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After the tsunami: remembering the minutes

Sri Lanka observed two minutes silence Sunday for the victims of the devastating Boxing Day tsunami of 2004.

One detail of that catastrophe worth remembering is how President Mahinda Rajapaksa (then Prime Minister) and the Colombo government responded.

The day after the waves struck, Prime Minister Rajapaksa convened the government's 'urgent disaster management' meeting which all major political parties attended. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) was represented by Joseph Pararajasingham, MP.

Here’s the telling detail:

"The devastation and destruction in the northeast was discussed for not more than five minutes during the two hour conference,” a shocked Pararajasingham told reporters that night.

"In fact the situation in the Northeast was taken up only after I raised the issue [at the end]. They [are] simply not bothered about the plight of our people."

On Dec 30, 2004, this is what the Uthayan, the largest circulating newspaper in government-controlled Jaffna, said in its editorial:

"Though it is now three days since ... the heart melting tragedy, the situation reports received from many parts of the North-East have it that no relief from the Sri Lankan government has reached them as yet.”

A joint report by the World Bank, ADB and JBIC was clear: "the North East is the region worst affected by the tsunami.

Almost two thirds of the 35,000 people killed were in the Northeast (see this UNHCR map of Dec 31, 2004).

(Also see the maps on the cover and page iv of this 2005 report by the Colombo government itself showing the extent of the waves' impact.)

In Dec. 2009 Transparency International said nearly half a billion dollars received by Sri Lanka in tsunami aid is unaccounted for and over $600 million was spent on projects unrelated to the disaster.

We will highlight in the coming weeks how the Northeast was excluded from international aid and how international officials such as Kofi Annan and President Clinton were barred from visiting the Vanni, as well as the crucial efforts by Tamil actors in the humanitarian response there.

In the meantime, there’s a postscript.

Almost exactly one year later, and two weeks after Premier Rajapaksa had become President, Pararajasingham was attending Christmas Mass at St. Mary's church in government-controlled Batticaloa town.

Two gunmen walked in and opened fire, killing the MP and wounding eight others, including his wife, before calmly walking out. No one has been arrested for the execution.