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

The shame of Menik Farm

The floods that affected significant swathes of the expansive Menik Farm a week ago generated interesting responses from government. One of the most revealing was the deafening silence of the usually loquacious Rajiva Wijesinghe, and the lack of any statement over the flooding by the Disaster Management and Human Rights Minister, Mahinda Samarasinghe.

On 22 July, Mahinda Samarasinghe noted during an adjournment debate on IDPs in Parliament that,

We are quite definite in our view that conditions on the so-called welfare centres and relief villages can and must be improved. As I have said on numerous occasions, these persons are not a mere statistic to be discussed as an abstract problem. These are Sri Lankan citizens with all the expectations, hopes and dreams of a better tomorrow which has been made possible by the defeat of terrorism. We must not let those aspirations wither away for want of concentrated and concerted effort on our part.

He went on to note,

… in the aftermath of a historic operation to rescue them from a ruthless terrorist organization, all necessary measures must be taken to ensure not only their welfare but also the welfare of the general populace of Sri Lanka in those areas and in the rest of the country. It is for this reason, that the freedom of movement of some of these IDPs has been restricted. We are not happy to do so nor are we totally inconsiderate of their rights. We are well aware that some cadres of the LTTE have infiltrated the ranks of the IDPs and, until and unless those cadres are filtered out, we have no option but to keep them within the welfare centres and relief villages.

I have quoted the Minister at length because his justification for the continued internment of IDPs is one that is echoed, albeit more offensively, from other quarters in government. A month after the Minister’s submission to Parliament, the divide between rhetoric and reality is acute. Even in July, he is uncertain of what really to call Menik Farm. That they offer relief, to any degree, is a farce. That they are established for the welfare of those displaced, and what is more, those of us outside, is preposterous. IDPs I doubt gladly rely on the largesse of Southern voters to keep them undernourished and interned. Eric P. Schwartz, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration at the US State Department was more forthcoming last week when he unambiguously said IDPs were confined against their will and that “people who are displaced should be agents of their own destiny”.

The Minister refers to the welfare of the IDPs and the welfare of the general populace of Sri Lanka as a bizarre justification for their internment. The argument goes on to suggest that some cadre of the LTTE reside in these camps. Fine. They do. So what? Why is this government suddenly so insecure of dealing with the emaciated remnants of the LTTE after decimating the larger movement? Surely, the swift containment of nascent terrorism would be a cinch for a trigger happy Army, even if all these arms caches buried underground somehow found their way into the hands of these under-nourished, traumatised IDPs? The Defence Secretary is on record noting that defence procurements and spending will continue unabated. Sarath Fonseka is on record saying that recruitment and fortification of the North and East will continue apace. This, lest we forget, is all post-war – when we have already been told the enemy has been decisively defeated. What is the government so frightened of then to suggest that the only reason for keeping over 260,000 IDPs interned in horrific conditions is out of care and concern for them and us?

And does the traditional media feature in this debate? Who in traditional media has questioned the plans of raving megalomaniacs in the Ministry of Defence who have a muscular grip over the fate of these IDPs? All SMS news services, that never fail to deliver cricket scores minutes after events on the pitch, were silent for over 3 days after the devastating floods in Menik Farm. Only Tamil media featured news of the flooding the day after the floods. The plight of IDPs was, shamefully, a non-issue for Sinhala newspapers last Sunday, with no front-page coverage whatsoever. This was despite a number of reports which suggested that toilet pits were overflowing, floors of tents were soggy and wet, IDPs had no change from wet clothes, a lack of dry firewood for cooking, that roofs of some tents blown away are increasing concerns over health and sanitation conditions with the impending monsoon. Erased by a supine traditional media, many in the South do not know the real ground conditions faced by IDPs. Worse, in a damning display of indifference, the South does not care enough to find out and demand this information.

Parading patriotic piffle, the catastrophic failure of this President and his government to adequately care for those interned in Menik Farm calls for a recalibrated purpose in aid and advocacy, not redoubled effort to keep these concentration camps intact. We cannot assuage our guilt for what we know is wrong by the occasional cover story, donation, photo op or sanitised visit. My commitment to the immediate release of these IDPs is not based on some Western funded conspiracy to resurrect the LTTE, which the government never tires of accusing civil society of, or on the submission that no LTTE cadres reside in Menik Farm. So what if they do? As I have noted earlier, why isn’t human dignity more important to establish, and an effective counter against residual terrorism, than the inhumane, degrading open-air imprisonment of IDPs? However much the government tries to identify and contain, elements of the LTTE will persist locally and globally. Surely a better way to address this threat is to ensure that legitimate aspirations of all communities, especially those who have been historically marginalised, are negotiated and met?

The rabid racism of the Rajapakse regime that Sri Lanka’s erstwhile Ambassador to the UN in Geneva Dayan Jayatilleke tragically defended, was nevertheless a socio-political phenomenon he critiqued when he noted that,

One of the basic errors of Sinhala ultranationalists’ discourse is the conclusion that Tamil ethnic politics or identity politics died on the banks of the Nandikadal. There can be a military victory over a military challenge but there cannot be a purely military victory over a political challenge. An enemy army can and must be defeated, an armed opponent can be killed, but a political challenge requires a political response and an idea can be defeated only by another idea.

Dayan’s post-war critique of the regime is congruent with Mahinda Samarasinghe’s submission that the aspirations of IDPs must be allowed to “wither away for want of concentrated and concerted effort on our part”. And yet where is this alternative vision and idea? Who in government is championing it? Why does the Ministry of Defence continue to have such a stranglehold on our imagination and media that we see all these IDPs as LTTE, or those who gave the LTTE succour and therefore fit to be treated in the manner they are? In an interview with the relative of a family interned in Menik Camp I listened to last week and published online, the speaker notes “The President of Sri Lanka, Hon. Mahinda Rajapakse says these people are his own citizens, but how they treat these people you can’t believe.”

But to even disbelieve and contest, citizens need to know what conditions are in Menik Camp. The lack of access to media is a problem, but not an insurmountable challenge. It is now sadly a convenient excuse for so-called independent media, fearful of the repercussions of investigative journalism, to turn a blind eye to the plight of these IDPs. Ironically, this lack of scrutiny guarantees precisely that which the government seeks to avoid – condemnation, wholly justified, of violent policies and practices that will invariably put paid to reconciliation and tragically erase our best chance of peace in decades. The call for the release of these IDPs is not a traitorous one. It is the moral and the right thing to do. It is not a call to support or reignite terrorism. It is to demand for government to stop mirroring the insensitivity of the LTTE and its abhorrent violence against civilians. It is to demand government to urgently act like they really give a damn.

As a Southerner and a Sinhala Buddhist, I am ashamed of what we have become, and how we silently countenance, nay justify, this significant post-war violence against fellow Tamil citizens. We were silent patriots during war, because we thought they were all terrorists. We are silent patriots after war, because we think they must still be terrorists. Menik Camp is a litmus test of our real commitment to peace. We do not need more support to strengthen it. We need resources and the political will to urgently to dismantle it.

Glass jawed patriots and others who don’t demand this, and worse, feel they don’t need to, will be the chief architects of a new LTTE.

[This article was written for and published in the Sunday Leader, 23 August 2009]