It was a relief to hear that the government was at last responding to mounting domestic and international criticism, and had begun releasing the Wanni IDPs.
Perhaps the shocking report in the Sunday Times on September 6 about human trafficking at the internment camps was partly responsible.
|National securiyt threat? An internally displaced woman inside the Vavuniya camp (File photo)
An exemplary piece of investigative journalism, it revealed that up to 20,000 IDPs have been ransomed by desperate relatives. This exposes so-called 'screening' as a cover for a lucrative flesh trade, carried out with the alleged collusion of the authorities.
One would have to be naïve indeed to believe that those who have been ransomed are 'innocent' while those who remain are more likely to be LTTE cadres. On the contrary, anyone in the camps who had any value for the LTTE diaspora would certainly have escaped by now. Conversely, we can be sure that the unfortunate souls in these camps are of no interest to whatever remains of the LTTE.
The UN too seems to have woken up to the fact that by funding these camps it is colluding in a crime against humanity - the denial of liberty and other fundamental human rights to a civilian population - and has made it clear that it cannot continue doing so much longer. UN Under Secretary General for Political Affairs Lynn Pascoe reiterated the demand that the Wanni IDPs should be granted freedom of movement during his recent visit.
The whole issue of 'screening', which has dragged on for more than four months, should be stopped. The best proof that the LTTE is no longer a threat in Sri Lanka is the release of top LTTE cadres Daya Master and George Master, who were with Prabakaran almost to the very end. Would the authorities have released them on bail if there were any danger from the LTTE? Hardly. If they can be released, why are lakhs of innocent civilians being detained? Did the President avoid the UN General Assembly because he was unable to answer these questions?
Release should not be confused with resettlement. IDPs who wish to go and live outside the camps should be free to do so. Those who wish to remain in the camps until their original habitats are de-mined and reconstructed should be allowed to remain, but should be free to move in and out of the camps instead of being imprisoned in them as they are now. The visit of the UN Secretary-General's envoy for refugee rights Walter Kalin provides an ideal opportunity to announce the release of all the Wanni IDPs and end this chapter in our history.
Speedy resettlement of all IDPs should also be carried out. This should include not only IDPs who fled the recent fighting but also those who were displaced earlier, including Muslims displaced in 1990.
This is the only way to reverse the ethnic cleansing and rebuild integrated communities.
An unnecessary obstacle to resettlement is created by the government's designation of some of the areas from which people were displaced as 'High Security Zones' (HSZs). Earlier attempts to dismantle these were stalled by the argument that they were necessary so long as the LTTE had not been disarmed. Now that the LTTE has been disarmed, the only way their persistence can be explained is as a form of ethnic discrimination, since in practically every case, the people displaced by them are Tamils and Muslims.
The process of resettlement is incomplete until people displaced by HSZs have also been granted the right of return. But, some people argue, the LTTE is still a threat, and therefore we need to retain the HSZs, along with the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and Emergency provisions. Is this true?
Is the war over?
Back in May, President Rajapaksa gave a speech in which he claimed that 'our motherland has been completely freed from the clutches of separatist terrorism'. He spoke of 'the proud victory we have achieved today by defeating the world's most ruthless terrorist organization' and 'the breakdown of their armed strength'. There was no ambiguity about his words: he told us that the war was over, the LTTE defeated, its armed strength broken down.
On this understanding, there were widespread celebrations, and the President gained enormous popularity. There is no reason to suppose that the President was not sincere. Yet last month a senior government official was reported as saying that the LTTE was still capable of reorganising in Sri Lanka, and this month IGP Jayantha Wickramaratne reiterated that the threat of the Tamil Tigers was still alive in Sri Lanka.
On the face of it, these people are implying that the President was not telling the truth when he said that Sri Lanka had been completely freed from separatist terrorism. So why does the President tolerate such insults from his underlings?
The reason seems to be that the government is caught in the same trap of war-dependence which was the downfall of the LTTE. A war justifies repressive measures that would never be acceptable in peacetime, and the LTTE would have been unable to function without these. That is why it broke one ceasefire after another, let slip one opportunity after another to negotiate a just peace. But this had a disastrous effect on its support base. Karuna's defection was only the visible tip of a vast iceberg of discontent, as those who had believed the LTTE would deliver them from fear, humiliation and violence realised that it offered them only more of the same. Their disillusionment and consequent withdrawal of support helped the state to defeat the LTTE.
Now the Rakapaksa regime faces the same dilemma: if the war is over, how can it justify measures that give absolute and unaccountable power to the state? So it has to invent an 'LTTE threat' in order to continue with policies that would be unacceptable in peacetime.
But the people of Sri Lanka are not fools. They will realise that this 'threat' is simply being concocted to justify disastrous economic and political choices.
We now have a government that depends on foreign funding: the Ministry of Finance and Planning reported in August 2008 that the foreign debt stood at 1.39 trillion rupees. The IMF loan has eased the immediate problem, but at the cost of getting us deeper in debt. If the EU GSP+ facility is lost, the economy will plunge even deeper in the red. In this context, detaining lakhs of civilians and expanding the armed forces constitute unnecessary and ruinous expenditures.
The way forward
The social and political costs are equally huge. Horrific reports of police brutality result from rampant impunity for crimes committed by politicians in power and the police. This impunity, in turn, is fostered by the subservience of the rule of law to the PTA and Emergency Regulations.
The only way to reverse the degradation of our economy and polity is to acknowledge that the war is over and take the appropriate measures: release all the Wanni IDPs immediately, slash military spending, dismantle the paramilitaries, redeploy demobilised soldiers to civilian reconstruction tasks, replace military and ex-military administrators with civilian ones, dismantle the HSZs, resettle all displaced civilians including those displaced by HSZs, repeal the PTA and emergency regulations, restore democratic rights, and release J.S. Tissainayagam and others incarcerated for exercising the right to freedom of expression.
The best way to ensure that Sri Lanka retains its EU GSP+ facility is to do the right thing, failing which, the government must take full responsibility for the lost jobs and revenue.
* The writer is an independent scholar and writer