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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2710

Sri Lanka: Plight of the IDPs

By Raj Gonsalkorale

Once again, the pundits of the world are lecturing Sri Lanka as to how the country should treat the IDPs, that they should be released forthwith and that the country is discriminating against the Tamils. These pulpit lecturers seem to be under the illusion that the Sri Lankan government wants to keep these unfortunate people in IDP camps and create all the bad publicity for itself in doing so.

Surely the President and the government do not have a death wish to snatch defeat from victory? Why on earth should they keep the IDPs in camps more than a day than necessary? Providing nearly 1 million meals a day alone (for close to 300,000 persons) is challenging enough without even considering the task of looking after their health, education (of children) and general living conditions. Do these pundits like the Human Rights Watch think that Sri Lanka enjoys this exercise?

The government has been the first to admit that living conditions could be better in these camps although conditions have improved very significantly since the camps had to be created two months or so ago. Perhaps where the government has failed is in being less than effective in telling their side of the story to the world and proactively countering the negative publicity generated by the likes of HRW.

If one takes a look at the issue as an objective viewer from outside purely from media reports, generated both from the negativists as well as the government, one gets the impression that the government does not have a serious plan as to when and how they will resettle these IDPs. Moving targets, like earlier statements that 80% of people will be settled changing to 60% will be settled by the end of the year, has not helped the government’s cause. The government could do with a firmer agenda and a well thought out and publicized strategy relating to IDP resettlement.

The government no doubt has enormous obstacles to overcome in the massive exercise associated with the resettlement. These need to be considered by all pontificating pundits before they oversimplify a very complex issue that Sri Lanka has to contend with.

Firstly, there should be a good understanding as to who these IDPs are? An overwhelming majority of them are those hapless Tamils who were uprooted from their homes by the LTTE and carted off to the thin strip of land that was the Armageddon of the LTTE, if one can use that word to describe their final battle with government forces. They were not residents of that thin strip that was devoid of living conditions fit for human beings, an area probably more suited for goats and the like. Those Tamils were IDPs long before they were released from the clutches of the LTTE and relocated to Menik farm.

To the best of knowledge and available information, the LTTE buried land mines around the homes of these Tamils in front of their eyes, to make sure they will not escape from the LTTE and go back to their homes. Reportedly, their homes were destroyed by the LTTE before they were herded towards “safety”.

So, a majority of Tamils in the IDP camps do not have homes to go back to, and the area around their former homes is all heavily mined. This is what readers of media reports from the government have been made to understand. However, for whatever reason, no independent reports have been published confirming the veracity of this information and this has led to pundits and speculative and hungry journalists who thrive on human misery, to get onto the roof tops and do what they are good at doing. Rarely would they publish anything good and positive about human beings.

One good reason why the background information must be correct is the question as to why on earth the government should hold these people in camps and risk getting bad publicity. Surely the government cannot be that irrational and stupid?

Assuming it is the case that a majority of IDPs cannot return to their homes until demining is completed and their homes have been rebuilt, questions are being asked why they are behind barbed wire and not allowed to travel outside the camps.

Firstly, this misconception about being behind barbed wire has to be addressed. Menik farm is a large complex of more than 2000 acres or so, and while it is true there is barbed wire, but as far as one knows, it is around the perimeter of the complex, like erecting a fence around a huge coconut estate, as many land owners were and are wont to do to establish property boundaries.

Media photographers are good at snapping a child who happen to be near the fence and show the world that the camp is like Auschwitz. Even when access has been given to these doomsday merchants, they have never published children playing or attending makeshift schools inside the camps.

These camps are huge open areas as a 2000 acre area would be, and according to a veteran and much respected Indian journalist, they are the best he had visited. Besides making these camps as hospitable, safe and healthy as they can be and should be, the government would certainly be accused of long term incarceration intentions if they happen to make them too comfortable!

On the question of limits to free movement outside the camps, the rest of Sri Lanka expects the government to limit movement until there is greater certainty that LTTE elements within the camps are weeded out and LTTE elements from outside do not have any opportunities to endanger the safety of those Tamils inside the camps and they also do not have opportunities to allow LTTE seeds to germinate inside the camp.

The world must know and appreciate that the LTTE was a despicable and a cathartic phenomenon that ruined the life of so many people in the country, mostly Tamils and they should not be allowed to raise their heads again, ever. As they say, dogs might bark, but the caravan must go on, and the government must do what is in the best interest of the entire country. President Rajapaksa practiced this to a new art form when he fought the LTTE when many in the world barked, and he prevailed. He is now intent on winning the peace, and he will prevail. The country has confidence in him.

Consider a few things have happened recently. The Army has found vast caches of arms and ammunition hidden by the LTTE, mostly on tip offs. There is no other way to find these, as finding needles in a hay stack would be a piece of cake compared to combing huge swaths of former LTTE held Sri Lankan territory and looking for hidden loot. What the Army has found could be just the tip of the ice berg. No one can tell till more information is provided by LTTE cadres in captivity.

Just the other day, the government arrested an LTTE operative with suicide bomb jackets and detonators in Colombo. The LTTE man who was responsible for attacking the Anuradhapura Air Force base and destroying 10 planes and damaging many others was arrested two days back. All this was possible due to tip offs.

The LTTE might be down but not out and the government owes it to all Sri Lankans to make sure they do whatever that’s required to make sure utmost due care has been taken and all IDPs are screened and whatever information they have that might help the government is obtained before they are released to the community at large. A heavy price to pay? No doubt, but it is a necessary price that has to be paid for the benefit of all Sri Lankans.

Most of the IDPs are people who lived under the yolk of the LTTE either by choice or by force. They are no doubt Tamils and citizens of the country, but, as a group, they are a high risk category of Sri Lankans having lived with the LTTE for a considerable period of time. Within this group, there are many innocent people, especially the old and the children. The government has already released many old people to the community to live with their relatives or friends. Maybe there are more elders who could be released.

Arguments maybe made either way about the advisability of separating children from their parents and releasing them to the care of relatives or friends. In some countries (like with refugees in Australia), human rights organizations advocate non separation, as living with parents is considered very important for children.

The entire task of managing so many IDPs is something that no Sri Lankan government has had to contend with, and therefore the current government may or may not get it right in all fronts the first time around. It is being increasingly acknowledged however that the government is doing a good job in the circumstances they have been placed in, and many Sri Lankans who have visited these camps to provide whatever assistance they could, have all been impressed with what they have seen. The whole issue is one of risk management for the government. It is easy for the likes of the HRW to say that all IPDs should be released forthwith and even the visiting US Assistant Secretary of State to have stated that the government must resettle the IDPs without delay. For Sri Lanka, this is a complex issue and there are no simple solutions.

Sri Lanka should certainly not dance to any foreign music.

Unlike when many barked when the government continued their offensive against the LTTE, the IDP issue has the potential to discredit the government for no real fault of theirs. Managing the public relations angle needs to be done with more sophistication and finesse, and even a tinge of arrogance should not be allowed to surface in regard to how the IDP issue is being managed. That could bring about unnecessary negativity and worse publicity. For this reason, spokespersons who voice government strategy and tactics should be well versed in public relations and diplomacy, and they should not behave as bulls in china shops.

- Asian Tribune -

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