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Last Updated: Monday, 3 January, 2005, 16:49 GMT
Will disaster stir Sri Lanka peace?

By Frances Harrison
BBC News, Kilinochchi, northern Sri Lanka

It is notable that the two worst hit areas in the tsunami disaster - Sri Lanka and the Indonesian island of Sumatra - have been suffering civil conflicts.

Some are now asking whether this tragedy will bring warring parties closer to a settlement.

An injured, homeless Sri Lankan woman in Kilinochchi district
The tsunami did not discriminate

There has been some optimism in the south of Sri Lanka that relations between the government of Chandrika Kumaratunga and the Tamil Tiger rebels might improve.

People were encouraged by the fact that the rebel leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, offered his condolences to the people of the south.

They also saw it as a positive sign that the Tigers were willing to accept aid from the government, so bad had relations been.

On the ground though there has been sporadic tension: the Tigers have complained to the government that one of their aid convoys on the way to rebel territory from the capital was turned back by the army.

And the army has accused the Tigers of setting a refugee shelter on fire - something the rebels have denied.

Instead they blame the army for torching the camp after the survivors of the tsunami refused to accept relief materials from soldiers.

Sense of discrimination

Rumours and misconceptions have spread.

Tamil Tiger leader Prabhakaran
Tamil Tiger leader Prabhakaran - offered condolences to the Sinhala community

Many people in the south were delighted when initial reports suggested the Sea Tigers had lost a major base on the east coast as well as 5,000 of their naval fighters. The Tigers deny these reports and there is no reason to think there is any substance to them.

In the north, survivors of the tsunami complain that the government could have sent helicopters to help air-lift people out of flooded areas as they did in the south.

They say it would have saved many lives.

It may not be realistic to expect the central government to send the air force at short notice into coastal areas they were bombing only a few years ago.

But the complaint stems from a sense that the government directed all its resources at the majority Sinhala community and left Tamils in rebel territory to cope alone.

It was not helped by the international media basing itself along the badly destroyed southern coast - once the centre of Sri Lanka's tourism industry.

These are majority Sinhala areas. The Tigers complain that it took days for reporters to come to the north-east of Sri Lanka, even though it was worst hit, with an estimated 30,000 people dead or missing.

'Fears of being cheated'

There have been some positive developments at a local level in terms of co-operation between the government and the Tigers in the distribution of emergency aid.

The Tigers have set up a joint task force for the whole of the north and the east comprising representatives of the government, international aid agencies and civil society groups in order to oversee aid that comes in and ensure transparency.

A Tamil woman north of Kilinochchi
Some Tamils say the rebel territory has had to fend for itself
But at the same time there is deep resentment in rebel areas about the quantity of aid coming from the central government.

For the first three days after the disaster the Tigers say they got absolutely nothing from the government and thereafter only a little help.

Most of the assistance in rebel areas has come from international aid agencies and the United Nations as well as some individual donations.

The head of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam's (LTTE) political wing, SP Thamilselvan, told the BBC the Sri Lankan government had just talked about working with the Tigers to impress the international community.

In practice the government had done nothing, he said.

That is strongly denied by President Kumaratunga. She told the BBC her government had sent more aid to Tamil-Tiger controlled areas than government-controlled areas.

'Fooling people'

This is a view echoed more strongly by expatriate Tamils who have rallied around their homeland.

"I was quite shocked to hear that while the LTTE is trying to involve the government, the Sri Lankan government has unilaterally announced that it's going to help the Tamils," said Ana Pararajasingham, head of the Australian Federation of Tamil Associations.

"No consultation has ever taken place with the LTTE," he added. He is in rebel territory to help with the needs assessment process.

There is disquiet here that the Sri Lankan government is talking about a plan for rehabilitation, but has never discussed it with the Tigers, who run their own separate administration in the north and east.

"It's all done for international consumption or to fool the people down in the south that they're doing something," said Mr Pararajasingham, who is deeply sceptical that the tsunami will bring Tamils closer to the majority Sinhala community.

'Money equals control'

The crunch point will probably come when large amounts of medium and long-term aid are discussed for the north-eastern coastal belt.

Homeless mother and son in Galle, southern Sri Lanka
Short-term aid for the homeless - will the long-term aid be fairly divided?

The government will be reluctant to allow this money to be channelled directly through the Tigers for fear that it entrenches them further.

For their part, the Tigers will see this as a denial of the ground reality - that they run a parallel state in the north-east.

They will not want the government to take control of reconstruction in the area they fought so hard for. The perception of both sides is that the flow of money brings control over territory.

The tsunami did not discriminate along ethnic lines. It devastated Tamil, Muslim and Sinhala villages alike. This tragedy could be an opportunity for reconciliation if aid is fairly distributed.

If not, it will only serve to deepen existing grievances.


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