Thursday, August 20, 2009

Rehabilitation of Sri Lankan Tamils

Priyanca Mathur Velath

Rehabilitation, more often than not, from a human rights issue, largely converts into a political one. The rehabilitation of the internally displaced Sri Lankan Tamils after the end of the recent military offensive against the Liberation of Tamil Tigers Eelam(LTTE) in the South Asian island nation of Sri Lanka has become one such bandwagon that every political/non-political actor wants to jump onto. The Lankan northern districts of Vavuniya, Mannar, Trincomalee and Jaffna are currently where nearly 35 government camps are situated for more than 300,000 civilians, who were fleeing the fighting between the government forces and the defeated LTTE since the past twenty years. The Sri Lankan President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, pledged on July 10, 2009 that 60 per cent of these IDPs would be resettled by November 2009.

On July 26, 2009, the PMK reportedly appealed to the United Nations to take steps for the proper rehabilitation of the internally displaced Sri Lankan Tamils in the island nation with the PMK President, G K Mani alleging that there were inadequate food, shelter and medical facilities for the displaced Tamils who had been lodged in camps. (The Hindu, 26.07.09)

Just a few days before that the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) voiced its opinion on this issue when its senior leader M Venkiah Naidu, urged the Sri Lankan government to accord equal rights to both the Tamils and the Sinhalese and to take immediate steps to ensure that the internally displaced Tamils were resettled in their original place of habitation, lamenting that there were reports of people suffering from lack of basic amenities in the camps they were living in.

What was most notable was the fact this was also the only foreign project that found outlay in the Union budget of India this year. The Indian Finance Minister, Pranab Mukherjee announced that the Indian Government would give 500 crore for the rehabilitation of the IDPs (Tamils) and for the reconstruction of the northern and eastern areas of the region as “the government was committed to ensuring that the Tamils enjoy their rights and legitimate aspirations within the territorial sovereignty and framework of Sri Lanka’s constitution.” (The Hindu, 07.07.09) Obviously this move was much appreciated by the Dravida Munnetra Kazagham (DMK) party in the south-Indian state of Tamil Nadu as it appeased the Congress’ largest southern ally, with Chief Minister, M. Karunanidhi, lauding the Union budget as one that had “placed priority on social justice and thus will be beneficial to all sections of the society.” Though this move was largely welcomed, some opposition MPs from Tamil Nadu were insistent that there should be accountability for the fact that the money was being rightly spent in only rehabilitating the affected Tamils and others wanted to ensure that the money was not misused by the Rajapaksa government to acquire arms and ammunition for enhancing the nation’s military capability.

As it did in Afghanistan, India has decided to play a significant role in nation-building in Sri Lanka to put the country back on its feet after nearly three decades of civil war, and India’s foreign secretary, Shiv Shankar Menon was quick to point out that India had a clear plan for the rehabilitation of the IDPs which had total support of the Sri Lankan leadership. (The Times of India, This is exactly what the
UN has also officially stated that clear and detailed plans and timelines for people to return are crucial to sustain the donor assistance in resettling the 300,000 IDPs in Sri Lanka currently. Rajapaksa has outlined that, “we have a 180-day 180 days we want to settle most of these people..its not a promise, it’s a target.” But as Neil Buhne, the UN country head warned, while speaking to IRIN in Colombo, its not going to be easy to sustain the financing for the relief measures over such a long period of time for so many displaced people. He rightly pointed out, “the first stage in reconciliation is how IDPs are treated. I think the government recognises that, we recognise that, but it is a huge challenge.” (

There are also other equally critical challenges that confront the R&R process of the IDPs in Sri Lanka. The UNHCR reported that on June 9 nearly 2,000 IDPs displaced from the Musalai village in the southwestern Mannar district were ready to return but before that their villages needed to be de-mined and this de-mining was unlikely to happen due to insufficient funding available to mine action organisations. As the World Food Programme (WFP) head in Sri Lanka, Adnan Khan told IRIN, “even after their resettlement, IDPs will continue to require some sort of food assistance as they lack resources and will not be able to resume normal agricultural and income-generating activities like fishing and farming for several months after their return.” ( Countries like the U.S. and Japan have contributed majorly to the financial aid supporting this process. While the U.S. announced USD 8 million for assisting the Tamil displaced persons in the north, Eric Schwartz, Assistant Secretary, Bureau for Population, Refugees and Migration of the US State Department was quick to point out that prompt return is the key objective that needs to be kept in mind throughout this process. (The Hindustan Times, 28.07.09)

It’s also important to bear in mind that the process of return occurs in conditions of safety and dignity. There may be many who may not wish to go as their original homes may now be totally destroyed. For the second generations, who have known no life outside these camps, the change may seem overwhelming. Thus the process is in now way going to be a simple one for one of the largest conflict-induced IDP populations in the subcontinent.

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