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Asia: Tsunami Disaster Stirs Peace Hopes For Sri Lanka, Indonesia

By Robert McMahon

The two areas hit hardest by the Indian Ocean tsunamis -- Sri Lanka and Indonesia's Aceh province -- have also been plagued by long civil conflicts. Some initial signs of cooperation between government and rebel sides have prompted UN and U.S. officials this week to express hope for peace breakthroughs amid the recovery efforts. But recent history indicates chances are slim that so-called "disaster diplomacy" can bring about lasting reconciliation between the warring sides.

United Nations, 6 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The tsunami disaster has generated uncommon cooperation among longtime combatants in Sri Lanka and Indonesia.

Indonesia's rebel Free Aceh Movement (GAM), which has been battling government forces for nearly 30 years in the country's northwest, has ordered a cease-fire so relief agencies can deliver supplies. The government has also eased restrictions in the area to allow aid agencies to operate and has diverted military troops to the relief effort.

In Sri Lanka, the government has invited leaders of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to coordinate relief efforts with a committee appointed by President Chandrika Kumaratunga.

UN humanitarian relief coordinator Jan Egeland yesterday expressed hope that the gestures -- boosted by international aid -- can be the start of a reconciliation process.

"The unprecedented show of compassion and solidarity -- nationally and internationally -- is a confidence-building measure that should be used now to bring peace, lasting peace, to all of these societies," Egeland says.

But despite the raised hopes, there is little recent evidence of conflict resolution emerging from natural disasters.

A notable exception is the Greek-Turkish reconciliation spurred by earthquakes in both countries in 1999. The August 1999 earthquake in Turkey, followed by the September quake in Greece, allowed each country to be the first to deploy search-and-rescue teams in the other.

It opened the way for a series of bilateral agreements and a major thaw in relations. But it should be seen as a rare set of circumstances, according to David , an expert on conflict resolution at the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based policy institute.

"That was a unique moment in time. It also was a dynamic involving two states, which is a different dynamic than the ones we're looking at in Aceh in Indonesia and in Sri Lanka," Phillips says.

Some developments this week offered reminders of how difficult it will be to build a sustainable peace. There have been complaints in ethnic Tamil regions of Sri Lanka that the government is directing most of its resources to relief of the majority Sinhalese community.

Rebels in Aceh, meanwhile, have charged the military with launching at least three attacks since the tsunami.

But Phillips, who has worked on conflict-resolution projects in Indonesia, tells RFE/RL there is a sense that the scale of the disaster in Aceh Province could drive the two warring parties closer together:

"There's hope that the government and the Acehnese civil society can come together and cooperate on rehabilitation and reconstruction," Phillips says.

The crisis also marks an opportunity for new Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to follow through on campaign pledges he made to bring peace to Aceh.

Eugene Martin is an expert on Southeast Asia at the U.S. Institute of Peace, a federally funded think tank. He says international actors can facilitate peace moves during the crucial reconstruction period ahead for both countries.

"Perhaps with international aid providing some assistance, or perhaps -- I won't say mediation, but sort of lubrication between the two sides -- that might help," Martin says.

Jeswald Salacuse is another expert on dispute resolution. He is a professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in the northeastern U.S. state of Massachusetts. Salacuse says the impact of natural disasters on long-standing conflicts is usually transitory.

"It creates an opportunity of a moment. It's kind of an open window that often doesn't stay open very long, if the parties are willing to take advantage of it. But I think often it's a momentary thing, and then once relief is poured in or people adjust to it, then unfortunately the old ancient grievances seem to overshadow everything else," Salacuse says.

The tsunami killed some 90,000 people in Aceh Province, on Indonesia's Sumatra Island.

The leadership of the Free Aceh Movement was largely spared because its bases are in the unaffected eastern part of the province. The government had imposed martial law in 2003, but last year downgraded the status to a civil emergency.

In Sri Lanka, the tsunami struck hard in both the Tamil-majority northeast, controlled by the Tigers, as well as the south, killing an estimated 30,000 people. The Tigers have been fighting for nearly three decades for a separate ethnic Tamil state.

At the time of the tsunami, a cease-fire was in effect, but peace talks were stalled.

Copyright (c) 2005. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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