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Sri Lankans Remember Tsunami, as Cease-fire Appears to Unravel

  • Patricia Nunan

Prayers and special ceremonies were held across Sri Lanka to mark the first anniversary of the deadly Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed more than 30,000 people there. Many had hoped the tragedy would help the government and separatist Tamil Tiger guerrillas reconcile after more than two decades of fighting. But a year on from the deadly waves, Sri Lanka's cease-fire appears increasingly fragile. VOA's Patricia Nunan has more from the southern city of Galle.

Silence descended upon the bus terminal in Galle, as a clock counted down the seconds before 9:26 a.m., the moment the tsunami struck one year ago.

It was here that some of the most compelling images from the tragedy in Sri Lanka emerged, of people scrambling on to the tops of buses, as they tried to escape the rising waters of the tsunami. The waves were so high and strong that buses were tossed around.

Restaurant worker G.A. Sunil witnessed the chaos when the tsunami swept into the terminal.

He says he was eating bread when the waves hit, and everyone in the restaurant was swept against the back wall. But he managed to escape and climb onto the roof, and then started pulling people out of the water.

On Monday, Mr. Sunil and others from the restaurant lit candles to remember the victims of the tsunami. They also handed out parcels of food to the poor. It was one of myriad small gestures made by tsunami survivors across the country, in honor of the more than 30,000 killed here.

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse attended a memorial service at the spot where a train was swept off its tracks by the deadly waters, killing nearly two-thousand. He promised to reinvigorate the reconstruction through a new program, called "Victory Lanka," that will better coordinate tsunami relief work. But he has given few details about the plan.

The tsunami waves pounded about two-thirds of Sri Lanka's coastline, including the volatile areas in the north and east that have borne much of the violence in more than two decades of civil war.

Hopes were raised that the tragedy of the tsunami would encourage the government and the Tamil Tiger rebels to return to the negotiating table, to restart the peace process that led to the signing of a 2002 cease-fire.

But a year later, the cease-fire is close to unraveling, with a series of violent incidents rocking the east of the country.

On December 24, unidentified gunmen burst into Christmas Eve mass and killed a prominent Tamil politician. On Monday, three more people were killed in political violence, bringing the total to at least 67 in the past month.

Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, with the independent Center for Policy Alternatives, says the Tamil Tigers are trying to provoke the government into fighting, to gain the moral high ground in any future peace talks.

"It is provocation to wrong-foot the government into behaving in a very authoritarian fashion, to then be able to turn around and tell the international community, 'Look, we have no option but to go our own way, please let us do so,'" said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu.

The rebels fought first for independence and then for greater autonomy in northern and eastern Sri Lanka, where the ethnic Tamil minority is predominant. More than 60-thousand people have died in the conflict.

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