The Sri Lankan government has signed a deal to share $3 billion in tsunami aid with Tamil Tiger rebels. The agreement is expected to speed up reconstruction of tsunami-hit areas and boost a stalled peace process with the rebels. Political groups opposed to the Tamil Tigers are protesting the aid deal.
Under the pact, which was signed on Friday, committees comprising government officials, Tamil Tigers and other groups can recommend and monitor projects for the reconstruction of tsunami affected areas.
International donors had been pressing for the pact so they could avoid channeling funds directly to the Tamil Tigers, labeled by several countries as "terrorists."
The rebels control Tamil majority areas in the north and east, which were hit hard by the tsunami.
The deal is expected to speed up humanitarian relief to tens of thousands of people in these areas.
It is also expected to boost a stalled peace process between the Sri Lankan government and the rebels, who have waged a two-decade long struggle for a separate Tamil homeland in the north and east.
A cease-fire is in place, but peace talks have been on hold for more than two years. Rebel complaints that they were not getting a fair share of the tsunami aid had further frayed relations with the government.
Ketan Logananthan at Colombo's Center for Policy Alternatives says the deal could play a crucial role in restoring confidence.
"There is a big gap in terms of trust and confidence, so hopefully this would create a situation where the two parties will have to, in a spirit of partnership and cooperation, get down to the task of tsunami recovery and reconstruction," Ketan Logananthan noted.
President Chandrika Kumaratunga has already backed the aid pact, calling it an opportunity to forge peace.
But there is strong political opposition to the deal, which had been held up for months due to bickering that finally split the government.
The Marxist People's Liberation Front and other groups, such as Buddhist monks, say the deal gives legitimacy to the Tamil Tigers. The Marxist group quit the government last week to protest the agreement.
The deal's opponents again demonstrated their anger on Friday, as the pact was formalized.
Police fired tear gas to disperse hundreds of protesters as they marched through Colombo, carrying banners saying "Tear Up the Joint Mechanism." Inside parliament, Marxist lawmakers prevented a debate on the issue.
But despite the controversy, there is optimism the agreement will not only speed up reconstruction, but also give the rebels and the government an opportunity to work together.