Tuesday, October 26, 2010

SLA soldiers chase away resettled Tamil families in Jaffna

Tamil Net

Nearly a hundred Sri Lanka Army (SLA) soldiers chased away Monday night more than fifty Tamil families who had returned after fifteen years to resettle in their lands in Vasanthapuram village in Ma’niam Thoaddam area located within Jaffna Municipal Council limits, sources in Jaffna said.

The Sinhala families from South who had recently come to Jaffna seeking resettlement demand to be settled in Ma’niam Thoaddam which they claim as the lands of ancient Sinhala people, the sources added. The uprooted Tamil families had come to their lands Saturday and begun constructing sheds to live in.

SLA in its offensives in 1995 to occupy Jaffna had driven away the Tamils living in Ma’niam Thoaddam.

The fifty Tamil families consisting 200 to 250 persons are again homeless being driven away from their own lands by occupying SLA.

SLA had erected big camps in Ma’niam Thoaddam when it invaded the area in 1995 and the Sinhala families claiming resettlement are encouraged and assisted to demand the lands around the camp to settle, the sources further said.

© Tamil Net

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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

UN withdraws war probe Panel on Sri Lanka, asks for direct submissions before Dec.15

By K.T.Rajasingham | Asian Tribune

There will be no investigation by the panel appointed by the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and no visit by the panel members to Sri Lanka, according to emerging reports.

When Asian Tribune contacted sources in the United Nations it was revealed that there will be no investigation by the three member panel appointed by the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in 22 June 2010.

A number of senior diplomats in New York also took to the view that the panel must stay within its mandate. It was also confirmed that, contrary to some circles in Colombo, the panel members have not been asked to visit Sri Lanka up to now by the UN Secretary General.

Diplomats have categorically pointed out that the said UN panel’s mandate was very vague and there was no mention about investigations.

The UN spokesperson Martin Nesirky when announcing about the appointment of the Panel said "The panel will advise the secretary-general on the implementation of the commitment on human rights accountability made in the join statement issued by president (Mahinda) Rajapaksa of Sri Lanka and the secretary-general."

“The panel will look into the modalities, applicable international standards and comparative experience in regard to accountability processes taking into account the nature and scope of any alleged violations in Sri Lanka," Nesirky said.

The UN has made it very clear that the panel is not a fact finding or investigative body.

The Panel officially began its work on 16 September 2010.

In the meeting between President Rajapaksa and the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on 24 September, which took place on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly sessions in New York, Ban Ki-Moon explained to President Rajapaksa that the Committee appointed by him relating to Sri Lanka was in no way empowered to investigate charges against Sri Lanka, but was solely to advice him with matters relating to Sri Lanka.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa apprised the UNSG that the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) is fully transparent and has been established on the principles of accountability in keeping with Sri Lanka’s own method of searching for the truth regarding its prolonged conflict, and identifying ways of preventing such conflicts in the future.

Also Sri Lanka's Foreign Minister Prof. GL Peiris on his first visit to the United Nations in September this year, asked Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to not to interfere in the internal matters of the country and allow Colombo to conduct ‘a domestic probe.’

In the meantime a contradictory report reveals that the UN Expert Panel has called for evidence on alleged violations in Sri-Lanka.

Accordingly, anyone wishing to make submissions in respect of the above may do so as follows:

1. Organizations and individuals may make one written submission not exceeding ten pages, and must include the contact details for the author(s) of the submission.

2. The Panel will receive submissions until 15 December 2010.

3. Submissions may be sent to: panelofexpertsregistry@un.org.

4. Submissions made to the Panel of Experts will be treated as confidential.

Further information may be solicited from the Panel s Secretariat at the following address: panelofexpertsregistry@un.org.

Earlier in June, UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said that the UN panel would be chaired by former Indonesian attorney general Marzuki Darusman, who is also the UN special rights investigator to North Korea, and will submit its report within four months. He added that the other two members are South African human rights lawyer Yasmin Sooka who served on her country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Steven Ratner, a US international law expert who advised the UN on how to bring Cambodia's Khmer Rouge to justice.

Mr Nesirky said the panel "will advise him [Mr Ban] on the issue of accountability with regard to any alleged violations of international human rights and humanitarian law during the final stages of the conflict in Sri Lanka".

However, reports clearly revealed that three member panel on Sri Lanka is not an investigative body and its mandate is vague.

Sri Lankan government slammed the decision of the UN to set up a panel of experts to advice the secretary-general Ban-ki-Moon on human rights situation in Sri Lanka, saying it was "unwarranted" since Colombo has already formed a mechanism to address accountability issues.

In July, the Sri Lankan government set up the "Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission" with eight members that will report back in six months.

In the aftermath of the appointment of the panel, Russia and China in their capacity as two of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council objected to such a panel appointment.

On 24th June Russian Foreign Ministry in a press release categorically rejected the appointment and said “Moscow has taken note of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s decision to appoint a UN panel of experts to investigate war crimes during the period of the campaign against the Tamil Tigers.

The press release added: “As follows from UN sources, this panel is not a fact finding or investigation mechanism, but is designed solely to advise him on accountability issues relating to alleged violations of international human rights and humanitarian law. In doing so, the UN Secretary-General as chief administrative officer of the United Nations should apparently have asked the opinion of the Security Council or the General Assembly on this matter. But this has not happened. What also makes us cautious is the fact that this decision was taken without regard to the position of a sovereign state and a member of the UN – Sri Lanka. As is known, they in Sri Lanka have already begun their own investigation process at national level (the Commission on Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation with a mandate to review all aspects of the conflict).”

“As follows from the statement made on behalf of the Government of Sri Lanka by the External Affairs Ministry of that country, and the statement of its Minister of Information, Sri Lanka “regards the appointment of the Sri Lanka Panel of Experts as unwarranted and unnecessary and contrary to the position of a UN member state.” Lynn Pascoe, the Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, who visited Sri Lanka a few days ago, as we understand, was aware of this position of Colombo.

“We believe that the primary responsibility for investigating the events that occurred in the past in Sri Lanka lies with its Government and that the newly appointed UN panel of experts, which, as follows from UN Secretariat statements, does not intend to visit Sri Lanka, will not take any steps that would complicate the investigation being conducted by the authorities of Colombo.

“The Chinese government also criticized the appointment of a panel and expressed its support for Sri Lanka's stance against the Panel of Experts appointed by the United Nations Secretary-General to investigate alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka during the war against the Tamil Tiger rebels.

“China said that it believes Sri Lanka is capable of handling their own problems and urged the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and world community to help the Colombo stabilize its internal situation.

Responding to questions regarding the panel at a regular press conference, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said Sri Lanka has appointed its own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission to probe the violations of human rights during the war.

"China believes that the Sri Lankan government and its people are capable of handling various issues," the spokesman said.

© Asian Tribune

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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Sri Lanka raises defence spending by six percent

Agence France-Presse

Sri Lanka announced Tuesday it would raise defence spending by six percent in 2011 - broadly in line with annual hikes announced during the government's war with Tamil rebels.

The government allocated 215 billion rupees (1.92 billion dollars) for defence in calendar 2011, according to official figures tabled in parliament Tuesday -- about a fifth of the national budget.

Official sources say the state needs to keep defence spending high, despite the fact the ethnic war has ended, because of hefty installment payments on military hardware bought to fight the separatist Tamil Tigers.

Government forces crushed the rebels in May 2009, ending what had become Asia's longest-running ethnic conflict that claimed up to 100,000 lives over nearly four decades, according to UN estimates.

The highest portion of the defence budget next year in the island nation of 20 million people will go to the army.

The army will absorb just over half of the entire defence spending to maintain its 200,000 personnel, the figures show.

President Mahinda Rajapakse, who is also finance minister, is due to unveil the full 2011 budget on November 22, when he is expected to announce new revenue raising proposals to meet state expenses.

Sri Lanka's fiscal deficit shot up to 9.7 percent of gross domestic product in 2009, exceeding the seven percent target set by the International Monetary Fund when it released a 2.6-billion-dollar bailout package in 2009.


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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Sri Lanka 'pays PR firm £3m to boost post-war image'

By Saroj Pathirana | BBC Sinhala Service

The Sri Lankan government is paying a top British PR firm about £3m ($4.7m) a year to try to enhance the country's post-war image, the BBC understands.

Bell Pottinger Group was recently hired to lobby UK, UN and EU officials.

The government says it employs several PR companies but will not disclose their names or the amount paid. Bell Pottinger also refused to give details.

Sri Lanka's authorities strongly deny alleged human rights abuses in the defeat of Tamil Tiger rebels last year.
Tourist arrivals

Bell Pottinger - whose motto on its website is "Better reputations, better results" - is believed to be lobbying on Sri Lanka's behalf in Brussels, following an EU decision to withdraw special tax concessions called GSP Plus.

The European Union decided in July to withdraw Sri Lanka's preferential trade access to EU markets, saying it had failed to improve its human rights record.

It is thought the firm was also employed in Sri Lanka's attempts to prevent the UN secretary general appointing an advisory panel on alleged war crimes committed during the civil war.

In the UK, the group's main focus is countering what the Sri Lankan government says is propaganda by pro-Tamil Tiger groups in the influential Tamil diaspora.

Last week the firm helped promote the UK visit of Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Prof GL Peiris, who gave the keynote speech at London's International Institute of Strategic Studies.

Sri Lanka's Central Bank Governor Ajith Nivard Cabraal confirmed that the government had hired a few PR companies. But he refused to reveal the amounts paid.

"So many people are spending huge sums of money to tarnish our country's image. Media institutions are also involved in this. We will do everything possible to boost that image and I believe it is our duty," he told the BBC.

A Sri Lankan government source, who did not want to be named, confirmed to the BBC that the amount paid to Bell Pottinger was in the region of £3m this year.

Sri Lanka's image abroad - and in the UK in particular - has much resting on it. Britain is the main provider of tourists to the country from outside the South Asia region.

Sanjika Perera, the UK Director of Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau, said: "Arrivals from the UK are up 30% year on year and the market sentiments/forward bookings indicate that UK will pass the 100,000 mark in arrivals in 2010."

Tourism promotion in the UK is handled by two other PR firms, Representation Plus and Romanski.

When a request was made under the Freedom of Information act, the chairman of Bell Pottinger's parent company, Chime Communications, told the BBC Sinhala service that the act only covers UK government departments and certain contractors.

"Further I must tell you all our client contracts are commercially confidential - consequently we cannot supply the information you seek," Lord Bell said.

© BBC News

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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Amid Sri Lanka's boom, life for Tamils remains bleak

Photo courtesy: Ross Tuttle

By Rick Westhead | The Star

The weathered wooden bench that serves as an open-air confessional booth at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church doesn’t enjoy much down time nowadays.

It’s not that more people are seeking forgiveness in this seaside chapel. Rather, parishioners have been flocking here just for the chance to sit with Father Cryton Outschoorn, to listen to his soothing assurance that their lives, clouded for so many years by fear and violence, are getting better.

“It seems like forever people here have been asking, ‘what can happen to us next?’ so it’s not easy to give condolences,” the 35-year-old priest said one recent morning. “Life still isn’t easy in Sri Lanka but it is better than it was. I remind them that for years they have been praying for peace and now they finally have that. It’s an answer to prayer.”

Outschoorn’s reminder notwithstanding, some Sri Lankans are struggling to be optimistic in the wake of the country’s civil war, a venomous stretch of history that lasted from 1975 until May of last year, splintering society and leaving an estimated 70,000 dead.

On one hand, news coming out of this island nation off India’s southern coast seems to be remarkably positive.

The government says foreign money is pouring into Sri Lanka now that suicide bombers and landmines are history. Economic growth is pegged at 8 per cent, unemployment is decreasing, inflation is in check, and a new International Monetary Fund-approved tax regime will bolster tax revenues.

“They have a once-in-a-generation-type story,” says Koshy Mathai, an American who is the IMF’s representative in Colombo.

Yet in many pockets of this palm-fringed nation, weary residents interviewed by the dozen tell a different tale. The prices of food, cooking oil and gas are at all-time highs, they say, and the government is failing to follow through on a promise to give provincial councils more power over local administration. Sri Lankan Pesident Mahinda Rajapaksa promises to repair roads and bridges and broken spirits, yet some say development remains largely limited to the western and southern regions of Sri Lanka, benefiting the country’s Sinhalese majority.

But conditions in Sri Lanka’s northern province, the Tamil heartland, remain bleak and still mostly undocumented because local journalists self-censor their news coverage and access for the foreign press is still tightly restricted.

That is where the bulk of the 492 refugee claimants who landed in Vancouver aboard the Sun Sea call home.

Jehan Perera, the executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka in Colombo, recently visited Jaffna province and saw how the government has resettled some Tamil families after their release from IDP camps. Close to 300,000 people were forced out of their homes in the final days of fighting between rebels and soldiers and the government now says just 20,000 remain in its so-called “welfare centres.”

Perera said he travelled up Sri Lanka’s A-9 Highway, cut off a side road and drove for many kilometres before he reached a settlement.

“They were basically living in huts with no electricity, no toilets, no hopes for jobs,” Perera said. “At night when it was pitch black, they talked about how poisonous snakes would come into their huts. For someone to say all these refugees in Canada should be returned here to be resettled like that, I just think, ‘can’t you give these people a break?’”

But a visitor to Sri Lanka doesn’t need to journey to the remote north to get a sense for how social issues still simmer.

A Colombo newspaper called Virakesari reported this month that police officials were demanding local Tamil residents register with their office, said Mano Ganesan, a Tamil politician. “It shows that mindset of mistrust by is still there more than a year after the war,” he said.

The report in Virakesari came only a few days after masked intruders burst into the offices of Siyatha, a TV and radio news broadcaster also based in the Sri Lankan capital. The media company upset government officials last year when it supported the failed presidential bid of former Sri Lankan general Sarath Fonseka. The intruders rampaged in the company’s offices for 15 minutes, assaulted staff and set fires. Yet in a high-security section of the city that still has a string of police checkpoints, the intruders inexplicably vanished afterwards.

“Either Colombo is not safe, despite the near hysterical hype on security and the ubiquitous presence of gun-toting servicemen; or the attack on Siyatha was carried out with the knowledge (if not at the behest) of powers-that-be,” the Asian Tribune newspaper wrote in an editorial about the break-in.

Other human-rights advocates point out The Economist magazine is routinely confiscated by customs agents when it dedicates coverage to current events here. And it has resolutely refused to cooperate with a UN commission studying atrocities committed in the final days of the war.

Perera said the absence of media freedom is only one of several reasons he’s anxious about Sri Lanka’s future.

Sri Lanka’s parliament last month passed an amendment to its constitution to remove presidential term limits, opening the door for Rajapaksa to run for a third term. The amendment also gives the president unfettered ability to both appoint and sack Supreme Court judges, members of the human rights and electoral commissions, and the country’s police chief.

“The separation of powers and checks and balances are all breaking down,” Perera said.

At the same time, there are growing concerns over the lack of progress toward a political resolution with the country’s Tamil minority. Instead of salving wounds, some critics say the government is exacerbating them.

In Jaffna, a city of bullet-scarred and dilapidated buildings in Sri Lanka’s north that was the de facto capital of The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the cold-blooded separatist group that paralyzed the country’s progress for so many years, Sri Lanka’s military has bulldozed L.T.T.E. cemeteries and erected a monument to the country’s fallen soldiers.

Neil Buhne, a Canadian and the Chief of the United Nations mission here, said the 1 million residents of Sri Lanka’s northern province Jaffna remain emotionally fragile and wondered why the government didn’t instead erect something to commemorate the country’s collective losses.

“They’ve gone through hell,” Buhne said. “The bulldozing of cemeteries and building a war memorial to soldiers is not a confidence-building measure. They don’t need to do it.”

In the eastern cities of Trincomalee and Batticaloa, cities that were hard hit by the tsunami in December 2004, Sri Lanka’s war continues to claim victims. The main hospital in Batticaloa, for instance, is admitting a record number of battered women.

“We have at least 10 new cases a day and many have husbands who are turning to alcohol or drugs because they can’t cope with feelings of isolation and loneliness after the war,” said Jayatheepa Pathasri, a mental-health care worker.

Pathasri herself is a casualty of Sri Lanka’s conflict.

Fourteen months ago—more than a month after the war’s official conclusion—the 26-year-old’s husband, a taxi cab driver, walked out of their home and looked back over his shoulder, hollering he’d see his wife and son later that night after work. He never came home.

“His brother was L.T.T.E. but not him,” said Pathasri, wearing a mustard-coloured sari with her hair pulled back neatly and held by a brown pin. “I think the government soldiers took him, but there are lots of stories like this.”

Even though Pathasri said some residents are struggling to cope following the end of the civil war, other locals insist they’re anxious to move on and rebuild, something they literally couldn’t afford to do for years. In L.T.T.E.-controlled swaths of the country, even renovating a modest home would bring a visit from L.T.T.E. brass demanding a contribution to the cause.

“If you had money to fix the bullet holes in your house, they figured you had money to help the cause,” a restaurant owner in Batticaloa said with a sigh.

But now, there are tangible signs of optimism in Sri Lanka’s beleaguered east, which until 2006 was controlled by the rebel group.

Travellers who brave the jarring nine-hour train ride from Colombo see roads lined with cement bags and sheets of steel. Repairs to the road linking Batticaloa and Trincomalee should be completed in months, cutting the driving time to two hours from the current eight.

Businesses, meantime, like the Indian cellphone company Airtel are gradually moving into the east and helping spur the local economy.

In a riverfront hotel in Batticaloa on a recent evening, executives with Unilever held a celebratory party for 20 local distributors.

The consumer-goods giant sells about $500,000 worth of products in the city each month, said Basil Fernando, a Unilever territory manager. When he arrived here two years ago, monthly sales were about $280,000.

As his customers munched on chicken wings and sipped arak, a local spirit made from fermented coconuts, a young woman wearing a green dress and ankle bangles danced to traditional Tamil music. Signboards taped on the walls promoted Unilever’s 10 rupee Astra margarine — you don’t need to put it in a cooler” — and its new Lux soap brand, which Fernando was sure would be a fast seller. “It’s an expensive party but it’s worth it,” he said, smiling. “The market is booming.”

There is similarly positive news further north up the coast in Trincomalee, a city of 350,000 where cement and flour factories and a flurry of fishing trawlers are the largest local employers.

While soldiers still patrol city streets, locals say they are relieved to be rid of the military checkpoints that until recently dotted the roads like 10-yard lines on a football field. Local fishermen are now allowed to take their boats out at night, something that was impossible to do during the war.

The military also seems to be trying to repair its image with locals. In coming weeks, a new reality TV show will debut in Sri Lanka that will be styled after America’s Got Talent. Members of the military will compete against one another in competitions of dancing, singing and juggling. The show’s underlying message: soldiers are people, too.

As a young woman in a pink sari and a yellow reflective vest swept garbage from a stretch of beach in Trincomalee, Thussi Ponnampala, the 28-year-old manager of a small 10-room seaside guest house here that charges 1,500 rupees ($13.50 Canadian) a night showed a visitor his vision of an expanded hotel with an all-day barbecue pit and surf shop.

“How long are we going to have fighting? There’s no future in that,” he said.

In 1990, Ponnampala said his father was stopped by Sri Lankan soldiers at a checkpoint.

“He wasn’t doing anything wrong but because he didn’t have money to pay off the soldier he was shot in the head,” Ponnampala said matter-of-factly. “But it’s all politics and we can either keep worrying about that and living in the past or move on. I choose to move on.”

Others seem to be willing to following suit.

While Sri Lanka’s northern province will contribute a mere 3.3 per cent to the country’s GDP this year, according to government estimates, money is beginning to flow into the region. The U.S. government is investing in a plant near Jaffna to make high-end blue jeans for customers such as Levi’s and J.C. Penney. New restaurants and hotels opening along the A9 are mostly owned by local Tamils, according to an August report in Time magazine.

India is promising $800 million in low-interest loans to help redevelop the north and east and is building 50,000 new homes in the once war-hobbled zone — nearly one-third of the 160,000 new homes the U.N. says are required.

China, similarly, is also vying for the affection of Sri Lanka’s government and has promised $500 million to build new seaports, a power grid, and a new highway in the east.

Despite the increased foreign investment and the steady flow of “good news” stories that salt the front-pages of Sri Lanka’s several English newspapers, some Sri Lankans say they worry that Rajapaksa’s government show no signs of being willing to loosen its grip on power.

In the east, for instance, a civilian government elected by locals is now in place, headed by a 34-year-old former child soldier named Pillayan, who was an L.T.T.E. before bolting to join the government. Yet the government has also established a governor in the east, a former military general, who can veto any legislation passed by Pillayan’s elected officials.

In 2008, the governor nixed a new law that would have introduced motor vehicle licensing fees, a venture that could have raised as much as 1 billion rupees ($100 million) a year for the province, said Dr. K. Vigneswaran, a former member of Sri Lanka’s parliament who is now an adviser to Pillayan. More recently, the governor killed an effort to pass a bill that would have allowed the provincial government to formally collect contributions from the Sri Lankan diaspora.

“They want us tied down,” Vigneswaran said in an interview. “They don’t want the north or the east princes to be financially sound.”

In Trincomalee, like other areas of the north and east, there are concerns now that the government is colonizing the region with Singhalese migrants from the south by offering them inducements to accept good jobs and cheap land. Recently, the federal government offered 50 prime beachfront plots in Trincomalee to be developed into new hotels. The plots were virtually free, Vigneswaran said, yet no Tamils bid for them, even after he attended a December meeting in Vienna with a group of Tamil expats and pleaded with them to invest.

“They asked what promises we could offer that the government wouldn’t take their money,” Vigneswaran said. “I said, ‘well what promises did the L.T.T.E. give you when you were giving them money?’ They didn’t answer. And they didn’t invest.”

As dusk settled on Trincomalee, a group of teenagers jumped on a small blue and white boat used by divers to catch clown fish from a nearby reef. Ponnampala, with a head of thick curly black hair and a wide smile, navigated his way past a herd of cows lazing on the beach and grinned and waved at a Russian air force pilot who was staying at his small guest house.

“I think our country has had enough of the fighting,” Ponnampala said. “We know that the government doesn’t believe in us. The sad thing is some people here don’t believe in themselves either. But with no war now anything is possible. We have to hold that close.”

© The Star

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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Widows struggle to put life back together again

By Adithya Alles | Inter Press Service

Having to take care of eight teenage children is not an easy task for 70-year-old Yamunadevi (not her real name).

But these youngsters are her grandchildren, orphaned by Sri Lanka’s civil war of more than two decades. "I have no option. I have to take care of them, otherwise they don’t have anyone else," said Yamunadevi, who hails from Alampiddi, Mullaithivu district in the north.

Four of her grandchildren lost their parents during the last phase of this South Asian country’s bloody war, which ended in 2009 with a military victory by the government. The other four are left with only their father, who is now the sole breadwinner.

"I am not sure how long I can keep sending all of them to school," Yamunadevi remarked.

Her story is all too common in Sri Lanka’s former war zones. Women young and old are left to fend for themselves and their families because their male relatives have been killed or went missing during the last battles of the war, which was waged by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in its search for a separate homeland for minority Tamils.

Almost 300,000 people were forced to flee their homes during the last bout of fighting alone, between August 2006 and May 2009. Over 290,000 war- displaced citizens have since returned to their villages or live with host families. Their troubles, however, are far from over.

There are more than 89,000 widows in their early twenties and mid-thirties in the former conflict zones, government officials say.

The deputy minister of child development and women’s affairs, M A M Hizbullah, told a seminar here that some 49,000 widows -- majority of whom are wives of Tiger rebels killed in action – live in the country’s east, and another 40,000 in the north.

In his native Batticaloa district, the deputy minister said, there are some 25,000 widows, of which 8,000 had three children each.

Hizbullah said that he had approached the Indian government – India has always kept a close watch on developments in its neighbouring country -- for assistance to help the widows. But in some areas, programmes targeted toward their needs have already begun.

"We have plans to start a garment factory here," said Roopavathi Ketheeswaran, a government official in Kilinochchi district, adding that women often find it hard to find regular work unless programmes are designed with their needs in mind.

Even when they find work, the pay is sometimes a pittance. Seventeen year- old Ravindranathan Valarmadu, who hails from Pillumalai village in eastern Batticaloa district, for example, earns about 17 U.S. dollars a month from working as a milk collector six days a week.

This kind of situation, when many expected the end of the conflict to bring about better lives, can make widows feel helpless.

"When you don’t have a husband, when you don’t have family and you are alone, it can be tough," Rasanayagam Rahulanayani, the government agent for Vaharai division in eastern Sri Lanka, told IPS. "When assistance also slows down, the women can feel very vulnerable," said the official, who revealed that she had lost her father in the conflict.

Even as Rahulanayani was speaking with IPS, more than half a dozen widows and women whose husbands had gone missing during the war waited patiently outside her office to apply for help in matters ranging from obtaining lost identity papers to documentation on deeds.

"Widows and single mothers still find it hard within a very male-dominated social system," Rahulanayani explained. Traditionally, Tamil society dictates that men take the lead, and women are expected to follow, so that widows who now have to make all decisions, including taking care of the family business and dealing with private and public officials, may not always be fully comfortable with their new role.

Saroja Devi, a 27-year-old mother of two who was waiting to meet Rahulanayani, says her husband went missing while the family escaped the war in the north. "I don’t know where he is, or even if he is alive," Devi said.

Subsequently, Devi moved back to the east, where she hails from and where she has some family near Vaharai. "He was detained by the Tigers for awhile when he refused to help," Devi said. "We were running thorough shell fire when he went missing. There was shell fire all day and I don’t how we escaped."

At this point, Devi’s search for her husband is one that is more hope than anything else. Meanwhile, she has to eke out a living for her family.

There are hardly any jobs available in Vaharai, which lies deep in the interior of Batticaloa district, and where the key occupations are fishing and farming.

"I’m not doing anything right now. I help out my family members in the fields and they give me some money," Devi said, adding that she had no choice but to sell all her gold jewellery -- or starve.

Standing next to Devi in the queue, 29-year-old Navunad Sudha no longer has jewellery -- they had been long sold. Sudha's story is similar to Devi's. She hails from the Vaharai, married a man from the north, and was separated from her husband while fleeing the fighting.

But unlike Devi, Sudha believes that her husband, who disappeared in April 2009, is in government custody. "I will look for him till I get some proof," Sudha said.

Meanwhile, the challenges of day-to-day existence press on Sudha, who is seeking help from government officials to buy a sewing machine. "I stitch clothes at home to make some money," she said.


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