Report from Colombo: Unreported Disaster, Forgotten Conflict?

Colombo’s Daily News reports on the heavy flooding that hit southern and central Sri Lanka in January 2007.

“Rains wreak havoc” shouts the front page of the Sunday Observer, Sri Lanka’s largest English-language newspaper, in its January 14 edition. Floods and mudslides in south-central parts of the country killed at least 18 people and displaced close to 80,000. Sadly, as disasters go, these are unremarkable numbers, and the human drama behind them goes largely unnoticed in a world consumed with many other crises.

As under-reported as the landslides is the re-emergence of Sri Lanka’s armed conflict, pitting the government against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Two years after the world was riveted by the massive tsunami that struck Sri Lanka along with several other countries along the rim of the Indian Ocean, events in the tear-shaped island are once more relegated to the backpages.

In the immediate aftermath of that disaster, there was considerable hope that the humanitarian impulse would help overcome the ethnic conflict that has bogged down this lush country since 1983. Similar hopes existed in Indonesia’s Aceh province—the tsunami’s ground zero and likewise the site of a long-standing armed conflict. As it turned out, Aceh and Indonesia’s central government did strike a peace agreement. But Sri Lanka has suffered an all but declared return to war—officially, both sides are still adhering to a ceasefire agreement—that shows no signs of abating any time soon.

No two conflicts are ever alike, and success in Aceh did not make a similar outcome in Sri Lanka any likelier. The immediate aftermath of a disaster can create some humanitarian space that in turn may present an opportunity for peacemaking. But this is merely a brief window of opportunity that needs to be translated into lasting political change. There is no broadly-applicable blueprint that can override important local realities and dynamics.

The country’s uplands—famous for its tea plantations—feature some very steep hills.  Deforestation and population growth have combined to produce deadly landslides in the wake of heavy rains.

To explore these, we* traveled to Sri Lanka to conduct a range of interviews with analysts, NGO representatives, and diplomats.

Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital, is a bustling, noisy metropolis. Yet there are unmistakable signs of the jitters attendant to the revived conflict. The fighting takes place on the opposite side of the island, in the northeast, but LTTE bombers recently bombed two buses in the south and have in the past staged daring attacks in the capital. Tourists are fewer in number, military checkpoints are ubiquitous, and many public buildings are off limits to camera-wielding visitors, lest they be mistaken for LTTE spies.

Intense quarrels over the distribution and control of post-tsunami aid contributed to the current situation. The Sinhala and Tamil areas of the island are drifting ever more apart politically and economically. Colombo’s Daily News proudly reported on January 15 that “Lanka tops list in post-tsunami rehab work.” But whatever progress has been made in the country’s Sinhala south has not been matched in the Tamil northeast, where progress has languished due in large part to the renewed hostilities.

A further deepening of the island’s divide seems inevitable. Things very likely will get worse, perhaps much worse, before they will get better.


*Worldwatch researchers Michael Renner and Zoe Chafe are completing a two-year project on peacemaking in the wake of disasters. Their visit to Sri Lanka follows on an earlier field trip to Aceh.