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Serving Sri Lanka

This web log is a news and views blog. The primary aim is to provide an avenue for the expression and collection of ideas on sustainable, fair, and just, grassroot level development. Some of the topics that the blog will specifically address are: poverty reduction, rural development, educational issues, social empowerment, post-Tsunami relief and reconstruction, livelihood development, environmental conservation and bio-diversity. 

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Sri Lanka's tsunami aid politics

BBC NEWS South Asia: By Sanjoy Majumder BBC News, rebel-held Sri Lanka

Thirty-two year-old Sinniva takes in a deep breath and surveys his new home in north-eastern Sri Lanka. Row after row of tents stretch before him in the transit camp in Tamil Tiger-controlled Mullaitivu. It is three months since the tsunami struck Sri Lanka and washed away his home and family. "I was staying in a school until now," says the Tamil fishermen. Now he has graduated to a UNHCR-provided all-weather tent. Some others are slightly more lucky. In a neighbouring camp, tsunami victims have been given a simple home made with concrete walls and a thatched roof.

Local volunteers from the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO), closely identified with the Tamil Tigers, guide the new arrivals to their designated tents, cross-checking against a list of names. Although nominally one of several local non-governmental organisations the powerful TRO is an influential player on the ground in rebel-controlled Sri Lanka. And despite the presence and active participation in the relief operation of several international aid agencies, it is the TRO which is widely believed to be calling the shots.

"We were brought here by the TRO in February," says Sundaralingam, 45, as his daughter Nishantini stirs a pot of prawn curry. "They gave us clothes, a suitcase, some rations and other provisions."

Delicate balance

For the 15 or so international aid agencies who have been working in the area since the civil war, tsunami relief work means playing a careful balancing act between the representatives of the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers. While the Sri Lankan government wanted to help channel the aid, the Tigers wanted the aid to be disbursed via the TRO in the rebel areas

Aid workers say this does not hurt their activities in any way. "We've had a long experience in dealing with all sides so we know pretty much whom to deal with and in what circumstances," says Bernard Barrett, information delegate of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

But privately, some aid workers say it is the rebels who are the main players in a part of Sri Lanka where they run their own police force, law courts and banks. "There is definitely a parallel government here, which poses its own delicate problems," one aid worker says.

Little power

The rebels have an active presence in the relief task force, which was launched immediately after the December tsunami to begin carrying out relief and rehabilitation work. The Sri Lankan government also has a representative on the task force - the government agent, as she is known - but the Tamil Tigers insist that Colombo's impact is marginal.

"We are looking after our own affairs," says Maran, the rebels' emergency relief coordinator in Mullaitivu. "The government agent's role is limited." The government agent in Mullaitivu, Emelda Sukumar, has an office just 1km from Maran's.

For someone who represents the federal government, working conditions are barely adequate. ''I have no basic communication facilities here - no landlines, mobile phones, e-mail or fax," she says. Before the tsunami, she would drive two hours south to the government-controlled town of Vavuniya from where she could send a fax or make a phone call. Since the disaster, she has been provided with a satellite phone. Ms Sukumar is quite clear about her role in Mullaitivu. "I am responsible for coordinating all the aid programmes," she says. Outside, her official car displays a UN sticker asking that she be allowed to travel "without let or hindrance".

Political posturing

The Tamil Tigers argue that the area under their control has received almost no government aid and is neglected when compared to the Sinhala-dominated south. "We are happy with the support we are getting from the aid agencies, but not with the government's efforts," Tamil Tiger spokesman Daya Master says. "This is an area which has suffered heavily because of the war and now with the tsunami. So our needs are greater."
But the Sri Lankan government denies that it has discriminated against the rebel-controlled areas. Observers say the main bone of contention is who gets to control the millions of dollars in foreign aid that has poured into Sri Lanka since the tsunami. "While the Sri Lankan government wanted to help channel the aid, the Tigers wanted the aid to be disbursed via the TRO in the rebel areas," one international aid worker said.

International monitors are working to bring the two sides together to set up a "common mechanism" to distribute the tsunami aid. While the Tigers have agreed to the proposal, it is still not clear if it has the government's backing.

But after years of war, the tussle is leaving its mark on the ordinary Tamils living in the relief camps. "They all come and make pledges," says Parameshwari, who lost her husband in the tsunami. "But none of them keep them," she adds bitterly.

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