport’s duty free shops were quite empty too. The staff at these shops stood outside their shops competing with each other to bring in the few passengers who had disembarked and come in through immigration. The contrast was so stark with other airports where the sales staff does not need to engage in high pressure salesmanship. The much advertised success of the tourist industry was not much in evidence at the airport.
Travel advisories of the developed countries warn potential tourists about the dangers they might have to face in Sri Lanka. For example the UK government has issued a travel advisory that states “The security forces have imposed restrictions preventing all foreign passport holders (including British nationals) travelling to the Northern Province. All foreign passport holders planning to travel to the north must get prior approval from the Ministry of Defence. Military activities are ongoing. You should obey orders from the security forces and signs warning of the danger from land-mines. See Local travel – North. Political rallies in Sri Lanka have sometimes turned violent. You should avoid any political gatherings or rallies. See Political situation. There is an underlying threat from terrorism. See Terrorism.”