Sri Lanka Tamils celebrate toppling ‘known devil’

Updated 09 January 2015
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Sri Lanka Tamils celebrate toppling ‘known devil’

JAFFNA: Sri Lanka’s Tamils on Friday celebrated their key role in ousting Mahinda Rajapaksa, whose 11th-hour charm offensive and exhortation to vote for “the known devil” was too little, too late.
Rajapaksa was strongly resented among Tamils in Sri Lanka after ordering a brutal military suppression of a separatist insurgency in which thousands of civilians are said to have died.
With the majority Sinhalese vote split between the president and his successful challenger Maithripala Sirisena, Sri Lanka’s largest minority group emerged as kingmakers in the polls.
“We were the deciding factor at this election,” said school teacher Kanchana Keethiswaran in the northern Jaffna peninsula, scene of the worst of the violence in the decades-long conflict.
“We hope the new president does not forget that he won only because of our (Tamil) votes.”
Rajapaksa had traveled to Jaffna last week for a campaign rally, as the extent of support for the opposition among majority Sinhalese became clear.
During a campaign rally he told residents that Sirisena was a stranger to the region, while he had traveled there at least 11 times after first becoming president in 2005.
“The devil you know is better than the unknown angel,” he said in Sinhala, speaking through a translator. “I am the known devil, so please vote for me.”
The somewhat mangled metaphor appears to have rung true for many Tamils, who came out in unusually large numbers to vote for Sirisena despite some reports of intimidation.
More than a million Tamils endorsed Sirisena, who took a 51.28-percent share of the vote nationwide to secure the presidency.
The main Tamil party, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), backed Sirisena’s candidacy and said it was grateful to its supporters for electing their choice for the top job.
But it made clear it expected him to address the issue of greater autonomy for Tamil areas of the country — something that may prove a challenge given that his diverse support base includes Sinhalese nationalists.
“The new president Sirisena has to address urgently many grave issues the country faces, including an honorable resolution of the national question,” the TNA said, in a reference to Tamil autonomy.
The Tamil Tigers ran Jaffna as a de facto state for nearly five years until they were dislodged in 1995 and the area has been heavily militarised since the war ended in 2009.
Tamils in the arid peninsula strongly oppose the large military presence in the region, which they see as an occupation.
International rights groups have also asked Colombo to withdraw its troops, a demand rejected by the government.
Retired Tamil civil servant S. Sebanayagam, 73, said Tamils had voted for “change” — the campaign slogan of Sirisena, who has promised to investigate war time rights abuses, a highly emotive issue.
Rajapaksa refused to acknowledge that his troops killed any civilians while defeating Tamil rebels in a bloody offensive in May 2009. In all, around 100,000 people were killed in the conflict between 1972 and 2009.
Rajapaksa had spent billions of dollars to rebuild infrastructure in the former war zones, but failed to win popular support.
“We voted to get our dignity back,” said a Tamil journalist.
“We may have good roads and a new railway line, but what we want is to live in peace.”


Rescued Thai football boys pray for protection at Buddhist temple

Updated 31 min 23 sec ago
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Rescued Thai football boys pray for protection at Buddhist temple

CHIANG RAI, Thailand: The Thai football boys and their coach began their first day back home with their families since they were rescued from a flooded cave with a trip to a Buddhist temple on Thursday to pray for protection from misfortunes.
The 11 boys and the coach kneeled and pressed their hands in prayer to the tune of chanting monks. They were joined by relatives and friends at the Wat Pra That Doi Wao temple, overlooking Myanmar on Thailand’s northern border.
The remaining member of the Wild Boars football team — Adul Sargon — is not a Buddhist and did not attend the ceremony, meant to extend one’s life and protect it from dangers.
The team has already said they would ordain as Buddhist novices to honor a former Thai navy SEAL diver who died in the cave while making preparations for their rescue.
On Wednesday evening, the boys and coach faced the media for the first time since their ordeal, describing their surprise at seeing two British divers rising from muddy waters in the recesses of the cave. It would be another week before they were pulled out of the Tham Luang cave.
“We weren’t sure if it was for real,” 14-year-old Adul said. “So, we stopped and listened. And it turned out to be true. I was shocked.”
In one poignant and emotional moment at the news conference, a portrait was displayed of Saman Gunan, the Thai diver who died. One of the boys, 11-year-old Chanin “Titan” Vibulrungruang, the youngest of the group, covered his eyes as if wiping away a tear.
“I feel sad. And another thing is I’m really impressed with Sgt. Sam for sacrificing his life for all 13 Wild Boars to be able to live our lives outside happily and normally,” he said. “When we found out, everyone was sad. Extremely sad, like we were the cause of this that made the sergeant’s family sad and having to face problems.”
The Wild Boars had entered the cave on June 23 for what was to be a relaxing excursion after football practice. But rain began, and water soon filled the cavern, cutting off their escape, and they huddled on a patch of dry ground deep inside the cave.
Coach Ekapol “Ake” Chanthawong said the trip was meant to last one hour, simply because “each of us wanted to see what was inside.”
When the hour was up, they were pretty deep inside and already had swum through some flooded areas in the spirit of adventure. But in turning back, he discovered the way was not at all clear, and he swam ahead to scout the route, attaching a rope to himself so the boys could pull him back if necessary.
He said he had to be pulled out.
Ekapol said he told the boys: “We cannot go out this way. We have to find another way.”
The boys told reporters of their reactions at that point.
“I felt scared. I was afraid I wouldn’t get to go home and my mom would scold me, said Mongkol Boonpiam, 13, prompting laughter.
Ekarat Wongsukchan, 14, said they decided “to calm ourselves first, to try to fix the problem and find a way out. Be calm and not shocked.”
The group had taken no food with them and survived by drinking water that dripped from the cave walls, Ekapol said, adding that all the boys knew how to swim, which had been a concern for rescuers.
Titan said he tried hard not to think about food. “When I’m starving, I don’t think of food otherwise it’d make me more hungry.”
Adul said they were digging around the spot when they heard the voices and Ekapol called for silence.
He recounted how Ekapol told them to “’quickly get down there, that’s the sound of a person, or else they’re going to pass on by,’ something like that.”
But he said his teammate holding the flashlight was scared, so Adul told him “If you’re not going to go, then I’ll go.”
“So I quickly took the flashlight, and quickly went down, and I greeted them, ‘hello,’” Adul added.
Psychologists had vetted the journalists’ questions in advance to avoid bringing up any aspects of the rescue that might disturb them. The dangers of the complicated operation, in which the boys were extracted in three separate missions with diving equipment and pulleys through the tight passageways, were not discussed.
Doctors said the 13 were physically and mentally healthy. Although they lost an average of 4 kilograms (9 pounds) during the more than two weeks they were trapped in the cave, they have since gained about 3 kilograms (6 1/2 pounds) on average since their rescue. They were treated for minor infections.
Asked what he had learned from their experience, 13-year-old Mongkol Boonpiam said he felt stronger. “I have more patience, endurance, tolerance,” he said.
Adul said it had taught him “not to live life carelessly.”
While many of the boys wanted to be pro football players when they grow up, at least four of them said they hope to become navy SEALs, so they could help others.
All expressed their apologies to their families.
“I wanted to apologize to my parents. I know that I will get yelled at by mom when I get home,” said Pornchai Kamluang, 16.
Ekarat said sheepishly he wanted to apologize to his parents because while he told them he was going to a cave, he told them the wrong one.
“I told them I was going to Tham Khun Nam,” he said. “I didn’t tell them I went to Tham Luang. So, I was wondering how they found us at the right cave.”