BATTICALOA, Sri Lanka—Sri Lanka appeared to be drifting back toward civil war before the recent tsunami struck, but the walls of seawater that hit the island stopped the war drums cold.
Civic and world leaders, including U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, say they hope a new spirit of cooperation emerges during relief efforts that'll spur peace talks with the Tamil Tigers insurgency.
"There is a fresh beginning," said Amal Jayawardene, head of the department of history and international relations at the University of Colombo. "Neither side can start war easily because of the destruction."
But less than two weeks after the disaster, majority ethnic Sinhalese and minority ethnic Tamils are sniping about how to handle millions of dollars in international aid flowing to Sri Lanka. How the issue is settled could determine whether the government of President Chandrika Kumaratunga can rekindle peace talks with the Tamil Tigers and put a shaky three-year-old cease-fire on firmer footing.
Remarkable initial cooperation between Tamil insurgents and government officials after the Dec. 26 tsunami struck has given way to a tussle for credit for relief operations and a bizarre incident in which a refugee camp was burned to the ground.
"I see it fading very, very quickly," said a U.N. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. If relief efforts don't go smoothly, she said, "divisions could deepen."
In Sri Lanka, a verdant tea-growing island off India's southern tip, there are deep fault lines between the majority Sinhalese, who are predominantly Buddhist, and minority ethnic Tamils, mostly Hindus who constitute about 18 percent of the nation's 20 million citizens. The two groups speak different languages.
A civil war that began in the early 1980s took some 60,000 lives before a cease-fire took effect in early 2002. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a nationalist group, launched the war to demand an independent state in the north and east.
Peace talks that began under Norwegian auspices in 2002 led the Tamil Tigers to drop their demand for a separate state. But the talks broke down last April.
The colossal tsunami, which killed at least 30,200 Sri Lankans, dealt serious blows to the well-equipped Tamil insurgency and the armed forces. Both sides are sparring verbally, suggesting the other side was hit harder.
The armed forces "suffered tremendously," said V. Ambumaran, a Tamil Tiger political delegate in the eastern waterfront town of Batticaloa. "The balance of power has been affected."
A retired armed forces commander, Gen. Lionel Balagalle, offered a contrary view, saying the tsunami wiped out "more than 10" Tamil Tiger naval installations.
"The disaster will only add to their problems with a loss of manpower, a loss of equipment, a loss of boats," Balagalle said. "They will be short of people."
At the heart of the current disputes is whether the central government and the Tamil Tiger leaders can deal effectively with the humanitarian mess left by the disaster.
Insurgent leaders have cultivated a sense among Tamils that the Sinhalese-dominated government doesn't care for them. Scholars say much is at stake for the group. Faced with serious internal divisions, its leaders must show that they can oversee relief efforts and channel aid effectively. If not, the group's credibility will weaken.
Tamil Tiger leaders have protested loudly—and with little apparent foundation—that government relief efforts aren't reaching their areas, in an apparent tactic to help raise funds in the Tamil diaspora in India, Europe and North America.
And both the army and the Tamil Tigers hope to appear as benefactors to 850,000 or so Sri Lankans now living in some 800 refugee camps scattered around the country.
In a strange incident last weekend that underscored the dispute for credit, a Tamil refugee camp in Vadamarachchi, near the northern city of Jaffna, began receiving food rations from the army. Unknown assailants suddenly burned the camp to the ground.
Since then, both sides have accused the other of commandeering relief convoys and blocking assistance to certain areas. The Tamil Tigers insist that all relief to their areas be channeled through their agency, the Tamil Rehabilitation Organization, barring ordinary Tamils from seeing the generosity of the government and individuals.
The charges are diverting attention from the extraordinary goodwill that many Sri Lankans are offering their countrymen, with little regard to ethnicity. Private groups have offered relief to refugee camps of Tamils and Sinhalese alike.
A Tamil emigrant to Canada who was in Sri Lanka for the disaster said he was deeply moved by the solidarity.
"I don't know if it's God's gift or something, but the Sinhalese are doing their very best to help people," said Thambipillai Sivalingam, a quality control inspector in Toronto.
If bureaucrats in Colombo are reluctant to funnel heavy relief to Tamil areas, it may be because they fear that the Tamil Tigers will outdo the inefficient government in rebuilding. After all, the disciplined military insurgency can act rapidly.
"They don't have any obstacles. They don't have to abide by private property concepts and legal norms. They can move quickly," said Jayawardene, the professor.
Moreover, Tamils are widely seen as more industrious than Sinhalese, and "there is a certain fear among the Sinhalese that if you give the Tamils too much freedom, they might do better than the Sinhalese," said Jehan Perera, a spokesman for the National Peace Council, a nonpartisan group advocating conflict resolution.
Legitimacy among Tamils is a serious concern to the insurgency's leaders. This coastal area was the scene of an insurrection in March 2004. A Tiger commander, known as Col. Karuna, split from the group and asked for separate talks with the government, sparking internecine warfare in the group. He's believed to have the loyalty of several thousand combatants.
Tiger leaders are also deeply uneasy over the presence of U.S. and Indian troops arriving in Sri Lanka to help with tsunami reconstruction. In 1997, Washington listed the group as a foreign terrorist organization, and some 1,500 Marines in Sri Lanka are so far working only in the south, away from Tamil Tiger strongholds.
THE TAMIL TIGERS
The Tamil Tigers, formally known as The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), were founded in 1976. Based in the northeastern coastal areas of Sri Lanka, the Tigers have fought with the Sri Lanka government since 1983. Currently, there's a cease-fire being observed.
The Tamil Tigers feel that the majority Sinhalese government discriminates against them. Ethnic Tamils make up about 18 percent of Sri Lanka's population of 20 million.
The U.S. State Department first designated the LTTE as a terrorist organization in October 1997.
For more information:
Terrorist Group Profiles: http://library.nps.navy.mil/home/tgp/ltte.htm
TamilNet newswire: www.tamilnet.com
Government of Sri Lanka: www.priu.gov.lk
Sources: Patterns of Global Terrorism, U.S. State Department, Library of Congress, Country Studies, Federation of American Scientists
_Compiled by researcher Tish Wells
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050105 TSUNAMI Sri Lanka
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