A deal for cooperation

Print edition : July 15, 2005

The much-debated Post-Tsunami Operational Management Structure takes off with the government and the LTTE signing the agreement to collaborate on the rehabilitation programme, despite opposition from various quarters.

V.S. SAMBANDAN in Colombo

A JVP protest against the joint mechanism to disburse tsunami aid, on June 24.-SRIYANTHA WALPOLA

"The Government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have resolved to work together in good faith and using their best efforts to facilitate and expedite the process of rebuilding the affected areas."

- Preamble to the Memorandum of Understanding for the Establishment of a Post-Tsunami Operational Management Structure; June 24, 2005.

ON June 24, nearly six months after the killer waves struck Sri Lanka, the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) signed the MoU that provides for a collaborative structure between the state and the insurgents. Officially called the Post-Tsunami Operational Management Structure (P-TOMS), the document has been at the centre of a heated political debate in the island-nation from the time it was conceived.

Initiated by President Chandrika Kumaratunga, the proposal was internationalised when the major donors encouraged it. Ultimately, the P-TOMS, popularly known as the joint mechanism, was to become the subject of an intense domestic debate. The question was whether the LTTE, in its present form, should be given a key role in the reconstruction of the tsunami-affected coastal areas.

If the formulation of the document momentarily narrowed the gap between the state and the rebels, it accentuated the divisions between the two main allies of Sri Lanka's ruling United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA). The deal saw the parting of ways between Kumaratunga's Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP).

On June 23, when the government announced that it would table the document in Parliament the next day, the JVP announced a countrywide protest against the move. As the JVP prepared itself for a show of strength, security forces stepped up their presence on the approach roads to the Parliament building on the morning of June 24. A helicopter was kept ready on the sprawling premises of the Parliament complex to ferry senior Members of Parliament in case of an emergency. Riot police were also in place to prevent the situation from going out of control. About a kilometre from the Parliament complex, the police burst teargas shells to disperse a crowd of JVP protesters who attempted to march towards it.

Inside the 225-member House, however, the proposed adjournment debate remained a non-starter with JVP MPs stalling the proceedings. As the Leader of the House, Maithripala Sirisena, rose to table the document and read out a statement, JVP MPs invaded the well of the House. They raised slogans such as "No to the proposal which will divide the country".

A senior Minister, D.M. Jayaratne, raised a counter-slogan: "Yes to the proposal which will unite the country."

With the slanging match going on, Speaker W.J.M. Lokubandara suspended proceedings and called for a meeting of the parliamentary group leaders. At the meeting, the JVP's main question - whether the P-TOMS was signed before it was brought to Parliament - was answered in the negative by Sirisena. When the House reassembled, the Speaker announced that the document had not yet been signed. An unrelenting JVP continued with its protests, forcing a disruption of parliamentary proceedings. The P-TOMS, however, was tabled and included in the official proceedings.

Norway's Deputy Foreign Minister Vidar Helgesen with LTTE political wing leader S.P. Tamilselvan in Kilinochchi before their talks on the joint mechanism.-AFP /HO/LTTE

The JVP also held a press conference, in which it argued that its pullout from the government was justified. The party threatened to take the legal route to prevent the joint mechanism from coming into force.

A few minutes after the House was adjourned until July 5, the process of serially obtaining the signatures of the representatives of the government and the LTTE began. Around 10-30 a.m. on June 24, the Secretary to the Ministry of Relief, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction, M.S. Jayasinghe, signed it on behalf of the government. The document was then taken by helicopter by the Norwegian Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Hans Bratskar, to rebel-held Kilinochchi in northern Sri Lanka for the LTTE's endorsement.

In Kilinochchi, the Deputy head of the LTTE's `Peace and Development Secretariat', Shanmugalingam Ranjan, signed the document and the P-TOMS, which was at the centre of a political hurricane for nearly six months, took effect.

THE mechanism provides for a three-tiered structure - at the national, regional and district levels - for equitable allocation of resources and distribution of projects. The committees at the apex and regional levels would function on a consensual basis, with provisions to ensure minority protection.

The national committee will have three members - one each from the government, the LTTE and the Muslim parties. The post of chairman will be shared by rotation. The role of the national committee will include policy formulation, advisory services and monitoring of the functioning of the P-TOMS.

The 10-member regional committee will have five LTTE, three Muslim and two government nominees. Chaired by a representative of the LTTE, the regional committee will oversee the reconstruction work for the six northern and eastern districts affected by the tsunami - Amparai, Batticaloa, Trincomalee, Mullaittivu, Kilinochchi and Jaffna.

While the national committee will be based in Colombo, the regional committee will be based in Kilinochchi. The district committees are largely a continuation of the existing mechanism, which has been in place since the tsunami struck and would be located within the respective districts.

A significant element in the P-TOMS is the critical international content in the structure. The funds for reconstruction, estimated to be nearly $ 3 billion, would be handled by an international body. "The parties shall appoint a suitable multilateral agency to be the custodian of the regional fund," the agreement said. According to current indications, it is likely that the World Bank will be named as the custodian.

The second element of international presence is in the form of observers to the national and regional committees. These two committees will have a nominee each from the multilateral and bilateral donors, making it a total of at least four international observers for the two groups. In addition, "other observers may be invited to attend the meetings of the regional committee". The third international footprint on the structure is in the form of audit, with the donors insisting on stringent audit conditions.

THE agreement between Colombo and the LTTE on the P-TOMS document, however, does not mean that all is well with the state of affairs in the island-nation battling to overcome decades of bloodshed and the worst natural disaster. Deep within lie issues that are bound to revisit the polity unless effective steps are taken.

One of them is the bitterly divided national political line-up, marked by the antagonism between the SLFP and the United National Party (UNP). With another round of elections around the corner - a scheduled presidential election next year and a possible snap parliamentary poll - the recurrent political flux could be a precursor to a likely realignment of forces. In this new realignment, the JVP and the all-Buddhist-monk Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) seem set to revive hardline political opinion. With these two parties vying for the same vote base, the possibility of hardline outbidding runs high, unless there is a coming together of minds among the non-hardliners.

The other key issue is the manner in which the P-TOMS is implemented. Critical to this will be the LTTE's approach to its end game. With no indications of a change in its final objective of a separate Eelam, the manner in which the LTTE conducts itself in the P-TOMS structure would be a pointer to how the rebels plan their political gambit.

Now that the document has been signed, the next round will be naming the members of the committees, followed by the actual working of the mechanism. Given that there is a significant section of hardline opinion in the state and rebel structures, the actual working of the mechanism would be a challenge.

For the LTTE, the mechanism could well be a detour before it returns to its basic stand. The gain for the LTTE is the formalisation of its group in the politico-administrative structure - a demand that it has made since its March 2003 unilateral pullout from the ceasefire agreement.

President Kumaratunga sees in the joint mechanism a "window of opportunity" to resume the stalled peace talks. The Norwegian Foreign Affairs Minister, Jan Petersen, has termed it an act that has "major political significance". The LTTE, for its part, was reticent in its reaction.

The "much delayed, debated and often cynically opposed" mechanism was "at last" signed, the LTTE said. The LTTE's political wing leader, S.P. Tamilselvan, has already pointed to the rebel mode when he said before the document was signed that it would depend on its implementation. When the move towards a resumption of peace talks is on, the LTTE is most likely to revert to its position that it should be on the basis of its proposed Interim Self Governing Authority (ISGA), which has been rejected by the SLFP.

At its best, the P-TOMS would be a breather for a tsunami-devastated region; at worst, it could symbolise another false dawn. Much of how the mechanism works will depend on the commitment made by Colombo and the Tigers in the Preamble to the document.

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