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Sri Lanka delaying release of refugees – thestar.com

[MalaysiaToday, Wednesday, 7 October 2009 09:43 No Comment]

Months after war’s end, thousands of Tamils remain interned

Kanchana asks to go by a false name, but seems self-assured for a teenager. Her experience of Sri Lanka’s civil war, which ended in May after a seaside slaughter of the leaders of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and at least 8,000 people taken hostage by them, would put years on anyone.

For five years she was marooned in the Tigers’ northern fief. In 2007, as the army advanced, the Tigers recruited her brother and sister.

The advancing troops reached Kanchana last April. All belonged to Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority. They did not rape her as she had been led to expect. Instead they shared their thin rations with her.

But then came 3 1/2 months interned in Vavuniya. More than 260,000 Tamil refugees were crammed into 16 camps with poor food, overflowing toilets and, last month, flooding in which at least five drowned. One sibling was imprisoned among 11,000 former Tiger cadres. The other is probably dead.

Now back in her eastern village of Thampalagama, Kanchana was among the first refugees to be released in August. With them the truth of the bloody end to Sri Lanka’s 26-year war, which the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa has tried to hide by bullying journalists and reporting "zero civilian casualties," is coming out.

Human rights groups have criticized the detentions as an illegal form of collective punishment and warned that the impending monsoon rains could create health crises in the low-lying, congested camps. And the EU has said it won’t reissue a valuable trade concession to Sri Lanka because of human rights violations.

Sitting with Kanchana in a small red-tiled shack, one woman says her 25-year-old son has disappeared, like hundreds of Tamil youths in the past three years. Only the word of a local Hindu astrologer gives hope he is alive.

Another’s nephew was imprisoned and tortured for a month by pro-government thugs. He is now crippled. A third sent her 21-year-old son for his safety to Colombo. He has been in prison there for nearly two years without charge.

Since the government ordered the International Committee of the Red Cross to quit eastern Sri Lanka in July, the women say they have had no one to petition for their sons. "Who will listen to our grief? Who will bring back our children?"

Evidence of reconciliation between Tamils and the Sinhalese-dominated government, which the president has promised, is hard to find. The government is trying to recruit more Tamil police officers. But such measures look paltry against an internment policy that the EU’s report calls a "novel form of unacknowledged detention."

The government justifies it by citing two reasonable fears: that surviving Tigers will regroup, and that mined areas of the north are too unsafe for locals to return. Yet the government has made only creeping efforts to identify those it could safely release.

Under pressure from Western governments, which pay for most of the camps’ food, Rajapaksa promised 70 to 80 per cent would be freed by year’s end. That was three months ago. Some 20,000 have since been let out. Most were old, sick or pregnant women, or Hindu priests and stray easterners such as Kanchana. Indeed, she was lucky: some who returned to the east later have been detained in ill-prepared schools and temples.

Monsoon rains are expected this month to flood around 25 per cent of Vavuniya’s main camps, so 100,000 of the 220,000 people there need shifting.

The government says 67,000 can go to their home areas in the east and to other places outside the Tigers’ heartland, like Jaffna and Mannar – even if they may be redetained there. But there is no immediate prospect of returns to the Tigers’ strongholds of Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu.

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