Sri Lanka’s displaced people Part 1

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

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