Deepening divisions

Print edition : January 28, 2005

A cameraman of the LTTE's propaganda unit films the search operation for bodies in Mullaittivu. -

EVEN its worst-ever catastrophe failed to unite convincingly an embattled Sri Lanka. Behind the politically correct tunes of working together, deep divisions continue to exist between the island's bitter political rivals. The undercurrents at play point to a further entrenchment of decades-long positions. As disenchantment continues on all fronts - among the main political parties and between them and the LTTE - the current approach is merely to tide over the crisis brought by the tsunami, avoiding any step towards a political rapprochement.

Consequently, the initial voices of the commoners, who craved for unity, and the groundswell of goodwill generated at the grassroots in the immediate aftermath of the disaster may well be swept away by a tidal wave of political bickering and mistrust.

"There is apprehension here that after initial overtures the government will get back to its old ways and deny political rights," an LTTE activist told Frontline in Kilinochchi, the political headquarters of the organisation. Similar scepticism prevails in Colombo. "The history of the LTTE is that they say one thing and do something else," a veteran soldier said.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga discounted the possibility of a resumption of peace talks. In an interaction with a group of journalists as the New Year dawned, Kumaratunga pointed out that the Tigers would not head to the negotiating table when they were weak. Though the ice between Colombo and the Tigers was, in Kumaratunga's view, melting in the matter of relief work, there is scepticism if this will hold.

There has been a momentary lull in the shrill criticism between the main political formations - the ruling United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) and the Opposition United National Party (UNP). In the first signs of an emerging position, the UNP demanded "transparency" in the government's disaster management efforts. As competitive politics takes control of the actions of the island-nation's leadership, there is little hope of the emergence of a new political culture emerging from the rubble left by the tsunami.

The positions adopted by sections of the media and hardline opinion-makers are also early pointers to an imminent slide in the relationship between the government and the rebels. The only positive fallout from the tsunami is that a possible outbreak of fighting between the rebels and the government may have been deferred.

The tsunami's devastation along the eastern coast is of particular significance in contemporary Sri Lankan history. On the coastline, military installations of neither the government nor the insurgents were spared. Both sides sustained heavy losses, the details of which have not been fully revealed. For the LTTE, the biggest loss is its main Sea Tiger base in Chalai, near Mullaittivu, which was "washed away". But the rebels said they lost only "15 Sea Tigers". The security forces have lost over 100 of its personnel and maintain that they lost "no major weaponry". As a result of the lowering of the military equilibrium, Sinhalese and Tamil civilians see the prospects of a return to conflict receding.

Across rebel-held Sri Lanka, the tsunami, more than anything else, appears to have hardened decades-long political positions, though initially the hope was that it would bring together the embattled nation.

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