Sri Lanka forgoes tsunami goodwill

A guilty verdict is about to be passed on international agencies for their failure to intervene in the Sri Lankan conflict. Within days they may know the full horror of their impotence.

For now, it is possible that not even the Sri Lankan military is fully aware of the condition of up to 50,000 civilians jammed into a few square miles between the sea and the guns, nor whether the endgame can be engineered without carnage.

As we hold our breath that compassion will prevail, difficult questions begin to form about the aftermath of a military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The scale of displacement and destruction will inevitably prompt comparison with the impact of the 2004 tsunami. The Sri Lankan government will once again depend on international support for most of the costs of emergency relief and reconstruction.

There the tsunami parallel grinds to a halt. The conduct of the latest chapters of the conflict has put a knife in the back of the humanitarian solidarity that inspired the global community. $3 billion was pledged for Sri Lanka’s recovery from the natural disaster.

Plummeting relationships with UN agencies concerned with human rights, an abhorrent strategy of eliminating critical journalists and disregard of the rulebook for warfare have imploded Sri Lanka’s status within the traditional power-brokers of reconstruction funding. Questions over a $1.9 billion IMF loan facility may be the tip of the conditionality iceberg.

It didn’t have to be this way. In its blindness to ethnic division, the tsunami opened the eyes of opportunist mediation. In Aceh, the devastation persuaded the parties in a conflict of remarkable parallels to seize the moment. In July 2005 Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM) signed a peace accord with the national government, having fought for almost 30 years to free Aceh from Indonesian control. Legislation granting extensive autonomy has followed.

For a while, Sri Lanka seemed to be in similar mood. A month before the Aceh accord the government and LTTE signed the Tsunami Joint Mechanism, laying down procedures for joint administration of aid funds. Alas, this gesture of reconciliation proved too much for the establishment and the agreement was declared unconstitutional by the Sri Lankan High Court.

Later that same year, Mahinda Rajapakse won the presidential election, placed his hawkish brother Gotabhaya as head of defence and dismantled the peace process.

There is no self-evident explanation for Sri Lanka’s failure to follow the tsunami-inspired Aceh model. The accord had to overcome a similar legacy of atrocities committed by both sides. The Indonesian government was as notorious as the Sri Lankans for its hardline refusal to countenance concessions and for its appalling human rights record.

Perhaps only the Sri Lankan people themselves can understand the lust for an old-fashioned shooting victory and the denial of history which led to the conflict.

In discarding the depths of goodwill offered by the tsunami, the Sri Lankans have lost four years and thousands of lives. Dependent now on Burma for rice sufficiency and China for aid, the country becomes a pawn in the uncertain new world order of the post-Bush era.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK