June 12, 2021
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A Propaganda Tsunami

As the panic of a fresh tsunami recedes, it is time to focus on that of December 26 where relief has been held ransom to politics in Sri Lanka.

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A Propaganda Tsunami

Tsunami killer waves of Dec 26, 2004 brought sorrow and destruction to most coastal parts of Sri Lanka. The wave did not discriminate between rich or the poor, the army or the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the government controlled areas or the areas temporarily controlled by the LTTE.  Many say that clouds of war were looming when the Tsunami struck, and this tragedy has given an opportunity for all Sri Lankans to work together and to re-build the country as it faced the worst natural disaster in its history. Nearly forty thousand perished within just two hours. The long conflict, so far, has seen just about 70,000 dead over a period of twenty years. As he surveyed the devastation, former US Secretary of State, General Collin Powell, said he had not seen such destruction even in the battle field or a war zone.

Neither Sri Lanka nor the world was ready to face a disaster of this magnitude, but each rallied around to do its part. The Sri Lankan President, Chandrika Kumaratunga, returned immediately from London; a Centre for National Disaster Operation was set up to coordinate relief and rescue operations across affected areas in the country, whether under the control of the LTTE or in the South. In the initial stages, the LTTE leader Prabhakaran was no where to be seen leading to speculation that he had become a victim of the Tsunami. However, he appeared much later to meet with the Norwegian foreign minister, Jan Petersen, though many in Sri Lanka continued to believe that Prabhakaran was dead and that it was only a double who met Petersen.

With the Tsunami, the LTTE front Tamil Rehabilitation Organization (TRO), known as its fundraising outfit and banned in a number of countries, including USA, UK and Malaysia, came to the forefront in the areas temporarily controlled by the LTTE. They seized the opportunity, riding on the sympathy wave around the world, with the TRO organizing fundraising campaigns even in countries like the United Kingdom (UK) where they are banned. The governments of these counties turned a blind eye to these activities, even though posters and other publicity material requested support only for the north and the east of Sri Lanka. At the same time, the TRO and the LTTE carried out a sinister propaganda exercise, claiming the government had done nothing to help the people of the north and the east. The Sri Lankan foreign minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar, on March 17, told a gathering at the prestigious International Institute for Strategic Studies in London that the LTTE should not be allowed to use the Tsunami for propaganda.

The World Food Programme and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which have often been seen and accused of being sympathetic towards the LTTE, have both denied that the government had neglected the North and the East in its relief operations. Nevertheless, the TRO/LTTE campaign of calumny continues, and has secured some sympathy from sections of the western media and gullible western countries and International Non-governmental Organisations (INGOs).

The TRO, mainly with support from some INGOs, appears to have taken full control of the situation and the operation in the areas under the LTTE's current control. A report published by the TRO this month on their progress looked impressive in print and shows many foreign nationals working with the TRO. However, the world does not have a full report on the damage, death and destruction in the areas currently under LTTE control, and there is evidence of significant distortions. A community worker in the North said "We are facing a dilemma here. The TRO prevents us from working freely here and they obstruct any form of relief other than through them." 

Academic and Conflict Analyst, Dayan Jayatillke, said "Unless the TRO is given the monopoly they will continue to obstruct others from working in the north/east and giving relief to the affected people. They are adopting the policy of a 'Tiger in the manger'." He also said that TRO and the LTTE were using the Tsunami as an opportunity to gain lost sympathy and to fill their coffers. Given the sheer quantum of relief funding flowing in, the LTTE-TRO seeks direct control, while the government has proposed a joint mechanism that would ensure greater accountability. This is yet to be finalised and discussions have dragged on.

Some sections of the NGOs in the North have, nevertheless, claimed that TRO has done a good job in trying to re-build the areas that have been devastated, even while it helps the LTTE raise funds for other purposes. Even though there are many LTTE front organizations, including, for instance, the White Pigeon, operating after the Tsunami, the TRO has taken the lead role, and it is evident that the LTTE is keen to give legitimacy. It is difficult to determine the exact quantum of funds being handled by the TRO after the tsunami, but, independent analysts believe it to be in the billions of rupees. A TRO document conceded that the organization had received a sum of nearly USD 500 million between December 26 to January 26, including USD 500,000 from Norway. It stated further that local institutions and private donations had added SLR 52.4 million, postal orders SLR 3.8 million, and another SLR 20.7 million from NGOs.

At least some of the relief operations are being exploited for illicit ends. Customs sources indicate that the TRO has cleared more than forty containers since the tsunami, and more are pending clearance. However, the government was forced to tighten its regulations on customs clearance for most NGOs and INGOs, including the TRO, after many unwanted goods and even sensitive communication equipment, arms and helicopter and plane parts were found in containers purportedly carrying relief goods. 

Thus, for instance, Sri Lanka's Air Force, on January 22, 2005, detained two unassembled helicopters that arrived with Tsunami aid supplies, saying they presented a potential threat to national security. A Bell helicopter and an unidentified aircraft arrived at the international airport, sealed in wooden crates as part of a Tsunami aid consignment. The TRO, in retaliation, has started a disinformation campaign, claiming that the government is taxing relief goods and making things difficult for relief organisations. A senior Brigadier of the Sri Lanka Army said " We cannot allow the country's security to be threatened and allow interested parties to smuggle arms and other equipment in the name of relief. That's why we have asked the Navy to check all the containers" However, Analyst Dayan Jayatillke said it was a ploy by the LTTE to create hatred among between international organizations and the government.

The LTTE, in turn, has accused the government of wanting to take control of the funds in order to use them as a bargaining point in the stalled peace process. The government, however, has clearly stated that it has no intention of exploiting the relief issue for political gains, as this is the largest humanitarian disaster the country has ever faced. Some government officials have also gone on record to state that 'ground level cooperation' with the LTTE has been 'excellent'.

The present crisis is too great for relief to be held ransom to politics. All the victims want is a roof over their heads, their lost livelihood, and the chance to recover the fragments of their lives in peace.

Bandula Jayasekara is Correspondent, The Island newspaper in Sri Lanka, and The Lanka Academic. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal

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