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

The Internment – A Collective Punishment?

The widespread indifference to the continuing misery of 280,000 interned IDPs, most of them already unlawfully detained for about four months without any charges, is a sad reflection on the moral values of our society. The reported release of a few thousand is most welcome, but what of the remaining 270,000? Attempts made to justify the internment on the grounds that some of the areas from which they were displaced may yet be land-mined is patently false, in that these internees could then be permitted to move temporarily to other areas to live with relatives or friends, or in accommodation provided by organisations that have already indicated a willingness to help. As in the case of other IDPs, the state could establish a few welfare (not detention) camps to accommodate the few who cannot find accommodation on their own. Any decision to move out should be taken by the IDPs solely on their own responsibility. Concern for the welfare of IDPs cannot possibly be a reason to detain anyone or to restrict their movements or to prevent access to them. If, on the other hand, the IDPs are being held on suspicion of being responsible for criminal activity, and if evidence is available, they should be duly arrested and charged. If, four months after the commencement of their detention, there is no evidence found to charge them, they should be freed forthwith.

Is the ethnicity of the IDPs a factor that contributes to the tacit acceptance of the detention without any charges of virtually the entire population caught up in the territory conquered from the LTTE? Are they being held as prisoners of war? When natural disasters, such as the tsunami of December 26, 2006, devastated the shores of this island and the lives of hundreds of thousands of our population, many of all ethnic groups were motivated to disregard any ethnic or religious differences and help the victims. Identifying with natural disaster-stricken victims and generously helping them is an admirable characteristic of Sri Lankans of all ethnic groups. Do ethnic differences suppress our generosity when the disaster is caused by ethnicity-related political oppression or violence? Is that the kind of people we are? Is that how we see ourselves?

When the Indian Tamils in our midst were suddenly deprived of citizenship and voting rights in 1949, it was a tragedy for the one million Indian Tamils. Most of the other ethnic groups, including a significant proportion of Sri Lankan Tamils, appeared to be indifferent to the injustice inflicted on Indian Tamils. Again, when Tamil-speaking persons were suddenly deprived of their language rights in 1956, most of those of other linguistic groups appeared to be indifferent to the pain of the Tamil-speaking population. When various acts of brutal ethnic violence or ethnic cleansing took place over the years, whether of Sinhalese at the hands of the LTTE and other Tamil armed groups, or of Tamils at the hands of Sinhalese and Muslim armed groups, or of Muslims at the hands of Sinhalese and Tamil armed groups, it appeared that those most concerned were of the same ethnic group as the victims. Is such selectivity in our concerns in keeping with our Buddhist or Hindu or Muslim or Christian or ethical values? Or are our tribal instincts superseding our religious and ethical principles?

Four months ago, close to the end of the civil war, when groundviews posed the hypothetical question “Would killing 50,000 civilians to finish off the LTTE bring peace?” most of those who responded replied, “No, this is just wrong.” But, sadly, there were a few who replied “Yes” or “Maybe”. It may be instructive to explore our responses to a similar question: Suppose the LTTE had been cornered by the armed forces of the State and retreated into your old school premises, occupied by 1,000 students, staff, and family members, who were then held hostage by the rebel group. The school premises have been sealed off by the armed forces of the State, who effectively control all entry and exit, but are unable to rescue the captives. Any attempt by the armed forces to forcibly enter the premises to capture the rebels free the captives is likely to lead to the death of at least 500 of the latter. What is to be done?

In the heat of the conflict the instinct of the armed forces may be to go in and finish off their task, irrespective of the scale of civilian casualties. Would you recommend that they do that, or would you urge negotiating the release of the hostages in exchange for some concessions to the captors? For the captors, there is no other option available, because they are effectively surrounded. Most of us would surely urge that there should be a negotiated settlement so as to avoid large scale civilian deaths. Since the students, teachers, and family members are of our own school, it is easy to identify with the victims.

Would our concern be less and our decision be different if it was not our own school, but a remote school, and the captives are mainly of ethnic, religious, linguistic, and class identities different to our own? When Madeleine Albright justified sanctions against Iraq, even after it was known that sanctions had led to the deaths of over 500,000 Iraqi children as well as very large numbers of other civilians, she was rightly condemned as a racist; so too George Bush, Tony Blair, and many others who held that the invasion of Iraq was worthwhile despite the tragedy it brought on the population. Was it worthwhile for them or the Iraqi people? Are we less racist than they? Four months ago, in the midst of the war, we could have been excused for paying inadequate attention to humanitarian issues and letting our political objectives and tribal instincts overcome our religious and ethical values. Today, four months after the end of the war, that excuse will not hold. We know that the internment is wrong as surely as we know that all the massacres and all the ethnic cleansing over the decades were wrong.

Should we not urge the immediate release of those wrongfully detained?