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.”