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Silver Lining

This week marks the first anniversary of the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami which killed 230,000 people, including over 30,000 Sri Lankans. The outpouring of international sympathy and assistance that followed the disaster was as impressive as the numerous individual and communal acts of courage and benevolence undertaken around the ocean’s rim. Hope sprang in the wake of the deadly waves. It came to fruition in Indonesia where a permanent peace deal is now being rolled out – though it remains to be seen whether the promise of a better future for the Acehnese will truly emerge. Not so in Sri Lanka which is instead on the road to war. The very real possibility of communal and ethnic harmony that only catastrophic tragedy can usher in was squandered by the Sinhala ruling elite which, barely had the waters receded, leapt to again marginalize the Tamils, Muslims and even border Sinhalese of the Northeast. International aid was blocked and diverted to the south. Aid from the Tamil Diaspora was also blocked and sometimes appropriated.

The Sri Lankan state was visibly overwhelmed by the disaster. But the shameless wrangling in Colombo about whether aid – and that’s international donations, not Sri Lanka’s own cash – should be shared with LTTE proved the durability of Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinism once and for all. And the moralising about ‘one government’ that accompanied international vacillation ignored the state’s legacy in the Northeast– a decades long embargo, deliberate lack of investment and military administration. The crunch came, of course, with the P-TOMS, the stillborn, though internationally lauded, joint mechanism which was consigned to the dustbin last month after Sri Lanka’s new President took charge. Even the Sinhala people have been let down, as the Auditor General’s interim report outlined. Corruption, inefficiency and expansion of Sri Lanka’s patron-client networks has ensured little good, save that effected by NGOs and other non-state actors, has come about.

As far as the Tamils are concerned, the tsunami has rammed home a lesson we ought to have already learnt: we must manage our own affairs. Future threats stemming from nature’s compulsions or political exigencies cannot be adequately faced otherwise. In this regard, the tsunami built intangibles as it destroyed buildings and people. Tamils, local and Diaspora, came together as never before to alleviate suffering. The leadership of the LTTE proved invaluable in this endeavour. Our sense of being a nation has thus been strengthened, as have the administrative mechanisms to administer our homeland. Even as we remember the enormous loss of life in our homeland, we must resolve, to use that now clichéd expression, to build back better. We must, in short, prepare to take care of ourselves.