Sri Lankans wait for lost relatives as UN begins war crimes probe

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Manuel Udayachandra holds a photo of her eldest son, Anton Seerado, during recent protests held in the Mannar district of northern Sri Lanka. Seerado went missing 13 years ago. (Supplied)
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Updated 28 March 2021

Sri Lankans wait for lost relatives as UN begins war crimes probe

  • Probe follows UK-led resolution last week giving new powers to UNHRC to gather evidence on atrocities committed during 26-year-old conflict
  • Between 80,000 and 100,000 people died during brutal clashes between government and separatist Tamil Tigers

COLOMBO: It has been 13 years since Manuel Udayachandra’s son, Anton Seerado, went missing from the Pallimunai village of northern Sri Lanka's war-torn Mannar district.

But even today, the 63-year-old mother of four continues to wait for her eldest child to return home. 

“There is no closure,” she told Arab News on Sunday, nearly a week after the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) received a mandate to collect evidence of crimes committed during Sri Lanka’s 26-year-old conflict, which began in 1983 and is among the world’s longest-running and bloodiest wars. 

According to UN estimates, between 80,000 and 100,000 people died during brutal clashes between the government and the separatist Tamil Tigers or the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). 

The LTTE’s campaign was to carve out a separate state for the Tamil minority, who they said were being discriminated against by the majority Sinhalese on the island. 

Tamils constitute 17 percent, while Muslims make up 10 percent of Sri Lanka’s total population of 22 million.

The war ended in 2009, but not before hundreds of thousands lost their lives and countless others went missing.

Udayachandra’s son Seerado was one of them.

“One night, the police came to my house and took him. He was only 24,” Udayachandra, who hails from the Tamil community, told Arab News, recalling the last time she saw her son more than a decade ago.

“His disappearance has been everlasting agony. We have tried our best to track him, but all efforts were in vain,” she added.

Udayachandra is not alone. Suba Letchumi, 65, also lost her 19-year-old son during the ethnic war.

“I have combed all parts of the island in search of my son and have gone to more than 50 government departments to find out what really happened to him,” Letchumi, a Tamil resident of Mannar district, told Arab News.

Now, she added, “I’m running out of hope.”

However, the UNHRC’s move to reopen case files and collect evidence to probe new ones has renewed hope for several war victims and their families on the island nation.

The resolution was passed on Tuesday after UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet warned that Sri Lanka could “rapidly descend into violence unless decisive international action was taken.”

Last month, Bachelet told the UNHCR that the island nation had “closed the door” on ending impunity for past abuses before expressing alarm over “worrying trends” in the country since President Gotabaya Rajapaksa assumed office in 2019.

Tuesday’s resolution, spearheaded by the UK, gives Bachelet’s office new staff, powers and a $2.8 million budget to look at Sri Lanka’s war, with a view to future prosecutions with immediate effect, according to Reuters.

Former politicians and lawmakers hailed the resolution as a “great triumph for minorities in Sri Lanka.”

“They were harassed and have suffered for years,” opposition Parliamentarian Sanakiyan Rasamanickam, who represents the Tamil-dominated Eastern Province, told Arab News.

Two weeks ago, he led a group of protesters during a 300-mile campaign from Pottuvil in the east to Point Pedro in the north to seek justice for oppressed minorities on the island, “particularly Muslims who are being forced to cremate relatives who died from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19).”

Rasamanickam believes that anger over the forced cremations and the government’s proposal to impose a burqa ban on Muslim women has provoked the world community “to go against Sri Lanka.” 

“This should be an eye-opener for Sri Lanka to mend its ways and stop harassing minorities,” he told Arab News.

The UN vote was 22 in favor, with 11 against it, including China and Pakistan. India and 13 other countries abstained from taking part in the process.

In comments to reporters soon after the vote, Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena said that the government “would not give in to the unfair pressure” brought by the UNHRC resolution and would “continue to conduct a domestic probe into allegations of human rights violations” in Sri Lanka.

Rights groups and activists, however, welcomed the UN’s initiative.

“The UN’s decision to collect evidence of crimes during the war gives us relief that future harassments will not happen and that UN interference will keep the government under check,” Yardson Figurado, a human rights activist from the Mannar Social and Economic Development Organization, told Arab News on Sunday. 

However, he was quick to add a caveat: India should have voted too, especially since it has “eight crores (80 million) Tamils” living in its territory.

In 1991, nearly a decade after the civil war had begun, an LTTE suicide bomber assassinated then Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in an apparent act of revenge for sending Indian peacekeeping troops to fight against the rebels.

Figurado said he was “thoroughly disappointed that India abstained from voting,” considering its large Tamil population.

He added that Sri Lankan Tamils had treated India as “their partner in distress, but it has let them down badly with this move.”

Meanwhile, senior journalist and political analyst Ameen Izzadeen believes that Sri Lanka’s image on the international stage had been “tarnished” by the UN’s move.

“Sri Lanka understands the consequences of non-compliance even though the resolution is non-binding,” he told Arab News on Sunday.

“Some Western powers and their allies may impose targeted sanctions. Sri Lanka is counting heavily on China and Russia to overcome the challenge. Since geopolitics are also involved, it may get some space to maneuver its way out of the crisis,” he added.

Dr. Dayan Jayatilake, Sri Lanka’s former representative to the UN, agreed, adding: “It is up to the Sri Lankan government to cooperate with the UNHRC and face its consequences.

“If the government takes a tough line against the resolution, it may have to bear the brunt of the actions taken by some UN member countries,” he told Arab News on Sunday.

According to sources who requested anonymity as they were not authorized to speak to the media, the resolution is unlikely to have an immediate impact on Sri Lanka but “could affect trade with some countries and impose travel restrictions on some officials” in the long run.

Still, it offers little respite to families of war victims. For Udayachandra, it means an eternal wait.

“We do not know how much the UN move will help us find our dear ones who are still missing after so many years. We do not know when that wait will be over.”

Democracy languishes 30 years after Cambodia peace deal

Updated 21 October 2021

Democracy languishes 30 years after Cambodia peace deal

  • Hun Sen has amassed vast fortunes for his family, while almost 30 percent of Cambodians live barely above the poverty line, says Australian FM Gareth Evans, one of the architects of the peace deal

PHNOM PENH: Three decades after a landmark agreement ended years of bloody violence in Cambodia, its strongman ruler has crushed all opposition and is eyeing dynastic succession, shattering hopes for a democratic future.
The Paris Peace Agreements, signed on October 23, 1991, brought an end to nearly two decades of savage slaughter that began with the Khmer Rouge’s ascent to power in 1975.
The genocidal regime wiped out up to two million Cambodians through murder, starvation and overwork, before a Vietnamese invasion toppled the communist Khmer Rouge but triggered a civil war.
The Paris accords paved the way for Cambodia’s first democratic election in 1993 and effectively brought the Cold War in Asia to an end.
Aid from the West flowed and Cambodia became the poster child for post-conflict transition to democracy.
But the gains were short-lived and Premier Hun Sen, now in his fourth decade in power, has led a sustained crackdown on dissent.
“We did a great job on bringing peace, but blew it on democracy and human rights,” said former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans, one of the architects of the peace deal.

Evans said it was a mistake to agree to Hun Sen’s demands for a power-sharing arrangement after the 1993 election.
“Hun Sen has amassed vast fortunes for his family... while almost 30 percent of Cambodians live barely above the poverty line,” he said.
Rights groups say the veteran strongman maintains his iron grip on the country through a mix of violence, politically motivated prosecutions and corruption.
Exiled opposition figurehead Sam Rainsy said the international community lacked the will in 1993 to stand up to Hun Sen, who had been installed as ruler by the Vietnamese in 1985.
“The West had a tendency to wait and see and look for imagined gradual improvements in governance. That clearly did not work,” he told AFP.
“Cambodian politicians also have to accept some blame. Too many found it easier to accept a quiet but lucrative life in government than to say what they really thought.”
Human Rights Watch said that under Hun Sen, “even the patina of democracy and basic rights” has collapsed in recent years.
In 2017, the Supreme Court dissolved the main opposition, the Cambodia National Rescue Party.
And since the 2018 election — in which Hun Sen’s party won every seat in parliament — the authorities have arrested scores of former opposition members and rights campaigners.
Around 150 opposition figures and activists are facing a mass trial for treason and incitement charges, while the main opposition leader Kem Sokha is facing a separate treason trial.
Covid-19 has seen more curbs, with over 700 people arrested according to the UN rights body, which has warned that most may not have had a fair trial.
The spokesman for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party insisted it was the “will of the people” to have one party in parliament.
“We have peace, we have political stability, it reflects that we correctly implement the principles of democracy, and there is no abuse of human rights either,” Sok Eysan told AFP.

There has been some international censure — the European Union withdrew preferential trade rates last year over rights abuses — but the pressure shows little sign of translating into change.
“The reality is Cambodia has become a wholly-owned subsidiary of China, like Laos next door, and that means Hun Sen has been able to comfortably thumb his nose at any potential economic or political pressure from elsewhere,” Evans said.
Speculation has simmered that the 69-year-old Hun Sen is grooming his eldest son Hun Manet — a four-star general educated in Britain and the United States — to take over the leadership one day.
But in March, the veteran ruler said he would no longer set a date for his retirement, and activists have little hope that a change in leadership will bring a new direction.
“In Cambodia, we don’t have real democracy,” Batt Raksmey told AFP.
Her campaigner husband was jailed in May for allegedly inciting unrest after he raised environmental concerns about a lake on the edge of Phnom Penh.
“People have no freedom to speak their opinion,” she said. “When they speak out and criticize the government, they are arrested.”

China says moon rocks offer new clues to volcanic activity

Updated 21 October 2021

China says moon rocks offer new clues to volcanic activity

  • China in December brought back the first rocks from the moon since missions by the US and former Soviet Union in the 1970s

BEIJING: Moon rocks brought back to Earth by a Chinese robotic spacecraft last year have provided new insights into ancient lunar volcanic activity, a researcher said Tuesday.
Li Xianhua said an analysis of the samples revealed new information about the moon’s chemical composition and the way heat affected its development.
Li said the samples indicate volcanic activity was still occurring on the moon as recently as 2 billion years ago, compared to previous estimates that such activity halted between 2.8 billion and 3 billion years ago.
“Volcanic activities are a very important thing on the moon. They show the vitality inside the moon, and represent the recycling of energy and matter inside the moon,” Li told reporters.
China in December brought back the first rocks from the moon since missions by the US and former Soviet Union in the 1970s.
On Saturday, China launched a new three-person crew to its space station, a new milestone in a space program that has advanced rapidly in recent years.
China became only the third country after the former Soviet Union and the United States to put a person in space on its own in 2003 and now ranks among the leading space powers.
Alongside its crewed program, it has expanded its work on robotic exploration, retrieving the lunar samples and landing a rover on the little-explored far side of the moon. It has also placed the Tianwen-1 space probe on Mars, whose accompanying Zhurong rover has been exploring for evidence of life on the red planet.
China also plans to collect soil from an asteroid and bring back additional lunar samples. The country also hopes to land people on the moon and possibly build a scientific base there. A highly secretive space plane is also reportedly under development.
The military-run Chinese space program has also drawn controversy. China’s Foreign Ministry on Monday brushed-off a report that China had tested a hypersonic missile two months ago. A ministry spokesperson said it had merely tested whether a new spacecraft could be reused.

Melbourne readies to exit world’s longest COVID-19 lockdown

Updated 21 October 2021

Melbourne readies to exit world’s longest COVID-19 lockdown

  • Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Thursday confirmed the state had reached that target, with more restrictions set to ease as inoculations hit 80% and 90%

SYDNEY: Millions in Melbourne are readying to come out of the world's longest COVID-19 lockdown later on Thursday even as cases hover near record levels, with pubs, restaurants and cafes rushing to restock supplies before opening their doors.
Since early August, residents in Australia's second-largest city have been in lockdown — their sixth during the pandemic — to quell an outbreak fuelled by the highly infectious Delta strain.
Officials had promised to lift lockdowns once double-dose vaccinations for people aged above 16 exceeded 70% in Victoria state, of which Melbourne is the capital.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Thursday confirmed the state had reached that target, with more restrictions set to ease as inoculations hit 80% and 90%.
"The longest road has been journeyed in Victoria and that long road really starts to open up tonight," Morrison told Seven News on Thursday.
From 11:59 p.m. (1359 GMT) Thursday, pubs and cafes can have 20 fully vaccinated patrons indoors and 50 outdoors, while hairdressers can allow entry for five customers. Masks will still be mandatory both indoors and outdoors.
By then, the city of five million would have spent a cumulative 262 days, or nearly nine months, under stay-home orders since March 2020 — the world's longest, exceeding a 234-day lockdown in Buenos Aires, according to Australian media.
Pubs have begun to take more beer ahead of the reopening with Carlton & United Breweries, owned by Japan's Asahi Group Holdings, saying it had moved an extra 50,000 kegs to venues across the city on Thursday.
As businesses prepare to welcome customers, daily infections rose to 2,232 in Victoria on Thursday, the second highest daily count in any Australian jurisdiction during the pandemic.

After largely stamping out infections in 2020, Australia has ditched its COVID-zero approach and is aiming to live with virus amid higher vaccinations after being rocked by a third wave of infections in the country's southeast since mid-June.
Despite the Delta wave, Australia has recorded only about 152,000 cases and 1,590 deaths, far lower than many comparable countries.
Cases in New South Wales, home to Sydney, rose for the third straight day on Thursday to 372 from 283 a day earlier.
Virus-free Queensland state is on alert after reporting its first new local case in two weeks — an unvaccinated Uber driver who spent 10 days in the community while potentially infectious.
Sydney and Canberra, the national capital, exited lockdowns last week after speeding through their vaccination targets. Other states are COVID-free or have very few cases.
With restrictions beginning to ease, Qantas Airways said it would ramp up daily flights between Sydney and Melbourne, one of the world's busiest domestic routes before the pandemic, to about 15 from the first week of November from just one now.

US FDA clears Moderna, J&J COVID-19 boosters, backs use of different vaccine for boost

Updated 21 October 2021

US FDA clears Moderna, J&J COVID-19 boosters, backs use of different vaccine for boost

The US Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday authorized booster doses of the COVID-19 vaccines from Moderna Inc. and Johnson & Johnson, and said Americans can choose a different shot from their original inoculation as a booster.
That means all three vaccines authorized in the United States can also be given as boosters to some groups.
“The availability of these authorized boosters is important for continued protection against COVID-19 disease,” acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock said in a statement. She noted that data suggests vaccine effectiveness may wane over time in some fully vaccinated people.
The decision paves the way for millions in the United States to get the additional protection as the highly contagious Delta variant of the virus causes breakthrough infections among some who are fully vaccinated.
The agency previously authorized boosters of the Pfizer Inc. COVID-19 vaccine developed with German partner BioNTech SE at least six months after the first round of shots to increase protection for people aged 65 and older, those at risk of severe disease and those who are exposed to the virus through their work.
Last week, an advisory panel to the FDA voted to recommend a third round of shots of the Moderna vaccine for the same groups. Moderna’s booster is half the strength of the shots administered for the company’s initial series of inoculations.
The panel also recommended a second shot of the J&J vaccine for all recipients of the one-dose inoculation at least two months after receiving their first.
FDA officials suggested last week they were considering lowering the recommended age for booster shots of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to as young as 40, based on data from Israel, where Pfizer booster shots have already been administered broadly.
They did not lower the age range for the shots on Wednesday, but said they were assessing the benefits and risks of broader use of boosters and plan to update the public in the coming weeks.
“There is evidence that suggests potentially that lowering the age of those eligible for boosters may make sense in the future,” FDA official Peter Marks told a news conference. “It’s something we’re looking at closely.”
The FDA and US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) were under pressure to authorize the additional shots after the White House announced plans in August for a widespread booster campaign.
The advisory panel meeting included a presentation of data on mixing vaccines from a US National Institutes of Health study in which 458 participants received some combination of Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna and J&J shots.
The data showed that people who initially got J&J’s COVID-19 vaccine had a stronger immune response when boosted with either the Pfizer or Moderna shot, and that “mixing and matching” booster shots of different types was safe in adults.
Still, FDA officials said the data was not yet clear on whether any shot combination should be preferred.
“Because we don’t have those data right now, I think we just have to be noncommittal about what is the best,” Marks said.
Many countries including the UK have backed mix-and-match strategies for the widely used AstraZeneca Plc vaccine, which is not authorized in the United States but is based on similar viral vector technology as J&J’s vaccine.
Reuters reported in June that infectious disease experts were weighing the need for booster shots of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine after the J&J shot.
A CDC advisory committee on Thursday will make its recommendations about which groups of people should get the Moderna and J&J boosters, which the agency’s director will use to inform her final decision.
About 11.2 million people have so far received a booster dose, according to data from the CDC.

South Korea seeks space race entry with first homegrown rocket

Updated 21 October 2021

South Korea seeks space race entry with first homegrown rocket

  • South Korea's space program has a chequered record — its first two launches in 2009 and 2010, which in part used Russian technology, both ended in failure

SEOUL: South Korea is aiming to join the ranks of advanced spacefaring nations on Thursday when it attempts to put a one-ton payload into orbit using its first fully homegrown rocket.
The country has risen to become the world’s 12th-largest economy and a technologically advanced nation, home to the planet’s biggest smartphone and memory chip maker, Samsung Electronics.
But it has lagged in the headline-making world of spaceflight, where the Soviet Union led the way with the first satellite launch in 1957, closely followed by the United States.
In Asia, China, Japan and India all have advanced space programs, and the South’s nuclear-armed neighbor North Korea was the most recent entrant to the club of countries with their own satellite launch capability.
Ballistic missiles and space rockets use similar technology and Pyongyang put a 300-kilogramme (660-pound) satellite into orbit in 2012 in what Western countries condemned as a disguised missile test.
Even now, only six nations — not including North Korea — have successfully launched a one-ton payload on their own rockets.
The South will become the seventh if the Korean Satellite Launch Vehicle II, informally called Nuri, succeeds in putting its 1.5-ton dummy cargo into orbit from the launch site in Goheung, with an altitude of 600 to 800 kilometers being targeted.
The three-stage rocket has been a decade in development at a cost of 2 trillion won ($1.6 billion). It weighs 200 tons and is 47.2 meters (155 feet) long, fitted with a total of six liquid-fueled engines.

But the South Korean space program has a chequered record — its first two launches in 2009 and 2010, which in part used Russian technology, both ended in failure, the second one exploding two minutes into the flight and Seoul and Moscow blaming each other.
Eventually a 2013 launch succeeded, but still relied on a Russian-developed engine for its first stage.
The satellite launch business is increasingly the preserve of private companies, notably Elon Musk’s SpaceX, whose clients include the US space agency NASA and the South Korean military.
But one expert said a successful Nuri launch offered South Korea “infinite” potential.
“Rockets are the only means available to mankind to go out into space,” Lee Sang-ryul, the director of the Korea Aerospace Research Institute, told local paper Chosun Biz.
“Having such technology means we have fulfilled basic requirements to join this space exploration competition.”
Thursday’s launch is one step on an increasingly ambitious space program for South Korea, which President Moon Jae-in said would seek to launch a lunar orbiter next year, after he inspected a Nuri engine test in March.
“With achievements in South Korean rocket systems, the government will pursue an active space exploration project,” he said.
“We will realize the dream of landing our probe on the Moon by 2030.”