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Faith, Hope and Charity

The much anticipated international donor conference for Sri Lanka concluded in Kandy this week. The central issue of the preceding weeks has, quite rightly, been the formation of a joint mechanism for aid distribution between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers. Despite the - sometimes explicit - pressure from leading donor states and agencies, the joint mechanism, which had predictably become mired in Sinhala politics, failed to materialise before the meeting. There are several reasons for this, not least a failure to agree the structure and responsibility/power distributions of the mechanism. But the overriding difficulty has been the vehement resistance of the Janatha Vimulthi Perumana (JVP), the key parliamentary ally of President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). The JVP’s blanket opposition to any deal with the LTTE remains. President Kumaratunga did manage to get the Marxist-cum-ultranationalists to stay mute for the duration of the international delegates’ stay on the island (though Sri Lanka’s equally fanatical Buddhist clergy managed to embarrass her both on the streets and within the conference chamber). But she has by no means persuaded them to support the principle of sharing aid. It remains to be seen whether weekend press reports suggesting the JVP is wavering – at least on its threat to quit the ruling coalition and bring down the government if it signs the joint mechanism – are borne out. There is no cause for optimism: the ‘compromise’ changes reportedly sought by the JVP emasculates the joint mechanism, ensuring its rejection by the LTTE instead.



The Tamil community has however been heartened by international donors reiterated emphasis on the importance of progress on peace to pave the way for aid disbursement. It is clear that some donors are pursuing their own interests, marginalizing the need for a permanent and equitable solution to Sri Lanka’s protracted ethnic question, in the process. Nonetheless, the Norwegian peace initiative has arguably received a welcome fillip in the wake of the Kandy conference. The generous pledges made this year– and reiterated this week – by international donors have boosted hopes amongst the conflict – and tsunami – shattered peoples of the Northeast. In particular, many donors’ clear emphasis on the importance of equitable distribution of their aid on the basis of actual need has reinforced their optimism.



On the other hand, the less than unequivocal stands taken by some donors has raised anxieties that the Sinhala-dominated state is, despite its unashamed discrimination against the peoples of the Northeast in the wake of the December tsunami, going to soon receive substantial inflows of unconditional aid with which it can develop the south whilst ignoring the Tamils. These anxieties, moreover, are heightened by President Kumaratunga’s continuing prevarication over the joint mechanism. Her assertions before the international donor community this week that she would sign a deal with the LTTE irrespective of the Sinhala nationalists’ opposition are, of course, encouraging. But there is deep scepticism that she would be able to – even if she wished to – take on the JVP, the Buddhist clergy and the now thoroughly inflamed sentiments in the Sinhala south to do so. And, as we warned last month, Kumaratunga has demonstrated her duplicity many times in the past eight years. Action, not words, must therefore be the acid test. In the meantime, some donors’ manifest eagerness to begin disbursing aid through Sri Lanka’s state machinery will simply embolden the Sinhala right, encourage Kumaratunga to prevaricate further and, thus, ultimately undermine the peace process.



The Norwegian peace process has been underwritten by the international community’s united resolve. The ethnic conflict has raged for over two decades because of key international actors’ unquestioned acceptance of the liberal posturing of the strident and heavily armed theocracy that Sri Lanka is. As we – and other voices from all sides of Sri Lanka’s political and ethnic divides – have repeatedly pointed out, tensions are again rising, fuelled by a vicious shadow war in the east, continuing military occupation in the Tamil areas, and, perhaps most importantly, by Colombo’s undisguised weapons procurements. As the LTTE itself warned last week, a renewed war would be protracted, bloody and utterly destructive, fuelled as it would be by an acute despair that the seemingly false promise of the past few years would precipitate. But to the Sinhala-Buddhist extremists wrapped in their ‘just war’ doctrine, this would be of little consequence. The international community’s united resolve and commitment to equitable aid distribution is thus crucial to preventing them – and likeminded forces – gradually tipping Sri Lanka into the abyss.