Share Aid, Boost Peace: Joint Mechanism Embodies the Principles of a Solution

by Tamil Guardian editorial, April 20, 2005

The joint mechanism for tsunami aid distribution remains, quite rightly, the pressing issue of the Norwegian-brokered peace process in Sri Lanka.  But, despite gentle, yet insistent, encouragement by Oslo's diplomats, a deal is said to be still a long way off.  On one thing at least there is agreement: both the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers are keeping the contents of the discussions under wraps.  But, whatever the bone of contention between the two protagonists, there are external factors stacked against a joint agreement: the Janatha Vimukthi Perumana (JVP) has this week reiterated its preparedness to bring down the government if it agrees to the joint mechanism.

Yet, as we argued before, as frustrating as the delay is, both for donors and the awaiting recipients, aid disbursement must necessarily await an agreement on a joint mechanism. 

The recent allocations of funds to the Sri Lankan government by the IMF and ADB, whilst rationalized on a logic of emergency assistance, will unquestionably undermine the joint mechanism's prospects.  On the one hand, as we also argued before, the Sinhala-dominated state will undoubtedly be emboldened if aid flows are enabled whilst it continues to marginalize the people of the NorthEast.  Why should the Colombo leadership agree to a politically problematic joint mechanism when sufficient funding for its continued domestic legitimacy promises to be always forthcoming?  On the other hand, the integrity of the joint mechanism is being undermined from the outset.  The structure is meant not only to reduce waste and promote efficiency but, more importantly, particularly amid conflict resolution efforts, to provide transparent and ethnically equitable expenditure.  The joint mechanism is thus more than a mere bureaucratic device; it is an embodiment of the principle of ethnic equality.  Funds allocated outside such a mechanism depart from this premise and, consequently, have serious implications for the integrity of the peace process.

As donors are well aware, Sri Lanka has complications distinct from other places needing aid.  It is a partitioned site of a decades-long ethnic conflict.  The ultimate objective of the long-running, if slow moving, peace process is a political solution that addresses Tamil grievances with the Sinhala-dominated state.  The thrashing out of such a solution has been entrusted by the Tamils to the LTTE (not least because it has proved itself the only actor capable of compelling Sri Lanka's quasi-theocracy to negotiate the matter).  Given Tamil grievances, and the popular understanding of an LTTE-Sri Lanka aid sharing mechanism as a litmus test of the viability of the peace process, funds distributed directly through the state, even if destined theoretically for projects in the NorthEast, will nevertheless undermine trust in the peace process.

It is, as seasoned observers of Sri Lanka's conflict are well aware, a matter of legitimacy.  Common wisdom dictates that disbursing aid through the state will enhance its legitimacy amongst recipients and thus undermine the LTTE.  This thinking has been a central plank of counterinsurgency efforts in Sri Lanka for decades.  But the political realities in the NorthEast suggest other outcomes are more likely.  Large numbers of Tamils have been living under LTTE administration for many years, including several years of ceasefire.  In that time, the LTTE has earned considerable respect (sometimes grudgingly so) for its administrative capabilities and inevitable individual errors aside - for its commitment to the well being of the Tamil people. 

The matter was starkly proved in the horrific aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami.  Whilst the Sri Lankan state not only neglected the people of the NorthEast, but also sought to divert international concern exclusively to the Sinhala south (which it rushed to help), the LTTE threw its all, reserves included, into a massive relief effort for people's well-being.  Even residents in Sri Lanka Army-controlled parts of the NorthEast drew not only the maximum effort the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO) could muster, but that of the LTTE's fighting regiments.  The LTTE's long-accumulated domestic legitimacy was thus consolidated in the mud and agony left behind in the waves of December 26.

Given these objective realities, the dispersal of aid exclusively through the Sri Lankan state, whilst marginalizing the LTTE, will, quite rightly, invoke popular suspicion in the NorthEast as to the donors' motives.  As a consequence, the integrity of the Norwegian peace process, to which aid dispersal has been tied by the donors themselves, will weaken.  There are hardliners within the Tamil polity who, despite four years of peace, continue to insist that the international community is more determined to crush the Tamil struggle than to assist the long suffering people of the NorthEast.  Disbursal of aid though the corrupt ministries of the Sri Lanka state - the norm through decades of bitter ethnic conflict - is more grist to the hardliners' mill.  And given the legacy of anti-Tamil discrimination of the Sinhala leadership (and especially the present one's actions since December 26) and a history of broken promises, the LTTE's legitimacy (as a liberation movement, apart from its standing as governor) can but grow contrary to the logic of counter-insurgency. 

The question then, as the hardliners might put it, is: are the powers that be more committed to the principle of equality of all peoples or to specific self-interests in the island and the region?  Sri Lanka's future depends on the answer.

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Posted April 23, 2005