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

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!

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