SRI LANKA: Tsunami aid agreement faces mountain of opposition

While critics say the agreement does not represent many Sri Lankans, supporters laud the deal as a step toward peace

By Arthur Rhodes
AsiaMedia Contributing Writer

Thursday, July 7, 2005

Colombo --- Almost two weeks after its completion, the Post-Tsunami Operational Management Structure (P-TOMS), a joint tsunami aid sharing agreement signed by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the government, is mired in confusion and controversy.

The deal, signed on June 24, would give the LTTE authority to reconstruct and distribute aid along the badly affected north and east coasts. When the P-TOMS will take affect, however, is still a matter of conjecture as the controversy surrounding its language and development mount within Sinhalese communities in the south and Muslim communities in the east.

The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the Buddhist parties are calling for a complete rewrite while representatives of the Muslim community are insisting on parity of representation. After having lost the support of the JVP, the President Chandrika Kumaratunga must ensure the support of the both Muslim parties if she is going to hold her government together. She has told the Muslim representatives that amendments will be made to the text to will alleviate their concerns. What this means, how long it will take and how the LTTE will react to a new draft is not yet known.

The President's ruling coalition, The United People's Freedom Alliance, has already split over the issue. The JVP walked out in defiance two days before the document was signed. Spokesperson for the JVP, Wimal Weerawansa, has declared the P-TOMS a "betrayal of the people, and an attempt to sell the nation to a 'clique' of international donors and NGOs who only look to Sri Lanka for profit and power." They have since filed suit against the government in a challenge to the document's legality.

Two Buddhist leadership parties, the National Bikku Front (NBF), and the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), have launched similar suits. Both the NBF and the JHU have been heavily opposed to the P-TOMS since its theoretical inception in early January. Their protests have included a march on the President's house, a forced closure of all businesses in the holy city of Kandy and number of death fasts conducted by members of both parties. All fasts were halted before any of the participants died. Dr. Omalpe Sobitha Thero, a monk and JHU Secretary whose fast lasted six days, told the press last week that the P-TOMS "would provide international legitimacy to a group of terrorists who wish desecrate and destroy our sacred island."

The Sri Lankan Muslim Congress and the National Unity Alliance (SLMC), Sri Lanka's two major Muslim parties have also launched protests against the manner in which the P-TOMS was negotiated. "Muslims in Sri Lanka have faced a long history of discrimination from both the Tamil minority and the Sinhala majority," says Rauf Hakeem, leader of the SLMC. He says there was lack of consultation with the Muslim community during the development of the aid sharing agreement. In a July 1 statement, Hakeem gave a veiled warning that Muslims in the east might be soon begin preparing for an armed resistance. "This kind of betrayal would certainly give some kind of impetus to certain Muslim elements," he said. "The international community should pay heed to it."

The deal, which was brokered by representatives from Norway, has been endorsed by both the United States and India. Both countries expressed their support for the measure as a means of fairly implementing aid and as step toward jumpstarting the stalled peace process. U.S. State Department spokesperson Sean McCormack says the U.S. "hopes the experience the two sides will gain by working together will help to build confidence and lead to the progress in the broader peace process." India's Foreign Ministry issued a similar statement in which it ensured that New Delhi "steadfastly supports the efforts being made by the government and people of Sri Lanka to consolidate the process of peace in their country." In the statement the Indian government also expressed its hope that the deal would strengthen democracy and uphold pluralism."

Sri Lanka First, a group of Sri Lankan businesspeople, and Business for Peace, an island-wide group of regional Chambers of Commerce and industry, have also endorsed P-TOMS. Both groups advocate peace as a means of enticing foreign investment in order to stimulate growth and development.

There have been early indications that the market has responded well to the progressing cooperation between the government and the Tigers. A recent World Bank report says that "the economic prospects of a small island nation with an open economy depend on maintaining robust export growth." Peter Harrold, Director of the World Bank in Sri Lanka, adds, "Achieving permanent peace is undoubtedly one of the most important steps that Sri Lanka can take towards improving its investment climate."

Although discussion of a joint mechanism to share tsunami aid began almost immediately after the disaster, the real impetus for its development did not come until a conference of international donors was held in Kandy. Designed to solidify pledges and discuss the proper means by which funds would be distributed, the conference was declared a "great success" by Finance Minister Sarath Amunugama. No direct stipulations or conditions were placed on tsunami aid packages, however, Amunugama admitted that "unless we move along a path of negotiating with the LTTE, many of these pledges will not materialize."