Opening IDP gates to mend DPL fences

Visit of Indian Parliamentarians from Tamil Nadu
By Satarupa Bhattacharjya

On Wednesday last, when 10 Indian Parliamentarians from Tamil Nadu reached Chennai airport after spending almost five days in Sri Lanka they found the state’s chief minister M. Karunanidhi eagerly waiting to receive them. To onlookers it would seem the delegation --comprising members of Karunanidhi’s party Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), the Congress and Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK)-– had concluded a meaningful mission in Sri Lanka for the 87-year-old chief minister to himself drive up to the airport.

Later at a press conference at the DMK headquarters in Chennai, the grand old man of South Indian politics told reporters that the 253,000 Tamils who continue to live in Sri Lankan government camps for the war displaced would be sent back to their places of origin in a phased manner.

Displaced persons speaking to Indian Parliamentarians from Tamil Nadu

“That is the assurance the MPs got from Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa,” Karunanidhi said as his 41-year-old daughter Kanimozi, a nominated member of the Indian parliament since 2007, stood by his side smiling. Kanimozi who analysts view as a strong contender in Karunanidhi’s succession plan (in future), occupied front row seats at all meetings the delegation had with representatives of the Sri Lankan Government, members of Opposition parties and Tamil political parties in Colombo last week. Kanimozi and her party colleague T.R. Baalu who headed the delegation, had presented a report of nine pages on their Sri Lanka visit to Karunanidhi. The report is understood to contain impressions of team members about conditions of the war displaced people in the Vavuniya camps where they spent half a day.

Aaron Rashid, the Congress Party’s elected MP from Theni in Tamil Nadu, told the Sunday Times, “The internally displaced persons (IDPs) complained about the acute shortage of water. Pregnant women were particularly distressed with the situation there. Water supply appeared to be a problem. The IDPs also said while they were given rice, dhal, flour and vegetables were not included in meals.” Rashid was one of the delegates to have met the IDPs in Menik Farm. The IDPs, Rashid added, had also spoken of difficulties they faced while entering and exiting the plastic tents which housed them. “Some tents are only a few feet tall, the inmates find it difficult to move in and out of them” he said. According to Rashid fear of the coming north-east monsoon has added to the existing gloom in the displaced population.

“Once the monsoon sets in, the camps are likely to be flooded. The condition of IDPs will worsen then,” he said. The Indian team had requested the Sri Lankan government to allow war-displaced persons to return to their homes before the rains appeared in a few days from now.

“The Sri Lankan government should also provide a financial package for the Tamil refugees. How can they be sent home, empty-handed?” Rashid asked. Congress president Sonia Gandhi will be handed a report on the Vavuniya visit by Rashid and his three party colleagues in the delegation. Representatives of the Rajapaksa administration told the Indian team that 58,000 war displaced persons would be sent back to their homes by month-end.

This commitment, according to diplomatic sources at the Indian High Commission in Colombo, could be interpreted as the “immediate outcome of the visit of the Indian MPs.” Karunanidhi too appeared happy with Colombo on this front as he mentioned during the press conference in Chennai that 58,000 of the displaced would “soon go home.” According to diplomatic sources, this section of the war displaced population would be sent from Menik Farm to Jaffna and parts of Mannar where they said anti-personnel mines had been cleared by the Sri Lankan forces. The sources added around 58,000 war-displaced people had already been screened by the Sri Lankan Government and could be resettled with their relatives in the northern and eastern districts.

Should the promise of resettling 58,000 war-displaced persons within a fortnight be considered Rajapaksa’s gift to Karunanidhi? Apparently not, said a Sri Lankan Tamil parliamentarian. More than 50,000 people could not have been screened overnight. According to the MP, the plan to send 58,000 of the war displaced people from Vavuniya to Jaffna and Mannar had been in the pipeline for a while now. According to this politician who did not wish to be identified, the Sri Lankan government timed its announcement of the resettlement quite aptly; coinciding with the visit of the Indian delegation.

All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) chief and former Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalithaa decried the ruling DMK-Congress-VCK combine’s efforts to exclude opposition parties from the team which toured Sri Lanka last week but the DMK will be tempted to gain political mileage from this event at least in Tamil Nadu. Besides, the DMK is a critical South Indian ally of the Congress in the central United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government.

So, was the Indian team’s visit an act of political symbolism well co-ordinated between Chennai and New Delhi? “Prima facia, the visit of the Indian MPs was well-intentioned. Leaders of the DMK and Congress desired to have some information about the ground situation by themselves. I don’t think they had the authority to articulate what they saw. Nevertheless, the visit is indicative of the continuing concerns of the central government (of India) and the Tamil Nadu government about the Tamil people of Sri Lanka. In that sense, the visit is to be welcomed,”

R Sampanthan, leader of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) in the Sri Lankan Parliament, told the Sunday Times, while Opposition parties in Tamil Nadu were not taken on board the Sri Lanka visit, back in the island, Oppositions MPs are still not allowed access to the camps. “The Sri Lankan government prevents local MPs who represent the IDPs from meeting with them. This is clearly indicative of the fact the Sri Lankan government has a great deal to conceal,” Sampanthan, the TNA MP from Trincomalee said. “The Sri Lankan government does not want the IDPs to meet their democratically elected representatives in the fear that IDPs might convey to their MPs what really happened in the conflict zone or what their position is today,” he added.

Sampanthan and eight other TNA MPs had met the Indian delegation for an hour and a quarter at a dinner reception hosted by outgoing Indian High Commissioner Alok Prasad at his official residence India House. That was where the delegation had also met former LTTE combatant and current eastern province chief minister Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan. The Indian team was scheduled to travel to the east but changes in its itinerary were later introduced due to many reasons; logistical problems were cited as one of them by officials in the Indian High Commission in Colombo. “Any visit to the eastern province would have been purposeless without the delegation visiting places such as Mutur in Trincomalee where villages have been razed to the ground and all habitation has been destroyed,” Sampanthan said offering his understanding of why the Indian team might have been kept away from the east.

In a statement released to the press after the team’s meeting with Rajapaksa on Tuesday last, the Presidential secretariat said: “with regard to discussions on a political settlement to the ethnic question, the President said any settlement must be one acceptable to all communities and by Sri Lanka’s neighbour.” Gifts and pleasantries were exchanged between the visitors and their host government representatives but neither side engaged on the sensitive yet central topic of a political resolution to the long-standing problem.

Sampanthan said that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)’s attitude towards India had resulted in India becoming a mere observer. Although the Tamil politician said he would look towards New Delhi for help with a political solution, strategic experts in India are less hopeful as Sri Lanka’s geopolitics today is different than it was a few years ago.

“Having being outmanoeuvred by China’s success in extending its strategic reach into the Indian Ocean, New Delhi got sucked into providing major assistance to Colombo over the last few years, lest it loses further ground. From opening an unlimited line of military credit for Sri Lanka, to extending naval and intelligence co-operation, India provided important war-relevant support in a deteriorating humanitarian situation,” wrote Brahma Chellaney in the October edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review. Chellaney is a well known strategic commentator in India and works for a think-tank called the Centre for Policy Research.

At a time when the Rajapaksa government is under immense international pressure to expedite the resettlement of the war displaced people, calling upon Indian Parliamentarians to visit camps in Vavuniya was good diplomacy by Colombo. For New Delhi, sending the team meant good domestic politics. The war displaced people meanwhile continue to live under gathering clouds.

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