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False Alarm

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The signing last month of the joint mechanism for tsunami aid by representatives of the Sri Lankan state and the Liberation Tigers had raised hopes amongst the people of the Northeast that international assistance could finally begin flowing and assist the reconstruction of their war- and tsunami- shattered communities. Unfortunately the Post-Tsunami Operation Management Structure (P-TOMS) has almost immediately run into difficulties. The decision by the United States not to direct its assistance through the P-TOMS is regrettable. Whilst there is an expectation other donors will to use the structure, the US decision will no doubt embolden those opposed to mechanism to step up their efforts to derail it. In the meantime, the Muslim community has been thoroughly alarmed by erroneous claims by some Muslim leaders that the P-TOMS has marginalized them and that as a consequence the regions, amongst the hardest hit on the island, will be neglected in the reconstruction efforts.

To begin with, the P-TOMS, which has received the firm support of Sri Lanka’s donor community, is an administrative structure, not an agreement to share political power. But it is an important agreement drawn up under international scrutiny, with both short and long term objectives. The donors have made clear their hopes, indeed their expectations, that the joint mechanism will pave the way for peace talks and, thereby, a permanent end to Sri Lanka’s conflict. Noting that “if implemented properly, this mechanism will help to ensure efficient and equitable reconstruction assistance to those whose lives were devastated by the South Asia tsunami in the north and east of Sri Lanka,” the US itself observed: “we hope the experience the two sides will gain by working together will help to build confidence and lead to progress in the broader peace process.”

The main controversy that has erupted in the wake of the P-TOM’s signing is the claim by some Muslim leaders that the agreement has neglected the needs of the Muslim community. This serious accusation has understandably alarmed Muslim residents of the Northeast, whose regions were amongst the island’s hardest hit. The charge is simply not true. The P-TOMS has been months in the making, under Norwegian facilitation and international scrutiny. It is not only the peoples – Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese - of the Northeast, but the international community, particularly the donors, who want an equitable distribution of aid. Although the agreement was negotiated and signed by the Sri Lankan state and the LTTE (on the basis these are the two actors controlling territory on the tsunami-ravaged island) the longer term objectives of peace and ethnic harmony have been integral to the agreement’s formation. Which is why each level of decision making has strong Muslim representation. The point was stressed by the European Union when it welcomed the P-TOMS: “the EU is particularly pleased that it will involve all stakeholders, in particular the Muslim community.” UN Secretary General Kofi Annan was also explicit, saying he “welcomes the inclusion of the Muslim minority in the committees that will administer the funds.” Indeed, the structure of the PTOMS gives the Muslim community such influence that it simply cannot function whilst their seats in the structure are not filled: a de-facto veto.

However, after remaining silent through the months of negotiation, some Muslim leaders, particularly Mr. Rauf Hakeem of the splintered Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), have been making wild accusations of a deliberate marginalisation of the Muslims in the agreement. This has understandably stirred fear and anger amongst Muslims, compelling some community leaders to agitate against the P-TOMS. Even Ms. Feiral Ashraff of the National Unity Alliance (NUA) - which is part of the government that signed the deal - has also protested. Mr. Hakeem’s allegations are knowingly incorrect and inflammatory. Taking a leaf out of the Sinhala chauvinists’ book, he has sought to whip up communal tensions between Muslims and Tamils in a bid to bolster his diminishing standing within his community, particularly in the east. Observers of Sri Lanka’s politics are well aware of the serious divisions with the SLMC that have allowed the NUA – itself a splinter from the SLMC – the centre ground in Muslim affairs. Mr. Hakeem’s self-interested rabble-rousing is undermining long-standing efforts by various parties, including Muslim religious leaders, the LTTE and ordinary people, to improve communal relations.

The LTTE has invited Muslim leaders to meet and discuss their specific concerns over the P-TOMS and other matters. Rather than cling to notions of immutable LTTE and Tamil hostility to Muslims, responsible Muslim leaders should move to engage with the Tigers and resolve any issues, thereby paving the way not only to the equitable distribution of international assistance, but to the normalising of relations between the two communities and, thereby, towards a permanent peace.

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