Unsettled question

Published : Sep 25, 2009 00:00 IST

in Colombo

MORE than three months after the Sri Lankan forces militarily decimated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and killed its leader Velupillai Prabakaran, the 2.6 lakh people internally displaced by Eelam War IV, now housed in government-run transitional welfare camps, find themselves in a state of siege from within and from outside. Tempers are running high as the promised efforts towards reconciliation and reconstruction have come only in a small measure.

It is a classic case of neither the victors nor the vanquished being able to handle the situation. The victors have not stopped gloating and the vanquished are still pointing fingers at others. The chaotic situation is best exemplified by the airing of an unverified video footage of the alleged execution-style killing in January of Tamil civilians by Sri Lankan soldiers.

Being out of the war zone appears to be no consolation for the Tamil civilians in the camps. Although they are at the centre of debates and discourses, the focus has brought them little comfort. Wittingly or otherwise, the internally displaced persons (IDPs) have become pawns in the hands of all the main stakeholders to the ethnic conflict. The manner in which various lobbies are repeatedly hijacking their agenda has obfuscated the real issues and is contributing to the delay in the Mahinda Rajapaksa government fulfilling its promise of resettling the displaced in their original places of residence within 180 days. The government has already shifted the goalpost twice. From resettlement of all by the end of 2009 it first downgraded its promise to 80 per cent and, on July 10, pledged that 60 per cent of the IDPs would be resettled by November 2009.

The responsibility for the confusion cannot be pinned on the government alone. It is a complex situation. In response to an adjournment debate on the situation in the Internally Displaced Persons Welfare Centres in Vavuniya, Minister for Disaster Management and Human Rights Mahinda Samarasinghe told Parliament on August 19 that the nation had emerged into the light after battling terrorism for more than 25 years and the victory gained on the battlefield had thrown up new challenges.

Chief amongst these is the provision of humanitarian supplies and services to the IDPs who were rescued from the LTTE during the humanitarian operations that concluded in May 2009. Our eventual goal is their resettlement in the areas that they originally resided. This process requires ensuring that the areas of return must be safe, free of mines and other unexploded ordnance [UXO], which could cause immeasurable harm if not cleared. These are challenges that the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa has taken on and we are determined to overcome them, Samarasinghe said.

To begin with, it is instructive to remember that displacement in the conflict-ridden country is not a new situation. The oldest category of displaced persons is the minority Muslim community. About 90,000 Muslim IDPs have been languishing in temporary government-run welfare centres in Puttalam since 1990. They were forcibly evicted from the North by the LTTE weeks after the last soldier of the Indian Peace-Keeping Force (IPKF) left the shores of Sri Lanka. Suspecting their loyalties, the Tigers robbed them of their land and valuables. An outfit championing the cause of the minorities treated a minority community living in the territory under its control in a callous manner.

The Puttalam refugees, one-third the size of those displaced in Eelam War IV, figure as a footnote in the ongoing debate on post-Prabakaran Sri Lanka. The Tamil diaspora is silent on the subject and the international community behaves as if they do not exist. Further, thousands of people in the South, North and East who were displaced in the December 2004 tsunami are yet to be fully resettled.

Samarasinghe told Parliament that the process of resettlement, reconstruction development and national reconciliation should result in a society and a nation in which everyone is able to enjoy all the rights enshrined in the Chapter on Fundamental Rights in the Constitution.

He said: Everyone should feel equal to one another and the postulates of equality in the constitutional document should not be confined to mere words on paper but must be made a practical reality. Our countrys multicultural, multilingual, multi-ethnic and multi-religious make up must be maintained in order that everyone can play an active and productive part in the process of national reconciliation initiated by the President. It is when this new Sri Lanka is created that we can genuinely claim that we have overcome the many challenges we are faced with.

Words alone are not sufficient in a country that badly needs a healing touch, a truth-and-reconciliation process if not a commission on the South African model. Concern of the government on the surrendered Tiger cadre and their implications for the safety and security of the rest of the citizens is legitimate. But, sheltered behind barbed wire fences with gun-toting military and police personnel keeping a vigil, the situation for the displaced is somewhat disconcerting.

Concern over denying the refugees freedom of movement and access to families, friends and other legitimate parties is universal. For several weeks now, all the opposition parties have been pleading with the government to provide the elected representatives of the people unfettered access to the refugee camps. The response of the government, that like any other citizen the MPs could move an application in triplicate to the Defence Ministry for permission to enter the camps, is far from convincing. The authorities insist that they have nothing to hide on the humanitarian aspect of the refugees and yet are not ready to show flexibility.

The vilification campaign against the government by the influential diaspora in the West has been one of the major obstacles in convincing the authorities about the genuine concern around the globe over the plight of the displaced. The international community (read the United States and the rest of the West) has been rhetorical and contradictory in its articulation of its position on the displaced Tamil civilians.

An editorial, titled Crocs weeping for IDPs II, in the English daily Island pointed out on August 21: The U.S. is now asking Sri Lanka to allow IDPs to decide whether to stay in welfare centres or not in view of the monsoon season. Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration Eric Schwartz has said, Involuntary confinement is especially a source of concern given the recent rains and the coming of the monsoon season. Release from confinement is, he says, an issue that friends of Sri Lanka continue to raise. As far as we are aware, none of Sri Lankas true friends have raised that issue! Only those who failed to scuttle Sri Lankas war on terror have done so! It would seem an uncharitable comment but the majority of Sri Lankans subscribe to the view.

Samarasinghe said the government, anticipating that the monsoon rains could cause the conditions in the camps to deteriorate, directed the Disaster Management Centre to evolve a strategy along with other agencies working in the Chettikulam area to deal with the threat of inundation. Reports in a section of the international media on the subject of flash floods making life miserable for the displaced were exaggerated, to say the least. Three lakh displaced in Lanka doomed, screamed one headline, while the truth is that the total number of affected were about 20,000. Within three days, they were shifted to new sites.

Of the nearly three lakh displaced, the government has completed the registration of 50 per cent. Over 100,000 identity cards have been issued to the police for distribution and 75,000 cards have reached the intended recipients. Steps have been initiated to release approximately 9,000 persons, including the elderly, pregnant women, lactating mothers, and children and to resettle 4,500 persons from the camps in Vavuniya in Jaffna, Trincomalee, Kantale and Batticaloa. The Government Agent of Vavuniya (District Collector) has sent a list of names of nearly one lakh refugees for verification by her counterparts in the districts of Vavuniya, Mannar and Jaffna. Subject to verification, there is a possibility of almost one lakh displaced being sent back to their villages and towns in the coming weeks.

People tend to forget that the government has successfully resettled 1.8 lakh displaced in the East in 2008-09. This is vouched for by United Nations agencies. Resettlement and Disaster Relief Services Minister Rishad Bathiudeen told Parliament that the government had resettled 59,608 displaced families in Batticaloa, Trincomalee, Mannar, Ampara and Jaffna Divisional Secretariat divisions in the past few months.

It is Kilinochchi and Mullaithivu that pose the worst challenge. Resettling IDPs in these districts is ruled out in the immediate future owing to landmines. The government says it is taking measures to remove the large number of landmines, supposedly laid by the Tigers all over the North.

Anura Priyadarshana Yapa, Minister for Mass Media and Information and Enterprise Development Investment Promotion, said, We had to get the clearance from the U.N. before these people were resettled in their villages. The government is also providing meals, health, educational, sanitation, water and recreational facilities to nearly 260,000 IDPs.

De-mining is an expensive and time-consuming process. The average cost of de-mining per square kilometre is estimated at $10,000. In his first interaction with a few local and foreign mediapersons on August 20, the new Army chief, Lieutenant-General Jagat Jayasuriya said he intended to send more engineers for additional de-mining work.

I have already sent 400 engineering troops for de-mining and I am sending more battalions to be trained in humanitarian de-mining, he said, adding that the military did not have a precise estimate of landmines planted by the LTTE.

An area about 3,100 square miles [8,000 sq km], including Mannar, Kilinochchi, Mullaithivu and parts of Jaffna districts, must be de-mined before it will be safe enough for the Tamils to return. Without de-mining, I dont think we can take a chance. We have four international non-governmental organisations helping us now and I want to use mechanised mine-clearing to speed up the process, Lt.Gen. Jayasuriya said.

Then there are issues relating to reintegration, which includes not only disarmament and demobilisation followed by rehabilitation but also transitional justice, reinsertion and socio-economic integration. When the people were forced by the terrorists to stay under trees in the open air, none of these critics asked that those people be provided nutrition or asked the terrorists to send them back to their homes or provide sanitation facilities, Samarasinghe said.

Of course, there is politics mixed up with the issues relating to resettlement. There are indications that the President may order a presidential election towards the end of the year and no political party is willing to take chances regarding the sensitive aspects of the ethnic conflict.

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