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COLOMBO, 3 June 2008 (IRIN)-Communal clashes and ethnic tension between Tamils and Muslims have been disrupting humanitarian work in the eastern Batticaloa District of Sri Lanka since 22 May, UN and other relief workers said.
Two Tamils and five Muslims have been killed. Relief officials told IRIN they were reluctant to send staff into the field for fear of getting caught up in the violence.
“I have been unable to travel out since 22 May,” Rev Sylvester Sritharan, head of the Eastern Human Economic Development Centre, affiliated to the Catholic charity Caritas, told IRIN.
“No one wants to take the chance of getting on the road and being unable to turn back,” he said. “We can’t send out field staff, contractors, labourers, no one, we can’t take that chance.”
Humanitarian agencies are assisting 18,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) in the district and 124,000 former IDPs who have been resettled in their former villages since mid-2007, Thandie Mwape, head of the Batticaloa field office of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), told IRIN.
“They [relief organisations] have been engaged in relief work as well as helping the newly returned regain a sense of normalcy,” she said.
Relief and recovery efforts were disrupted for a week in late May, the Inter Agency Standing Committee (ISAC) reported in its 30 May situation update.
“Humanitarian operations were disrupted in the district between 22 and 28 May as a result of the clashes,” the report said. “As the southern route [from Batticaloa] through Kathankudi and the northern route through Eravur remained flash points during the week, with curfews imposed at times, most agencies limited their movements.”
“A week of tension”
A local Tamil working with an international agency was attacked by a mob on 26 May in Eravur town north of Batticaloa City, which is 300km east of the capital, Colombo, heightening agencies’ reluctance to send their staff into the field, Sritharan told IRIN.
“It was a week of tension and agencies restricted movement,” Mwape said. “Public life was also at a standstill with no transport and government and private offices closed.”
Clashes were triggered by the 22 May killing of two members of the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pullikal (TMVP), the prominent Tamil political party in the district, in Kathankudi, a Muslim majority town south of Batticaloa City.
“There is a history of tension between the two communities and the killings of the TMVP members added to it,” according to Mujeeb Rahaman, information officer of the Colombo-based Muslim Information Centre (MIC) rights group.
Two Muslims were killed on the same day in Kathankudi and another Muslim woman died during mob violence in Eravur on 26 May, according to police.
At least 300 Tamil families from Ariyampathi, a village near Eravur, sought shelter in schools and churches between 27 and 29 May, fearing reprisals, Sritharan said.
The situation was finally brought under control with the direct intervention of Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan, alias Pillayan, the head of the TMVP and chief minister of the new Eastern Provincial Council.
Despite Chandrakanthan’s intervention, tensions rose again on 1 June after the body of a Muslim was recovered in Kathankudi.
On the morning of 2 June, residents of Eravur and Kathankudi remained indoors and public transport was limited, Sritharan told IRIN. Muslims in the two towns had also called for a general work shutdown to protest against the latest murder.
“Under conditions like this how can we take a chance to go out?” he asked.
“People are still scared and nervous, and rightly so,” MIC’s Rahaman told IRIN. “The killings have not stopped, that is where the fear is.”
UN officials in Batticaloa said that if the high-level discussions between the two communities continued, calm could be restored in Batticaloa.
“We hope that the dialogue continues,” OCHA’s Mwape said. “It will help to bring down the tension and restore trust between the communities, and hopefully enable us to get on with our relief and reconstruction activities.”
[Reported by United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs - Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN)]
June 4th, 2008
Report by United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs-Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN):
The election of the former child soldier Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan as first chief minister of Sri Lanka’s eastern provincial administration has been welcomed as a sign that stability and the rule of law might be returning to the region after more than two decades of conflict.
Chandrakanthan, alias Pillayan, the 33-year-old head of the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP), a breakaway faction of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), was sworn in on 16 May by President Mahinda Rajapakse.
Chandrakanthan joined the Tamil Tigers at 15 in 1990. The transition from child soldier to a normal life has not been as easy for most other former child soldiers. And specialists on children’s rights and children in conflict in the eastern province are not convinced the threat of child recruitment has been removed.
[Children who have been separated from their parents in Batticaloa District due to the long-running conflict between the TamilTigers and government forces]
“There are still so many incidents occurring and a large military presence remains in some areas of the east,” Kadirgamarpillai Ariyarathnam, a consultant with the Professional Psychological Counseling Center (PPCC) in the eastern city of Batticaloa, 300km east of the capital, Colombo, told IRIN.
“Normalcy not only has to return but remain for some time for these kids to even think of a normal life,” Ariyarathnam said.
The PPCC cares for 207 children affected by the war in seven centres in the east. The children include former recruits and those separated from their parents or guardians.
Threat of re-recruitment
Ariyarathnam told IRIN that experience had taught the PPCC not to rush children back to their homes, despite extended lulls in the fighting. In April 2004, the PPCC had to take care of a large number of former combatants when Chandrakanthan, along with his then leader, Vinyagamourthi Muralitharan, alias Karuna, broke ranks with the Tigers and disbanded cadres.
[Many former child recruits and separated children face deep psychological wounds. The return to normalcy takes time and a politically and socially conducive environment-pics: Amantha Perera]
“Several months after that, the same kids were facing the threat of re-recruitment when the two sides [the TMVP and the Tamil Tigers] started clashing,” he said. “When a number of children returned to Muttur and Sampoor towns in Trincomalee District, Eastern Province, in 2007 [as part of a government-sponsored resettlement programme after the Tigers had been ousted from the areas in early 2007], some expressed fear of remaining in their villages,” Ariyarathnam said.
They were afraid they would be harassed for having earlier been with the Tamil Tigers. Other agencies that counsel traumatised children told IRIN that a complete overhaul of the political and social climate was necessary if the children were to return to normal lives.
“These are buried wounds, we cannot open these,” Getsi Shanmugam, a counsellor with the Eastern Self-reliant Community Organization (ESCO), which helps children in Trincomalee and Batticaloa Districts, told IRIN. “We have to wake up to the inner problems of these kids and a network of agencies working with children is necessary to make sure they are not left alone once they return home.”
PPCC’s Ariyarathnam said that despite the massive 2007 return programme, most resettlement communities continue to lack basic facilities. “What are these kids to return to? The roads are a mess, the schools are damaged and there are no jobs,” Ariyarathnam said.
Chandrakanthan now has the opportunity to ensure a brighter future for a younger generation of child recruits who shared his experience. “Let’s hope he does just that,” said Ariyarathnam.
May 21st, 2008
The overwhelming success of the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP), a breakaway faction of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), in the 10 March local government elections in the eastern Batticaloa District has prompted the group, backed by the Sri Lankan government, to seek additional victories at provincial level.
Sivasuntharai Chandrakanthan, alias Pillayan, the TMVP leader
The TMVP won majorities in all nine areas up for election and secured 76 of the 101 seats on offer with its coalition partner, the United People’s Freedom Alliance, which holds power in parliament.
“These are very small councils, the power is very small,” Azad Moulana, the party spokesperson said. “This is the first step; we can do more in the provincial councils.”
Two days after the election, the government announced that elections for the Eastern Provincial Council, which includes the districts of Batticaloa, Trincomalee and Amapara in eastern Sri Lanka, would be held on 10 May.
“It [the 10 March election] demonstrated the shape of events to come … the success of the election has paved the way for provincial council elections in May,” Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama said.
The poll was held 10 months after the Sri Lankan government gained control of all areas formerly held by the LTTE in Batticaloa District, including Ichchanthivu, an interior village west of the town.
The legitimacy of the election, however, has been disputed, with two of the largest opposition parties, the United National Party (UNP) and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) boycotting it.
Their absence paved the way for the TMVP landslide. The TMVP has been accused by the UN and other agencies of child recruitment, abductions and other violations.
Election monitors, the People’s Action for Free and Fair Election (PAFFREL), stated that despite no violence nor incidents of rigging being reported on polling day, there was a lot of pressure on candidates opposed to the TMVP to not stand.
[Women wade through pools of water to reach the polling station in Ichchanthivu recently-Photo: Amantha Perera/IRIN]
“The entire course of the election, from the time of its announcement, was free of overt violence,” it said in its interim report on the poll. “However, during this period PAFFREL received several reports of intimidation of candidates, which is not acceptable in a democratic process.”
The TMVP, a formerly outright militant group, remains heavily armed, although it has ostensibly entered mainstream politics. On the eve of the election, IRIN witnessed at least a dozen young men bearing T56 machine guns inside the TMVP compound on Lake Drive in Batticaloa town.
“We will disarm once we enter democratic politics,” Sivasuntharai Chandrakanthan, alias Pillayan, the head of the TMVP, said soon after casting his vote.
The presence of armed TMVP cadres proved unnerving to most civilians, despite the peaceful ballot. “We want reassurances that we will not be harmed, that we can live in peace,” said Vellappaddi Sellamma, 56, from Ichchanthivu village in Batticaloa district, 300km from Colombo, the capital. “We want our children to live without fear.”
Sellamma could not remember the last time she cast a vote to elect a public official and like many others was excited to exercise her newly gained franchise. It was the first time in 14 years that she or neighbours had the opportunity to cast their votes.
But even given their enthusiasm for the voting process, few held high hopes that the elected officials would bring much change. “They will not do much …all this will be quickly forgotten,” Irasamani Thangaraja from the same village said. “We don’t want to hope and be disappointed.”
But the government thinks otherwise. Soon after the election, it hailed the vote as an endorsement of its policies in the east.
“They [Batticaloa voters] have shown the world that they want to defeat separatism,” government media minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa told the media in Colombo on 11 March. “The government has commenced a giant development drive in the east. Under the Eastern Resurgence Programme, schools, roads, bridges, hospitals and all other facilities will be provided.”
After more than two decades of fighting between government forces and the Tigers, the district has suffered immensely, especially areas such as Ichchanthivu that were under LTTE rule for about 12 years until the Tamil Tigers were swept out by government security forces.
Between 2007 and 2008, some 100,000 people who were displaced have been resettled in the district, according to the Ministry of Resettlement and Disaster Relief Services, Rishad Badiudeen, while another 18,000 will be resettled shortly.
Related: Sri Lanka’s Wild East Plans First Vote in Over 10 Years [NY Times]
March 21st, 2008
Flash floods displace thousands in war-torn area
More than 50,000 people have been hit by flooding in northwestern Mannar District in Sri Lanka since 12 March, the government said. The area has witnessed intense clashes between government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) during the last six months, restricting access to relief agencies.
Flooding caused by torrential rains has affected 173,909 people in nine districts of the country, including 120,000 in the eastern Batticaloa District, and left five dead, the National Disaster Relief Services Centre (NDRSC) said on 19 March.
“Floods have caused immense damage to affected areas, interrupting all economic and social activities,” the NDRSC stated in a situation report. “It is also reported that there is tremendous damage to infrastructure facilities in the areas [of Mannar]. About 14,010 families or 54,323 people have been affected.”
The report also stated that 40 houses had been destroyed and 155 damaged in the eight districts. The NDRSC said the government had allocated three million rupees (US$27,000) as emergency funds for affected districts and Rs2 million ($18,000) for Mannar District.
Initial assessment reports by the NDRSC said damage to crops could be high as the rains came just before the harvesting season.
“There are 12,000 acres of paddy land that were to be harvested when the floods hit,” A Nicholaspillai, the government agent for Mannar, told IRIN. “We still don’t have exact figures, but damage to the harvest is something we will have to deal with.”
Nicholaspillai also said seed would have to be provided to farmers for the upcoming season.
Officials of the Sri Lanka Red Cross (SLRC) said there were indications of damage to crops in at least one other southern district. “The initial reports we have indicate that there have been significant crop losses in the southern district of Badulla,” Merik Peiris, executive director, communications and humanitarian values at the SLRC, told IRIN.
Government officials in Mannar told IRIN they had began distributing relief items and were awaiting assessment reports to decide on additional assistance. “We started distributing meals almost as soon as the first displacements were reported over the weekend,” Nicholaspillai told IRIN. “We have made initial plans to continue the distribution for three days at least.”
Increasing clashes between government forces and the LTTE along the line of control in Mannar District and other security concerns had already restricted access to the district before the latest flooding.
“Since 4 February, access has been restricted to vehicles north of Madawachchiya checkpoint, creating additional challenges for civilian travel across Mannar District,” the Inter-Agency Standing Committee stated in a situation report released on 15 March.
However, Peiris said the SLRC did not foresee the security restrictions limiting the relief effort in Mannar. “We already have a network there and plan to work through government agencies.”
He added that while the immediate needs of the victims, such as cooked food and clothes, would be provided, SLRC would need additional assistance, such as non-food items, as the flood waters receded and the displaced began returning home.
“There will be lot of demand for dry rations and baby food after they return home,” he said. “We also will have to look at health concerns and loss of livelihoods.”
March 21st, 2008