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UN Tsunami Envoy Chides Sri Lankans, Praises India for Response to Disaster

A United Nations tsunami recovery envoy calls it "unfortunate" that Sri Lankan leaders did not rise above their political differences to seize the opportunity for peace after the December 2004 tragedy ravaged the country. But, Eric Shwartz praised India's government for its efforts to rebuild following the disaster.

When the Indian Ocean tsunami struck on December 26, 2004, Sri Lanka had been mired in more than 20 years of fighting between the government and the Tamil Tiger guerrilla group, which wants greater rights for the country's ethnic Tamil minority. Peace talks supervised by Norwegian mediators had ground to a virtual halt.

The deadly waters killed more than 30,000 people in Sri Lanka and devastated thousands of towns and villages. But within days of the disaster, attention shifted to the question of whether some good could come of the tragedy.

The international community pledged some $5 billion in assistance to Sri Lanka alone, raising hopes that talks between the government and the rebels over aid distribution could restart the stalled peace process.

That did not happen.

Eric Schwartz is the United Nations Deputy Special Envoy for Tsunami Recovery, working alongside former President Bill Clinton. He says it was a mistake to think that money alone could override Sri Lankan antagonisms.

"Recovery assistance can improve the climate somewhat, but it's not going to drive politics. What the tsunami did do - the tsunami itself, not the assistance - the tsunami did provide a window for governments and opposition movements to recalibrate their priorities, recognize what was really important, and make some very difficult but important decisions about how to move forward," said Schwartz.

He points to the northern Indonesian province of Aceh, which had also been locked in years of fighting between separatist insurgents and the government. After the tsunami devastated the province, the two sides finally signed a peace accord.

In Sri Lanka, Norwegian mediators, the government and the rebels agreed to the Post Tsunami Operational Management Structure, or PTOMS. The mechanism was meant to ensure the fair distribution of tsunami aid across ethnic and geographic lines, including devastated rebel-held areas, and to serve as the framework for future peace talks.

But analysts say political differences between the government and the rebels, plus opposition to the PTOMS agreement within the government, prevented the Sri Lankans from achieving the same success as the Indonesians.

"In Sri Lanka, we saw a similar dynamic, which I think played a role in the development of the PTOMS agreement, but the opportunity, for a variety of reasons, was not completely seized," he continued. "And that's very unfortunate."

Last month, the Sri Lankan government and Tamil rebels held an emergency meeting in Geneva, Switzerland. The meeting reaffirmed the two sides' commitment to a ceasefire, but it did little to advance the stalled peace talks.

Schwartz was in India to visit the tsunami-affected southern coast, where he praised officials for assistance provided to the thousands affected by the disaster.

The U.N. says that nearly 230,000 people died or disappeared in the 12 countries around the Indian Ocean hit by the deadly waves - making international assistance necessary for years to come. The vast bulk of the casualties came in Aceh, Sri Lanka and India.

So far, Schwartz says, tsunami-affected countries have not been affected by donor-fatigue, because pledged funds are earmarked to be spent over a number of years. Still, he says, President Clinton, whose visits to crisis zones generate huge publicity, remains committed to the recovery effort.

"One of his major objectives is to ensure that well after the media has departed the tsunami-affected region and has moved on to other crises, the international donor community, affected governments and others stay the course in the recovery effort. We have to demonstrate that the process of recovery assistance is not a hit-and-run affair, because you have to persevere," he noted.

Schwartz says the focus of tsunami assistance now is to provide livelihoods and promote entrepreneurial activity among people who lost everything in the disaster.