‘Preventing a resurgence of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)’
By Dr. S. Narapalasingam
Speaking at the Asia Society headquarters in New York on 24 September 2009, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake said: “Rebuilding Sri Lanka after 25 years of civil war will require resettling thousands, encouraging foreign investment and preventing a resurgence of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)”. No one can dispute the veracity of the statement. But the paradox lies in the Government’s approach to realize these objectives. Rebuilding Sri Lanka as a serene united country requires settling amicably the long-standing political dispute between the ethnic majority and minority communities. This is essential for creating a promising investment climate and uninterrupted development of the national economy that suffered because of the deliberate neglect of the development of some areas endowed with natural resources and later the prolonged violent conflict.
The conflict arose because of the discriminatory policies and practices that disadvantaged the ethnic minorities, including the denial of their legitimate rights as citizens of independent Sri Lanka. The development of the North-East where the majority of residents are the Tamil speaking citizens has been neglected by successive governments. On the contrary, the state sponsored colonisation schemes for settling Sinhalese there were implemented vigorously. The violent methods used by the State to stifle non-violent protests led to the violent uprising of Tamil youth. This undesirable development was mainly due to the terror unleashed by the State. The terrorism associated with the LTTE is the destructive process brought about by one ambitious over-confident radical leader, who believed exclusively in firepower ignoring the realities.
Both the Tamil and Muslim communities have incurred considerable losses and sufferings and they will not tolerate a resurgence of the LTTE. The group’s financiers in the Tamil Diaspora too have learnt lessons and it is not easy for the LTTE to re-emerge in their earlier ferocious form. However, this does not rule out the emergence of the kind of civil disturbances that hindered unity and national progress, unless the ethnic issue is resolved soon so as to start earnestly the process of reuniting and rebuilding the damaged nation.
Attention is drawn in this essay to the contradiction between the declared objectives of the government and its actions and inaction in the pretext of ‘preventing a resurgence of LTTE’. In fact, contrary to the expectations of peace-loving Sri Lankans, the post-war developments are divisive, not helpful for reconciliation and preventing resurgence of the disturbances that emerged with the dominance of ‘Sinhala majority’ rule. This is not the ideal democracy that ensures political freedom and equal rights to all citizens. Even the pseudo democracy has eroded considerably by the blatant violations of good governance, rule of law and human rights. The culture of impunity has grown rapidly with the military campaign to defeat terrorism by any means and silence the journalists criticising this campaign.
UK Minister Mike Foster talking to some of the people in the camp recently-more pics: UK High commission, Colombo, Sri Lanka
Internment camps are immoral and illegal
According to a recent UN report 255,551 persons are currently accommodated in camps and hospitals. The breakdown is as follows; Vavuniya camps: 238,056, Mannar camps: 1,399, Jaffna camps: 7,378, Trinco camps: 6,734 and Hospitals: 1,984. The Centre to Scan issues of IDPs set up by the opposition party and former ally of the present UPFA government, had received 723 complaints from the displaced people in Vavuniya. Its convenor JVP parliamentarian Vijitha Herath told a news conference on October 1st that there was growing mental distress amongst the less fortunate, who were unable to obtain essential items unlike the others who were economically capable. He said the people with cash were able to purchase the necessary provisions from various shops (of mostly Sinhalese and few Muslims but not Tamils) that were set up within the camps while the poor were stranded without any means. “This has caused mental distress among the poor people within the camps and it had become a serious issue,” he said. (Daily Mirror 2 October 2009). The denial of the freedom they expected when escaping the clutches of the LTTE is also a major cause of the mental distress. There is clearly a moral question in the imposed detention and the disparity in the availability of provisions between the moneyed and poor detainees.
The Sunday Times of 4 October reported that gale force winds destroyed more than 2000 temporary shelters holding internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) compounding fears that the situation could worsen with the onset of the northeast monsoon.
An average of eight men, women and children occupied each shelter. These growing concerns came as leaders of five political parties urged that the IDPs be released immediately to return to their homes. A statement by the leaders of five political parties claimed that the “forcible detention of hundreds of thousands of Tamil citizens of Sri Lanka in camps for IDPs is illegal.” The signatories to the call “Let our people free” were V. Anandasangaree (TULF), Mano Ganesan (Democratic People’s Front), Rauf Hakeem (SLMC), Dr. K.Vigneswaran, (AITUF) and R. Sampanthan (TNA). This unity is a turning point in the struggle for the rights of the ethnic minorities. It was not possible earlier because of the assertive claim of the LTTE that they are the sole representative of the Tamils.
Prof. Kumar David in the Sunday Island 4 October 2009 has given an insight of the muddled situation in Sri Lanka. According to him under the cover of war, emergency is the norm and constitution is in limbo. The matters that should be of concern to all Sri Lankans are: “the state of emergency, forcible detention in the Vanni, abuse of power with impunity, murder in police custody, the independence or otherwise of the judiciary, freedom from fear of the politically powerful, freedom from fear of the police, freedom of the press, and matters of this nature”.
He has also bluntly said: “It will be quite difficult to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes that democracy and the rule of law are in fulsome bloom in Sri Lanka. The country has been under near continuous and unbroken emergency rule for 30 years, and no, it cannot all be justified by reference to the war. Some regulations go far beyond what is necessary, lend themselves to abuse and have been used to curtail legitimate democratic rights and dissent. As of August 2008 there were a total of 71 Regulations, Proclamations and Gazette Notifications under emergency law in force (Asanga Welikala, A State of Permanent Crisis, CPA Publication, 2008). Interleaving the trivial with the insane there are emergency regulations dealing with the adoption of children, the provision of edible salt and the issue of driving licences. This is the lunatic side of what is known as ‘the exception becoming the norm’, that is rule by emergency becoming a substitute, etched in stone, bypassing the supremacy of the constitution and the protection of citizens under the law. A permanent state of emergency is not a democracy”. The government considers the Emergency Regulations, Prevention of Terrorism Act and the curtailment of freedoms mentioned by Kumar are for preventing a resurgence of the LTTE! This shows the intent to continue the commanding way of governing even after crushing the terrorists.
He has also been frank in his comment on the plethora of promises given on the political resolution of the ethnic problem and resettlement of the war victims in the forced detention camps without the resolve to fulfil them. Moral principles had undoubtedly been abandoned in the case of forced detention of innocent civilians who sought refuge. The following comments of Kumar David are poignant. “The illegal, immoral and forcible detention of hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankan citizens by the government of Sri Lanka is unspeakably repugnant. If there is one thing the EU can do for human and democratic rights in this country at this time it is to barter GSP+, and perhaps few other sweeteners, for the immediate unconditional release of these detained persons. But release first, then GSP+, under no conditions should the EU allow itself to be duped by promissory notes undertaking to do it the other way round. Look how New Delhi and its High Commissioner in Colombo have been played for suckers. When will the international community ever learn? One hopes, at last, at least now”.
Many others have condemned the incarceration of Tamils who suffered immensely in the war zone and were anxiously waiting for liberation from their endless sufferings. It is not possible to present here all the condemnations by several concerned Sri Lankans. Only a selected few are cited here. Rajan Philips in his article posted by ‘transCurrents’ on 2 October has said: “Despite restrictions on visits or inspections by outsiders, the outside world knows what is going on inside the camps. Even with the best of intentions the Sri Lankan government is incapable of operating camps of this size humanely and efficiently. With intentions that are manifestly manipulative and sinister, the suffering of the people is that much worse”.
“The camps are inhuman and all the excuses that the government has been giving are adding insults to the injuries of the people it is holding against their will and against their dignity. By all indications, the vast majority of them have a place to go, and the few who have nowhere to go could remain in the camps and be looked after not by the military but civilian agencies”. He too has raised the complete neglect of ethics in the decision to detain forcibly innocent civilians in these inhuman camps. “The people in the Wanni camps are not just an ‘IDP issue’ awaiting a ‘new struggle’, but a new ethical collapse that render all other struggles, old and new, meaningless”.
The subjective intentions of the war against the LTTE have been exposed. “The government objectively justified the war against the LTTE as war against terrorism. But the subjective intentions were something else and the human camps in the Wanni are testament to the ill intentions of the Rajapakse government. The LTTE is not remembered enough by the Tamils, either as hero or as villain. It is not forgotten enough by the Rajapakse government ....The government’s priority is to perpetuate the war after the war has been won, and to keep the LTTE alive even after decimating it. That is the brothers’ roadmap to stay in power and to win elections as they come. War + LTTE = patriotism + security. That is the equation of the Rajapakse brothers. Every other variable in Sri Lankan society affecting its wellbeing is irrelevant and outside the brothers’ political radar. The encamping of the people in the Wanni is a key factor in that equation, and the government, the occasional platitude apart, is stubborn about keeping the camps going”.
Tisaranee Gunasekara in the Asian Tribune 4 October has also movingly drawn attention to the plight of the poor distressed citizens interned in the high security camps. She wrote: “Imagine the psychological conditions of the IDPs. They have been through a brutal war; they have lost family members, become injured themselves; they have lost homes and livelihoods. In the end, instead of the promised freedom, they were herded into barbed wire enclosures and are being kept there at gun point. In the absence of freedom and hope, desperation, laced with bitter anger, will grow. Desperate people take risks, with their lives and with the lives of others, because they feel they have little or nothing to lose, because they become blinded by despair”.
The TULF leader V. Anandasangaree, who defiantly refused to accept the LTTE’s thoughtless way of seeking liberation from Sinhala majority rule is reported to have told a Sunday paper: “Most of the key LTTE cadres have escaped the camps and fled to India after paying some pro government para-military groups large sums of monies.” “It is only the poor civilians who cannot speak out or are unable to do anything for themselves, trapped in these camps are being forced to endure and suffer under very trying and terrible conditions.” The detainees with ability to pay ransom like those who can purchase essential goods from the shops in the internment camps for survival are the relatively luckier beings.
On Saturday 26 September soldiers fired on captives in the heavily guarded Menik Farm camp in Vavuniya. The shooting erupted, when some detainees attacked a group of soldiers in anger over being prevented from moving between zones of this camp. Menik Farm consists of seven zones and is one of 21 closed camps spread across the Vavuniya, Jaffna, Mannar and Trincomalee districts. D.B.S. Jeyaraj in his analysis of ‘The Menik Farm camp’ shooting incident has stated: “The charge of an attempt to throw a grenade appears to be a total fabrication by army officials. It is seen as a cover up attempt to justify the firing upon unarmed civilians by the soldiers”. He also observed that “the official version – that soldiers fired on those attempting to escape – has once again highlighted the fact that hundreds of thousands of people are being held under armed guard at internment camps”.
The report in ‘The Island’ 30 September 2009 raised some pertinent questions about the continued detention of civilians in the barbed wire fenced camps guarded by armed soldiers. The newspaper reported that SSP for Kandy Ranjith Kasturiratna said at the Kandy District coordinating committee meeting, chaired by the Central Province Chief Minister Sarath Ekanayake on 28 September, “at least 20,000 of the nearly 300,000 IDPs in the Vavuniya camps had escaped. The newswire, Lanka Polity posed the question – “How do people 'escape' from the refugee camps in Sri Lanka unless they are internment camps?” According to police investigations the escapees are former LTTE cadres. Earlier the government announced that there were about 10,000 LTTE cadres among the camp dwellers. If many had escaped, why should the remaining displaced persons be forcibly detained against their wishes?
Widespread international discontent and concern
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in a press release stated, it is deeply concerned about reports of security incidents taking place inside camps accommodating internally displaced persons (IDPs) in northern Sri Lanka.
According to UNHCR, in the September 26th incident in the Menik Farm camp, “several people are said to have been injured, including a child who was hit by a stray bullet and is now paralyzed. There are also reports of several people being detained following the disturbance. UNHCR calls upon the government to ensure the protection and physical security of the IDPs and to undertake a swift investigation into the event”.
The testimony by Andrew Stroehlein, International Crisis Group's Communications Director, to the European Parliament Subcommittee on Human Rights on 1 October on the situation in Sri Lanka is telling. Only his introductory remark is presented here. “Since the end of the war and the defeat of the terrorist Tamil Tigers, the government of Sri Lanka has been imprisoning without charge over a quarter of a million ethnic Tamils displaced by the conflict. The state has locked them in internment camps in the north of the country. The camps are surrounded by barbed wire, and the Sri Lankan army will shoot at anyone who tries to escape.
Such restrictions on freedom in the absence of due process are a violation of both national and international laws. ...The military is preventing humanitarian organisations, including the UN and International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), from undertaking effective monitoring and protection in the camps.
The government has made numerous promises to release those held in the main camps, but these are little more than attempts to deliberately mislead the international community. Very little has come of any of Colombo's pledges. The worst kind of duplicity was seen just a few weeks ago, when the government announced it had released 10,000 displaced persons. In fact, we know at least 3,300 people had been moved from an internment camp to another detention facility”.
In a statement issued on 8 October, Amnesty International said, “the government had failed to deliver vital services to the camps, and they lacked basic sanitation facilities. Heavy rains last month sent rivers of water and sewage flowing through the tents” Although the harsh conditions in the internment camps have been downplayed by the government, the truth has also been revealed by the few released recently. Groundviews editors remarked on September 30, 2009 that the two short testimonies on the plight of IDPs received from Menik Camp “highlight significant challenges facing reconciliation and resettlement in post-war Sri Lanka and the urgent need for psycho-social counselling”.
The 130 page interim report of the EU titled ‘The Implementation Of Certain Human Rights Conventions In Sri Lanka’ by Francoise Hampson, Leif Sevon and Ramon Wieruszewski has looked at the implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in the country, which are key among the 27 conventions that need to be ratified as a prerequisite to receive the GSP+ facility. Referring to detention in the camps, the experts have stated that while those in the camps are in effect deprived of their liberty, for all intents and purposes, they are interned. The EU panel has stated it was not clear under what law the people in the IDP camps are detained. If they are not detained under the Emergency Regulations, this is “a novel form of unacknowledged detention” (Sunday Leader 4 October 2009).
Ms. Jean Lambert, President of the European Parliament (EP) delegation for relations with South Asia, in an e-mailed comment to Daily Mirror online (8 October), said that the protracted detention of IDPs is disproportionate and conflicts with key provisions of the ICCPR It is a United Nations treaty based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, created on December 16, 1966 and entered into force on March 23, 1976. The ICCPR is monitored by the Human Rights Committee (a separate body to the Human Rights Council which replaced the Commission on Human Rights under the UN Charter in 2006) with permanent standing, to consider periodic reports submitted by member States on their compliance with the treaty.
Ms Lambert also agrees with the concerns of others about the “widespread climate of impunity which at present seems to prevail in Sri Lanka"
Col R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, who served as the head of intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in Sri Lanka 1987 to 1990 in his latest article on the post-war developments in Sri Lanka has said that the international community without any visible results remains unconvinced of the declared intents of the Sri Lankan government. On the issue of EU's extension of GSP+, he has opined that it now has “acquired a symbolic connection to condoning of Sri Lanka’s violation of governance and human rights norms. EU cannot ignore the strong public opinion gathering momentum against Sri Lanka’s overall conduct on human rights and humanitarian issues particularly on the resettlement of 250,000 people held in camps against their will for the past five months or so.
Sri Lanka has no choice but to address all the connected issues. Its knee jerk action to ease international pressure as it builds up is not enough. So when it says the screening of approximately 160,000 persons had been completed and would reduce the number of camp inmates to 100,000 by October it has to demonstrate it. It has to come out with a list of LTTE cadres and camp followers in custody so that there is a record of who is where lest further accusations of executions in custody pile up. These are basic norms of good governance and Sri Lanka is expected to adhere to them. These issues are gathering adverse international momentum and nothing convinces international community as visible results”.
He has also said on the IDP issue, “The US is in consultation with India as evident from the recent meeting of the U.S. Ambassador to India Tim Roemer with Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi. The ambassador’s statement after the meeting that “close to USD 80 million in 2008 and 2009” invested by the US was to ensure that the resettlement process was expeditious, humane and just. The Government of India is also coming under increasing pressure from Tamil Nadu to act on this basic rights issue. By now, the way New Delhi has been duped by Colombo since the former supported the military campaign against the common enemy - the LTTE – must be known to all discerning persons. India did not wish to sacrifice the legitimate rights and concerns of the ethnic Tamils in Sri Lanka for the sake of annihilating the ruthless LTTE.
The UK Labour party conference in Brighton, England turned its attention to the aftermath of the civil war in Sri Lanka on 1 October 2009. In his speech, Foreign Secretary David Miliband said – "In those democracies, like Sri Lanka, where civil war claimed lives and liberty, we say governments have a duty to uphold the civil, social and political rights of all their citizens, whatever their ethnicity or religion."
The conference passed an emergency resolution the same day, which condemned "the detention by the Sri Lankan government of 300,000 men, women and children" as inhumane. The resolution also called for journalists to be allowed to enter Sri Lanka and report what is happening in the camps, and for the withdrawal of Sri Lanka’s favoured trading status.
Great Britain on 6 October expressed disappointment with Sri Lankan government’s handling of the war-displaced civilians and demanded that the forcibly detained persons be given the freedom to leave the state-run camps The Britain’s International Development Minister Mike Foster, after touring the camps said: "Freedom of movement is critical if a humanitarian crisis is to be averted," and also voiced concern over the conditions in the camps. He said, 4.8 million pounds (7.6 million dollars) is currently in the pipeline to assist Sri Lanka in resettlement work, but added that the money is not to be used to transfer people from one camp to another. Apparently he was aware that some said to have be released from the main Manik Farm camp that has been in the media spotlight were transferred to other camps outside Vanni.
Apparently the government, regardless of the enormous cost and international calls for early resettlement and political reconciliation, wants to keep the restrictions that prevailed during the war even after it ended more than 4 months ago for political gain. The forced detention of Tamils who lived in the Tiger-controlled North and looked forward to return early to their homes and regain their lost livelihood after the war that was thrust on them is part of this scheme. It is clear that the head of the government is keen on sustaining the popularity gained following the decisive military victory against the Tamil Tigers in May this year. There is definitely a political mileage in portraying the present government political leadership as the only able protector of the nation. This, of course, requires the continuation of the fear of a potential enemy.
Even the rebuff of the proposals of the UN, US, EU and others is used for narrow political advantage. Addressing the UPFA’s final election campaign rally in support of the UPFA contenders for the Southern Provincial Council on 7 October, the President said “although we have strong and friendly relationships with other nations we are not ready to bow down in front of injustice and unreasonable conditions. We would never betray the honour of our Motherland. It comes before everything else.”
But who is to decide what is ‘injustice and unreasonable’? Like getting thrilled watching exciting movies, the masses also seem to admire the Lankan hero challenging the powerful ones in the whole world.
But the problem here is this stance obstructs reconciliation essential for settling the ethnic conflict justly to enable all ethnic communities to coexist harmoniously without the fear of being denied safety, security and socio-economic advancement. It is paradoxical for the Sinhalese, who are members of the majority ethnic community to imagine their future depends on keeping the ethnic minorities powerless. The ethnic Sinhala majority rule that discriminated against the ethnic minorities is the root cause of the conflict that escalated into the armed struggle for secession. In short, the government’s approach to prevent another rebellion is counterproductive. As explained earlier, there is no chance for a resurgence of the LTTE in their violent form. The focus now after the end of the 30 year-old war should be on uniting the divided nation by peaceful means and creating a climate conducive for stability, lasting peace, progress and prosperity. The changes needed to the ruling system to achieve these are known. What is needed is to shun parochial politics and come up resolutely to bring about these changes from the broad and long-term interests of the island nation.
[The writer is Former Additional Deputy Secretary to the Treasury, Sri Lanka and UN Advisor, Development Economics/Planning]