Relief work may aid peace moves in conflict areas

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Government efforts to provide aid to the tsunami-devastated areas of Sri Lanka and Indonesia's Aceh province could carry significant political implications for these regions, which have seen some of Asia's fiercest insurgencies, analysts say.

Any political impact in Thailand, which has been racked by a Muslim insurgency in the south, will be tempered by the fact that the disaster area is on the south-west coast, far from the Malay-speaking areas in the south-east.

A key issue, analysts say, will be how the Indonesian and Sri Lankan governments organise the distribution of aid.

“Disaster relief could provide a window of opportunity for the warring parties to put their differences aside and co-operate. This could improve the chances for political solutions,” says Ooi Kee Beng, a visiting research fellow at Singapore's Institute of South-East Asian Studies (ISEAS).

One hopeful sign was that Indonesia had lifted a ban on allowing international aid agencies into Aceh, where there has been a long-running separatist rebellion against the central government. The government estimated on Tuesday that up to 19,000 people may have died in the province.

On Wednesday, groups including Medicin Sans Frontier and medical teams from Australia were seen setting up camp in Banda Aceh , where the Indonesian military had been flying in aid from nearby north Sumatra and taking full charge of relief distribution on the ground.

“The question is whether any political goodwill will last once this crisis blows over. I'm sceptical since many of the problems are deep-seated,” says Chin Kin Wah, a professor at ISEAS.

The civil war between the Colombo government and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, for example, has lasted for more than 20 years, while the origins of the Aceh revolt stretch back several centuries to when Dutch colonialists ruled Indonesia.

“How humanitarian aid is distributed could actually make problems worse since the central governments might be tempted to favour certain groups at the expense of others. There is also the issue of whether aid relief might be distorted by corruption,” says Mr Chin.

Mr Ooi says aid agencies should be the ones co-ordinating the aid because “governments could play politics”. Sri Lanka is holding talks with a United Nations disaster assessment team. A senior aide to President Chandrika Kumaratunga has admitted that the country lacks systems to manage large natural calamities, while government relief operations have until now been geared towards humanitarian problems stemming from its civil war. Foreign donors such as France, Japan and neighbouring India have sent medical teams to Sri Lanka to deal with a mounting threat of disease. But some foreign aid officials in Colombo have said the government's ability to co-ordinate the relief has so far been unsatisfactory.

Co-ordinating relief efforts will be politically sensitive since much of the destruction occurred in the island's north-east, controlled by the Tamil Tigers, an area where an estimated 8,000 people may have died and another 500,000 are homeless.

Donors are urging both sides to co-operate. “We hope that this is an opportunity for both groups to work together,” said Alessandro Pio, head of the Asian Development Bank in Sri Lanka.

Aid missions to the area could be threatened by unexploded landmines planted during the civil war which have now been dislodged by the tsunami.

Regionally, the tsunami disaster could push the neighbouring countries towards closer co-operation on natural catastrophes, according to analysts. “This disaster and Sars [severe acute respiratory syndrome] last year have helped get people to think again about the need for a regional response to such threats,” said Mr Chin at ISEAS.

Although the Association of South-East Asian Nations has discussed co-ordinated approaches to disaster relief, a regional network has not been fully developed, including integrating military and civilian groups.

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