Lankans need lasting unity

Feizal Samath

Its only week three after the tsunami turned Sri Lanka upside down. One would expect a temporary halt or a kind of ceasefire in the game of political bickering at a time when the country needs every citizen to work as one team.

Sadly the fighting and backstabbing has begun. Consider these negatives: Buddhist groups ask the government to intervene in the work of World Vision, a key NGO in Sri Lanka, which raised $11 million; deputy Tourism Minister Arjuna Ranatunga blasts Sri Lanka Cricket for appointing its former president Thilanga Sumathipala, previously accused of corruption, to lead the initiative in mobilising funds; the LTTE accuses the government of blocking supplies to devastated areas in the north and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s visit to the northeast. The government in turn accuses the Tigers of not allowing supplies in and using this issue as a propaganda tool; worried about the corrupt officials, the World Bank and the UN call for greater transparency; President Chandrika Kumaratunga appoints her loyalists to head three super committees tasked with relief work, rebuilding and law and order ignoring public calls for competent persons to be appointed instead; and the blame game goes on as to who should be blamed for any forewarning of the tsunami.

The positives so far: Kumaratunga willing to accommodate opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and other parties in the task of rebuilding the nation; high-powered government officials say she is prepared to bring in the LTTE into the planning process; continuation of world sympathy and assistance continues to pour in; and donor countries prepared to delay Sri Lanka’s debt repayment schedules. Everyone talks of the Sri Lankan spirit and how it emerged positively in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami. This has impressed people like Kofi Annan and World Bank President James D Wolfensohn. Sri Lankans have lived through 20 years of strife and conflict and acquired a level of immunity that provides this resilience and coupled with easygoing and friendly demeanour, helped to comfort and support many of the victims. Then why can’t we continue this spirit and let it ignite the nation towards peace?

Listen to what Sir Arthur C. Clarke, the world’s best-known science fiction writer and Sri Lanka’s most prominent foreign resident since 1956, has to say in an article he wrote for local newspapers: “The week after the disaster, the usually bickering parties came together to mourn the dead and to pledge rebuilding the ravaged island. If only such unity is sustained, Sri Lanka can rebuild and also heal the long-standing wounds that have bled this beautiful island for far too long.”

Despite the negatives that have gradually taking charge of the crisis, there is hope in the air for long-term peace. The sniping will continue but there is window of opportunity here for the warring parties to come together. The media is also pushing for unity and the hope that the divisive political culture will end for the betterment of the country. Despite the criticism levelled at the JVP that it was capitalising on the tsunami to boost its image as a people’s party, the group came up with a rational suggestion: a moratorium on political activity for six months. Civil society must get together and join the call. It is probably only then the world can truly say that the Sri Lankan spirit is a lasting one and not a temporary phenomenon — like the tsunamis!

Samath, a freelancer, writes for THT from Colombo