Rehabilitating the Tigers
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
Rehabilitating the Tigers
Five months on since the defeat of the Tamil Tigers, Sri Lanka is trying to come to terms with its post-war problems. Despite ongoing international concern over the plight of Tamil civilians in government-run camps, there are new signs of reconciliation. These are apparent in the way the authorities are dealing with former LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam) rank and file members.
Measures have been taken to rehabilitate some 10,000 LTTE fighters – many of whom were forcibly conscripted by the separatist rebels. On 20 September the Justice and Law Reforms ministry announced a $23m programme called Reintegrating ex-LTTE Cadres into Civilian Life, in association with the International Organisation for Migration. The United States, Japan, Britain and India have promised financial assistance to the programme; Unicef and INGOs will be helping; and many big Sri Lankan companies have offered their support.
The concern over the situation of Tamil civilians still living in government-run camps for internally displaced people (IDPs), expressed by foreign governments, the UN and international NGOs, is genuine and justified. Some of it has been fuelled by Tamils living in the West, Malaysia and India – mainly in the state of Tamil Nadu where people take a keen interest in the welfare of Sri Lankan Tamils, especially conditions in the IDP camps, and have demanded that the Sri Lankan government speed up the process of releasing the inmates.
Recently a delegation of 10 Tamil Nadu politicians visited the camps. On their return, they told the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, M Karunanidhi, of the Sri Lankan government’s assurance that 58,000 IDPs would return to their homes in 15 days; they were told the government had also implemented a separate rehabilitation programme to re-integrate former LTTE cadres into civilian society.
In fact, even before the 20 September announcement, rehabilitation work had already begun. Major General Ratnayake, commissioner for rehabilitation, stated: “The process to classify the ex-cadres into different groups considering their age, gender and involvement in the LTTE has already been completed and the groundwork to move them into new rehabilitation centres is nearing completion.” He said over 80% of these ex-cadres, now sheltered in government schools, would be moved within a month into five new centres once construction is completed.
Children between 12 and 18 have been segregated from the rest of the group. (In the final stage of the war the LTTE forcibly recruited around 450 children, some as young as 12.) Female cadres (some 1,700) have also been separately housed. Males over 45 are to be given vocational training suited to their professions, skills and preferences. Young ex-LTTE cadres who had surrendered to the security forces have been undergoing rehabilitation in Jaffna.
A group of former LTTE child soldiers have had rehabilitation and vocational training in plumbing, masonry, carpentry and electrical work at state-run welfare centres, and have now been given overseas work visas by Sri Lanka and permits by Malaysia to work in construction there as practical preparation for their return to Sri Lanka.
Some of this training took place at Ambepussa Rehabilitation Centre. Uditha Jayasinghe described it for the Colombo newspaper The Bottom Line, writing about 28-year-old Dharshani, a qualified English teacher who became part of a suicide squad: “A few years after I started to teach, the LTTE passed a law saying that one person from each family must join their cause. I have a younger brother and sister. I didn’t want their lives wasted. So I went and joined instead to protect them.” Five of her colleagues died but she survived and surrendered. She is now using her teaching skills to rehabilitate traumatised children.
The National Child Protection Authority provides counsellors to assess the psychological needs of the children and monitor their progress. Therapy through art and dance helps to reduce the fits and recurring nightmares some children suffer.
Garment industry steps in
The garment firm Tri Star has, with government assistance, invested in a factory in Trincomalee which is expected to provide employment for 1,000 people from the area. The company has asked the government to let them train 500 young women who are currently in the IDP camps. After training, Tri Star will guarantee jobs in their own factories and will also award them certificates enabling them to get jobs elsewhere. They hope to have the opportunity to train former LTTE cadres. A spokesman said: “It does not matter whether they come from the IDP camps or rehabilitation camps for former LTTE cadres. What is important is that everybody is given a chance to grow in the new Sri Lanka.”
The Sri Lankan garment industry has carved itself an ethical niche in the world market because of its determined stance against sweat-shop practices. Through an initiative called Garments without Guilt, the industry has made a conscious effort to improve living standards in the local communities where its factories are located. Garments without Guilt looks after the welfare of its workers and their families, sets up programmes to empower women, builds eco-friendly factories, supports schools and hospitals, and enhances the local infrastructure. It also plans to build garment factories in the north and east of the country, which means improving roads, electricity and water supplies and providing for local communities through jobs, schools and hospitals.
The garment industry is anxious that the EU may withdraw tariff concessions because of what it sees as human rights violations by the Sri Lanka government. Businesses may fail and thousands lose their jobs. Sri Lanka has been successful in this market because of the ethical stance of the companies, helped by the government. It would be ironic if this progress were now to be thwarted.
Still the doubts remain
Despite these initiatives, many within Sri Lanka, as among the international community, doubt the sincerity of the government’s promises to release IDPs and are concerned at continuing emergency legislation.
Conditions in the camps were highlighted by an incident in the Menik Farm camp on 26 September when, according to the UNHCR, “several people are said to have been injured, including a child who was hit by a stray bullet and is now paralysed.”
Col R Hariharan, head of intelligence of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka from 1987-1990, believes the EU cannot ignore strong public opinion about Sri Lanka’s conduct. He says the government “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 much as visible results.”
Colonel Hariharan, who often writes in this vein in the Sri Lankan press, is not alone: there are many dissident voices within Sri Lanka who will not be silenced, and persist in challenging the government over the situation of the IDPs and its failure to release them, echoing the concerns expressed in the West. Many of them think the stories about re-integration of former
Tigers into society are simply window-dressing: they believe the government is not sincere in its promises to rehouse those in the IDP camps, and that it just does not have the capability to make good its promises.
Time will tell. As I write, the heavy rains are bringing my guttering crashing to the ground. What will it be like in the IDP camps?