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

Doing the Right Thing: Freedom for Vanni IDPs

[Editors note: An edited copy of this article appears in the Sunday Times of 27th September 2009. This is the full version.]

It was a relief to hear that the government was at last responding to mounting domestic and international criticism, and had begun releasing the Vanni IDPs. Perhaps the shocking report in the Sunday Times on 6 September about human trafficking at the internment camps was partly responsible. An exemplary piece of investigative journalism, it revealed that up to 20,000 IDPs have been ransomed by desperate relatives who are able and willing to pay lakhs of rupees to secure their release, and have left the camps. This exposes so-called ‘screening’ for what it is: a cover for a lucrative flesh trade, carried out with the collusion of elements in the government and armed forces who get a cut out of it. It also explains why the camp authorities refused to release a one-year-old child to leave with its grandmother, in a case cited by Mr Anandasangaree: since an infant could hardly be suspected of being a dreaded LTTE terrorist, the reason was surely that a ransom had not been paid.

One would have to be naïve indeed to believe that those who have been ransomed are ‘innocent’ while those who remain are more likely to be LTTE cadres. On the contrary, anyone in the camps who had any value for the LTTE diaspora would certainly have escaped by now. Conversely, we can be sure that the unfortunate souls left rotting in these camps are of no interest to whatever remains of the LTTE. They are the victims, not perpetrators, of crimes. The UN too seems to have woken up to the fact that by funding these camps it is colluding, willy-nilly, in a crime against humanity – the denial of liberty and other fundamental human rights to a civilian population – and has made it clear that it cannot continue doing so much longer. UN Under Secretary General for Political Affairs Lynn Pascoe reiterated the demand that the Vanni IDPs should be granted freedom of movement during his recent visit.

While we welcome the government’s announcement that it is willing to release IDPs from the camps to relatives willing to house them, it is a matter of concern that even while President Rajapaksa was telling Mr Pascoe that the reason why so few IDPs had been released to live with their relatives was that there were so few applications, the GA of Vavuniya was refusing to release IDPs to their relatives! This suggests that ransoms are still being demanded, and IDPs unable to pay them are not being released. The condition that IDPs should be released only to relatives makes sense for unaccompanied children, but why can’t adults go and live in rented accommodation instead of staying with relatives if they so choose?

Furthermore, the whole farce of ‘screening’, which has been dragged on for four months, should be stopped. The best proof that the LTTE is no longer a threat in Sri Lanka is the release of top LTTE cadres Daya Master and George Master, who were with Prabakaran almost to the very end. Would the authorities have released them on bail if there were any danger from the LTTE? Hardly. If they can be released, why are lakhs of innocent civilians being detained? Did the President avoid the UN General Assembly because he is unable to answer this question?

Release should not be confused with resettlement. IDPs who wish to go and live outside the camps should be free to do so. Those who wish to remain in the camps until their original habitats are de-mined and reconstructed should be allowed to remain, but should be free to move in and out of the camps instead of being imprisoned in them as they are now, and free to leave permanently as and when they wish. The only condition attached should be that they inform the international and local agencies which are providing for them whenever they leave for good, to make it clear that there is no need to feed them any longer. The resources freed by their departure could be used to speed up de-mining and reconstruction in the war-devastated areas, and will undoubtedly improve conditions for those who choose to remain in the camps. The visit of the UN Secretary-General’s envoy for refugee rights Walter Kalin provides an ideal opportunity to announce the release of all the Vanni IDPs and end this shameful chapter in our history.

Pressure on the government to ensure speedy resettlement of all IDPs should also be kept up. This should include not only IDPs who fled the recent fighting but also those who were displaced earlier, including Muslims displaced in 1990. Citizens’ committees would need to be set up to deal with problems such as those which occur where others are living in the homes of displaced people who wish to return. It will not be easy, but with goodwill, these problems can be resolved, and the sooner the better. All those who want to return to their original homes should be accommodated, if not in their original homes, at least in the neighbourhood, or in some other place of their choice. This is the only way to reverse the ethnic cleansing drives carried out by both the state and the LTTE, and rebuild integrated communities.

An unnecessary obstacle to resettlement is created by the government’s designation of some of the areas from which people have been displaced as ‘High Security Zones’ (HSZs), some of which double as ‘Special Economic Zones’(!). Earlier attempts to dismantle these were stalled by the argument that they were necessary so long as the LTTE had not been disarmed. Now that the LTTE has definitively been disarmed, they serve no justifiable purpose. The only way their persistence can be explained is as a form of ethnic cleansing, since in practically every case, the people displaced by them are Tamils and Muslims. A good example is Sampur in the East, where the inhabitants were driven out by shelling and are now being denied the right to return, while India colludes in this crime against humanity by undertaking to build a coal-fired power plant on their land. The process of resettlement cannot be regarded as complete until people displaced by HSZs have also been granted the right of return. But, some people argue, the LTTE is still a threat, and therefore we need to retain the HSZs, along with the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and Emergency provisions. Is this true?

Is the War Over? Or Was the President Lying?
Back in May, President Rajapaksa gave a speech in which he claimed that ‘our Motherland has been completely freed from the clutches of separatist terrorism’. He spoke of ‘the proud victory we have achieved today by defeating the world’s most ruthless terrorist organization’ and ‘the defeat of the LTTE and the breakdown of their armed strength’. There was no ambiguity about his words: he told us that the war was over, the LTTE defeated, their armed strength broken down. On this understanding, there were widespread celebrations, and the President gained enormous popularity.

There is no reason to suppose that the President was lying. Yet last month a senior government official was reported as saying that the LTTE was still capable of reorganising in Sri Lanka, and this month IGP Jayantha Wickramaratne reiterated that the threat of the Tamil Tigers is still alive in Sri Lanka, and they have not been completely defeated. On the face of it, these people are implying that the President was a liar when he said that Sri Lanka had been completely freed from separatist terrorism, and a fraud for claiming credit for the defeat of the LTTE. So why does the President tolerate such insults from his underlings?

The reason seems to be that the government is caught in the same trap of war-dependence which was the downfall of the LTTE. A war justifies repressive measures that would never be acceptable in peacetime, and the LTTE would have been unable to function without these. That is why it broke one ceasefire after another, let slip one opportunity after another to negotiate a just peace. But this had a disastrous effect on its support base. With all due respect to the soldiers who risked and lost their lives in the war, their courage alone would not have brought about the defeat of the LTTE. The Israeli armed forces are many times stronger than the Sri Lankan military, and the Palestinians’ arsenal is pathetic by comparison with that of the LTTE, yet the Palestinian resistance has survived for over sixty years. That is because it has the support of the people: precisely what the LTTE lost due to its dependence on war.

The last straw appears to have been the peace process which began in 2002. It ushered in an unprecedentedly long cessation of hostilities, and made it clearer than ever that the LTTE was incapable of handling peace. I was among those who criticised the 2002 CFA for allowing the LTTE a free hand to kill Tamil dissidents, conscript children and prepare for war, but in retrospect, I can see that it also served a positive purpose. Karuna’s defection was only the visible tip of a vast iceberg of discontent, as Tamil people who had hoped the LTTE would deliver them from fear, humiliation and violence realised that it offered them only more of the same. Their disillusionment and consequent withdrawal of support allowed the state to defeat the LTTE.

Now the Rakapaksa regime faces the same dilemma that Prabakaran faced earlier: if the war is over, how can it justify the measures that give absolute and unaccountable power to the state? So it has to invent an ‘LTTE threat’ in order to continue with policies that would be unacceptable in peacetime. But the Sinhalese people of Sri Lankaare not fools. They will realise, like the Tamil people before them, that this ‘threat’ is simply being concocted to justify disastrous economic and political choices. With all the fire and brimstone directed against foreign-funded NGOs, it is amusing to note that we now have a government that is dependent on foreign funding. The Ministry of Finance and Planning reported in August 2008 that the national debt stood at over 3 trillion rupees, with 1.39 trillion being foreign debt. The IMF loan has eased the immediate problem, but at the cost of getting us deeper in debt: in other words, we can repay our debts only by expanding them, placing an ever greater burden on the people. If the EU GSP+ facility is lost, the economy will plunge even deeper in the red. In this context, detaining lakhs of civilians and expanding the armed forces constitute unnecessary and ruinous expenditures.

The social and political costs are equally huge. Horrific reports of police brutality, including the murder of two boys, Dhanushka Aponso and Dinesh Fernando, at Angulana and the abduction and torture of student Nipuna Ramanayake by SSP Vaas Gunawardene and other officers of the Colombo Crime Division, are reminiscent of the murders of the schoolboys of Embilipitiya, and result from the same conditions: rampant impunity for crimes committed by politicians in power, the state security forces and the police. This impunity, in turn, is fostered by the suspension of the rule of law resulting from the PTA and Emergency Regulations, which can only be justified by claiming that the LTTE is still a threat.

The only way to reverse the degradation of our economy and polity is to acknowledge that the war is over and take the appropriate measures: release all the Vanni IDPs immediately, slash military spending, dismantle the paramilitaries, redeploy demobilised soldiers to civilian reconstruction tasks, replace military and ex-military administrators with civilian ones, dismantle the HSZs, resettle all displaced civilians including those displaced by HSZs, repeal the PTA and Emergency Regulations, restore democratic rights, especially to freedom of expression, and release J.S. Tissainayagam and others incarcerated for exercising this right. The best way to ensure that Sri Lanka retains its EU GSP+ facility is to do the right thing, failing which, the government must take full responsibility for the lost jobs and revenue.