Tsunami Disaster & the People of Tamil Eelam
Tamils fighting for fair share of disaster aid
Martin Regg Cohn
The Toronto Star
31 December, 2004
Sectarian tensions are dragging down relief efforts
in this strife-ridden corner of the country, according to Tamil aid
workers, who are accusing the Sinhalese-dominated armed forces of
blocking or diverting badly needed food shipments.
Top local officials of the Tamils Rehabilitation Organization — the
aid wing of the rebel Tamil Tigers — offered detailed allegations
yesterday of army interference and sabotage in this isolated eastern
"The army confiscates these things and brings
them to Buddhist temples, or brings them to welfare (refugee)
centres without co-ordinating with us," said Kirupa Sivam, TRO
co-ordinator for Batticaloa city. "This is not only a natural
disaster but a man-made disaster."
Despite desperate living conditions and shortages of
basic necessities since the Asian tsunami that killed as many as
30,000 people in Sri Lanka — about half of them here in the
northeast — the government is not distributing any aid at all to
these Tamil-dominated areas, he added.
"The government has not issued anything, not even one rupee of food,
even until now," Sivam asserted. "Everything we're giving out is
from our own local fundraising and collections."
Tamil relief officials cited four separate episodes when government
soldiers have stood in the way of relief efforts: Tamil Hindus
working on tea plantations in Thambathamne and Thangamamy Estates
were stopped when they tried to bring rice, vegetables and tea past
a military checkpoint yesterday, and had to reclaim their goods when
the army tried to divert them to a Buddhist temple, according to
A team trying to deliver aid shipments to the hard-hit Ampara
district was blocked at an army checkpoint, despite promises by top
local government officials that clearance would be granted, said
Three Tamil relief trucks heading to Kallar, southeast of
Batticaloa, were stopped at the Chettipalayam checkpoint by elite
soldiers from the Special Task Force who forcibly unloaded the
relief supplies and took over distribution, according to
Kurukulasingam Thevarajah, Batticaloa office director.
Another shipment was delayed at nearby Pillaiyarada checkpoint,
Apart from the relief organization's allegations, four trucks sent
by the World Food Program to minority Tamil areas were blocked by
Sinhalese mobs that diverted donations to their own majority
communities, according to reports this week. The food program
The allegations threaten to undermine the Sinhalese-dominated
government's pronouncements that it is treating rival ethnic groups
even-handedly after two decades of bloody civil war. Indeed, the
incidents could damage Sri Lanka's credibility as it seeks more
foreign aid from countries like Canada, which has sent a planeload
of relief materials scheduled to land today in the capital, Colombo.
In Ottawa yesterday, Sri Lankan High Commissioner Geetha De Silva
denied her government is discriminating against any ethnic minority,
the Toronto Star's Tonda MacCharles reports.
"When this disaster hit, it did not go looking for people of one
ethnic community or one religious group. It hit everybody equally,
the Tamils, the Sinhalese and the Muslims in the country," De Silva
told a news conference. "This is a national crisis and we are
meeting it in a national capacity."
She said southern and eastern provinces are most affected by the
disaster, but "the government has been sending relief assistance to
all the provinces, all the districts in the provinces that are
Some Toronto MPs have come under intense pressure from Canadians of
Sri Lankan heritage to ensure aid to the politically divided country
is distributed equally, sources told the Star's Les Whittington.
Human Resources Minister Joe Volpe insisted yesterday that "relief
efforts are indeed getting into the northeast part of Sri Lanka.
"We are now told that the authorities on both sides in Sri Lanka are
co-operating with us and other countries to get relief efforts and
emergency goods to the places where people are most affected,
irrespective of any political position that might be held in the
area," Volpe said, after 30 Liberal MPs from the GTA held a
conference call to discuss Canadian aid actions.
The Canadian aid is earmarked for the International Federation of
Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, which will distribute it
without going through official government or rebel channels. IFRC
director Alasdair Gordon-Gibson said his organization has long
experience in negotiating between the bitter rivals and crossing
checkpoints, and doesn't anticipate problems in distributing the aid
Other senior aid officials interviewed earlier this week expressed
the hope any blockages or diversions would be isolated incidents,
and cited instances of co-operation and goodwill between the
Sinhalese and Tamil communities, such as fundraising appeals at a
time of crisis.
Local government officials could not be reached for comment last
night on the specific claims of the Tamils Rehabilitation
Organization, which is closely aligned with the rebel Tigers and is
perhaps being targeted for increased scrutiny.
But Sri Lanka's top political leadership has publicly pledged a
policy of "no discrimination" in aid distribution. In a televised
address this week, President Chandrika Kumaratunga called on Sri
Lankans to "act together if we are to emerge from the ashes of this
Her office also contacted the political wing of the Liberation
Tigers of Tamil Eelam, as the rebels are formally known, to offer
full co-operation. But the government has strongly discouraged
foreign governments from giving direct aid to the Tamil relief
group, suggesting this would only politicize the relief effort.
Now, the TRO is calling on Canada and other countries to provide
direct support to make up for the shortcomings in Colombo's relief
"We would like funds to be given directly to us, and the Sri Lankan
government could monitor it," Thevarajah said in an interview in the
TRO's regional office here, where staff in grey vests lug sacks of
flour and rice to waiting trucks. Problems at army roadblocks are
not only delaying the distribution of aid, but possibly discouraging
people from making donations to the Tamils, he complained.
In Ottawa, Da Silva said the Tamil request for direct support from
Canada "is disturbing to us, and I would wish to tell the people of
Canada the government of Sri Lanka is going all across the country
to help the people."
The Tamils' allegations come
against a backdrop of continuing anxiety among the local population.
Two decades of civil war culminated in a truce two years ago that
has largely held, but checkpoints and sandbags are still in evidence
along the A-5 highway that winds past rice paddies, coconut palms
and mango trees toward the impoverished eastern regions.
The road alternates between army-controlled and rebel-held areas,
each marked with rival flags and emblems. Roadside billboards warn
of hidden landmines, a legacy of the brutal fighting. Indeed, Sivam,
who also works on de-mining, said his team had retrieved about 15
landmines uprooted by the tidal waves and found floating above
ground this week.
On the island's north coast yesterday, near Valvedditturai, hometown
of Tamil rebel leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran, bodyguards had to
whisk Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse from a meeting with Tamil
victims, Associated Press reports.
Rajapakse was talking with the victims about their problems when an
announcement was made over a loudspeaker urging people not to
interact with him, said a government official.
After hearing the call, the agitated crowd shouted: "Get out ... We
don't want your help." Some people picked up wooden poles and bashed
journalists and a soldier. Rajapakse and his entourage were rushed
to a nearby military base.
Another sign of the public's jitters came yesterday afternoon, when
word spread of a government warning that another tsunami was
imminent. Like much of the country, Batticaloa was panic-stricken.
People fled on foot and in vehicles across bridges to the high
A team from the World University Service of Canada was distributing
food at a refugee camp in nearby Ampara district when thousands of
people started fleeing for their lives. The stunned aid workers
found themselves abandoned by people who only moments before had
been beseeching them for aid, said University Service worker Odayan
People continue to be unnerved by episodes of looting in devastated
areas. Army sentries and armed police have been deployed in key
locations, but the problem persists.
At Navaladi, one of the worst-affected areas here, locals frustrated
by the lack of a strong police presence have turned to cadres from
the Tamil Tigers to patrol after nightfall.
The beachfront looks like a war zone. A Hindu temple that was once
one of its most prominent has been devastated, with statues of the
elephant god Ganesh buried in the sand.
The fallout from Navaladi's destruction is still being felt by
survivors crowded into makeshift refugee centres.
"I don't have anyone," said Sasiharan Thebchanamoorthy, 14, who
returned home from a school vacation to find he'd lost his mother,
father, two sisters and a brother to the tsunami.