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Monitor Duty

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The signing last Friday of the joint mechanism for tsunami aid by representatives of the Sri Lankan state and the Liberation Tigers marks the welcome crossing of a threshold in the island’s politics. This is not to say that there can be great expectations of the Post-Tsunami Operation Management Structure (P-TOMS) itself – as those familiar with Sri Lanka’s legacy of abortive agreements know, signing a deal is one thing, implementing it quite another. Nevertheless, the document does represent a formal recognition of today’s ground realities: the LTTE and the state are administering different parts of the islands and their collaboration is a prerequisite for the international community’s developmental ambitions in Sri Lanka to succeed. The agreement’s explicit endorsement and welcome by the United States and India this week underlines the ideational framework within which international donors and lenders are now operating. Though disparate – even diverging – interests are at play amongst its constituents, the international community is playing a critical, ‘hand on’ role in compelling Sri Lanka down the road to peace. As we have argued before, it is international resolve that has forced President Chandrika Kumaratunga to ignore the Sinhala nationalists and the Buddhist clergy and sign the P-TOMS.

Paradoxically, given that it signifies a joint effort to help all of Sri Lanka’s peoples and regions, the P-TOMS agreement has polarised Sri Lanka’s political forces and to a considerable extent, its ethnic communities. Not unexpectedly, however. Of course, as in competitive political system there are individual and party ambitions at play. But a close examination of various actors’ positions on the P-TOMS reveals the ethnic faultline around which Sri Lanka’s politics operates. No southern actor has welcomed the P-TOMS even though it has been deemed, by the donors themselves, as key to unlocking the three billion US dollars pledged in May. No southern actor has echoed international optimism that the deal will pave the way to renewed peace talks. Indeed, no southern actor sees the P-TOMS as a positive step for reconciliation or progress in Sri Lanka. Instead, a sense of dismay - resentment at best, anguished rage at worst – is the dominant mood in the south.

The LTTE has signed the agreement, but it doesn’t conceal its scepticism. The Tamil media has collectively raised doubts about Colombo’s sincerity in signing the P-TOMS. That this mere administrative agreement has produced such turmoil and controversy in the south does not bode well for a peace deal. The guns have been silent for four years, yet the vehemence of Sri Lanka’s antagonisms is undiminished. Indeed, the spoilers are already mobilising. Sinhala nationalists, including the Janatha Vimukthi Perumana (JVP) have, amidst their street protests, promptly launched a legal challenge against the P-TOMS. We doubt this idiotic exercise will have any impact, but it does underline the mood in the south. The Sinhala media have condemned the deal. Even the main opposition United National Party (UNP) – the darling of the international advocates of a liberal peace in Sri Lanka – has criticised the deal on the basis it disadvantages the Sinhalese. In the meantime, the Muslim parties have alarmed their community by suggesting the P-TOMS marginalizes them – whilst preparing to scramble for the several seats allocated to the Muslims in it.

The Buddhist clergy, which came out strongly against the agreement are now ambivalent, in the wake of President Kumaratunga’s assurances. But herein lies the dilemma. If the P-TOMS is implemented as agreed, then the Sinhala-Buddhists will be enraged. If, on the other hand, Sri Lanka’s infamous bureaucratic lethargy unravels the deal and blocks the reconstruction of the tsunami- and conflict-affected areas, the island’s simmering ethnic acrimonies will deepen. The US echoed Tamil doubts when it noted this week: “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.” Although it remains to be seen what happens, international donors and lenders do have the capacity to hold Sri Lanka to the agreement by phasing disbursement and pegging it to equitable expenditure on the ground. Yes, there is great need across the island. But to ensure all communities and all areas receive their fair share, and to ensure that developmental disadvantages across the island are erased, the functioning of the P-TOMS must be monitored continuously.

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