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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. 

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Post-Tsunami Sri Lanka: Swindlers Hold Sway

The Lanka Academic, the official newspaper of LAcNet: "Muttukrishna Sarvananthan, Saturday 14th May 16:30GMT

Courtesy of Economic and Political Weekly, India

Rehabilitation of the tsunami-affected has been beset with numerous problems in Sri Lanka, especially in its North and East Province. This article takes an in-depth look at such efforts in the LTTE-controlled provinces, where relief and compensation has been undone by corruption and used as strategies by different stakeholders to assert their dominance.
[ Discuss this article]

The tsunami that struck Asia on December 26, 2004 left between 30,000 and 40,000 dead, displaced half a million people and destroyed/damaged thousands of houses, schools, hospitals, hotels, public buildings, roads, rail lines, power supplies fully or partially, in Sri Lanka. Geographically, the North and East Province was the worst affected, followed by the Southern and Western Provinces. In terms of deaths and displaced population Eastern Province was the worst affected followed by Southern and Northern Provinces. About 30 per cent of deaths were in Ampara district in the east.

The North and East Province of Sri Lanka comprises eight districts, three in the east (Ampara, Batticaloa and Trincomalee) and five in the north (Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mannar, Mullaitivu and Vavuniya). All three districts in the east and three districts in the north (Jaffna, Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu) were affected by the tsunami. However, Kilinochchi district was only marginally affected.

The worst affected sectors are fisheries, tourism, and small and medium enterprises in the south; fisheries and tourism in the east; and fisheries in the north. The total cost of physical damages caused by the tsunami in Sri Lanka is estimated to be about 1 billion US dollars. The replacement value of these physical damages is expected to cost around $ 1.5 billion. Out of the expected total rehabilitation and reconstruction cost 41 per cent is for the Eastern Province, 29 per cent for the Southern Province, 17 per cent for the Northern Province, and 13 per cent for the Western Province [ADB/JBIC/JICA/WB 2005:22]. By sector, housing is expected to cost 33 per cent of the total, followed by roads (15 per cent), tourism (10 per cent), railways (10 per cent), fisheries (9 per cent), water and sanitation (9 per cent), health (7 per cent), power (5 per cent) and education (3 per cent) (ibid).

The Peoples Liberation Front (JVP) in the south and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam ( LTTE) in the north and east took early action to rescue, and support the victims in emergency relief operations. JVP through its volunteer force largely drawn from the universities, and the LTTE through the Sea Tigers and its NGO arm, viz, Tamils Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO), swung into action immediately after the disaster struck.

The purpose of this research note is to document and disseminate widespread corruption taking place in the delivery of post-tsunami relief, rehabilitation, and reconstruction aid in the north and east so as to facilitate exploration of ways and means to combat or at least minimise such corruption. Several stakeholders, including the government, LTTE, and NGO personnel, are involved in corrupt practices, which is very disturbing.

This research note is based on data derived from existing literature, information collected from secondary sources, and fieldwork carried out in Jaffna, Kilinochchi, and Mullaitivu districts of the North and East Province of Sri Lanka. Fieldwork in LTTE-controlled areas of the Jaffna, Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu districts were carried out between March 10 and 14 and in government-controlled areas of Jaffna district between January and March. Roughly 60 households in Kervil, Kattaikadu, and Maruthenkerny refugee camps in the LTTE-controlled Jaffna district and Kallaru refugee camp in Kilinochchi district were interviewed for this purpose.

Discrepancies in Data

There have been at least three damage and needs assessments undertaken after the tsunami in the last three months: the Task Force for Rebuilding the Nation (TAFREN) of the government of Sri Lanka (GoSL), North-East Needs Assessment (NENA) undertaken by the Planning and Development Secretariat (PDS) of the LTTE, and the Joint Needs Assessment (JNA) undertaken by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC), Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and the World Bank (WB).
From the very beginning the number of affected people, and numbers and values of destroyed/damaged assets have been fluctuating over time and by source of information. For example, according to the district secretariats, the original estimation of affected people in Batticaloa district was estimated to be 1,75,000, which was later upwardly revised to 2,54,000; in Galle district the original list of affected people added to 94,000, later upwardly revised to 1,23,000; in Trincomalee district additional 10,000 families were added to the original list of affected families (Sunday Observer, February 6, 2005: 2). It is important to note that these upward revisions were made after the government announcement that each affected family would receive Lanka rupees 5,000 per month for at least three months.

Another startling discrepancy in data pertains to the number of houses destroyed or damaged. For example, in Ampara district 29,000 houses were destroyed (completely damaged) according to the JNA, whereas according to the NENA only 19,000 houses were destroyed (fully damaged). Similarly, in Jaffna district 12,000 houses were destroyed according to the JNA but only 6,700 according to the NENA. In Kilinochchi district 3,400 houses were destroyed and 4,250 damaged according to the JNA but only 246 destroyed and no damaged houses according to the NENA. In Mullaitivu, according to the JNA 10,600 houses were destroyed and 5,300 damaged, but only 5,000 were destroyed and 400 damaged according to the NENA [ADB/JBIC/JICA/WB 2005; PDS 2005]. Mostly differences between the JNA data and the NENA data are much higher than the differences between the TAFREN data and the NENA data.

There could be two plausible explanations for the huge discrepancy between the JNA and NENA data on houses destroyed and damaged. One could be that different stakeholders provided the JNA or NENA team members misleading data. Or else it could have been a conscious effort by the JNA to inflate the number of houses destroyed/damaged so as to create more business for the donor agencies, because reconstruction of houses is going to be the single largest cost of reconstruction (one-third of the total).

As with other countries following the occurrence of natural disasters, there are many undeserving claimants for relief goods, cash grants, and shelter throughout the country. There are numerous cases of unaffected families being provided relief, cash grants, and houses due to political patronage. This type of fraud is higher in the north and east than in other parts of the country due to organised attempt by the LTTE to plunder the state and the donors in the name of tsunami rehabilitation. In the north and east there are already conflict-affected populations without any compensation from either the state or the donors. Naturally they are envious of all the attention paid to tsunami-affected people. Hence, it is not morally wrong to incorporate conflict-affected people also when providing new houses, for example, for the tsunami-affected people.

However, what seems to be largely happening in the N and E is that loyalty and strategic importance to the LTTE takes precedence over conflict-affected or tsunami-affected in the disbursement of relief and rehabilitation goodies including housing. For instance, inmates of refugee camps in Kervil and Kattaikadu pointed out that affected people in Vettilaikerni (which has a strategically important Sea Tiger base) have been provided LKR 5,000 per family monthly cash grant but not them. Besides, inmates in Kattaikadu refugee camp claimed that the entire population of Nithiyavattai village (which was apparently not affected by the tsunami) are being housed in their camp and given priority on relief goods, cash, and housing. In the refugee camp in Kallaru tsunami-affected coastal population from Chuntikulam are housed. In addition, non-affected people from Nagenthirapuram village are also provided shelter, relief goods and cash grants. Similarly, Maruthenkerny refugee camp also accommodates tsunami-affected as well as non-affected people, the latter receiving favourable treatment.

Hence, the pattern emerging out of the foregoing examples is that people closer to the LTTE are getting priority and favoured treatment whether affected by the tsunami or not in the LTTE-controlled areas of the north. Particularly, families of martyrs are given the most favoured treatment. Similar favouritism and political patronage is reported in government-controlled areas of the N and E as well. This political patronage is not confined to N and E only. There are, of course, reports of similar prioritisation and political favouritism in the south as well.

Pilferage of Relief Coupons

The GoSL has provided relief coupons for each tsunami-affected person throughout the country. These coupons are provided for 34 weeks. Each affected person is entitled to LKR 375 worth of relief goods in kind every week. Out of this total, LKR 175 worth of food items and LKR 200 worth of non-food items can be purchased at cooperative shops.

There are widespread allegations of pilferage of individual relief coupon entitlements in the LTTE-controlled areas where fieldwork was carried out. Apparently, there is no uniformity in this pilferage. In some refugee camps eight weeks relief coupons of each person in the household have been cut off before distribution. In some others six weeks or three weeks relief coupons have been cut off. But there are refugee camps in which no pilferage of relief coupons have taken place from some households. For example, in Maruthenkerny refugee camp relief coupons of tsunami-affected people have been pilfered, but not from the non-affected inmates in the camp.

Food items provided for the relief coupons include rice or wheat flour, pulses, sugar and milk powder. Ironically, though Kilinochchi is a major rice-producing district in the country, people in Kallaru refugee camp are provided only wheat flour and not rice. The reason for this irony could be that LTTE has old stock of wheat flour to dispose off. Since last September the LTTE has monopolised supply of wheat flour to bakers and retailers in Jaffna district where 6,00,000 people live. Inmates of Kallaru refugee camp further complained that for a few weeks, wheat flour supplied to them was outdated, i e, the sell by date was September 2004.
In Kattaikadu refugee camp people complained about irregular supply of food items, and only LKR 100 worth of food items and LKR 75 worth of non-food items being offered. The rest LKR 200 worth of goods are believed to be appropriated by the LTTE. Further, in many camps affected people have not been able to purchase non-food items (worth LKR 200 per person per week) due to non-availability. The cooperative shops from which the affected people are expected to purchase these goods seem to be always out of stock. Cooperatives in the N and E are indirectly managed by the LTTE through proxies. Many inmates feel this could be a ploy to deprive them of their due share of non-food relief items.

Anecdotal evidence in government- controlled Jaffna district also reveals such pilferage of relief coupons from tsunami-affected people. Furthermore, in the Eastern Province also such malpractices are reported, both from government-controlled and LTTE-controlled areas, though these could not be verified. Some affected people also confessed that they were selling part of their food relief in order to purchase subsidiary food requirements such as coconut, salt, onions, chillies, etc.

Underpayment of Cash Grants

The GoSL made an initial payment of LKR 2,500 to all tsunami-affected households in the country to purchase cooking utensils during the first month after the tsunami. Anecdotal evidence in the government-controlled areas of the Jaffna district, i e, Vadamarachchi North and East, reveal that many households received only LKR 1,500. It was reported that LTTE had ordered the local government officials to withhold LKR 1,000 per household and disburse only the balance LKR 1,500, thereby appropriating LKR 1,000 per household.
However, such underpayment of cash grant did not seem to have taken place in LTTE-controlled areas in the north. Such underpayment was also not reported in the east, either in government-controlled or LTTE-controlled areas.

Most tsunami-affected people in the camps where fieldwork was conducted have received semi-permanent homes and only a small number of people are still camping in tents. However, in Kervil the affected people were asked by the TRO to do their own roofing and that they would reimburse the cost in due course of time. However, inmates complained that they had not received the promised payment so far. Moreover, there are also differences in types of semi-permanent houses constructed in different places. Semi-permanent houses constructed by TRO in Kervil, Kattaikadu, and Maruthenkerny have a concrete floor (with no foundation), and concrete walls up to only three feet height. Then it is elevated by slim iron bars with thatched roof. The door is made out of tin sheet. Whereas the semi-permanent houses built by Sewa Lanka (southern-based national NGO) in Kallaru refugee camp have a stronger foundation floor and concrete walls right up to the roof, which is thatched. Besides, they also have a wooden door.

Needless to say, the tsunami-affected people in Kervil, Kattaikadu and Maruthenkerny refugee camps are not satisfied with their shoddy semi-permanent houses. The inmates doubt it would have cost the TRO LKR 45,000 for each house. Further, inmates have not been consulted at all before the construction of these semi-permanent houses. This lack of consultation with the affected people was also highlighted in the Report of Verification Mission to LTTE-controlled Areas by a small group of bilateral donor representatives in February 2005.

Adulation of the LTTE

Despite the ground realities that exist of systematic and institutionalised pillage of an impoverished community some writers in Sri Lanka and abroad are praising both the LTTE and the TRO for their excellent or efficient deeds in re-establishing normalcy in the aftermath of the tsunami in the North and East Province. Here I critically assess two such recent writings.

Stokke and Shanmugaratnam1 (2005: 10), for example, naively believe that the LTTE is a parallel state power with its own military, police, judiciary, public administration, and revenue-raising structures. The reality is that LTTE does not have parallel state structures and the people whom they purport to rule have not given them any state power. It certainly has a powerful military structure, but nothing else. The so-called administrative division, forest protection division, health division, education division, etc, are subservient to the military wing and hardly provide any public service. Head offices of these divisions are showpieces for the consumption of the international community, naive journalists, and of course naive academics. Usually what these various divisions of the LTTE do is to influence the corresponding institutions of the government to get things done according to the LTTEs priorities and needs. But, the finance/revenue division and the customs of the LTTE are real. However, taxes and tariffs these divisions collect are mere extortions, for Tamil people have not given any authority to the LTTE to collect these taxes and tariffs. Further, the police force of the LTTE is not intended to maintain law and order but to terrorise the population living in areas under its control. Moreover, LTTEs law courts are mere kangaroo courts not recognised by vast majority of people living in areas under its control.

The head offices of these LTTE divisions are located along the main A9 highway in Kilinochchi town to serve as propaganda symbols to the donor community, overseas journalists, and of course overseas academics. Any intelligent person visiting Kilinochchi would have noticed that these head offices have dark window/door glasses so that nobody can notice what is going on inside. Actually these head offices are mostly empty with no or very few personnel, furniture, and equipment. Even the economic arm of the LTTE, namely, the PDS and the NGO arm of the LTTE, namely, Tamils Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO) buildings have dark window/door glasses and/or blinds so as to hide the emptiness of the so-called head offices. Being a military organisation LTTE is not nave to have important infrastructure and documents in these highly visible big buildings, because if the civil war resumes then these head offices would become easy targets for the adversary.

Soon after the tsunami the head of TRO2 boasted that it has 3,500 permanent staff and 8,000 volunteers (Virakesari, January 6, 2005: 1). To the best of the authors knowledge these numbers are false and serves only propaganda. The TRO has so far failed to demonstrate the authenticity of these numbers to the public. But TRO head office building in Kilinochchi could be the biggest NGO building in Sri Lanka. Built in 2003 it is one of the greatest peace dividends to the LTTE thanks to the Royal Norwegian government.

It is true as Stokke and Shanmugaratnam (2005:10) claim that the LTTEs informal control of the Sri Lankan state structures extends to government-controlled areas of the north and east as well. This was made possible by the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed between the government and the LTTE in February 2002 and not because of acceptance of the LTTEs role by the Tamil community, let alone other communities living in the N and E. Thus, LTTEs informal control of the Sri Lankan state bureaucracy in the N and E is not by any democratic representation or means but by instilling fear among the bureaucrats. It is well documented that under normal circumstances LTTE uses cohesion in the Tamil diaspora to collect money for their cause (see for example La 2004). In the aftermath of the tsunami the LTTE and TRO cruelly capitalised on the massive sympathy wave sweeping the Tamil diaspora to mobilise huge amount of money. It was reported that TRO has mobilised US$ 500 million from various sources including the Tamil diaspora [Jayasekara 2005].

However, there is no evidence of the money collected abroad remitted to Sri Lanka.
Tamil people know only of LTTE efficiency in killings, extortions in the name of taxes and tariffs [Sarvananthan 2003], and propaganda (spreading falsehood, outright lies and misinformation). LTTEs inefficiency is well known to the Tamil people living in the North and East, but perhaps not to some overseas academics. Has the LTTE ever shown accounts for various illegal taxes it levies on the Tamil people in Sri Lanka and abroad? When did LTTE or TRO account for the monies collected after the tsunami?

Moreover, Stokke and Shanmugaratnam (2005:11) conclude by saying As before the tsunami, the critical question is whether the Sri Lankan political elite will be able to overcome their fragmentation and constructively engage with the challenges of a multi-ethnic society. It is well said, but what they fail to say is that equally LTTE has to do away with its fascist tendencies and transform itself into a democratic political movement. Peace has to be a joint effort by both the GoSL and the LTTE.

Shanmugaratnam (2005: 13) quite rightly complains about the politicisation and centralisation of relief and rehabilitation efforts by the government and cautions about the adverse effects it would have on the peace process. But, what about politicisation and centralisation of relief and rehabilitation by both the LTTE and TRO in the N and E (as noted above)? Further, Shanmugaratnam (2005: 13) goes on to complain about the militarisation of relief operations. It is quite a normal practice around the world that during natural disasters unarmed security forces, sometimes even from abroad, are called upon to partake in rescue and relief operations. The government ordered unarmed security forces to take over refugee camps in the east to provide security to relief goods and orphaned children who were under threat of abduction by the LTTE. For instance, UNICEF has documented at least 106 cases of abduction of children in the N and E who have lost one or both parents to the tsunami (www. colombopage.com). There are hundreds more unreported cases of child abduction after the tsunami.

Further, in Mullaitivu, Kilinochchi, and LTTE-controlled parts of Vadamarachchi east it was the Sea Tigers who led the rescue and relief operations. Besides, it was reported that the Sea Tigers were good enough to pay LKR 1,000 per family in Mullaitivu as consolation immediately after the devastation caused by the tsunami. Moreover, no NGO, INGO, or UN agency was allowed into Mullaitivu to provide relief for more than a week after the tsunami. Amidst these ground realities, Shanmugaratnams complaint about militarisation of relief and rehabilitation operations by the government smacks of partisanship.


Corruption in post-tsunami aid delivery has been reported from all parts of Sri Lanka. Besides, many actors in the field are involved in corrupt practices. In the south such corruption is due to personal greed of individual government or NGO/INGO personnel. In the N and E corruption is mainly due to instigation by the LTTE. In the east, government, LTTE, and NGO/INGO personnel are all involved in corrupt practices. However, in the north it appears that more or less corruption is monopolised by the LTTE (mostly through government officials and of course through the TRO as well).

Currently, there is a backlash against the NGO/INGO community in Sri Lanka as a result of reported corruption and suspected religious conversions taking place in the aftermath of the tsunami. Soon after the tsunami the Sri Lanka customs detected a few containers from abroad with military items sent in the pretext of tsunami relief items. These detections included two disassembled helicopters, which were reportedly sent to two faith-based NGOs in the north. There were also reports of few containers with military items (not arms and ammunitions) sent to TRO from abroad, which is not disputed by the TRO so far (as reported by several local papers).
In mid-March the LTTE decreed that no goldsmith could take gold or jewellery purchased in Colombo or elsewhere (including from abroad) to Jaffna. The goldsmiths in Jaffna were ordered to purchase gold only from the LTTE to make jewellery. Thus, the LTTE monopolised the wholesale trade in gold in the north. It is suspected that this decree was made in order to dispose off jewellery pilfered from the victims of tsunami in the north.

It is high time the GoSL and international community grapple with the reality of post-tsunami N and E and ensure that all aid to the region reaches the intended persons without fear or favour. The interviewees during the fieldwork wanted to get aid directly rather than through the GoSL, LTTE, or the NGOs such as TRO. Hence, the donor agencies should device an innovative mechanism whereby they could deliver aid to the affected people directly, fairly, and equitably, because both the LTTE and local government machinery are incapable of undertaking this task. The tsunami-affected people in the north and east (in LTTE-controlled areas as well) fully deserve aid delivered directly with, without or in spite of the LTTE.


[Opinions expressed herein are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect that of the organisation the author is associated with.] 1 Readers may be interested to know that both these authors are professors at Norwegian universities. 2 He uses just one name 'Regi' to hide his identity.


Asian Development Bank/Japan Bank for International Cooperation / Japan International Cooperation Agency / World Bank (2005): Sri Lanka 2005 Post-Tsunami Recovery Programme: Preliminary Damage and Needs Assessment, Colombo, January. Jayasekara, Bandula (2005): 'TRO and Tsunami', South Asia Intelligence Review, Vol 3, No 37, March 28, New Delhi, http://www.satp.org/ La, John (2004), 'Forced Remittances in Canada's Tamil Enclaves', Peace Review, Vol 16, No 3, September, pp 379-85. Planning and Development Secretariat (2005): Post-Tsunami Reconstruction: Needs Assessment for the North-East, January, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, Kilinochchi. Sarvananthan, Muttukrishna (2003): 'Economic Revival in North and East Sri Lanka: What Are the Impediments?', Economic and Political Weekly, Vol 38, No 19, May 10-16, Mumbai, pp1844-50. (2005): 'Fuelling the Fire: How Some Donors Are Undoing Conflict Resolution in Sri Lanka, Working Paper 4, Point Pedro Institute of Development, Point Pedro (Sri Lanka), forthcoming. Shanmugaratnam, N (2005): 'The Spectre of a 'Second Tsunami' in Sri Lanka: What Can We Do to Prevent a Human-made Disaster?', Polity, Vol 2, No 3, Social Scientists' Association, Colombo, pp 12-14. Stokke, Kristian and N Shanmugaratnam (2005): 'From Relief and Rehabilitation to Peace in Sri Lanka?' Polity, Vol 2, No 3, Social Scientists' Association, Colombo, pp 10-11.
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