Sri Lanka: Worse Than War

by Melinda Liu, January 17, 2005
The unimaginable shock of the disaster is already forcing the government and Tamil separatists to work together for the first time in years.

In the wake of the tsunami, Sippiah Paramu Tamilselvan and his colleagues are scrambling to manage a massive relief operation. Soldiers, medics and even psychological-trauma counselors swung into action with impressive efficiency after the quake-triggered waves struck Sri Lanka’s northeastern coast. But this boyish 38-year-old calling the shots is far from your typical Asian official, and the operations under his control have little connection to the island nation’s Sinhalese-dominated government. 

Now the Tigers’ de facto administration in northeastern Sri Lanka, where they control all of three districts and parts of five others, has an unprecedented chance to work with the Colombo government—and possibly make progress toward a lasting peace. Mistrust between the Tigers and the government still festers in the wake of a 2002 ceasefire that led to failed peace talks last year. Yet after the tsunami hit, President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s office invited Tamilselvan—the equivalent of the Tigers’ prime minister—to participate in top-level decisions about rehabilitating the impoverished northeast. A hot line between the government and the rebels, inoperative for years, is back in service. “Confidence-building measures in a tragic situation like this can help bridge the gap” between the two sides, says Tamilselvan. Authorities have even noted with approval the Tigers’ post-disaster mobilization, which presidential spokesman Haram Peiris acknowledges as “swift and efficient.”

Granted, the history of suspicion and finger-pointing between Tamils and the Colombo government won’t disappear overnight. Both sides have launched ethnic-cleansing pogroms. The Tigers have carried out suicide-bombing operations that have killed thousands, including Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi; the government has passed discriminatory laws against the Tamils. One LTTE official claimed the government was hampering the flow of assistance to Tiger-controlled territory—and that some clothing earmarked for Tamil recipients had been diverted. “The government doesn’t want to see Tamil people getting aid,” he alleged. With each side offering conflicting casualty figures, it isn’t clear how many of the dead and displaced are Tamil or Sinhalese.

But for many, one of Asia’s longest-running insurgencies has already been dwarfed by the tsunami. “Nature has mocked Sri Lanka’s war,” says Peiris. “Twenty years of conflict claimed some 60,000 lives, but 20 minutes of the tsunami caused 31,000 deaths. Nature did more damage to us as a nation than we could do to each other.” In the Tiger-controlled district of Mullaittivu in northeastern Sri Lanka, the disaster has forced 34-year-old Kamala Sagayamathan and her three daughters into a refugee camp, where they sleep on mats on the concrete floor of a school. The Tamil mother says she was compelled to move half a dozen times in the 1990s due to ethnic conflict. But war-inflicted losses paled in comparison to the damage wrought by the tsunami, which fractured her husband’s leg and demolished their home. “This is worse than war. During the fighting we lost little things, but we could always leave home and return later,” she says. “Now we’ve lost everything.”

The result of such trauma, says one foreign relief official, could actually be beneficial. “Ethnic conflict is a polarizing factor, but natural disasters are usually a binding factor,” says P. V. Unnikrishnan of the London-based NGO ActionAid, who traveled to Kilinochchi to assess humanitarian needs in Tiger areas. The road to the Tiger “capital” is proof. Coils of barbed wire and sandbagged Sri Lankan military bunkers line the official highway, which ends in a dusty no man’s land. Here most passengers disembark and wait on rough-hewn wooden benches for a vehicle from the other side to pick them up. But since the tsunami, relief trucks are being waved though directly to speed the flow of humanitarian aid. Nearer to Kilinochchi, handwritten signs made out of bedsheets begin to appear, giving instructions for post-tsunami relief activities. Trucks piled high with humanitarian supplies are tailed by four-wheel-drive Pajeros and Prados sporting NGO logos on fluttering flags.

 Now, though, U.S. Agency for International Development officials have met with Tamil representatives, according to a senior Bush administration official managing the U.S. response to the tsunami. “Let’s just say we’re doing this very carefully,” the official says. “There are legal restrictions to direct assistance, but we also need to make it clear to them what we are doing, so they don’t mistake our presence there as anything more than humanitarian.”

Other foreign governments and relief groups are even more eager to offer aid. The Italian government was so keen to speed relief to the affected areas that it dispatched a couple of diplomats with seven trucks of humanitarian supplies into Tiger territory last week. A growing number of international donors are connecting directly with the Tigers’ relief arm, the Tamil Rehabilitation Organization (TRO), a legally registered Sri Lankan NGO. After the tsunami, the Australian government began funneling assistance to the TRO branch in that country for the first time, says one aid worker from Down Under.

Colombo remains sensitive about such contacts. Authorities blocked U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan from visiting the Tamil-controlled northeast last week, citing security concerns. And the Foreign Ministry protested the unauthorized Italian delivery of goods to the area. Peiris vows such shipments won’t happen again, saying, “Sovereign donors should deal with the sovereign government of Sri Lanka.”

Partly this may reflect a sensitivity that the government not be shown up by the Tigers’ recovery operations. “The Sri Lankan government is sluggish, corrupt and inert, making it hard to absorb large amounts of funding,” says Paikiasothy Saravanamutti of the Center for Policy Alternatives. Still, unlike in Aceh, where Indonesian soldiers continued to shoot at separatist rebels in the midst of humanitarian operations, cooperation does seem to hold out the promise of progress. Norwegian Ambassador Hans Brattskar, whose country helped broker the ceasefire between Colombo , predicts the current crisis will “change history—but in what way we still don’t know.” Survivors desperately hope for the better; things could hardly get worse.

Newsweek International


A Country in Need

The two countries most affected by the December 26 tsunami are Indonesia and Sri Lanka.  In Sri Lanka the eastern coast took the brunt of tidal waves.  The death toll in the northeastern parts is 20,279 (Two-thirds of the total tsunami deaths in Sri Lanka).

As of 7-Jan-05, 6,725 are still missing.  The number injured is over 5000.  110,000 people have been displaced from their homes destroyed by the tsunami, and are being fed, clothed and housed in temporary shelters.

This area, which suffered the most damage, is under rebel control and is the most impoverished due to the war.  The government is reluctant to send (internationally donated) relief supplies to this part of the country.

“Aid efforts in Sri Lanka are being hampered by obstruction from the island’s air force, inappropriate supplies and a lack of co-ordination on the ground, a British aid worker said today… The Sri Lankan air force is very powerful because of the war and they have a lot of control.  They say they want to check that the aid is not going to any Tamil organization.” [Caroline Gammell; The Scotsman; 10 Jan 2005]

The Tamils Rehabilitation Organization (TRO) has been providing disaster relief in this region with its own funds and also coordinates the activities of other international NGOs.  Several international observers have complemented the TRO for its competence and efficiency.

“In a well-practiced drill, squads set up roadblocks to control panic and prevent looting. Others requisitioned civilian vehicles to move the injured to hospitals. Many donated blood. Teams with digital cameras and laptops moved into disaster zones to photograph the faces of the dead for later identification, then swiftly cremated or buried the corpses. [Arthur Max; Associated Press; 2 January 2005]

“Well-coordinated relief arrangements put in place within so short a time are all really commendable.” Carol Bellamy, executive director of UNICEF, after an onsite visit to the tsunami-affected NorthEast.

“The Tamil Rehabilitation Organization, or TRO, has been assisting not only Tamil Hindus in the northeast but also Buddhist Sinhalese and Muslim families.” [Boston Globe editorial 5-Jan 2005]

The TRO is the most experienced disaster relief agency in the NorthEast because it served in the area for much of the 20-year civil war.

In a report to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in person [9-Jan-05], the TRO said:

“Our organization mobilized immediately by clearing dead bodies and debris. In the period leading up to yesterday, we have dispatched 137 trucks (938 metric tones) of relief items (which includes volumes of international aid and government distribution), clothing and food items, tents for 3,200 families and 40,000 temporary sanitation facilities in collaboration with international organizations. Jointly with other organization we have 40 operational medical units. In the Jaffna district, we have effectively consolidated 35 camps into 17 currently operated by us and other local organizations.”

TRO is ready to start Phase II and III of the relief rehabilitation work and needs your help.  TRO is a registered NGO in Sri Lanka.

Its affiliate TRO-USA is registered in the United States with Tax Exempt Status granted by the IRS 501(c) (3) code [Tax ID 52-19-43868].

TRO-USA is a voluntary organization with NO overhead expenses.  One hundred percent of donations are used for emergency relief and the ongoing rehabilitation of northeastern Sri Lanka.

We are grateful to the United States government for having pledged support.  President Bush also has asked the American people to be generous to the tsunami victims.

Please give generously.

We Assure Every Penny Goes to the Victims.
– 1 866 424 0777
– 1 732 424 2005
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Cumberland, Maryland 21502

“We make a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give.” Sir Winston Churchill