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Natural disasters do not necessarily create peace, research finds

September 3, 2010
The Research Council of Norway
A devastating tsunami hit southern Asia in December 2004. After the tsunami, both politicians and journalists believed that the natural disaster could help to bring peace to Sri Lanka and the Aceh province of Indonesia. But did it?

A group of researchers at the University of Oslo have studied the political ramifications of the tsunami and whether the largest ever relief and reconstruction effort launched after the disaster has helped to create peace. Their aim was to learn more about the connection between natural disasters and potential political conflict resolution.

War and the tsunami

The Aceh region has had a turbulent history vis-à-vis the central Indonesian authorities. The Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and the Indonesia government were still in a state of war when the tsunami hit the province in 2004. For many years Sri Lanka has experienced conflict and civil war between the Sinhalese majority and the government on one side and the Tamil minority on the other. Peace negotiations between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eealam, in which Norway played a leading role, broke down in 2003, and the conflict flared up again with a vengeance. When the tsunami hit during the Christmas holiday in 2004, Aceh and Sri Lanka were two of the areas hardest hit.

Different backgrounds, different outcomes

In the project entitled "Conflict resolution and democratisation in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami: A comparative study of Aceh and Sri Lanka," researchers conducted a comparative analysis of Aceh and Sri Lanka.

"The tsunami made it possible to find some answers to the role that natural disasters play in major political conflicts," explains Professor Kristian Stokke of the University of Oslo.

Dr Stokke, who headed the project, and his colleagues found that the tsunami had a completely different impact on political developments in Aceh and Sri Lanka. His conclusion is clear: "Natural disasters do not resolve conflicts. What they can do is to influence and possibly strengthen the political processes already underway. But as the cases of Aceh and Sri Lanka show, this can give rise to completely different outcomes."

Peaceful resolution in Aceh

After 29 years of conflict and warfare, a Memorandum of Understanding was finally signed on 15 August 2005 between the Government of Indonesia and GAM. The MoU gave the inhabitants of Aceh a greater degree of self-governance by reorganising the previous province into a special territory of Indonesia. They also gained the right to establish local political parties, paving the way for former members of GAM to win local elections in 2006.

"In Aceh, a political reform process had already begun when the tsunami hit. A significant anti-radicalisation process within GAM had been taking place in the years from 1999 to 2004. Parallel to this, the government in Jakarta had invested a great deal in finding a solution to the Aceh conflict. In this instance, the tsunami was an event that gave legitimacy to continued negotiations in the eyes of both the rebels and the government. Both parties seized this opportunity, but the tsunami was not the deciding factor. Rather it was the political process that had already begun," Dr Stokke believes.

Continued warfare in Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka, there was no similar positive process underway when the tsunami hit. On the contrary, the conflict was at an impasse.

"In 2004, both parties regarded war as essentially necessary. The tsunami did not get the pre-2003 peace process moving again. The only thing it did was to put the conflict on hold for a year. Then war broke out again."

The impact of development cooperation

As part of the project, the researchers compared the use of development cooperation funds in Aceh and Sri Lanka following the tsunami. They also found significant differences in this respect.

In Aceh, disaster relief after the tsunami was provided in the "traditional" way, as had been done many times in the past following war or natural disaster. In Sri Lanka, the approach to assistance was totally different. Both before and after the tsunami, donor countries such as Norway tried to use development cooperation funds as a tool for resolving the conflict in the country. The intention was to use these funds to build trust between the parties. Peacebuilding aid was a frequently used term.

"We can conclude that it was not possible to build trust between the parties by using development cooperation funds. Instead the aid in Sri Lanka became highly politicised. The donors were viewed as neo-imperialistic states intervening in a national conflict. As a result, the assistance provided served to intensify the conflict rather than resolve it," Dr Stokke concludes.


A third part of the research project looked at what happened to the GAM and LTTE rebel movements following the tsunami. Once again, the situations were completely different. While GAM had been reorganised into a political party and became an integral part of Indonesian politics, the LTTE suffered a huge defeat and has now been crushed by the Sri Lankan government.

"Some attempts were made to reorganise the LTTE politically, but instead the rebels chose to follow a military logic. Today we know what the result was for the organisation and the people."

Story Source:

Materials provided by The Research Council of Norway. Original written by Bård Amundsen/Else Lie; translation by Anna Godson/Carol B. Eckmann. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

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The Research Council of Norway. "Natural disasters do not necessarily create peace, research finds." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 3 September 2010. <>.
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