Sri Lanka: Hopes Rise that Disaster Will Bridge Gap Between Government, Rebels

Anjana Pasricha

In the days before the deadly tsunami devastated Sri Lanka, there were worries that the island country may head back to war as a peace process between Tamil Tiger rebels and the government stalled. But as both sides concentrate on relief efforts, questions are being raised whether the disaster could provide an opportunity to improve relations between them.

The waves showed no discrimination as they battered Sri Lanka all along its east coast, an area long divided by a vicious civil conflict - the south inhabited by the Sinhalese majority, and Tamil-rebel controlled areas to the north.

For the time being, the two sides are as Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse put it, "brothers in misery."

There are signals that the destructive waves may bring them closer together. Tamil Tiger chief Velupillai Prabhakaran offered condolences to the people of the south - the first time he reached out to those he has fought.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga - known for her deep distrust of the Tigers - has promised help to the rebel territories. It is a message that has been reiterated it many forums.

"We are working to give them [Tamils] the maximum amount of relief we can and the reconstruction process we will not make any difference between the northeast and the south," she said.

The conciliatory remarks has raised hopes that the disaster may provide an opportunity for both sides to reach out to each other.

But occasionally, a war of words has erupted. In the days just after the December 26 disaster, the rebels complained of too little aid from Colombo - an accusation strongly denied by senior officials.

Some rebel leaders are calling the government's vows to cooperate "talk to impress the international community." Both the military and the rebels have accused each other of burning down a refugee camp.

Despite the barbs, both sides vow to help rebuild the country. The head of the Center for Policy Alternatives in Colombo, Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, says it is too soon to tell whether the effort will help the rebels and the government bridge their divide.

"There is a spirit of cooperation up to a point that is falling into place on the ground," he said. "But certainly I think what has to be recognized is that while one hopes trust and confidence will be built up through the relief efforts so that they will be able to move towards negotiations, neither side is going to do anything which in any way they feel will impact adversely on what they see to be their core political interests."

Indeed, the Tamil Tigers are guarding their turf jealously. International aid workers and relief convoys are being allowed in. But the rebels are firmly in control, and have used their long years of experience in warfare to set up a relief operation with military precision.

Political analysts say the peace process may hinge on even-handed distribution of aid in the north and the south. If that happens, a better understanding between the two sides may follow. Otherwise, the months ahead may see more bitterness and acrimony in a country that has suffered a two-decade long conflict fueled by complaints of Tamil complaints of discrimination by the Sinhalese majority.



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