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.]