Monday, August 30, 2010

Ethnic Conflict: Heal the Victims of Conflict in Sri Lanka

Anuradha Gunarathne

Sri Lanka suffered from an ongoing conflict between the Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam for more than 30 years. It resulted in economic, social, cultural and political devastations. After two decades of fighting and three failed attempts of peace talks, on 19th May 2009, the Government declared victory and the protracted conflict ended.

Continuous displacement took place in the North and the East making at least 1 million displaced throughout the conflict history. It is to be noted that some of them are still living in camps or with friends and relatives waiting to be settled. It is progressing with settling the IDPs and bringing them back to normalcy and having provided them a life with dignity through resettlement, rehabilitation or reconstruction. According to reported incidents and reports of protection monitoring teams has proved that even after been settled in a permanent residence and even after fulfilled of their basic rights, the grievances of these displaced community is remaining.

In order to bring back to their normal life, the grievances that are swept under the carpet have to be addressed. Unless the grievances are handled properly, a durable solution for the displacement cannot be provided. Hence, it is strongly felt that “reconciliation” should be a compulsory component in the check list of durable solution for the displaced community.

Internally Displaced Persons in Sri Lanka: Catering for their Special Needs for Protection and Assistance

Ms. Wasantha Senavirathne
[Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Law, University of Colombo, Sri Lanka]

1. Introduction

Forced displacement of people is a human tragedy at the international, regional and domestic levels. When people are forced to flee from their homes many of them choose to remain within their own community and familiar surroundings, rather than crossing national borders to seek refuge in a foreign country. Persons who remain displaced within the boundaries of their State of origin are called internally displaced persons (IDPs). They prefer to remain in their home territory for numerous reasons. They are reluctant to abandon their familiar surroundings, and it is easier to return and resettle when conditions permit them to do so. Living in a foreign country is a relatively new experience, to which many of them have an aversion. They may also lack the means 1. Nevertheless, internal displacement may entail conditions of severe hardship and suffering; it may break up families, cut social and cultural ties, terminate stable employment relationships and disrupt educational opportunities. It also limits access to the basic necessities of life, and exposes the displaced to acts of violence such as armed attack, rape and killings 2. Especially in the context of armed conflict, IDPs are more vulnerable because they generally end up in camps or other places under the control of one of the parties to the conflict, and as a result become easy victims of the atrocities of war.

Originally, the problem of internal displacement was considered an entirely internal matter for sovereign States to handle, as the displaced persons were their citizens and continued to live within the national borders. However, because of its massive impact on international peace, security and stability the phenomenon of internal displacement has also become an issue of serious international concern. Unfortunately, the response of the international community and responsible sovereign authorities has on many occasions been inadequate. Francis Deng states, “While refugees have an established system of international protection and assistance, those who are displaced internally fall under the domestic jurisdiction and responsibility of the state, without there being specific legal or institutional bases for their protection and assistance. For the same reason, internal displacement poses a challenge to the international community to develop norms, institutions, and mechanisms for preventing it, addressing its consequences, and finding durable solutions, with the responsibility of sovereignty as the starting point 3.” IDPs are not included in and protected by the well-established refugee regime 4; they are only covered by general principles of international law and ad hoc measures. Therefore their need for protection and assistance at all stages of internal displacement, at both international and domestic levels, is absolutely essential.

2. Tragedy of Internal Displacement in Sri Lanka

During the last three decades, Sri Lanka saw a multiple waves of population displacements, due to the recently ended thirty years internal armed conflict broke out between the Government armed forces of the country and the resistant movement named Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE); and the massive natural disaster, tsunami, occurred on the 26th of December 2004. Between October 2008 and June 2009, in Sri Lanka, more than 280,000 people fled to government-controlled territory, and as of October 2009, the vast majority of these IDPs remained in camps in the districts of Vavuniya, Mannar, Jaffna and Trincomalee. Camps, set up as temporary shelters for these IDPs in a short period of time are complained to be lack of amenities with severe overcrowding. The worst situation has been at Menik Farm camp which in June 2009 was holding 220,000 IDPs 5. There are also thousands of IDPs in Jaffna in the north and Trincomalee in the east who have been displaced since before 2008. Over 60,000 Muslim IDPs displaced by the LTTE from the North and North-West have been living in the town of Puttalam since 1990. However, now the situation is much better and the resettling these IDPs are processing. There are numerous practical problems still hindering the smooth resettlement of these vulnerable populations.

Throughout the conflict no Ministry has had overall responsibility for the welfare of IDPs and there are no comprehensive policies or guidelines on displacement. In 2004, the Government adopted a National Framework for Relief, Rehabilitation and Reconciliation (Triple R) to provide a common strategy for needs assessment, planning and delivery of assistance. The Triple R Framework adopted the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement of 1998 as official policy for assisting IDPs affected by the conflict and required Ministries to bring their policies and programmes into alignment with these principles 6. Though, the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights is the nominated focal point in relation to the protection and assistance of IDPs in Sri Lanka, the overlapping mandates and responsibilities of Ministries and agencies have led to delays, poor coordination and duplication of activities. Legislators were drafting a national IDP law at the end of 2008, but it has not yet submitted to the parliament for adoption. The IDP Protection Unit of the National Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka is taking steps to promote IDPs’ rights, for example on forced returns. Over the past years, UN agencies also have taken the lead in providing protection and assistance to these vulnerable people but their activities are limited due restriction imposed by the Government limiting their access to IDPs and returnees in various parts of the country 7.

Due to the recently held Sri Lankan presidential elections on 26th January 2010, large numbers of IDPs from the north and the east are being returned to their districts of origin, where they face severe difficulties rebuilding their livelihoods. People’s original homes are still severely damaged, and many return areas have not yet been demined according to UN security standards, putting returnees at risk. As a result, many people have not been able to return to their precise places of origin and so remain displaced, staying with host families or in transition camps 8. Accordingly, finding durable solutions for Sri Lankan IDPs remains a daunting challenge for national authorities.

As observed above, the problem of internal displacement is still threatening to the peace, stability and sustainable development of the country in different forms. However, Sri Lankan government is working hard to achieve long lasting solutions for IDPs by resettling them in the most effective way. Further steps yet to be taken to reintegrate them into the society and to protect and promote their basic human rights needed to live a dignified life.


1.Francis M. Deng, The Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons, ‘Compilation and Analysis of Legal Norms’, E/CN.4/1996/52/Add.2, 5 December 1995, para.9.
3.See Francis M. Deng, ‘Flocks without shepherds: The International Dilemma of Internal Displacement’ in Wendi Davis (eds), Rights have no Borders: Internal Displacement Worldwide, (Norwegian Refugee Council / Global IDP Survey, 1998), .
4.1951 UN Convention relating to Refugees and its Protocol of 1967 provide the legal framework for the protection of refugees, while the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has the direct mandate to look after their needs for protection and assistance.
5.See Sri Lanka: Continuing humanitarian concerns and obstacles to durable solutions for recent and longer-term IDPs,, accessed on 18.02.2010.
6.Paula Banerjee, Putting IDPs on the map: achievements and challenges, Forced migration review, Special Volume,p.18 December 2006, p.
7.See Internal displacement in South and South-East Asia, p.55.
8.See Sri Lanka: Continuing humanitarian concerns and obstacles to durable solutions for recent and longer-term IDPs,, accessed on 18.02.2010

“Pura Handa Kaluwara” (Death on a Full Moon Day) a film by Prasanna Vithanage

Anuradha Gunarathne 1

Sri Lanka is a country which has the experience with the three decades conflict between the Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam. The civilians both in the North and the South were suffered due to this protracted conflict. Thousands of civilians died. Fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, children, wives and relatives were suffered due to the lives of their sons, husbands, fathers and relations. No one was there to talk to the hearts of the suffered. Some of them were psychologically affected.

In 1997 the famous film producer Mr. Prasanna Vithanage produced a film named “Pura Hada Kaluwara” (Death on the full Moon Day). It explores collective life of the island the ethnic conflict that has engulfed Sri Lanka during conflict. The movie does not portray the conflict directly. Instead, it focuses on the trauma brought about in the lives of a few chosen people by the ethnic conflict.

The film tells the story of Vannihamy, an elderly blind farmer from one of the Sinhala villages in the northern dry zone of Sri Lanka. He has two daughters and a son. The elder daughter, Sumana has married and moved away from home. Sunanda, the younger daughter, lives with Vannihamy in expectation of her marriage. Vannihamy's only son Bandara has joined the army. Bandara, resolved to join the army with the aim of earning enough money to build a small house and take care of his sister's forthcoming wedding.

In the opening sequences it shows land purchased by a long drought, and the villagers, including Vannihamy, undergoing great hardship due to the scarcity of water. Vannihamy, even though he is blind, is an experienced farmer and predicts that rain can be expected within few days.

A few days later, on the Buddhist full moon poya day, the body of his soldier son's is returned by the Army in a sealed coffin. He refuses to recognize the fact that the sealed coffin bearing the body of his son was brought back and buried. The officers of the army had intimated to him the fact that his son was killed in battle. However, he stubbornly believes that his son will return alive. The contrast between the father's unshakable faith in the return of the son from the battlefield and the brutal realities of life fuels the narrative.

Sunanda, the younger daughter, silently accepts her father's decision and finds a job in a garment factory. But her boyfriend Somay, her elder, married sister and the local Government officer pressure Vannihami to sign the papers which will entitle the family to the Government's compensation payment for his son's death in action. They thought that, that is the only way to earn for decent living. The customary alms giving period of three months, after bandara's death is fast approaching and money has to be found to pay for the food. The local Buddhist monk wants to construct a memorial in the name of the valiant son of the soil who gave his life for his country.

Faced with this pressure from villagers and relatives blinded by desperate poverty, day to day hardships and empty glories of being nothing more than canon fodder, Vannihami retains the clarity of vision, which gives him the wisdom that reaches far beyond what the eye can see.

He pick up the mammoty (hoe) to dig up and open his son's sealed coffin by doing this he knows he will invalidate the compensation claim, but his greater purpose is to believe that the war cannot kill his son. This is the most emotionally powerful moment in the film. A young woman who comes to the village tank to fetch water sees Vannihamy and informs the villagers. They rush to the scene and take on the job of unearthing the coffin themselves clearly with the intent of laying to rest the doubts assailing Vannihamy. They retrieve the coffin, break the seal and open it. Vannihamy, who is alert to everything going on, eagerly fingers the contents. All that is in the coffin are some pieces of wood and a large stone nothing that could prove the death of Vannihamy's son. As he leaves the graveyard Vannihamy is neither a defeated man nor spiritually broken. It is clear that he still believes his son is alive.

The old man's refusal to believe in his son's death becomes completely plausible only when it is viewed as the result of an unconscious protective mechanism operating against the unbearable reality of his son's death.

In the final sequences of the film Vannihamy as confident man as he was at the beginning comes to the village tank to fetch water, and listens eagerly to a ripple of laughter coming from the children bathing in the river. A scarcely perceptible smile comes to his lips perhaps he remembers how his son used to play in the river.

In this film face of Vannihamy represents the soul of a nation suffering 30 years of civil strife as the state and Tamil fighters continue their war of attrition. It's an observational realist movie which uses a spare medium concerning the grievances of the poor due to the civil conflict.

1.The author works as a National Coordinator of the National Projection and Durable Solutions for Internally Displaced Unit of National Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka and independent consultant for several human rights events.

Resettlement of IDPs and Challenging Road to Peace and Economic Recovery, 14 April, 2010, by Dr. Palitha T. B. Kohona , (Asian Tribune. com).

Comment by : Sucharita Sengupta

There are so many disasters that result into catastrophes in our lives, and displacement in itself is one such instance. Sri Lanka has remained a hapless witness and victim of a number of displacements till now, stemming out of a varied number of reasons. In the editorial column of the Asian Tribune, dated April 14 2010, Dr. Palitha T.B Kohona, ambassador and representative to the United Nations, traces briefly how despite several displacements, the state of Sri Lanka has recovered its economy and overcome other grave challenges with a fair amount of success. The article is an appraisal of the efforts by the government in rendering aid to the internally displaced and provide basic amenities to the camps where the evicted took shelter.

Starting from December 2004, when Tsunami has wiped away more than a million lives and displaced so many more, to 2007, when almost 187,000 people were displaced from the Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka in process of combating the LTTE, the country has faced tremendous devastation. The victims post 2007, were accommodated to camps with food, water and health care. The UNHCR, ICRC and WFP along with some other international organizations have played active roles in providing aid, specifically, in terms of resettlement of the internally displacement persons (IDPs). The government has been able to provide the people with food, shelter and also medical assistance in the camps. Even after Tsunami, most of the victims have been able to either return or reconstruct their houses. The article mentions that in some areas reconstruction has exceeded 110%.

The author claims that this post displacement situation is in exact contrast to the western countries. The way Sri Lanka has been able to ride over the traumas caused after the Tsunami had lashed out, has not been exemplified there. Similarly, people who were evicted from the Eastern Province after the bitter battle that ensued between the government and the LTTE, most of the victims have returned back to their respective homes. The abandoned villages have been reconstructed, roads have been repaired and the economic progress has also been remarkably well. Those displaced from Vanni have also started coming back.

The challenges ahead for Sri Lanka would be to ensure peace and security for its citizens. Since the defeat of the LTTE in May, 2009, the government has promised a speedy recovery of the losses which have accounted from a conflict spanning over twenty seven years. The return of all the displaced persons to their homes and restoration of the economy are the major priority of the government. Right to return of the people to a normal life again has also been mandatory for the government since providing relief to the displaced in the camps is costing the government millions. The author expresses his hope of a ‘nation building’ and further development of Sri Lanka, now that the LTTE has been uprooted. It has to be well equipped in order to combat tragedies like Tsunami so that the plight of displacement can be avoided. It would pursue its policy of non- alignment and remain committed to dealing with global concerns like terrorism.


Local Initiatives in Bridging & Strengthening Relationship among IDPS and the Host in the District of Puttalam, Sri Lanka

Fathima Azmiya Badurdeen 1

This article highlights the conflict transformation and peace building initiatives in the District of Puttalam, where local initiatives have facilitated the building up of relationships among existing communities as well as facilitating the process of integration of the Northern Muslim IDPs in Puttalam. Even though the District of Puttalam remained somewhat away from the main macro conflict area, the issues of forced migration of IDPs from the North in 1990 as a result of the conflict, and the Muslim political issues in this context were constantly highlighted in the Sri Lankan conflict related literature. Existence of this long term IDPs have resulted in a complex situation between the IDPs and the host community. Competition for limited resources as well as political differences has brought about tensions in the IDPs and host relationships2.Integration as a durable solution has posed varied issues resulting in conflicts, especially between the IDPs and the host community3. The area has been prone for conflicts. The article grounds on the art of peacebuilding as propounded by Lederach. This includes conflict transformation and peacebuilding initiatives that had an impact at all levels of the society through individual or group initiatives that have been a part of the process of transforming conflicts into positive relationships. These initiatives may be small, but have had an immense impact on the longer run. Most of the initiatives are initiatives that took root within the communities, nurtured by the community and remained a part of the community as Lederach emphasized as ‘moral imaginations’- based on imagining new possibilities, creativeness and being developed within particular contexts.

Local initiatives have been in existence throughout the District of Puttalam and have played a key role in addressing conflicts/tensions within their respective communities. Some of these initiatives have been facilitated by NGOs and INGOs in trying to respond to conflict/tension situations thereby easing out such situations which could otherwise have escalated into higher levels. NGOs and INGOs led initiatives have been implemented through the creation of peace committees, forums for discussions and multi-ethnic development projects for peacebuilding within communities.

Local Interventions in Facilitating Relationship Building among Communities

Conflicts in the district of Puttalam were understood in the context of; i) conflicts between the locals and the IDPs. ii) conflict between different ethnic/religious groups within the local communities. iii) intra-family conflicts, and iv) intra-group conflicts.

Conflicts were bridged through local informal dispute resolution mechanisms. The motivation to seek redress for their issues or conflicts depended on the informal dispute resolution mechanisms available. The factors that determine which mechanisms aggrieved parties approach for redress depended on the type of disputes, mandate and strength of the peace committees or village committees, ethnicity and religion of disputants, access to law enforcement and judicial authorities and the impact of the conflict on the local socio-political environment4.

Religion and the ethnicity are factors that determine to a larger extent on the mechanisms used to resolve conflicts. In Kalpitiya, the Grand Mosque played a key role in resolving disputes. Kalpitiya had the most of the IDP influxes since 1990. As most of the community members belonged to the Muslim community, the Mosque played a vital role.

Development initiatives formed to uplift the community have been an integral part in the development of the Puttalam District. These initiatives that are conflict sensitive, which take into account the multi-ethnic and multi-religious composition of the communities and gender, have been more successful in bridging communities.

Local initiatives were also dependent on local leaders. The local leaders played a dominant role in an individual capacity or as members of community base committees5. Usually these leaders were prominent, educated, wealthy, or are religious members. They are usually elected by the committees on the acceptance of their status in the communities that they served in.

In many instances political influences have impeded the work of local initiatives. These influences have prolonged the conflict resolution process. When local initiatives have been unsuccessful, resolving conflicts have gone beyond the local level mechanisms and turned to the state justice systems.

Issues such as the mandate, impact and sustainability remain key issues in donor driven village or peace committees. This does not mean that donor driven initiatives are unsuccessful. Many of such initiatives have been successful, where initiatives were emerging within the communities that they serve in. In some cases such issues posed challenges in the community. Donor driven initiatives with a specific mandate limits the activities of the initiatives. It may limit to the process while not focussing to the impact into the society. There is also the lack of sustainability. With the project ending, the committees formed too can end. Hence this requires a proper assessment of the local needs, available local resources such as knowledge and skills, coupled with realistic peacebuilding expectations. Hence there is a need to strengthen local development initiatives that are already in existence and proven (Mosque committees/village committees), which can have a greater impact in bridging communities). These initiatives are not only cost effective but also long lasting and sustainable.


1.The article is based on the paper, ‘In the pursuit of peace in Sri Lanka - through conflict transformation and peace building initiatives: A study on the role of local initiatives in bridging and strengthening relationships among different communities in the District of Puttalam’. The paper was prepared to be presented at the conference, ‘Enmity and Amity in South Asia’, The Centre for South Asian Studies, University of Cambridge (23rd-24th June, 2010). The author works as an Independent Consultant for Conflict Transformation and Peacebuilding Projects in Sri Lanka.
2.An insightful analysis on the Northern Muslim IDPs in the District of Puttalam is elaborated by Hasbulla (2001), Thiranagama (2007) and Brun (2008).
3.For an analysis on the provisions of durable solutions to end displacement, see: Badurdeen (2010), ‘Ending internal displacement: the long term displaced persons in Sri Lanka’, Paper presented at Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford for an analysis on the provisions of durable solutions to end displacement.
4.See the study on Informal Dispute Resolution in North East and Puttalam for a more elaborated study on mechanisms used for redress by community members.
5.Cejka And Bamat (2003), ‘Artisans of Peace: Grassroot Peacemaking among Christian Communities’, Orbis Books, Maryknoll, New York, USA.