Sri Lankans abandon family holiday celebrations to join anti-government protests

People shout slogans during a protest against Sri Lanka President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in Colombo on April 12, 2022 amid the country's economic crisis. (REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte)
People shout slogans during a protest against Sri Lanka President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in Colombo on April 12, 2022 amid the country's economic crisis. (REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte)
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Updated 14 April 2022

Sri Lankans abandon family holiday celebrations to join anti-government protests

Sri Lankans abandon family holiday celebrations to join anti-government protests
  • Protesters set up a camp outside the president’s office
  • Country is enduring its worst economic crisis since independence in 1948

COLOMBO: A pot of milk boiled over outside the presidential office in Colombo on Thursday to the cheers of thousands of Sri Lankans who defied their annual tradition of returning home, wanting just one person to go: The country’s embattled leader.

Boiling a pot of milk is the most important ritual of Sri Lankan New Year. It is usually done with family members to attract prosperity. But this time, instead of enjoying the new year’s festivities in their hometowns, people remained in the capital to demand President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s resignation, as they blame him for the country’s worst economic crisis since independence in 1948.

Mass protests against the president, known to many as Gota, began in Colombo last week.

Angry over skyrocketing inflation, stalled imports of fuel and medicines and hours of power cuts a day, residents have transformed the streets in front of Rajapaksa’s office into a protest camp dubbed “Gotagogama,” or “Gota go village.”

“We want President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to step down,” Malith Lakshan, who has been protesting at the site, told Arab News.

“We want him to step down, we want his family out of politics.”

The Rajapaksas are the country’s most influential political dynasty. The president’s elder brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, is serving as prime minister.

Their younger brother, Basil Rajapaksa, was Sri Lanka’s finance minister until he resigned last week.

The prime minister said on Wednesday he was ready to meet the protesters, but he did not announce when.

“We won’t stop until they go,” Pathum Bandara, another demonstrator, said. “We will keep coming back here.”

A font designer, he is one of those who installed a board calling the protest site “Gotagogama.” The name has since reached other cities as well.

“We didn’t expect it to go viral,” he said with a laugh.

“Now there are Gotagogamas in Ratnapura, Badulla and even Kandy. We think this movement will spread across the country.”

Bandara believes the movement to oust the government is now unstoppable.

“It is coming from the people,” he added. “There is no organizer and no leader.”

Rajapaksa was elected president in 2019, mostly with the support of the country’s Sinhalese Buddhist majority. But now, even his electorate has turned its back on him, as the island nation of 22 million people is about to default on its debts and many can hardly afford three meals a day.

The protest site has seen an influx of all kinds of people offering their support and solidarity.

Artists, puppeteers and amateur musicians have been entertaining the crowds with their performances.

Gagana Atapattu, an artist manager, said he came to help a friend who was distributing bottles of water among demonstrators.

“I haven’t left since. People kept coming and handing over donations of water and food to sustain the protestors. How could I leave then?” he told Arab News.

“I have never seen anything like this before.”


UN expert warns of another Rohingya genocide if world continues to do nothing

UN expert warns of another Rohingya genocide if world continues to do nothing
Updated 8 sec ago

UN expert warns of another Rohingya genocide if world continues to do nothing

UN expert warns of another Rohingya genocide if world continues to do nothing
  • Special investigator Tom Andrews told Arab News frustration and anger among Rohingya at lack of accountability for atrocities in Myanmar is “pervasive” 
  • He presented his report to the UN’s Human Right Council on the eve of the second anniversary of the military coup in the country

NEW YORK CITY: The independent UN expert tasked with investigating the situation in Myanmar has called on the international community to “do a lot more” to protect the vulnerable Rohingya population in the country’s Rakhine State.

Tom Andrews, whose official title is UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, warned that “not to do so is to risk seeing another 2017.”

This referred to the brutal persecution of the Rohingya that began with a military crackdown on their community about six years ago, during which thousands were killed and more than a million were ultimately forced to flee to other countries.

Tom Andrews warned that the same forces who committed “those genocidal attacks” are now in control of the country and “their priority is not the human rights of the Rohingya people.”

Rohingya Muslims have suffered decades of violence, discrimination and persecution in Myanmar but the largest exodus began on Aug. 25, 2017, after Myanmar’s military launched brutal operations targeting them in northern Rakhine State.

Amnesty International said the subsequent wave of violence resulted in grave crimes under international law. The junta torched entire villages and forced more 700,000 people, half of them children, to flee to Bangladesh, where almost 1 million Rohingya now live in crowded refugee camps at Cox’s Bazar.

Andrews, who had just returned from a fact-finding trip and presented to the UN in New York his report on the situation in the South Asian country, told Arab News that more than 600,000 Rohingya continue to live in Rakhine State, 130,000 of them in makeshift internment camps.

“Even those who are living in the villages, those villages are surrounded,” he said. “The people are prisoners in their own home villages. They have virtually no rights whatsoever. It’s very, very oppressive to be living under these conditions.”

INNUMBERS

700,000 Number of people who fled Myanmar after government soldiers torched entire villages

600,000 Number of Rohingya who continue to live in Myanmar's Rakhine State, 130,000 of them in makeshift internment camps.

1 million Number of Rohingya now living in crowded refugee camps at Bangladesh's Cox’s Bazar.

2,900 Number of people who have died since the Myanmar military ousted the democratically elected government

The special rapporteur said the frustration and anger among the Rohingya community at the lack of accountability for the atrocities that have been committed against them “is pervasive.”

“Many would argue that the lack of accountability for the genocide that occurred in 2016 and 2017 was not lost on the military leaders that committed (the February 2021) coup,” said Andrews.

“You know: If you could get away with one, why not get away with another? If the international community is not willing to bring justice to bear in one, perhaps they’ll just forget about what happens as a result of the coup.

“So, failure to bring accountability is not only tragic, and an injustice for the people who suffer, but it’s an injustice and a tragedy for those who will suffer at the hands of the very same forces who are receiving the message that the international community simply doesn’t care.”

A human rights organization and a group of people from Myanmar this month filed a criminal complaint in Germany seeking punishment of Myanmar’s generals for the genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity that they allege were committed during the crackdown on the Rohingya minority in 2017 and after the military coup in 2021.

Meanwhile, International Criminal Court Prosecutor Karim Ahmad Khan has said that an investigation being conducted by his office into the crimes against the Rohingya will be a priority during his tenure. 

Andrews lamented the fact that such legal mechanisms are “slow and cumbersome, and they are no comfort to the people who have lost loved ones in the most horrific of ways.” He called on the international community to do the “very least” it can and fully support them.

“We need to create the kind of pressure on those who are responsible for these tragedies, namely the SAC (the State Administration Council that currently rules Myanmar), so that they understand that there’s a price to pay (and) that what they’re doing now is not sustainable — and unless and until they receive that message from the international community, impunity will continue to reign,” he said.

In his report to the Human Rights Council, published on the eve of the second anniversary of the military coup in Myanmar that ousted Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government, Andrews described the coup as “illegal” and the military’s claim to be the country’s legitimate government as “illegitimate.”

He called for nations that support human rights to recognize the National Unity Government, the main underground group coordinating resistance to the military rule, as the legitimate representatives of the people of Myanmar. It was formed by elected politicians prevented from taking their seats when the military seized power.

Andrews said UN member states “have an important responsibility and role to play in determining whether Myanmar’s military junta will succeed in achieving its goal of being accepted as legitimate and gaining control of a nation in revolt.”

He described the situation in Myanmar as “the forgotten war” and accused the international community of failing to properly address the crisis and “the junta’s systematic crimes against humanity and war crimes.”

Since the military came to power, he said at least 2,900 people, and probably many more, have died, 17,500 people are political prisoners and at least 38,000 homes, clinics and schools have been burned to the ground.

In addition, a total of 1.1 million people have been displaced, more than 4 million children do not have access to formal education, and 17.6 million people are expected to need humanitarian aid this year, up from 1 million before the coup.

Andrews, a former US congressman, said a new, coordinated global response to the crisis is crucial.

He added in his report that the military’s hold on the country “is weakening” and his investigation found international sanctions have made it difficult for the junta to move and access the funds it needs to maintain its operations.

But “the problem is that the sanctions are not coordinated,” he added.


US Republican leader says debt cliff talks with Biden went well

US Republican leader says debt cliff talks with Biden went well
Updated 34 min 42 sec ago

US Republican leader says debt cliff talks with Biden went well

US Republican leader says debt cliff talks with Biden went well
  • Republicans are threatening to block the usually rubber-stamp approval for raising the nation’s credit limit if Democrats don’t first agree to steep future budget cuts
  • The White House accuses the Republicans of taking the economy “hostage” in order to posture as fiscally responsible

WASHINGTON: The US took a small step back from the risk of a catastrophic debt default Wednesday after the new Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, Kevin McCarthy, said talks with President Joe Biden went well — even if a deal has yet to be reached.
“The president and I tried to find a way that we can work together,” McCarthy told reporters after an approximately one-hour meeting with Biden at the White House. “I think at the end of the day, we can find common ground.”
McCarthy said that while it was a “good discussion,” he cautioned that there were “no agreements, no promises, except we will continue this conversation.”
The White House also sounded positive, saying in a statement that Biden and McCarty had “frank and straightforward” talks and “agreed to continue the conversation.”
At stake is the stability of the world’s biggest economy.
Republicans are threatening to block the usually rubber-stamp approval for raising the nation’s credit limit if Democrats don’t first agree to steep future budget cuts.
The White House, meanwhile, accuses the Republicans of taking the economy “hostage” in order to posture as fiscally responsible.
Fail to raise the debt ceiling by around June, the Treasury says, and the United States will be forced into default on its $31.4 trillion debt — a historic first that would leave the government unable to pay bills, undermine the US economy’s reputation, and likely panic investors.
McCarthy said Republicans and Democrats have about five months to talk before reaching the debt cliff, but “hopefully it doesn’t take that long.”
There have been other showdowns over the years when Republicans balked at allowing US debt to spiral ever higher. But on most occasions the dispute was quickly smoothed over, Congress extended the ceiling and the economy kept going without a hiccup.
This time, the political heat makes things far riskier.
Two years through his first term, Biden is widely expected to be on the cusp of announcing his bid for a second term in the 2024 election. And Republicans, who have just taken over control of the House, are eager to show their muscle.
Even if McCarthy is minded to show flexibility, his power in Congress depends almost entirely on the desires of a far-right group of Republicans who are more likely to play chicken, regardless of the global financial consequences.

The White House says it won’t allow the current debt ceiling to be part of any negotiation on future government spending because that $31.4 trillion is money already agreed to by Congress. In other words, refusal to raise the debt ceiling would be like refusing to pay an already existing credit card bill.
There could be room for negotiating on changes to future budgets.
McCarthy said he had told Biden that he was against defaulting on the existing debt but that he wanted to see cuts in future spending, because “the current path we’re on we cannot sustain.”
But when it gets down to brass tacks, it’s hard for either party to say where they can find significant reductions — unless they go into the usually politically untouchable Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid or other government-subsidized health care.
Biden signalled he wanted to call McCarthy’s bluff by insisting that the Republicans lay out where exactly they’d make cuts. His bet is that the internal divisions in the party will burst into the open as more right-wing members demand cuts to popular spending programs.
“What are House Republicans hiding?” deputy press secretary Andrew Bates said.
In a memo Tuesday, Brian Deese, the director of the National Economic Council, and Shalanda Young, director of the Office of Management and Budget, challenged McCarthy to publish a draft budget. The White House will issue its own on March 9, they said.
 


Gunman kills 1, wounds 2 in US metro rampage before passengers disarm him

Gunman kills 1, wounds 2 in US metro rampage before passengers disarm him
Updated 02 February 2023

Gunman kills 1, wounds 2 in US metro rampage before passengers disarm him

Gunman kills 1, wounds 2 in US metro rampage before passengers disarm him
  • Mayor Muriel Bowser of Washington, D.C., said the shootings highlight the need for serious gun control
  • “This is not a Metro-specific safety issue; it’s an American gun violence issue,” says Metro GM

WASHINGTON: A man “randomly” brandishing a firearm shot three people, killing one, in a Wednesday morning rampage in the nation’s capital that started on a city bus and ended in a Metro tunnel after passengers attacked and disarmed him.
Authorities were still piecing together the chaotic series of events that left two people with gunshot wounds to the leg and Metro employee Robert Cunningham shot dead. The shooter is in police custody and has not been publicly identified.
Metropolitan Police Department Executive Assistant Chief Ashan Benedict praised the “heroic actions of our citizens, our community, to disarm this shooter.”
But he added, “The fact that our citizens had to intervene with armed gunmen is disturbing to me.”
The violence began shortly after 9 a.m. when the man began brandishing a weapon and confronting passengers on a city bus in the southeast area of the city. The man pursued one of the passengers off the bus and shot them in the leg, Benedict said.
The man then went down the escalator of the nearby Potomac Avenue Metro stop, confronted someone who was buying a Metro pass and shot that person in the leg as well. Both victims were recovering in local hospitals.
The armed man then went down to the train platform and began confronting a woman there. Benedict characterized his behavior as deeply erratic, saying, “He’s walking around brandishing a firearm and just randomly engaging people in confrontation. He’s clearly agitated about something.”
At that point, Cunningham, a 64-year-old mechanic in Metro’s power department, tried to intervene and was killed by a gunshot. A statement from Paul Smedberg, chair of the Metro board, said Cunningham “acted with extreme bravery to help a customer who was being threatened by the shooter.”
The armed man then attempted to board a Metro train and was apparently confronted and disarmed by the passengers. He exited the train car and was taken into custody by police officers, who recovered his weapon on the train tracks, Benedict said.
Mayor Muriel Bowser said the shootings highlight the need for serious gun control. Bowser and the Police Department have recently endured intense public pressure after a city employee shot and killed a 13-year old boy who was part of a group of youth breaking into parked cars on his block. The resident was charged this week with second-degree murder.
“We’re focused on how we get guns out of our city,” Bowser said. “Whether it’s the Metro, it’s the street, it’s in individual homes, we know that we have guns that are creating tragedies in our city and in our nation.”
Metro General Manager Randy Clarke said his administration had recently beefed up security measures, including increased police patrols and video surveillance. But he said the morning’s incident was indicative of a wider issue beyond Metro security.
“This is not a Metro-specific safety issue; it’s an American gun violence issue,” Clarke said.

 


Discrimination against hijab-wearing Muslim women at all-time high, campaigners say

Discrimination against hijab-wearing Muslim women at all-time high, campaigners say
Updated 02 February 2023

Discrimination against hijab-wearing Muslim women at all-time high, campaigners say

Discrimination against hijab-wearing Muslim women at all-time high, campaigners say
  • The organizers of World Hijab Day, on Feb. 1, said many women face pressure to remove their head scarf to ‘show solidarity’ or make a political statement
  • ‘The theme for World Hijab Day 2023, #UnapologeticHijabi, is bolder and stronger than ever before: Muslim women unapologetically wearing the hijab proudly,’ WHD said

LONDON: “Hijabophobia” is at an all-time high “due to the current political climate,” as a result of which hijab-wearing Muslim women face increasing discrimination in everyday life, the organizers of World Hijab Day said on Wednesday.

“Muslim women are being pressured to remove their hijab to ‘show solidarity’ and make political statements, while parts of the world enact legislation that prevent hijabi women from participating in society,” WHD told Arab News.

It had called on women of all backgrounds to “take a stand against hijabophobia by donning a headscarf” on World Hijab Day, Feb. 1, to help raise awareness of the Muslim tradition and women’s rights.

“The theme for World Hijab Day 2023, #UnapologeticHijabi, is bolder and stronger than ever before: Muslim women unapologetically wearing the hijab proudly,” the organization said.

 

 

“Due to the current climate, Muslim women wearing the hijab are portrayed as oppressed, submissive and backward, and the hijab is used to justify discrimination and abuse against them.

“This can lead to a lack of understanding and empathy toward Muslim women, and can make it harder for these women to fully participate in society and access opportunities.”

WHD said women who choose to wear the headscarf, whether for reasons of modesty or religious observance, face challenges integrating into educational and workplace environments.

“In some cases, there may be religious discrimination, or a lack of understanding and acceptance of the hijab,” the organization said.

 

 

It added that “in schools, some hijabi students may face discrimination or harassment from classmates or teachers, or be barred from getting an education altogether; such is the case in Karnataka, India.”

This was a reference to a decision by the High Court of Karnataka in February last year that banned thousands of Muslim girls from wearing religious garments in school.

WHD also cited examples of discrimination it said hijab-wearing women face in the workplace, and bias during the hiring process.

“Experimental studies suggested that the chances of being hired, and so gainfully employed, were on average 40 percent lower among Muslim women wearing the hijab than they were among otherwise similar Muslim women not wearing the hijab, in the West.

 

 

“For example, a 2022 study found that in the Netherlands, almost 70 percent of job applications that included a photograph of an unveiled woman received a positive callback for jobs requiring high customer contact. But for applications with hijab-clad photographs, the positive rate was 35 percent.”

WHD, which was founded in 2013 in New York by Bangladeshi American woman Nazma Khan, said: “Muslim women in European countries are more likely subjected to hijabophobia in public spaces and the labor market.”

In particular it referred to a December 2020 study by US-based think tank the Pew Research Center, which found: “Women in 56 countries experienced social hostilities — that is, harassment from individuals or groups — due to clothing that was deemed to violate religious or secular dress norms, according to the sources analyzed for a recent Pew Research Center study of 198 nations.”

The study said that women were targeted for violating secular dress norms, including wearing a hijab or other religious garb, in 42 of 56 countries in which sources alleged that social harassment took place between 2016 and 2018.

 

 

However, WHD said: “While there are challenges to the integration of hijabi women in schools and the workplace, there have also been efforts to promote understanding and acceptance of hijabi women in these settings,” including World Hijab Day itself, which aims “to promote integration and acceptance of hijabi women in these settings.”

The organization, which celebrated its 10th anniversary this year, said it expected thousands of people in more than 150 countries to celebrate World Hijab Day 2023, including in the UK, Japan, Korea and Switzerland.

“Most notably, we see more and more non-Muslims taking part in wearing the hijab on Feb. 1,” It added. “Many of them share their experiences with us, which we believe helps others to learn more about the hijab.”

 

 

WHD said that efforts to raise awareness through its movement have helped to change views on the hijab around the world, with two-thirds of past participants reporting positive experiences that changed their views on wearing the headscarf.

This year, the organization added, it hoped to further raise awareness, grow its platform, increase the confidence of women who wear the hijab, and “welcome those with curiosity and misunderstandings to an open forum and place to ask questions.”

WHD is also a fundraising event and money raised this year will go toward creating diversity and inclusion workshops on Muslim culture for schools, to help foster a safe and healthy educational environment for Muslim students, the organization said.


Lost radioactive capsule found in Australian Outback after huge search

Lost radioactive capsule found in Australian Outback after huge search
Updated 02 February 2023

Lost radioactive capsule found in Australian Outback after huge search

Lost radioactive capsule found in Australian Outback after huge search
  • Lost in transit over two weeks ago, the button-sized silver capsule was found on the roadside in the state of Western Australia
  • The radioactive capsule was part of a gauge used to measure the density of iron ore feed from a mine in the state’s remote Kimberley region

SYDNEY: Australian authorities on Wednesday found a radioactive capsule smaller than a coin that was lost in the vast Outback after nearly a week-long search involving around 100 people along a 1,400 kilometers (870 miles) stretch of highway, officials said.
The cesium-137 capsule lost in transit more than two weeks ago was discovered when a vehicle traveling at 70 km per hour (43 mph) equipped with specialist detection equipment picked up the radiation, according to officials from the state of Western Australia.
The search team then used portable detection equipment to find the capsule, which was located about 2 meters from the side of the road in a remote area far from any community, they added.
The radioactive capsule was part of a gauge used to measure the density of iron ore feed from Rio Tinto’s Gudai-Darri mine in the state’s remote Kimberley region. The gauge was being taken to a facility in the suburbs of state capital Perth — a distance further than the length of Great Britain.

Rio was willing to pay for the cost of the search if asked by the state government, iron ore division head Simon Trott told reporters.
“Of course the simple fact is this device should never have been lost,” he said. “We’re sorry that that has occurred and we’re sorry for the concern that that has caused within the Western Australian community.”
People had been told to stay at least five meters (16.5 feet) away if they spotted the capsule, because exposure could cause radiation burns or radiation sickness. However, driving past it was believed to be relatively low risk, akin to taking an X-ray.
’Needle in the haystack’
Western Australia’s Emergency Services Minister Stephen Dawson said the find was an “extraordinary result” after a search involving the state’s emergency response department, defense authorities and radiation specialists.
“When you consider the scope of the search area, locating this object was a monumental challenge, the search groups have quite literally found the needle in the haystack,” he said.
A 20-meter exclusion zone has been set up around the capsule while defense force members verify it via a serial number.
It will then be placed in a lead container and stored overnight at a secure location in Newman, a mining town roughly 1,200 km (745 miles) north-west of Perth, before being taken to the state capital on Thursday. The silver capsule, 6 mm in diameter and 8 mm long, contains cesium-137 which emits radiation equal to 10 X-rays per hour.

Illustration image showing the size of the silver capsule containing radioactive cesium-137 that went missing in Australia. (DFES photo via Reuters)


Officials said the capsule apparently fell off a truck during transport and landed on the side of the road, adding that it was unlikely there would be contamination in the area.
Seeking answers
Rio said in a statement that it would investigate whether the use of specialist contractors had been appropriate, having entrusted the gauge to SGS Australia and Centurion for packaging and transport respectively.
SGS did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Centurion said in a statement it was seeking answers about how the capsule became dislodged during transport given the crate and pallet provided by SGS arrived in Perth in the same condition as at the start of the journey, and GPS data had shown no sudden changes in speed.
“From a freight and logistics perspective this indicates a routine journey, and the fact that the crate was not opened for a week until after delivery reinforces that view,” Centurion said.
Western Australia’s Chief Health Officer Andrew Robertson said there would be an investigation and prosecutions would be considered under state radiation safety laws from 1975.
The maximum penalty for failing to safely handle radioactive substances is A$1,000 and A$50 per day the offense continues, though the state government said on Wednesday it was considering a change to laws to allow for bigger penalties.
Officials said any change to penalties would not be retrospective.