The tsunami that hit the shores of Sri Lanka on 26 December last year transformed the topography of the island as it did many other parts of the Asian continent. While the magnitude of the disaster presents an enormous challenge to people of this country, southern political forces are hard at work to undermine the Tamils so as to gain long-term political, and possibly military, advantage.
(Vadamarachi East, photo courtesy TamilNet)
It is important that we recap the political configuration that existed before the tsunami hit Sri Lanka. The equation was that the LTTE was threatening to "advance the freedom struggle of the Tamil nation" through mass agitation and civil disobedience if the government was not prepared to resume political negotiations based on the ISGA. However, the Tigers gave President Chandrika Kumaratunga a loophole to begin talks when they painted the JVP as the real villain, which was forcing the president to procrastinate in resuming dialogue.
When the co-chairs of the Tokyo conference, barring Norway, delivered a harsh indictment of the JVP at the meeting they had with the president, it further contributed to the isolation of that party. When the JVP reacted to the co-chairs’ statement with a puerile public announcement that was hardly more than an act of public name-calling, the US ambassador replied with a letter that was a stern reminder to the JVP that it had clearly underestimated the gravity of the international community’s annoyance at its tactics.
Perceiving the leeway offered by the LTTE and pressurised by the international community, Kumaratunga began seriously exploring options to resume talks, though her offers did not even approximate what the Tigers demanded. Two factors have to be kept in mind however: the government had agreed in principle that the LTTE had absolute control over certain areas of the northeast, and that an effective way of sharing power with the Tigers had to be worked out, even if it was not necessarily according to the principles advocated in the ISGA.
When the tsunami hit Sri Lanka it gave a wonderful opportunity to the government to redefine and reconfigure its relationship with the northeast by responding to the needs of the Tamil (and Muslim) people promptly and without discrimination. But in keeping with age-old tradition, the decision-making elite treated the northeast with indifference, contumely reinforcing in the minds of the Tamils that 20 years of armed conflict had changed nothing.
It has to be seen that when the disaster occurred Kumaratunga was overseas and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse spearheaded the initial relief effort. The southern media took pains to project the coming together of the UPFA (symbolised by Rajapakse) and the UNP (symbolised by Leader of the Opposition Ranil Wickremesinghe) as a ‘national’ effort to address a problem that affected the entire country.
The Tamils realised soon enough however, that as customary, the ‘nation’ for the Sinhala ruling establishment, remained the south. ( This was certainly not true of the Sinhala people, whose generosity and compassion towards their Tamil and Muslim brethren during times of need was indeed heart-warming.)
Joseph Pararajasingham MP, (TNA – Batticaloa District) said on 27 December that the south was "callously ignoring the plight of thousands in the northeast." He told TamilNet, "The devastation and destruction in the northeast was discussed for not more than five minutes during the two hour conference on the Tsunami disaster management for all parliament parties called by the prime minister at his residence Monday. In fact the situation in the northeast was taken up only after I raised the issue. They (are) simply not bothered about the plight of our people."
It is important to note when Pararajasingham made this statement when providing relief assistance to the northeast was in the hands of Rajapakse, though the arrival of Kumaratunga later did little to assuage the situation.
The tardiness of Colombo’s response to the suffering of the people of the northeast reinforced in the minds of the Tamils that only a Tamil leadership that is independent of Colombo during such crises, could protect their community.
The actions of the government also legitimised the LTTE in the eyes of the international community that was requested by the Tigers to participate in the Special Task Force on Disaster Management. The success of the request is evident in the task force constituted by the Tigers that includes members of the international donor community, NGOs, INGOs and UN, government and LTTE officials.
With the establishment and international recognition of the task force, the government realised its indifference towards the northeast had backfired on it politically. Therefore, it counterattacked by trying to undermine the LTTE in two important ways.
First, senior government officials undertook politically-motivated and highly publicised tours in areas of the northeast, the area the Tigers wants to control through the ISGA.
When relief assistance was being provided to most of the northeast through NGOs and the TRO, and not the government, what was the earthly reason for government ministers and MPs to go to the northeast? Were they were trying to express solidarity when they had already lost the goodwill and trust of the people of the northeast by being indifferent and negligent to their pleas? If they were trying to supervise the relief operation, what role could they play when the disaster management task force was implementing the relief plan?
These naked political manoeuvrings were rejected first by the TNA that refused to participate in the Centre for National Operations constituted by the President’s Office to look into relief and rehabilitation assistance for the survivors of the tsunami. It was articulated more dramatically by the people of Jaffna who were waiting, broomstick in hand, to drive away Rajapakse and other ministers and MPs of the UPFA, including the JVP’s Wimal Weerawanse.
If the government wished to undermine the territorial control of the LTTE by undertaking grand tours to the northeast publicised through the media, using devious means to represent the LTTE in an unsavoury light to the Sinhala and Tamil people, as well as the international community, was another.
The initial task was to place tendentious stories in the media that the LTTE was preventing food, medicines and other essentials from reaching the people. This was supplemented by other stories that the Tigers were looting stuff for their own needs leaving the Tamil public cold, sick and hungry.
To supplement the government’s mud-smearing campaign against the Tigers, the ruling elite recruited an ally – civil society. Since there is hardly any aid into the northeast being sent by the government, it is the southern NGOs that are undertaking bulk of the relief work. With most of the media coverage of the northeast continuing to be stories of suffering or autobiographical accounts of the survivors, aid-delivering NGO workers returning to the south have begun circulating smear stories against the Tigers on the delivery of relief assistance.
Nobody denies that there could be individual instances where unseemly events might have taken place. However, the way certain aid workers speak about them gives the impression that every shipment of goods is either looted, has a portion of it siphoned off, or is turned back without being accepted.
This role of the NGOs is nothing new because studies on civil society (of which NGOs and privately-owned media are part) have shown that its ‘independence’ from the state is largely a myth, and that nearly all the time it legitimises the state against its detractors.
The idea behind the mud-smearing exercise is twofold. One is to create hatred and anger of the Tigers in the eyes of the Sinhala people. They are being told all the aid that is channelled to the northeast is falling into unlawful hands and the LTTE, even in the face of calamity, are autocratic and therefore incapable of compromise.
Second, the Tigers, through the ISGA, were trying to transform themselves from a purely military organisation into a democratic one that is responsive to public needs and ready for civilian political leadership. Therefore, it is very important for the government to project to the Tamils that the LTTE is autocratic and indifferent to public needs even in times of disaster, and thereby demonstrate that the rebels are incapable of handling political power.
An erosion of public (and international) confidence in the LTTE’s role as protector would also be vital for the government if it hopes to begin a military campaign against the Tamils any time in the future. Therefore, discrediting the Tigers serves both a military and political purpose.
The tsunami has shown more starkly than ever before the importance of an interim political authority that is at least semi-independent of Colombo. It has also shown as to why an elaborate disaster management structure is needed if natural calamities are to be averted in the future. In other words, not only does the northeast require a responsive political leadership that caters to Tamil, Muslim and Sinhala interests, but also delivery that is prompt, fair and equal.
There is something else that needs to be said: Till 26 December 2004, LTTE Leader Velupillai Prabhakaran was under mounting pressure to deliver on the peace dividend. But due to the intransigence of the Colombo government and prevarication of the international community nothing substantial in terms of rehabilitation or development aid was forthcoming to the Tamil people. Today, Prabhakaran stands relieved of that.
Posted January 3, 2005