Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Post-Conflict Plight of Displaced Sri Lankan Tamils

Ashwathy Vijayan

Ever since the armed conflict ended in 2009, the condition of Tamil minorities in Sri Lanka has changed dramatically. It has been a journey from worse to worst. The ‘victory’ claimed by the Sri Lankan government over Tamil Tigers has broadened the role of the Sri Lankan military. This has resulted in a major shift in the country’s governance, to a stance that ostensibly favors the military. The exact impact and aftermath of the war can be seen in the larger picture emerging that shows rising human rights abuses against the civilian population, extrajudicial killings, disappearances, rape, sexual harassment and many other violations. On top of all these stands the issue of displacement, predominantly of the Tamils.

Displacement and forced migration in Sri Lanka traces its association back to two decades of civil war and ethnic conflicts. The worsening relations between Sri Lanka's two main ethnic groups, the Sinhalese and Tamils, had led to some migration in the beginning of the1950s. Later, the onset of civil war in 1983 saw a massive increase in displacement, especially amongst Sri Lanka's Tamils. Since then, conflict-induced displacement has continuously displaced people internally within Sri Lanka, across borders to neighboring India, and further to other parts of the world. Since a large part of the conflict has taken place in the North-East regions of Sri Lanka, it is not surprising that almost all of those who have been displaced belong to this particular region.

According to a study on Sri Lanka by DhananjayanSriskandarajah,‘Though it is impossible to estimate the exact impact of the war,extensive fighting, including conventional combat involving large battalions and heavy munitions, has destroyed much of the North-East region's physical infrastructure.’He observes that the key economic infrastructure such as irrigation systems have also been destroyed or neglected, and critical markets for goods and services have been absent or severely disrupted. Low levels of investment both public and private, in war-affected areas, severe disruption to education, and considerable damage to ecosystems came as a result of this state. Thus the destruction caused by these conflicts also meant that those fleeing from war were often fleeing from severe disruption of their livelihoods.

As many fled their erstwhile homes, those who remained were left with reduced economic and social opportunities. Often there was not enough critical mass to keep local economies alive, forcing even more people to leave. Besides, the economic breakdown in the north-east left many with only two options i.e. either to fight or flight. There was also supporting evidence that suggested that those fleeing from shelling and search operations of the state armed forces were roughly equal to those fleeing shortage of food and other essential items. Thus the causes of displacement in Sri Lanka continue to be all encompassing and increasingly more challenging.Innocent victims of forced migration are finding it hard to meet the ends. For years many villages in the north eastern regions are seen largely empty. Some families who go back are welcomed by eviction notices on their doors.

Among those who try to return, there have been complications in recognising returnees’ land deeds. While some don’t have land deeds but have voter registrations, others have deeds but already someone else have occupied their lands.Another issue that has arisen is with regard to the military occupation of lands. This is despite the fact that recently a note was sent by military spokesperson to journalists stating that any land that is not required to safeguard national security interests will not be held by the military.Resettlement in that zone, by thosedisplaced during the armed conflict and throughGovernment-sponsored relocation of Sinhalese workersand households has raised tensions between various communities.

Tensions have also arisen as a result of disputes over land and resources and also due to differingsocial and cultural normsthat were ignored during resettlement. An increasing prevalence ofsexual exploitation and relationships coerced or otherwise,has put women on the frontline as victims of these conflicts.Observing the present situation it would not be wrong to say the state and military policies are actively contributing to insecurity and the marginalization of women particularly. The issue of resettlement is also bringing with it the concern of shortfall in resources. Today what we can hear are the whispers of the homeless not only for their home but also for truth, justice and accountability for themselves.

The recent debates on Sri Lankan asylum seekers in Australia has led to the questioning of why Sri Lankan refugees continue to make their dangerous journey to Australia when the conflict has at last come to an end.It is only ironical that even after the end of this twenty-six year old conflict that caused so many people to leave their homes, people are still leaving their homes. The answer to this can be found in the uncertainty on the peaceful coexistence of all parties which came along the promise of a new era with the end of violence. Families and communities were divided and there still remains this legacy of suspicion trauma and resentment. Though we can see impressive outcomes with respect to the economic growth, rebuilding of roads, houses and public buildings and standards of health and education when it comes to rebuilding the shattered infrastructure of north, the efforts have proven to be unsuccessful. The end of the historic civil war has left Sri Lankan government as winner perhaps on the battlefield, but one that was acquired at the cost of losing peace forever.


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