Even the Tsunami Cannot Wash Away Our Ethnic Rivalries

by Professor Karthigesu Sivathamby


Frst things first: the tsunami did not vent its fury on a Sri Lanka that was placid or passive. It was, instead, a country torn apart by a 30-year-old civil war and other sectarian strife. If there was an absence of armed conflict, it was because of the fragile ceasefire brokered and overseen by a foreign country.

The magnitude of the disaster managed to mute the shrill cacophony of the ‘urumayas,’ and even strike the ‘peramunayas’ speechless. President Chandrika Kumaratunga, meanwhile, pointed out the futility of fighting over small pieces of territory when the very existence of humanity could be snuffed out by nature’s wrath.

We also heard of acts of courage and altruism by the army when it rescued hapless Tamil fisher folk fighting the surging waters of the tsunami. It was more or less the same story in the east. While the Tamil government agent (district secretary) of Batticaloa was going around in circles holding one meeting after another without spending the Rs.10 million already allocated to him to commence relief assistance, it were Sinhala people from Polonnaruwa and the Muslims from Valaichenai and Ottamavadi, who fed and clothed displaced Tamils from Batticaloa. Even in Amparai there were instances of the LTTE hierarchy thanking the STF for their prompt rescue of stranded civilians.

It was also the time when shiploads of assistance began arriving in Sri Lanka to be distributed in various parts of the country. All this made the more optimistic among us wonder aloud whether we had indeed turned the corner regarding state-Tamil relations.

But it was not to be. When people emerged from shock, events began to take another turn as they habitually do in Sri Lanka. First it was a murmur of dissent from the north that state assistance was not flowing into that area as fast or as equitably as it should. It was followed by more protests, this time from the east (especially Amparai, which boasts of providing five or six MPs of ministerial rank) that no relief aid was reaching the worst hit areas that stretch from Sammanthurai to Kalmunai.

Meanwhile, the president made an announcement about plans to centralise immediate relief and medium term rehabilitation through the appointment of three committees, together known as the Centre for National Operations (CNO). The committees would tackle three aspects of disaster recovery, and three of the president’s confidants were put in charge. One should say this exposed the harmatia (the tragic flaw) in the president – she was only interested in fighting political duels within the PA, the sandanaya, and against the UNP, and was using her cronies to back her in that endeavour.

The three persons she announced – Dr. Tara De Mel, Mano Tittawela, Tilak Ranavirajah – to head the respective committees, are highly competent persons. But are these the best choices to bring solutions for a catastrophe that goes beyond party and personal loyalties? A more direct question is: are they accountable as parliament is to the people?

Facing as we do a national disaster as never experienced in this country in the past four-five centuries, should not a mechanism have been created that was accountable to parliament? The CNO enjoying the confidence of the president is one thing, but their public accountability in terms of the constitution is another.

Interestingly, though country after country pledged assistance, while others announced waiving off Sri Lanka’s debts to them, parliament – the supreme body representing the sovereign will of people – has no hand in disaster management! Members of the UNP and TNA raised the marginalisation of parliament when it was suggested by president’s office that the opposition parties should join hands with the government at this moment of national tragedy. The opposition rightly asked the question: what is our role? There was no adequate answer except to announce that the three committees comprising the CNO had been constituted.

The JVP, a constituent of the governing coalition, challenged the usefulness and effectiveness of the three committees and suggested alternate plans. Though crass, it is understandable that the JVP should do this because, as a party calling itself the power that keeps the sandanaya in office, it had been marginalised to the point where it seemed almost irrelevant. The marginalisation was very evident when the minister of fisheries, who is a member of the JVP, but had not found it fit to utter a word about fisheries in the northeast in the eight months the UPFA has been in government, was unable to respond effectively when virtually the entire fishing industry in the northeast was swept away by the tsunami.

In addition to the moral question surrounding the issue of a single person (assisted by her confidants) taking over for herself the entire process of disaster management and rebuilding, there are also two other important political considerations: (a) this is a country where the numerically largest national group has issues to settle with the second largest group; (b) the militant organisation that protected the second largest national group has more than one-third of the landmass of the northeast under its control. In addition to this we should not forget the presence of a third country, which has become essential so that the two warring parties in Sri Lanka can maintain even a ‘speaking relationship.’

If the government in Colombo was truly concerned about the welfare of the entire country, and was interested in governing it as one unit, would it have chosen to overlook the presence of an alternate centre of power in the northeast of the Island? This substantiates the view that Sinhala and Tamil people are prepared to interact with the afflicted ‘other,’ but it is the state machinery that places obstructions in their path.

It will also be unwise on the part of Sri Lankans to forget the cause of the collapse of previous agreements made to bring to an end the ethnic conflict. It is a truism of Sri Lanka’s post-colonial history that the state bureaucracy has played a major role in denying Tamils their rights. But blind to that, the presidential secretariat makes the capital blunder of entrusting relief and rehabilitation work to the state!

The term ‘state machinery’ has both civil and military aspects, with only a blurred line dividing the two. It could be a posse of soldiers standing at the Habarana junction or a grama sevaka operating in Trincomalee District – they are possessed of a devilishness that rules the roost in this country. On top of its chauvinism the bureaucracy is also corrupt, whether it is in Galle, Hambantota, Batticaloa or Amparai. (The BBC’s Sandeshaya thought it fit to broadcast instances of corruption in the distribution of relief).

The insensitivity of the state was perhaps best manifest in the east. The south is well looked after because the government takes pains to see as much relief as possible gets to it. The north had at least limited resources of its own to look after itself. In the Wanni, the Sea Tigers, under Colonel Soosai, had an infrastructure in place to get down to relief work immediately.

But in Amparai, 22 days after the tsunami struck (on 17 January), state assistance is yet to begin flowing uninterruptedly. Even immediate relief work such as burying corpses, providing for the displaced, getting hospitals functioning is yet to be completed. The government agent Amparai was forthcoming when he said that he needed Tamil-speaking officials who could interact without hindrance with the affected people. As mentioned above, despite the fact most of the MPs in the Amparai District hold some sort of ministerial office, the assistant government agent (divisional secretary) of Sayanthamarithu were unable to organise a meeting that would include the politicians of the area before 18 January.

From the point of view of the Tamils however, the unkindest cut of all was the firm refusal by the government for UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to visit the north. What was more, Annan admitted to this in so many words. The presidential secretariat endorsed this later by saying it had indeed requested him not to go. What makes all this appear in the realm of fiction – if the story doing its rounds is correct – is the role of the peace secretariat, now headed by a one-time senior UN official, which contributed in no mean measure to deny Annan a visit to the north.

To older Tamils who are used to laughing off such indiscretions, the Kofi Annan episode may be one incident like many others. But to those younger Tamils who are pursuing ways of reaching a satisfactory political solution with the south, the act of torpedoing Annan’s visit raises a vital question: what right do the people of the south have to speak about a unitary constitutional solution to the ethnic problem if they could not accept that Mullaitivu – one of the worst affected areas – is part of the ‘unitary’ country?

The manner in which the peace process and relief assistance have been, jointly and severally, handled, raises a host of questions. But fundamental to all of them is an issue that relates to the mental preparedness of the south to accept the historic communities in this country as constituting Sri Lanka.

Northeastern Monthly


Posted February 7, 2005