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“Who watches the watchmen?” Reforming Sri Lanka’s Detention Centres

Photo by Lakruwan Wanniarachchi/AFP/Getty Images, via Asia Society

Rehabilitation and reintegration of ex-militants or “terrorists” as they are more often termed, following the blanket approach that is being taken post 9/11, is still a new concept in the field of counterinsurgency. The plethora of state military actions against nationalist seditions, rebel groups, paramilitaries and other non state militaries have ensured that in a short period there has been a rapid increase in the number of detention centres and rehabilitation programmes for these cadres worldwide.  And Sri Lanka is no exception in this matter.

Sri Lanka ended its three decade long civil war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May 2009. This was an unprecedented military victory, where not only was the LTTE’s top military and political leadership killed, but its forces crushed and territory ravaged. After the end of the war the state and its leadership began to advertise their successes regarding the war and rehabilitation of suspected militants. This was soon accompanied by domestic and international criticism regarding human rights violations and lack of adherence to international humanitarian law during the last months of war and after. Sri Lanka has, so far, managed to side step many of these demands made by the international community at the UNHRC resolutions.[1]

Pressures have mounted once again, however, as the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOG) approaches closer and member nations have stepped up their demands on the Sri Lankan leadership to restore its commitments to human rights and a sustainable plan of action towards reconciliation. It is at this juncture that it seems pertinent to revaluate the ongoing rehabilitation and reintegration programme of ex-militants spearheaded by the government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) to see how far it has succeeded and understand the implications of its limitations. This article will try to underscore the terms under which such strategies should be evaluated in the Sri Lankan context, and identify what can be done to rectify the inadequacies of these policies.

The mission statement of the Sri Lankan Ministry of Rehabilitation and Prison Reform states that its main motive is to “disengage, de-radicalize, rehabilitate and reintegrate the misguided men/women and children, who were radicalized by the protracted armed conflict” to be made into “useful citizens and productive members” through a “center and community based comprehensive rehabilitation process”.[2] These detention centres are referred to as PRAC or Protective Accommodation and Rehabilitation Centre, and carry out programmes for both children and adults alike. The programmes include educational classes, vocational training courses, spiritual development programmes and counselling. However, it is not clear whether all the people detained had access to such facilities and training at all times. The Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Rehabilitation and Prisons are the main organs that oversee the rehabilitation of ex-combatants and the process is managed exclusively by the security forces. [3] Often these forces and institutions have enjoyed immunity under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). But what are the consequences for Sri Lanka from such institutional operations?

A number of concerns immediately come to the fore. Government statements claim that, of the 12,000 cadres detained under this programme, most of the suspected ex-militants have been rehabilitated and released successfully. Though many have been freed by the government, there have been many disputes regarding the exact numbers detained and released. Given the number of “disappreances”, kidnapping and “white van” abductions in the conflict affected areas, the number is suspected to be much higher. International Crisis Group reports have documented that there is a lack of information regarding the numbers detained. Factors such as constant transfers of “detainees” from centre to centre and lack of legal criteria as to who can be detained have made the process highly problematic. Though it has been suggested by the government appointed Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) that a data base be made available of those detained detailing their whereabouts, this has not yet been made available. Routine instances of prison violence in the northern and southern centres also show a lack of transparency and a failure to provide effective custody and care. To date no information has been released as to the long term detainees who have been held under the PTA. [4]

More worrying is the arbitrary decision to include political dissenters in these detention centres. This has ensured the unnecessary continuation of many of these centres, which had been designed for the rehabilitation of ex- militants and not peaceful political dissenters. Accusations of large scale rape and sexual violence of prisoners detained in official and unofficial detention centres, impunity allowed to officers who committed those crimes and the refusal to allow independent counselling and medical attention to survivors have not been dealt with and is often dismissed by the GOSL as anti- state propaganda.[5] The lack of proper legal recourse for those held in these facilities and their families has made them extremely vulnerable within this system and they live in perpetual fear for their safety.

When evaluating the Sri Lankan state’s efforts at rehabilitating and reintegrating ex-militants, the standard of recidivism, which is often applied categorically in other rehabilitation efforts undertaken in many other parts of the world, is not sufficient. In the Sri Lankan instance the rehabilitation and reintegration programme is directly linked to reconciliation, as it is in Afghanistan. The end of the war and the destruction of LTTE’s leadership and its global economic linkages have meant that, though conspiracy theories still survive, on the ground there is practically no room for a return to militancy. Using recidivism as a marker of its success is practically redundant. Therefore, it is more useful to evaluate the success of these programmes by identifying whether they have enabled the process of reintegration and reconciliation among ethnic divides. Any inadequacies in the rehabilitation programme will directly affect the potential for trust building and co-existence. An evaluation should seek to address whether the programme is systematic in its approach to enable the participation of former cadres in the state building project as equal stake-holders. This aspect is crucial for the men and women to feel part of the social fabric that they have been alienated from for so long.

“Deradicalization” programmes are often sought as a complimentary programme to military action as it is considered improbable to defeat “terrorist groups” by military action alone. Many of the “deradicalization” programmes in the world stress the disengagement from violence and the need to seek alternative ways to redress alleged grievances. And this is because they are simultaneously conducted along ongoing fighting or violence.[6] However, in Sri Lanka the case is very different. The LTTE had been completely defeated and the northern Tamils displaced from their homes in tremendous numbers with no potential for remobilising in the immediate future. The power dynamics between the “victor” and the “vanquished” is immediately visible in this context, and so the process is simplified from the very beginning.  In this environment, the delegitimization of violence as an expression of Tamil grievances is easily then extended to apply to the acknowledgement of the existence of any such grievances. This prevents, from its very onset, any meaningful chances at reconciliation between the communities.

Furthermore, the state needs the support of the private sector to actually implement an effective social and vocational rehabilitation and reintegration programme. The private sector needs to be motivated (with potential economic gains) to share in the mammoth task of training, equipping and employing all the rehabilitated members. But in contrast, this has not been achieved and it is further impeded by the increasing domination of the economy by the armed forces in the North and East. The military leads all development projects and administrative decisions in the North and East, playing a much larger role than merely an aide to the economy and civil administration. The army has also increasingly become involved in mainstream commercial activities such as agriculture and tourism in these fledgling economies. This ironically produces the opposite effect on economic productivity of the population. Unable to compete with the effective mobilisation of resources and low overhead costs managed by the army, local contractors often lose out. Added to this are incidents of seizure of large scale land by the military, which continues to disrupt civil and economic life in those regions.[7] This makes it difficult for rehabilitated men and women who attempt to rebuild their livelihoods by using small loans to start economic ventures.  Highly counterproductive, the system, though seemingly large and efficient, is clearly in dire need of reformation to include an integrated approach to reintegration and reconciliation.

In 2012 Sri Lanka allocated US$2.2 billion rupees to the combined defence and urban development ministries. Putting aside the debate of whether such an amount is even necessary in peace time, it is important to see whether funds are accompanied by adequate and responsible planning. Given this amount of resources available, it is sad indeed that they have not been allocated towards research and evaluation of existing rehabilitation programmes. Any such evaluation would not only have shown the glaring inconsistencies of the project, but also the adverse effects lack of transparency had on the larger aim of reconciliation. And if Sri Lanka really wished to be a model that other nations emulated, especially regarding its rehabilitation and reintegration plan,[8] it has to act with more responsibility than what it has previously demonstrated. Only a well designed project, that includes the reformation of these institutions and offers a durable plan regarding how these centres will be phased out, can be of value in not only answering international probes but to ensure that our institutions are accountable to us.

The author is a Masters Graduate in Strategic Studies from the S.Rajaratnam School of International Relations, Singapore, and is currently a programme officer at the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.


[1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-21873551

[2]  http://www.bcgr.gov.lk/vision.php

[3] http://www.bcgr.gov.lk/message.php

[4] International Crisis Group Report, Feb 2013, Sri Lanka’s Authoritarian Turn: The Need for International Action, http://www.crisisgroup.org/~/media/Files/asia/south-asia/sri-lanka/243-sri-lankas-authoritarian-turn-the-need-for-international-action.pdf, 12.

[5]  Human Rights Watch Report, 2013,  “We Will Teach You a Lesson” Sexual Violence against Tamils by Sri Lankan Security Forces http://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/srilanka0213webwcover_0.pdf

[6] http://www.asymmetricconflict.org/articles/aspects-of-deradicalization/

[7] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-22652210

[8] http://www.defence.lk/new.asp?fname=Sri_Lanka’s_success_story_on_rehabilitation_20120604_03