Statement by Ambassador Bernard A.B. Goonetilleke, at the Washington Network for Post - Tsunami Peace Building Roundtable
series held in Washington DC on 16 June 2005


Sri Lanka is one of the countries worst hit by the tsunami, which affected those who live on the northern, eastern and southern coastal areas of the island. Nearly 40,000 persons were killed or went missing; approximately one million were rendered homeless.

I would like to believe that one of the more enduring outcomes of the tsunami tragedy has been the sense of empathy and understanding that has been generated among people all over the world across all divides. The tsunami proved to be a defining event among the Sri Lankans, as well as, the international community. Even though this tragedy unfolded in a remote and far off corner in the world, the effective media coverage of the disaster shortened the distances and narrowed the divides to unfold its horrendous impact. What we saw in Sri Lanka in the relief effort in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami was a triumph of the intrinsic goodness of individuals, groups of people, corporate bodies and governments and their sense of social responsibility. The issue what we are about to address today is whether such a disaster offered new opportunities for societies fractured with conflict.

The post-tsunami reconstruction phase is already underway in Sri Lanka. It has been estimated that over 1.8 billion US $ would be required towards reconstruction of the damage caused by the tsunami. The reconstruction process is a daunting and a complex task given the numerous sectors and assets that need to be restored or rebuilt. The effort is almost similar to giving life to a community or creating afresh entire societies with social and physical infrastructure.

The Government of Sri Lanka, together with the donor community, developed a comprehensive reconstruction plan for Sri Lanka on a sectoral basis that covers all the affected districts in the North, East and South of Sri Lanka. At the Sri Lanka Donor Forum held last month in Kandy, Sri Lanka, the donor community made commitments and pledges exceeding US $ 3 billion in the form of grant loans and moratorium on debts.

Having never experienced a natural disaster of this magnitude in the recent history, it is understandable that all affected areas in Sri Lanka were plunged into a crisis situation of unprecedented proportion. While in the rest of the country its affect was significant, in the North & East of Sri Lanka, which had already experienced considerable dislocation due to the separatist conflict by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and where a tenuous ceasefire prevailed, the challenge was even more daunting. It brought new challenges to an already fragile peace process, where political level negotiations had ceased a little over 2 years ago.

It is noteworthy that in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami, despite the complexities that persisted in the North & East of Sri Lanka, the Government and the LTTE worked closely to meet the immediate needs of the affected people. The Secretary to the President, in a letter to the Political Head of the LTTE Mr. S.P.Tamilchelvan, promptly invited the LTTE to participate in the high level coordinating committee set up by the President to ensure prompt and effective delivery of services to the North and East. In addition, the government facilitated the work of the TRO, an organization having close relationship with the LTTE, which channelled much of the private financial contributions made by donors to the north and the east. The natural disaster, which made no distinction between the ethnic or religious groups and the cooperation between the LTTE and the Government prompted many to believe that there was a glimmer of hope for the two sides to put their differences aside and work together even beyond the immediate crisis.

However, experience in Sri Lanka as well as elsewhere tells us that former adversaries may come together to respond to an unexpected calamity. However, no sooner the immediate crisis blows away, the gulf that divided the parties’ returns to play its former role. This is something natural as parties to conflict have to reassert their positions, as they know that failure to do so would result in eroding their former positions, which have to be retained at any cost for the final moment of bargaining. Similarly, pressure groups, interest groups, politicians jockeying for power and business interests, who had profited from the conflict, will regroup themselves to reassert their positions so that they may not be the ones to lose out as a result of the new development. This is what happened in Sri Lanka following the initial stage of the tsunami.

However, it is to be noted that, as some complain, the people of the North or the East were not abandoned at any stage. There have been a total of 35 NGOs listed under the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies (CHA), which have been operating in the North and East even before the tsunami struck. These NGOs continued their good work, while virtually hundreds of others arrived in the areas with relief material. In addition, a host of UN agencies and International Relief Organizations, which have had their operations in the North and the East, rushed there with assistance. It is important to emphasize that the Government, through its own agencies, also carried out relief operations in the North and the East days after the natural disaster.

The proposal to establish a ‘Post-Tsunami Operation Management Structure’ (P-TOMS), commonly referred to as the Joint Mechanism, has been evolved with two broad ideas. The first is to attend to the tsunami related reconstruction work in the North and the East in an effective manner and secondly, in that process to work with the LTTE, which would hopefully help building confidence, between the two sides which in turn may help kick starting the dormant peace process, at some point of time.

P-TOMS is purely an administrative arrangement for undertaking reconstruction work in the North and the East, applicable to two kilometres from the coast for a limited period of one year. The Government has emphasized that P-TOMS was not meant to be a political solution to the conflict and that the LTTE would not gain political recognition within or outside the country. However, both the Government and the LTTE have acknowledged that cooperation on this issue could also have a spill over effect on the peace process through confidence building. The move also has received considerable support from the donor community. In a statement issued at the conclusion of their meeting in Washington D.C. on Monday 14th June, the Co-chairs of the Sri Lanka Donor Group observed, “the Co-chairs support the commitment by the President, her government and the LTTE to rapidly implement the structure to administer tsunami assistance in the North and East. The Co-chairs recognize the importance of the Muslim community in the functioning of this structure. We believe such a structure will facilitate effectiveness and equity in tsunami assistance, and can help build confidence between the two sides. We urge the immediate signing of the agreement in order to ensure proper flow of reconstruction aid to tsunami victims in the North and East”.

However, several sections of the Sri Lankan polity - the JVP, the JHU, EPDP, Muslim parties representing the East, as well as important Tamil leaders fear that the Joint Mechanism would strengthen the LTTE's power in the North and East and give that group, which continues to be a proscribed terrorist organization in several countries, such as US, UK and India, the legitimacy its clamouring for. This in the long term, the argument goes, will endanger the country's security and sovereignty. I need not emphasize the fact that in a functioning democracy, the Government has to consider diverse views, even when such views are not shared by the Government. This is particularly important bearing in mind the fact that LTTE abhors democratic way of life, does not permit other political parties to function in the areas under their control and goes to the extent of intimidating, harassing and even murdering those who oppose their views and action.

This issue is not new. I believe it highlights one of the most serious dilemmas faced by Governments the world-over, which endeavour to build peace with their adversaries, who have not ceased to challenge the state with the use of weapons and through terrorism. This is even more so, in situations where the need to cooperate has not developed over time, but is dictated due to compulsions, whether man made or caused by nature.

Even as the Government of Sri Lanka perseveres in the direction of entering into the Joint Mechanism or P-TOMS with the LTTE, it is important that we do not view the proposed structure as a panacea. One must be alive to the propensity of armed groups refusing to enter the democratic mainstream and continuing to use terrorism as a means of resolving political issues, to steer such well intended gestures in any direction they desire.

The international community, INGOs and civil society bear a special responsibility, to prevail upon groups like the LTTE to desist from such action. It must also be ensured that effective quid-pro-quos are secured, such as commitment to democracy and rejecting of terrorism, in order that such groups remain within a process that ensures that they are held accountable. Failure to do so would not only defeat the immediate purpose, in this instance the more efficient programme of reconstruction, but also negate the prospect for such collaboration leading to a durable and honourable solution to the conflict.


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