The Tsunami and Sri Lanka: Emerging Realities

by Brian Senewiratne, MA(Camb),MD(Lond),FRCP(Lond),FRACP, Brisbane, Australia

With commendable enthusiasm, the international community, church groups, NGOs, and other ‘do-gooders’ have rushed to help restore the damage done in South Asia.

Valaichchenai camp

Where Sri Lanka, one of the worst hit, is concerned, there are serious problems emerging in the delivery and distribution of aid that is pouring into the country.  The trusting international community may not be aware of some of the factors responsible and the underlying problems.

The background.

Over the past two decades a deep ethno-religious split has occurred between the Tamil minority and the majority Sinhalese-dominated Government (for the record, I am a Sinhalese).  In the face of continuing discrimination in the use of their language (Tamil), education, employment and the developmental neglect of the area they live in (north, northeast and east), the Tamils (12.5% of the population) have been asking for a federal or separate state.  With peaceful, non-violent Tamil protests being met by Government-sponsored violence, in 1972 the Tamil Tigers embarked on an armed conflict to establish a separate Tamil state in the NorthEast.  After 30 years of one of the most destructive conflicts in Asia, in February 2002 a ceasefire was negotiated between the Tamil Tigers and the former Sri Lankan government under Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe.

With the change in the government (December 2003) to President Kumaratunga’s party, and the new government dragging its feet in political negotiations with the Tamil Tigers, ‘Peace’ has been under threat.  Since February 2003 and the Memorandum of Understanding between Wickremasinghe and the Tamil Tigers, the guns have been silenced, but the basic problem has not been resolved.

With a hiatus in the administration of the war-devastated northeast, the Tamil Tigers have, over the years, established a quasi-separate state with its own army, police, law courts, administration, infrastructure, and rehabilitation and reconstruction programs.  The writ of the Sri Lankan Government does not even run in this area.  The tsunami hit the south coast (which is under the Sri Lankan government) and - causing even more devastation - the northeast (which is under the Tamil Tigers).

Political thinking

Even in the face of a national disaster, ethnic and political considerations are never too far away in Sri Lankan thinking, in particular in the minds of the Sinhalese politicians of all parties.  The best example of this is a recent statement by President Chandrika Kumaratunga that the Tamil Tigers had lost too many cadres in the tsunami disaster to resume the armed struggle.  This is an outrageous comment from a national leader whose country has been decimated.  Faced with a national crisis from an unavoidable natural disaster, all that the President could do was to focus on what ‘benefit’ it could be towards settling her political problems.  There can be no better example of the narrow-mindedness of Sri Lankan politicians even when faced with a major humanitarian disaster, with nearly 50,000 killed, many thousands whose lives have been shattered, a million rendered homeless, and extensive damage to two thirds of the coastline.  The President’s insensitive and irresponsible comment should not only be condemned, but should be noted by the international community since it has a direct bearing on aid, its delivery, and even its use and abuse in Sri Lanka.


For many years, news out of Sri Lanka has been either Sri Lankan government propaganda or Tamil Tiger propaganda.  Today, with international media roaming around the country, it is unnecessary to rely on either of these sources since independent reporters are there to report the situation as it is.  Foremost among them is Jonathan Steele, a senior foreign affairs reporter for the British newspaper, the Guardian.  His three reports on the 3rd 4th and 5th January 2005, from the northeast, east and south, give a clear account of what is going on.  The picture that emerges from these and other reports from international journalists forms the basis of this article.

The ground realities

1 The Sri Lankan Government

The Sri Lankan Government, in striking contrast to the Thai government, seems to be completely unable to handle the situation.  The infrastructure, organization and competence which are so necessary to handle a disaster of this magnitude, simply does not seem to exist.  As a result, aid even to the South, which is so readily accessible, faced problems in its delivery.  As for the NorthEast, there is not only the inability to do so, but there is also a highly questionable resolve.

For example, 24 hours after the wave struck, with the President on holiday in the UK, the Sri Lankan Prime Minister summoned a meeting of all Parliamentary parties to discuss the management of the disaster.  In the two-hour conference, the situation in the NorthEast, that had borne the brunt of the damage, was discussed for less than five minutes.  A factually correct comment from an MP from the area "They simply are not bothered about the plight of our (Tamil) people."  With 4% of the time spent in discussing an area which took more than 75% of the damage and from where well over 50% of the casualties came, the comment is entirely justified.  It should open the eyes of aid-givers that about 4% of their aid will reach this area if its delivery is left in the hands of the Sri Lankan government.


The Sri Lankan President, emerging at last from her holiday, appointed a ‘task force’ to rebuild the nation, handle rescue and relief, and maintain order.  The Tamil Tigers (wisely) declined to be part of this since it is likely to turn out to be no more than yet another obstacle for potential aid-givers to negotiate on a road already cluttered with bureaucratic obstacles and even roadblocks.

The Tamil Tigers

As has been mentioned, some of the most serious damage is in the area controlled by the Tamil Tigers.  They have a crucial role to play in the delivery of aid to the NorthEast. 

The Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO), is a major body that has been in operation for over 19 years and has extensive experience and expertise to translate ‘relief effort’ to ‘effective relief.’  With district offices and sub-offices in all 18 districts in the Tamil area, an office in Colombo, and employing some 3,500 paid staff, the TRO has been partners with several international NGOs and UN agencies in major reconstruction and rehabilitation programs in the NorthEast over a long period of time.  The question at issue is not whether it is, or is not, a ‘Tamil Tiger Front,’ but whether it can deliver.  The answer seems to be ‘Yes, it can.’  If the alternative is the lethargic, disorganized, incompetent and disinterested Sri Lankan Government, then the TRO is on an entirely different plane. You will find the TRO details on,, and

If the TRO can deliver, it makes sense to let it do so.  Recognizing this, even the Sri Lankan Government permitted the TRO to engage in rehabilitation and reconstructive work in both the Tamil Tiger-controlled area, as well as the Sri Lankan military-controlled area in the NorthEast.

However, whatever the Government says, its Armed Forces and Police have ideas of their own – to obstruct the work done by the TRO in the East, an area where the devastation was particularly severe.  In an unbelievable act, bordering on treason, the Sri Lankan Army and the ‘Special Task Force’ of the Police, have just moved into the refugee camps in the East and have taken them over from the TRO.  It is difficult to believe that the Executive President, the Minister of Defence, the Minister of Reconstruction and Rehabilitation, and the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, who all happen to be one person, Chandrika Kumaratunga, is unable to prevent or reverse this.

The NGOs and Church groups.

A number of NGOs (World Vision, Red Cross, OxFam, Care Australia, UNICEF and Caritas) are doing an outstanding job in raising money and delivering what they can where they can.  The Executive Director of World Vision (Australia) the dynamic Rev. Tim Costello, brother of the Australian ‘Prime Minister in Waiting’ who incidentally has been waiting a long time!), has just returned after visiting both the South and the NorthEast of Sri Lanka.  By naming the large NGOs, I am in no way trying to downplay the outstanding contributions of small groups, especially small church groups, and even individuals. 

Refugee in Valaichchenai

An important point is that ANY of these Organisations would be a safer bet than the Sri Lankan Government until such time, if ever, that it gets its act together.

Foreign Governments

Foreign governments, especially several European countries, Britain, and Japan, have been commendably generous.  India and the United States have also helped, but are taking the opportunity to play geopolitical games.  One, perhaps three, US war ships are anchored off the eastern coast of Sri Lanka.  Why? Predictably, India has ‘expressed concern,’ adopting the childish "I don’t want that boy to be in my backyard’ attitude.

The Australian public has been magnificent, perhaps more so than any other people.  The collections for a country with only 20 million people have been unbelievable.  It feels good to be an Australian.  As I write, some of Australia’s best musicians are performing at the massive Sydney Opera House to a packed audience, the proceeds to go to the tsunami victims. 

The Australian Government, however, has behaved in an extraordinary way.  At a major international donor meeting in Jakarta, Indonesia, on 6 January 2005, Prime Minister John Howard pledged A$ 1 billion for Indonesian Aceh.  Aceh has been ravaged and no one will begrudge the funds, but so has Sri Lanka, Phuket and South India.  There are a fair few Sri Lankans, Indians and Thai who live in Australia and pay their taxes.  Howard’s generosity with their money, by-passing the desperate needs of countries which were once home to these people, is nothing but a slap in the face to a significant number of Australian citizens.  That Aceh is a mineral-rich area (like oil rich East Timor in which Australia also got involved) and the others (Sri Lanka, Thailand, South India) have no exploitable minerals or oil, I gather, had nothing to do with this highly questionable decision.  If Howard wants to play geopolitical games and enter into ‘sweetheart deals’ with Indonesia to mend fences broken by Australia’s East Timor intervention, he should have chosen a more appropriate venue.

Sri Lanka’s continuing war-stance

This is a problem that the international community will have to take up with Sri Lanka.

Just four weeks ago the ruling United People’s Alliance Party and the main Opposition, the United National Party, supported by the Muslim party and the political party of the Buddhist clergy (incredibly some Buddhist monks in parliament), in a rare show of unity, voted to ‘beef-up’ the Armed Forces, allocating more than Rs 56.2 billion (US$ 536 million) for 2005. This is a 8% increase over the allocation in 2004.

In a recent publication "Sri Lanka’s Military: The Search For A Mission", Brian Blodgett, a career US Army officer and an Adjunct Professor in the American Military University, pointed out some ‘hard-to-stomach’ and even ‘harder-to-justify’ facts.  While ‘Peace’ negotiations are in progress, the Sri Lankan Air Force bought 10 Mi-35 (a special export version of the Mi-24) helicopter gunships and 10 military transport planes.  The Army doubled its artillery from 97 to 187.  Armoured Personnel Carriers increased 70% from 158 to 204.  The air force personnel nearly doubled from 10,000 airmen to 19,000, the army from 95,000 to 118,000 soldiers, and the navy from 18,000 to 20,000 sailors.  These are indisputable signs that Sri Lanka is preparing for war, to inflict willful damage and destruction on its people, as if a natural disaster is not enough.

It is time that foreign governments, the international community, Sri Lankan civil society, the Churches, and NGO’s, started asking some hard questions since -  the tsunami notwithstanding - there is no indication that this outrageous military expenditure will be scaled down.  What the international assistance, in particular monetary assistance, might do is to free-up even more funds for the Government to ‘beef up’ the Armed Forces even more to wage an even more destructive war.  Unless we get the situation clarified, our well-intentioned efforts might result in even greater destruction.

There is talk of debt-cancellation for tsunami-affected countries.  On 9 January 2005, World Bank President James D Wolfensohn, will visit Sri lanka to "have a first-hand view of the destruction."  He should also have "a first-hand view" of the recent Sri Lankan budget and get the Government to justify the unconscionable allocation to ‘Defence."  The government response, as always when faced with hard questions, will be that this is ‘an internal affair of Sri Lanka.’  The response to this should be ‘So is the devastation caused by the tsunami.'

If foreign debt is to be written off, a guarantee will have to be written in that the money saved will be used for the development of infrastructure in all parts of the country, in particular, the war/tsunami-damaged areas.  It is, of course, essential that this be closely monitored.  If there is no co-operation, the debt repayments should recommence.

The long term

The devastation has been on a scale that it will take years to restore.  The fear is that the wave of enthusiasm will come and go, like the tsunami itself.  "To maintain the rage", as former Australian Prime Minister asked the Australian public to do when he was undemocratically dismissed by Governor General John Kerr, may be difficult to do in the present crisis, as it was then.

Sydney, Jan. 8, 2005

Another fear is that Sri Lankan politicians, seeing manna descending from heaven, will think up bigger and better ways to squander the money or use it for purposes for which it was not intended.  This is the problem with pouring money into outstretched but unaccountable hands.  One cannot lose sight of the fact that Sri Lanka and Indonesia are two of the most corrupt governments in South Asia.  The tsunami will not wash away entrenched corruption.  It might enhance it.

Sri Lanka and Indonesia are also two of the most repressive regimes in the area.  The serious fear is that these repressive regimes will ‘use’ the destruction caused by the tsunami to crush the entirely justifiable separatist movements in both these countries.  Should this happen, the damage done will be far greater than what the tsunami has done.

In Sri Lanka (and I guess in Aceh), the initial hope was that the warring parties in these on-going conflicts (the Tamil Tigers with the Sri Lankan Government, the Free Aceh movement with the Indonesian Government) would be ‘blown together’ by the tsunami.  The President shaking the hands of two Tamil Tigers seems to have mesmerized people.  The reality is was that this probably was no more than politicians providing photo opportunities for foreign media.  The reality was best put by Trond Furuhovde, head of the Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission in Sri Lanka, who said "We should be careful not to draw conclusions too far. The disaster has done a lot of things to the country but has done nothing at all in (resolving) the conflict."

Unrealistic optimism betrays a complete lack of understanding of what underlies these conflicts.  The scales are now beginning to fall from the eyes of these optimists.  All reports now agree that these expectations are far from reality.  In fact, the opposite may well be the final result as the Tamils in the NorthEast see incontrovertible evidence of step-motherly treatment, or no treatment at all, at the hands of the Sinhala regime in Colombo.

What has occurred, post-tsunami, is a different kind of a ‘war’ with words, claims, and some inappropriate actions.  What is definite is that neither the tsunami, nor fighting is going to bring peace to Sri Lanka (and probably Aceh).  Any attempt by either side to capitalize on any weakness, perceived or real, caused by this natural disaster will have no currency.

The Tamils of Sri Lanka have developed a deep distrust (not without reason) in the Sinhala-majority governments because of repeated violence suffered by them at the hands of Government-sponsored Sinhalese hoodlums and the Sinhala Armed Forces and Police.  What the tsunami might have done is to give the Sri Lankan government the opportunity to establish its good faith among the Tamil people, especially in the NorthEast,, so that there would be a leap in faith at any subsequent Peace talks.  Regrettably, the Government seems to have failed to grasp this golden opportunity, the same tragic mistake made by a succession of Sinhala-dominated governments over the past 50 years, for which the country has paid dearly.  Relief and other aid pressure should be directed at this problem.

Ethnic conflicts based on the way people have been treated cannot be settled by military might or by a tsunami.  To expect otherwise is to be naive and distance oneself from reality and history.



Posted January 8, 2005