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April 25, 2005

Sri Lanka four months after the Tsunami: No sign of a New Beginning

Posted by Clifford Bastin

It is now four months since Sri Lanka was hit by the Indian Ocean tsunami. Early hopes that this disaster would galvanise Sri Lanka's leaders to put their conflicts to one side and come together to rebuild the island have proved illusory. Sri Lankan politics continues upon its tawdry path, reports Clifford Bastin.

The theme of my previous article was that the death and destruction wrought by the Tsunami had not diluted existing inter and intra-communal animosities in Sri Lanka but had rendered political competition more intense and vituperative. Since January this unhappy trend has accelerated. Enmity has deepened between government and opposition and within the unsteady governing coalition. In the restive north and east political killings have increased such that they are a daily occurrence. While it is true that in the tsunami affected areas, which comprise most of the islands densely populated coastline, no large scale outbreak of disease or malnutrition has occurred, 150,000 people are still living under canvas and many more remain displaced. A delegation from the European Parliament expressed irritation and surprise that despite the considerable funds made available, little reconstruction and permanent resettlement work has started. Despite four months having elapsed there is still no mechanism in place to ensure that areas in the north east not fully under government control receive assistance commensurate with the human and material losses sustained.

A wave of killings in the east has put considerable strain on the Cease-fire Agreement (CFA) signed in 2002 between the Government and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), further destabilising an already precarious situation. In March 2004 the LTTE an organisation previously known for its rigid discipline and obedience to its leader Vellupillai Prabakharan fractured when V. Muralitharan alias Colonel Karuna, the LTTE's de facto number two broke ranks. Since the tsunami clashes between the two factions have intensified. The Tigers accuse the Government of working hand in glove with Karuna and using his paramilitaries as a proxy with which to eliminate Tiger cadres. The Sunday Leader newspaper, a permanent thorn in the flesh of any Colombo administration, has alleged that the government permits the existence of a Karuna camp in territory within its control bordering the north east, an assertion echoed by the LTTE.

The President, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, worried that the tense situation in the east might lead to a full scale resumption of fighting, has appointed a Presidential Commission of Inquiry led by two high court judges to investigate attacks on the LTTE. Whatever the Commission's findings it is unlikely that the Tigers will be assuaged. In testimony to the Commission, the head of the Scandinavian led Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission (SLMM) in Batticaloa, has said that he had witnessed the unimpeded movement of Karuna troops near a Sri Lankan Army base in Welikanda, suggestive of some complicity with the authorities.

Ominously, a recent issue of the LTTE's official organ Viduthalai Pulihal, contends that the regime in Colombo is not interested in a peace process, only in war. Political killings have engulfed three other rival Tamil groups in the east, the Eelam People's Revolutionary Front (EPRLF), the People's Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) and the Eelam Peoples Democratic Party (EPDP). They have all come under attack from their LTTE opponents. The EPDP is closely allied to the government. In July 2004 the LTTE attempted to assassinate its leader when a suicide bomber detonated herself in a police station in the heart of Colombo. At the start of April an EPDP supporter and an official at the Ministry of Vocational Training was shot dead in Batticaloa and the next day party offices were subjected to a grenade attack. On the same day a vessel of the Sri Lankan Navy on patrol in Trincomolee harbour was fired upon. The SLMM who had a monitor on board ruled that the LTTE had breached the CFA. Later in April the EPDP deputy leader in Trincomolee was gunned down and in a separate incident a raid killed at least five Karuna loyalists in Polonnaruwa district. The LTTE has been accused of mounting both these attacks.

If the situation is increasingly unstable in the east then it is equally volatile in Colombo where the ill-matched United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA) coalition partners appear at odds on most fundamental issues, inducing executive paralysis. The chief protagonists are the Sri Lankan Freedom Party (SFLP), historically dominated by the Bandaranaike dynasty, and the Marxist and Sinhalese nationalist JVP (Peoples Liberation Front).

The purported rationale of the President for ousting the previous United National Party government was that it had offered too many concessions to the LTTE, though not sufficient to prevent the Tigers from withdrawing from peace talks in early 2003. The President is aware that if the LTTE is to be coaxed back into negotiations some form of devolution of power needs to be on offer. In February Presidential sources expressed a willingness to resume negotiations on the basis of establishing an interim administrative structure for the north east in which the LTTE would participate, as a prelude to negotiating a federal solution to the long running conflict. The President has confidently asserted that 80% of the population would accept devolution of power and a federal solution. In contrast the JVP is implacably opposed to any departure from the unitary structure of Sri Lanka and what they perceive would amount to the tacit establishment of a de facto LTTE statelet. The JVP has threatened to withdraw from government if the President persisted with the offer of an interim administration. Presupposing that there is any willingness on the part of the LTTE, without the assent of the 39 JVP members it is difficult to see how peace talks might resume. Mrs Kumaratunga, none too obliquely acknowledging the opposition of the JVP, has commented that "just as every society had its share of lunatics, so did every family", for family read government.

The Sinhala and Tamil New Year falls in mid-April and the President in her New Year message identified the establishment of a joint mechanism with the LTTE for the provision of relief and reconstruction in the north east as a necessary foundation for the final solution to years of conflict. The SFLP Deputy Minister of Ports Dilan Perera has acknowledged that such an arrangement is a prerequisite for rehabilitation to progress as "whether we like it or not, more than 60% of the areas affected by the tsunami come under rebel control". The joint mechanism is necessary both practically and symbolically but is thwarted by the JVP who want reconstruction funds to be channelled through the Government alone. How strongly the JVP feels about the issue can be judged from an intemperate speech of the party propaganda secretary Wimal Weerawansa:

We should spit on NGO's and stop them from walking our streets. Donor countries and their NGO agents are holding this country to ransom, telling us to set up a joint Tsunami relief mechanism with the LTTE. It is something that can be done through the Sri Lankan state machinery.
When the World Bank Country Director, Peter Harrold, suggested that the reality of LTTE control in certain badly affected areas of the north east meant the organisation could not be sidelined, his effigy was burned at a JVP demonstration.

A deeply xenophobic undercurrent in Sri Lankan politics is not universal but is prevalent and scepticism regarding the motives of any outside involvement in the islands' affairs is often articulated. Broadcasting organisations, including the BBC, are regularly accused of having a pro-Tamil agenda. In some quarters the intentions of foreign governments and NGOs in proffering assistance are viewed suspiciously and in the case of the Norwegians their thankless and long running efforts to broker a lasting peace agreement has been met with outright hostility. In the past the President herself has termed the Norwegians "interfering salmon eaters". Partially this is because the majority Sinhalese community feels a deep insecurity, for although comprising 74% of the islands population they contrive to feel an embattled minority when looking across the Palk Straits to the 55m Tamils in Tamil Nadu. More understandably there is a fear that the LTTE will be rewarded for what has been a savage terrorist campaign scarcely paralleled anywhere in its relentless fanaticism and brutality.

The potent electoral appeal of hard-line Sinhalese nationalism was underscored in the April 2004 election by the success of the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) or National Heritage Party. The JHU is an uncompromising pro-Sinhalese and Buddhist fundamentalist political formation which won 6% of the vote in 2004 and returned 9 saffron robed monks as MPs. The monks who dominate the party don't conform to popular western conceptions of Buddhism as being emollient and peaceable. Their leader the Venerable Ellawala Medhandanda in March demanded that the government should act to crush the Tigers and that "if it means war, no one should have a problem with it". A full scale return to hostilities is very probably not what the Sri Lankan Army would wish at present. At the start of April it offered an amnesty to 55,000 deserters many of whom have absconded with weapons and who have contributed to the rapidly rising levels of serious crime on the island.

The JHU has said that it is ready to name the Norwegian government and its remarkably patient and often maligned peace negotiators as enemies of the Sri Lankan state for what it perceives as a pro-Tamil stance. The JHU is in opposition but extends its support to the government on what it describes as a "case by case" basis. The government is mindful that the monks votes may be necessary to sustain it and accordingly it has proposed anti-conversion legislation that would make any effort to change a person's religious affiliation punishable with a five year prison term. This is designed to counter the proselytising efforts of Christian groups particularly in rural areas. As acts of charity can be interpreted as attempts at conversion the proposed law might potentially have implications for tsunami relief efforts carried out by religious groups.

In another gesture to the JHU, legislation is to be introduced banning academic tuition classes on Sundays thereby leaving the day free for religious observance. Students will not be permitted to be taught academic subjects on a Sunday but will have more opportunity to attend Buddhist Dhamma schools as the government has committed itself to recruiting an extra 3,000 Dhamma teachers.

The President is understandably preoccupied with her personal future in politics. Elected in 1994 and again in 1999 she is now coming to the end of her second term and is not constitutionally permitted to run for a third but appears in no mood to relinquish her pre-eminence. Mrs Kumaratunga is aware that once she loses the reins of power she may be vulnerable to prosecution and could endure the fate of her mother, the former Prime Minister, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, who was stripped of her civic rights in 1982. These rights were restored when her daughter was elected President and proceeded to re-appoint her mother as Prime Minister, such is the nature of dynastic South Asian politics. The President's strategy is to amend the constitution and abolish the Executive Presidency, returning to the Westminster model and the paramount role of Parliament, whereby she could become Prime Minister.

At the end of March hundreds of posters appeared around Colombo clamouring for constitutional reform. The source was a previously unknown group called the Peoples Movement for Democracy, but there was little doubt that this was not a spontaneous popular campaign but was initiated by Presidential supporters. Securing change will not be easy given a two-thirds parliamentary majority is required to pass constitutional amendments, although a positive vote in a referendum might provide an alternative route. A referendum will also be fraught given the opposition of the JVP and the UNP who would like to see its leader, the former Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremasinghe as President.

Economic difficulties are placing further strains on the UPFA coalition. Extravagant promises were made during the April 2004 election campaign of higher public sector wages and increased consumer and agricultural subsidies. The new government quickly resorted to the printing presses to fund increased spending and predictably government borrowing and inflation soared and the rupee went into free fall. The post-tsunami influx of hard currency from overseas assistance was fortuitous in that it has propped up the rupee and averted an impending economic denouement. Currently the cost of living is rising rapidly and popular discontent is palpable being manifested in a wave of strikes.

The economy has been hit by surging oil prices which in particular have amplified the indebtedness of the state controlled Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) and Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) both of which are unable to raise tariffs in line with the rising cost of imported oil and are notoriously inefficient. The President of necessity has been eager to restructure both corporations, a euphemism for privatisation. The policy has been made more attractive by an offer from the Asian Development Bank to write off a substantial portion of the CEB's 400m debts, on condition of restructuring. When at the start of April the President formulated restructuring proposals for the CPC and CEB, unions allied to the JVP took to the streets and the JVP threatened to bring the government down.

Whether it is economic policy making, post-tsunami reconstruction or a re-commencement of the peace process, paralysis in government is impeding forward movement at this critical juncture in the island's history. Travelling around the tsunami ravaged coastline one is struck by the profusion of tented camps for the displaced but also the very limited amount of reconstruction of either housing or infrastructure. The Finance Minister, Sarath Amunugama, implied it had been the tardiness of donor nations in making good pledges of assistance that had been holding up reconstruction. At the start of April the Minister gave assurances that, as international donors had finally made firm commitments of $1.5bn, work could begin in earnest. This remains to be seen.

In fifty years of independence politicians have found it beyond their capacity to bring about in any part of the island the construction of what would pass for a modern road. Hence it was perhaps a forlorn hope that the tsunami would galvanise this same political elite to suspend normal politics, seek consensus and to desist from self-aggrandisement in the name of public service, a higher purpose with which in the past they had often failed to connect. Unless the impasse in government is broken and a stable and a broadly supported national administration can emerge, post-tsunami recovery is likely to proceed with dispiriting slowness and tented relief camps are likely to remain a feature of this beguiling island's coastline for a considerable time to come.

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


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