Strife slows Sri Lanka's aid effort

Conflict over a Buddha statue and a July 15 ruling by the supreme court have disrupted tsunami relief.

The reason that a share of $3.2 billion in tsunami relief aid isn't reaching the people here goes back to a statue of Buddha.

When a rickshaw drivers' association installed the statue in the main marketplace in May, the fear of Buddhist colonization sent Tamils into the streets, shutting down the city completely for three days. Many local residents - a majority of whom are ethnic Tamils and Muslims - saw the installation as a provocative act instigated by a hard-line Buddhist party.

Then, with relations between the Tamil Tigers and the government already badly strained, four Tigers were killed in a shooting incident.

Now the streets of this town along Sri Lanka's northeastern coast bristle with hundreds of rifle-toting government soldiers, here to keep the peace. Nationwide, Tamil separatists and Buddhist Sinhalese are trying to maintain a shaky cease-fire after decades of war.

After the tsunami, both the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government pledged to set aside violence and work together to rebuild the country. An agreement known as the Post-Tsunami Operational Management Structure, or P-TOMS, set up a process for the two sides to work together to deliver the $3.2 billion in tsunami aid money to those who desperately need it.

The tsunami, it seemed, had offered a forum for cooperation that had the potential to foster peace. But unlike in Aceh, where separatist rebels are set to sign a peace accord on Aug. 15, the relief effort in Sri Lanka has not helped bring about a permanent settlement. Instead, the recent unrest has disrupted the fledgling rebuilding effort.

"During the [shutdown], people in tsunami camps came to complain that they were not being supplied with water," says David Lamin, child protection officer at the UNICEF office in Trincomalee. "At one camp, the people complained that they had no access to the market to buy vegetables for cooking."

He says vehicles transporting construction materials for temporary shelters had trouble passing through check points. "Relief work slowed down due to security reasons," he explains.

Then, on July 15, the Sri Lankan supreme court blocked sections of P-TOMS. Another hard blow came close on the heels of the court order when the US government pulled out of the fund, citing the Tigers' terrorist status. The Sri Lankan government, which signed the agreement, has done little since to resurrect it. Now, towns like Trincomalee are feeling the consequences.

"What you had with the joint mechanism structure was an opportunity for face-to-face negotiation and dialogue on humanitarian issues and an opportunity to have a greater understanding of each other and where they're coming from, which could lead to potential peace talks in the future," says Geoffrey Keele, a UNICEF officer in Colombo.

According to him, the P-TOMS could have been very helpful in dealing with a situation like the Buddha statue shutdown.

"If you had a joint mechanism in place where you had the Tigers, government, and Muslims sitting around and looking at aid delivery and seeing the impact of this tension on us being able to deliver aid, you could quite possibly see them getting involved in trying to smooth out the situation so that aid could flow again," he says.

Instead, mistrust has set in. S. Puleedevan, the secretary general of the Tigers' Peace Secretariat in Killinochi, questions the commitment of the Sri Lankan government to sharing aid with the northern and eastern regions. He says the government's signing of the P-TOMS pact was a ploy to win over the international community.

Basheer, a fisherman in Trincomalee who goes by one name only, expresses the frustration of many in the region. "When the government hits, we get hurt. When the Tigers hit, we get hurt. We're in the middle. On top of all this, the tsunami also hit us."

Rebel and government officials insist that tsunami reconstruction will go on without P-TOMS in the northern and eastern regions, but people are skeptical. During decades of war, they've learned to be self-reliant.

"We're fending for ourselves," explains Vijayakumari Selvaraj, a resident. "We're not living on expectations of others' help."

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