In The News

Three Years Later, Conflicts in Tsunami Areas Have Taken Very Different Directions

December 19, 2007

The devastation of the 2004 tsunami came on the heels of two separate, decades-long conflicts between insurgent armies and the governments in Sri Lanka and Aceh, Indonesia. These conflicts had led to the deaths of tens of thousands of people, but they progressed very differently after the disaster: Aceh moved toward peace, while Sri Lanka was engulfed by increasing violence. Of course, the roots of these conflicts existed before December 2004, and it can be argued that the tsunami accelerated changes already in progress.

In Aceh, the tsunami hit an area already plagued by conflict between Acehnese separatist fighters and the Indonesian government. With more than 168,000 deaths, Aceh was hit hardest by the tsunami. Since May 2003, Aceh had been under martial law/civil emergency, which weakened the Muslim majority-led Free Aceh Movement (GAM). By late 2004, the war-fatigued Government of Indonesia, under new leadership from democratic elections, was in secret talks with the GAM leadership. After the tsunami killed a substantial number of government forces and GAM fighters, martial law was lifted. The recovery and restoration of Aceh became the priority for the international community and for Indonesians. The changing political dynamics, the outpouring of international assistance, and the sudden presence of thousands of foreign aid workers set the stage for formal negotiations between the government and the GAM. This paved the way for the Helsinki Accord in August 2005, which officially ended armed conflict in Aceh.

After the peace agreement, more positive political changes came. In July 2006, Aceh was granted wide autonomy by the Indonesian government. Former GAM leaders of the armed conflict were democratically elected to lead Aceh province. The new Acehnese leadership agreed to let the central Indonesian government monitor Aceh and set norms, standards and procedures for the province.

Unfortunately, at the same time, in Sri Lanka, the fragile ceasefire signed in 2002 between the Sinhalese-dominated Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had been unraveling for months. For nearly thirty years, the LTTE has been fighting to establish a separate Tamil state in the north and east of the country.

In late 2004, the security situation in Sri Lanka was seriously deteriorating, and dialogue between the government and the LTTE had stalled. Several experts have argued that both sides, especially the LTTE, were ready to break the ceasefire before the tsunami hit. When it did, this trend continued.

The tsunami severely affected the Tamil majority areas of the Northern Province and the multi-ethnic Eastern Province. Many hoped that the LTTE and Sri Lankan government could focus on the recovery and restoration of the devastated coastal areas. An agreement was negotiated for the LTTE to receive foreign development assistance through the Sri Lankan government, facilitating a way for the rebels and the government to work together. Unfortunately, it generated strong backlash among nationalist elements in the South and the Sri Lankan Supreme Court found the agreement to be unconstitutional. This rejection effectively ended aspirations for the LTTE and government to share power and resources. Since 2005, violence in Sri Lanka has steadily escalated and, today, the country is essentially at war — although some normalcy has been restored in the east since the government wrested control of the region from the LTTE in the middle of 2006.

Thomas Parks is The Asia Foundation’s Assistant Director for Governance, Law, and Civil Society; Amy Weinbaum is a Junior Associate for The Asia Foundation; and Birger Stamperdahl is Give2Asia’s Director of Marketing.

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