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Sri Lanka: The aftermaths of the war

by Rajan Philips, 17 June 2009

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14 June 2009
- The Island

In the beginning, the Rajapakse government characterized its war against the LTTE as part of the global war on terrorism. In the middle, and muddle, it became the war to liberate the Tamil civilians from the clutches of the LTTE. In the end, the war morphed into a despotic assertion of Sri Lanka’s sovereignty against Western interference. In the aftermath of the war, the plight of the Tamil civilians in the Vanni has not improved in spite of their liberation, and the controversies between the Sri Lankan government and the Western world show no sign of abating.

The war itself ended in a crescendo of violence amidst far flung controversy over the middle (16-17) weekend in May. The bloody finale had been politico-astrologically charted, auspiciously for the government and fatally for the LTTE, to occur after the Tamil Nadu vote on Wednesday, 13 May, and before the formation of the new Indian government the following week.

For the Sri Lankan government, the war euphoria, the anti-West rhetoric, and victory celebrations have been much needed detractions from its mismanagement of the economy, allegations of corruption, administrative collapse and concerns over attacks on journalists and anti-war critics. What began as spontaneous celebrations in the south after the defeat of the LTTE and the elimination of its entire leadership is now being state-managed to continue as a show of Sri Lanka’s independence against Western busybodies.

In an inexplicably ham fisted decision, the government even denied entry to the distinguished Canadian political leader, Bob Rae, when he arrived last week at the Colombo airport with a valid visa from the Sri Lankan High Commission in Ottawa. Mr. Rae had been to Sri Lanka many times before, was a key advisor during the peace process and a forthright critic of the LTTE. A Rhodes Scholar like G. L. Peiris, Bob Rae had worked on peace and constitutional initiatives with the late Lakshman Kadirgamar, the late Kethish Loganathan, and Peiris himself. At one time, Mr. Rae headed the Forum of Federation, an international organization sponsored by the Canadian government that included in its ranks N. Ram of Chennai, the editor of The Hindu and a close friend of the present and previous Sri Lankan governments. As a Canadian politician, Mr. Rae counts thousands of Canadian Sinhalese and Tamils among his constituents and has helped many of them without partiality. The LTTE supporters have tried to discredit him and used to disrupt meetings in Toronto where he spoke critically of the LTTE. Now the Sri Lankan government has denied him entry into Colombo even though he landed there with a visa. The visa issued by the Foreign Ministry was apparently countermanded by the Defense Executive. Be that as it may.

Forebodings of defeat

The end of the war and the manner of its ending has left the Tamils in a state of "stunned emptiness" (to borrow Canadian journalist Doug Saunders’s apt description). Even those who did not support separatism and who abhorred the LTTE’s methods feel sunken by the ferocity of the government’s victory and the totality of the LTTE’s defeat. The Tamil diaspora, that has been staging street protests against the war in Toronto, Ottawa, New York, London and other Western cities, is finding it difficult to accept the end of the militaristic LTTE and the death of its despotic leader. The macabre details of the war’s climactic ending now revealed under the imprimatur of UTHR will confirm to many what the title of its latest report suggests - that the victory is marred and the defeat has forebodings

The biggest foreboding involves the Tamil civilians caught in the war – thousands of them have been killed without witnesses and about 300,000 survivors including 30,000 disabled are interned in camps under appalling conditions. The ministering of the 300,000 displaced people is the first test of how the government is going to deal with the Tamils after ‘liberating’ them from the LTTE. Already, there is something cruelly ironic about the internment and encampment of internally displaced Tamils: the irony that they are not free to return to their homes in spite of their liberation and in spite of their rights, and the cruelty that even after their liberation they are treated as LTTE accomplices until they prove otherwise. Not even elderly Tamils could be trusted, according to the Secretary to the Foreign Ministry, because they could still be mentally under the LTTE spell.

The only expression of outrage from anyone of consequence has come from Sri Lanka’s outgoing Chief Justice, Sarath Silva, who publicly spoke against the internment of the displaced Tamils under subhuman conditions, in denial of their rights and without the protection of the law. Predictably, the government is treating his concerns as those of a man no more of any consequence. An otherwise intelligent government Minister, Mahinda Samarasinghe, has not only contradicted the retired Chief Justice but also blamed UNICEF for not providing adequate toilet facilities in the internment camps!

On 10 June a petition was filed before the Supreme Court on behalf of an extended family of grandparents, parents and children, old and injured young, and separately held in two detention camps, unlawfully and in violation of their rights, asking the Court to direct the state functionaries to allow the petitioners to leave the camps and return to their homes. A two-member Bench of the Court has directed the petition to be supported on 17 June.

The government minister who contradicted the former Chief Justice might now express vindication, but he should know that it is only a hollow vindication for it says something of the state of the country when its ‘citizens’ have to go to Court to be allowed to live in their homes. And the decision of the Supreme Court in this case would go a long way in demonstrating whether Sri Lanka is hopelessly under a rampant Defense Executive, or there are constitutional checks and balances still left in the country.

The petitioners in this case have poignantly pointed out that they are not homeless people but have three homes of their own and that they also have relatives in Jaffna and Colombo who would welcome them if they choose to move out of the Vanni. This is the situation with a majority of the displaced persons in detention camps. They are not looking for charitable handouts from Colombo’s chattering classes, but freedom to reunite with their families and return to their homes. The bleeding hearts collecting food and clothing in Colombo for the poor Tamils liberated from the LTTE are missing the point. They must, like Chief Justice Sarath Silva, express moral outrage. Anything less is moral copout.

The script according to N.Q. Dias

The government’s arguments for keeping the displaced Tamils in camps are sinister in intent and pathetic in their rationale. That they cannot be sent home before clearing the landmines is insult to injury for they have been living for decades in the midst of LTTE landmines and adjacent to military high-security-zones. The announcement that they would be allowed to vote in the meaningless municipal elections while remaining in the camps is an even bigger insult. Worse, allowing them to vote is not so much some innocently misplaced enthusiasm for Tamil democracy and franchise but a crude scheme for stuffing ballot boxes in the camps to boost the majority of the already anointed election winners.

A majority of the displaced people could not care less about voting but desperately want to return to their battered homes and start rebuilding. Their rebuilding could be supplemented by public infrastructure works. That is the only moral and efficient way to rebuilding the former war zone. That would also reduce the burden of ministering those who cannot look after themselves – especially those who are old and those who are injured, and there are plenty of agencies who are willing to look after them, including their own families in Sri Lanka and in the diaspora. If only the government would let them.

But according to UN staffers familiar with the situation, the government appears to be creating new towns out of the established camps, starting with the huge Manik farm in Vavuniya. Forest areas are reportedly being cleared, which in itself is environmentally criminal, and new infrastructure is being built, which is money spent unwisely, presumably to establish permanent colonies where the displaced people could live in new homes under perpetual surveillance. After obliterating the LTTE with a 200,000 strong army, the military leaders have announced the expansion of the army by another 100,000 new enlistments. The expanded army will ensure that the displaced Tamils are kept in their place. The script is according to N.Q. Dias.

The signs on the political front are no less depressing. The President’s three public speeches after the war have offered little hope for positive constitutional changes to devolve power to the northern and eastern provinces of the country where Tamils have historically formed the majority population. The hardliners in the government are arguing that these provinces no longer need special treatment because more Tamils are now living outside these provinces – in the south of Sri Lanka and in the diaspora, even though many of them left their natal homes because of the fighting and they have not forfeited their right to return to their roots.

The Sri Lankan President has added credence to this view by declaring that there are no minorities in Sri Lanka and that all Sri Lankans are citizens with equal rights to live anywhere they want. The only distinction would be, he has ominously stated, between those who love their motherland and those who don’t. The latter disqualification targets the Sinhalese critics of the government more than it targets the remaining Tamil dissidents. Particularly vulnerable are journalists, media agencies and human rights NGOs. The threats against them appear to have increased dramatically after the war. The threats and their execution are not necessarily the work of the security forces or state operators but are carried out by the government’s political supporters who require no specific instructions but are encouraged by the prevailing culture of impunity.

Compounding this culture is the government’s decision to keep in force the Emergency Regulations and the Prevention of Terrorism Act even though the principal reason for their usage, the LTTE, is no longer there. The notorious regulations and the law have been and will be used against all Sri Lankans who politically disagree with the government, not just the Tamils.