Report from Colombo: Warfare Makes for Mixed Progress on Tsunami Rebuilding

When the Sri Lankan army captured the eastern town of Vakarai, it was front page news in Colombo.

Reports suggest that up to 80-90 percent of the reconstruction needs in Sri Lanka’s south have been completed. In the north and the east, however, it’s a different story. Already less developed than the south, and now increasingly under duress from the resumption of warfare between government forces and Tamil Tiger rebels, rebuilding is lagging far behind. In fact, aid agencies have felt compelled to switch from development activities to emergency mode. Many of them have pulled out of the war zone altogether. Due to safety concerns and government restrictions, we* were unable to travel there.

Fighting has intensified, and on January 19 the government army captured Vakarai. Embattled since early November 2006, this eastern town is located between the cities of Trincomalee and Batticaloa, on a narrow finger of land between the Indian Ocean and Upaa lagoon. “Tigers Lose East” blared the January 21 edition of the Sunday Observer, commenting on the fall of the last Tiger stronghold in the East.

The media here portray the battle as a “humanitarian mission to liberate innocent Tamil civilians from the LTTE grip,” as the Daily News in Colombo put it. But the humanitarian and human rights situation there is likely to be marked by misery. Yet those who think that the government can win this war and finish off the Tigers feel vindicated, denouncing other views as amounting to coddling terrorists.

Along the A2, Sri Lanka’s southern coastal road, houses destroyed by the tsunami stand side-by-side with newly erected buildings.

Indeed, not a day goes by without fresh and often absurd accusations of this sort against diplomats and NGOs. Canadian diplomat Alan Rock, who published findings for the United Nations on child soldier recruiting by government forces, found himself accused of actively supporting the LTTE. The charity Save the Children took out a newspaper ad to defend itself against scurrilous media charges after two boats that it donated to civilian recipients were found in an LTTE camp.

It’s by no means clear that the government has the LTTE on the run for good. And despite some superficially good economic news, the war is imposing a heavy toll. Military expenditures rose by at least 30 percent in 2006. Military recruitments and arms purchases have been financed through large budget deficits and foreign borrowing. But due to the uncertain security situation, tourists are staying away, depriving Sri Lanka of much needed foreign exchange. International lenders are increasingly reluctant to lend more money. According to Muttukrishna Sarvananthan of the Point Pedro Institute of Development, the government secured only $100 million out of a desired $500 million from international capital markets.

The media's martial cheerleading notwithstanding, an international economist based in Colombo commented privately that the majority of the population is fed up with the war. But unlike Indonesia's Aceh province, where a strong popular desire for peace helped bring about a peace agreement after the tsunami, Sri Lanka’s near future looks to be dominated by more, rather than less violence.

*Worldwatch researchers Michael Renner and Zoe Chafe are completing a two-year project on peacemaking in the wake of disasters. They just completed a field trip to Sri Lanka.