TIME Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s Ousted President Seeks a Comeback

Mahinda Rajapaksa
Dinuka Liyanawatte—Reuters Former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa sits next to his wife Shiranthi Rajapaksa during a religious ceremony at his residence in Medamulana, Sri Lanka, on July 1, 2015.

Mahinda Rajapaksa says he will contest August elections that could determine the fate of his successor's reform drive

Six months ago, Maithripala Sirisena pulled off a stunning electoral upset in Sri Lanka, defying expectations to defeat incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa in a national election. Sirisena, a former Health Minister for Rajapaksa, rode to victory supported by a diverse political coalition united, above all, in its desire to displace the Sri Lankan strongman accused of increasingly autocratic rule.

Rajapaksa, who in 2009 ended a three-decade-long civil war with separatist Tamil guerrillas seeking an independent homeland in the north of the country, depended on the country’s Sinhala Buddhist majority to stay in power. Sirisena, himself a Sinhala Buddhist, was backed by minority Muslims and ethnic Tamils sidelined under Rajapaksa, along with many Sinhala Buddhists tired of the heavy-handed former leader. “The Mahinda Rajapaksa era is over,” Sirisena told TIME after his victory earlier this year.

His former boss, however, refuses to go away. With characteristic theatricality, he summoned the media to his ancestral home in southern Sri Lanka on Wednesday to outline his ambitions for a comeback. Standing at a podium installed near a tree that formed the backdrop for his late father’s addresses to his supporters — Don Alvin Rajapaksa was a prominent politician from the region — the former President said he would contest a seat in parliamentary elections set for August after Sirisena dissolved the Sri Lankan legislature on Friday. His goal: to become Prime Minister (and thorn in his former ally’s side).

“For the sake of the country … we will contest the upcoming election,” he said. “I ask all patriotic forces from all parties to join us in this struggle to regain the integrity of our motherland.”

But although the setting was rich with political imagery — before making his way to the podium, and with the media at hand, he listened to a Buddhist sermon at his family home — Rajapaksa was more subdued than usual as he made the much anticipated announcement. And he failed to answer a critical question: Under which political banner will he seek a parliamentary seat?

Both Rajapaksa and Sirisena belong to the Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SLFP), a section of which remains loyal to the former Sri Lankan leader. But Sirisena, who became the head of the party when he was elected President, has thus far resisted allowing Rajapaksa to run as an SLFP candidate. Rajapaksa didn’t specify whether he would continue to seek an SLFP ticket or if he would try to run as part of the broader United People’s Freedom Alliance, a political coalition led by the SLFP and chaired by Sirisena.

“It will be an uphill task for [Rajapaksa] to become a real force because right now there is no clear sign whether he has a party machinery to back him,” Jehan Perera, a political analyst and executive director of the Colombo-based National Peace Council, told TIME.

The elections will help determine the fate of Sirisena’s reform drive. In January he won with promises to, among other things, dismantle the executive presidency and devolve more power to the legislature by strengthening the Prime Minister’s office. His rise also brought hopes of reconciliation in a country marred by a deep ethnic divide. As President, Rajapaksa brazenly rejected international calls for a thorough and impartial investigation into allegations of human-rights abuses by the Sri Lankan army in the final months of the civil war. Sirisena campaigned with a promise to hold an independent domestic probe into the claims. The international community was supportive after he came to power, with the U.N. deferring the release of its own report into the matter until later this year to give Sirisena time to put together a domestic process.

To implement his promises, Sirisena appointed Ranil Wickremesinghe, a veteran of Sri Lanka’s fractious political scene and leader of the Untied National Party, as Prime Minister to head a minority coalition government. With Wickremesinghe at his side, he succeeded in introducing some checks on the power of the presidency, including bringing back a two-term limit for incumbents that had been scrapped under Rajapaksa.

But with the Rajapaksa faction in Parliament acting as a roadblock, he had to discard his ambition to abolish its executive powers altogether. Lacking a two-thirds majority in the legislature, he also had to shelve a planned overhaul of the voting system and a right-to-information law to make government more transparent.

Sirisena now needs a Parliament that will be sympathetic to their cause, with enough MPs allied with the President to push through reforms. Rajapaksa’s candidacy means that the final outcome could hinge on the country’s minorities, says Perera.

Although Rajapaksa is unlikely to achieve his ambition to become Prime Minister without the backing of the SLFP, he could nonetheless split the Sinhala Buddhist vote if he and his supporters break away and run independently. In January, although he lost the presidential election, he attracted the majority of Sinhala Buddhist ballots and he remains popular in southern Sri Lanka.

“The minority parties could hold the key to gaining a majority in Parliament,” explains Perera. “I don’t think any [single] party will gain a majority in Parliament. We will have a situation where the major parties will be jockeying for support from the smaller parties.”

TIME Pakistan

Criticism of Pakistani Government Intensifies as Heat-Wave Death Toll Tops 1,000

Pakistan Heatstroke
Shakil Adil—AP A man with his daughter who suffers from dehydration due to extreme weather waits for a medical help outside a ward at a child hospital in Karachi, Pakistan, on June 24, 2015.

Most of the deaths have occurred among the elderly and poor people without access to air-conditioning

The Pakistan government continued to face the nation’s ire Wednesday over what critics call its inadequate preparation for and response to a devastating heat wave sweeping the southern Sindh province.

Opposition lawmakers slammed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s ruling party in Parliament over the repeated power cuts and water shortages that have considerably worsened the crisis, Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper reported. Many accused the government of “inaction” in the face of hundreds of deaths in the provincial capital, Karachi — the country’s largest city — and its surrounding areas.

“There is a problem of very poor governance, and in normal circumstances it is not so exposed,” Khalid Rahman, director general of the Institute of Policy Studies in Pakistan’s capital Islamabad, says in an interview with TIME. “In this very extraordinary heat wave, it has exposed so many things.”

Over 1,000 people have now died from heatstroke or related medical problems, a majority of them poor and elderly people without access to air-conditioning. The escalating problems from the heat wave prompted the government to declare a public holiday on Wednesday so people could stay indoors, according to the New York Times, and though the resumption of sea breezes from the country’s southern coast contributed to a lowering of the overall temperature and a reduction in the number of fatalities, there are still thousands more undergoing treatment at various hospitals across the region.

The Pakistani army and a paramilitary force, the Rangers, have also stepped in, setting up relief camps for heatstroke patients, while various nongovernment and volunteer organizations have been distributing water and medicine outside hospitals.

“Today was a lot better,” Anwar Kazmi, a spokesman for the Edhi Foundation that runs Karachi’s largest morgue, told the Times on Wednesday. “We’ve had 58 deaths today, compared to yesterday when the death toll rose to 300.”

Khawaja Muhammad Asif, Pakistan’s Water and Power Minister, attempted to deflect the blame from his government and delink the power shortages, which Pakistan has long grappled with, from the heat wave.

“The federal government is not responsible if there is a water shortage in Karachi,” he said in Parliament. “We are ready for accountability, but it’s not appropriate to blame us for each and every thing.”

Rahman, however, says there is a lot the government could have and should have done differently.

“In these days of technology-driven information available well in advance, the government should have come up with an emergency plan as well as some kind of awareness campaign for the public and some emergency centers,” he says. “Unfortunately, despite so many deaths the governments, both provincial as well as federal, did not accept the responsibility. Instead they started blaming each other.”

TIME Pakistan

Pakistan Declares a State of Emergency as Heat Wave Death Toll Soars to Nearly 800

Street protests have broken out at the government's handling of the crisis

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has declared a state of emergency, with nearly 800 people now having died from a heat wave sweeping Sindh province in the country’s south.

While acknowledging that periods of extreme heat were not uncommon, Farooq Dar of the Pakistan Meteorological Department, based in Islamabad, told TIME that the present heat wave was “unprecedented.” He said, “It has never been this bad.”

Officials placed the total death toll at 782 as of Wednesday morning, Pakistani newspaper Dawn reported, with a majority of the deaths occurring in Karachi, the country’s largest city and the provincial capital of Sindh. The number of fatalities has been increasing despite a gradual drop in temperatures over the last three days — with 337 reported on Tuesday against 304 and 136 on Monday and Sunday, respectively.

“We are continuously receiving people in a critical condition or dead,” Dr. Seemin Jamali, director of the Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre, told Dawn, adding that the hospital has thus far recorded 279 deaths. Morgues in the city are also filled to capacity.

The resumption of southwesterly winds into Karachi and surrounding areas on Tuesday will hopefully contribute to a further lowering of temperatures, Dar told TIME.

“The main cause [of the heat wave] is that the sea breeze was cut off, but the southwesterly wind has been flowing since yesterday afternoon and a bit of cloud cover has also come in. On Monday, the temperature was at 43 [degrees Celsius], Tuesday it went down to 41. Today we’re expecting a further drop of one or two degrees,” he said.

Anger against the provincial and central government at a perceived mismanagement of the crisis shows no sign of abating, however. Multiple daily power outages, preventing people from using fans and air-conditioning, coupled with water shortages during the holy month of Ramadan (or Ramzan), in which Muslims are required to fast until sundown, have seen street protests break out in multiple cities.

TIME Pakistan

The Death Toll From Pakistan’s Heat Wave Is Now Nearing 450

Outraged citizens have taken to the streets to protest the government's handling of the crisis

The heat wave sweeping Pakistan’s southern province of Sindh since Saturday has continued to claim lives, with hundreds more dying on Monday, taking the total death toll to 445.

Heatstroke claimed 309 lives, 301 of which were in the provincial capital and country’s largest city, Karachi, the Dawn newspaper reported. The city’s temperature on Monday remained high at 43°C, with light rain in some areas not enough to lessen the impact of the heat wave.

Hundreds of others remained under treatment in various hospitals across the city, with the government declaring a state of medical emergency. Dr. Salma Kauser, senior director for medical and health at the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation (KMC), told Dawn that more than 400 people were undergoing treatment at KMC-run hospitals.

The effect of the unbearable heat was worsened by repeated power outages, with infuriated citizens staging protests against the government in several parts of the city. Protesters clashed with police, burning tires and stoning police vehicles, according to local news outlet Pakistan Today. The outrage extended to Pakistani netizens as well, with Vocativ reporting that over 3,000 tweets went out on Monday with the hashtag #KarachiWeepsGovtSleeps.

A spokesman for the Edhi Foundation, a nonprofit focused on social welfare, said the organization’s morgue was struggling to accommodate all the heat-wave victims and had to deny many families because of lack of space.

TIME India

Mining Racketeers Linked to Murder of Indian Journalist

His family had also been threatened

An Indian journalist was allegedly abducted and then burned to death by three men linked to an illegal sand-mining racket in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh over the weekend, the Press Trust of India news agency reports.

Sandeep Kothari, 40, who reported for local Hindi-language dailies in the region, is suspected to have been murdered because of his refusal to withdraw a court complaint against individuals involved in the mining racket, the police said.

“He wrote against and also lodged complaints against manganese and sand mafias and other high-and-mighty people involved in organized crimes,” Kishore Samrite, a former local lawmaker, told PTI, who added that Kothari’s actions had also led to him being falsely accused in as many as 12 criminal cases. “His family too was tormented by mafias.”

Kothari went missing on Friday, and police discovered his body near some railway tracks in the neighboring state of Maharashtra on Saturday night. Three men suspected of involvement in the mining racket have been arrested in connection with his death.

Earlier this month, a journalist in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh was killed after being doused in gasoline and set on fire. The New York Times reports that before he died, Jagendra Singh told a police official that the attack was in response to his social-media posts linking a local politician to illegal activities, including a mining racket.

In another case in the same state, a journalist called Haider Khan, who had reported on illegal land grabs, was severely beaten by a group of men suspected to have been acting in response to one of his reports, the Hindustan Times reports.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), “India has repeatedly failed to advance justice in the cases of journalists working for local print publications that have been slain in connection to their reporting on corruption, politics or crime.”

“The government of Akhilesh Yadav, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, must act decisively to bring to justice the perpetrators of the attack on Haider Khan,” Sumit Galhotra, a research associate with the CPJ’s Asia program, said in a statement. “Coming on the heels of the murder of another journalist in the same state, it’s essential that authorities send a message that such violence will not be tolerated.”

TIME Pakistan

A Heat Wave in Pakistan Has Killed Around 140 People

Asif Hassan—AFP/Getty Images Relatives shift the dead body of a heatwave victim into an ambulance at the EDHI morgue in Karachi on June 21, 2015.

Temperatures as high as 48°C have been recorded

Around 140 people died in a sudden heat wave over the weekend in Pakistan’s largest city Karachi and surrounding Sindh province — the latest incidence of lethally hot weather to have affected the subcontinent over the past month.

While most of the victims were men above 50, the heat wave also killed six women and five children, Pakistani newspaper Dawn reported, placing the total death toll at 136. Pakistani news channel Geo TV reported a death toll of 140, citing provincial health secretary Saeed Mangnejo.

Around 130 of the fatalities were recorded since Saturday in Karachi, which has experienced temperatures of 45°C — the hottest this year. More lives were lost in the rest of Sindh province, where temperatures hit 48°C.

Dr. Seemin Jamali, head of the state-run Jinnah Medical Centre, told reporters that over 100 people had died at the hospital. “They all died of heat stroke,” she said.

The adverse effects of the heat wave have been exacerbated by frequent power outages and the fact that most Pakistanis are fasting from dawn to dusk for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

A similar heat wave swept Pakistan’s neighbor India less than a month ago, with more than 2,000 people across several Indian states dying from unusually high temperatures in late May.

TIME Pakistan

Pakistan Backtracks on Decision to Shutter Save the Children

A sealed lock is seen at the gate of Save the Children charity's office in Islamabad
Faisal Mahmood—Reuters A sealed lock is seen at the gate of Save the Children charity's office in Islamabad, Pakistan, June 12, 2015

Islamabad had alleged the charity is a stooge of foreign governments

Pakistan on Sunday suspended an order to shut down the Islamabad offices of Save the Children, the BBC reports.

The move by the Interior Ministry comes days after authorities halted the charity’s operations in the Pakistani capital and asked its foreign staff to leave the country.

While the aid group welcomed the government’s apparent reversal, employees say they have received no official word on the decision. “We would appreciate relevant government authorities to communicate to us officially,” a representative told the Associated Press.

Last week, Pakistani authorities locked the gates of Save the Children’s local premises without any formal announcement, but officials had previously accused the charity of “anti-Pakistan” activities.

Save the Children voiced strong objections and vowed to fight the move at the highest levels. The U.S. State Department also expressed concern over the closure.

In 2012, Pakistani authorities accused the NGO of conducting fake vaccination programs that were used by the CIA to track down al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, who had been killed by U.S. Special Forces in the Pakistani town of Abbottabad the previous year. Save the Children denied the allegations, saying it was not involved with the programs or Pakistani doctor Shakil Afridi, who ran them.

Pakistan has increasingly accused international NGOs of overstepping their boundaries and carrying out the agendas of foreign governments.

TIME Bangladesh

Prominent Bangladeshi Writer Flees India for the U.S. After Death Threats

Press conference for the honorary doctorates 2011 of UCL
Virgine Lefour—EPA Bangladeshi author Taslima Nasreen at the press conference for the honorary doctorates 2011 of UCL in Louvain-La-Neuve, Belgium, on Feb. 2, 2011

"Will be back when feel safe," she tweeted

Famed Bangladeshi writer and activist Taslima Nasreen, already in exile from her home country, fled even further away from it after reportedly receiving death threats from Islamic fundamentalist groups.

Nasreen, who had been living in India since 2004 after leaving Bangladesh a decade earlier, arrived in the U.S. last week, according to a statement from a nonprofit organization that helped bring her into the country. Nasreen was “specifically named as an imminent target” by fundamentalist groups associated with al-Qaeda, the Center for Inquiry said.

Such groups in Bangladesh have already murdered three of the country’s secular bloggers this year, in what is turning into a growing trend of intolerance against freedom of speech.

Nasreen, an award-winning poet and author known for speaking out against extremist Islam, had left Bangladesh in 1994 after being targeted by fundamentalist groups. After the recent killings, followed by more threats against her life, Nasreen tweeted that she didn’t feel safe in Bangladesh’s western neighbor either.

“Was threatened by Islamists who killed atheist bloggers in B’desh. Worried,” she said, according to the BBC. “Wanted to meet GOI (Government of India) but no appointment. Left. Will be back when feel safe.”

TIME India

Uber’s Taxi Application Rejected by New Delhi After Sexual Assault Claims

Members of All India Mahila Congress, women's wing of Congress party, shout slogans and carry placards during a protest against the rape of a female passenger, in New Delhi
Anindito Mukherjee—Reuters Members of All India Mahila Congress, women's wing of Congress party, shout slogans and carry placards during a protest against the alleged rape of a female Uber passenger, in New Delhi on Dec. 8, 2014

More bad news for the embattled but ultra-successful company

Uber’s application to operate in New Delhi has been rejected in the wake of alleged sexual assaults committed by drivers working via the ride-sharing app, according to reports.

Letters sent to the company by state authorities detail how Uber failed to comply with the Home Ministry-imposed ban in the wake of the alleged rape of 27-year-old woman by one of its drivers in December last year, the Wall Street Journal reports. The driver denies the charge and his trial is ongoing.

But authorities have now sprung into action after a 21-year-old woman accused another Uber driver of sexual assault over the weekend.

Similar applications from two more app-based cab aggregators, OLA cabs and Taxi4Sure, were also rejected by local authorities.

Uber Delhi’s general manager Gagan Bhatia said in statement Wednesday that that the rejection of the company’s license was “unfortunate,” indicating that the company would apply again once federal guidelines were in place for registration.

“We welcome the opportunity to engage in constructive dialogue with the Delhi government to seek necessary permissions,” Bhatia said, according to the WSJ.


TIME India

Air India Takes Yoga to the Skies With Classes for Pilots and Cabin Crew

Schoolchildren offer prayers to Sun god during a yoga session at a camp in Ahmedabad
Amit Dave—Reuters Schoolchildren offer prayers to the sun god during a yoga session at a camp in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad on Jan. 6, 2015

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a huge fan of the ancient discipline

In a first, India’s state-run carrier Air India is providing yoga sessions for its new cabin-crew recruits and pilots who are currently undergoing training, according to local media.

“We have introduced yoga for the first time in our training module for pilots and cabin crew, as we believe that yoga brings in a sense of discipline as well as help cope better with the stress of the job,” an Air India official told the Economic Times. “Every crew member currently being trained has to attend yoga sessions in the morning at 6:30 a.m.”

The move comes against the backdrop of steps by the country’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, to popularize the ancient Indian discipline since coming to power last year. As an avid practitioner of yoga, Modi has appointed a minister to promote traditional medicines and yoga in his government, and pushed for the declaration an International Day of Yoga, now set for June 21, by the U.N. General Assembly.

On May 28, Modi used social media to urge Indians to make the first International Day of Yoga a success.

Modi’s government is also planning a series of events to mark the date in a bid to, as the Prime Minister put it, makes yoga a “mass movement globally.”

Modi himself is expected to lead a public yoga session in the heart of the capital New Delhi on June 21, with the Prime Minister’s Office reportedly issuing a circular asking all senior officials and civil servants to attend.

“It’ll be a 35-minute yoga demonstration programme led by the Prime Minister himself,” a senior government official told the U.K.’s Daily Telegraph.

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