Saturday, March 05, 2011

... And then the rains came

By Jesse Bauman | The Spec

Eight months and 12 days ago I was still in Canada — at Hamilton Place, to be specific. I received my undergraduate degree from McMaster University that day, along with hundreds of other excited and terrified young students. I left Canada a few months later to start a job with a relief and development organization in Sri Lanka.

At the time I knew very little about Sri Lanka, and would have required a few moments to find it on a map. (It almost touches the southern tip of India). I knew that the Tamil Tigers were fighting for a separate state, and that as a result of that civil war, hundreds of thousands of Tamils — the ethnic minority in Sri Lanka — now live abroad, many of them in Toronto.

Rick Mercer spoke at my graduation, and asked his audience to be strong Canadian citizens. He suggested voting and travelling throughout Canada as ways of exercising that citizenship. Living and working abroad means the former is difficult and the latter impossible. Nonetheless I often reflect on Mercer’s words, and feel that there might still be something deeply Canadian about my present experience.

After all, isn’t the humanitarian work I’m doing part of that proud Canadian self-image, which sees peacekeeping and diplomacy as a responsible, considerate alternative to the callous real-politiking of our American friends? As our narrative of multilateralism goes, we care about the suffering of strangers, which is reflected in foreign policy and domestic politics.

We are a deluded nation, more today than yesterday, and more tomorrow still. Afghanistan is a violent and sustained contradiction to our wholesome Canadian self-image. Do any of us actually know how many Canadian soldiers are currently involved in peacekeeping missions? (According to the United Nations, there are 126.)

While Canada-as-peacemaker obviously requires revision, I write this with the assumption that Canadians care, and that Canadians assume their government cares as well. To care, we should also try to understand our suffering neighbours’ situations.

One such neighbour is Rajan Putulingam, whose story is painfully similar to many others’ in the north and east of Sri Lanka. He is 41 years old, his wife 39, and they live with their five children in the Eastern District of Batticaloa. Rajan works as a daily labourer on wealthier farmers’ rice paddy lands, and Delaney, his wife, runs a small shop. This year they used their savings — from Delaney’s jewellery — to purchase seed and plant one and a half acres of rice paddy. Delaney’s shop generates an income when her neighbours have enough work and extra rupees to spend.

Heavy rains started two days after Christmas, which is not unusual in this part of the world. As days of constant rain stretched into weeks, the family was displaced to a shared community building. More than 300,000 people, the Putulingams included, sought refuge in common shelters. As hundreds of families squeezed into buildings built for dozens, toilets filled up and food simply ran out. Rajan and his family stayed for five days in the office of the local farmers’ society.

For others, the situation was worse. According to John Thevatas, a senior NGO worker in the North, in certain places there was no dry land, and many “did not even have a tarpaulin to cover their head. The living conditions are not acceptable, but what to do? There is water everywhere.”

This was the Putulingam’s third displacement. War had chased them from their home twice before. Delaney’s mud-walled shop is basically destroyed, as is the family’s mud-walled home. Glass bottles of soda, muddied by the high water, are all that remain in her shop. Their contents are a luxury none can presently afford.

High water destroyed over 80 per cent of the paddy fields in the East. In Sri Lanka, rice is a staple food in more than one sense: for hundreds of thousands no harvest also means no labour in the paddy fields and therefore no income. Thevatas describes the two harvest seasons (October to January and April to August) as “lone opportunities for a good income for 90 per cent of these flood-affected peoples.” According to the United Nations, there were more than a million people affected.

The Putulingams have few prospects. They were not a part of that lucky group whose crop survived. The children’s school supplies are gone, drowned along with hundreds of thousands of chickens, goats and cows. In Rajan’s words, “every time we start to earn something again it is destroyed by war or displacement.”

He said that days before a second equally massive flood arrived. Most families lost all that remained of their homes and livelihoods.

Bob Dylan should have followed “when you got nothin’, you got nothin’ to lose” with, when you have next to nothing, you have everything to lose. The Putulingams and countless families like them will require support long after the flood waters finally recede, first to survive, and then to rebuild.

So what do the Putulingams, or any desperate family in poor country X, have to do with Canadian citizenship? Maybe nothing, but maybe by listening to these stories we start to appreciate a little bit of what it means to be “displaced,” to be one of one million flood-affected peoples. As a result, we can exercise that supposedly Canadian capacity to care, and in a more substantial and responsible way. Statistics take on a much deeper meaning when faces are paired with figures.

Finally, with that little bit of knowledge we can see this country in at least a few more shades of grey. A boat full of Tamils seeking asylum is not simply a terrorist threat to national security (no matter what Vic Toews tells us) and the Tamil Tigers are not the one true voice of the Tamil people.

Those shades of grey also reveal the dignity and extreme perseverance of many Sri Lankans, who don’t choose to be Sri Lankan any more than I choose to be Canadian.

Jesse Bauman is McMaster University graduate now working as a “management trainee” at ZOA Refugee Care. For more information:

© The Spec

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Saturday, March 05, 2011

Drowning in media indifference

By Nalaka Gunawardene | Himal

Why do movie audiences in this part of the world cheer every time they see alien invaders blow up the White House? For a long time I thought it had something to do with anti-American sentiments; then I heard that many US audiences react the same way. Perhaps some among us get a kick out of seeing overbearing governments in trouble?

That might explain the gleeful tone with which the Colombo media reported the Sri Lankan Parliament being flooded after torrential rains in mid-November. Newspapers and television channels repeatedly showed images of the Parliamentary complex – built three decades ago on a marshland – completely marooned. The hapless people’s representatives were ferried across the expanse by the military, to take part in a brief session to extend Emergency Regulations. The symbolism was inescapable.

When the trapped rainwater engulfed many areas in and around Colombo, thousands of affected people groaned, but no one was really surprised. By now Sri Lankans know this is almost an annual routine. As I sat knee-deep in my own flooded office, I had a strong sense of déjà vu.

It was early June 1992. While Prime Minister Dingiri Banda Wijetunga was away in Rio de Janeiro attending the Earth Summit, Greater Colombo received the heaviest rainfall in living memory: 492 mm, or more than an eighth of its annual rainfall, in a single night. This created a flash flood that cut across all class divides: the city’s most plush residential, diplomatic and business areas were united with shanties in their damage and misery. That was the first time the Japanese-built new Parliamentary complex went under water. The country could not have received a ruder awakening to the urban environmental nightmare it had created.This was also my first close encounter with a disaster: my home was under three feet of water. Yet I was among the luckier ones – I had an upper floor to evacuate to.

Then, as now, the blame game started even before the waters had receded. Eighteen years ago, the flood victims accused irresponsible local government bodies, greedy property developers and incompetent town planning. The country’s media devoted much space and time to discussing the floods of 1992, partly because the waters had directly affected many journalists and some press barons. Not only did ‘spot’ reporting take place on a large scale, but the follow-up coverage went on for months. There were persistent demands by the media ‘to know who should be held responsible for the floods’.

I joined that debate by pointing out that all residents in and around Colombo, many of whom are narrowly focused on their own welfare, shared the blame. Many had either corrupted a corruptible system, or had simply looked away when expediency replaced the due process. As such, I argued at the time, ‘We drowned in our own apathy and indifference’.

As it turned out, the real indifference was yet to come. In December 1993, a much larger flood covered nearly a third of the island. Although it affected twice as many people for a much longer period than the previous year, there was far less media coverage. Most likely, this was because that flood had hit the northern, north-central and eastern provinces, a safe distance away from the capital, where most of the media are based.

Fast forward to the present – and how little things have changed! During the past three months, as the fury of the formidable little girl (La Niña, the global weather anomaly) played havoc on the island, this writer has been struck by the similarly lop-sided coverage in the country’s mainstream print and broadcast media. Urban flooding once again received ample front-page coverage and ‘breaking news’ treatment. Everyone, from cartoonists and editorialists to talk-show hosts and radio DJs, ranted about what was taking place. Yet the much worse flooding, once again in the north, east and centre of the country, received proportionately much less attention. There were a few honourable exceptions, but by and large the 1992-93 disparity was repeated wholesale.

It is not as though communications have not progressed in the intervening period. In fact, the media landscape has changed drastically. From a monopoly of two state broadcasters, today there is a plethora of FM radio and terrestrial TV channels crowding the Lankan airwaves. Mobile phones have driven the country’s tele-density to higher than 90 percent, while Internet access is spreading fast and becoming more affordable, especially through mobile devices. Information (and gossip) now travels at the speed of light. But more delivery channels have not given Sri Lankans greater plurality of information or opinions in the mainstream media, and that is why those living in the country initially heard more about the floods in Brisbane than about the equally horrendous ones in Batticaloa.

Media researchers have long accused the Western and globalised news media of having an implicit ‘hierarchy’ of death and destruction, in terms of how they report disasters in developing countries. But Sri Lanka’s own media’s indifference is equally appalling – the story of a quarter-million displaced people languishing in squalid conditions for weeks on end did not constitute front-page news. A starlet entering hospital after a domestic brawl excites news editors more than thousands of flood-affected provincial people starving while waiting for relief.

Fumbling mediasaurus

One notable difference in the recent flooding was how those outside the mainstream media tried to fill these gaps. For several years, citizen journalists have been bearing witness to unfolding natural and humanitarian tragedies and sharing impressions on blogs, online videos and, more recently, short ‘tweets’. Paid journalists initially scoffed at these unpaid and scattered enthusiasts. Thereafter, they questioned the latter’s credentials and skills to marshal vast volumes of information: What do these minnows know?

The December 2004 tsunami amply demonstrated citizen media’s complementary role. The late author Arthur C Clarke called it a turning point for all media. In 2005, he wrote: ‘Having evolved highly centralised systems of media for half a millennium, we are now returning to a second era of mass media – in the true sense of that term. Blogs, wikis and citizen journalism are all signs of things to come.’

Sanjana Hattotuwa, a leading practitioner of this new wave of people’s journalism and founder editor of, notes: ‘Citizen journalists, flawed as they may be as individuals, are nevertheless tremendously powerful as a group. They have the potential to capture, over the long term, a multiplicity of rich and insightful perspectives on disasters not often covered by the traditional media.’

Without the trappings and inertia of the institutionalised media, citizen journalists are quick to adopt new communication tools and platforms. Some of the first images of the devastating flooding in Batticaloa were posted on Facebook. Tweets with vital updates came from grassroots organisations such as Sarvodaya, which quickly leveraged Twitter and Facebook to raise awareness and solicit flood-relief donations. Local-language websites such as Vikalpa translated key updates into Sinhala.

Covering a geographically distributed disaster is never easy for any media. Most Colombo-centred media groups rely on provincial correspondents to feed their headquarters with information and images. When some were directly affected by the recent floods, media houses found their news feeds suddenly cut off. The more widely distributed citizen journalists, on the other hand, were more robust due to their multiple numbers, locations and technology tools. But by and large many mainstream media organisations failed to join hands with the citizen journalists to improvise for the sake of quality and speed of disaster coverage.

Six years after the tsunami, Sri Lanka’s mainstream media still tries to go it alone. Of course, we do keep seeing feeble attempts by the media companies to co-opt the new media tools. During the recent flooding, for example, an English-language daily’s disaster-related tweets were largely indecipherable: readers had to click through to read the full story on their website. This shows a poor understanding of new media: attaching online appendages to content that is still conceived, produced and distributed in the ‘old media’ mode.

Many mainstream newsrooms also lacked the ability (or, perhaps, interest) to rapidly organise disaster information in user-friendly ways. With floods spread across several provinces, policymakers and relief workers needed to chart out their response plans, yet the static maps that newspapers and TV channels hastily produced were inadequate – and rapidly rendered obsolete. To fill this void, Groundviews created the first – and, to date, only – online maps on the ground conditions, relief work, shelters and weather conditions during both of the most recent incidents of devastating flooding in Sri Lanka.

‘The most informative updates throughout the two waves of flooding came from citizen journalism website and social networks,’ says Hattotuwa. ‘Yet even with numerous examples of how free, relatively easy-to-use web and social-media platforms can enhance reporting and provide context, the mainstream media in Sri Lanka remains incredibly obdurate, believing that old thinking and ossified models of journalism can outlive drastic changes in media consumption and delivery.’

So, what is to be done?

As Sri Lankans brace for more extreme weather events and disasters thanks to the changes in climate, our mainstream media needs to adapt fast to better serve the public interest. We need all our media organisations to be more caring, robust and innovative. To survive the new-media tsunami, media managers must come to terms with the new reality of collaborative, user-involved news generation and consumption. ‘Business as usual’ is hardly an option, even for commercial survival and growth. In Sri Lanka, large sections of the media missed the story on the recent floods – let us hope that they at least will learn its larger lessons, and not let a good crisis go waste.

Nalaka Gunawardene is a science writer in Sri Lanka, and co-edited Communicating Disasters.

© Himal

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Saturday, March 05, 2011

US Senate war probe call 'unfortunate': Sri Lanka

AFP | Yahoo News

A call by the US Senate for an international probe into alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka was "unfortunate", the government of President Mahinda Rajapakse said Friday.

The Sri Lankan government said "well motivated groups" had pressured the Senate to adopt a resolution earlier this week calling for an international investigation into the final stages of the island's war against Tamil rebels.

"It is all the more unfortunate that those who framed the text of the resolution have overlooked the capacity and strong track record of the LLRC (a government-appointed Sri Lankan panel) to work for reconciliation," the foreign ministry said in a statement.

The Senate resolution urged an "independent international accountability mechanism to look into reports of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other human rights violations" in Sri Lanka.

It came as a top US official warned the island that it could be hauled before a war crimes tribunal over the killing of "many thousands of civilians" in 2009.

In the toughest warning since the end of fighting in May 2009, US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, Robert Blake, said Sri Lanka risked a forced international investigation.

Sri Lanka has refused to probe war crimes and instead appointed the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC).

International rights groups have said the LLRC failed to probe war crimes during the 37-year conflict.

Sri Lanka's relations with the United States were strained in 2009 when Washington voiced concern about human rights as the army killed the top leadership of the Tamil Tiger rebels, ending decades of insurgency.

© Yahoo News

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