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 Global Perspective

February 7, 2005
Vol. 2, No. 36

Rukshan Fernando
Rukshan Fernando coordinates the Human Rights Defenders Project for the Bangkok-based Forum Asia. He returned home to Sri Lanka to help with disaster relief.



Long-term resettlement is another issue that needs to be addressed. The aspirations of the poor and marginalized, particularly small-scale traders, casual employees and fisherfolk are in danger of being ignored.

Moving beyond relief: what is next of tsunami victims

By Rukshan Fernando

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka -- Though the church's actions following the Dec. 26 tsunami in Sri Lanka -- and other Indian Ocean nations -- have been commendable, the church must guard against its traditional tendency to simply provide relief and not become fully involved in the human rights and development issues that surround rebuilding efforts.

Last week's tsunami report
Read Rukshan Fernando's earlier report from Sri Lanka after the tsunami: Church joins grass-roots efforts of tsunami relief , posted Jan. 26.
Noteably, post-tsunami meetings between church leaders and political leaders, including the president and the prime minister, meetings that even many nongovernmental organizations don't have, were very good opportunities for the church to advocate for human rights issues related to the tsunami, but it is not clear whether these opportunities were maximized.

The church has tried to address the impact of the tsunami on Sri Lanka's fragile peace process. The North and East of the country, which are run as a defacto state by the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, have yet to recover from decades of civil war, and were not spared by the tsunami.

Until I arrived in the country shortly after the tsunami hit, I had heard that Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims were helping each other, going beyond years of hatred, suspicions and conflict. The LTTE, the government, and the military also seemed to be cooperating, I had heard. It is indeed good to see the people to people support continuing, cutting across the ethnic and religious differences. Helping this cooperation to continue is an area where the church has and continues to play a very important role.

Unfortunately, at political levels, the picture is not so rosy. After a welfare center in the Jaffna peninsular was torched, the government and the LTTE accused each other of the violence.

The Tamil Rehabilitation Organization, which many believe to be the relief wing of the LTTE, complained that government military forces were obstructing its relief supplies and harassing its volunteers. Political tension also increased when the visiting U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan expressed interest in an LTTE invitation to visit the tsunami-devasted areas it controls, and the Sri Lankan government prevented the trip. Many civil groups and the bishop of Jaffna had urged the U.N. chief to visit these areas, but how hard church leaders in the southern part of the country pushed for this remains unclear.

The LTTE has also claimed that the government was directing most aid to the South, which the government has denied.

Meanwhile, the government has rejected the LTTE's request that it be the sole conduit for aid to the North and East; the LTTE said it would work with relief organizations to ensure a just distribution. The Tigers also protested President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga's attempt to have the military manage all welfare centers. While it is true that Colombo has a history of systematic discrimination against the minority Tamils, I'm skeptical that relief groups could operating independently of the LTTE in the North and the East.

There have also been reports that the LTTE has forced displaced people who found shelter in government controlled areas in the East back to LTTE controlled areas where facilities are minimal.

Despite these tensions, I still feel hope in the government-LTTE cooperation. Both parties have indicated that they are ready to work together on tsunami relief mechanisms, even though controversial political issues means the stalled peace process has not been revived.

The vulnerability of children is an important issue that needs to be addressed. The LTTE's recruiting orphaned and displaced children in welfare centers is particularly cruel and inhuman. Also alarming are reports of attempts at child trafficking in the South, and children are in danger of abuse under the guise of adoptation.

As always, women are more vulnerable during and after a disaster, and their special needs should be considered in responding to the tragedy. For one thing, they have less access and little control over relief aid. Rapes have been reported in relief centers in the South. The elderly and disabled who have lost family support also need special attention. Some people have found themselves twice displaced: first by war and then by national disaster.

Many of the displaced have been housed in schools, but reopening the schools is necessary to bring devastated areas back to normalcy. This situation is pitting people's right to decent shelter against the right to education.

Long-term resettlement is another issue that needs to be addressed. There seems to be little participation from the affected communities in decision-making processes that are going to have profound effects on their already shattered lives. The aspirations of the poor and marginalized, particularly small-scale traders, casual employees and fisherfolk are in danger of being ignored.

The fact that the Task Force for Rebuilding the Nation, appointed by the president, is comprised largely of leading businessmen and entrepreneurs is disturbing and it is essential that such influential committees have genuine representatives from the affected communities.

"The favorites of the politicians in power will get the houses. Poor people like us might not get anything," an old man from Galle told me. He is caring for four young grandchildren and has no house.

With aid money coming from so many sources, initiatives like the United Nation's "to Audit Every Dollar" and watchdog groups like Transparency International will need wide public support. It would be good if the church could set an example in this regard.

As I write this, it is sad to note that "debt relief" has not resulted in debt cancellation but just postponement of debts, which will only aggravate the indebtedness of the poor countries such as Sri Lanka and Indonesia.

Similarly, I believe that rich states have failed the victims of tsunami. Most governments hiked their initial aid pledges only in the face of the amazing amounts of donations from their citizens.

Rich countries are still far behind their overseas development aid commitments as well as commitments made through the Monterrey Consensus at the International Conference on Financing for Development.

And of course, the pledged aid pales when compared to the military budgets of the donors. The United States alone spends more on its military budget for a day ($1 billion according to the Jan. 7 editorial in National Catholic Reporter) than it has pledged in tsunami relief.

It's clear that the challenge of the tsunami goes much beyond immediate relief. And each of the Indian Ocean nations has unique challenges. This could be an opportunity to promote a better world - with justice, peace, sustainable development and human rights. But it will take the concerted efforts of all: people's organizations, governments and international bodies.

The church -- with its influence, access to financial and human resources, and its local, national, regional and international network, not to mention its professed option for the marginalized and oppressed -- could play a significant role in the rebuilding of this region. So far, its voice has not risen above a whisper.

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