Sri Lanka: Looking for political mileage out of a colossal human tragedy?

Muslim Women's Research and Action Forum
Notes by WLUML networker Faizun Zackariya, based on her visit to the East coast (28-29-30th Dec) especially to the villages of Karativu, Sainthamaruthu, Kalmunai Kudi, Kalmunai, Pandiruppu and Maruthumanai in the Amparai district.
In a country torn by ethnic war that has lasted more than twenty years and in a region where internal strife has been intense, the North East of Sri Lanka had already been devastated by military operations.
Here the war-torn people’s endurance has been tested to the maximum while the longest ceasefire in the history of the conflict is yet to bring them the long promised peace dividend. Displacement and livelihood failures caused by the war had impoverished more than a million people. The tsunami disaster has only compounded the already destitute situation and thrown up a multitude of problems which need to be addressed anew.

Amidst the outpouring of human emotions and sympathies for the affected people all over the country, a heartening phenomenon seen throughout these last seven days has been the immense mobilization at the people’s level - those who have come forward in their voluntary capacities to help in this humanitarian endeavour with relief and other forms of assistance such as clearing concrete/debris and recovering dead bodies. The people (irrespective of ethnic differences) acted fast, stepped in before the government, which has been very slow to act in this moment of national emergency.

Government presence in the form of immediate assistance was practically non-existent in these areas. And when the government did put its act together, the devastation in the South caught the attention of the Sinhala politicians fast. For days on end the state media relayed the destruction in the southern part of Sri Lanka. The Sinhala south has remained the vote bank and a scrambling space for the major parties including the JVP. The tsunami disaster was then another grim reminder that the Sinhala constituency had to be immediately taken on board. The devastation of the south was like a blade struck deep into the sensibilities of these politicians and party leaders who went on lamenting for days on end of the calamity, using the state media to the maximum. The devastation in the already war ravaged North East was not a top priority until civil society groups and individuals who had visited these areas highlighted the bias in the media reports.

Some politicians even made statements to the effect that a tragedy has struck the south almost erasing from their historical memory that the people in the North East had coped with tragedy after tragedy for the last 20 years!

At another level, we saw that some businessmen and traders who had decided to use this as an opportunity to make quick profits by creating scarcities and refusing to sell their goods. We even saw shops completely closed in some areas though there were enough food stocks in store. Then there were the looters who lost no time to get to the disaster spots to grab jewellery and whatever valuables they could get hold of. Recent reports also reach us that there were cases of rape of young women in a welfare camp. There were still others who in the guise of adoption - individuals, brokers and agents -were either taking away children or were quick to step in to arrange adoption of orphaned children for labour, for trafficking or for other reasons. These are again stark reminders that the protection of young girls and children and also homeless females and widows in the aftermath of such disasters, need to be addressed immediately.

In the provision of aid and relief too that is pouring in from all over the world, we need to coordinate distribution evenly to reach all those who are in dire need - going into the interior remotest areas. Further, there has to be greater transparency in directing aid which has to be delivered speedily as well, as we still have reports that even medical assistance seems to be trickling very slowly or has not reached some areas. Proper coordination of information and reliable data on the number of people dead, those injured and displaced, those missing, people in camps or living with others is absolutely needed. Actual numbers dead or missing are also being distorted and used by various individuals and interest groups with ulterior motives. The local level government bodies should be actively geared to handle such mis-information.

We have a bureaucracy that is highly politicized and it is no secret that there are charges of corruption within the government ranks. The peace process had stalled due to short-term party and personal political interests taking precedence over the future of the country and its people. The shameful tragedy is that the same interests are at work even at this moment when the country is in such a shamble. We have begged for help from the whole world and the world has rushed to our assistance. The political motivations behind countries like the US or India have also to be carefully monitored. How this government will handle the rebuilding programme in the context of all these factors is yet to be seen.

2nd January 2005