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Last Updated: Wednesday, 21 December 2005, 13:44 GMT
Analysis: Politics and the tsunami

By Paul Reynolds
World Affairs correspondent, BBC News website

At the beginning of this year, just after the tsunami had swept into parts of Asia, I said that the effects of natural disasters extended into politics and predicted the impact of this one in Sri Lanka and Indonesia, the two countries hardest hit and both experiencing civil conflict.

Acehnese refugees from the tsunami

On Sri Lanka I said: "Suspicions could be deepened, making a political solution even more difficult."

This has proved to be broadly correct, though there is now at least some movement towards peace talks.

On Indonesia I said this: "If the independence movement Gam (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka or Aceh Freedom Movement) assesses in due course that the government has failed in its response to the tsunami, it could spur further armed opposition."

This was wrong. There has been a peace agreement.

Suspicion

First, Sri Lanka: the big change politically on the government side was the election of President Mahinda Rajapakse. Regarded as something of a hardliner, he has now formally offered renewed talks with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) under Norwegian auspices.

So the stalemate is being challenged, if not removed.

Tamil Tiger in Sri Lanka
The Tigers have been offered talks by the new president
However, scepticism remains that a permanent settlement will emerge.

And the tsunami has played its part in furthering suspicion.

This is because a joint relief mechanism, known as the Post-Tsunami Operational Management Structure or P-TOMS for short, has been put into limbo by a Supreme Court decision.

It held that the Tigers are a non-state player and therefore cannot play a formal part in the structure. The case was brought by Sinhalese groups angry at what they saw as de facto recognition of the Tigers.

Relief efforts in the Tamil areas are therefore left to non-government groups and the Tigers themselves, though the government says it is in any case providing money supposed to go to the P-TOMS. All this has not fostered the greater co-operation that many had hoped the disaster would develop.

Thirumalai Manivannan, head of the BBC Tamil Service, agrees that the P-TOMS failure has been significant: "The tsunami was basically an opportunity and a challenge but the relief problem aggravated the existing suspicions. The Tamil Tigers say that the Sinhalese don't care about the Tamils. "

Priyath Liyanage, head of the BBC Sinhala Service, said: "The government would like to go ahead with the peace talks as a lot of the foreign aid is tied to the peace process. But everyone seems comfortable with the status quo [there has been a ceasefire since 2002] and war is not an option for either side."

So, in Sri Lanka, the politics has not changed much, it seems.

Hearts and minds

Indonesia has been different.

At the time I compared the tsunami there to what happened in the then East Pakistan after a terrible cyclone in 1970. The slow response of the Pakistani government helped precipitate independence the following year for what is now Bangladesh.

Indonesian military shake hands with Acehnese women as they pull out of the province
Indonesia has been withdrawing troops from Aceh
And there was Krakatoa as well. The volcanic eruption of 1883 led to a rebellion against the Dutch in 1888, which author Simon Winchester said was the real start of the independence movement for Indonesia itself.

However, these analogies were not valid. In Indonesia, it turned out that the scale of the tsunami disaster was so huge in the province of Aceh where the fighting had been going on that hearts and minds there seem to have changed.

The Free Aceh Movement (Gam) decided to suspend at least its ambition to achieve independence because it knew that its own people were so badly hit that rebuilding - not fighting - was the priority.

A deal was signed between the Indonesian government and Gam in August in which the effect of the tsunami was clearly stated.

One of the articles said: "The parties are deeply convinced that only the peaceful settlement of the conflict will enable the rebuilding of Aceh after the tsunami."

'Smooth' process

Since then the implementation has been going reasonably well. Angus Foster, Asia-Pacific editor of the BBC News website, says that Gam has to hand in its weapons and the Indonesian government has to withdraw its troops from Aceh.

"The first step, due to be completed this year, has been going smoothly," he says. "Gam rebels have handed in hundreds of weapons at ceremonies across the province and Indonesia has withdrawn thousands of troops and police.

"Assuming the process continues to go smoothly, Aceh will be governed under a new law, with a reasonable degree of autonomy. Indonesia's government has said it plans to introduce the new law into parliament by mid-January and it is meant to be enacted by 31 March."

Elections are expected in 2006.

Paul.Reynolds-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk


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