KILINOCHCHI, Sri Lanka -- Three weeks ago, Suren Sornalingam was
managing logistics for Nike Inc.'s European operations from his
office in Amsterdam. Now, he's running relief convoys in Sri Lanka
-- to a region controlled by separatist guerrillas known as the
Standing in a cramped warehouse on a recent evening, Mr.
Sornalingam, 37 years old, organized a shipment of rice, sardines
and water tanks for hundreds of thousands of ethnic Tamils whose
homes were washed away by the Dec. 26 tsunami. Hours later, he
boarded a van for a 10-hour journey to Sri Lanka's northeast. He
wanted to make sure the relief reached his fellow Tamils, a Hindu
minority in this predominantly Buddhist nation of 17 million.
"Unfortunately, the government has always treated the Tamils as
second-class citizens," Mr. Sornalingam says. "We've had to take the
initiative to make sure our people recover."
Ethnic Tamils from around the world are mobilizing to respond to Sri
Lanka's humanitarian crisis. Yet the speed and success with which
the Tamil diaspora has acted also presents an unusual political risk
for the country.
That's because the outpouring of support for Tamils could affect a
tenuous truce between the government and a Tamil rebel group that
has been waging a decades-long civil war. The rebels, called the
Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, are considered a terrorist group
by the U.S. government.
Some Sri Lankan government officials say the efforts of Tamils in
other nations -- working largely through the Tamils' chief
humanitarian-aid agency -- could steel the rebels' resolve. Tamils
want to manage their own relief efforts "because it promotes their
efforts to secure autonomy," says Wimal Weerawansa, a
parliamentarian with the People's Liberation Front, a partner in Sri
Lanka's ruling coalition.
Sri Lanka's civil war has been one of the world's most brutal,
costing some 65,000 lives and splitting the country in two. Outside
Sri Lanka, the Tamil Tigers are perhaps best known for suicide
bombings, done in hopes of furthering their quest for an independent
state. Tamil Tiger insurgents in effect control parts of Sri Lanka's
northeast, and have their own navy, judicial system and more than
Initially, there was hope the enormity of Sri Lanka's disaster could
give fresh impetus to the peace process. Both sides' navies
sustained significant losses from the tsunami, military analysts
say, and there have been incidents of Tiger troops cooperating with
government forces in relief operations.
But political tensions around tsunami aid are emerging. Sri Lankan
President Chandrika Kumarantunga -- who lost an eye to a Tiger
grenade in 1999 -- was photographed shaking hands with rebel
commanders in local newspapers soon after the tsunami.
On Saturday, however, Ms. Kumarantunga's government nixed an
invitation from the Tigers to United Nations Secretary General Kofi
Annan to visit devastated Tamil districts. That touched off Tamil
protests and prompted a diplomatic scolding from Mr. Annan."The U.N.
is not here to take sides," he said.
Leaders of the insurgency say aid earmarked for them is being
redirected to the majority Sinhalese population in the south -- a
charge the Sri Lankan government denies. In fact, the president, Ms.
Kumarantunga, and other government officials say the country is
sending more aid to the north and east, where most of Sri Lanka's
two million Tamils live.
Tamil expatriates' relief efforts are being coordinated through an
agency called the Tamils Rehabilitation Organization. The TRO has
offices in 14 countries, including the United Kingdom, Switzerland,
Australia and the U.S. The TRO also oversees hundreds of medical
clinics, schools and camps in Tamil communities in Sri Lanka -- many
in areas controlled by the rebel Tigers.
Following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S., the Bush
administration placed the Tamil Tigers on its list of terrorist
organizations, citing their use of suicide bombers and political
The terrorist designation bans the U.S. and international agencies
from supplying cash or aid to the Tamil Tigers. The TRO, as a
result, will need to show that every water bottle and bowl of rice
it distributes is going directly to refugees -- rather than rebels
-- if it wants to keep its status as a nongovernment organization.
The U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Terrorism and Financial
Intelligence is closely watching tsunami-relief operations,
including TRO's work with the Tigers, people familiar with the
matter said. The TRO says it is purely an aid organization,
independent of the Tigers. The group says it will continue its
efforts to deliver aid regardless of scrutiny.
"We simply don't have time to debate at this time," says Chandru
Para-rajasingham, an Australian national who heads the TRO's office
in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo. "There are too many lives at
There are more than one million Tamils living overseas who consider
Sri Lanka their original home. Many left because they felt the
government discriminated against them, on racial and religious
grounds. There are tens of millions more Tamils in India and other
The Tamil diaspora network has helped the TRO execute one of the
most effective tsunami-relief operations in Sri Lanka, say aid
agencies and government officials. The TRO has deployed more than a
dozen medical teams and scores of truckloads of supplies. It has
raised more than $2 million.
Roughly two-thirds of the 30,000 fatalities in Sri Lanka are
reported to be from the country's north and east, traditional Tamil
homelands. Aid groups warn the numbers could rise sharply if
shelter, food and water aren't delivered quickly.
The TRO was born in 1985, two years after anti-Tamil rioting broke
out across Sri Lanka. Tamils fled to southern India during those
years, as well as to Western countries. Tamil leaders moved to
establish an international group to support their displaced
The organization set up offices and welfare centers inside Sri Lanka
during the mid-1990s, when fighting between the Tamil Tigers and the
Sri Lankan army drove hundreds of thousands of Tamils into refugee
Today the TRO operates extensively inside Tamil Tiger-controlled
areas. "It's true we have to work alongside the Tigers to operate in
these areas. We don't deny that," says Mr. Para-rajasingham, of the
TRO. "But if we didn't, we couldn't help any of the people here."
The Tigers run virtually every facet of life in districts under
their control. They extract sales taxes and run their own police and
judicial systems. Visitors must cross a carefully monitored series
The trust developed between the Tamil Tigers and the TRO has proven
key for tsunami victims. Within hours of the calamity, TRO offices
in Tiger territory and in Colombo began relaying damage assessments.
Offices from overseas began sending money and supplies. Tamil
communities in Australia held telethons and raffles.
"The tsunami has pulled the Tamil community together more than ever
before," says Mr. Para-rajasingham.
The TRO's two-story office in Colombo has become the group's command
center for relief efforts. On a recent day, Mr. Sornalingam, the
Nike executive, mixed with dozens of expatriate Tamils as wells as
non- Tamil Norwegian, American and Australian volunteers.
In a conference room dubbed "the hub," volunteers logged onto 12
personal computers and typed out aid requests to present to foreign
governments. Others updated casualty figures on the TRO's Web site
and sought donations. In an adjacent office, volunteers tried to
match medical requests from the refugee camps with supplies the TRO
"It's all a bit chaotic, but it somehow seems to be working," said
Amalan Kanagaratnam, a lawyer from Los Angeles who was visiting
family in Sri Lanka when the tsunami hit. Within hours, the
30-year-old was helping aid workers deliver food and medicine.
"It was just terrible what I saw," says a shaken Mr. Kanagaratnam, a
U.S. citizen who is an ethnic Tamil.
Australian Durga Owen, 21, loaded boxes of relief supplies onto TRO
trucks on Friday and grumbled about the government's response to the
crisis. "Our job is to make sure that aid is being delivered," the
gangly law student said.
Volunteers in the TRO office say the most pressing work is in the
more than 200 refugee camps the organization helps administer.
At one of the camps, in a town called Pallai, the TRO oversees
efforts of international aid agencies now making their way into the
area. Officials from Unicef consult with TRO officials on how to
best administer a new delivery of medicine.
"This way the international agencies can hit the ground running,"
says Geodhini Sivaraj, who heads the TRO's Sydney office. "They
don't have to reinvent the wheel each time."
Last Wednesday, the TRO managed to get refugees to prepare their own
food for the first time since the disaster, a lunch of rice and
lentils. Children handed battered metal plates of food to visitors.
"This is one of the most organized relief efforts I've seen," says
Dharitri Patnait, an Indian aid specialist at Bangalore-based
ActionAsia International. "I think it's because they are used to
dealing with displaced people because of the war."
The Tigers play an important role in channeling aid into territory
At a checkpoint in the town of Oranthai, most vehicles are subject
to the Tigers' stringent inspections. Some wait overnight for their
turn to enter the rebel-controlled area, with drivers setting up
hammocks or sleeping in their trucks. But clearly marked aid
vehicles are swiftly led through barbed-wire barriers with an escort
of the Tigers' own blue-uniformed police motorcyclists, sirens
Some aid recipients don't distinguish between the Tigers and the
TRO. P. Rajendran, a fisherman, says he had to flee his home in the
mid-1990s because of skirmishes between the Tigers and Sri Lankan
troops. After a spell in a refugee camp, he says the TRO helped him
find a new place to live further down the coast.
He lost a young son in the tsunami. But he speaks with pride about
the Tamil community's sense of self-reliance. "We can't rely on the
government to help us," he says. "We know how to take care of
It is precisely this brand of thinking that's creating growing
tension between the government and the Tamil Tigers, often with the
TRO in the middle.
Since the government and the Tamil Tigers agreed to a cease-fire in
February 2002, violence in the country has subsided substantially.
That's a big reason foreign tourists were returning to the country's
beaches and tea plantations.
Now there are signs Sri Lanka's recovery efforts are falling victim
to its ethnic and political divide. The guerrillas' invitation to
the U.N.'s Mr. Annan was particularly vexing to the government.
"At a later date, the [Tamil Tigers] are likely to make
representations to the U.N. that they already have self rule in the
north and east as part of a bid for recognition as a separate
state," JVP general secretary Tilvin Silva wrote last week to
parliament's opposition leader.
The TRO's efforts are falling under new restrictions. In the days
immediately after the tsunami, volunteers were able to secure aid
directly from some foreign governments, the TRO says.
The Sri Lankan government, however, now wants to control aid coming
into the country. President Kumarantunga established three task
forces last week to coordinate the aid effort. Her government
requires all international donations be channeled through
central-government agencies, rather than independent outfits like
"We have a more formal structure now. It's more organized," says
Tara de Mel, who heads the government's Task Force for Rescue and
Relief. "We now have committees for each camp, which are working
closely with the military."