GoSL, LTTE must grasp opportunities for reconciliation- Prof Oberst

[TamilNet, Sunday, 06 March 2005, 23:08 GMT]
While stressing the importance of "the Norwegian effort to create a joint government-LTTE mechanism to be successful" for Sri Lanka to recover from the tsunami disaster, and expressing hope that "UN special ambassador and former U.S. president Bill Clinton will be able to bring the two sides together to work towards rebuilding of the devastated areas," Professor Oberst pointed out that "[The] sad reality of the Sri Lankan conflict has been the remarkable ability of both sides to allow opportunities for peace and reconciliation to slip away from their grasp," when he talked to TamilNet this week commenting on post-tsunami development in Sri Lanka.

Excerpts from the interview follow:

Prof. Robert OberstTamilNet: How has the tsunami affected the long-term prospects for peace?
Prof Oberst: It is still too early to determine what effect the tsunami and the relief effort will have on the Sri Lankan peace process. The emergency relief effort has come to an end, but the more important rebuilding process has only just begun. Thus, it is still within the power of both sides to use this tragedy to create peace rather than use it as a way to gain an advantage on the other side.

TamilNet: Can you see any positive developments in the near future as regards the peace process?
Prof Oberst: It is clear at this point in time, that the relief effort and the events which have followed it, have widened the gap between the government and the LTTE. It would be easy to conclude that the events have seriously harmed the peace effort. However, it is still possible for the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE to take strong action to reduce the tension and undo the harm that have resulted from the first two months of the recovery effort.

TamilNet: How do you think the hurdles from the on-going political struggle between GoSL and LTTE are affecting the progress in rehabilitation and reconstruction?
Prof Oberst: Despite the frustration and anger felt by the LTTE, there is still hope that the overall effect of the recovery process will help the peace process. The impact of the disaster is very complicated. The slow pace of relief and rehabilitation as well as the apparent impression that the southwest is receiving more supplies and help than the north and east have added to the increased tensions. In addition, the early reports that the LTTE was demanding that they control all aid entering their areas helped to generate support for the government to restrict the transport of aid.

However, there are other more positive signs in a process which is ongoing. In some areas there has been cooperation and positive communication between government security forces and the LTTE in their relief efforts. Some of these contacts will have a long lasting effect by building trust and communication between the two sides. In addition, it can be argued that the increased tension between the JVP and their PA coalition allies is a result of the relief efforts and the actions taken by the JVP in the post-tsunami period. The worsening relationship between the allies could provide President Kumaratunga with more freedom to restart the peace process and to take a more conciliatory approach towards the LTTE by opening discussions on the ISGA.

It also should be realized by the Tamil and Muslim community as well as the LTTE that some of the frustration over the lack of progress is not the result of government bias or hostility but rather other problems facing the development process.

First, the government led relief effort has been heavily criticized in the Sinhalese areas of southwestern Sri Lanka. Some of the neglect and problems associated with the north and east are a result not of government bias towards the Tamils and Muslims but rather of government ineffectiveness.

Secondly, the neglect of the east has been an ongoing problem that existed before the tsunami. One only has to look at the quality of roads and infrastructure development in Batticaloa and Ampara in not only the Tamil and Muslim communities but also the Sinhalese communities to see this. The current lack of relief assistance to these areas, once again reflects more than an ethnic bias. It is very likely due to a regional bias by the Sri Lankan government.

Thirdly, there was a severe shortage of skilled labor (carpenters, masons etc.) to rebuild the north and east before the tsunami. That problem has been made worse by the tsunami. There are limited tradesmen to rebuild and there will be a struggle to direct the few who are available to the favored locations by the government and the LTTE.

TamilNet: The expatriate Tamil support and relief work by Tamils Rehabiliation Organization (TRO) have received positive coverage in foreign press. Wall street journal said this success is likely to strengthen LTTE's will to seek autonomy. Can you comment?
Prof Oberst: The Sri Lanka government’s fear of the TRO and LTTE receiving relief aid and carrying out reconstruction appear to be unnecessary. The LTTE and the TRO have received many positive reactions to their relief efforts. They also appear to have been able to do a great deal with very limited resources. LTTE success in rebuilding areas under their control should not be a threat to the government of Sri Lanka. It merely shows the continued evolution of the LTTE from a military to a political organization. Fear that relief aid to the Tamils in the LTTE controlled areas will be used for military purposes can easily be prevented by allowing international donors to monitor the use of their aid. Few governmental aid organizations will permit the military use of relief aid.

TamilNet: What hopes do you have on Sri Lanka's progress towards reaching sustainable resolution to the conflict?
Prof Oberst: Sri Lanka has been devastated by its war and not the tsunami. The only hope for peace is that both sides will trust the other side long enough to allow peace to develop and development to occur. This requires a blind trust by both sides that the only other option to trust is war and the continued destruction of the country. Part of that trust should be an effort by both sides to work together to rebuild from the tsunami. The responsibility for this lies on both sides. This should include a greater sense of trust by the government and more cooperation with the LTTE. It also requires the LTTE to offer more transparency to the government in what they are doing. Allowing some government oversight of relief projects run by the TRO would help. In addition, the surrogate war between the two sides must end.

The tsunami has offered a unique opportunity to heal the wounds and distrust left by over 20 years of war. Simple moves by both sides could begin the healing. The sad reality of the Sri Lankan conflict has been the remarkable ability of both sides to allow opportunities for peace and reconciliation to slip away from their grasp. The sad irony that such a tragedy as the tsunami could actually help to heal the wounds between the Sinhalese, Muslims and Tamils is a reality that must not be lost. The twenty minute wave killed nearly as many Sri Lankans as twenty years of war. The great tragedy of the tsunami calls out to both sides to work together to rebuild their country. It is not too late for the government to become more cooperative and to work closely with the LTTE to rebuild the north and east. This includes an effort to bring law and order back to the east and to ensure that no government security forces are involved in the attacks on the LTTE. In the same sense, the LTTE must reach out in conciliation and work with the government to end the killings of their members and their opponents.

So far there has been very little cooperation between the two sides, but one can only hope that the two sides will see the opportunity before them and not allow it to escape. The Norwegian effort to create a joint government-LTTE effort needs to be successful. One can also hope that UN special ambassador and former U.S. president Bill Clinton will be able to bring the two sides together to work towards the rebuilding of the devastated areas. Although his role is not to become engaged in the peace process, he can help by assisting both sides to work together to rebuild after the tsunami. As a result, he may make a major contribution to the ongoing search for a peaceful ending to the Sri Lankan war.

Professor Robert C.Oberst is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Nebraska Wesleyan University in the US. He was a honorary visiting professor of political science, 1996-'97, University of Peradeniya and has authored several books including "Government and Politics in South Asia" and "Legislators, Development and Representation in Sri Lanka.

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