Wed, Jan 12, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Rebels, state try to use disaster as political tool

DPA , COLOMBO/KILONOCHCHI, SRI LANKA

Relief aid now passes freely through checkpoints in northern Sri Lanka's Omantai region, which has served as the border separating political enemies in the country.

There were initial hopes that the tsunami disaster could have a positive impact on the political turmoil in Sri Lanka and somehow help unite the country. Instead, tensions have intensified between the government and rebels of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) since the tsunami struck.

German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, who was to hold talks in Colombo yesterday, is visiting a deeply troubled country. While political observers do not foresee the immediate breakout of civil war, they are not certain what lies ahead.

Immediately after the tsunami, it appeared the nation was coming together in the face of horrible tragedy. Both Tamil Tiger rebels and soldiers pitched in to help desperate disaster victims.

Newspapers showed pictures of President Chandrika Kumaratunga at a shelter smiling and shaking hands with a female Tamil fighter. The picture was a powerful one since the Sri Lankan president was blinded in one eye in an attack by a Tamil fighter several years ago.

So far, around 65,000 people have been killed in the 20-year-old civil war. A ceasefire was called in February 2002 , but since April 2003, peace talks have not moved forward. The LTTE has been steadfast in demanding a separate transitional administration, which Kumaratunga has rejected.

"The disaster will not solve the problems with the peace process," said Ulf Bjornfors, a member of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission (SLMM), which oversees the ceasefire in the north of the country.

"What is essential is that the parties return to the negotiating table," Bjornfors said.

But in reality, instead of drawing closer to agreement, the warring parties have resorted to the familiar pattern of blaming each other for failed negotiations and have even tried to gain political advantage through the tragedy.

The rebels have accused the government of discriminating against disaster victims in rebel-controlled parts of the country in the northeast, even though relief workers say the victims were receiving the same care as those in other areas.

Members of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) party have described government help in the crisis as "ineffective" and once again demanded that the region be granted an independent administration.

The Tamil Tigers are now demanding that the international community provide relief materials to rebels directly in the northeast and not cooperate with government representatives. If the international community complied, it would elevate the LTTE to the de facto rulers in the northeastern part of the country and could cement the nation's political division.

The leftist Janatha Vimukthi Perumuna (JVP) party, the smaller member of the government coalition, has suggested that the government withdraw all support to the LTTE relief organization TRO, which party officials claimed could be buying weapons with money meant for disaster victims. Some in the party have speculated that the LTTE could actually emerge stronger militarily through the tsunami crisis.

According to the head of the LTTE's political wing, Sippiah Paramu Tamilselvan, only six rebels were killed in the earthquake-triggered tsunami. That figure is disputed by Sri Lankan media, which reported more than 2,400 rebel deaths, with international observers also saying the LTTE suffered heavy losses.

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