The internment of IDPs in Sri Lanka: Comparisons with another example from US history

The continued denial of freedom of movement for over 250,000 innocent men, women and children – including thousands who are injured, some with disabilities, some mentally challenged, some pregnant, many sick and elderly and most of them traumatized – is a serious violation of their rights as citizens of Sri Lanka. To do so even after weaning out over 11,000 individuals who had some form of LTTE connection calls into question the Government’s motives, sensitivity and its sincerity in reaching out to the Tamils.

The need for ‘screening’ used by the Government as a pretext to justify this detention ‘sounded’ reasonable at the beginning. But it looks increasingly like a smoke screen behind which a policy of prolonged detention of Tamil civilians in violation of the constitution is to be executed. To date, we haven’t been told of any one family, not even one, that is deemed to have been ‘screened’ and therefore free to go out of these camps. This is despite over 40,000 people being inside these camps for over four months and some 800 of them being inside such camps for over 15 months.

To the contrary, the infrastructure facilities and administrative procedures that are being put in place on the ground – in Menic farm where most of the displaced civilians are currently incarcerated – indicate that the IDPs are going to be kept there for a very long time. They are going to kept for much longer than they would want to be there and contrary to their first preference which is to go and stay with friends and relatives in the interim before returning to their original places after demining.

In this background it is not only the idealists and those with a principled stand based on rights who are critiquing the Governments policy. Now, even the realists and those who have less qualms about interning the population of two and a half districts so that those in the other nineteen and a half could feel more secure are beginning to question the rationale. There are people in the Government too, who are looking for alternative options due to reasons including the high maintenance cost, the policy being in violation of the constitution and norms, and critically because it makes subsequent reconciliation that much more difficult. But the real decision makers in the Government are not swayed by human rights, ethics or constitutional propriety. The military necessity, some real and some perceived, dictates their decisions.

There have been previous instances in the history of the world when countries have been faced with such a dilemma – balancing the security imperative of some with the liberty of some others. The internment of about 120,000 Japanese-Americans in USA in the wake of World War II is one such instance. It was later singled out by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) as the “worst single wholesale violation of civil rights of American citizens in our history.” Is the detention of Tamil civilians in Sri Lanka going to be the shame of our Country?

There are striking similarities. In both cases the designers and decision makers operated on the ‘conclusory belief’ that ethnicity or race determined loyalty and or complicity. The victims of this belief were held collectively guilty and collectively punished. It treated all of them guilty until proven innocent.

In the US after the attack on Pearl Harbour the Army suspected the loyalties of the first and second generation Japanese Americans and feared that they might operate as a fifth column. They alleged that some of them were working in collaboration with the ‘enemy’ and that some others might do so in the future. So the army ‘after the initial plan for ‘voluntary’ exclusion did not succeed, forcibly removed them, first to “assembly centers” and then to “relocation centers”. These latter camps, it is reported were ‘located in desolate western areas, were surrounded by barbed wire and guarded by military police’. Not too different from the “welfare camps” in Menic farm created by clearing forest areas in Vanni.

”Life in the relocation camps was spartan, with shoddy and crowded buildings, defective facilities, faulty heating, inadequate health care, and limited education programs. Privacy was impossible. Families and individuals alike lost their identities and became known only by identification numbers” describes a report on Japanese internment. It says “The history of life …. in the relocation camps is one of suffering and deprivation.” Compared to it the living conditions are much worse in camps in Menic Farm where Tamil civilians are currently detained.

One Japanese-American individual, an interment camp survivor, recollecting the time in the camps says, “One of my most poignant memories is of an intelligent and progressive-minded mother who was still managing — with much difficulty — to conceal from her 4-year-old that they were prisoners in what most inmates considered a racial internment camp”. Not too different a daily predicament facing the thousands of mothers in Menic Farm trying to explain to their four-year olds why otherwise respectable and law abiding people are being kept behind barbed wire, guarded by armed soldiers just because they are Tamil and are from Mullaithivu Kilinochchi, and Mannar Districts.

The internment had caused devastating long-term impacts on the Japanese-Americans who had gone through it. Many continued to suffer psychologically for the rest of their lives. Survey information found long term internees after release had a 2.1 times greater risk of cardiovascular disease, cardiovascular mortality and premature death than did a non-interned counterpart. Those who had undergone internment died 1.6 years earlier than their non-interned counter parts. ‘The Experience of Injustice: Health Consequences of the Japanese American Internment,’ Gwendolyn M. Jensen (1997) documents some of these impacts. The internment also had long term impact on their livelihoods and economic status. In Sri Lanka if the detention continues for a longer period it will inevitably have such long term consequences on the 250,000 plus Tamil civilians. If it happens it is clear who has to take responsibility for it.

In the US the internment is now recognized as a ‘great injustice’. It was made possible by several factors concluded a Government commission appointed several years later. In essence, ”it was the result of racial prejudice, wartime hysteria, and the failure of political leadership”.

The commission found, General DeWitt, who was the chief military officer responsible for internment, was temperamentally disposed to exaggerate the measures necessary to maintain security, and placed security far ahead of any concern for the liberty and constitutional rights of citizens. It also notes that those representing the interest of civil rights and civil liberties in Congress, the press, and other forums were either completely silent or even supported these measures at that time. There was no effective opposition.

Finally in the eighties the US Government based on the findings of this commission passed legislation to acknowledge the fundamental injustice of the internment of Japanese, apologized on behalf of the people of the United States for internment of its citizens and allocated funds to pay compensation. Is Sri Lanka going in the same road?

While the similarities are striking there are also significant differences. Firstly even in the internment camps there was freedom of movement – those interned were allowed to go out and work, stay as a family unit, pursue education in university and in some instances move in with relatives outside the camps. What they were prevented from doing was returning back to their homes in the exclusion zones in the west coast. In contrast the civilians in the camps in Menic Farm are incarcerated without any such liberty. Still thousands of families are separated and forced to live with complete strangers in crowded tents.

Secondly, the United States Government assumed the full cost of maintaining these internment camps. The financial implications always weighed heavily on the decisions the Government took. Whereas in Sri Lanka, the foreigners foot most of the bill. The Government succeeds in getting the UN and NGOs to pay for its programs, who in their eagerness to ‘engage’ seem to be very willing to lower their standards and compromise on principles in order to process the next tranche of money!
So the detention continues, in violation of the constitution, framed as military necessity, under the excuse of humanitarian imperative, contributing to long term devastation for a section of Sri Lankan citizens.

Not sure who in Sri Lanka will have the courage to say what Francis Biddle, the then Attorney General of the Unites States expressed, that “the program was ill advised, unnecessary and unnecessarily cruel”. The previous Chief Justice Sarath N. Silva pointed out the illegality of the detention of civilians but words such as cruelty won’t be found in any official dialogue between the Government or the NGOs. We don’t have to repeat the US treatment of American-Japanese citizens during World War II. That is unless, we actually want to!

Photos available at: http://www.sfmuseum.org/war/evactxt.html

  • ardneham

    What the hell is the govt. Oppositon doing in this regard. They presume that the existence of such camps will gather more votes for them and therefore the silence is all that is required!
    What have these so-called sri lankan academics to say other than to join in the celebrations?

  • FedUp

    These people are witnesses to what really happened during the last 2 weeks of the war. Their incarceration and isolation are part of the cover-up. They cannot be let out for a long time.

  • myil selvan

    Great article! Thanks.
    We need to get a movement going to begin the process of having these people released. We could start with those who have been in the camps for four months or more. Then gradually the others. As a first step release people who have relatives in Vavuniya. Then take people on ‘go and see’ visits of their home areas to see if it is suitable to return. The military says demining has to be done, if this is credible then so be it. If not then people should be allowed to move back. We could make some allowance for the clearing process of the military to unearth arms caches. But once one area is cleared people should be allowed to move back.

    Children’s schooling and other realities may necessitate the IDPs wanting to stay somewhere close to places where infrastructure and facilities are available. But this should in no way stop the government from expeditiously providing the facilities in the IDPs’ places of residence as before full scale hostilities.

    NGOs and INGOs and other humanitarian organisations should understand the ‘do no harm’ approach while assisting the government with relief. They have to be firm on their principles and pressure the government to return people to their homes.
    Other world events and natural disasters are taking attention away from the sri lankan IDP camps, keeping this in mind, urgency is required in getting the IDPs out of the camps.
    thank you

  • http://[email protected] puran

    It is obvious that the government has no intention of settling thse hapless civilians, The old men, women and Cchildren as they had been promising. They have seen to much and know too much.

    To milslead the world and the public tyhey are setttling people who were displaced in the Puttalam. Amaparai and manner areas, who have seen nothing of the last few weeks of that war.
    The over 250,000 who are in the so called manek camps in an around vavuniya are the ones who they want to make certain are indoctrinated and harrassed and frightened into silence..

  • veedhur

    Dunno, what the Dayan and the Oxford Mathematician have to say!!

  • veedhur

    Saw this today:

    An open letter addressed to Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa, President of Sri Lanka (THE
    PATHETIC PLIGHT OF THE IDPs) dated 05.07.2009 by Mr. V. Anandasangaree – President, TULF.

    By V. Anandasangaree

    (July 12, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) In utter despair I am writing this appeal to you to convince you that your intervention at this stage is indispensable, if the country is to maintain its dignity and honour. The country’s credibility lies in your decision to order the immediate release of certain categories of IDPs and to follow it up soon by re-viewing the problem of the remaining IDPs. At present, they are virtually kept under compulsion without any justification, giving them the feeling that they are kept in an open prison with too many restrictions and not in a welfare centre. Hence your announcement tomorrow, a POYADAY, will be very crucial and will grant relief to the entire Buddhist World.

    I am acting on the assumption that many happenings in the IDP Camps are not brought to your notice. Seeing is believing and a visit to some of the IDP Camps by you is long over due, but not any in the Menic Farm. These things cannot and should not happen in our country with you as the Head of the State. Your decision which I am sure will open the eyes of some, who think that we can play with the lives of over 300,000 odd IDPs who are suffering for no faults of theirs. We are a proud Nation in which small children used to save the lives of cows, from the butchers, with their pocket-money.

    What provoked me to write this to you today is the denial of the authorities, to release a one your old child with the 61 year old Grandmother with whom the child is now staying in a IDP Camp at Pulmoddai. The father of this child and son of this Grandmother had his left leg amputated and is now in Pulmoddai. His wife had a right leg amputated with a multiple fracture on the left leg and is now in Vavuniya. These things are not happening in any part of the world. Even for a moment I will not assume that you have any knowledge of these incidents. This type of incidents are available in abundance in various camps among the 300,000 odd displaced persons.

    This detention is contrary to the undertaking given by you to the people of Vanni that they will be well looked-after if they escaped from the areas under the control of the LTTE at their own risk and came into the areas under the control of the Government. How many died or got killed in the risk they took, while crossing over, is not unknown to the world. Unfortunately they are not looked-after well but are physically and mentally tortured due to the prevailing conditions in the IDP Camps. Had they known that they will be forced to undergo this ordeal not one person would have dared to cross over at such risk to his or her life and would have preferred to stay behind and face death with their kith and kin or their dear ones, many of whom died due to shelling from both sides or died in the process of crossing over to the Government side. You will see for yourself that, if you allow the gates of the IDP Camps opened for a day, hardly one person staying behind.

    It is indeed painful for me to bring to your notice all these. Please pardon me for giving vent to my un-controllable feelings which I am doing after waiting so long, for the situation to improve. If you are in my position it will be easy for you to understand my feelings. Thousand of my old constituents have come to the IDP Camps from the Districts of Kilinochchi and Mullaitheevu. You know that I lived with them for several years and had represented them for a fair length of time. It is a tale of woe, that I hear from every one of them without any exception. Some are without their wives and some others their husbands and children. A good number had lost their parents, most of whom lost their lives in the battle front, not as combatants but as innocent civilians caught up in the cross fire and some others got buried alive in the bunkers, many died of starvation and children without milk food. They are still searching for their kith and kin. I made an appeal at the very start to publish a list of persons in each camp to enable the IDPs to trace their missing relatives and to help people living outside and in foreign countries to locate the people dear to them. So far it is not done. An officer named Mr. Tharmakulasingham attached to the Mullaitheevu Health Department who was maintaining a record of all causalities; himself got killed in a shell attack while he was on duty. That is the end of it. There is no way to determine whether a missing person is alive or dead. Many unidentified bodies in decomposed state are damped in common graves, many a times in the IDP Camps, Even the close relatives are not allowed to be present at the burial ceremony. There are a lot of rites that will have to be performed for the dead, some of which are compulsory for a soul to rest in peace. It may look ridiculous but people all over the world fear that souls for which no proper rites are performed has a tendency to roam about restlessly. Let one person dare say that what I say is rubbish. These are very sentimental issues that cannot be brushed side. For obvious reasons the IDPs do not complain but continue to weep in silence. I strongly believe this and I hope as a true Buddhist you will agree with me. I will certainly not bear to see this happening to any one, not even to an enemy.

    I heard and continue to hear a number of stories, some of which moved me to tears. It is the injured and the pregnant women who suffer the worst, without proper and prompt attention. Many injured had died for want of prompt treatment. Apart from the physical pain they undergo the mental torture affects them the most. Although there are thousands of cases, I give just one or two examples for you to consider the seriousness of the problems.

    One, is the story of the young man of 30 years who had his left leg amputated and is now in Pulmoddai. What is the security risk the country faces from these four individuals? What is the need to have them at three different places for months?

    In another case the Principal of a School in Vanni died of shell attack and his daughter also got badly injured. They are from Jaffna having plenty of relatives to weep for them and also to look after them. The mother and child are at the Mannar Hospital with hardly any one known to them. Who is answerable to this crime Your Excellency? I do not blame you for this. The authorities should have sent them to Jaffna to be cared for by their people and also to perform the due rites to the dead husband.

    I know you for over forty years. These are matters, I know you will not tolerate. This type of harassment, especially to people who had suffered in many ways for more than quarter of a century and had been living in constant fear and tension, is unacceptable. They have suffered enough and came running to you, risking their lives and leaving behind the seriously wounded and dying relative to seek solace from you, as their President. You are aware that I never misled you in any matter. The suggestions I make are well intended and to save the credibility of the country as a Buddhist Nation. I remember warning you on an earlier occasion too that the world is watching every step we take and there are many keeping a record of what is happening in our country and elsewhere. One day when you and I are no more or may be even during your lifetime Sri Lanka will wake-up to see itself condemned by the whole world, when many hidden truths come to the open. Above all there is one above preparing a balance sheet.

    You know me well. I do not flatter anybody for my personal gains. I don’t hesitate to call a spade a spade. To be very frank, I had been always feeling proud that I am a citizen of Sri Lanka that has a proud Buddhist Heritage. Although not a Buddhist I am one who pays obeisance to Lord Buddha. I have lost count of the number of visits I paid to Mahiyangana, and Dalada Maligawa, I have had the blessings of several Mahanayakas including those of the most Venerable Asgiriya and Malwatte Mahanayakas. I am now beginning to think as to why I was born in this country where the future of this country as a Proud Buddhist Nation is at stake.

    I strongly urge that you should without any delay order the immediate release of the injured persons, the old and the feeble, pregnant women, women with children, disabled persons, mentally retarded persons, the insane persons, orphans, destitute persons and such others who deserve release. Also please reunite members of the same family from various camps. Please send people from various districts to their respective districts.

    As a patriotic Sri Lankan who loves not only his country but also its people, I have done my duty to my country. A Further letter will be sent to you with some other suggestions which you will accept as reasonable.

    If you want to win over the Tamils do this first, resettle them soon and think of any development latter.

  • Devanesan Nesiah

    I congratulate Mr. V Anandasangaree on his open letter of July 5 addressed to the President and copied in veedhur’s entry of July 13. As so often, Mr. Anandasangaree is very focused and forthright.

    I also appreciate Vidura’s well-researched and informative entry of July 10. He compares and contrasts the World War II internment of Japanese in the U.S.A. and the current internment of IDPs in the Vanni. As he points out, there are similarities and dissimilarities. The internment of Japanese ordered by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on the advice of racist military advisors undermined his earlier reputation as a fair-minded, non-racist liberal. But there is one critical difference. That internment was during the course of World War II. The current and continuing internment of IDPs in the Vanni is post-war.

    There were two cases filed (on behalf of Hirabayashi and Korematsu respectively) against their internment in the U.S.A. These went up to the Supreme Court, but the majority judgement endorsed the internment in both cases. In his celebrated dissenting judgement in the Korematsu case, Justice Jackson exposed the racism underlying the internment process and the majority decision of the U.S. Supreme Court. In Sri Lanka, too, cases have been filed in relation to specific cases of internment. Time will tell if we have on our benches any who can rise to the heights that Justice Jackson did in the Korematsu case in 1944.

  • smoulderingjin

    Thank you for this startling article on the similarities between the IDPs and US internment camps. Also Anandasagaree’s letter to the president which was highlighted here.

    There is something deeply sinister about this whole situation – and I suspect that what Puran said is true. These people have seen too much and know too much to ever be allowed to be accessible to the outside world. I have heard this said by people involve with the IDPs. The few stories that filter out are horrific enough, that one can imagine what will happen if the 250k people are given freedom of movement and speech.

    The letter to the president, mentioned above was published in the Daily Mirror, and thecomments made in response to it are appalling. The language and tone of responders to some extent indicates why the current government does not need to worry – there are out there a significant number who think that keeping the IDPs in the camps is a solution towards safety and a necessary situation for the safety of the nation.

    Something must be done…What is the question….and how?