Tsunami Poses Challenges for Asian Governments, Rebels



The devastating tsunami of December 26 struck at the heartlands of anti-government insurgencies in southern Asia. It is not yet clear how much the tsunami affected the insurgent movements' fighting ability - or government attempts to suppress them.

Attempts to bring relief aid to tsunami victims have been complicated because of the politics of rebellion. The worst hit areas: southern Sri Lanka and the province of Aceh on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, are home to two of the longest running insurgencies in Asia. The Tamil Tigers have long waged war against the Sri Lankan government, while separatists in Aceh have battled the Indonesian military for independence from the central government in Jakarta.

It is not yet clear how the fighting abilities of the two insurgents have been affected by the tsunami.

The Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka are considered by experts to be the better organized of the two insurgencies, controlling territory and administering areas under their control. A three-year-old cease-fire was in place, but was threatening to unravel at the time the tsunami struck. The government and the Tigers have been trading charges over the distribution of aid.

Steven Radelet of the Washington-based Center for Global Development - which monitors foreign aid around the world - says there could be some arm's length cooperation between the government and the Sri Lankan rebels that could help solidify shaky peace efforts.

"I think that there is scope for them to take control over most of the [relief] operations in their area and for the government to work in other areas, and for that to actually be the basis for a little bit of competition, if you will, which could either lead to either greater discussions, or it could lead to more acrimony," he said. "I'm a little bit more hopeful in the case of Sri Lanka."

In Aceh, the situation is more ambiguous. The Free Aceh Movement is less organized than the Tamil Tigers, more of an underground movement than a more visible guerrilla force. There is a loose, unofficial cease-fire in place, but the Free Aceh Movement - known by its Indonesian acronym, GAM - has not emerged in organized numbers to distribute aid.

Sidney Jones, an expert on the Indonesian insurgents with the International Crisis Group, says she believes the GAM leadership survived the tsunami because it was up in the hills above the rushing water. She says an important consideration is how the network of GAM supporters that supplies the rebels was affected.

"The real question is whether their supply networks may be jeopardized because they clearly depended on a support network to get food and other materials up into the hills where their strongholds are," she says.

Peter Felstead, editor of Jane's Defense Weekly, says while it may take years for GAM to rebuild its fighting strength, the Tamil Tigers may be able to regroup more quickly.

"I think you could be talking years when you're talking about groups like the Free Aceh Movement to actually replace lost cadre and build up another cohesive force in the area," he said. "In other places it might not take so long."

Will military forces try to take advantage of the tsunami to attack weakened insurgencies?

Experts believe it is possible in both Sri Lanka and Aceh, more likely in Aceh. Steven Radelet says, however, that would be a mistake for Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who recently became the first directly elected president of Indonesia.

"I think that if he were to be seen as taking advantage of this to press some kind of military advantage, it would run the risk that it could really set back further negotiations and [set off] a bit of a backlash," he said. "I think it is in their interest to be seen as a little bit above the fray, if they can, that they can come in and deliver the goods and really help in the relief and reconstruction effort. So I would be surprised to see anything - at least in the first few months - where they would press their advantage."

The Indonesian government has ordered that any travel by aid groups in Aceh must have a military escort, and that any foreign forces participating in the relief effort must leave by March.

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