April 07, 2005

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Tsunami Reconstruction and Violence

The distribution of tsunami aid is a contentious question of sovereignty in Sri Lanka and other affected states.

I spent the month of February conducting research in Sri Lanka for a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) grant, exploring the links among aid, conflict, and security. My pre-tsunami plans to re-interview war-affected people of the Eastern Province and the local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that worked with and for them were, clearly, no longer appropriate. The tsunami wiped out hundreds of thousands of war-displaced people in makeshift villages along the coast. Those who survived had more pressing matters than research.

Instead, I conducted the interviews planned in the Sri Lankan city of Colombo and took up a three-week volunteer consultancy with UNICEF, probing the issues of sexual and gender-based violence that had arisen in the welfare centres set up for survivors of the tsunami.

Immediately after the devastation of the tidal waves, predatory sexual assault and abduction were reported, as families were decimated and the social structures that ensure people's protection were largely absent. The presence of unknown persons from other villages in the welfare centres also undermined the safety of those without adults to rely upon.

Working with a Sri Lankan anthropologist on contract with UNICEF, our mandate was to develop strategies to address sexual and other gender-based violence that both pre-dated and stemmed from the tsunami.

Fishermen without work experienced frustration and fear of returning to the sea; those who had lost entire families were angry and hopeless; many of them used alcohol in an attempt to assuage their losses. Much of the domestic violence we encountered related to the use of alcohol, without it being the underlying cause.

The work took us across northern and eastern Sri Lanka - a war zone for the past two decades - meeting with UN agencies, NGOs, police, and the tsunami survivors themselves. We explored ways to organize the temporary camps under construction - comprised mostly of modest, detached family huts - to minimize violence and assure safety for those who were to inhabit them. Simple design features like lighting at night, the separation of male and female bathrooms and the protection of women's privacy all have a concrete impact on security in these transit centres.

Conflict and violence in the camps is, however, just one dimension of the politics that shape tsunami response. The geopolitics of land use and the question of where tsunami-displaced people can return to are difficult. The distribution of tsunami aid is also a contentious question of sovereignty in Sri Lanka and other affected states.

The tsunami affected a number of countries that already hosted serious political conflicts. These armed struggles are manifested differently across the affected region. In Aceh, a struggle for independence from Indonesia has been ongoing for more that 25 years. For Burma, the most silent victim of the tsunami, a military junta rules despite elections that handed a victory to Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy in 1990.

In Sri Lanka, war between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and government forces has been on-going for more than two decades. While a ceasefire agreement was signed between the warring factions in 2002, conflict has continued in the form of human rights violations, assassinations, fear and insecurity. Communal tensions fuelled by ethnic nationalism have created deep suspicion among the country's three main ethnic groups. Minority Tamils and Muslims trust neither each other nor the Sinhalese majority that has the most significant ties to government.

What role has the tsunami had on the conflict in Sri Lanka and the politics that fuel it? Some hopeful stories of Sinhala individuals helping tsunami-affected families in the Eastern Province - a Muslim and Tamil-dominated region - have been offset by feelings by these minorities of unequal treatment by the government of Sri Lanka.

Put another way, what impact has politics had on the delivery of tsunami aid? The delivery of immediate assistance and longer term commitments to reconstruction are indivisible from the competing nationalisms that have generated their own kind of displacement and devastation over the past decades.

One puzzling example is the establishment of buffer zones in the north, east, and southern parts of the island. The buffer zones are intended to prevent further lives from being lost in the future by precluding rebuilding of any kind a specified distance from the high tide mark. Their rationale is, however, less than transparent.

In the densely populated south, where tourism is greatest and support for the current government highest, a 100 metre buffer zone has been established. In the Tamil and Muslim-dominated Eastern Province - where damage has been greatest - a 200 metre buffer zone has been declared. In both of these areas, the high density of population and scarcity of land make the zones highly contentious. The LTTE-controlled area of the Wanni, to the north but including eastern shoreline, is to have a 400 metre buffer zone. Each of these zones is testament to the political machinations that predate the tsunami.

Why the differences? And how are they being calculated? There are no clear answers to these questions, but there is plenty of room for researchers and others to question the reasoning behind these seemingly scientific numbers.

Unsurprisingly, those displaced by the tsunami in the east - minority Tamils and Muslims - are claiming discrimination, given that so much less land has been rendered out of bounds in the Sinhala-dominated south.

More poignant and also more political is the reality that many of those displaced by the tsunami in the eastern towns of Batticaloa, Akkaraipattu, and Kalmunai had already been displaced by the war before their seaside homes were swept away by the tidal waves.

Narrow strips of land between the sea and lagoons -called littoral, or eluvankaral in Tamil - once home to Muslim and Tamil villages have been declared unlivable by the government, with no clear rationale as to why or how this will prevent future casualties.

The hinterland, or paduvaankaral, inland from the lagoon is occupied largely by Sinhalese people resettled there by government colonization schemes during the more nationalist periods of the 1950s and 1970s.

There is no physical science nor any social science behind these new regulations, and their arbitrariness is not lost on those affected. The opposition party has stated that it would rescind the regulations if people support it.

The indivisibility of war and tsunami reconstruction becomes apparent with the escalation of violence and rise of recent killings in the Eastern Province. From buffer zones to delivery mechanisms, Sri Lanka is not short on technical solutions but political ones.

Emergency aid and humanitarian provisions have been delivered to most survivors of the tsunami, but the obstructionist geopolitics of reconstruction and the absence of peace in Sri Lanka are far too evident.

While Sri Lankans are well-positioned to address these challenges, I look forward to joining them in engaging the political landscapes of displacement in further research and teaching there.

Jennifer Hyndman is an associate professor of geography whose research interests include questions of displacement, security, and development in conflict zones.

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