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Sri Lanka: Lives and the Social Order


The Tamil Tigers, as the rebels in Sri Lanka are known, were awaiting a possible clash with government forces. Instead they were confronted with something far worse: massive waves that struck their community with particular force. Visiting UNICEF director Carol Bellamy said no sight was more poignant than women by the sea awaiting the return of the bodies of their children.

Amid this calamity, there was no talk of war. Sri Lankan President, Chandrika Kumaratunga took control of disaster relief and pledged to cooperate with the Tigers. The elusive Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran made a plea for help after 135 children at an orphanage were drowned: "The devastation caused by this tidal surge has exacerbated the sufferings of our people already affected by a war that has continued for over 20 years and has torn asunder our nation."

It is vital for the government to work with the Tamils, says T. M. K. Samat, a journalist in Colombo, capital of Sri Lanka. Combined efforts are needed to restore the social order as well as save lives.

"A disaster of this magnitude is something new to Sri Lanka," says Mr. Samat. "How the government copes with it is a new experience. It is a learning process for them. Right now the water is receding, and they are going through the process of removing the debris, and in the process they are discovering more bodies. How it will all end up only time will tell."

Mr. Samat says the disaster has taken the fight out of both rebels and government - at least for now. They share a common grief and exhaustion.

"They seem to be far more willing to start negotiating on the peace process than before," adds Mr. Samat. "The government is very keen to get the peace process going because so much aid is attached to that. There is a four billion dollar aid pledge given by the international community depending on the peace process starting."

Mr. Samat cautions that officially talks have not begun. Sri Lankans must first recover from the wreckage of their lives and possessions, a long, onerous undertaking. But they will not be able to think or talk as they did before the tragedy.

"It has awakened them to certain realities - that you cannot have division within the country and get the country moving forward," says Mr. Samat. "Against that background, the disaster is a bit of a blessing. It could bring the two sides together, the Tamils as well as the Sinhalese. There is a very perceptible optimism that things might get better."

That is possible, says Diane Davis, professor of Political Sociology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She has studied the political impact of the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City. It discredited the autocratic government that had ruled the country for 71 years, especially when its military stole aid packages intended for victims.

To avoid such a breakdown, she says the Sri Lankan Government must act fast and reliably.

Professor Davis says, "the government could turn this into a golden opportunity to create new channels of communication, new institutions of solidarity and help. It could be a peace-making opportunity through the lens of the earthquake and tsunami disaster. In some ways it allows both sides to move beyond the stubbornness of the past to think about the larger good."

Such a disaster can move people in one of two directions - toward greater unity or greater fragmentation, says Paul Saffo, Director of the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, California.

Mr. Saffo says, "the response of the government and various groups is, of course, going to determine the outcomes. I would imagine that, for example, in areas of greatest concern, Aceh and Sri Lanka, it is going to be kind of a race to see who can help the people better, the rebels or the establishment."

Or maybe it is a race both can win. That was the case with Greece and Turkey, says Michael Glantz, who deals with early warning systems at the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

In a New York Times article, he cites the 1999 earthquakes in Turkey that took 17 thousand lives. The first country to offer aid was its sworn enemy Greece. This led to improved relations, talks over disputed Cyprus and no Greek objection to Turkey joining the European Union. As the Greek foreign minister put it: "We are all human."

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