- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 30, 2004

HONG KONG — The tragic loss of so much life along the Indian Ocean coasts need not be wholly in vain. While the relief effort gets under way and the priority is correctly given to maintaining public health so no more lives are lost, politicians could also start thinking about ways to forge a new era of peace and security out of the tsunami devastation.

As fate would have it, the sea surges struck several areas that have been wracked by protracted conflict.

Near the epicenter of the giant earthquake that triggered the waves in northwest Sumatra, the people of Aceh have been caught in a long-running conflict between separatists and the Jakarta central government that some observers estimate has cost 10,000 lives since the mid-1970s.

In Sri Lanka, almost 20 years of civil war has claimed more than 60,000 lives. More recently in southern Thailand, a low-level insurgency sparked by conflict between the Muslim majority in three southernmost provinces and the region’s Buddhist minority, has already claimed almost 600 lives this year.

The fatalities in these conflicts don’t register as starkly as the final death toll from Sunday’s tragedy, which exceeds 60,000. But when the wreckage is finally cleared and human cost eventually tallied, there will still be the need to address the causes of conflict in these areas — and hopefully the desire to use the tsunami as a departure point for a new basis of understanding and peace.

In Aceh, for instance, authorities have been forced to allow in international relief agencies and the foreign news media after several months of martial law, which kept observers and aid workers out of the troubled province.

After the immediate task of helping people survive and rebuild their lives, Jakarta could use this opportunity to tap into all the international expertise on the ground to build a more equitable relationship with the Acehnese people and restart negotiations with the separatists who have been fighting for autonomy.

In Sri Lanka, there are already faint hopes the utter devastation of the island state’s coasts will help unite the warring Tamils with the Sinhalese, who outnumber the Tamils 5-to-1. The tsunami itself did not select its victims by race; so in rebuilding the nation, there should be a stake for everyone.

Southern Thailand’s economy will suffer greatly from the tsunami and its aftermath because it depends so heavily on tourism. Now that the richer upper south, centered on Phuket, has been devastated, the government could help unite its Muslim and Buddhist communities using a broad and inclusive economic plan to revitalize the region.

Those responsible for the violence on the Muslim side should halt the wave of killings and bombings that have taken more than 580 lives this year — like the ambush that killed three police officers in Songkhla Province on Monday, the day after the tragedy struck.

When human tragedy occurs on such a vast scale, the world tends to pull together — and so, it is to be hoped, will that region’s divided communities. This is not a time for countries to be hostage national pride or for rebel movements to exploit the weakness of centralized authority. This is no excuse to play games of one-upmanship or harp on old national wounds.

Religious and ethnic differences can be healed and the memories of past acrimony set aside, if the task is to rebuild the shattered lives of so many over so vast an area. But the process will need a special effort by political leaders and rebel movements to prevent any side taking political advantage.

One concrete proposal would be for all the parties to these conflicts to come together in forums set up to deal with the tsunami’s aftermath. International organizations invited to help with relief work can facilitate these interactions.

This way, confidence-building could begin and lead, after saving and putting back together their peoples’ shattered lives, to more substantive negotiations for lasting peace.

Michael Vatikiotis is a former editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review.

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