Sri Lanka President Rajapaksa faces poll battle as war effect wanes

Updated 06 January 2015
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Sri Lanka President Rajapaksa faces poll battle as war effect wanes

COLOMBO: Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapaksa will face an unprecedented challenge from a newly galvanised opposition when he seeks re-election this week, five years after his crushing military victory over Tamil guerrillas.
South Asia's longest-serving leader had appeared politically invincible after his forces crushed the Tamil Tigers in 2009, ending a decades-long conflict and ushering in a new era of prosperity for the island nation.
Rajapaksa won a landslide election victory in 2010, but critics say the 69-year-old has failed to bring about reconciliation with Sri Lanka's Tamil minority in the years that followed.
His second term has been dogged by accusations of corruption, including undermining the independence of the judiciary and lining the pockets of political cronies through lucrative contracts.
The surprise decision of his health minister Maithripala Sirisena to defect from the ruling party and stand as the main opposition candidate has turned what might have been a walk-over into a real contest.
Political commentator Victor Ivan said the low-profile Sirisena had become a symbol of simmering discontent over corruption.
"He (Rajapaksa) failed to ensure reconciliation," Ivan said.
"His focus was in mega-highways and ports. That was good for GDP growth, but not enough to heal a society wounded by decades of conflict."
Sri Lanka's economy has grown by an annual average of over seven percent since the war ended, partly thanks to hefty investment from close Rajapakse ally China.
But the opposition says Chinese contractors have employed few local people, and household incomes have not kept pace with national growth rates.
Opposition parties including the main Tamil party have rallied behind Sirisena, a 63-year-old farmer-turned-politician who is from the majority Sinhalese community.
While he still has support among Sinhalese voters, Rajapakse is widely detested by members of the country's biggest minority, who account for 13 percent of its 15 million people and usually vote as a bloc.
The president has taken drastic measures to shore up support, slashing fuel prices, cutting water and electricity tariffs and giving subsidised motorcycles and hefty pay increases to 1.6 million public servants.
Rajapakse has also promised a judicial inquiry into allegations that his troops killed 40,000 Tamil civilians at the end of the civil war, although he still refuses to cooperate with a UN-mandated investigation.
Last week he told voters in the Tamil-dominated northern peninsula of Jaffna that he was committed to improving their livelihoods, listing a series of infrastructure projects in the war-ravaged region.
Describing himself as the "known devil", the president urged people not to vote for the "unknown" Sirisena. "I am the known devil, so please vote for me," he said through a translator.
The Tamils could be king-makers if the majority Sinhalese constituency is split down the middle between Rajapakse and Sirisena.
"We will vote for Sirisena not because we like him, but because we don't like the president," said Colombo-based Tamil company executive Ratnavale Chandrasekaran.
Rajapakse called snap elections two years ahead of schedule in the hope of preempting an opposition fight-back.
Close associates say the timing was decided partly on advice given by his personal astrologer.
The 69-year-old, who has been accused of growing authoritarianism, had removed the two-term limit on the presidency and given himself more powers soon after winning a second term in 2010.
Sirisena's defection was carefully choreographed by Rajapakse's bete noire, former president Chandrika Kumaratunga, who returned to politics after a nine-year retirement, and has split the ruling party.
A hardline party of Sinhalese Buddhist monks that had cheered Rajapakse's refusal to bow to an international probe defected to the opposition in November, accusing him of unprecedented corruption and nepotism.
The president's eldest brother Chamal is speaker of parliament, another brother Basil is economic development minister while a third, Gotabhaya, serves as the defence secretary.
Other family members dominate state institutions and government-owned companies, with the Rajapakse tentacles extending even to sporting bodies.
Rajapakse himself holds a host of ministerial portfolios including finance, ports and highways.
The pro-government media are predicting a close fight, while diplomats in Colombo say they sense a shift in favour of the opposition.
Last week one of Sirisena's top supporters accused the government of deploying thousands of troops to Tamil-majority areas as part of a strategy to intimidate voters against backing Rajapakse's main challenger.
The military has denied accusations of campaigning for Rajapakse.
As signs of opposition strength grew, the privately-run Sunday Times newspaper questioned the wisdom of Rajapakse's decision to call a snap election.
"It was his own calling," the paper said. "President Mahinda Rajapakse for once goes as the underdog."


UN: Nearly 71 million now displaced by war, violence at home

Updated 19 June 2019
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UN: Nearly 71 million now displaced by war, violence at home

  • The figures are bound to add fuel to a debate at the intersection of international law, human rights and domestic politics
  • UNHCR said 70.8 million people were forcibly displaced at the end of last year, up from about 68.5 million in 2017

GENEVA: A record 71 million people have been displaced worldwide from war, persecution and other violence, the UN refugee agency said Wednesday, an increase of more than 2 million from last year and an overall total that would amount to the world’s 20th most populous country.
The annual “Global Trends” report released by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees counts the number of the world’s refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people at the end of 2018, in some cases following decades of living away from home.
The figures, coming on the eve of World Refugee Day on Thursday, are bound to add fuel to a debate at the intersection of international law, human rights and domestic politics, especially the movement in some countries, including the US, against immigrants and refugees.
Launching the report, the high commissioner, Filippo Grandi, had a message for US President Donald Trump and other world leaders, calling it “damaging” to depict migrants and refugees as threats to jobs and security in host countries. Often, they are fleeing insecurity and danger themselves, he said.
The report also puts a statistical skeleton onto often-poignant individual stories of people struggling to survive by crossing rivers, deserts, seas, fences and other barriers, natural and man-made, to escape government oppression, gang killings, sexual abuse, militia murders and other such violence at home.
UNHCR said 70.8 million people were forcibly displaced at the end of last year, up from about 68.5 million in 2017 — and nearly a 65 percent increase from a decade ago. Among them, nearly three in five people — or more than 41 million people — have been displaced within their home countries.
“The global trends, once again unfortunately, go in what I would say is the wrong direction,” Grandi told reporters in Geneva. “There are new conflicts, new situations, producing refugees, adding themselves to the old ones. The old ones never get resolved.”
The phenomenon is both growing in size and duration. Some four-fifths of the “displacement situations” have lasted more than five years. After eight years of war in Syria, for instance, its people continue to make up the largest population of forcibly displaced people, at some 13 million.
Amid runaway inflation and political turmoil at home, Venezuelans for the first time accounted for the largest number of new asylum-seekers in 2018, with more than 340,000 — or more than one in five worldwide last year. Asylum-seekers receive international protection as they await acceptance or rejection of their requests for refugee status.
UNHCR said that its figures are “conservative” and that Venezuela masks a potentially longer-term trend.
Some 4 million people are known to have left the South American country in recent years. Many of those have traveled freely to Peru, Colombia and Brazil, but only about one-eighth have sought formal international protection, and the outflow continues, suggesting the strains on the welcoming countries could worsen.
Grandi predicted a continued “exodus” from Venezuela and appealed for donors to provide more development assistance to the region.
“Otherwise these countries will not bear the pressure anymore and then they have to resort to measures that will damage refugees,” he said. “We are in a very dangerous situation.”
The United States, meanwhile, remains the “largest supporter of refugees” in the world, Grandi said in an interview. The US is the biggest single donor to UNHCR. He also credited local communities and advocacy groups in the United States for helping refugees and asylum-seekers in the country.
But the refugee agency chief noted long-term administrative shortcomings that have given the United States the world’s biggest backlog of asylum claims, at nearly 719,000. More than a quarter-million claims were added last year.
He also decried recent rhetoric that has been hostile to migrants and refugees.
“In America, just like in Europe actually and in other parts of the world, what we are witnessing is an identification of refugees — but not just refugees, migrants as well — with people that come take away jobs that threaten our security, our values,” Grandi said. “And I want to say to the US administration — to the president — but also to the leaders around the world: This is damaging.”
He said many people leaving Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador through Mexico have faced violence by gangs and suffered from “the inability of these governments to protect their own citizens.”
The UNHCR report noted that by far, the most refugees are taken in in the developing world, not wealthy countries.
The figures marked the seventh consecutive year in which the numbers of forcibly displaced rose.
“Yet another year, another dreadful record has been beaten,” said Jon Cerezo of British charity Oxfam. “Behind these figures, people like you and me are making dangerous trips that they never wanted to make, because of threats to their safety and most basic rights.”