Sirisena pledges land for 100,000 war victims

Updated 03 January 2016
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Sirisena pledges land for 100,000 war victims

COLOMBO: Up to 100,000 people still living in camps six years after the end of Sri Lanka’s brutal ethnic war will be given land to build homes within six months, President Maithripala Sirisena told AFP Sunday.
“It is an ambitious target, but I will see that all the internally displaced people are given land to build homes,” the president said in an interview. “I am setting up a mechanism to complete this process within six months.”
Sirisena, elected last January, has won praise for starting to hand back land after the end of one of South Asia’s longest and bloodiest ethnic wars, pitting the government against Tamil separatists.
But he is also under international pressure to do more to ensure reconciliation in the ethnically divided nation.
The president told AFP he would give land to civilians displaced by war in the embattled northern and eastern provinces, and also the northwestern coastal region of Puttalam, by the middle of this year.
During a visit to Jaffna in the north last month, where much of the fighting took place, Sirisena said he visited a refugee camp which has been home to about 1,300 families for the past 25 years.
“This is an unacceptable situation. I want to end this problem once and for all,” he said. “For many people the main issue was lack of land and that is something we will resolve in the next six months.”
As part of a parallel scheme, he was also planning to release additional private land occupied by the military, mainly in the former war zones in the northern and eastern provinces starting in the next two weeks.
He said he would travel to Jaffna this month to formally hand over about 700 acres of land as part of the plan and in line with an election promise he had made.
Sirisena, 64, came to power with the backing of Sri Lanka’s minority Tamils and Muslims in addition to the majority Sinhalese on the back of promises to ensure ethnic reconciliation and end the corruption and nepotism of his predecessor.
Soon after his election, Sirisena ordered security forces to return private land they occupied in the Jaffna peninsula, which had seen some of the bloodiest fighting during the war which claimed over 100,000 lives between 1972 and 2009.
He said the government was also working on a mechanism to investigate allegations of war crimes in the final stages of the conflict.
The president said he would also call for proposals for a new constitution to ensure the country did not slip back into war.
“We can’t rush the accountability process,” Sirisena said. “Some people want it to be like instant noodles. We can’t do that. We have to be responsible and respect rule of law.”


Japan’s Okinawa votes on controversial US base move

Updated 13 min 41 sec ago
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Japan’s Okinawa votes on controversial US base move

  • Polls opened early on Sunday morning, with about 1.15 million Okinawans eligible to vote
  • Japan’s military alliance with the United States is seen as a key partnership

OKINAWA: Residents of Japan’s Okinawa were casting ballots Sunday in a closely watched referendum on the controversial relocation of a US military base to a remote part of the island.
The vote is seen as highly symbolic but is also non-binding, raising questions about what effect it will have, even if opponents of the move, including Okinawa Governor Denny Tamaki, prevail.
The ballot asks residents whether they support a plan to reclaim land at a remote coastal site for the relocation of the Futenma base from its current location in a heavily-populated part of Okinawa.
It was initially planned as a yes-no vote on the move, but a “neither” option was added after several cities with close ties to the central government threatened to boycott the vote.
Polls opened early on Sunday morning, with about 1.15 million Okinawans eligible to vote. The Jiji Press agency reported around 20.5 percent of eligible voters had already cast ballots in early voting by Saturday.
“They are using a lot of tax money and manpower for this referendum, even though the result will not have any legal power. So, we thought that we should take this opportunity and think very carefully about this issue,” said Yuki Miyagaki, after casting her ballot at a local school.
“We usually shout no to the new base construction. This is a good opportunity to tell the government directly with concrete numbers: ‘No’. This is an important vote,” 32-year-old Narumi Haine said.
Although the referendum is not legally binding, “it is significant that people in Okinawa can express their will through the vote,” said Jun Shimabukuro, a professor at Ryukyu University in Okinawa.
“It can be a test to gauge if democracy is working in Japan,” Shimabukuro said before voting opened.
The relocation of Futenma to Nago, 50 kilometers away, was first agreed in 1996 as the US sought to calm local anger after US servicemen gang raped a local schoolgirl.
But the plan has long been stalled in part over local opposition.
The Futenma base has stoked tension with local residents over problems ranging from noise and military accidents to crime involving base residents.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government says the relocation will address those concerns, but many in Okinawa want the base relocated elsewhere in Japan.
They argue that the region bears a disproportionate burden when it comes to hosting US military troops in the country.
Okinawa accounts for less than one percent of Japan’s total land area, but hosts more than half of the approximately 47,000 American military personnel stationed in Japan.
Anti-base rallies have been staged daily in Okinawa since campaigning for the referendum began in mid-February.
But the vote has not stopped reclamation work at Nago, with construction workers continuing to shovel dirt into the ocean offshore with bulldozers.
“We hope the referendum will boost the momentum of our fight,” demonstrator Masaru Shiroma told AFP on Friday, as more than 100 fellow activists tried to block trucks entering the construction site on Friday.
“The government is making a fool out of Okinawa.”
The ballot closes at 8:00P.M. with exit polls expected soon after and official results from as early as midnight.
Okinawa’s governor is required to “respect” the vote’s outcome if at least a quarter of eligible voters — around 290,000 votes — vote for any one option.
Tamaki has urged residents to turn out and cast their “precious votes” in the poll.
An opinion poll by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper this week found 59 percent of people in Okinawa oppose the reclamation while 16 percent support it.
The survey also found 80 percent of respondents want Abe’s government to respect the results.
But there has been little sign Abe’s government will shift course if the vote goes against the move, with Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga saying there were no plans to halt the relocation regardless of the outcome.
Japan’s military alliance with the United States is seen as a key partnership, and Okinawa’s location near Taiwan has long been viewed as having huge strategic importance for US forward positioning in Asia.