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Sri Lanka: not only a question of short-term security August 31, 2009

Posted by southasiamasala in : Perera, Jehan, Sri Lanka , trackback

Jehan Perera

The issue that is proving to be the most contentious in Sri Lanka’s post-war context is that of the approximately 280,000 internally displaced persons who are presently confined to 32 welfare centres in the North.  This is taken as a necessary, and temporary, situation by the Sri Lankan government and a majority of the people.  The 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 in doing.

While the facilities within the welfare camps have been a source of concern, the most controversial issue has been the barbed wire fences and army guards that surround them, which deny to the 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 LTTE cadre have been discovered in these camps, and that there are more to be found.

tamil refugee camp

The government has sought to justify its detention of the civilian population on at least three grounds.  The first is that they cannot be permitted to go back to their home areas as these have been mined by the LTTE and need to be de-mined before resettlement is possible. A second reason is that hidden arms caches of the LTTE are constantly being unearthed.  The government would need to find these arms caches prior to resettling the people, or else risk them falling into the hands of rebel and criminal groups.  The third reason for keeping the people within the camps is to screen out LTTE cadre who may be hiding amongst them.

The government’s handling of the problem of the displaced persons appears to be largely determined by its successful approach to dealing with the LTTE through a military solution and an extension of a frame of mind that gave first place to military considerations. From a security-centred perspective, permitting this population to enjoy freedom of movement could give rise to security threats.  The hidden arms caches of the LTTE 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 cadre an opportunity to make contact with sleeper cells in the city.

The recent flooding of the camps and human misery caused by rains has brought to the fore a major source of friction between the government and international aid agencies.  The argument is about whether the facilities in the camps should be of a temporary or semi permanent nature.  Most international agencies have taken the position that they will provide temporary structures, as they do not wish to encourage long term stay for the displaced population.  This has met with government criticism that the international agencies are providing sub-standard 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.

Partly in response to international pressure from neighbouring 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, there are indications that the people in the camps are getting increasingly restive, with protests taking place against the poor quality of life within the camps and the separation of families who are in different camps.

The government needs also to reconsider its conception of security and reframe it to include longer-term considerations.  Confining the displaced people to the welfare centres might spare the country from terrorist attacks at this time by preventing any possible LTTE cadre from infiltrating out of the camps.  But prolonged detention of the people will come at the cost of increased alienation of the Tamil people in general and will permit anti-government forces to mobilize opposition to the government both at the national and international levels.  Hard line elements in the Tamil diaspora who seek confrontation with the government will be able to mobilize support on the basis of the harsh treatment of the displaced population, which would prove to be a threat to national security in the future.  There needs to be a balance between short-term and longer-term security concerns.

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