Notes from the Field

From Sri Lanka: Providing Relief to People Displaced by Conflict in the East

April 4, 2007

In response to the recent escalation of the conflict in Batticaloa District in Eastern Sri Lanka, thousands of residents fled their homes, particularly from Paduvankarai, Palukamam, and Thoppikala, to the Government controlled areas near Batticaloa town.  Government agencies and NGOs provided some relief to these refugees but the assistance provided did not always meet the needs of the large numbers of mostly Tamil internally displaced persons (IDPs) for food and other staples.

Thousands of IDPs arrived in Tamil villages bordering Kattankudi, a town inhabited entirely by Muslims, as well as other nearby Tamil villages. Responding to a desperate situation, the people of Kattankudi wanted to ease the suffering of their Tamil neighbors and were prepared to help in any way possible. However, Kattankudi residents were not clear on how to initiate the process and needed a group of leaders to organize their efforts.

The Chairman of the Kattankudi Urban Council, Mr. U.L.M.N. Mubeen, considered the options and realized that he could initiate action through the Kattankudi Working Group, consisting of business leaders and staff of the urban council and other local government authorities that was formed through the Local Economic Governance Project of The Asia Foundation.  The project is meant to improve the business environment in various localities and is supported by the Australian Agency for International Development. Mr. Mubeen called for a special meeting of the Working Group with an appeal that they champion the relief program.

The Working Group met on March 11, 2007 to discuss how they could provide assistance to the Tamil IDPs. They decided to provide up to 21,000 meal parcels for three days (March 12-14, 2007).  The Kattankudi Traders Association, Urban Council, and the All Mosques Federation contributed to and worked together to provide the meals.

On March 12, 2007, the Working Group made arrangements to provide the initial 3,000 parcels of food. Mr. S. Amalanathan, the Divisional Secretary (Government Official) of Araiyampathy, the adjoining Tamil village, witnessed the event and remarked that this initiative has paved the way for the Tamils in Araiyampathy and the Muslims in Kattankudi to set aside their differences and to build a better relationship. The two communities had recently been in conflict over issues such as land, business, and agriculture.  The initiative of the Working Group to feed the IDPs was the starting point for a dialogue between the two communities.

Responding to Mr. Amalanathan, the Chairman of the Kattankudi Urban Council stated that the reason they were able to join hands in this unique effort was due to a private-public dialogue (PPD) facilitated by The Asia Foundation from January 6-7, 2007. The PPD workshop included a module on the importance of reducing conflict which was specially designed for PPDs in the Eastern Province. The Chairman further stated that this experience provided an opportunity to put some of the lessons learned at that workshop into practice and for the Tamil and Muslim communities of his area to reconcile differences and begin to build ethnic harmony.

V. S. Srikantha is the Program Manager at The Asia Foundation’s office in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

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