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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. 

Friday, November 25, 2005

Tsunami village highlights Sri Lanka tensions

Telegraph: 17/11/2005" By Peter Foster in Peraliya

On one level it is a petty village squabble. But almost a year after the Boxing Day tsunami struck, killing 40,000 people, tiny Peraliya's problems could represent those of the whole country.

It was in Peraliya, on Sri Lanka's southern coast, that the tsunami swamped a passenger train killing 1,500 and destroying every house in its path. Some called the place "Sri Lanka's ground zero".

After the tsunami, however, came aid and sympathy which, while rebuilding houses, schools and clinics, left many villagers bickering among themselves.

Visitors to the site, where three carriages stand as a reminder of the disaster, are greeted by a group of women. Each has a story to tell and all are after one thing: money.

One, Sujatha, 51, is ready with a packet of documents and photographs showing the property and family members she lost, including a son.

Soon others are joining in the chorus of misery, all with desperate stories of financial loss and bereavement.

But as tourists put their hands in their pockets - and most do - another voice warns that such generosity may be misplaced.

Alappu Darunadasa, Peraliya's self-styled village chief, accuses the women of behaving "like beggars". Some, he adds, even exaggerate their losses in the hope of receiving a more generous donation. The women call Alappu a cheat and liar, pointing at the only two-storey house in the village - his - and accusing him of embezzling part of a million-rupee (£5,650) Peraliya trust fund to build it.

Alappu vigorously denies the charge, saying the fund's accounts can be inspected and the money is to be spent on a maternity clinic to benefit "all the people of Peraliya, not just these women".

At the national level, Sri Lanka's politics and the post-tsunami aid effort are just as short of harmony. Today, the country votes in a presidential election billed as a choice between "peace" and "war", and divisions over aid and ethnic tensions between Sinhalese and Tamils return to the surface.

The ceasefire signed in 2002 to end the 20-year civil war that claimed 65,000 lives looks increasingly fragile. Tamil factions are pursuing a campaign of violence and assassinations that culminated in the killing of the foreign minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar, in August.

For all the world's generosity - the £1.8 billion pledged in aid was enough to rebuild the damage to Sri Lanka twice over - the money appears to have heightened, not healed, political divisions.

Attempts to share aid with areas controlled by the separatist Tamil Tigers caused Sinhalese hardliners to quit the coalition government.

The two main candidates for president reflect a split down the middle, with polls suggesting that the winner could be decided by as few as 200,000 votes from an electorate of 13 million.

On one side is the moderate, Ranil Wickremesinghe, a former prime minister who brokered the 2002 ceasefire and is described as the "Peace Candidate" for pledging a deal to give Tamils autonomy in a federal Sri Lanka.

His overtures have met with a cool response from an increasingly bellicose Tigers' leadership which has ordered a boycott of the election.

However, Mr Wickremesinghe still argues that resolving the Tamil question is essential to economic revival.

To his rival, the sitting prime minister, Mahinda Rajapakse, such concessions amount to a selling out of the majority Sinhalese people.

Called the "war candidate" by some, Mr Rajapakse has stoked up nationalist sentiments, allying himself in an ultra-nationalist coalition with Sri Lanka's monks and the extremist Sinhalese party, the JVP.

In his final speech before polling day, Mr Rajapakse, who also faces claims of misappropriating tsunami funds, summed up a choice facing Sri Lanka in the kind of language appealing to Sinhalese hardliners for whom Tamils are Hindu "aliens" in an historically Buddhist land.

He said: "On one side there is the force of patriotic citizens who stand for national identity, on the other is the force hostile to national culture... kicking aside everything indigenous in order to serve the alien interests."

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