Sri Lanka is being hit by another, metaphorical, tsunami as the two main actors
in the larger ethnic war see different scenarios of another devastating wave of
For Velupillai Prabhakaran, leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), what visited Sri Lanka on December 26 was the second tsunami - the first had already wreaked devastation on the Tamil people in Sri Lanka's Northern and Eastern provinces in the form of Sri Lanka's military.
On the other hand, when President Kumaratunga was shown photographs, during a National Security Council meeting last week, of at least two light aircraft in the LTTE's possession she is reported to have exclaimed that she was being hit by a second tsunami. The Army's Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), which hovered over the North and East during a supposed mission to photograph the devastation caused by the tsunami, had stumbled on the presence of an aircraft on an airstrip in Mullaitivu. A second UAV mission undertaken in the night collected photographic evidence of another LTTE aircraft.
But for most ordinary people, the first tsunami not only brought in death and devastation, but also created conditions apparently ideal for national unity. The prompt aid by civil society organisations to the tsunami-affected people - even while the government appeared to be in complete disarray - was seen as a precursor, not only to rebuilding Sri Lanka but also to achieving an elusive national unity. Everyone was helping the affected people without differences of race, ethnicity, caste or class. For a moment it seemed that even the divisive politics, which has long been the bane of this country, had been swept away by the great waves.
Many believed that a real peace was now possible, since the tsunami had weakened the LTTE's ability to resume the war, and an apparently over-confident President Kumaratunga declared that she could say for certain that there would not be another war. The opposition United National Party (UNP) also joined the government in extending support for the relief and rehabilitation effort, and became an active member of the all-party committee formed by President Kumaratunga to deal with the situation.
The LTTE also
indicated, initially, that it was ready to cooperate with the government on
relief and rehabilitation, and the LTTE leader, Prabhakaran, sent a message of
condolence to the people of the South, even as the government-LTTE 'peace
secretariats' sought to streamline aid flows to the North-East. Politics seemed
to be a dirty word for the first time since universal adult franchise had been
introduced in Sri Lanka in 1931.
Unfortunately, all the positive signs are now disappearing, as Sri Lanka reverts to its fractious politics. Both the government and the LTTE seem to be inclining to their respective hardline positions, while, in the South, political leaders are trying to exploit the misery of a million affected people to secure mileage in this year of Presidential elections. As one opposition front-liner expressed it, they are 'all playing politics over dead bodies.'
Amidst growing indications of mistrust between the two parties in conflict, the visit of a high-powered Norwegian delegation has appeared as a beacon of hope. However, the seasoned facilitators who met President Kumaratunga on January 21, and Prabhakaran on January 22, achieved little in terms of the peace process per se. They are, nevertheless, trying to bring the two sides together on post-tsunami relief and rehabilitation matters.
But old habits die hard. Both the government and the LTTE are once again trying to secure concessions by holding firm to their respective hardline positions. One of the main irritants was the government's refusal to allow UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to visit Tiger areas devastated by the tsunami. The government cited security as the reason behind its decision, but the LTTE argued that other dignitaries, such as the European Union's External Affairs Commissioner, Chris Patten, and Japan's special peace envoy, Yasushi Akashi, had been given access; it also pointed to the fact that several UN agencies were working in the LTTE areas.
Another irritant has been the centralisation of the relief and rehabilitation effort. LTTE Peace Secretariat Chief, S. Pulithevan, and government Peace Secretariat Secretary-General Jayantha Dhanapala, had several rounds of talks at the Norwegian Ambassador's Colombo residence, to work out a formula for the North-East, which was the worst affected in the tsunami, to get its just share of aid.
The LTTE alleged that the government discriminates against the North-East areas in distributing relief aid, and proposed the formation of an apex body - including its own representatives - to supervise the aid flow and rehabilitation projects on a national level. But the Tigers were told that they should concentrate only on the North-East, though, in the immediate aftermath of the catastrophe, President Kumaratunga had invited the LTTE to join its all-party committee.
The committee, however, was seen by the Tigers as a mere 'talking
shop'. Again, after days of negotiation, the LTTE came up with a formula
according to which relief and rehabilitation in the North East would be handled
by an 11-member apex body (six Tamils, three Muslims and two Sinhalese). But the
LTTE proposal was again shot down by the President who was unwilling to relax
her hold on the multi-billion dollar aid flow.
A third irritant was the declaration of a state of emergency by the President, ostensibly to deal with the post-tsunami law and order situation. But the Tigers, as well as civic rights groups, see the new emergency regulations as sweeping measures that erode civil liberties and tend towards a presidential dictatorship. These emergency provisions have also enabled the President to appoint military officers as coordinators in the relief and rehabilitation work. The Tigers were incensed with the imposition of the state of emergency not only because it included Tiger areas, but also because it strengthened the role of the military in Tamil areas. The presence of government forces in refugee camps added to the tension.
A further irritant was a defence deal the government has entered into with Iran in the aftermath of the tsunami catastrophe. The LTTE has charged that the defence purchases from Iran, through a 150 million dollar credit line offered to Sri Lanka by the Islamic Republic, have tilted the military balance in violation of the February 2001 Ceasefire Agreement.
On January 22, the LTTE voiced its concern over the possibility of tsunami relief aid being diverted to defence purchases. Worried about the impact of such allegations on the flow of aid, the government denied the LTTE charges on Sunday, January 23. These apprehensions, however, appear to be mutual. The government also fears that channelling aid to the LTTE and its front organisations would only help the rebels build up their fighting force, which, according to military intelligence estimates, lost as many as 2,000 cadres in the December 26 tsunami.
Adding to these irritants is the presence of more than a thousand US marines in Sri Lanka. The Tigers certainly have some apprehension about their role, and analysts believe that their continued presence may complicate matters vis-à-vis the ethnic conflict in the country.
It is unlikely that these irritants will be removed even after the entire coastal belt of Sri Lanka is cleared of the tsunami debris. President Kumaratunga appears to be indulging in a measure of one-upmanship since she is in a much stronger position than she was before the tsunami. Indeed, for weeks even before the natural catastrophe, she had begun consolidating her power by wooing opposition Members of Parliament to the government side, offering them ministerial posts and perks, while the Supreme Court incarcerated her bitter political opponents on a contempt charge. The only missing link in her power scheme was the foreign aid required to rebuild the economy, which was heading for a crash. The tsunami came as a blessing in disguise. Sri Lanka's economy is now upbeat, with billions in foreign aid being promised and Western nations offering sweeping trade concessions on sympathetic grounds.
Armed with these advantages, a churlish President publicly said that there would be no elections in the country for the next five years, and her stance suggests that she would not mind if the peace process is pushed to the backburner. She had, of course, discussed, among other matters, issues relating to the peace process during her meeting with the visiting Norwegian Foreign Minister, Jan Peterson, on January 21, and spoke of a constitutional package which could address some concerns of the LTTE.
Earlier in the week, however, a visibly upset
LTTE Political Wing leader, S.P. Thamilselvan, told European envoys that the government's mishandling of the relief and rehabilitation efforts only bolstered
the LTTE's case for an Interim Self Governing Authority (ISGA). The President,
however, is in no mood to discuss the ISGA, claiming that her government's
priority is to rebuild the devastated country.
However, LTTE Chief Negotiator, Anton Balasingham, who was airlifted to the Tiger-territory by a government helicopter after he arrived in Colombo from London, made it abundantly clear in a media conference that the tsunami had not swept away the deadlock on the peace process and that no new stand by the government had been conveyed to the Norwegian team. "The tsunami has not swept away the aspirations of the Tamil people in their freedom fight," he declared, accusing the government of attempting to portray the disaster as an end to the struggle of the Tamil people. "Until such time that the Tamil people realize their goal, we will continue with our freedom struggle."
At this point in time, however, the LTTE is not pushing hard on the ISGA either, since it is also eyeing the substantial foreign aid. It has negotiated, with some success, the channeling of aid from foreign NGOs and envoys, to the LTTE's Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation, a government-recognized NGO, arguing that the government is largely concentrating on the development of the southern areas while throwing only a few crumbs to the North-East.
On the southern political front, the Presidential remarks that there would not be any elections for the next five years have galvanized the main opposition UNP into action. The UNP has called on the President to clarify her position and warned that it would withdraw support to the government in relief and rehabilitation work if this was, indeed, the case.
Evidently, Sri Lanka is gradually coming back to 'normal': the dirty politics which puts self before the country is returning, and 'aid politics' is simply adding more venom to the warped interface between the major players in this troubled island nation.
Ameen Izzadeen is Deputy Editor, Sunday Times and Daily Mirror, Colombo. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal
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