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Reconstructing peace

Sri Lanka

Broken lives: After 31,000 Sri Lankans deaths in the 2004 tsunami, an estimated quarter of a million are still living in makeshift accommodation while billions of aid dollars sit idle in banks.

JB Russell / Panos / www.panos.co.uk

Tsunami-affected communities in Sri Lanka are being hit again. A year after the disaster that killed 31,000 Sri Lankans, most of the $3 billion in aid donated specifically for tsunami reconstruction lies unused in banks. One of the problems has been a dispute over the administration of funds in the North and East provinces, parts of which are controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) who for more than two decades have been fighting the Government for a separate state. Meanwhile about 250,000 tsunami-affected people in the country’s North, South and East languish in makeshift accommodation not meant for long-term occupation.

Tamil disillusion has been fuelled by new President Mahinda Rajapakse’s election pledge to scrap a Government-LTTE aid-sharing deal that was negotiated by previous President Chandrika Kumaratunga. That agreement is now before courts.

The politicization of tsunami reconstruction has placed added strain on Sri Lanka’s beleaguered peace process. In the two decades before a Norwegian-brokered truce in 2002, 65,000 people died in the civil war between the Government and the LTTE. (The Tamils whom the LTTE claim to represent form 12.6 per cent of the population, while 74 per cent are Sinhalese. Some 7.1 per cent of the total are Muslims.)

The new President – who aligned himself with Sinhalese nationalist parliamentary groups just before the November election – now stresses that he wants the rebuilding of lives affected by war and tsunami in the North and East to take place alongside ‘a new peace process’. To this end he has set up a new Reconstruction and Development Agency to replace all previous relief and reconstruction agencies, the head of which is reported to have friendly contacts with the Tigers.

President Rajapakse has also invited the opposition United National Party and Muslims to participate in peace talks. Muslims, who have frequently clashed with the LTTE, are the largest ethnic group in the Eastern Province (where half the tsunami-affected families live).

This inclusiveness marks a departure from the previous bipartisan approach to peace talks in which consultations took place only between Government and LTTE. As a consequence, it could strengthen the overall peace process. But it has done little to bring the rebels any closer to the negotiating table. In December 2005 – just two weeks after Rajapakse assumed office – two landmine attacks in the North killed 15 soldiers of the Sri Lanka army. It was the worst violence since the ceasefire, which the Nordic truce monitors fear is now in serious jeopardy.

During the election the LTTE prevented voters from exercising their vote in areas they controlled, thereby ensuring the defeat of ‘peace candidate’ Ranil Wickramasinghe. Shortly before the December attacks, LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran said he would ‘intensify the struggle for self-determination’ if the new Government did not come up with a ‘reasonable’ political solution by 2006. Some have interpreted this as a threat to resume war.

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