Feature Article

Tamil scepticism mounts as aid deal drifts

[TamilNet, Monday, 09 May 2005, 18:20 GMT]
As the proposed joint mechanism for aid distribution urged by international donors between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers remains mired in Sinhala political manoeuvring, deep scepticism has replaced early optimism amongst the Tamils. More ominously, a belief is rapidly taking root that Colombo is playing for time and keeping the Northeast in the economic and social doldrums whilst developing the Sri Lankan military for a new war.

Since early this year, Norwegian-facilitated negotiations have been underway between the Peace Secretariats of both sides to agree the details of a joint mechanism, which leading states and other donors have stipulated as necessary for the disbursement of almost US$2bn of pledged tsunami-related aid.

Diplomatic sources told TamilNet a deal almost thrashed out two months ago was held up by disagreements between Colombo and the LTTE over responsibility for coastal development in the Northeast. A few weeks ago, however, a subsequent Norwegian proposal for international supervision of such coastal projects was accepted by LTTE, clearing the way for the signing of the agreement, the sources said.

But since then, optimism that the misery of hundreds of thousands of people in Sri Lanka’s north, east and south could soon begin to alleviated has dissipated amidst President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s reluctance to sign the document amidst the vehement opposition of the Janatha Vimukthi Perumana (JVP), the parliamentary ally of her Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).

Having campaigned relentlessly for the joint mechanism for several months, the LTTE last week expressed scepticism that even after agreement was reached in principle with Colombo, the matter would become reality.

Last week, Mr. S.P. Tamilselvan, head of the LTTE’s political wing said the Tigers now doubted if the joint mechanism would be implemented even if it was signed. He told Reuters that more than $1 billion will be needed to rebuild Tamil areas destroyed by the waves but Colombo remained apathetic four months after the disaster.

"The Tamil people and the LTTE have lost hope entirely with the government of Sri Lanka when it comes to humanitarian aid," he said. More pointedly, he added: "the Tamil people and the LTTE have strong doubts of the president's sincerity of purpose when it comes to delivery."

To begin with, President Kumaratunga’s proffered rationale for not signing the agreed draft, that the JVP would exit her ruling coalition and bring down her government, cuts little ice amongst the Tamils.

“The Tamil community has had to put up with this [kind of] threat for several years now,” the Tamil Guardian newspaper said this week.

“In 2003, the ruling United National Front prevaricated on entering into a shared development structure with the LTTE for fear President Kumaratunga would dismiss its government,” the paper said in reference to an interim administration for the Northeast.

“That happened anyway. Now, the stability of [Kumaratunga’s] United People’s Freedom Alliance is apparently a greater consideration than the misery of hundreds of thousands Tamils, Muslims and, now, Sinhalese displaced,” the paper, which is widely considered to reflect the LTTE’s thinking, said.

The LTTE’s doubts about Sri Lanka’s preparedness to implement a joint mechanism, even if President Kumaratunga signs the final draft, is based on two separate rationales: firstly, the failure of past efforts to bring about rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts in the war-torn Northeast and, secondly, Kumaratunga’s recent postures on the joint mechanism.

President Kumaratunga’s assurances last week to Buddhist monks that she would dissolve the joint mechanism after one year, reportedly given to calm Sinhala nationalist anxieties that the agreement would pave the way to the division of the country, undoubtedly triggered fresh Tamil doubts, as did her comments elsewhere that irrespective of the joint mechanism, all tsunami funds disbursed by donors would be subject to the approval of the Sri Lankan treasury.

But latent Tamil suspicions of Sinhala leaderships stem from a history of broken promises reflected in a string of Tamil-Sinhala pacts which were subsequently abrogated by the initiating government in the face of subsequent Sinhala nationalist agitation. These suspicions were already part of the Tamil-Sinhala political dynamic even before the eruption in the eighties of civil war and the bitter hostility that ensued.

Moreover, the failure of recent tactical agreements with Colombo on rehabilitation have further entrenched such suspicions. For example, the SIHRN (the Sub-Committee on Immediate Humanitarian and Rehabilitation Needs) created in late 2002 by the LTTE and the UNF government during the first rounds of Norwegian-brokered negotiations folded within months amid accusations of apathy and footdragging by Colombo’s officials.

The UNF’s refusal to put forward adequate structures for an interim administration for the Northeast – which had been part of the party’s manifesto when the LTTE tacitly urged Tamils to back it in the December 2001 elections - is another.

Last week Mr. Tamilselvan also pointed to President Kumaratunga’s sustained efforts during 2002-3 to thwart the UNF administration’s efforts to implement the steps towards restoring normalcy enshrined in the February 2002 ceasefire agreement, which including withdrawing troops from public buildings including schools, places of worship and homes as well as ending military restrictions on fishing and farming.

"[Ignoring] all that the ceasefire agreement announced to the Tamil people as regards normalcy, throwing the whole thing to the winds and carrying on assassinations of Tamil academics, journalists, tends to make us think the [truce] and the peace process at large is in jeopardy," he said.

Moreover, amid recent press reports of massive planned expansion of Sri Lanka’s armed forces, there are more specific suspicions that President Kumaratunga, whose single-minded, if unsuccessful, onslaught against the LTTE ended in 2001 only with the defeat of her People’s Alliance (PA) by the pro-peace UNP, is preparing for a new war.

As the Tamil Guardian said last week: “the big picture reveals Colombo’s strategy: for three years, rehabilitation and reconstruction work in Tamil areas has been thwarted by Sri Lanka’s obstructions, even as a major new war machine was being assembled. [These are] to be matched by other imminent military procurements. The game continues to date.”

Last month, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) dismissed the SLFP plans to hold a series of seminars to educate its membership about the proposed joint mechanism as a delaying tactic.

“These seminars are the way out for the SLFP leadership which wants to show donor countries that it is committed to a joint mechanism with the Tamils while saving its alliance with the JVP”, Mr. Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam TNA MP for Jaffna, said.

Crucially, these sentiments have a historic resonance. The LTTE has always argued that its abortive 1995 talks with Kumaratunga were destined for fiasco because the newly elected President was using the talks to rebuild and expand the Sri Lankan military.

In his account of the 1995 peace talks, the LTTE’s political strategist and chief negotiator, Mr. Anton Balasingham, says: “the matter that gave serious concern to the LTTE leadership was the systematic build up of the Sri Lankan military machine during the period of peace negotiations.”

Mr. Balasingham also points to how Kumaratunga’s regime kept the Northeast in a state of continuing economic deprivation by maintaining a tight economic embargo in practice, whilst at the same time insisting to the international community that the blockade had been lifted.

For the LTTE leadership, reports - which have not been denied - this month of Colombo’s buy several powerful warships from Britain, Serbia and Uruguay whilst President Kumaratunga prevaricates on allowing rehabilitation efforts to get underway in the Northeast, provides an ominous sense of déjà vu.

The LTTE’s suspicions are reinforced by the possible imminent delivery of substantial international aid, as reflected in other comments to Reuters by Mr. Tamilselvan last week: “What we see now in the actions of the president is that she is very keen in drawing the attention of the international community and (is) trying to get the coffers filled," he said.

Mr. Balasingham’s argument that in 1995, “having secured the support of the international community with assurances of financial aid, the Kumaratunga government was emboldened to launch [this] massive arms procurement programme,” thus comes to the fore again.

"If a humanitarian disaster like the tsunami does not make the government in Colombo to move towards humanitarian delivery nothing else could," Mr. Tamilselvan said.

"The question is whether the Tamil people are being asked by Colombo to take up arms again or not."


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