Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s displaced people Part 1

This was posted on August 8 2019

Concentration camps or welfare camps?


Whenever I write about the situation in Sri Lanka, I try to approach the subject in a calm and rational manner. My only bias is in favour of this beautiful country, which I have chosen as my home, achieving the peace and harmony that has eluded it for so long. In spite of, or perhaps because of, my even-handed approach, comments on my articles tend to fall into three categories.

The very same article (whose main theme was western ignorance and hypocrisy) drew comments from Sri Lankans along these lines:

  • Most commended me for my professional and unbiased approach.
  • Some accused me of bigotry against Tamils and of being in the pay of the government.
  • Others accused me of being an LTTE propagandist because I mentioned discrimination against Tamils as a possible factor in thirty years of mayhem.

Former Chief Justice, Sarath N. Silva, who is Sinhalese, fears that the continuing confinement of Tamils in camps in the north may lay the foundation for a new war, since comparable discrimination against and persecution of Tamil civilians played a major role in starting the war, which has just ended. Silva said the confinement of civilians in these camps insults the soldiers who risked, and in many cases lost, their lives to free the civilians from the LTTE, and makes a mockery of celebrations of the end of the war.

Some Sinhalese argue vehemently that there is not and has not been any discrimination against Sri Lankan Tamils. A surprising proponent of this point of view is Gayathri Jude, an Australian who recently visited Sri Lanka. “To say that Tamils are being persecuted in Sri Lanka is bunkum,” she said. This was surprising because the speaker is not Sinhalese and is the daughter of Tamil Tiger leader Velupillai Kumaru Pancharatnam, better known by his nom de guerre, George Master.

George Master was in the custody of the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) when his daughter in Australia decided to visit Sri Lanka in hopes of seeing him. “When I announced plans to visit Sri Lanka, they [Tamil friends and family in Australia] warned me that the police will not only kill me, but my husband and two children as well. If not, we will be tortured, they warned. So, I returned to Sri Lanka with a great degree of fear. I now realize the extent of the false propaganda spread by the LTTE [Tamil Tigers] to mislead the international community and tarnish Sri Lanka’s image. “My father said that he is being treated well by the police”.

IDP camps in Sri Lanka

It is perhaps foolhardy of me to attempt to deal with the topic of the camps in northern Sri Lanka, as this subject has generated a great deal of vituperation. I will set out here various points of view and leave it to the reader to draw conclusions. Once again, I must stress that I have no axe to grind here except where it concerns dispelling mistaken impressions in the west where knee-jerk opinions are expressed on the basis of reports by what Sri Lankan writers call ”parachute journalists”. As a foreigner myself I believe I am qualified to do this.

For example, some foreign critics seem to believe that all Sri Lankan Tamils were deliberately confined by the government to a narrow strip of beach in the extreme north of the country where they were subjected to heavy artillery and then kept in extermination camps. The reality was that 70% of Tamils live outside the north and are not segregated; many are prosperous and influential. The north is largely mono-ethnic because the Tigers engaged in ethnic cleansing to drive out Sinhalese and Muslims.

Estimates vary about how many internally displaced people (IDPs) are in the IDP camps in Sri Lanka. The Center for Policy Alternatives (CPA) presented a petition to the government saying that 300,000 civilians who escaped the battlefields of the island’s civil war are being detained illegally in 40 centres.

Dr Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, of the CPA, wrote in Lanka Monthly Digest (LMD):”Would tardiness and a failure to expedite decongestion at the camps through voluntary return compound the security situation? Will not decongestion make life considerably more bearable for those who remain and the management of the camps much easier?”

International criticism

NGOs such as Human Rights Watch have been strongly critical of the government’s decision to keep civilians in these camps. More extreme sections of the Tamil Diaspora have accused the government of having a genocidal agenda and have described the camps as being designed for the purpose of exterminating Tamils.

Some international commentators have picked up this theme, preferring to ignore the government’s case.

Just to take one example of international criticism: David Begg, leader of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, taking time off from defending his members against pay cuts and redundancies as the Irish economy goes rapidly downhill, has taken an interest in far-away Sri Lanka. He has written two letters to the Irish foreign minister urging him to intervene in Sri Lanka. The gist of his message was: ”We also know that around 300,000 Tamils remain interned without trial in so called ˜welfare centres that are concentration camps in all but name. Contrary to international law, there is no freedom of movement of the displaced and there is not enough water, food and sanitation. There have been reports saying that more than 1000 people are dying in the camps every week. As it is almost impossible for independent organisations or international press to enter the camps we do not know what is really happening there. The Sri Lankan government bears the entire responsibility for the atrocious situation in the camps.”

Some see a sinister aspect, beyond mere hypocrisy and delusion, to the agenda of some foreign critics. For example, L. Jayasooriya writes that Robert Blake, former US ambassador to Colombo and currently Under Secretary to Hillary Clinton, ”spent his entire energy, effort and time to undermine Sri-Lanka by planning, plotting and scheming with the traitors in our land to destabilize our country.”

Jayasooriya continues: ”Little Sri Lanka militarily defeated all plans by America and her allies to save the LTTE hierarchy so that they could use the LTTE first to de-stabilize Sri-Lanka and divide the country and then lever Tamil Nadu out of the Indian federation to remove for ever India being a threat to the living standards of the West. India also wanted the LTTE hierarchy but for a different purpose, namely to annex Sri Lanka at some date in the future.”

”The Japanese government has decided to open training facilities to teach and train youth how to live in peace and that it is most likely that Sri Lanka will also benefit. The plan he said already has two slots for Sri Lanka and he thinks that Sri Lanka will be accommodated. Soon after that America said that she has an exchange programme  for the same purpose. With these two programmes the hard core LTTE cadres which may be several hundreds could be moulded to fit into a grand plan to de-stabilize either Sri Lanka or Tamil Nadu the type of which has never been attempted before by the CIA or MI5 or RAW. Now they say that we are violating human rights by keeping the IDPs far too long in the camps and they want to assist us in screening them.”

In a poll conducted by LMD, over 70% of respondents agreed that double standards were applied by western nations when they tried to intervene in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs. 75 per cent supported the government’s decision to seek aid from nations such as Libya and Iran.

Concentration camps?

Language is corrupted and confused by politics and war. The Vietnam War gave us ”pacification” which meant destroying villages and livelihoods and spraying toxic pesticides in order to cut off support and destroy potential havens for the Vietcong. More recently, we have had ”collateral damage”, which, in grim reality, means dead babies and young children with amputated limbs. I have just encountered a neologism that was new to me “ in Pakistan, prisoners were ”processed in the traditional manner”, which means torture. The victorious Vietnamese set up ”re-education camps”.

In the north of Sri Lanka, there are large numbers of civilians in what the Sri Lanka government calls ”welfare camps” or ”relief centres”. Foreign critics have called these camps ”concentration camps”.

Let it not be forgotten that the concept of the concentration camp was invented, not by the Nazis, but by the British Empire.

Recalcitrant Boers were incarcerated in South Africa in British concentration camps. The poor diet and inadequate hygiene led to endemic contagious diseases such as measles, typhoid and dysentery. A report after the war estimated that 27,927 Boers (of whom 22,074 were children under 16) and 14,154 black Africans had died of starvation, disease and exposure in the camps. About 25% of the Boer inmates and 12% of the black Africans died (although recent research suggests that the black African deaths were underestimated and may have actually been around 20,000). 4,619 Boers were interned in Bermuda, compared to Bermuda’s total population of around 17,000; at least 34 Boers are known to have died during the journey to Bermuda.

Michael Collins, hero of the Irish fight for independence (although he was killed at a tender age by rival Irishmen), was imprisoned at the Frongoch concentration camp in Wales. The prisoners were very poorly treated and Frongoch became a breeding ground for Irish revolutionaries. Internment camps were set up by the British in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, holding without trial many civilians unconnected with the IRA. Internment only succeeded in bringing down the Heath government and gaining more recruits for the IRA.

During the 1940s, the British, with the help of German POWs, built internment camps in Cyprus for up to 30,000 Jewish detainees. They consisted almost entirely of Holocaust survivors who were being prevented from reaching Palestine. Funds for maintenance of the camps were taken from taxes collected from the Jewish population of Palestine.

For the duration of World War II, many people passed through internment camps at Knockaloe and Douglas on the Isle of Man. The internees included enemy aliens from the Axis Powers, principally Germany and Italy. Initially, refugees who had fled from Germany were also included, as were suspected British Nazi sympathizers such as British Union of Fascists leader, Oswald Mosley. The British government rounded up 74,000 German, Austrian and Italian aliens. Within six months the 112 alien tribunals had individually summoned and examined 64,000 aliens, and the vast majority was released, having been found to be ”friendly aliens”. Among the aliens were 28,000 Jews fleeing the Nazis (the Amadeus String Quartet was formed in one of these internment camps). In Britain, internees were housed in camps and prisons. Some camps had tents rather than buildings with internees sleeping directly on the ground. Men and women were separated and most contact with the outside world was denied. A number of prominent Britons including writer H. G. Wells campaigned against the internment of refugees.

Recently, several elderly Kenyans delivered a letter to 10 Downing Street asking for justice for their castration and rape in the Kenyan Gulag during the Kenyan fight for independence. According to Caroline Elkins, up to 320,000 Kikuyu, ”nearly a third of the population”,may have passed through the more than 50 camps, a figure which does not include the people, mostly women and children, held behind barbed wire in the fortified resettlement villages. One British colonial officer described the labour camps thus: “Short rations, overwork, brutality, humiliating and disgusting treatment and flogging – all in violation of the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights.” Cholera swept through the camps. Official medical reports were ignored, and the British lied about conditions in the camps.

The USA used the term ”War Relocation Camps” to describe the facilities into which 110,000 US citizens of Japanese origin were herded during World War II.

In Canada in January 1942, a “protected” 100-mile-wide strip up the Pacific coast was created, and any men of Japanese descent between the ages of 18 and 45 were removed and taken to internment camps and forced labor. Ian MacKenzie MP said: ”Let our slogan be for British Columbia: ”˜No Japs from the Rockies to the seas.’” Most of the 21,500 people of Japanese descent who lived in British Columbia were naturalized or native-born citizens. Some were decorated war heroes who had served with the Canadian forces in the First World War. Those unwilling to live in internment camps or relocation centres faced the possibility of deportation to Japan. In early March, all ethnic Japanese people were ordered out of the protected area, and a daytime-only curfew was imposed on them. Some of those brought inland were kept in animal stalls in Vancouver for months. The authorities then moved them to ten camps in or near inland British Columbia towns, sometimes separating husbands from their wives and families.

I recall as a child in Ireland in the 1950s seeing graffiti on walls demanding ”End internment now”. My father explained to me that the Republic’s government was still holding, without trial, political prisoners. During the Second World War (which in another of those peculiar neologisms was called ”The Emergency”) the Irish government amended the constitution to allow emergency powers which included internment without trial of those who had committed a crime or even might be likely to. The IRA leadership were mostly imprisoned at the internment camp at the Curragh, where they were treated increasingly harshly. (Allied personnel were treated rather better as can be seen in the movie The Brylcreem Boys starring Gabriel Byrne).

Let us not forget the camp at Guantanamo. Although President Obama has announced that it will be closed it has also been announced that the administration should continue to claim the right to hold some Guantanamo inmates indefinitely as ”combatants” under the ”laws of war”, without charging them either in criminal courts or in military commissions.

Global refugee situation

The UN Refugee Agency reported that there were around 16 million refugees and 26 million IDPs in the world at the end of 2008 and that the number of IDPs is growing faster than the number of refugees because the majority of conflicts today are within individual countries rather than between nations. While the UN agency’s mandate is to “lead and co-ordinate international action to protect refugees and resolve refugee problems worldwide”, in recent years it has been increasingly tasked under the UN’s humanitarian reform process with assisting IDPs.

How is Sri Lanka coping with its internally displaced people following

Sri Lanka’s displaced people Part 2

This was posted on  The Agonist on August 11, 2009.

IDP camps in Sri Lanka

The controversy over refugee camps in Sri Lanka continues.

On August 8, Amnesty International published a document calling on the Sri Lankan government to ensure:

  • Right to liberty and freedom of movement
  • Systematic and transparent registration for each displaced person
  • Family reunification
  • Civilian administration and humanitarian access

Conditions in the camps

Despite the claims of human rights groups and vocal sections of the Tamil diaspora, there has been sufficient access to the camps for a great number of eyewitness reports to be published.

Here is one at random that I have just seen from a Colombo blogger: ”many of the people at the camps are the most resilient and resourceful people I have ever met in this country. Vegetable patches growing outside tents would vouch for that. Or the fact that out of the thousands of people we met or passed by there, only a handful acted like beggars or freeloaders.”

Another says ”a lucrative trade has emerged. Liquor, groceries, can be purchased by those able to access remittances from abroad, the entire transaction going through the military or others in a position to profit from suffering.”

DBS Jeyaraj, a distinguished Sri Lankan Tamil journalist based in Canada, posted an eye-witness account of the camps on his blog and introduced it with the following remarks: ”Once again I ask readers not to engage in ethnic-orientated recrimination about the IDP plight. Please see a humanitarian tragedy as human beings and not as ethnic beings. I must also state that this account is not the conventional fact-finding report but more of a sincere attempt to describe first-hand impressions of existential reality.”

The observers summarised their main points:

  • Many families have relatives they can go and stay with but are forcibly kept in the camp.
  • Names of IDPs are not registered systematically.
  • Screening procedures are not transparent and information is not fed back to families.
  • Families are separated in different zones.
  • The camps are administered by armed military personnel, which seem more threatening than a civilian administration.
  • There should be a right to information.
  • Aid agencies should be able to talk to the displaced.

“On both sides of the road, you could see human waste. We stopped the vehicle to take photographs but the stench was too overpowering for us to stay long.”

”Three of our colleagues who wore open footwear while working in the camps were later infected with various foot diseases. One had to have his toe nails removed.”

“One of the Grama Niladharis (local government official) was stealing supplies, which should have gone to IDPs for other purposes. Community leaders among the IDPs who complained were threatened. Corruption, mainly involving Tamil officials, seems rampant in these camps.”

”We saw an official who works in Colombo who had come to see his mother. He drove a luxury vehicle and looked as if he was from the upper strata of Sri Lankan Tamil society. His mother looked like an impoverished, malnourished beggar”.

In The Island newspaper, Lilani Jayatilaka described a visit to the camps: ”Happily, and contrary to our expectations, most people in the camp seemed relatively cheerful. Their sudden release from the overriding fear of imminent death or disablement and the resultant sense of physical safety were reason enough for their relaxed demeanour. However, when we spoke to them, they all expressed an anxiety to get back to their homes and to their occupations. When I asked them whether their homes were still intact, they said that though their homes had been demolished, they would rebuild, once they got back home.”

”One little girl, who was about ten years old, said that, prior to coming to the camp, she had slept in a bunker to escape the shelling, and used to fall asleep through fear, though her stomach was empty. At that time, she had subsisted on just one meal a day. Now she had three meals a day.”

What many accounts from western journalists omit from their stories of genocide and concentration camps, is that many Sinhalese, as well as paying for rehabilitation through their taxes, are rallying around organising help for the IDPs on a personal humanitarian basis. Lilani Jayatilaka wrote: ”Young school leavers from Colombo, who had been instrumental in making all the organizational arrangements, as well as in parcelling the “friendship package’ for each family.”

I was surprised to read that even back in April, before the war was over, the banks had set up ATMs in the camps.

A delegation from Hatton National Bank, headed by Senior Manager Mr Teagharajah (a Tamil), provided water tanks.

US Assistant Secretary of State for Displaced Persons, Erik Schwartz, who visited the Zero Camp in the Menik Farm IDP camp on July 26, said the government has taken necessary steps to improve conditions in the IDP camps.

The editor of The Hindu reported on his visit to the Menik Farm camp: ”Conditions in these camps are much better than what has been depicted, mostly second-hand, that is, without visiting the camps, in western media reports. Moreover, they are visibly better than conditions in Sri Lankan refugee camps in India, which are still mostly inaccessible to journalists, researchers, and other outsiders. Basic needs, including education for the schoolchildren and vocational training for older boys and girls, are being met by the Sri Lankan government with assistance from the United Nations, a number of countries, including India, and more than 50 INGOs.”

A retired Sri Lankan editor, now a resident of Victoria in Australia, H Mahindapala, reported what he saw in the camps: ”They have schools and hospitals. One hospital is run by a team of Indian specialists ranging from cardiac surgeons to nephrologists. This hospital has an x-ray unit, a small operating theatre and large stocks of required medicine. All medicine ” you name it ” is distributed free. The Sri Lankan hospital is manned by 55 doctors who also run a mobile ambulance. Here too medicine is free.

A-Level students were given tuition by specialists teachers transported from leading elitist schools like Royal College and D. S. Senanayake College in Colombo. There is a bank in which the IDPs had deposited Rs.300 million. There is a post office and phone facilities to contact the outside world. Anybody is allowed to visit them. There is a fish and a meat shop. I did not see a single student carrying AK 47s. They were more interested in watching the 20-20 series on TV sets. Investigations were going on to find the relatives of orphans. There were two INGOs purifying the water pumped from the Malwatu Oya. An engineer of the Water Board, M. Manoharan (a Tamil in case you do not know) was supervising the operations of this water project. The IDPs were provided dry rations. Visitors and well-wishers from the south, mostly Sinhalese, bring loads of goodies for the IDPs. If you had a choice in which “concentration camp” would you like to be: the one run for Japanese in Australia or the one run by the Sri Lankan government?”

He quoted his local paper in Australia: ”It reported on page one that ”˜an estimated 300,000 people (are) going hungry in Victoria.’ It added on page 8: ”˜One in 10 Victorians are malnourished, go hungry or feel anxious because they cannot access healthy and safe food.’ For your edification may I state the 300,000 IDPs are not in such dire straits as the Victorians in affluent Australia?” Like the USA, Australia is a nation founded on genocide. Those Aborigines who survived live today in appalling conditions.

This is not to say Menik Farm is Club Mediterranean but it isn’t Belsen either (or Glastonbury or Woodstock).

Tamil News says ”reliable sources” claim foreigners are being misled by being shown the better facilities


From the outset, there have been fears about the health of the inmates. “With such a large number of people concentrated together, there is always the risk of waterborne disease with the rains,” said Laurent Sury, head of mission for Medecins Sans Frontieres. The monsoon lasts about four months, and even though the World Health Organization (WHO) says no large disease outbreaks have been reported so far, the risk factors for malaria and diarrhoea have increased.

The WHO has been working closely with the Sri Lankan Ministry of Health to ensure the health and welfare of IDPs. The WHO field unit in Vavuniya has been active in providing support on the ground in close coordination with the Regional Health services and Humanitarian partners.

The Colombo-based Medical Research Institute said in March that in six out of the then 13 camps, 25.5% of children suffered from global acute malnutrition, of whom 5.2% were severely malnourished and needed immediate rehabilitation with therapeutic food and treatment.

A recent press release by the UNHCR stated: ”No major disease outbreaks have been reported so far from the IDP centres despite concerns by UN and relief agencies of overcrowding.” There are currently concerns about skin complaints.

WHO said the Ministry of Health had taken precautions to deal with a possible malaria outbreak, with proper surveillance mechanisms at all camps. Until 19 June, only 29 cases of malaria had been reported, but health officials initiated a high alert when two cases were reported on 18 June from zone 4 in Menik Farm. Until 18 June 1,060 cases of dysentery and more than 5,000 cases of diarrhoea had been reported from the camps. There was a serious threat of waterborne diseases because so many people were living so close together.

The greatest disease outbreak initially was chickenpox, with more than 12,000 cases. Medical officers working with the displaced suspect that most of the chickenpox patients contracted the disease before they arrived in the camps. The UN reported that cases had since decreased and the number of new cases reported steadily declined from mid June.” The number of Hepatitis A cases also declined. A total of 2,139 cases were reported as at 12 June.

“Child health remains a key priority for the Government of Sri Lanka. We are committed to ensuring that the IDP population is protected,” said Secretary to the Ministry of Health, Athula Kahandaliyanage. On August 3rd a vaccination programme was launched. The campaign is being run by the Ministry of Health, UNICEF, World Health Organization (WHO), Sarvodaya (a local NGO) and other partners. “All the children between the age of six months and one year are given an additional dose of measles vaccine. Children between one to three years of age are given a dose of MR (measles) vaccine. All males and females between the age of 13 and 21 years who have not received the adult Td (Tetanus, Diphtheria) vaccine will be given a single dose of a Td (vaccine),” the WHO report stated.

“High-risk groups in the IDP camps (such as food handlers, health workers and workers working closely with patients) are being given Vipolysaccharide typhoid vaccine.” The children were also given a dose of vitamin A and de-worming tablets to raise resistance against other diseases and stem malnutrition.

At least 100 public health workers and 1,200 volunteers were expected to participate at 30 centres in Vavuniya District. An Indian medical team arrived in Sri Lanka on March 10 and set up a hospital in Pulmoddai, in Trincomalee district in the Eastern province to receive sick and injured IDPs being brought by Red Cross ships from the areas held by the LTTE.

India now feels that conditions have improved sufficiently to withdraw. Indian High Commissioner in Colombo, Alok Prasad, said in a letter addressed to Sri Lankan Health Minister Nimal Siripala De Silva: ”Since a very useful facility has been set up and the physical infrastructure of the hospital will remain in place, you may like to consider that the hospital may be taken over by the Ministry of Health on Aug.31, 2009”.

The Sri Lanka Sunday Times reported on 9 August that the Government Medical Officers Association (GMOA) Spokesperson Upul Gunasekara had said that the government should have appointed a proper administrator to oversee health services in the camps.  ”We have spoken to the President, the Director General of Health Services and the Secretary of Ministry of Health but no one is taking any action. Even the IDP health coordination centre is a mess as they do not have proper administrators to execute the work. The doctors who are working there are frustrated with the situation. If this continues even we will not be able to control the situation.”

Dr Gunasekara also complained that his members had not received their overtime pay. ”These doctors are undergoing a lot of hardship in the area and they should be the ones who are looked after. If doctors of the national hospital can be paid overtime payments I cannot understand why they don’t have money to pay these doctors who are working in Vavuniya.”

Sri Lanka’s displaced people Part 3

This was posted on August 26th, 2009


When I first moved to Sri Lanka from Ireland some seven years ago, a friend wrote to me asking if I missed the Cork rain. I replied that indeed I did…  I missed its moderation. My first impression was that the rainy season in my new home lasted 13 months every year. I realise now that I was being hyperbolic but this is the first August that torrential rain has not been coming through my roof. A few years ago, there was one occasion when I woke up at about three in the morning to watch my slippers floating past me on the tide.

I am not being flippant here, merely trying to feel some empathy for those in the IDP camps in the north. How would I feel being in a tent in such weather? I spent a weekend in a tent in a sea of mud at the Glastonbury festival but I knew when it would end and there was the compensation of seeing Johnny Cash, Jackson Browne and Dwight Yoakam, among others, perform.

The monsoon season in Sri Lanka used to be predictable and everyone knows that it entails torrential downpours and floods of red mud. People die. It was expected in the north and fears were raised about the effects on those living in the camps.

There have been floods at Menik Farm already, before the real monsoon arrived. ”If only three or four hours of rain cause this much chaos, only imagine what a full monsoon can cause,” said David White, country director for Oxfam.

Disaster Management Minister Rishard Bathiudeen (who has been an inmate of an IDP camp himself because of ethnic cleansing of Muslims carried out by the LTTE) said the recent breakdown of the sewage and drainage system at displaced people’s camps because of flooding could not be blamed on the government. Mr. Bathiudeen said it was the fault of the UN agencies, which constructed the drainage system and set up flood preventive measures. ”So how can you blame the Government for the blockage in the drainage systems and the overflow of sewage during the floods,” he said. Mr. Bathiudeen said only about 400 refugees in ”˜Zone 4’ were affected by the flood and the matter was dealt with as soon as it was reported to the authorities. He said the refugees were provided with meals, accommodation, and healthcare facilities.

P S M Charles, the Government Agent in Vavuniya, said 60 families had to be temporarily moved to a higher location within the camp but that the situation was under control. Charles said that on the first day after the rain, cooked meals were provided for 21,000 people. “We have now managed the situation. Extra tents were distributed among the affected people. The drainage system was also cleaned”. By the second day, things were brought under control and cooked meals had to be provided for only 500 people and people were again able to cook for themselves.

Mavai Senathirajah MP, the general secretary of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) the parliamentary voice of the LTTE, told Parliament that people were undergoing immense mental strain because of living conditions in the camps. ”There is a horrible situation there. The country will experience the north-eastern monsoon rains next month, and the situation will deteriorate further then. The camp site is impassable for vehicles too. We will not be surprised if the people confront the military. We sound a warning of this”.

A blogger unsympathetic to the Tamil cause remarked: ” Don’t be panic! Tomorrow sun shines! Those IDPs are used to monsoon rains in Sri Lanka. They used to spend the night in the jungles during last 30 years under LTTE. Nobody complained to anybody. Now everybody complains to everybody.”

Why are people being held in camps?

Whatever about the reality of conditions: Why is the government keeping people in these camps? Why are they not being allowed to return to their homes?

The government says it will take at least six months to make the areas from which they fled habitable again. The LTTE littered the area with land mines. The UN requires a 99.6% clearance rate before resettlement and that is a slow and expensive job. Houses need to be rebuilt and other facilities provided. The war has crippled the north and east for more than 30 years. The LTTE controlled the area but neglected the infrastructure.

Critics respond to that by saying that the government found the resources to build a new airfield so why can’t they move more quickly to re-house the IDPs?

Some cynics have suggested that preparations are being made for the tourist industry to steal land belonging to the IDPS. According to Naomi Klein similar things happened after the tsunami.

Access and security

Apart from the need to clear mines and rebuild infrastructure the government says the camps are necessary to weed out LTTE cadres who escaped with the refugees. Rohini Hensman has written: ”The IDPs came out cursing the Tigers and positively inclined towards the government forces which had helped them to escape, but with every day that they remain in detention, their hostility to the government will grow”. She argues that the LTTE’s military capability has been destroyed, its top leadership wiped out; for a group that was identified completely with its supreme leader Prabakharan, and was defined by its military prowess, this means that it is finished.

Recently-retired Chief Justice Sarath N. Silva has been regarded by some Sri Lankans as a check on the potentially despotic inclinations of the executive branch. He warned that the camps could lay the groundwork for a new war, since comparable discrimination against and persecution of Tamil civilians played a major role in starting the war which has just ended. He said the situation insults the soldiers who risked and in many cases lost their lives to free the civilians from the LTTE, and makes a mockery of celebrations of the end of the war.

On the other hand, Interhamwe infiltration and intimidation was a serious problem in the Rwandan camps in Goma. There have been recent reports of LTTE posters appearing in the Sri Lankan IDP camps. Some commentators have expressed fears of ”little tribes of people going underground and fighting guerrilla war”. These commentators believe that it is realistic for a government to consider that small groups could wreak havoc with random explosions in cities crippling the economy and compromising the safety of ordinary people.

Disaster Management and Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe told Parliament that some LTTE cadres had infiltrated the refugees and until they were filtered out,  the displaced people would be kept within the camps. He said that the government was determined to provide shelter, water, sanitation, food, healthcare, education and other ancillary services for these people. The Minister said that he was particularly concerned that human rights were adequately catered for.

A group of volunteers visting the camps who were quoted by the Tamil journalist DB Jeyaraj on his blog suggested the LTTE suspects in the camps were treated somewhat better than others: ”œThe LTTE detainees are housed in different locations. There are separate camps for boys and girls. There are around 9000 plus boys and 2000 plus girls. They are looked after quite well except when they protest or appear to get aggressive… The problem is that they need regular supplies and that they idle the whole day.”

There are many stories of LTTE soldiers escaping after bribing army, police or health personnel. Vavuniya District Tamil National Alliance MP, (the TNA were the mouthpiece in parliament for the LTTE) S Kishor, said he was aware that around 50,000 IDPs have escaped from the camps by paying money to police and army personnel. The Army is finding large stores of weapons, ammunition and explosives hidden by the LTTE in their former controlled areas and expects to recover more. Defence supremo, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, warned that this could be a part of a strategy to revive the LTTE.

Many of us living in Sri Lanka feared that, despite the defeat of the LTTE, children traveling to school on buses, people buying food in markets would continue to be maimed and killed. A friend who has often been vehement in her criticism of President Rajapaksa conceded: ”œI thank the President for finishing off the LTTE who did nothing for the Tamils here. They represented the Tamils overseas. I thank the President because we do not hear of any deaths anymore due to bombs. What a relief that is to those of us who live here.”

A recent visit to the camps by the President’s eldest son prompted heated exchanges in parliament. The Marxist JVP asked why opposition MPs are still not allowed access to the camps, accusing the government of trying to hide something. However, international and local humanitarian aid organizations have access to the camps to conduct their humanitarian work.

John Holmes, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, briefed journalists in Geneva following a mid-year review conference with Member States on the status of the 2009 consolidated humanitarian appeals. He said that the biggest problem in the Sri Lankan camps was not access, but the lack of freedom of movement of those in the camps. They should be able to move about even now, despite security concerns, so that these were IDP camps and not internment camps.

Adnan Khan, country director the World Food Programme (WFP), said: “Food supplies have never been affected by access restrictions.” He said that they were now able to move more freely within the camps.


The government says it will take at least six months to make the areas from which IDPs fled habitable again. The LTTE littered the area with land mines. India has already sent de-mining experts and the UK government has promised GBP 500,000 to the Mines Advisory Group.

Houses need to be rebuilt and other facilities provided. The LTTE controlled the area but neglected the infrastructure. The government plans to resettle, by the end of the year, at least 80% of those in the camps and to rehabilitate over 10,000 ex-LTTE cadres and thousands of families which had direct contacts with the LTTE.

The UNHCR described a previous re-settlement of 2,231 to seven villages in the Musali division, in the southern part of Mannar district, which at one time was controlled by the LTTE. ”The Government has applied good practices in IDP return…The process was carried out in safety and dignity.”

On 9 June, 2,120 Tamils and Muslims were re-settled. At the end of June, some 9,000 people 60 years old or above, were allowed to leave the camps and join their relatives. On 5 August, 1,100 people boarded 70 buses to return to Jaffna, Batticaloa, Trincomalee and Ampara in areas where de-mining, reconstruction of roads, supply of electricity and water were already completed. “I’m happy to go back to my own house. ”I never thought that we would be able to resettle in such a short period,” P. Sundaralingam told Reuters in Jaffna.

Recently-appointed head of the army Lieutenant General Jagath Jayasuriya (I met him at a Christmas buffet at the Bandarawela Hotel some years ago, before he reached his current exalted position ”“ I believe he is related to my wife by marriage) said that the removal of high security zones in the Vavuniya area would facilitate the resettlement of civilians displaced during the war.

He said that Army engineers had been deployed to clear mines and other explosive devices. He said the Army was spearheading a two-pronged development programme in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. ‘People visiting Vavuniya could now see the difference as the Army had taken steps to relax security measures that had been in place for years’, the Commander said.

Jayasuriya said his main priority was speeding up de-mining efforts across 8,000 sq km so people could be resettled as soon as possible. He declined to give a time-frame. “I want to take engineering battalions that were in an infantry role to do de-mining. Right now there are 300 soldiers working with four non-governmental organisations to clear the mines.”

Jayasuriya has sent 400 more for training and is aiming to purchase demining machinery. Sri Lanka has given assurances that everything possible would be done to resettle the majority of the displaced by end of this year.

Chief of Defence Staff General Sarath Fonseka said: “We have the men and the material to meet any requirement,” he said, adding that the Army was also playing a major role in restoring the northern railway track. He said that the Army would have an important part to play in resettling the displaced and that the Army had contributed 36 million rupees to meet the urgent needs of children in the north.

He also said that those who had been critical of the Sri Lankan government had conveniently forgotten that the security forces spearheaded by the Army rescued 300,000 people held at gun point by the LTTE. Fonseka said allegations that over 20,000 civilians had perished in the final battle in and around Nanthikadal lagoon, were propaganda.

He ridiculed attempts to portray welfare centres set up in the north as detention camps. He said that the international community couldn’t find fault with Sri Lankan political and military leadership for taking on the LTTE. “What we did was right and we knew exactly what we were doing and there is absolutely no scope for an international inquiry,” he said.

Fonseka’s calls to add 100,000 troops after the war perturbed Western diplomats who wanted Sri Lanka to prioritise post-war redevelopment and not further militarisation, especially as it was seeking an International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan at that time.

Jayasuriya takes a softer line: “”A little increase may be required. An increase of police or Special Task Force (police paramilitaries) would be much more beneficial. I think 20,000-50,000 would be fine. I think the government does not want to increase the budget. To hold and consolidate what we captured, you need more troops than you do to fight.”


Sanjana Hattotuwa wrote in The Sunday Leader: ”As a Southerner and a Sinhala Buddhist, I am ashamed of what we have become, and how we silently countenance, nay justify, this significant post-war violence against fellow Tamil citizens. We were silent patriots during war, because we thought they were all terrorists. We are silent patriots after war, because we think they must still be terrorists. Menik Camp is a litmus test of our real commitment to peace. We do not need more support to strengthen it. We need resources and the political will urgently to dismantle it.”

Canadian minister, Bev Oda, was encouraged by what she saw in the camps. ”This is not an ideal situation… I would say that in partnership with international organisations, the government of Sri Lanka is making very good efforts to meet the basic needs.”

The Tamil journalist, now resident in Canada, DB Jeyaraj has written: ”I ask readers not to engage in ethnic-orientated recrimination about the IDP plight. Please see a humanitarian tragedy as human beings and not as ethnic beings.”

The Tamil Question in Sri Lanka Part 2

This article was posted on The Agonist on May 6th, 2010


The rise of Tamil separatist militancy.


Most Tamil militant groups began life as student organisations. In 1970,  Ponnuthurai Satvaseelan formed the Tamil Students League. The Tamil Youth League was founded in 1973. The General Union of Eelam Students was founded in London and gave birth to the Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Students,  from which split the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Front, which, in turn, became the Eelam Peoples Democratic Party (EPDP) which currently has one of its members, Douglas Devenanda as a government minister. The EPDP has a paramilitary wing.
Before 1987, India provided training for the armed militant groups, the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization (TELO) and People’s Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE).

There were about 30 other minor groups.

In 1972, a group of students formed a militant group called the Tamil New Tigers (TNT). One member of this group was Vellupillai Prabakharan, who was born in Jaffna in November 1954. On July 27 1975, the former mayor of Jaffna, SLFP politician Alfred Durayappah, was assassinated. Prabakharan later claimed that he had fired the fatal shot.

The TNT became the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and by means of murder and intimidation became the dominant Tamil separatist group in Sri Lanka. Separatist militancy was further fanned by the anti-Tamil riots, which followed the 1977 general election, in which the UNP came to power. The LTTE were proscribed in 1978, by which time most of its rivals had been eliminated.

Colonel Karuna (nom de guerre of Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan) the leader of LTTE forces in the Eastern province broke with Prabakharan in 2004 to form the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal (TMVP). The aim of this grouping was to challenge the dominance of the northern Tigers around the leadership of Prabhakharan and to defend the special interests of eastern Tamils. There was a split even in this breakaway group and rivalry between Karuna and a former child soldier Pillayan (nom de guerre of Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan) led to some fatalities. Pillayan became leader of the TMVP and when government forces won control of the Eastern province and he was sworn in as Chief Minister of the province on May 16, 2008. At a disarmament ceremony in Batticaloa, on March 9 2009, the TMVP handed over its weapons to the Sri Lankan army. Pillayan said, “We tell the government and the international community that we have given up arms because we believe in democracy.” Also on March 9, Karuna joined the ruling party Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and accepted a ministerial portfolio.

Tamil homeland

The call for a separate Tamil nation in the north and east of the country was not feasible because 70% of Tamils in Sri Lanka live outside the area claimed as a homeland. The land claimed as Eelam was not exclusively Tamil except where the LTTE had carried out ethnic cleansing to drive out Sinhalese and Muslims.

When discussions were taking place on an Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1921, Lloyd George complained that he could not stop De Valera banging on about Cromwell. In more recent negotiations on Northern Ireland, Jonathan Powell made the same complaint about Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams. The Sinhala and Tamil nationalists who comment on my articles are armchair warriors and amateur historians who like to teach me lessons in ancient history.

The origins of the”Jaffna Tamils” are shrouded in myth and legend. Such myths play an atavistic role in helping an ethnic group form a sustaining identity. These fictions can turn poisonous and lead to delusion and death. In Sri Lanka, the Jaffna kingdom, which existed in the north and some parts of the east from the 13th century to the early 17th century, has provided the foundation myth of a Tamil homeland, Eelam, which was the Tamil Tigers’ leader Prabakharan’s justification for sending women and children to their deaths.

Many historians have challenged the foundation myths, with their emphasis on ancient animosities between Tamils and Sinhalese. A Sinhalese, Professor CR de Silva, has argued that the Tamil king Elara had much support from the Sinhalese and that Buddhism in the north did not suffer under his rule. A Tamil scholar, Devanesan Nesiah has argued that the two communities had enjoyed friendly co-existence over many centuries and that hostility was a political construct that was kept alive by the Sinhalese leadership and used from time to time for political purposes.

The territory claimed by the LTTE as their sovereign nation of Tamil Eelam covers the Northern and Eastern provinces. The Jaffna Kingdom, also known as the Kingdom of Aryacakravarti, only covered the Northern Province. The kingdom lasted from 1215-1619 CE. The kingdom’s independent existence ended when the Portuguese defeated King Cankili II.

The origins of the kingdom are obscure and still the subject of controversy among historians. Among mainstream historians, such as K.M. de Silva, S.Pathmanathan and Karthigesu Indrapala, the widely accepted view is that the Kingdom of Aryacakravarti began with the invasion of a previously unknown chieftain called Magha, who claimed to be from Kalinga in modern India. He deposed the ruling King Parakrama Pandu of Pollonnaruwa with the help of his soldiers and mercenaries from the Kalinga, modern Kerala and Damila regions in India.

For a brief period, in the early to mid-fourteenth century, the Aryacakravarti kingdom was the chief power in the island of Sri Lanka and other kingdoms were subordinate to it. However, the kingdom was eventually overpowered by the rival Kingdom of Kotte, around 1450.

The Tamil separatists’ claim to the Eastern province is mainly based on a document called “the Cleghorn minute”. Hugh Cleghorn was a Scottish professor of history and part-time secret agent. He helped the British oust the Dutch by buying off a force of Swiss mercenaries manning the Dutch fort in Colombo. He was rewarded with 5,000 pounds and the post of Chief Secretary of Ceylon under the first British Governor, Lord North. The two did not get on and North was soon referring to him as ”that madman Cleghorn”. Cleghorn resigned after 15 months in 1800. The minute on the basis of which separatists claim the north and the east refers to two different nations occupying the island of Ceylon from ancient times, with the Malabars (Tamils) occupying the north and east. Tamil separatists always omit the last sentence in which Cleghorn says the Sinhalese originate from Siam. Critics say this howler invalidates the rest of the minute.

Jaffna District, which is the Tamil heartland, was once home to some 5,500 Muslim families before the LTTE expelled them allowing them only hours to leave. “At five o’clock the LTTE announced for us to come immediately to the Jinnah grounds. The LTTE leader told us that within two hours, all the Muslims must leave the [Jaffna] peninsula,” said Mohammed Yassin.

There are large numbers of Muslims and Sinhalese in the Eastern Province who would not accept a Tamil state. Even eastern Tamils grew tired of dominance by northern Tamils and broke away from Prabakharan. Former Tigers Karuna and Pillayan joined the central government.

Whatever about the myths, the Jaffna Tamils and their ancestors have undoubtedly lived on the island for at least 1,500 years and cannot justly be regarded as alien newcomers or ”blow-ins” as we say in Ireland .

July 1983 and the aftermath.

The immediate cause of the long and bloody civil war was the events of July 1983, ”Black July”. Over many years there had been incidents where ill-disciplined police or military had carried out savage reprisals, rather in the manner of the Black and Tans in Ireland, on innocent Tamils. July 1983 was a paradigm shift in terror. Thirteen soldiers were killed by the LTTE. Anti-Tamil riots ensued and lasted for ten days with property being destroyed and up to 3,000 people being killed and 200,000 displaced.

From President Jayewardene’s residence, shops could be seen going up in flames but no curfew was called and police disappeared from the streets. Marauding gangs armed with axes and cans of petrol went around Colombo with electoral rolls identifying Tamil homes and businesses. The inhabitants were doused in petrol and set alight.

A Norwegian woman tourist recalled seeing a mob setting fire to a bus with about 20 Tamils inside it. Those who climbed out the windows were pushed back in and the doors were sealed while they burned alive, screaming horribly. In another incident, a mob chopped two Tamil girls aged 18 and 11 with knives; the younger girl was beheaded with an axe, the older one raped by 20 men and then doused in petrol.

These horrific events left an indelible mark on the Tamil psyche. Atrocities were perpetrated on innocent Tamils all over the country and many fled to the north for refuge. Those who could afford to fled abroad, from where they provided ongoing financial support for the LTTE.

There were also reports of incredible courage shown by selfless Sinhalese people trying to protect their Tamil friends and neighbours and even strangers.

The Sri Lankan government did nothing to counter the prevailing impression that it had connived in the slaughter. At a time when it was imperative to appease the Tamil people if there was ever to be any faint hope of keeping them happily within the nation, parliament enacted the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution, which required all members to disavow separatism. Sixteen TULF members vacated their seats and left a vacuum which was filled by the TNA.

Michael Roberts, a Sri Lankan historian and anthropologist looked back on these events from the perspective of 25 years: ”The militant movement for separation gathered thousands of new Tamil recruits and a rejuvenation of commitment among most SL Tamils, as well a wave of support in international quarters. Sri Lanka also received pariah status on the world stage.”

July 1983 was, indeed a turning point for Sri Lankan Tamils and for Sri Lanka. In the immediate aftermath many fled to Tamil Nadu, where those of a militant tendency were trained and armed by the Indian government. Many who might not want to engage in violence themselves fled to Canada, Australia and Europe. Many of them prospered and supported the armed struggle vicariously by providing funding. Many Tamils who remained in Sri Lanka were disillusioned at the futility of trying to defend their interests by peaceful means within the existing state apparatus.

The LTTE proved efficient at destroying any other Tamil groups that threatened to undermine their dominance. Elements of the international community were able to build a false picture of the LTTE as romantic freedom fighters.

In Tamil Nadu, where thousands of Indians took to the streets to denounce Sri Lanka and to call on Indira Gandhi to do something about what they called genocide. She came to a decision that would have lasting consequences including the death of her own son.

Training Camps in India.

Sri Lankan Tamil militants had been getting training abroad since 1975. A Sri Lankan Tamil called Eliyathambi Ratnasabapathy (Ratna for short) living in London, organised study groups at his Wandsworth home on the guerrilla struggles then going on in various countries. He had links with the PLO and arranged training from them in Lebanon in the use of firearms. There were survival courses and training in a variety of guerrilla tactics. Douglas Devananda, now a minister in the Sri Lanka government complained: ”We were asked to wear boots 24 hours a day. They gave us plenty of cheese and oranges but there was no rice.”

In 1981, retired Indian army officers had helped set up training camps around Madras in Tamil Nadu and trained around 30 men from the TELO and the LTTE.

Tamil youths were flocking to the militant groups for many reasons. One strong reason, according to MR Narayan Swami, Prabhakaran’s biographer,  was, ”a strong rumour had begun to circulate in Tamil areas. India, the giant of south Asia, which so many Sri Lankan Tamils regarded as their cultural motherland, was ready to accept, train and arm young Tamils willing to fight for Eelam.”

Tamil Nadu governments had long provided a haven for Tamil separatist militants from Sri Lanka. The central government under Indira Gandhi connived in this and tolerated the existence of bases and training camps in other parts of India. The origins of these bases go back to before the riots of 1983.

Mrs Gandhi was at odds with Junius Richard ”˜Dickie’ Jayawardene, Prime Minister and later Executive President of Sri Lanka, as he reversed Mrs Bandaranaike’s attempts to establish a socialistic command economy and turned Sri Lanka towards liberal free-market economic policies. The two neighbouring leaders also disagreed about foreign policy, especially Afghanistan and the Falklands. Mrs Gandhi also regarded Dickie as too pro-Western”. He allowed a Voice of America station in Sri Lanka and opened up Trincomalee harbour to Western commercial interests.

Indira Gandhi decided that she would give Tamil militants the support of the Indian government and of the Indian secret service, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). Word soon spread through the north of Sri Lanka that Mrs Gandhi was prepared to train and arm Tamil guerrillas and hundreds of young men and women left their homes to travel to Tamil Nadu.

Training began in Dehra Dun in Uttar Pradesh in September 1983. Subramanian Swami said that training was carried out at a RAW base at Chakrata north of Dehra Dun. That area was selected because the high mountains and military establishments provided cover for what was going on. From then on hundreds of Sri Lankan Tamil boys travelled by train from Madras to New Delhi and then on to Dehra Dun by trucks and buses. One group was detained by Indian police, who had not been appraised of what was going on, before leaving Tamil Nadu. The police took their names and addresses before RAW intervened.

PS Suryanayarana, in his book, The Peace Trap, quotes Tamil Tiger leader Prabakharan as saying that he first met RAW officials in Pondicherry but did not specify a date. According to MR Narayan Swamy, Prabakharan’s biographer, between 1983 and 1987, RAW trained 1,200 Sri Lankan Tamils in the use of automatic and semi-automatic weapons, self-loading rifles, and 84mm rocket launchers and in laying mines. Some were also given training in diving and under-sea sabotage.

Arms deliveries to various groups began in 1984 and went on almost up to the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement in 1987. India persistently denied in public that it was training Sri Lankans and disavowed any aim of splitting up the Sri Lankan state. There was comprehensive coverage in India Today of training camps in India and reports appeared in western newspapers in April 1984.

General Vernon Walters, an emissary of the Reagan administration, informed the Indian government on two visits, in 1983 and 1984, that he had evidence of the training camps. He produced photographs and the addresses of Sri Lankan militants living in Tamil Nadu.Former Sri Lankan national security minister, Lalith Athulathmudalali, has said: ”By 1986, Indian diplomats privately admitted that RAW was training people”.

However, India had no real interest in the separatist cause. Douglas Devananda has said: “We realised that they were only trying to use us in their game plan.” Sources in all Tamil groups now assert that India’s motive was to teach Colombo a lesson for being too pro-Western.

It was widely rumoured that Mrs Gandhi was planning to emulate Turkish action in North Cyprus and actually take over at least part of Sri Lanka by military force. Shankar Rajee says an Indian Army officer told him: ”we need a scout force to lead us. You are not going to do the real fighting but be prepared.”
By 1985 the numerical strength of the Tamil militants would have equalled that of the Sri Lankan armed forces. The LTTE’s main bases were at Salem and Madurai.

Delhi Accord

Indian facilitation led to talks in Bhutan in 1985 between the Sri Lanka government and representatives of various Tamil groups. There were no positive results but further talks brokered by India led to the Delhi Accord, which set out a framework for ethnic reconciliation and devolution of power to the provinces. The TULF went along with this but the other Tamil groups were reluctant and eventually TULF had to withdraw their assent.

Despite the accord between the two governments, sporadic ethnic violence continued in the north and east of Sri Lanka and the Indian government made little serious effort to stop its territory being used as a base for Tamil militant activity. Rajiv Gandhi found his options limited because the Sri Lankan Tamil separatist groups all had their supporters among government and opposition parties alike in Tamil Nadu. However, none of these parties were able to keep the peace among the rival Sri Lankan factions.

Part of the accord with India was that Sri Lankan forces in Jaffna would stay in their barracks. The LTTE took advantage of this to mine the roads leading to the barracks and convert makeshift barricades into concrete bunkers. The Sri Lanka army could only be supplied by air and the LTTE effectively took control of Jaffna. The LTTE also set about eliminating their Tamil rivals and attacking soft Sinhalese targets to the embarrassment of the government forces that seemed unable to stop them.

As the Sri Lanka army improved its equipment and training and got help from Pakistan, India reverted from mediation to attacking Sri Lanka’s human rights record. The Sri Lanka government had treated the Delhi Accord as ”a reasonable basis for negotiation and settlement” but India was now condemning the Sri Lankan government’s efforts to combat terrorism at the same time as India harboured those threatening to overthrow the Sri Lankan state.

In 1986, there were three months of complex negotiations between the Sri Lankan government and the TULF. The outcome was a set of proposals sent to India in September. There was an obstacle in that Tamil groups in general pressed for a single provincial unit joining the northern and eastern provinces as a single Tamil ethno-region. The Sri Lankan government were against this because of strong Sinhalese, and Muslim, opposition to the idea of the east as a predominantly Tamil region. By conceding the east, the government would allow its electoral base and stability to be eroded.

The main difficulty, however, was that these complex considerations were taking place in a fantasy world. It was akin to the British and Irish government having civilised discussions with each other and the Ulster Unionists and the Social and Democratic Labour Party, while it was the Provisional IRA and the Ulster Volunteer force bombing and kneecapping people.

William Clarance of the UNHCR put it thus: ”Essentially, the Accord was an agreement between the two governments, deciding over the heads of the Sri Lankan Tamils, the shape of their political future.”

The Indian and Sri Lankan governments were keen to deal with the TULF as the main representative of Tamil opinion in Sri Lanka but this was divorced from reality. The TULF had voluntarily exiled themselves in Tamil Nadu, thereby effectively cutting themselves off from Sri Lankan Tamils. The LTTE had filled the vacuum left by the TULF. The LTTE was determined to accept nothing less than a separate state of Eelam and were not prepared to recognise the lead role of the TULF.

Rajiv Gandhi’s dilemma now was how to persuade the Tamil separatists to accept what he believed to be a workable framework for an honourable peace. The LTTE alone refused to accept. For the first time the Indian government tried to impose restrictions on the LTTE’s activities in Tamil Nadu. Amid rumours of a unilateral declaration of independence, Sri Lankan forces tried to clear the north and east of LTTE fighters and largely succeeded with the rebels fleeing to the Jaffna peninsula.

Indian Peacekeeping Force

The Indo-Sri Lanka Accord was signed on 29 July 1987. When Rajiv Gandhi was inspecting a guard of honour prior to leaving Colombo for India in July 1987, a Sinhalese naval rating struck him a heavy blow with his rifle. This symbolised the resentment of many Sri Lankans at India’s interference.

The intention was to use the might of the Indian Army to bring a swift end to the ethnic conflict in the north and east of Sri Lanka. India blithely expected the LTTE to hand over its arms to the IPKF but the Tigers refused to go beyond a token handover and firmly resisted IPKF efforts to disarm them. The LTTE was as ready to fight the Indians as it was to fight the Sinhalese.

The Indians at first sent 10,000 troops but unexpected resistance from the LTTE led to an increase to 100,000, some estimate more.

The Tamil Tigers fought the Indians and the Sinhalese were not happy about the Indian intervention. Even the cabinet was split, with Prime Minister Premadasa opposed to it as was security minister Athulathmudalali. The Marxist Sinhala nationalist party the JVP were bitterly opposed as were many Buddhist monks.

Sri Lanka accused India of violating its sovereignty and international law by sending the Indian air force to drop food supplies on Jaffna. The Tamil Nadu chief minister, MG Ramachandran made a well-publicised gift of $3.3 million to the LTTE.

Sri Lankan Prime Minister Premadasa had been opposed to the accord from the outset. When he succeeded Jayawardene as president in December 1988, tensions between Sri Lanka and India increased. Premadasa saw the removal of the IPKF as essential to restoring order to the south after the bloody JVP uprising because the Sinhalese nationalist JVP traded on bitter opposition to Indian interference.

Withdrawal was completed in March 1990. Over 1,000 Indian soldiers had been killed and over 2,000 wounded. The financial cost to India of its intervention in Sri Lanka was put at around $1.25 billion.

The cost was, in fact, far higher. Rajiv Gandhi’s mother was the architect of India’s interventionist policy. He oversaw its intensification and he paid the ultimate price. On 21 May, 1991, Rajiv Gandhi attended his last public meeting at Sriperumbudur, about 30 miles from Madras in Tamil Nadu. He was campaigning for the Congress candidate for the area. At 10.10 p.m, a female Black Tiger called Thenmuli Rajaratnam, known as Gayatri or Dhanu approached Gandhi and greeted him. She bent down to touch his feet in the traditional Hindu expression of respect and detonated an explosive belt tucked under her dress containing 700 grammes of RDX. The assassination was caught on film through the lens of a local photographer, whose camera and film were found at the site. The cameraman himself also died in the blast but the camera remained intact.

Judge Thomas of the Supreme Court of India ruled that the killing was carried out because of the personal animosity towards Gandhi of LTTE leader Prabakharan. Four of the conspirators were sentenced, in their absence, to death. Sri Lanka’s President Premadasa was assassinated by the LTTE in 1993.

The Indian Position Today

In more recent years, Tamil Nadu state governments have failed to give unconditional support to the LTTE. This has allowed the Congress Party, in power in Delhi since 2004, to take a more hostile position to the separatists. The Tigers lost the image of responsible negotiators they had tried to cultivate during the period of the Cease Fire Agreement (CFA).

Radar equipment has been supplied by India to the Sri Lankan government. India’s secret service has discreetly provided intelligence, particularly naval, and training for pilots and radar operators.

The Indian government is now acting as a moderating broker and discussing with the Sri Lankan government the importance of reconciliation and a just settlement for Sri Lankan Tamils. Discussions focus on the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lanka constitution, which, it is hoped, will provide opportunities for a federal solution to Tamil grievances.

May 6th, 2010

UN representative visits Sri Lanka IDP camps

This was posted on The Agonist September 19 2009.

B Lynn Pascoe, Under Secretary of the United Nations for Political Affairs, visited the IDP camps and met President Rajapaksa and his ministers.

Commenting on his visit to the north, Mr. Pascoe stated that he was ”impressed by the work done by the Army, the demining teams, the UN staff and the civil society” and that the team also witnessed the rehabilitation work that was underway. He also stated that in Jaffna, they were able to feel that the people were looking forward to getting more opportunities and that there was a feeling that a ”whole era was waiting for them”.

”In the Mannar area, we witnessed crews repairing roads and a school, as well as construction work on a large water reservoir to serve some 2,500 families slated to be resettled next week. We saw work being done in preparing rice fields for planting before the monsoons. We received a briefing and demonstration by the military on progress in clearing mines out of the Mannar Rice Bowl region.

In Jaffna, we visited two IDP camps: (a) The Kopai camp housing about four hundred people uprooted during fighting in the final two months of last year; and (b) the Kaidhely University Hostel, which houses more than 500 people who arrived about a week ago from Manik Farms. Also in Jaffna, we visited a rehabilitation center for former LTTE members, about 150 men and women.

We ended the trip in Vavuniya, at the Manik Farms camp. We witnessed food distribution and had an opportunity to talk to IDPs and camp administrators.”

During the discussions, issues pertaining to the health care services provided to the IDPs, educational facilities including the vocational training were also highlighted.

Secretary, Ministry of Justice and Law Reforms, S. K. Gamlath explained the progress made in the rehabilitation of ex-combatants. He stated that after rehabilitation, some have reintegrated into society, while others have gone overseas for employment arranged under a special rehabilitation programme. He also acknowledged the assistance rendered by the UNICEF in this endeavor.

Director General, Ministry of Healthcare and Nutrition, Dr. Ajith Mendis, referred to the improvements and the enhancements that have been made to the existing health facilities provided to the IDPs. He pointed out that the hospitals and the clinics in the welfare centers have been strengthened with additional staff and the drug store has also been supplied with adequate medicines and other medical supplies.

Mr Pascoe was encouraged by what he saw but still had some concerns.

”We have urged the government to take the following steps:

To allow those who have completed the screening process to leave the camps as they choose.

For those remaining in the camps, at the very least, they shouldbe able to leave the camps during the daytime, and to freelyvisit friends and family in other sites.”

Responding to Mr. Pascoe’s observation that International Community has concerns when it hears that resettlement will be done after de-mining is completed, the President said resettlement did depend on the de-mining process. He mentioned that sixteen years after its war, Croatia had still not finished de-mining. “We do not intend taking so much time. I have laid down an initial target of 180 days to resettle at least 70% of the IDPs”. With the new equipment in use, and hopefully more to come, he expected the entire resettlement to be completed by the end of next January. “We have identified areas for resettlement and the people will be sent back as they are cleared”.

On the question of IDPs moving to live with relations outside, the President said that the government had already published advertisements in the media, calling for applications from persons seeking such resettlement. However, only 2000 applications had been received. These notices would be published again and also displayed prominently at the welfare villages.

With regard to freedom of movement outside the relief centers the President said that arrangements are already being made to issue day-passes for IDPs who wish to work outside.

Mr. Basil Rajapaksa, Senior Advisor to the President said that with the experience of 2000 applicants for re-union with relations, and the limited numbers of jobs in the area, it is likely that there will be only a few takers for these day-passes.

Recalling President Rajapaksa’s earlier commendable record on Human Rights, Mr. Pascoe said he acknowledged the need to adapt the role of the security forces, especially after a very long war. President Rajapaksa said the UN must be aware of the changes that had already being initiated at a very early stage after the war.

President Rajapaksa said: “Whether it is the US, China, Britain or any country we are all members of the UN. When the UN says anything about us we take it seriously. Similarly if big countries, try to bully us we will come to the UN about such matters.”

Mr Pascoe said: ”In the end, Sri Lanka is an energetic member of the United Nations, and it is important that we are able to have a constructive dialogue
about our disagreements. The United Nations is here to help, and will do whatever it can to help Sri Lanka move forward. Our commitment is clear, and much remains to be done.”

“This is an opportunity to move beyond simply ending the fighting to solidifying the peace. As the situation currently stands in the camps, there is a real risk of breeding resentment that will undermine the prospects for political reconciliation in the future.”

Mr. Pascoe concluded by telling President Rajapaksa, “You have a better story than is getting out today.”

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PN Review Blog

‘The most engaged, challenging and serious-minded of all the UK’s poetry magazines’ - Simon Armitage

The Manchester Review

The Manchester Review

Slugger O'Toole

Conversation, politics and stray insights

Stephen Jones: a blog

Daoism—lives—language—performance. And jokes

Minal Dalal

Spreading resources for potential living.