Thais head to polls with Thaksin tipped for landslide re-election

Polling began in Thailand’s elections Sunday with Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra poised for a sweeping victory which would deliver the premier an unprecedented second term in power.

Voting booths in the kingdom’s 400 constituencies opened at 8:00 am (0100 GMT) and will close seven hours later, with projected unofficial results by television stations expected late Sunday.

"A lot of people are paying attention to this election because they want to see if people still believe in Thaksin or not," a 60-year-old man, who was one of the first to enter the booths at Bangkok’s Yannawa public school, told AFP.

Thaksin, a former policeman and billionaire telecom tycoon who stormed to power with a landslide election win in January 2001 at the head of his then-new Thai Rak Thai-party, is aiming to govern without a coalition partner this term.

"We want to be a single-party government," Thaksin told a cheering crowd in Bangkok at his last rally Friday, distancing himself from current partner, the Chart Thai party.

Thailand’s 44 million eligible voters were casting ballots six weeks after the Indian Ocean tsunami slammed into six southern provinces, killing nearly 5,400 people.

Thaksin’s party is targeting at least 350 seats out of the 500 up for grabs, a margin of victory that opponents fear would make the government an elected dictatorship.

With so many seats under TRT’s belt, the opposition would be unable to launch any censure motion against Thaksin or his party, which critics fear hands too much power to the premier whom they label as being increasingly authoritarian.

In a country where every previous elected government has fallen either to military coups or political squabbling, Thaksin’s is the first to survive a full four-year term.

The mogul has largely delivered on his promises to revive Thailand’s fortunes after the 1997 Asian financial crisis and has proved a popular leader.

Pre-election polls are officially banned, but a survey by the respected Matichon newspaper and Dsurakitvanid University predicted that TRT would win 349 seats, up from its present share of 320.

The poll left the Democrats well short of their goal with just 101 seats, giving Chart Thai 37 and the new Mahachon party 11, with one seat each for the Social Action Party and the Labor party.

The Democrats are only hoping for 201 seats, but they have been unable to recover from their crushing defeat in 2001 and their ensuing leadership split.

The prospect of an even more powerful Thaksin raises alarm among groups such as Human Rights Watch, which considers Thailand "a country of high concern."

Critics are concerned over Thaksin’s military crackdown on a 13-month Islamic insurgency in Thailand’s southernmost provinces, which has left more than 580 dead and sparked two controversial clashes that ended with the deaths of hundreds of militants or protesters.

Thaksin’s war on drugs left some 2,275 suspected drug offenders dead in apparent extrajudicial killings between February and May 2003.

His massive edge going into the polls — which has not been swayed by the crises that have marred his term — has not done away with old-school political traditions like vote-buying, fraud and violence.

Election Commission officials have received more than 90 allegations of fraud, vote-buying or other irregularities, while senior police officials said 14 people had been killed in pre-election violence this year.

Heritage of Sri Lankan fort town emerges mostly unscathed by tsunami

Security guard G.A. Nimal stands on the broken fort wall, the sea pounding below, and stretches an arm skyward to show the height of the tsunami that pounded the historic Sri Lankan city of Galle.

But while new Galle city outside was pulverised by the force of the waves, killing thousands, the people inside the imposing fort, built by the Dutch in 1663, were kept mostly safe and the World Heritage site remains largely intact.

Nimal was one of the few who had to run for their lives behind the fort walls, as the water pummeled a section along a five-metre (16-foot) stretch and gushed into the government offices he is charged with protecting.

"Lucky, lucky, lucky," sighs P. Vijaratne, chief executive officer of the Galle Heritage Foundation, of the limited damage done here and to some of the approximately 250 irreplaceable heritage buildings in the fort area.

"Compared to Galle town and bazaar, we were 90 percent lucky."

His own office building, a former hospital also built by the Dutch — who wrested Sri Lanka from the Portuguese before losing it to the British, who left in 1948 — was in fact one of the unlucky ones.

"Although the sea water surrounded the fort, it didn’t get in except at this place," Vijaratne says, referring to the damaged fort wall Nimal stood on outside his office, which drops about 10 metres into the Indian Ocean.

Galle is a major magnet for foreign tourists to Sri Lanka, lured by the 90-acre (39 hectare) fort and its narrow crisscrossing streets which boast stunning colonial Dutch buildings with ochre exteriors, wooden shutters and graceful archways.

Smart small hotels rub shoulders with authentic Sri Lankan tea shops here, pricey boutiques compete with tourist trinket street stalls, and a growing number of expatriates seduced by Galle live side-by-side with Sri Lankans.

The water also rushed in via the fort entrance near Vijaratne’s office and flooded several other important government buildings, ruining thousands of documents and creating an administrative nightmare for the province.

In the courtyard of Vijaratne’s office, down a creaking wooden staircase that will probably need to be replaced after the deadly deluge and along a corridor he warns may not be safe, piles and piles of papers are strewn.

"Pensioners won’t be getting their pensions for months," a visiting court official observes wryly. The pensions office was among the worst hit.

Vijaratne says about six heritage buildings outside the fort, near its walls, also escaped lightly.

Even the national maritime museum, housed in the fort wall near the hospital and flooded by the waves, was fortunate in one sense: it housed only replicas and models of important items kept in Colombo.

But it’s small consolation for D. Kandamby, who has been curator of the national maritime museum since it opened in 1992.

"I am very sad about this," he says in front of the padlocked door to the museum hall, which reeks of damp. "I was engaged in building up this museum from the start."

The archaeology office — also flooded by the sea surge — is undertaking a survey and an estimate of the cost to restore the damaged buildings back to their original condition but does not expect to have results for a month.

"It’s a priority. If we leave them as they are, they will only become more damaged," Vijaratne says, adding that it’s still going to be pricey, tough work.

"Renovating these buildings is definitely a bigger job than an ordinary building. It might cost three or four times more than a new one. It would be cheaper and easier to build new ones, but we cannot do that."

Some historical buildings in the municipal area outside the Galle Heritage Foundation’s jurisdiction, meanwhile, were damaged but few were completely destroyed, says former mayor of Galle Lionel Premasiri.

He laments the damage to some of them as he makes a quick tour of the city: the Dutch-built fish market renovated during his tenure has only a few white-tiled stumps left, while the open-air vegetable market off Galle’s narrow main street — the death toll here was at least 200 — is badly water-damaged.

The once-manicured park is sodden, and a bridge over the Dutch-built canal has been washed away.

"It’s a big tragedy, because a lot of people are dead. But the architecture that was lost can be regained. It can be restored."

Brick by brick, US marines undertake gut-wrenching” clean up in Sri Lanka”

Despite their training and combat experience, the US marines working in tsunami-hit Sri Lanka admit that picking through the shattered remains of peoples’ lives has been a heart-rending exercise.

A few dozen of around 400 marines stationed in or off the southern city of Galle pick up brick after broken brick, the pieces left behind after the Asian tsunami ravaged the seaside village of Gintota.

Like survivors right across the three-quarters of Sri Lanka’s coastal belt obliterated by the December 26 tsunami, they use their hands — some gloved in black leather or khaki wool, others simply bare.

They toss what’s left of entire lifetimes into the mouths of camouflaged bulldozers, brought by the US military themselves, which then transfer the detritus into their dump trucks. Then it’s off to a makeshift tip.

"There was rubble everywhere. It was like the Twin Towers," in New York destroyed in the September 11, 2001 attacks says Private First Class Damon Carr, describing the scene when he arrived.

"I didn’t know where we were going to start from; everywhere you looked, there was rubble."

He found a photo album with a family snap of half a dozen people and says he handed it back to the mother pictured in it. She was the only one still alive.

"I almost cried," he says. "We’re marines, we’ve been trained, but I never thought I’d be standing here, picking up the pieces of someone’s whole life."

Sergeant Jarrod Birchler was also astounded at the scale of wreckage.

"It looks good now but when we came you couldn’t even drive a truck here. There were six houses standing and there were six with nothing but their foundations left," he says.

Those standing had to be demolished — except for a small structure that he thinks used to be somebody’s kitchen — and added to the metre-high rubble which has taken three full days to almost clear.

"It’s long, hard work," Birchler adds.

The area the marines have tackled is barely a dot on the map of Sri Lanka’s disaster zone, an indication of the enormous effort that will be needed to rebuild the South Asian country.

Amid the mess, the occasional piece of torn cloth — perhaps once someone’s dress — and pieces of household items still peak through.

Hospital Corpsman First Class Tim Dittlinger, who normally provides medical care to the marines from the 9th Engineers Support Battalion here, scrunches up a piece of material and tosses it into the bulldozer’s jaws as he admits it’s been tough.

"It’s been heartbreaking and gut-wrenching. It’s hard to come here and do what we’ve been doing, dumping what people have built up their whole lives," he says.

"Picking up people’s lives, it’s not what we’ve been expecting to do."

In small clusters around the periphery of the work site, curious Sri Lankans watch. G.V. Kellum, 41, who lost his father to the tsunami, solemnly observes as the remainder of his home gets tossed away.

"They’re helping, so that’s good," the labourer says, standing from a vantage point where he can also see the surf rolling in along the rubbish- and boat-strewn beach, an ever-present reminder of the tragedy.

Nearby G.V. Dayawathie rummages in the remains of her home, surrounded by a few relatives and neighbours, hoping to find some intact bricks that they might be able to re-use, while also keeping an eye on the marines at work.

"We are happy that they are coming to Sri Lanka for free to help us. We’re happy about them cleaning up," says the 33-year-old mother of four, whose father was also killed by the surging waters.

Her neighbour and nephew, Padme Talakkumara, 17, would like to talk to the marines but can’t speak English.

The marines say many Sri Lankans have been hesitant to approach, but some have cheerfully handed out sliced coconuts from the palms swaying overhead.

"Obviously, the machinery is intimidating — we’re intimidated by the machinery. They’ve been gracious, hospitable and yet wary," says Dittlinger.

"They’re glad we’re here, but at the same time, you can read the distress and the loss on their faces."

Corporal Ryan Zeiter, 24, drives one of the seven-tonne dump trucks.

Asked how he is coping emotionally, he says: "I’ve been to Iraq, I’m used to it. But it’s pretty sad to see some of these people who don’t have anything anymore."

The conditions he’s working under are however far better than in Iraq, he says, where he finished a tour a year ago.

"There you’ve got to be constantly looking around. There’s no trust. Here, I can leave my truck running without worrying it will get stolen. They seem like pretty honest people here."

Asked if anything stands out as being difficult, he shakes his head.

"No, it’s something we do. We’re marines, we’re here to help."

As Sri Lankan schools resume, teachers brace for emotional roll call

As students traumatised by the Asian tsunami return to school in Sri Lanka Monday, teachers braced for an emotional rollercoaster and the beginning of a long process of psychological recovery.

Vice-principal of Sudhamma College S.K. Weerasuruya, standing among dump trucks and volunteers frantically clearing debris ahead of school opening, told AFP that the focus of teachers would first be on working out who had survived.

The task will be heartwrenching at his 1,200-student school near Galle harbour, which on December 26 lifted up and slammed its waters into this southern Sri Lankan town.

Up to 400 students here are believed to be dead or missing.

"Many students here come from areas along the coast," explained Weerasuruya.

These were the places worst hit by the tsunami, which ravaged three-quarters of Sri Lanka’s coastline, killing more than 30,000 and leaving an entire generation of children emotionally scarred.

But the biggest efforts will be on helping survivors get back to normal life, he said. The school will tally Monday who lost their homes and needs new school uniforms, books, stationery and supplies decimated by the tsunami.

"Their parents will come with them, with the staff… We will look after them," he promised.

The school was still thick with reminders of the tragedy. The yard is crisscrossed with muddy tyre tracks, strewn with broken glass and made sadder by a few forlorn trees that withstood the onslaught.

A building housing 14 classrooms was flattened, the science lab is still a sodden mess, and hundreds of chairs and desks were destroyed, along with the contents of the administrative office.

Across the other side of town, St Aloysius’ College escaped damage, but at least five of its 3,630 students and staff died, with the number expected to rise as students file in.

Teacher Chandana Amarasinghe, 39, said he was nervous about class.

"We are very close to our students. If we come to know that that boy, that boy, or that boy are gone…" he said, gesturing to imaginary empty chairs, "then we will be very sad."

He said he had already met with students who had lost their homes and "have almost lost their minds" as he warned that teachers were unprepared to cope with the new needs of their fragile students.

"We teachers need some sort of training to help those children who have been affected by the catastrophe, to know how to bring them back to what they were, mentally, before it," he said.

Concerns have swelled internationally that the tsunamis which tore apart Indian Ocean coastlines may pose a global mental health problem. Experts say survivors risk becoming suicidal or developing other serious neuroses.

At least, getting back to school will be a start, and better than sitting around in camps or destitute homes, Amarasinghe said.

"Once they come here, they’ll be together with their friends, and they’ll forget about everything for a while. It’s some kind of relief for them."

Students’ studies at this college will be further disrupted by them sharing quarters with up to 15 displaced families sleeping in the school’s classrooms, which were transformed into a temporary camp in the tsunami’s aftermath.

Of Sri Lanka’s 9,970 schools, 170 have been damaged or destroyed, and another 224 are being used to accommodate the homeless, but authorities aim to find other accommodation for them by the end of January.

"The education ministry told us to tell the police that we were having trouble starting school" because of the homeless here, volunteer Percy Weraduwage told AFP.

"The police told us that we have a problem common to the whole country. Driving people out is not human, so we will start school and let the people stay here."

At Richmond College, principal W.N.R.P. Daniyas — who was himself swept off the road in his car with his wife and three children and counts himself lucky to be alive — expected at least 10 of his 4,300 students to be dead.

His school will also compile statistics Monday.

On Tuesday, they will hold a Buddhist ceremony as part of the grieving process. And to help students ease back into academic life, normally strict rules will be relaxed for the first week back.

"We have informed the head prefect not to check uniforms, haircuts, rules and regulations, times of attendance," he told AFP.

Teachers compile lists of the living as Sri Lankan schools resume

Tears swell in student Fathima Farha’s eyes as she waits, on edge, for her friends to arrive for their first day back at school. She already knows some are dead, but she’s not sure about the rest.

"I’m very sad. I lost my friends and my neighbours. Today my friends are not here. I wish my friends were alive," the 17-year-old said among the wreckage of her tsunami-hit school, metres (yards) from the harbour in the southern Sri Lankan town of Galle.

Opening books again is the furthest thing from her mind.

"I don’t know if I can study again or not," she said, peering from beneath her blue headscarf and standing close to two friends who did survive.

At Sudhamma College, teachers and students expected up to 450 of their 1,200 students to be dead or missing after the December 26 Asian tsunami disaster, which killed more than 30,000 Sri Lankans.

The schoolyard was dotted with teachers sitting at small desks, listing the students who survived the catastrophe along with whether they still have a home, school uniform, shoes, books and other essential items.

"There are really a lot of children who are left without houses, we’re finding this out," said teacher Kapila Dhanayake. Twenty-two out of class 8A’s 36 pupils had arrived.

The principal asked the anxious parents to split into two groups — those who still have homes and those who do not. At least a third do not.

Parents, children and teachers, only a handful wearing the usual crisp uniform of a white shirt and white or royal blue shorts, had mixed feelings as they surveyed the damage, peering into the damp classrooms still standing.

Father Mohamad Subair, 50, tightly clutching his seven-year-old son’s hand, was ambivalent about letting his three children return.

"I’m happy that they’re in school but not so happy about this place," he said, worried about its proximity to the ocean.

His family’s home was destroyed, along with all of his children’s school books and supplies. They salvaged one school uniform, which his son was wearing.

There were no classes Monday. In the afternoon, the teachers were to discuss how to help those children who survived.

Some were here only to inform the school of missing children.

Chaohamid Mohamad Riza’s sister and her three children were killed in the horrific train derailment at nearby Meethiyagoda in which the ocean entombed at least 1,300 people.

"I’m coming to tell the school about this," he said.

English teacher Manel Ekanayake, 34, lost 10 of her students and was concerned about more. She was also upset at the scale of damage to the school, which saw one building housing 14 classrooms flattened.

The yard was crisscrossed with muddy tyre tracks from the dump trucks that carried away the debris and strewn with broken glass.

"This school had a very nice environment before the tsunami. Now it’s a complete wreck," she told AFP, adding that the teachers still wanted to hold classes here to push the government to quickly repair it.

She said counselling, for which the teachers have little training, would have to take place before the students return to their normal academic syllabus.

"We are not hoping to return to teach them at once. We feel that they need counselling. We have to listen to them, they have a lot of stories to tell… No one is happy."

Across town, St Aloysius’ College escaped damage but at least five of its 3,630 students and staff died, with the number expected to rise.

Teacher Chandana Amarasinghe, 39, speaking Sunday, said he too believed the children would need intensive counselling to help them cope with the tragedy.

He said he had already met with students who had lost their homes and "have almost lost their minds" as he warned that teachers were unprepared to cope with the new needs of their fragile students.

"We teachers need some sort of training to help those children who have been affected by the catastrophe, to know how to bring them back to what they were, mentally, before it," he said.

At least, getting back to school would be a start, and better than sitting around in camps or destitute homes, Amarasinghe said.

"Once they come here, they’ll be together with their friends, and they’ll forget about everything for a while. It’s some kind of relief for them."

At nearby Unawatuna, parents and children at Sri Samanajoti School assembled at the field where their school used to stand. There are only chunks of bricks and mortar left.

All 146 students were accounted for but there is nowhere for them to study. Teachers compiled lists of preferred alternative schools for the students, who will have to join new classes next week.

Father H. Thilakarathna, 42, who lost one of his four children to the tsunami, said he wants his children to return to study.

"But all the time, we are always thinking about the water."

Despite its own disaster, India’s navy quietly helps Sri Lanka clean up

When Indian naval Captain T. K. Ashokan was at sea during exercises on December 26, he felt an unusual sudden swell.

Five days later, the INS Sarvekshak dropped anchor outside Sri Lanka’s debris-strewn Galle harbour with an urgent mission: to clean it up, allowing relief to reach the survivors of the country’s worst-ever natural disaster.

"Before we even reached here, we saw a few sunken boats right out in the middle of the sea," Ashokan said of the damage wrought by the killer tsunami.

The wall of water triggered by an earthquake off the coast of Sumatra also hit 10 other countries, including India, killing more than 150,000 people.

The Sarvekshak, a ship that specialises in hydrography or the mapping of the ocean floor, drew into Galle in the dead of night, but lighthouses usually ablaze with light along the ravaged coast were snuffed out.

"The normal activities you associate with a harbour were conspicuous by their absence," he said, speaking onboard as relief operations continued in battered Sri Lanka, with a total of 11 Indian naval vessels lending a hand.

"It was like entering a desolate, dead place."

The immediate mission of the 218 officers and sailors onboard, along with 82 army personnel, was to clear the harbour to allow the ships carrying a flood of international aid arriving here to safely dock, the captain said.

An emblem of the monumental effort this took over the following three days sits right on the pier where Ashokan’s ship is now docked: a massive dredger that the tsunami wave heaved up and gently placed down, undamaged.

"It’s a miracle — that weighs more than 1,000 tonnes and it was in the water. The tsunami came and just lifted it out. If you want to see the power of nature, there it is," said the captain, a naval officer for 25 years.

"I’ve never seen anything like it in my life."

Using its cutting-edge surveying equipment, the three-year-old Sarvekshak’s first task was to map out where boats, buses and other sizeable objects had been hurled into the harbour by the powerful waves.

A team of 25 specialist divers then worked on clearing the harbour of the debris, wrapping up work on January 3.

"There were so many sunken boats, we lost count of them," he said.

While Galle harbour is an important commercial port for Sri Lanka, a port worker who did not want to be identified said that no commercial ships were damaged, with the fishing fleet instead bearing the brunt of the catastrophe.

Scores of boats belonging to local fishermen, painted in incongruously cheerful hues of blue and yellow, red and green, still litter the side of the coastal road winding along the harbour.

Another crucial job the crew carried out was replacing the buoys that marked out a safe passage for ships into the harbour, which were torn from their anchors by the force of the tsunami.

Ashokan said the scale of the devastation and clean-up did not compare to other natural disasters he has seen, including a major cyclone, both physically and emotionally.

"This was totally different. With a cyclone, there is a gradual build up. People can get a little prepared, but this was something that caught people completely by surprise," he said.

"It’s more than the physical. The emotional quotient is also there… It’s not just the hard work. You see the strain on the people, and this tires you out faster."

Ashokan hailed the Sri Lankans for their bravery and energy in starting to swing back to normal life.

"The Sri Lankans have risen to the occasion most admirably. Life is getting back to normal. People are not just sitting around, and that’s a welcome sign."

Bored and confused, Sri Lankan tsunami survivors play the waiting game

W.D. Ariyapala sits among a cluster of men, some skimming newspapers, others slurping on coconuts. Hanging out in the rubble where they used to live or work is their latest pastime.

"I don’t know what to do. I read the paper. I come in every morning, I look to see if anyone can help me here, then I wait, and I go home in the evening," says Ariyapala, outside what used to be his wood carving shop.

He counts his blessings: his home is intact and his family is safe. But like hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans, he has lost his livelihood and has no idea how he and seven family members will now get by.

"Everyone is waiting. There’s nothing happening."

Across the road, metres (yards) from the lapping surf of palm-fringed Unawatuna beach, Samantha Nanayakkara, 27, kills time with his 65-year-old mother outside the spacious green tent that aid workers delivered a few days ago.

The waves that thundered into Sri Lanka, killing more than 30,000 people, crushed his home and also dragged his two tuk-tuks into the ocean. It also robbed him of money to trade fish, his family’s other source of income.

"Now we have nothing," he says.

Emergency tents have sprung up along the road here in the past few days, most of them housing a sad and small array of retrieved household items.

Inside Nanayakkara’s temporary home, a few plates, cups and saucers are stacked neatly in one corner, a baby stroller they are keeping safe for a neighbour is in another, with a few bags of donated clothes.

Nanayakkara sleeps on a thin mattress in the corner with his brother, while his parents and other relatives take nightly refuge at the temple, a few hundred metres away, where the whole family must trek to use a toilet.

Scrubbed and washed clothes are neatly laid out on the tent’s roof, steaming dry in the searing tropical sun. A tarpaulin from the UN’s refugee agency gives them extra shade where their kitchen used to stand.

Thanks to a massive international and local aid effort, their immediate needs have been taken care of: food, water, and a place to sleep. But the next step for them is anyone’s guess for now.

"We have no plans. The government is giving information on the TV and radio, telling people to wait," Nanayakkara says.

Confusion over government restrictions on new beach development means they fear they will need to move inland, which angers D. Nilaweera, 56, whose uncle was killed in his corridor-like travel agency right next door.

"I ask, where are these people going to go? These people can’t go anywhere."

Most people living in Sri Lanka’s devastated coastal belt survive directly on tourism or fishing and say they must remain right by the sea to survive.

The sense of community here remains strong. The lifeless body of Nilaweera’s uncle was found with grocer N. Dammika’s dead father, hundreds of metres away from where they were caught unaware by the tsunami.

Their bodies were put into the same coffin and buried together.

Now Dammika and his relatives are using a single sledgehammer to smash up chunks of their collapsed grocery store into a manageable size to carry away, somewhere.

"Nobody is helping yet. Maybe the government will give us help later, we don’t know," he says.

A few doors away, however, guesthouse owner Saliya Amaraweera, 39, is already overseeing the reconstruction of his damaged building, wanting to reopen again promptly. No one has approached him with any offers of assistance.

"But I’m not expecting any help. I built this place up step by step and I will do it again."

He acknowledges that he is one of the lucky ones, with the means to kickstart his business again: "There are people who have lost everything. They should get aid."

Sri Lankans thrilled, oblivious to Powell’s lightning visit

Sri Lankans in the tsunami-hit southern city of Galle were either thrilled or oblivious to US Secretary of State Colin Powell’s lightning visit Friday, but hoped regardless that his presence would lead to more aid.

Amid a thin crowd waiting at a security line looped around the makeshift helipad where Powell touched down, tuk-tuk driver T.K. Naleen, 35, said he had heard that the leader had pledged to help the people of Sri Lanka.

"I can’t guarantee whether he’s really good or not though," Naleen said sceptically, as he sought money from passers-by to help him and his displaced family travel outside devastated Galle to stay with relatives.

"I think the Americans are helping very well so far," said Naleen, who lost two of his four children, his home, and his tuk-tuk — a three-wheeled vehicle mostly used as a taxi — when the December 26 tsunami smashed into Sri Lanka, killing more than 30,000 people.

Bookbinder G.W. Ariyaratne, 55, said he was delighted Powell was stopping here, even if only for 50 minutes, before his return to the capital Colombo.

"Only Colin Powell has come here, nobody else. When he comes here, he can see all this and understand what really happened to Sri Lanka," he said, gesturing to the wreckage and rubble surrounding Galle’s cricket stadium.

"Then he will help us more," he added.

The United States has already pledged 350 million dollars in aid to tsunami-hit countries in the Indian Ocean region, where at least 165,000 people in 11 nations were killed. Washington says this sum may be increased.

Coconut seller W.L.P. Sunil, dripping with sweat in the midday heat as he plied his trade, told AFP he had no idea who Powell was but hoped he was important enough to provide some relief.

"I think if he comes to look and see what is here, then he will try to help the poor," Sunil said.

Guide Ajit Amendra, 37, who stationed himself at this strategic tourist spot for work before the disaster and has been returning daily hoping to find a tourist, said he had never heard of Powell until his visit.

He too hoped he was powerful enough to bring in more aid.

"He can see what happened, find out all about the quake, and go back to the United States, and then they can give us money," said Amendra, who thought the superpower had only pledged 50,000 dollars in relief.

Powell’s trip here by helicopter allowed him to see first-hand the devastation wrought along the island nation’s coastline.

While here he also made a whirlwind visit to a Red Cross centre providing medical care to survivors and distributing US-funded kits of household and sanitary items to displaced families.

Kumidini Hemachandra, 48, who lost her small snack shop in the disaster, waited an hour outside the security cordon here wanting to catch a glimpse of Powell or even to ask him for help as he was whisked in and out.

She left disappointed.

"I was waiting to see him but the security was too tight … He must have seen the damaged areas — I think he has come to help us rebuild out country."

Broken-hearted Sri Lankan cricket star mourns destruction of famed stadium

The clock at Galle International Cricket Stadium stands frozen at 9:26 am. That was the moment Sri Lanka’s biggest disaster hit this southern city and shattered Jayananda Warnaweera’s dream.

"It was a paradise," Sri Lanka’s former star batsman said of the famed stadium, hailed as one of the most picturesque in the world with its stunning views of the historic Galle fort’s ramparts and its Indian Ocean setting.

Now it is a wreck.

The 10-metre (33 feet) wall of water that hit the field left behind a bus, three vans, two cars and four boats — "big boats", said Warnaweera, who is also the ground curator, surveying the mass of tangled debris still strewn around.

The 10 nets used by schools and players for practice are flattened. The indoor artificial turf centre, the only one in Sri Lanka’s south, is gutted and unusable.

Warnaweera’s carefully cultivated flowers and orchids have disappeared from their crushed pots and the fish pond is full of sludge.

"This is like losing my family. This is my first love. I don’t have the words to describe this damage, the disaster," he said.

Warnaweera’s, 21 groundsmen and seven other staff used to spend up to 15 hours a day working at the stadium, which seated more than 10,000 fans for international matches with temporary stands erected.

"Because of our love for this ground, we didn’t want to go anywhere else."

Now, they are transfixed by the damage.

In the shell of Warnaweera’s office sits a huge water tank.

"Tell me, how did that get in here?" he said with a note of incredulity. "We are going to have to knock down a wall to get it out."

On the day disaster struck, an under-15 schoolboy match between a Sri Lankan and an English side had been set to begin four minutes after the tsunami descended.

The players were on the field and able to scramble to safety, but the father of one of the English boys was killed as he sat in a bus. The toll could have been much higher if they had still been inside.

Warnaweera said the players had a long-running joke about the nearby sea one day engulfing the ground, which was originally built as a racetrack in the 1830s and was transformed into a cricket field in 1865.

"Finally, it has happened. The worst thing is even now if someone says the sea is coming we don’t doublecheck to see if they are joking — we just run."

The current Sri Lankan side, which cancelled its tour of New Zealand after the tsunami disaster hit, has already visited and were "stunned", he said.

On Wednesday, the players launched a fund to aid tsunami survivors which they hope will be supported by cricket fans around the world.

Warnaweera was Galle’s first-ever test player — he represented Sri Lanka from 1985 to 1995 — and was instrumental in putting the stadium on the international circuit in June 1998.

It has until now been a lucky venue, with Sri Lanka winning seven of the 11 test matches here, drawing two and losing two. Australian player Shane Warne took his 500th wicket here during Australia’s last tour.

"It was my dream to make this an international test ground, and somehow we did it, with a lot of difficulties," Warnaweera said. "And now, within such a short period of time, we are left having to face this."

The stadium was also a vital boost for Galle’s economy, with hotels, guesthouses and restaurants packed out during international matches. Warnaweera reckons more than 200 local families were supported because of its presence.

Rebuilding will cost at least 300 million rupees (3 million dollars), he estimates. It will be a massive job.

For a start, about six inches (15 centimetres) of soil must be removed from right across the field and replaced. All of the drainage systems must be rebuilt from scratch. Maintenance machinery, computers and files are destroyed.

But a few items have been spared. Warnaweera proudly points out a photograph of the opening day of the first test match, hanging on the wall of his office. The two-metre high watermark on the wall runs right across it.

And while cricket-mad Sri Lankans grieve for the more than 30,000 Sri Lankans killed by the tsunami, many are also sparing a thought for the loss of Galle’s pride and joy.

Hotel management student Harsha Fernando, 24, who once played here as a schoolboy, dropped by to see the damage for himself.

"If you take 100 Sri Lankans, 95 of them are cricket lovers. This is one of the best grounds in Sri Lanka. But what to do now?" Fernando intoned.

Sri Lanka’s devastated fishermen make plea to president: Eat our fish””

Sri Lanka’s devastated fishermen on Wednesday sent a shipment of fish to the president as they pleaded with people to resume eating seafood in the wake of the Asian tsunami disaster.

At the southern fishing village of Mirissa, where around 300 boats support some 1,300 families, three boats of fishermen returned to sea Tuesday night and sent part of their catch north to the capital Colombo, relief workers said.

The president is due to accept the parcel at 6:00 pm (1200 GMT), they said.

Many of the fishermen here still have boats which they are desperate to use so they can earn a livelihood but they cannot sell their fish due to rumours of them nibbling bloated corpses or being infected with viruses.

"There have been SMS messages going around suggesting that there was a virus in the fish, they even gave it a name, and it spread around like a bushfire," said Belgian Pierre Pringiers, whose company helped organise the president’s fish shipment as a publicity stunt as part of its relief work.

"Look, there are boats out there on the water. Now they have to go out. This is a very small beginning," he said.

Fisherman Lasantha Jayasooriya, 30, told AFP he was afraid to go back out in his boat after the disaster which killed more than 30,000 Sri Lankans but was willing to go because he needed to earn an income.

"There are many fish on the boat today but we cannot send it to the market because nobody will buy it," he said, standing in the shade of one of the damaged boats tossed from the harbour onto high ground like a toy.

"We want to work again if only somebody will buy the fish," he said, adding that a shipment sent to Colombo last week shortly after the disaster was rejected by normal buyers due to a lack of demand.

Around 20 fishermen and their family members were killed in this village alone, along with thousands of others along Sri Lanka’s southern coast, where the fishing of tuna, marlin and mullet and others is a crucial industry.

The fishermen who have survived and their families have no other way to earn an income, Pringiers said.

"If they don’t get back into fishing, they’re in trouble. This whole coastal belt has no revenue at all. We have to get them back to a state of taking responsibility for their lives," Pringiers said.

Nearby, fish sizzled on a coconut-husk fuelled barbecue, as the fishermen cooked up some of their catch rubbed with salt and pepper to eat in front of other villagers and the media to demonstrate its safety.

"We have been in touch with the WHO (World Health Organisation) and they say the fish should be perfectly okay to eat," Pringiers said.

A large number of fishermen who were out at sea in their trawlers only discovered the tragedy when they returned to the devastated coast.

Seafood is a staple for most Sri Lankans and despite the country being an island, it is a net importer of seafood because of the heavy consumption.