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February 18, 2005

Sri Lanka after the Tsunami: Normal Politics in Abnormal Times

Posted by Clifford Bastin

Clifford Bastin will be writing regularly from Sri Lanka on how the country deals with the aftermath of the Indian Ocean Tsunami. Today he finds that Sri Lankan politicians continue to never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.

In the immediate aftermath of the tsunami that struck Sri Lanka on Boxing Day, there was considerable optimism that the cataclysm might provide the stimulus for bringing the peace which had eluded this troubled island for decades. Sad to report, the optimism did not see out the first week, perhaps not even the first half of the first week. The loss of 1 in 500 of the population and the displacement of a million people did not result in normal politics being put on hold in abnormal times. Far from consensual politics emerging the tsunami has served to intensify political competition both between and within the islands ethnic groups.

Governance anywhere is not a simple affair but it is especially fraught in Sri Lanka which is one of the most complex plural societies anywhere in the world. There are deep cleavages that run along ethnic, religious and ideological lines. The ethnic dimension is more subtle than a simple Sinhalese / Tamil dichotomy. Within the Sinhalese population who comprise 74% of the population there is a Low Country / Kandyan split. Within the Tamil community who account for 18% of the population, there is a three way division between Northern, Eastern and Plantation Tamils. In addition there is a substantial Muslim minority. The religious affiliation of most Sinhalese is Buddhist, the majority of Tamils are Hindu but within each there are sizeable Christian minorities. Given these pronounced fault lines political support is largely garnered through appeals to communal interest.

The group quickest to react to the potential for making political capital from the Tsunami disaster were the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) or Peoples Liberation Front. This party is a curious amalgam of Sinhalese nationalism and unreconstructed Marxism with a strong power base in the South. It is especially popular amongst the poor and the young, having a very strong representation on university campuses. It had been involved in two violent and brutally suppressed insurrections in 1971 and again in the late 1980's. It has been implicated in the murder of the President's, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga's, husband in 1989 and yet ironically after a strong showing in the parliamentary elections of April 2004 it joined forces with the President's party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SFLP), and entered the United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) government. Sri Lankan politicians are notoriously biddable and the coalition has been bolstered by luring smaller parties and individuals into the government ranks. These include the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) representing plantation Tamils in the Hill Country, a disgruntled faction of the Sri Lankan Muslim Congress and defectors from the United National Party, who have proved persuadable with offers of ministerial office and the material benefits that confers.

After the events of Boxing Day the JVP mobilised its members in the Party's own Relief Services Organisation. These dedicated cadres went about their valuable work, ostentatiously sporting yellow bibs replete with the red party insignia. They organised clinics, refugee camps and the distribution of relief supplies which however they were acquired invariably had the party label prominently affixed to them. There is much talk of the party coming to reap the benefit of its high profile work at a subsequent election, enough to make some members of the island's rich elite begin talking at least, of an exit strategy should the worse come to the worst.

In a country lacking any contingency plans for any disaster let alone one of unprecedented magnitude, the response of the state has been ramshackled, lumbering and bedevilled by allegations of cronyism and graft. More than a month on from the disaster, the head of the Presidential taskforce admitted that more than 70% of the displaced were still waiting for aid from whatever source. Dissatisfaction with the government's performance is mounting. This week a private television channel showed the Prime Minister, Mahinda Rajapakse being unceremoniously bundled into a helicopter away from the ire of an enraged hoard of the displaced. The station quickly received a warning from the Prime Minister's Office not to show the footage again - it wasn't. The JVP in an effort to distance themselves from the inadequacies of a government of which they are a part have boycotted a two-day parliamentary debate.

Despite a feeling amongst the local population and outside observers alike that the tsunami could be an opportunity for lessening tension and initiating a fresh beginning, the government from the outset made blunders that did not assuage past animosities but inflamed them. Shortly after the Tsunami struck the government through the obedient state media made the baseless assertion that Velupillai Prabhakaran, the leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had been taken the waves. Despite strenuous denials from the LTTE, and the fact that the reclusive Tamil Tiger leader spends most of his time far inland in the depth of the Wanni jungle, the erroneous story was repeated by the Sri Lankan Broadcasting Corporation for days. This was all to the intense irritation of the Tigers and did little to improve post-tsunami relations. Nor did the refusal to allow the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan to visit Mullaitivu, on the East coast, deep in Tiger controlled territory. While he visited the Southern coast, Annan was not permitted to witness for himself the devastation that had been wrought in the East, as it was considered that to meet the Tigers would confer legitimacy on their control of much of these areas and thus would endorse their claim for a separate Tamil homeland.

Recently the government controlled Daily News, quoting directly from the President's Independence Day message ran the headline, "Let us unite to rebuild our nation". The sincerity of the sentiment was diluted by another strident article in the same paper that falsely accused the Leader of the Opposition United National Party (UNP) and former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe of visiting European capitals in order to dissuade foreign governments from proffering reconstruction funds. "Ranil in Norway to prevent disaster aid to Lanka", the article was captioned, and the Opposition leader was accused of no lesser crimes than sabotage and treason.

The President further unnerved her opponents and added to a sense of confusion and foreboding when she stated that as a consequence of the tragedy, elections would not take place for five years. This would have conveniently avoided the need to leave office as she must in 2006. The statement was later retracted and attributed to misquotation, but scarcely endeared her to opponents.

Amongst others, Mrs Bandaranaike has crossed swords with her sibling the Minister of Tourism, Anura Bandaranaike. Within days of the tsunami the government had made an initial declaration emanating from the Prime Minister that all existing buildings whether houses or hotels within 100 metres of the coast must be relocated. This was later described as "stupid" by her brother, who feared the implications for tourism. The plan has later been subject to varying interpretations and has been amended, but in such a way that no one is as yet clear of government intentions. Anura Bandaranaike has been asked to submit to his sister a written explanation for his dismissive comments and additionally to explain why as the Minister of Tourism, known for his sybarite tendencies, took over a fortnight to return from his vacation in California.

Relations between the government and Tigers have deteriorated considerably and there is growing fear that the ceasefire which was negotiated in 2002 while the UNP Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was politically co-habiting with the President, might collapse. The North and Eastern coastline that includes the Tamil heartlands were devastated. There is still much wrangling over the establishment of a joint mechanism to ensure the equitable distribution of relief and reconstruction funds, not least due to the resistance of the JVP towards even a de facto recognition that the LTTE controls considerable enclaves in the North and East and where it runs a parallel administration. The LTTE claims that the government has overwhelmingly favoured the South and has been miserly in the assistance rendered to their people. The government has recently retorted by stating at a news conference that it would grant the North and East 60% of the $1.8bn donated by the international community for reconstruction but this is a comment and not as yet enshrined in policy.

This week the Tigers sustained a double blow. Kofi Annan has said that the Tigers should face sanctions including travel bans and financial penalties for recruiting child soldiers. Annan said that the LTTE "has often carried out recruitment by force, abducting children while on their way to school or during religious festivities, and beating families and teachers who resisted the seizure of children". In a development with worrying implications for the ceasefire the head of the LTTE in the Eastern region, E. Koushalyan was murdered last week. The LTTE has claimed the complicity of the Sri Lankan Army with a breakaway faction led by a former senior Tiger commander in the East. This dissident faction of Colonel Karuna has claimed responsibility. The Norwegian led Sri Lankan Monitoring Commission, has not deemed the murder to be a breach of the ceasefire but an intra-Tamil dispute. Nonetheless there has been some enraged and bellicose rhetoric from Tiger spokesman. The government is worried and to ease tension has praised the LTTE for exercising restraint and "maturity" in the wake of the killing.

Sri Lanka is an island of much potential and at independence in 1948 it was considered to have the foundations from which to develop into a prosperous and harmonious democracy. Yet its leaders have never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Post-tsunami politics are not unravelling in a way which might indicate that the opening provided by the very great tragedy that befell the island over Christmas will prove to be anything other than one more missed opportunity.

As if to underline the eagerness to return to normality, there is an island wide bus strike at fifteen depots of the Ceylon Transport Board including some that were much affected by the tsunami. In Western terms the workers demands are modest, a monthly Rs 2,500 salary hike, (13), in Sri Lanka that is a sum worth having.

To read Clifford Bastin's other reports from Sri Lanka, see Sri Lanka after the Tsunami.


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This is an excellent article - it is certainly more informative about Sri Lanka and the impact of the Tsunami on its politics than anything I have read in the mainstrem press.

Posted by: John at February 20, 2005 01:51 PM
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