Human Security, IDPs and Refugees, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War, Vavuniya

The IDP situation in Sri Lanka: Let’s keep things real and a response to Rohini Hensman

[Editors note: This article was published in The Sunday Island on 28 June 2009. Groundviews does not usually reproduce content first published elsewhere in print or online. In this case however, given that the Island’s website has no mechanism to feature reader generated comments and because Rohini Hensman’s article was exclusively published on this site, Malinda’s response is republished with the expectation of continued dialogue between the two principal authors and comments from a wider readership. Those familiar with Malinda’s initial trenchant comment to and critique of Rohini’s article are also strongly encouraged to read Visit to ‘concentration camps’ in Cheddikulam published in The Nation, also on Sunday.

Update – Rohini Hensman’s response to this article is now featured on Groundviews here.]

Rohini Hensman is absolutely right when she asserts (in an article published in titled ‘Why are the Vanni civilians still being held hostage?’) ‘If there are elements in the government and armed forces working to destroy the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, it is incumbent on all of us who love our country to resist’.  I would not limit the resisting to ‘elements’ in the government or the armed forces though.  We know that the LTTE was not ‘government’ and not ‘armed forces’, for example. And we know that a lot of NGO personalities and even free media advocates were vociferously trying to destroy Sri Lanka, even though people like Nimalka Fernando of failed-state fame and Eelam-speak now unabashedly utter the word ‘motherland’.  They were resisted and that resistance played an important role in defeating the LTTE. They will be resisted today and tomorrow as well.

I don’t know about how ‘socialist’ Sri Lanka is, but it is certainly more of a republic than it used to be. Is it democratic?  Well, we are living under the violent shadow of the 1978 constitution and therefore ‘no’ is certainly a legitimate answer.

Rohini takes legitimate umbrage at certain statements made by high-ranking officials and politicians.  Whether such statements reflect official policy is of course not clear, especially since other officials and other politicians have made statements that contradict these.  If ‘official policy’ is best reflected by what the President says then I believe there is no reason to get worked up. Being alert, though, is important and for this I do applaud Rohini.

But as I said getting carried away is not useful.  For example, she calls the regimes of J.R. Jayewardena and Ranasinghe Premadasa ‘Sinhala nationalist’, never mind the fact that they were jointly responsible for the massacre of some 60,000 plus ‘Sinhala nationalists’, helped considerably by another ‘Sinhala nationalist’, Rohana Wijeweera.  Then she conjures up images of tyre pyres, mutilated bodies on the roadside, on waterways and so on.

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.

The ‘going overboard’ is nicely laced with the by not utterly boring ‘horror stories’ of the IDP camps. Rohini is so ‘overboard’ that her rant warrants full quotation:

Around 280,000 of the civilians who have suffered so much already have been kept prisoners behind barbed wire in camps where conditions are in many cases abysmal. It is clear that the government is unable to provide for them adequately, yet those with relations outside who would willingly look after them are being denied the right to join their families. If others want to check up on their homes in the Vanni or start rebuilding them, no one on earth has the right to stop them. This denial of the fundamental right to freedom of movement is especially cruel for families which have been split up, and are thereby denied the possibility of reuniting, or even finding out what has happened to their loved ones. It is lethal for those who are physically vulnerable; senior citizens were supposed to be released after a court found that many had died of starvation and more were dying daily, but the sick and injured, pregnant women, and mothers with babies are also vulnerable. With the monsoon, it is likely that gastrointestinal diseases will kill thousands. Why, then, are these unfortunate people being penalised like this?

I spent most of last weeks in these camps.  The conditions therein are certainly not luxurious but they are a far cry from ‘abysmal’.  If providing facilities that ensure 3 full meals a day, more than enough drinking water and water for bathing, medical services, toilets, schools, banking and postal services, and the influx of all manner of relief items courtesy the general public, business undertakings, INGOs, NGOs and UN agencies amounts to something that can be described as ‘abysmal’, then Rohini should check the dictionary meaning of the word.  They even have electricity and television, things that thousands living in formerly threatened villages did not have, do not have and are unlikely to have in the near future.

This is not the United States of America. This is Sri Lanka.  A third world country.  Given all this, the performance of the Government, I found quite contrary to what I expected considering the comparison of these facilities to Hitler’s concentration camps, startling.

It would indeed be cruel if split families are not allowed to reunite.  Reunification is a process that the Government is pursuing with utmost energy.  It is indeed lethal for those who are physically vulnerable, i.e. the elderly, the children, the sickly and pregnant mothers.  Lethal, yes, if there was no sympathy to their situation and if adequate measures are not in place.  The truth is, they are being looked after to the best of ability.  As for what the monsoon may or may not do, those in charge of these facilities are taking all precautions possible, including the shifting of camps to better locations, constructing better housing facilities and making sure that all amenities mentioned above are also available.

Rohini believes that one day would suffice to screen people.  Well, I suppose she has the brains to detect an LTTE cadre at the snap of a finger. Or the knowledge. I don’t know.  All I know is that it took two years to identify those responsible for the assassination attempt on the Defence Secretary and that two of the suspects were found in one of the camps.  It is better, given history, for the Government to be cautious.

The Government has already decided to allow those over 60 years of age to leave these camps, to go live with someone who undertakes to care for them or to enter a home for the elderly set up by the Social Services Department.  I think the Government could do better and give such people the right to leave, to live with friends or family, to take up residence in a home for the elderly or end up on the street if that is what they wish.  Perhaps the Government will.

Rohini asks ‘Why can’t camp inhabitants go out to look for missing relatives, or receive visits from friends and relations, or their homes if they want to?’  Well, just imagine close to 300,000 people leaving their camps and walking all over Cheddikum looking for friends and relatives!  Imagine the chaos.  Imagine the fallout of such an exercise.  Imagine what it would do to the logistics of feeding these people, attending to their medical and other needs?  Easy to say.  And as for receiving visits from friends and relations, this is happening Rohini. Everyday.  In all camps, except of course in those facilities where LTTE surrendees are being held.

The Government cannot treat children as suspects either. I don’t believe the Government is. On the other hand, this does not mean the Government can open the gates and ask all children to leave. It would be easier for the officials because it would halve the IDP population. Things don’t work that way. Children stay with parents.  Even under the harshest conditions and in this case, these are not abysmal conditions and they are not the harshest conditions imaginable.

There are security concerns and these naturally shape the diga palala of democracy, Rohini ought to understand.  Just because the LTTE leadership is no more, this does not mean that a brainwashed LTTE operative will not blow up a bus if given half a chance.

Rohini believes ‘democracy’ is about allowing people to go wherever they like, check out their homes, live on the streets if they so wish and so on.  Just imagine what would happen if the Government allowed such a thing.  The Government would be blamed for Ramalingam Rasiah losing his leg in a landmine explosion. The Government would be castigated for violating human rights because little 2 year old Meena Kumari died of hunger.  Our bleeding-heart I/NGO personalities would have a ball with the story.  They would roll out reams of commentary lamenting the state of affairs.  Nimalka Fernando would drop ‘motherland’ like a hot potato and take up the failed-state cry.  Others would re-activate the R2P agenda.  And Rohini Hensman would take up new cudgels for the restoration of ‘democracy’.

So let us keep perspective.  Let us not go overboard, if not for any reason, because it compromises our ability to resist real threats to democracy, whatever the sources may be, government, military or anti-Sri Lankan elements masquerading as political commentators, free media advocates or humanitarian workers.

The onus is certainly on the Government to make sure that the resettlement process is brought to a speedy conclusion, that those who are resettled have all the facilities they need, and that they are able to elect the representatives of their choice.  I believe the Government is doing most of what is possible.  We should agitate for the Government to do its best. We don’t help our cause by being dramatic, being disingenuous, by being uneducated about what is happening or by letting our imaginations run riot. We are hardly the democracy that we deserve, but we will remain where we are if we are not honest and if we prefer the dramatic to sobriety.