Sri Lanka, Rebels Bickered During Disaster

Published December 28, 2004

| Associated Press

This tropical island nation that has long been an ethnic cauldron of disagreement and violence remains one today, even in the face of a national tragedy that's seen 12,500 people perish in monster tsunamis (search).

Thousands of bodies are being recovered and hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans have fled their homes, but government troops and Tamil Tiger rebels (search) refuse to work together to locate survivors and help victims.

The Tigers control a vast part of Tamil-majority northeastern Sri Lanka as a virtual independent state with its own administration, police and judiciary. The government controls remaining areas.

A Tamil member of parliament, Joseph Pararajasingham, said government leaders discussing relief efforts "simply were not bothered about the plight of our people."

Military spokesman Brig. Daya Ratnayake said the government and the military were doing what they could in areas under government control in the northeast.

"Even from a disaster like this they are trying to score points," he said of rebel statements criticizing the government.

The rebels want an autonomous Tamil homeland, and the two sides were locked in a two-decade battle that began in 1983. A cease-fire was brokered by Norway in 2002, but peace talks broke down a year ago, and peace remains a distant ideal. Increasingly, analysts warn the tenuous truce could again break out in all-out war.

Sri Lanka's modern civil war was born of an ancient conflict between two ethnic groups with their own distinct languages, cultures and history.

The majority Sinhalese — who make up 76 percent of Sri Lanka's 19 million people — are mainly Buddhist and are generally concentrated in the southern and central part of the Indian Ocean island nation off India's southern coast.

Most Tamils, 18 percent of the population, are Hindu. They mostly live in the country's north and east and in the tea-growing hills of central Sri Lanka.

The two groups have at times in their 1,000-year histories clashed over territory, but decades before independence in 1948, they united to oppose a common foe — Britain. The two sides began drifting apart after the British left.

On Tuesday, the rebels conducted separate relief operations in areas under their control and have even made a separate appeal requesting aid from donor countries and U.N agencies.

"Assistance channeled through the Government of Sri Lanka has failed to reach the displaced in the northeast," TamilNet quoted the Tamil Rehabilitation Organization as saying.

"The present resources available ... are nowhere near sufficient to meet the huge crisis that has arisen, and we are faced with the prospect of an ever-increasing toll of the dead, outbreak of epidemics ... shortage of food and a continued denial of basic living needs for a half a million people," said the statement.

Rebel spokesman Daya Master said the Tamil Tiger organization has done most of the relief work in its area.

"Beaches are strewn with debris and waste, while villages have been turned into cemeteries," the Tamil Rehabilitation Organization said of the situation in rebel-held areas.

The pro-rebel TamilNet Web site said 8,000 people have died in the northeast, home to most of Sri Lanka's 3.2 million Tamils. Out of this 2,000 have died in areas totally under rebel control. The rest live in government controlled areas.

"More than 500,000 have been displaced from their homes and left without shelter," TamilNet said.

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