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1/20/2009

MIGRANTS ADRIFT WITH POWERFUL QUAKES SEIZING KILINOCHCHI KINGDOM

A series of powerful earthquakes killed at least four people and injured
dozens more in remote eastern Indonesia, cutting power lines and destroying
buildings.

The loss of Kilinochchi, its capital, is a major blow to the Tamil Tiger
movement fighting for autonomy in the Sinhalese-dominated country. But the
army’s success in capturing the town does not mark the death of the
Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Thailand’s new prime minister was under pressure to answer allegations that
hundreds of Burmese and Bangladeshi migrants were set adrift at sea with
little food and water by the armed forces.

One of the quakes — a 7.3-magnitude tremor — sent small tsunamis into
Japan’s southeastern coast, but there were no reports of damage there and
no tsunami in Indonesia’s impoverished Papua area.

Kilinochchi was the LTTE’s political headquarters, strung out on the main
tarmac road from Colombo to Jaffna. The government could always strike it
at will by air, as it did when aircraft bombed the offices of SP
Thamilselvan, the man with whom foreign diplomats as well as the government
had frequently negotiated.

Abhisit Vejjajiva met with officials from the country’s human rights
commission amid claims that up to 1,000 migrants, mostly from the Rohingya
ethnic minority from western Burma, were towed out to sea and abandoned on
boats without engines. At least 300 remain unaccounted for. Human rights
groups allege four migrants were thrown into the sea to encourage others to
climb aboard the vessels.

The first 7.6-magnitude quake struck on land about 85 miles (135
kilometers) from Manokwari, Papua, at a depth of 22 miles (35 kilometers),
the U.S. Geological Agency said. It was followed by 10 aftershocks.

By advancing into the town by land the army has forced any remaining LTTE
politicians to withdraw altogether. But the movement’s military HQ and its
logistical bases are hidden well to the east near its coastal stronghold of
Mullaitivu. The whereabouts of the Tiger’s ruthless leader, Velupillai
Prabhakaran, has never been clear.

Vejjajiva stressed the alleged abuse of the migrants ran counter to
government policy, and that the military had confirmed to him that it
respected all migrants.

At least four people died in Papua, and the airport runway nearest the
epicenter was cracked, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono told reporters.
Commercial flights to the area were canceled.

Seizing Kilinochchi was done at a fearful human cost. Comparisons with Gaza
are not amiss, down to the censorship that prevented journalists entering
the area while the fighting was underway. Several days of unopposed
airstrikes and artillery fire killed civilians as well as Tiger militants,
and forced tens of thousands of families to flee into the jungle en masse.
Hundreds of troops have died on both sides in the offensive, which has
taken months to reach its goal.

However, Thailand’s foreign ministry has launched an inquiry into the
damning allegations that the navy and the army had imprisoned and
mistreated the migrants on the southern Thai island of Koh Sai Daeng before
abandoning them to die in the Indian Ocean.

“I’ve instructed emergency steps be taken to help our brothers and to
restore power and other vital utilities,” he said without commenting on how
widespread the damage might be.

Among the dead was a 10-year-old girl whose head was crushed, said local
hospital director Hengky Tewu.

If the survivors’ tales prove correct the expulsions are a reversal of a
policy Thailand followed for years, allowing the impoverished and stateless
Muslim Rohingya to land on their way to Malaysia. Many were said to have
been turned over to human traffickers.

“We have our ambulances picking up two more,” he said. Another 19 patients
at the hospital were treated for broken bones, cuts, crushed fingers and
other injuries.

Like Gaza too, this is asymmetrical warfare and the Tigers were quick to
take the shine off the government’s victory by sending a suicide bomber
into the heart of Colombo to kill two airmen at the air force headquarters.
This has always been the Tiger tactic in extremis, and they will probably
revert to more of it in the aftermath of losing Kilinochchi.

Indian authorities on the Andaman Islands say they have rescued 446
refugees lately.

Papua police chief Maj. Gen. Bagus Ekodanto said he received reports that a
hotel and rice warehouse had been “destroyed,” but he did not know if
anyone had died. A search for possible victims was under way.

Several stories of the Mutiara Hotel in the main city Manokwari collapsed,
said Ina, a nurse at a navy hospital treating 20 quake patients. Like many
Indonesians she goes by a single name.

In one incident, the Thai navy allegedly set adrift an open-topped,
engineless barge loaded with 412 people. Those aboard had just four barrels
of water and two sacks of rice.

Meanwhile, the government hopes to move on to capturing the Elephant Pass,
the last Tiger bastion on the road to Jaffna. If it falls, this will make
it easier to re-supply the island’s second largest town, which at the
moment has to get its provisions by sea and air. The army boasts of seizing
the ultimate prize, Mullaitivu.

Electricity was cut off and people in the coastal city of 167,000 fled
their homes in the dark fearing a tsunami, said Hasim Rumatiga, a local
health official. The Indonesian Meteorology and Seismology Agency issued a
tsunami alert, but it was revoked within an hour after it was determined
the epicenter of the main quake was on land.

After they drifted at sea for 15 days, the Indian coastguard rescued 107
people near the Andaman Islands, where they are being held in camps. But up
to 300 are missing after they tried to swim ashore.

Capturing it would certainly weaken the Tigers severely. But guerrilla
movements have the capacity to go underground and reemerge, as long as they
remain popular in their own communities. The government calls the LTTE
terrorists, and they have been designated as such by the European Union.
But the EU also recognises that they speak for many, if not most, Sri
Lankan Tamils in denouncing the discrimination that Tamils suffer on the
multiethnic and multicultural island. The Tamil diaspora is unlikely to end
its funding for the Tigers any time soon.

Japan’s Meteorological Agency said tsunamis of 4 inches (10 centimeters) to
16 inches (40 centimeters) in height splashed ashore in towns along the
coast. It also warned that bigger tsunamis were possible later.

In another incident just before new year, three overcrowded fishing boats
loaded with 580 Burmese migrants were intercepted off the Thai coast, but
were towed back out to sea after their engines had been removed, according
to minority rights group the Arakan Project.

The damage in Indonesia was still be being assessed.

Sri Lanka needs a just political settlement. There is no military solution.
Yesterday’s army success is producing a triumphalist mood in Colombo, and
President Mahinda Rajapakse, who already holds the portfolios of defence,
finance and nation-building, has just made himself minister of the media as
well – an apparent sign that he wants even tighter control over the
country’s reporters. Sinhalese politicians will be in no mood for
concessions for many months to come. Sri Lanka faces a grim new year.

Two of the boats reached the shore; one with 152 people aboard landed on
the Andaman Islands while another reached Aceh in Indonesia. One boat is
missing. Another boatload of 46 migrants arrived on Thailand’s southern
coast was seized by the military along with the occupants.

“My son’s head was wounded when a cabinet fell on him,” said Ferry Dau, a
father of two who said the walls in his house were cracked. “It was very
strong and scary. The power and phones went dead after the utility lines
fell down.”

A Thai court sentenced Mr. Nicolaides, an Australian, to three years in
jail for offending the monarchy, a criminal offense in the Kingdom of
Thailand. He had pleaded guilty, earning a sentence at the lower end of the
prescribed range for lèse-majesté.

Rahmat Priyono, a supervisor at the National Earthquake Center, said there
was no immediate information on casualties or damage. “But since the
epicenters were on land, they have a potential to cause significant
damage.”

The Rohingya are stateless and mostly have no rights in Burma, where they
are at the mercy of the military junta that curtails their movement while
using them as forced labor.

Quakes centered onshore pose little tsunami threat to Indonesia itself, but
those close to the coast can still churn up large waves emanating out to
other countries like Japan.

The crime was committed in a single paragraph in “Verisimilitude,” a 2005
novel set in Thailand that is salted with social commentary. At the
sentencing, the judge read out the offending section to the court, which
was packed with foreign reporters. The judge said the author had insulted
the king and crown prince in the passage.

Relief agency World Vision Indonesia was flying in 2,000 emergency
provision kits, including canned food, blankets and basic medical supplies,
said spokeswoman Katarina Hardono.

Papua is the Indonesian portion of New Guinea island, located about 1,830
miles (2,955 kilometers) east of the capital Jakarta. It is among the
nation’s least developed areas, and a low-level insurgency has simmered in
the resource-rich region for years. It is off limits to foreign reporters.

Indonesia straddles a chain of fault lines and volcanoes known as the
Pacific “Ring of Fire” and is prone to seismic activity. A huge quake off
western Indonesia caused the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed about
230,000 people, more than half of them on the western Indonesian island of
Sumatra.

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