Sri Lanka marks war anniversary with thousands still missing

Sri Lanka marks on May 18 and 19 a decade since the end of its 37-year Tamil separatist war that claimed at least 100,000 lives. (AFP)
Updated 18 May 2019
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Sri Lanka marks war anniversary with thousands still missing

  • Security was tight in the north of the island, home to Sri Lanka’s minority Tamils, ahead of solemn ceremonies on Saturday
  • About 20,000 people are still missing, including 5,000 government troops

MULLAITTIVU, Sri Lanka: Still reeling from the Easter terror attacks, Sri Lanka commemorates this weekend 10 years since the end of a bloody civil war that killed at least 100,000 people, from which the scars are still not healed.
Security was tight in the north of the island, home to Sri Lanka’s minority Tamils, ahead of solemn ceremonies on Saturday.
Sri Lanka’s government and top military brass were due to hold their own commemoration in Colombo on Sunday.
On May 18, 2009 government forces brought their no-holds-barred military offensive to an end at a lagoon in the northern coastal district of Mullaittivu with the killing of Velupillai Prabhakaran, leader of the rebel Tamil Tigers.
Sri Lanka’s then-president Mahinda Rajapaksa declared an end to the 37-year separatist conflict — marked by massacres, suicide bombings and assassinations — between Tamil militants and the central government, which is dominated by the majority Sinhalese.
But for thousands of war widows and other victims on both sides, this marked the start of a new struggle: to find out the fate of their loved ones.
About 20,000 people are still missing, including 5,000 government troops.
Anandarasan Nagakanni, 61, is still searching for her son Arindavadas.
“He was last seen with the Sri Lankan army, and after that we haven’t seen him,” she told AFP at a tiny makeshift office in Mullaittivu, where a notice board was covered with dozens of photos of missing people.
Nagaraja Sureshamma, 65, who lost one son and is still looking for the other, recalled the horrors of the final months and how civilians scrambled to escape indiscriminate attacks and shelling.
“We were all going together, but my son happened to go on a different route... Ever since, we have not been able to find him,” Sureshamma said.
“If they are not alive, then they need to tell us that at least,” said Mariasuresh Easwari, an activist trying to help find the missing.
“Did you murder them? Did you bury them? Tell us.”

Sri Lankan forces have been accused of killing about 40,000 Tamil civilians in the final months of the war, a charge successive governments have denied.
Several mass graves containing skeletal remains have been found in the past two decades, but only a handful of those buried have ever been formally identified.
Until recently, even remembering the war dead was considered subversive and annual memorial services by Tamils were trashed by government forces.
Government forces have set up memorials in the north for fallen security forces and bulldozed Tiger cemeteries, obliterating any sign of the rebels who at their zenith controlled a third of Sri Lanka.
The International Crisis Group (ICG) said in a recent report that the new government’s promised political reforms and accountability for wartime atrocities have failed to materialize.
“For many Sri Lankans living in the bitterly contested north and east, the war has never quite ended,” it said.

Although the pain for many families remains, and many in the 2.5-million-strong Tamil community still feel disadvantaged, the end of the war did open a peaceful new chapter in which Sri Lanka’s economy and tourism boomed.
But this peace that was shattered on April 21 when Islamist suicide bombers targeted three churches and three luxury hotels, killing 258 people — including 45 foreigners.
The attackers were homegrown extremists — the Daesh group also claimed credit — and riots since saw dozens of homes, businesses and mosques of Sri Lanka’s Muslim minority vandalized. One man was killed by a mob wielding swords.
According to the ICG, the Easter attacks “compounded the general anxiety, tearing again at the social fabric, unleashing further violence and complicating the road to sustainable peace.”
Evoking memories of past dark times, a state of emergency has been in place since April 21 with the return of some wartime restrictions on free movement.
Sri Lanka’s army chief Lt. Gen. Mahesh Senanayake has said his troops will ensure that this year’s commemoration goes ahead peacefully.
“As much as we mourn the soldiers who were killed in the war, (minority Tamil) civilians also have a right to commemorate their war dead,” he said on Thursday.


UN gives Myanmar aid cut warning over Rohingya camp closures

Updated 18 June 2019
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UN gives Myanmar aid cut warning over Rohingya camp closures

  • Myanmar has closed several camps holding around 9,000 Rohingya
  • They have not been allowed to return to their former homes and remain dependent on handouts

YANGON: The UN has warned it will pare back aid to thousands of Rohingya Muslims left destitute as Myanmar’s government closes camps in Rakhine state, over fears its continued support “risks entrenching segregation.”
Aid agencies are facing an increasingly sharp dilemma in the region as they balance relief for desperate communities with leverage over the government.
The majority of Myanmar’s Rohingya were driven into Bangladesh by a 2017 army crackdown, but around 400,000 remain inside conflict-battered Rakhine.
Those include nearly 130,000 held since 2012 in squalid camps, currently supported by UN agencies and humanitarian groups.
As part of its strategy to address the crisis, Myanmar has closed several camps holding around 9,000 Rohingya.
But they have not been allowed to return to their former homes and remain dependent on handouts. Instead, they are being settled in new accommodation close to the former camps.
That has sparked fears aid agencies are effectively being used to prop-up a policy that fails to address the fundamental needs of the Rohingya, including housing, work, food and security.
The camp closure plan “risks entrenching segregation,” UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Myanmar Knut Ostby wrote to the government in a leaked letter, dated 6 June and seen by AFP.
The letter, also written on behalf of aid groups, warned support “beyond life-saving assistance” at the closed sites would in future be linked to “tangible” progress made on “the fundamental issue of freedom of movement.”
“Life-saving” support includes food, health and water, but site planning, shelter construction and education facilities could be phased out, aid agency sources told AFP.
The UN has faced criticism for a slow response to violence against the Rohingya, which escalated after 2012 riots between Muslim Rohingyas and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists.
A UN report released Monday admitted “systemic failures” in its handling of the build-up to the Rohingya crisis.
Limited access to Rakhine’s camps makes independent reporting on conditions difficult.
But AFP has reviewed recent interviews conducted in five camps by an NGO requesting anonymity to protect its work.
“If I build a house, it can be seized arbitrarily,” one Rohingya man said.
“I have no right to the land and I can also be arrested at any time.”
An aid worker called the remaining 23 sites in Rakhine little more than “concentration camps.”
On condition of anonymity, she spoke of the “complicity” humanitarian staff feel for perpetuating the segregation.
Amnesty International has described Rakhine as an “apartheid state.”
All aid must be “heavily conditioned,” researcher Laura Haigh said, warning donors that building infrastructure could make them complicit in crimes against humanity.
The government defended the camp closures, telling AFP it would continue working with the UN and NGOs on the issue.
Any former camp resident holding a National Verification Card (NVC) will be able to “move freely within their township” and access “education, health facilities and livelihood activities,” the social welfare ministry said.
Most Rohingya refuse to apply for the card believing they should already be treated as full citizens.
Those interviewed said the few to have caved had no more rights than anyone else.
They were also forced to designate themselves as “Bengali,” a term implying they are from Bangladesh.
“They are just trying to dominate us and make us illegal through different ways,” one Rohingya man said.