Monday, June 08, 2009

A Sudden Rise in Conflict Induced Displacement in South Asia

Geetisha Dasgupta

Of late, a lot has been happening in South Asia. Pakistan and Sri Lanka have shot to overnight prominence, quickly displacing the Indian elections from the slots. After a 26 year civil war, LTTE chief Velupillai Prabhakaran was killed by the Sri Lankan army. And, on the other end of the South Asian territory, in Pakistan’s Swat, thousands of Sikh inhabitants have been displaced in a sweep by the Taliban to capture space in north east Pakistan frontier. Both the areas have head protracted history of conflict and displacements emanating from the latter.

What is most inconspicuous and yet probably most important during such conflicts is the huge number of people who are forced to leave their habitual places of residence and flee to newer areas, destabilizing their entire mode of survival. The problem rolls on and snowballs after the actual war situation recedes; as has been the case of Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan Government has been accused of an ethnic cleansing spree and aid officials, human rights campaigners and politicians claim, Tamils have been out of north-eastern areas by killings and kidnappings carried out by the pro-Government militia. This is not something very strange as the same happens everywhere when one particular regime of control is dissolved and replaced by another per force. In this case, the Government is said to have been encouraging members of the Sinhalese majority in the south of Sri Lanka to relocate to the north, and space is being vacated by not very good means. Reportedly, the number of Tamils disappearing around Trincomalee, 80 kilometers south of the final conflict zone in Mullaitivu, has been increasing over the last three months. One foreign charity worker said that among 15 people known to him who had disappeared, three were found dead later. The bodies exhibited signs of torture and two were found with their hands tied behind their back and single bullet wounds on their foreheads. Killing has been used as a strategy to drive out Tamils and many villagers had to move out after the army declared their land as part of a “high security zone”. There is also the habitual scampering to take over the power vacuum left by the demise of Prabhakaran. Everyone now waits to see how the Government devolves administrative and political authority to the hitherto LTTE occupied authority. There remains a huge population therefore, who are actually unguarded. There have been human rights violations during the war, which have lead to world bodies converging now for justice. But the greatest cost remains the human displacement under threat of ethnic cleansing after the already incurred huge costs of people moving on account of the war itself. Much is being said by the Sri Lankan Government about infrastructural development of the re-occupied areas. This raises eyebrows because Tamils allege that in the name of developmental work, Tamil villagers are being moved out to make way for roads, power plants and irrigation schemes while simultaneously planting Sinhalese workers in these areas with prospects of land and accommodation at zero costs.

Shifting focus to the north eastern region of Pakistan, there have now been human displacements at a compounding rate as a result of war waged by the Talibans to capture Pakistan’s Swat, Dir and Buner and the counter war against the extremists on this point by the Pakistani army with help from the US air attacks. Estimates say that there has already been a good two million people forced to move from their residences. Swat refugees have reported that they fled both because of the Taliban as well as army atrocities. The ground level working groups have been sending out SOS for doctors, nurses, community health workers for the areas housing the displaced temporarily. Many women among the IDPs are likely to give birth and therefore there is an immediate need of gynaecologists and women medical practitioners.

The fact that comes through is huge amount of human movement, with their entire households and added pressure on the national governments for arranging relief measures because outside aid comes after a lot of deliberations on the international fora and resolutions. The original problems are far from being resolved and the humanitarian costs incurred escalate every day. Moreover, in both the areas, control remains in the hands of people who are least bothered about the state and the people in context.

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