SEATTLE, Washington — Sri Lanka was controlled by Great Britain from 1815 to 1948 and throughout this time ethnic divides began to emerge. After gaining independence in 1948, these divides grew stronger and escalated into a 26-year-long civil war. This conflict caused thousands of Sri Lankans to be killed and displaced. Although the majority of the conflict is now over, thousands of landmines and explosives are present in Sri Lanka and prevent many from returning to their homes. By the end of 2013, more than 22,000 Sri Lankans had been killed by landmine-related injuries and many others were seriously injured.
This presence of landmines has made infrastructure development, improvement of health care services and the development of other social services extremely difficult. While Sri Lanka has a low rate of extreme poverty relative to its neighbors, it is important to note that the living standards are still quite low. Roughly 40% of Sri Lankans live on less than $5 a day and regional income disparity is prevalent. Additionally, injuries from a landmine include blindness, loss of limbs and even death, which all drastically increase a families’ risk of living in poverty.
Landmine Removal Efforts
The Halo Trust has played a critical role in landmine removal and demining in Sri Lanka. It is currently the largest landmine removal organization with a staff of more than 800. Moreover, a large number of its staff is female, which has been a common trend in landmine removal. Unfortunately due to the conflict, it is estimated that more than 1.2 million women in Sri Lanka are the head of their households. Many of these women became widows during the war and have found a sense of purpose in demining. Inthira Piriyatharsini, a deminer, finds purpose in this line of work, saying, “I was nervous the first day, and the first time I found a grenade, but I was affected by the war so doing this work is very satisfying for me.”
As of January 2019, it is estimated that Halo Trust has cleared more than 300,000 landmines and unexploded ordinances. While it is an impressive feat, more than 23.3 square kilometers of land in Sri Lanka are still uninhabitable due to landmine presence.
Australia has demonstrated a commitment to foreign aid assistance in Sri Lanka since the civil conflict ended in 2009. They provided more than $20 million in funding between 2009 and 2015. To help push progress even further, Australia has recently allocated $800,000 in foreign aid assistance to assist Sri Lanka in the safe removal of landmines. This is part of an initiative to make Sri Lanka completely landmine free by 2025.
Australia is providing its foreign aid via MAG International, another prominent figure in humanitarian landmine removal. MAG International began operating in 1989 and since then its mission has been to help nations rebuild after conflict via safe explosive ordinance removal. To date, the organization has provided assistance in 68 countries and helped more than 18 million people.
Australian Deputy High Commissioner Victoria Coakley argues that this foreign assistance is necessary for Sri Lanka not only in a public health sense but also in an economic sense. In order for displaced Sri Lankans to continue with their previous businesses, such as coconut farming, they need to be able to return to their lands. Additionally, a huge tourism potential is being glossed over in Sri Lanka due to fear of landmine presence.
Landmine eradication in Sri Lanka will benefit the country in a number of ways, both physically and emotionally. Those impacted by the conflict, especially women, have been empowered by the prospect of rebuilding their country and providing a better future for their children. Additionally, as landmines are safely removed, more and more land is available for economic development. While demining in Sri Lanka has improved drastically over the years, landmine eradication is crucial to its post-war recovery.