Tamils - a Trans State Nation..

"To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
-
Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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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 enclave.

"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 Sivam.

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 Sivam.

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, Thevarajah added.

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 declined comment.

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 affected."

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 even-handedly.

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 destruction."

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 effort.

"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 ground.

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 Arumugam.

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.


 

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