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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2646

The Wretched of the North

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

"Prison: A place in which person is kept in captivity". Oxford Dictionary

By conscripting children to feed his war machine and by silencing dissenting Tamil voices, often through murder, Vellupillai Pirapaharan undermined his own image as the liberator of Tamils. By incarcerating hundreds of thousands of civilian Tamils in camps, by preventing even close family members from visiting them and by refusing to give reputed aid agencies access to them, the Government of Sri Lanka is undermining its own claims of being the government of all Sri Lankans.

It requires no eyewitness account to conjecture the kind of places the Northern IDP camps cannot but be. These were set up in a hurry, in an ad hoc manner. Consequently these camps cannot but lack basic facilities needed to cater to their hundreds of thousands of inmates. The government deliberately underestimated the number of civilians held hostage by the LTTE in the war zone and was, thus, utterly unprepared for the massive influx of April and May. It is no small task to feed, clothe, house and treat so many civilians, to provide them with sanitation facilities, to care for the elderly and the orphaned. Many have been on the run for months and own little other than the clothes on their back. Families have been separated, often depriving the weakest of their natural protectors and caregivers. Shot at, bombed, shelled and rendered homeless with sundered families, these civilians are traumatised in a manner and to an extent that is unimaginable for those of us who have been spared of such searing experiences.

The crux of the matter however is not the presence or absence of basic facilities in the camps, but their total absence of freedom. The lack of basic facilities can be understood and excused; the lack of freedom cannot. The first is a by-product of events; the second is the outcome of deliberated policy. The first is a problem that can be solved with national and international assistance; the second is a structural condition which is likely to remain in the foreseeable future.

What makes a prison? That the inmates are deprived of freedom of movement, that they cannot leave even if they want to, that they are being held against their will, that they have lost control over their lives. The inmates of the ‘welfare camps’ in the North cannot leave them; nor can outsiders go in, without official permission. Even apologists for the regime do not deny that the inmates of these camps are deprived of the freedom of movement; they merely justify this confinement by depicting it as an unavoidable security measure. This lack of freedom is the most crucial feature of these camps, the feature which defines their very nature. These camps are nothing less than open air prisons, surrounded by barbed wire fences and armed guards; their inmates are de facto prisoners who are deprived of that right common to all free men – the freedom of movement.

The men, women and children in these camps are not de jure prisoners because they have not been found guilty of or even charged with any crime. They are de facto prisoners, whose sole ‘crime’ was living in ‘enemy territory’. The camps represent nothing less than the collective internment of almost the entire population of the Northern districts which were under Tiger control during the last phase of the war. If this is not ethnically based collective punishment, what is it?

A Militarised Agenda?

Had Vellupillai Pirapaharan survived to fight another day, had he escaped to re-launch the war as a guerrilla struggle, the harsh security measures which are in place currently may have had some justification. But he did not escape, nor did almost the entirety of top Tiger leadership. In that context, a genuinely Sri Lankan government would have prioritised the easing of the suffering of civilian Tamils over apprehending Tiger remnants, especially at an enormous cost to hundreds of thousands of innocent citizens. By deciding to incarcerate all displaced Tamils to catch some Tiger remnants, the Rajapakse government has demonstrated its Sinhala Supremacist rather than Sri Lankan nature.

In June 2007, the Rajapakse regime came up with a plan to expel all North Eastern Tamils living in Colombo lodges because some of them could have been Black Tigers. That plan had to be abandoned because of the outcry from a segment of polity and society and the intervention of the Supreme Court. The mentality behind that measure was blatantly ethno-centric and discriminatory and even after the plan was shelved (due to a Supreme Court injunction), the President sought to justify it. Addressing the ILO in Geneva Mr. Rajapakse said, "Recently, there was much concern when we cleared some lodging houses in Colombo…. Almost all suicide bombers have operated from these lodging houses, and therefore, we have had to keep an extra vigil over them. As our government declared, if any inconvenience was caused to innocent persons, we regret it very much".

President Rajapakse (and his brother, the Defence Secretary) believed it just and fair to expel tens of thousands of Tamils living in Colombo lodges just because "almost all suicide bombers have operated from these lodging houses…" The internment camps in the North too are the result of a mindset which believes in both collective guilt and collective punishment. How else can one even think of incarcerating three hundred thousand Tamils, indefinitely, just because there may be a few hundred (or even a few thousand) Tiger cadres amongst them?

What if, post JVP insurgency, the government decided to incarcerate all residents of the districts (or the areas) which were under de facto JVP control, such as Hambantota and Moneragala, in order to catch a few thousand JVP operatives? What if huge ‘welfare camps’ were built and hundreds of thousands of Sinhalese were herded into them, so that the Security Forces could weed out a few hundred or thousand JVP cadres? Would that not have been an outrage and a counterproductive one as well? Such a measure would have further polarised the country and made any reconciliation, any return to normalcy impossible. Sri Lanka would have remained an unstable land, riven by fear, suspicion, bitterness and hatred. For the few hundred JVPers who could have been caught by such an extreme measure, many more thousands would have been created anew, intent on revenge. Similarly by incarcerating all the Tamils who lived under LTTE control to catch Tiger remnants, the government is creating a fertile breeding ground for the rejuvenation of the Eelam project.

The internment of hundreds of thousands of civilian Tamils, simply because of the possible presence of a few hundred Tiger cadres amongst them, is a disgrace, a shameful act which goes against the very essence of Sri Lanka, as a pluralist society and as a democracy. It is an act of blatant ethnic discrimination as it applies only to members of one community, an outrage which demonstrates the ethno-centric worldview of this administration. A clearer signal could not have been sent to the Tamils about the place allotted to them in a post-war Sri Lanka. How can we expect Tamils to feel loyal to a country that treats them with such injustice? How can the dream of separatism die, in the presence of such outrageous treatment? How can a Sri Lankan identity be born amidst such discrimination?


There was general expectation that Sri Lanka will demobilise a segment of its 200,000 strong army, once the war was over. Such a step would have made sense, especially given the financial problems besetting the country. But instead the government is planning to expand the Army: "Sri Lankan military on Tuesday said it wants to boost up its manpower by more than 100,000 troops to prevent resurgence of the Tamil Tigers or any other such group. The troop build up, which will increase the number of Sri Lankan forces from 2,00,000 to 3,00,000, was announced by the Army chief Gen. Sarath Fonseka amidst fears in Colombo that the Tamil Tigers living abroad may try to resurrect the group under a new leadership" (The Hindu – 26.5.2009).

What is a 300,000 strong army going to do, sans a conventional war? Keep Tamils under control, in the North and the East and perhaps elsewhere? Is the government planning to turn the North and the East into garrison provinces, controlled by the mainly Sinhala Armed Forces and their Tamil adjuncts? Where is the money for the maintenance of such a mammoth army going to come from? Can a cash strapped country continue indefinitely with a huge defence bill, without cutting into welfare and development expenditure? How will such a militarised future for the North impact on the development of and living standards in the South? And will this gargantuan military machine be turned against the Southerners themselves when they begin to protest against falling living standards?

Israel won the Six-Day War handsomely. But, as Israeli author and columnist Meir Shalev pointed out in on the 40th anniversary of that war, the victory turned into a pyrrhic one and the victor is paying a price that is almost as high as the loser: "Forty years have passed, and Israel has indeed choked. The country is busy dealing with one matter: the occupation — the territories, the Palestinians, terror, holy sites, the establishment and evacuation of settlements. Forty years have passed, and Israel has neglected everything that the Israel of 1948 wished to occupy itself with: education, research, welfare, health" (Los Angeles Times – 5.6.2007). Sri Lanka can expect a similar outcome if she implements a policy of keeping Tamils under military control than winning them over with concessions and justice.

According to UN sources around 43% of the internment camp inmates are children. The way things are these future citizens of Sri Lanka will grow up in an atmosphere permeated with fear and suspicion, bitterness and hatred. Holed up in a mass prison camp, surrounded by armed and uniformed guards who do not speak their language, can they grow up feeling Sri Lankan? If the future that awaits them is that of garrisoned towns/villages, will they not be alienated? Will not such treatment give birth to the dream of a separate state in yet another generation of Tamils?

The LTTE is no longer dominant over the Tamils; the Tamils are being ruled by a Sinhala majority army and a Sinhala supremacist government. Unless there is a radical change in government policy, unless there is a political solution to the ethnic problem the Tamil children of today will grow into adulthood subjected to pinpricks of humiliation by the Lankan Army and the Lankan state. And as time passes, memories of Tiger brutality will be effaced by the daily reality of Sinhala injustice, incomprehension and insensitivity. In such a context, separatism will raise its head again, and Vellupillai Pirapaharan will be reborn, as legend.

Sri Lanka is once again a unitary state in every sense of the word. But Tamil separatism came into being and the Tigers gain ascendance in just such a unitary country. When Vellupillai Pirapaharan began his career, there was no devolution in Sri Lanka. The government of the day placed its confidence not in measures of reconciliation but in measures of discrimination and suppression. But, sometimes, injustice and repression spawn and aid the very outcome they seek to prevent.

- Asian Tribune -

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