Sri Lankan unity too good to be true

Feizal Samath:

It was too good to be true. The outpouring of instant support, sympathy … you name it from Sri Lankans across the board for tsunami victims can only be described as amazing.

The nation had never before seen such a magnificent relief operation mounted by ordinary people, rich people, private companies and NGOs in the immediate aftermath of the crisis. By noon of December 26, Sri Lankans were pouring into affected areas to help those displaced by the killer waves. While the numb-struck government was grappling with the information flow and wondering how to react with President Chandrika Kumaratunga holidaying in Britain, PM Rajapakse’s government was slow to react.

That instant civil response came in for praise from all world leaders visiting the country including UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and World Bank President James D Wolfensohn. This was one chance of a lifetime in binding the nation together; bringing the government, Tamil rebels, Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, pundits, anti-peace activists together to heal the nation, ease the suffering and end the conflict. But hardly after a fortnight passed following the devastating tsunamis, the usual bickering has begun with finger pointing and the blame-game erupting, resulting in chaos and disunity.

One of the biggest issues is the disagreement over tsunami relief work and friction between the government and Tamil Tiger rebels which even put Annan into the limelight over whether he should visit Tamil rebel-controlled areas devastated by the disaster? The rebels made a request for him to visit. But the government and some southern groups decided otherwise and instead he was only flown over rebel-affected areas.

The tit-for-tat clash between the government and the rebels led the UN and the World Bank to urge the government that relief and aid should be provided to all communities without any bias. Also, accusations were made against parties and some leaders that they had turned the relief operation into a glory-seeking exercise. The People’s Liberation Front was criticised for commandeering government supplies in lorries carrying its logo in a publicity-grabbing exercise. Kumaratunga stepped in and appointed military coordinators to disaster-affected districts to ensure smooth distribution of emergency supplies. But she also was at fault — playing the political game by sidelining the PM soon after she returned a day after the crisis and took charge. Rajapakse was not brought into the main decision-making process with Kumaratunga relying on loyalists. The issue raised was that everyone including the president should rise above party and petty politics and appoint the best people for the job. Milinda Moragoda, a key member of opposition leader Ranil Wickremesinghe’s cabinet team, suggested the formation of a national government for reconciliation and rebuilding with the inclusion of all political parties. The state media reported a canard that LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran was either dead or missing after the tsunamis prompting the Tigers to deny the story, saying this was not the time for false propaganda. Aid officials urged the government to set up a strong mechanism to ensure transparency in the use of funds. For a fleeting moment, there was unity in adversity. But the euphoria over Sri Lanka being at last united was certainly short-lived. It was just too good to be true.

Samath, a freelancer, writes for THT from Colombo