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Sri Lanka must consider long-term security – upiasia.com

[MISC, Wednesday, 26 August 2009 08:23 No Comment]

The humanitarian crisis in northern Sri Lanka is once again taking center stage in the country’s international relations as heavy rains have flooded sections of the camps in which over a quarter of a million people are currently residing.

These are the very people that international human rights organizations and foreign governments were concerned about during the last phase of the war. Images of tents with water seeping in, and of children and adults standing in water and sewage, cannot but evoke humanitarian compassion.

The issue that is proving most contentious in post-war Sri Lanka is that of the approximately 280,000 internally displaced persons who are confined to 32 welfare centers in the North. This is seen as a necessary, and temporary, situation by the government and the majority of the people.

The Sri Lankan government has come under increased pressure to improve the conditions of those camps, which it is committed to doing, and also to release the people, which it has problems doing. The fact that the entire population of that part of the Vanni region, including the well-to-do and educated people who resided there, are detained under guard by security forces has been deeply wounding to the larger Tamil population, not merely to those inside the camps.

Facilities within the welfare camps have been a source of concern, but the most controversial issue has been the barbed-wire fences and army guards that surround them, denying people the freedom to move. There has also been no registering of people in a transparent manner. Hence even if people disappear there is no way to trace them.

The government has claimed that over 10,000 cadres of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have been discovered in these camps, and there are more to be found. The separation of family members into different camps is also a very grave concern.

The government has sought to justify its detention of the civilian population on at least three grounds. The first is that their home areas have been mined by the LTTE and need to be demined before resettlement is possible. A second reason is that hidden arms caches of the LTTE are constantly being unearthed. The government needs to find these arms prior to resettling the people or risk their falling into the hands of rebel and criminal groups. The third reason for keeping the people within the camps is to screen out LTTE cadres who may be hiding among them.

The government’s handling of the displaced persons reflects the same approach it used in dealing with the LTTE – giving first place to military considerations. From a security-centered perspective, permitting this population freedom of movement could give rise to security threats.

The hidden LTTE arms caches could fall into the hands of the returning population. An influx of displaced persons into Colombo, where large numbers of Tamils from the north and east already live, could offer LTTE cadres an opportunity to make contact with sleeper cells in the city.

The government’s concern about the displaced people is not lessened by the fact that most of them accompanied the LTTE on its last retreat from west coast to east coast. The wariness about them is heightened by the fact that many, if not most, lived under LTTE control for two or more decades. During this period they were subjected to mass indoctrination, arms training and recruitment by the LTTE, who made virtually the entire population complicit with the insurgency.

As a result of these security concerns, at the present time the government’s efforts are focused on improving the facilities and living conditions within the welfare centers rather than on resettling the people.

The flooding caused by rains has brought to the fore a major source of friction between the government and international aid agencies, which concerns whether the facilities in the camps should be of a temporary or semi-permanent nature.

Most international agencies have offered to provide temporary structures, as they do not wish to encourage long-term stays for the displaced population. This has met with government criticism that the agencies are providing substandard facilities. The flooding of the camps and the collapse of the toilets and drainage systems indicate that greater care should have been taken in upgrading the facilities of the camps, irrespective of the duration of the stay of their inhabitants.

However, the government’s treatment of the displaced population is only mitigated by the efforts it is taking to improve their living conditions in the camps. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees’ update on the situation, dated July 7, states that the “freedom of movement remains the overriding issue at all the emergency shelter sites accommodating those from the former conflict zones.”

If given their freedom, many if not most of the displaced persons would be able to move in with relatives or host families who live outside the formerly LTTE-controlled areas that the government wants to demine and deweaponize before people can be sent back there.

Partly in response to international pressure from neighboring India and donor countries to resettle these people in their homes, the Sri Lankan government has pledged to resettle the bulk of them by the end of this year. The most recent commitment on this issue has been to the International Monetary Fund as part of its pledges to secure a US$2.6 billion loan.

The government has economic reasons for resettling the displaced persons, as their upkeep requires approximately US$2 million a day, which it can ill afford. In addition, people in the camps are getting increasingly restive, with protests taking place against the low quality of life and the separation of families who are in different camps.

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