We revisit our recommendations after 3 years.
Authored by DR R Narendran July 2009
Our recent visit to Sri Lanka (July’2009) was intended to see the developments in the IDP camps subsequent to our last visit (March’2009) and evaluate the situation in the country following the defeat of the LTTE. We met with senior government ministers and officials, Buddhist prelates, the Chief Minister of the Eastern Province and United Nations officials. The government provided us the opportunity to visit the IDP camps in Chettikulam, the rehabilitation centre at Ambepussa and the northern and eastern provinces.
We saw remarkable improvements in the IDP camps, though conditions cannot be described as perfect. The United Nations agencies insist these camps be of a temporary nature and this dictate the housing and other infra-structure facilities be such. However, it was observed the housing and toilets constructed by the Sri Lankan authorities were more durable and climate friendly than those constructed by the UN agencies. The UN agencies were obviously constrained by their definition of the word ‘Temporary’ and the material for housing that are standard issue the world over. The IDP camps have become functional communities with schools, temples, shops, banks, reading rooms and medical centres. The limitations existing in these camps largely arise from the fact that they are temporary. The outer perimeter barbed wire fences exist and the IDPs are not permitted move in and out of the camps, unless taken out to the Vavuniya hospital for medical reasons. We did not hear any complaints about these restrictions from the residents of these camps. The security concerns and safety of the refugees are yet paramount and the restrictions are acceptable to the inmates.
Discussions with the residents in these camps revealed they were relieved to be in safe havens, after their near-death and other harrowing experiences in the war front. Their main concerns were about split family units and about their missing relatives. Many were yet near tears in memory of the loved ones who died in the exchanges of fire in the war front or those who were killed by the LTTE while trying to escape. We heard heart rending tales on how the LTTE brutally conscripted their young children and the equally heart rending measures they took to protect their children. The black marketing of essential foods and the incineration of food stocks when evacuating areas, by the LTTE were frequently mentioned with extreme resentment. The residents we spoke to were resentful of the LTTE behaviour during the fourth Eelam war and were quite open in condemning the Tamil Diaspora, for having blindly supported the LTTE.
The reports of excessive number of deaths, diseases and instances of violence, such as rape, were discussed with officials responsible for the camps and the residents. The average daily deaths are within acceptable norms set by the United Nations and the dying are mainly the elderly. The fact that the IDPs arrived at these camps under desperate circumstances and in very poor physical condition, may have played a major role in the deaths of the elderly. The residents also told us that they had consumed water from holes dug in the sea shore. These same sea shores also served as their toilets. It is very likely that the water they consumed in the last stages of the war and the crowded and unhygienic conditions they live-in have contributed to the health problems seen in these camps. There were no recorded cases of meningitis or other lethal diseases in these camps.
Senior Ministers and officials, expect the resettlement activities to commence within week and proceed rapidly. Land mined areas have to be certified to be free of this hazard by the UN and resettlement can commence only after that fact. Demining involving the Sri Lankan armed forces, UN and the Indian army are proceeding pace. The areas west of the A9 and 35 villages around Vavuniya have been largely cleared. Work on re-building basic infra-structure is proceeding under the supervision of Mr. Basil Rajapakse, Senior Advisor to the President. Details plans as to what needs to be done have been formulated and were shown to us. The IDPs, who are residents of the Jaffna peninsula have been identified and are to be resettled within weeks. The process to resettle the elderly IDPs with their relatives is proceeding apace, although some relatives, who have been identified, have not come forward to take-in their elderly relatives.
The desire to return to their own homes, villages and towns is strong among the IDPs. However, there is no visible demand that this happens soon. This is because the IDPs are aware of the devastation caused by the war and the problems relating to land mines and weaponry left behind by the LTTE. The government should make a determined effort to resettle these IDPs, as soon as possible, to forestall any disaffection and agitations in the future.
The visit to the Ambepussa young combatant rehabilitation camp revealed the depths of the tragedy involving the abduction of children by the LTTE. Girls and boys as young as 11 years age are in this camp. Many girls are attaining puberty in these camps. Some others are pregnant. While the identity of the father has been established in some instances, in others it is not known (a similar problems also exists in the IDP camps). Most of the child ex-combatants were found to be intelligent and capable of understanding the tragedy that has befallen them. They were critical of the LTTE and the manner in which they were dragooned to fight in a war, the reasons for which they did not understand. We found the conditions in this camp very salutary and conducive to the rehabilitation process.
There is no effort to record the narratives of these IDPs and child combatants in a scientific and objective manner for posterity. The IDP camps are a gold mine for research, not only in terms of narratives being recorded for posterity, but also in terms of sociology, psychology, medicine, epidemiology, literature, cinema and drama. Unfortunately, the academics and Universities in Sri Lanka have not woken to this fact.
The other deficiencies are the lack of a discernible central authority to deal with the issue of IDPs and the lack of accessible information on the IDPs, the camps, the resettlement programs and time tables, and re-building activities. These deficiencies were pointed out to concerned ministers and officials. It was recommended that a credible web site be established as a matter of urgency to provided information on the IDPs and the issues relating to them.
The visit to the East revealed that the Provincial Council is yet unable to function as it should due to various constraints involving the Central Government and the Provincial Council. This may undermine the hope many Tamils have that the 13th amendment and the Provincial Council system may satisfy their basic needs. The wisdom of holding Provincial Council elections, before normalcy has returned to the war-torn areas may also come into question as result. It is imperative the government makes the eastern Provincial government work as effectively as possible and guide it towards working effectively, if there are deficiencies in terms human and other resources. This gesture will go a long way in re-assuring the Tamils at this critical juncture. The politicians and officials, who are exploiting the current circumstances to pursue their personal agenda and enrichment eastern province, should be identified and suitably dealt.
The visit to the Jaffna peninsula and discussions there, revealed a better situation than the east. The Municipal election campaign was on and appeared to be peaceful. The outcome of these elections may provide a pointer to public opinion. The population in the peninsula has really shrunk and the social stratification drastically altered. How these changes impact on Tamil politics is to be seen. The lack of an active political leadership on the local scene was very visible, though the confusion as to what sort of leadership is desired and the political direction Tamils have to take have not yet been sorted out.
Initial steps were also taken to form an association of Sinhalese, Tamils, and Muslims in Sri Lanka to serve as a link to the Diaspora through similar associations or groups being formed in various countries. The Sri Lankan Association will also establish a ’Trust Fund’ in consultation with the government to participate in re-settlement, rehabilitation, re-building and development activities among the war-affected people and in war-affected areas, with the overall goal of nation building embracing all peoples in Sri Lanka. An interim committee has been appointed to take forward the mission to establish the association and trust fund in Sri Lanka.
We also found the desire to find an acceptable solution to the problems of the Tamils and other minorities, quite strong among the politicians, officials, Buddhist prelates and the general public we met. This climate is a window of opportunity that should not be missed by the Tamils and the national polity. Tamils have to be realistic in their demands. The Tamils have to ponder current realities on many fronts and pitch their demands in a direction that will permit them recover as a people, be an important component of the Sri Lankan nation and exercise reasonable powers to manage their own affairs.
The group also participated in several radio and television programs to convey the observations, recommendations and thoughts to the general public.
Noel Nadesan (Australia)
Dr.Rajasingham Narendran (Middle East)
Mrs. Rajeswari Balasubramaniam (U.K)
Manoranjan Selliah (Canada)
Rajaratnam Sivanathan (Australia)