The natural disaster that struck the southern United States last week reminded the watching world of the power of nature’s wrath. Like the tsunami that wreaked havoc around the Indian Ocean on Boxing day, 2004, Hurricane Katrina claimed more lives than even the most pessimistic of predictions suggested.
However, more disturbing than the destruction wrought by the hurricane were the collapse of social order and the emergence of violent anarchy in its wake. As the world’s attention focused on the survivors of the disaster, reports of looting, rape and murder started to resonate around the world. The most shocking revelations were of conditions within the Louisiana Superdome, the giant sports stadium that was transformed into an impromptu refugee camp.
Of course similar scenes of death, destruction and displacement were reported in parts of South Asia when the Tsunami struck last year. The worst hit region was Aceh, which witnessed the most disorderly of recovery operations. For weeks after the disaster struck, food and relief supplies failed to arrive. Clear up operations were delayed further, with corpses littering the region, increasing the spread of disease. In southern Sri Lanka reports of violence amongst refugees, including sexual assaults on women and girls trickled out of state run refugee camps in the south of island. Supplies to the north of the country were disrupted by the now familiar combination of state bureaucracy and structural discriminatory practices within Sri Lanka’s Sinhala dominated government structures.
The donor community’s decision may ultimately choose Sri Lanka’s path: towards peace and stability or renewed war.
Unlike in the civil-war ravaged regions Aceh and Northeast Sri Lanka, the delays in the United States are less likely to have stemmed simply from any discriminatory intent, although some vocal African-American leaders dispute this. Perhaps way too slowly for many, Washington has responded determinedly to deliver aid and assist its citizens. These are the actions that one would rightfully expect from a state beholden to act responsibly at times of crisis with regard to its citizens. And this is an aspect of governance that the Sri Lankan state has consistent failed to deliver to the residents of the island’s Northeast. The matter was highlighted most vividly in the aftermath of last December’s tsunami,
Fortunately for tens of thousands of Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese in Sri Lanka’s Northeast, the de facto authority in much of the region, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), rose admirably to the tsunami’s challenge. Having managed refugee and displaced flows during times of war (for example during the evacuation of Jaffna, Kilinochchi and other towns under Sri Lankan military attack), the Tigers proved their competence in managing natural disasters, too. To begin with, the LTTE declared a State of Emergency almost instantly. Within hours of the Tsunami striking their controlled coastlines, the LTTE’s naval units were fishing survivors out of the water. Its ground units were burying corpses and shooting stray dogs to prevent the spread of disease. LTTE troops were assisting aid workers and volunteers in the set up of shelters, the delivery of food and the clean water. Above all, from the very outset, the LTTE’s command and communication network provided much needed coordination for rescue and relief efforts from the Jaffna peninsula to parts of Amparai.
Crucially, the organization bought enough time for the infrastructure of local ad foreign charitable organizations like its relief arm, the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO) to launch a massive emergency relief operation to assist the hundreds of thousands of refugees. Whilst some international bodies voiced – unfounded, as it turned out - concerns over carrying out humanitarian work in the war-torn areas due to the danger of displaced mines, local organizations like the TRO set about their work with a professionalism that undoubtedly save many lives.
Without the timely and efficient intervention of the region’s de facto governing body, the death toll of eighteen thousand could have easily doubled as a result of disease and famine.
The LTTE successfully filled the void of a competent authority in the Northeast.
The Sri Lanka state meanwhile insisted that it was doing its bit for its citizens in the Northeast, whilst both blocking aid and prioritizing the Sinhala dominated south for the international assistance that started to pour in. Once international media and aid workers echoed Tamil protests of neglect, Colombo blamed low ranking government officials for the chauvinist interventions to redirect aid meant for the Northeast to camps in the south.
But the truth is there for all to see. Several months after the Tsunami struck, international aid destined for refugee camps remained either stranded in Colombo airport or stockpiled in Colombo’s port, entangled, many say deliberately, in state bureaucracy.
The contrasting attitudes toward the victims in the North-East ought to provide food for thought to international opinion makers as to the political realities of the island. Tamils had come to expect chauvinistic practices at the hands of successive Sinhala dominated, Buddhist administrations in Colombo. However, for the first time the since the 1983 ethnic pogrom that escalated the ethnic conflict on the island, the world’s press has witnessed the criminal practices of the Sri Lankan state towards the citizens of the Northeast.
It is undoubtedly this realization that led to international donors’ insistence on and aid-sharing mechanism between the government and the LTTE as a condition for the several billion dollars of aid pledged earlier this year. This recognition that the failing Sri Lankan state was more a part of the problem than the solution to the decades long ethnic conflict is long ovedue.
Local organisations like the TRO set about their work with a professionalism that undoubtedly save many lives
The LTTE, for its part, successfully filled the void of a competent authority in the Northeast. Despite the image of the LTTE Colombo has cultivated over the years, the organization rescued and provided relief for people of all ethnic communities. Any analysis into reaching a comprehensive solution to the island’s long running conflict has to account for provision of security and welfare for the citizens of the Northeast.
There are two long-term approaches donors can take. One is to use their aid to work toward the subversion of the LTTE and the reestablishment of the Sri Lankan state’s control over the people of the Northeast, despite Colombo’s callous disregard for the welfare of its Tamil speaking residents. The alternative is to work with the LTTE, the de facto authority in the North-East, which has proved its competence and responsibility towards the residents of areas within its control, to alleviate suffering and improve conditions.
The donor community’s decision may ultimately choose Sri Lanka’s future path: towards peace and stability or towards renewed war, fuelled by intense frustrations stemming from continuous neglect by a remote and callous government and its international allies.