Politicization of Aid in Sri Lanka Turns Deadly

Seventeen Sri Lankan aid workers (local employees of the group Action Contre La Faim) were massacred in the northeastern town of Mutur, as fighting between government troops and Tamil Tiger rebels raged. It was one of the bloodiest attacks ever on an aid group, and it highlights the difficulties faced by relief organizations caught in the crossfire of bullets and heated political confrontations. Action Contre La Faim was working on tsunami reconstruction and provided water and sanitation services to people displaced by the war.

Aid groups in the area now confront angry mobs, mainly from the island's ethnic Sinhalese majority, who say non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are biased in favor of minority Tamils and the rebels. Rohan Edrisinha, an analyst at the Centre for Policy Alternatives in Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo, says that “Ever since this government got into power, it has whipped up anti-NGO feeling. I think that has percolated down to the army, bureaucrats and officials.” Some observers attribute the rising anti-NGO sentiment to political pressure from hardline Buddhist and Marxist government allies. Relatives of the victims and aid workers say it appears likely that government troops were responsible for the killings.

The question how much aid goes to Sinhala, Tamil, and Muslim communities, respectively, takes on a charged political character. This is happening not just in the context of displacements due to the renewed fighting, but also needs to be seen against the backdrop of slower-than-expected progress in rebuilding after the 2004 tsunami, which has led to mutual recriminations between aid groups and government officials.

Peter Apps, “Global Aid Workers Walking a Tricky Tightrope,” Reuters AlertNet, 9 August 2006.
Link: www.alertnet.org/thenews/newsdesk/COL213773.htm.
Shimali Senanayake and Somini Sengupta, “Aid Agencies Stymied by War in Sri Lanka,” International Herald Tribune, 17 August 2006.
Link: www.iht.com/articles/2006/08/17/news/lanka.php.