Colombo, Human Security, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War

Setting the record straight: Challenges of internment for IDPs

I was surprised to see that a piece I wrote recently for Groundviews was mentioned prominently in two articles in the Island last Saturday and Sunday. Since the original article was not published in the Island, and since the rejoinders misrepresent my argument in various ways, I would like to take this opportunity to set the record straight.

For those who would like to read the original article in full, it can be found here. My basic argument was that the denial of freedom of movement to the Vanni IDPs and incarceration of them in internment camps (1) was a violation of their democratic rights as citizens of Sri Lanka; (2) was an insult to the soldiers who risked (and in some cases lost) their lives in the belief that they were bringing freedom to these people; (3) contradicted President Rajapaksa’s statement in his victory speech that there were no longer any minorities in Sri Lanka by creating a minority that did not enjoy rights like freedom of movement which are enjoyed by the majority; and (4) increased the chances of a new insurgency by converting Tamils who are well-disposed towards the government into people with a grudge against the government. I ended by observing that when the internment of 280,000 civilians is seen in the context of assaults on and murder of journalists, and policy proposals for the expansion of the army by 100,000 and cancellation of the presidential elections, it looks as if we could be heading towards a dictatorship.

It is hard to extract any coherent arguments from the barrage of innuendo, misquotations (e.g. I never said anything about a ‘Sinhala-Buddhist dictatorship’!), disinformation and abuse in Lucien Rajakarunanayake’s rejoinder, but let me try. He suggests I should be concerned about asylum-seekers locked up in British detention centres, and indeed I am. In 1988-90, when I was doing research for my book on Tamil refugees in Britain, and Tamil, Muslim and Sinhalese displaced people in Sri Lanka, I was shocked to find that there were asylum-seekers in detention centres, and participated in a campaign demanding the closure of these centres and release of the refugees. The imprisonment of innocents – whether asylum-seekers in Europe, Palestinians (including children) in Israel, or the young man from Chad recently released without charge from Guantanamo Bay – is an injustice and violation of human rights wherever in the world it occurs, and I have protested, and will continue to protest, against it. But why should I not be concerned when the same thing happens in my own country? Is Sri Lanka not part of the world? Are the IDPs not human beings?

Rajakarunanayake alleges that I have ‘joined the bandwagon of pro-LTTE Sri Lanka bashers’. For those who have not read my original article, let me quote in full the statements on the basis of which he concludes that I have joined the pro-LTTE bandwagon: ‘It is certainly true that the LTTE was keeping hundreds of thousands of civilians hostage and using them as forced labour, a source of child and adult conscripts, and a human shield from behind which they could engage in offensive operations against Sri Lanka’s armed forces… the LTTE used the cessation of hostilities over the Sinhala and Tamil New Year to tighten its hold over the trapped civilians, not to release them… Furthermore, hatred engendered in these IDPs by the LTTE leadership’s utterly brutal treatment of them, especially at the end of the war, is the best guarantee we have that there is no chance it can be revived, regardless of what the pro-LTTE diaspora may think.’ I fail to understand how anyone could construe these statements as being ‘pro-LTTE’! But given that others falsely accused of being ‘pro-LTTE’ have been arrested, jailed, abducted, assaulted and killed, I’m wondering if I should interpret this attack by the Director of the Presidential Secretariat Policy Research and Information Unit (PRIU) as a veiled (or not-so-veiled) threat?

Malinda Seneviratne takes issue with me for referring to ‘camps where conditions are in many cases abysmal,’ citing his own visit to a camp where IDPs have three full meals a day, more than enough drinking water and water for bathing, medical services, toilets, schools and other amenities. I am well aware of such camps – hence my qualification that conditions were abysmal in ‘many’, not all cases – but it would be naïve in the extreme to think that these conditions obtain in all camps. I did not compare the IDP camps to ‘Hitler’s concentration camps’, but there are certainly camps where aid workers report that sanitation facilities and access to clean drinking water are woefully inadequate, leading to an unbearable stench in areas used as toilets, and the spread of gastrointestinal diseases resulting from consumption of contaminated water. Nor do we have to rely on these reports alone. A Vanni court ordered senior citizens to be released after it was found that several were dying of starvation and dehydration each day, so the existence of abysmal conditions in some camps has been proven in a court of law. And how could it be otherwise? The government was prepared for only 70,000 people to come out of LTTE-held territory, but there were four times that number!

However, I was criticising the government not for conditions in the camps but for denying these IDPs the right to freedom of movement. I was not arguing that they should be booted out willy-nilly, but that those who can move into homes outside the Vanni, or wish to search for missing relatives, or for any other reason want to move out of the camps permanently or temporarily, should be allowed to do so. That they are being denied this right is proved by the fact that one family which is seeking reunification outside the camps has had to approach the Supreme Court to argue that it is their fundamental right to do so, and it is still not clear that they will succeed.

According to Malinda, allowing families to move out of the camps would cause ‘chaos’. But this is not the first time we have had such massive displacement in a short period; the tsunami displaced many times more in a much shorter period, causing comparable tragedy and trauma. Did anyone at that time suggest that it would cause chaos if survivors were allowed to wander around looking for missing family members, or to stay with friends and relations? On the contrary, it would have caused greater chaos, not to mention outrage, if all the tsunami displaced were rounded up and detained in state-run camps! In this case too, it would make sense to reduce the burden on the government and the public by allowing IDPs to fend for themselves if they wish to do so. Clearly, the denial of that right has nothing to do with the chaos it would create.

The other reason cited by Malinda for detaining IDPs for an indefinite period is that they have to be screened to identify LTTE cadres, and that ‘It is better, given history, for the government to be cautious’. This is a dangerous road to travel. Why are the IDPs suspected of being LTTE cadres, despite the fact that escaping to government territory involved defying the LTTE’s orders? Because they are Tamils who lived in the LTTE-controlled area. From 1979 onwards, hundreds of Tamil youths were arrested, tortured, and in many cases killed, without any evidence against them whatsoever, simply because they had the same demographic profile as Tamil militants. From 1987 onwards, thousands of Sinhalese youths were massacred by the state without any evidence against them whatsoever, simply because they fitted the demographic profile of JVP members. Collective punishment of innocent people for crimes they have not committed is one step down a slippery slope that ends in a bloodbath.

I said that screening should be done rapidly and in a transparent manner. IDPs can be interviewed, and if there is no evidence that they are LTTE operatives, registered and given freedom of movement. Top and middle-level LTTE cadres (most of them have been killed anyway) should also be registered and shifted to other camps with the knowledge of their relations. The ICRC and UN should have access to both sets of camps. Low-level cadres and especially conscripts have more reason to hate the LTTE than to love it, and the government proposal that they should be pardoned is eminently sensible.

Does freedom for IDPs increase the danger that a brainwashed LTTE operative will blow up a bus, as Malinda fears? Quite the contrary. At the moment, the IDPs hate the LTTE so much that some of them have beaten LTTE cadres and delivered them up to the authorities. The LTTE’s top leadership and military capability have been destroyed, and the pro-LTTE diaspora is busy fighting over its huge financial assets. People don’t blow themselves up just like that: they do so with a purpose. So far, that purpose was to bring about Tamil Eelam, which today is a lost cause. But wait a few months, let resentment in the camps fester, and the pro-LTTE diaspora may well be able to recruit suicide bombers from the camps, especially since, as the International Center for Strategic Defense reports, corruption is rife among those running them, and a bribe of Rs 1-3 lakhs can secure anyone’s release. This report warns that ‘Although the structures and the mechanisms of the LTTE were fully crushed, massive IDP Centers will be an ideal place to re-group and re-organize if there is the will and the need. In other words, this is ideal breeding grounds for LTTE ideology.’ The best way to counter this threat is freedom for the IDPs, which would immediately disperse a large number as well as win hearts and minds, and their speedy resettlement back in their homes.

Malinda writes of me that ‘She reduces the war to a product of alleged discrimination against and persecution of minorities, the PTA and Emergency Regulations. No word of extremist Tamil nationalism, no word of terrorism here, strangely.’ He is referring to the sentence in my article where I say, ‘We would expect the government to avoid practices which led to the war, such as discrimination against and persecution of minorities, and to repeal the PTA and Emergency Regulations, which were used for the extrajudicial killing of thousands of Tamils as well as Sinhalese’. It should be clear I was talking about what various governments did to contribute to the war, not claiming there were no other contributors to it.

I have consistently condemned extremist Tamil nationalism and the LTTE’s acts of terrorism, as readers of my articles in the Island would know. Indeed, I am a critic of all varieties of Tamil nationalism. But it is worth retracing the steps leading to the war. Discriminatory measures, including the disenfranchisement of Hill-country Tamils, Sinhala Only, and standardisation, as well as anti-Tamil violence in 1958, preceded the formation of Tamil militant groups. And it took anti-Tamil pogroms in 1977 and 1981, the burning of the Jaffna library, the use of the PTA and Emergency Regulations to arrest, torture and kill Tamils, and the massacre of thousands of Tamils in July 1983, to bring Tamil militancy from the margins of Tamil society to centre-stage. Today, we are at a point where we can either correct the mistakes made since 1977, and ensure that there will be no war in future, or we can repeat the mistakes that led to the carnage of 1987-90 and the war that has just ended.

Neither Sinhala nor Tamil nationalists refer to the bloodbath during the JVP insurgency and government counter-insurgency, since it contradicts their contention that a Sinhala-Tamil conflict is the main contradiction in Sri Lanka. However, it confirms my own contention that the main contradiction in Sri Lanka is between democracy and totalitarianism. According to this perspective, Sinhalese Jayawardene and Premadasa and Tamil Prabakaran were on the same side: that of totalitarianism. I pointed to various danger signals that the present regime might be moving in the same direction. Malinda concedes that statements by certain high-ranking officials and politicians could indeed create that impression, but adds that ‘If “official policy” is best reflected by what the President says then I believe there is no reason to get worked up’. But policy is best reflected not by the President’s words but by his deeds; not by his promise in Mahinda Chintanaya to abolish the Executive Presidency but by whether he actually keeps his promise; not by his statement that there are no majority and minorities in Sri Lanka but by his ensuring equal rights to all citizens. That is why it is important to be alert. On that point, Malinda and I are in full agreement.

[Editors note: This rejoinder to Malinda and Lucien was published in The Sunday Island on 5th July 2009. As with Malinda’s first response to Rohini’s article, given that the Island’s website has no mechanism to feature reader generated comments, this article is republished with the expectation of continued dialogue between the author, her interlocutors in traditional print media and from a wider online readership.]

  • Heshan

    Excellent rejoinder on the part of Rohini Hensmen. The fact that the release of IDPs can be secured for 1-3 lakhs shows the hypocrisy and bogus nature of claims about “security threats”, “brainwashing”, and “landmines.” It is time that people accept these camps for what they are: a form of COLLECTIVE PUNISHMENT. It has been noted elsewhere that the Government would never ever lock up vast numbers of innocent Sinhalese civilians in such camps. I myself have pointed out how this did not occur in the South despite the ferocity of three JVP rebellions. It is also worthwhile to note that the JVP did not fade away after being “defeated.” The movement simply took a new direction. Therefore, it is foolhardy to think that the ideals of homeland & self-determination, espoused by Tamils from all walks of life, can be confined to barbed wire enclosures and weeded out through as yet unclear mechanisms.

    It is difficult to assess the motivations of the Government at this point, other than to state that they border on racism, paranoia, and xenophobia. Racism – it chose to lock up Tamils exclusively and reduce their mobility to zero. Paranoia and xenophobia – this we can we see in the enactment of draconian legislation to curb civil liberties and uphold the structure of a dictatorial state. The “international conspiracy” hysteria is further evidence. Underlying all of this, I believe, is a deep-rooted desire to hold on to the vote of confidence from the Southern voter, which came with the unprecedented military successes. What is becoming more and more clear is that there never was a post-war rehab plan. Those who reign from up on high are simply devising newer and bolder ways to hold on to their power. The unholy alliance with the military is facilitating this splendidly.

  • punitham

    Rohini and Heshan, thank you.

    All over the island and all over the world, criticising the Sri Lankan government is interpreted as pro-LTTE by Sinhalese!!

    Even those foreign parliamentarians who criticise the Sri Lankan government are termed white tigers or tiger sympathisers even if they condemn the violent methods of the LTTE. Isn’t it because they point out the injustice done to the Tamils by successive governments?

    There is a lot of evidence to show that running these camps is a second income for many in the armed forces – running the shops and taking bribery for release. But then many in the checkpoints in the Northeast have been having a second income for 2/3 decades.

    This continues because it’s financial gain for the Sinhalese and financial loss for the Tamils. The major reason of Sinhalisation has been frantically going on in the East in the last few years and has begun in the North.

    Why the media has been kept out of the whole of Northeast can be understood even by children. The blatant drama the EU parliamentarian team had to endure in June 2008 at Ratmalana airport gives away the intent too easily.

    But then the Eleventh Special Session of UNHRC 6/7 weeks ago tells us that the UN is incapable of standing up for justice of the downtrodden.

  • Hari Narendran

    Well said. Your point on totalitarianism vs democracy is bang on. The biggest failing of the Tamil cause was in making the struggle one of Tamil vs Sinhalese instead of one for the fundamental rights to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, all of which have been progressively eroded by successive Sri Lankan governments. Refusing to distinguish between a corrupt, perverse State and the Sinhalese citizen has made it difficult to find the common ground necessary between the communities to drive the constitutional reform the country so badly needs. The true enemy of the country from the time of independence has been the state structure itself – stoking ethnic/tribal fears for political gain, violently repressing democratic political thought that it did not agree with, murder, torture, subverting the constitution and the rule of law, politicizing the police, judiciary, educational system. And this process continues today to the detriment of all citizens, not only the Tamils.
    Instead of continuing to detain the IDPs for a number of spurious reasons, the government should allow them the choice of deciding whether their homes or the camps are safer. Let them vote with their feet. If they choose to return to their homes there a plenty of NGOs – Sinhalese, Tamil and foreign willing and able to help them rebuild and resettle. Let commerce flow freely from North to South and vice versa without bogus security restraints. Disarm the pro-government militias of the EPDP and TVMP so that they can not suppress the political voices that will emerge as the citizens of the north and east regain their livelihoods and find their political voices. Surely we can all agree on that?

  • Manushi

    I don’t think Malinda Seneviratne and Rohini Hensman are in opposite camps when it comes to the overall betterment of Sri-Lanka. There is no contradiction when the goal is to draw from our common humanity.

  • malinda seneviratne

    I think Rohini is smart; so smart that she is quite adept at intellectual sleight of hand.
    In her piece titled ‘Why are the Vanni civilians still being held hostage?’ she paints a bleak picture of IDP camps to begin with. In my response I called her out for misrepresentation and she responds here saying that she inserted the qualifier ‘in many cases’. Yes, she did. ‘In many cases abysmal’ means ‘only in a few cases not-abysmal’. In her response, posted above, she paints a different picture: ‘it would be naïve in the extreme to think that these conditions (water, medical services, toilets, schools etc etc) obtain in all camps’, meaning that some-not-all camps are ‘abysmal’. She adds that a court of law has determined ‘the existence of abysmal conditions in some camps’. It would be good if Rohini figures out what she really wants to say without being ambiguous.
    Rohini says she was not criticizing the government for conditions in the camps. Why not, by the way? Conditions are not perfect, and in some cases, wanting. But is she not criticizing the government when she asks, ‘why then, are these unfortunate people being penalised like this?’ Some is doing the ‘penalizing’ here, and if it is not ‘The Government’, then who?
    She is clearly being mischievous when she compares and contrasts the IDP situation post-LTTE to that of the post-tsunami scenario. There is a huge difference because the tsunami displaced were spread out all along the coast line and where it was possible to house much smaller numbers in many, many facilities.
    She downplays the security concerns. In her first piece she said that screening could be done ‘in a few hours’ and stretches the acceptable timeframe to ‘one month’. She believes that all it takes is to interview IDPs and based on what they say register and let them go. Now that’s being super naïve. Few are putting up their hands and saying ‘I was with the LTTE’ or ‘I helped the LTTE’. All those who are found to have connections with the LTTE are being transferred to different facilities.
    Rohini has some gumption to speak on behalf of all LTTE cadres and the IDPs: ‘low-level cadres and conscripts have more reason to hate the LTTE than to love it’, ‘the IDPs hate the LTTE so much….’ I am pleased that she is not part of the defence establishment because it is this kind of naivete that gave us the CFA and which let the whole business of taking the LTTE leadership out drag for years and years.
    She cites the International Centre for Strategic Defence which offers that IDP Centres are ideal places for the LTTE to re-group and re-organize’. She jumps from this warning to a ‘solution’: free the IDPs’. She throws in the ‘win-heart-and-mind’ caveat like so much icing. What a flourish! Does she not know that the heart-and-mind thing as per her ideals has seen LTTE cadres slipping out, that LTTE cadres suspected of carrying out or helping carry out suicide attacks are even as we speak being found in IDP centres, and does she forget that it is likely that some if not many of these IDPs willingly followed the LTTE as Prabhakaran retreated to the vicinity of the Nandikadal Lagoon?
    She admits that she was ‘talking about what various governments did to contribute to the war’ and ‘not claiming there were no other contributors to it’. Well, she’s written as though there were no other contributors; we can’t imagine what she’s got in her mind, can we? She does it again in this piece. ‘I am a critic of all varieties of Tamil nationalism,’ she says and then ‘retraces the steps leading to the war’.
    Then she talks of ‘history’, beginning with the disfranchisement of ‘Hill-country Tamils’. Is that where it all began, though? Where did Chelvanayagam come from and where from, Ramanathan? The excesses of successive Governments (by omission and commission) are very well document and most certainly have contributed to what we had to live through but historical process is not linear. Outcomes can be sourced to multiple factors and to pretend (as she has done) that Tamil chauvinism and militancy were products of Sinhala chauvinism alone is being intellectually fraudulent. And she just can’t resist exaggeration: ‘…..massacre of thousands of Tamils in July 1983′! Where did she get ‘thousands of Tamils’? From I suppose she will take refuge once again in something like, ‘I didn’t say that what I gave was a comprehensive list of steps that led to the war’. She is selective and therefore intellectually dishonest.
    In her first article she chooses statements made by various high-ranking officials and politicians and recommends that we take these as ‘official policy’. Now ignores statements made by other politicians that are antithetical to these statements. I suggested that it would be better to go by what the President says. Now she says ‘let’s go by deed, and not word’! She brought ‘word’ and when she slips on ‘word’ she shifts to the deed-gear.
    From what I understand of how ‘civil administration’ works and from what I know of INGOs, NGOs and UN Agencies, I am convinced that the situations in IDP camps and the whole process of reunifying families, registration, relief measures, solving day-to-day problems right up to the point of resettlement, rehabilitation and rebuilding would be far worse if it was not overseen by the security forces.
    Things were far from great at the beginning, but they are far from dismal now. And they can be much better too. They are getting better in fact. But I am not happy with a ‘perfect’ IDP facility, don’t get me wrong. I too want all these people out of these camps as quickly as possible. The President says ‘180 days’ and frankly, I think this is a bit ambitious, but I am willing to go with that figure. I think everything should be done to expedite the process. And until it is completed I also want all facilities provided and improved. It is good to point out deficiencies as some have; I don’t think those in charge are deaf to suggestions. It is good to give, too. I do my bit and I am sure Rohini and others do theirs. But I reiterate that we should have a sense of proportion. That is just rabble-rousing, not useful discourse.
    As for the issue of good governance, democracy and securing of equal rights to all citizens…I think it is not useful to confuse it with the IDP issue. While it is possible to argue that democratic intent of the Government is reflected in the democratic values championed in the whole process, I think it is best to keep in mind that this is a special situation and therefore to be less utopian about it. That struggle needs to take place and again, in this, I do my bit and I am sure Rohini and others do theirs.


  • Hari Narendran


    While many Tamils disliked the LTTE and their methods that does in no way mean that they were enamoured of the government. Many of those who followed the LTTE willingly did so because they feared worse at the hands of the government – some of it with justification.

    There is also a very significant proportion of the population that is truly supportive of the LTTE – based on a variety of factors, some of them being their own and the experiences of family members at the hands of extreme elements in the security forces and some if it in the belief that the government of Sri Lanka will never do right by its Tamil civilians.

    If the government intends on holding everyone that had sympathies (and i am not referring to cadres) for the Tigers then that is a completely unproductive exercise.

    It is these civilians that a ‘hearts & minds’ campaign must be targeted at. Holding them indefinitely in camps with less than ideal conditions, that limit their freedom of movement, expression and ability to draw upon family/friends to rebuild their lives is no way to win that battle.

  • des

    7,472 civilians reached government areas in the first week of February, according to info from the Media Centre for National Security (MCNS). There were also a few thousand IDPs in December and January, but I need to get the exact figures.

    By March 20 – 48,611 had reached government areas in total
    By April 21 – 111,520
    By April 22 – 150,000

    This means at least 7,472 have been in the camps for five months. Adding the inflows in Dec and Jan it would be closer to 10,000.

    This also means over three and a half months for around 41,000 and over two and a half months for 100,000 civilians.

    Around 2500 have been resettled in Mannar so far.

  • malinda seneviratne

    i agree with your hari.

  • Rohini Hensman

    I will not waste anyone’s time taking up all the trivial issues raised by Malinda, but just stick to the central question: Why are the Vanni IDPs being detained? According to Malinda, releasing them constitutes a security threat; in his earlier comment, he had suggested that a brainwashed LTTE cadre might blow up a bus if released, and he suggests that I underestimate the time required for screening. Well, let us take the case cited in Anandasangaree’s letter to the President, that of a 61-year-old grandmother looking after her one-year-old grandchild in a camp. Her son, the child’s father, had had his left leg amputated and was in Pulmoddai, and the child’s mother had had her right leg amputated with multiple fractures of her left leg and was in Vavuniya. The grandmother was presumably free to leave the camp as a senior citizen, but could not do so because the authorities refused to release the baby, who would therefore have been without care if she left the camp. Now, I don’t know how long it would take the authorities – or Malinda for that matter – to screen the one-year-old infant for involvement in the LTTE, but I, for one, would be able to decide in a split second that a tiny child of that age would not be blowing up a bus in the near future. And there are many such cases, according to Anandasangaree. Isn’t the government making Sri Lanka the laughing-stock of the world by detaining babies as terrorist suspects? DO they seriously think that this baby is a terrorist? And if not, why are they keeping it in the camp and preventing this traumatised and badly injured family from seeking the solace of being reunited?