Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights

SRI LANKA: Plans to Release Tamils ‘Nothing But a Political Ploy’

Feizal Samath

COLOMBO, Nov 18 2009 (IPS) - By January 2010 they will be returning to their homes in war-torn areas.

What could be better news for thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils displaced by bloody fighting between government troops and separatist rebels, and huddled in crowded camps with no freedom to move out?

The government announced on Tuesday that it was speeding ahead to complete the process of resettling the displaced in two months. And that was all because of a radical change in the political firmament.

The fear of a formidable candidate in the form of army General Sarath Fonseka—widely credited with leading the army to a historic victory against the badly bruised Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam—pitted against his commander-in-chief, President Mahinda Rajapaksa, is setting the stage for a public relations coup, including settling the displaced in their homes before the election.

A presidential poll is likely to be held in January followed by a parliamentary poll. Widespread media reports—neither denied nor confirmed by the General who retired on Monday—that Fonseka would contest the presidency have put the government on the back foot and feverish arrangements are underway for a poll.

“We were (earlier) told between 60 and 70 percent of the displaced would be resettled by January 2010. Now it appears all of them will be out of the camps by January,” noted Firzan Hashim, deputy executive director of the Consortium for Humanitarian Agencies, an umbrella group of local and foreign humanitarian non-governmental organisations.

“But while we are happy that they are at last returning to their camps, our fear is they don’t have a livelihood and will be returning to villages where there is a huge military presence,” he said. “This could lead to frustration and all kinds of problems.”

On Tuesday, a group of Tamil Parliamentarians who visited camps housing more than 100,000 displaced people in northern Vavuniya was told by Basil Rajapaksa, advisor to the President and chair of a Special Task Force spearheading the reconstruction and rehabilitation on the war-torn northern region, that all the displaced would be back in their former homes by January.

“He informed us of this decision when we briefed him on our visit to the camps. We made our observations on the visit,” said N. Sri Kanthan, parliamentarian from the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), which represents the Tamil community in Sri Lanka.

Kanthan and six of his TNA parliamentary colleagues were permitted to visit the displaced on Monday, the first time local parliamentarians were allowed into the camps, access to which had been severely restricted. Camp residents are also denied freedom of movement, including coming out of the camps guarded by the military.

Kanthan said of the more than 200,000 who fled fierce battles between government troops and the rebels who fought in the northern region and swarmed into temporary shelters in March to April 2009, 102,000 residents have been settled, with another 130,000 expected to return to their homes in the next two months.

“We have requested for a long time to visit these camps, and finally this was allowed. We were flown to the area in a government helicopter and also visited resettlement areas. We were impressed and found the military and officials committed to their task,” he told IPS.

Government soldiers crushed the rebels in bruising battles in May, including killing the elusive rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and his family, ending a 25-year-long armed revolt against the state to push for more autonomy for minority Tamils in areas where they mostly live.

Since then, human rights groups and the international community have accused the government of keeping civilians against their will in camps amidst difficult conditions. The media, however, continues to be shut out of these camps, with a few local and foreign journalists given ‘escorted’ tours.

Sivanathan Kishore, another TNA parliamentarian, who also visited the camps, said the situation has improved tremendously from before. “In May I went alone (because I live in the same area) into the camps, and conditions were appalling. Now there is a major change.”

But another TNA parliamentarian, Sivashakthi Ananthan, said he turned down the invitation to visit the camps, as it was a conducted tour and not free access as claimed.

“We had informed the military that we would be driving in our own vehicles, but the government insisted that we go in a government helicopter to the camps. Why should we go in a government helicopter to visit our own people?” he asked in a telephone interview.

A Tamil journalist, who declined to be named, labeled Monday’s exercise a public relations one, since it was held a day before the United Nations top humanitarian official arrived in Colombo on Tuesday. He added that the planned quick release of the displaced was aimed at soothing the Tamils and winning back their support ahead of the polls.

U.N. Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Co-ordinator John Holmes, who has visited Sri Lanka thrice this year, the last being in May, is due to meet the President and visit the camps for the displaced.

The U.N. has repeatedly expressed concern over the continued “detention” of these residents. The government justified this on two grounds—clearing their former homes of mines in a huge de-mining operation and ferreting out suspected Tamil rebel cadres. Nearly 20,000 former rebels have been identified among the displaced and moved to another detention centre and processed for rehabilitation.

On Tuesday, Britain-based Amnesty International said it had launched a week of action from Monday, highlighting the continued detention of thousands of displaced civilians in government camps. In a statement, it said activists in more than 10 countries would take part in the ‘Unlock the Camps’ campaign. Events include a ‘Circle of Hope’ in Canada, a street march and signature campaign in Nepal, a poetry reading in Switzerland and solidarity actions in France, Germany, Mauritius and the United States.

Another opposition legislator, Dr Jayalath Jayawardene, pooh-poohed the attempt to open the camps to parliamentarians. “We have filed an action in the Supreme Court seeking a declaration that our fundamental rights have been violated by not allowing us free and unimpeded access to the camps.

“If the government is allowing member of Parliament access, then why can’t they come and inform the Court?” he asked. “This is just a farce,” he said. “Furthermore, they are relaxing these rules now when half the population in the camps have been returned to their homes.” “We need free access … not conducted tours,” said the Parliament member from the main opposition United National Party.

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