Western governments and some human rights groups seem to think that Sri Lanka`s war displaced are being kept in welfare villages by way of punitive action. While fighting was on, they levelled allegations of genocidal violence against the Sri Lankan military and after the war they tried to press war crime charges against those responsible for wiping out the LTTE leadership. If there had been any genocidal violence, there could not have been so many IDPs left and they would never have sought refuge in the government-held areas. Therefore, before taking up the cause of IDPs, those governments and their human rights shock troops ought to admit that their claim of genocide in Sri Lanka was a barefaced lie.
The US is now asking Sri Lanka to allow IDPs to decide whether to stay in welfare centres or not in view of the monsoon season. Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration Eric Schwartz has said, `Involuntary confinement is especially a source of concern given the recent rains and the coming of the monsoon season.` `Release from confinement is,` he says, `an issue that friends of Sri Lanka continue to raise.` As far as we are aware, none of Sri Lanka`s true friends have raised that issue! Only those who failed to scuttle Sri Lanka`s war on terror have done so!
Involuntary confinement is, no doubt, a serious concern to anyone who cherishes democracy. But, how can IDPs be released all at once simply because either the US or some other big country says? Resettlement is already underway and IDPs are being sent back home in batches. Mine clearing operations, reconstruction and restoration of infrastructure in most areas of the Vanni are far from completed. There is also a pressing need for weeding out terrorists masquerading as IDPs, if civilians` security is to be ensured.
Rains will aggravate IDPs` woes as evident from sewage and drainage problems at welfare villages. These are, however, standard problems in this country. More than one half of people in Colombo live in slums and shanties, which become uninhabitable during rains. A similar situation prevails in the low lying areas in the suburbs of Colombo. Toilet pits overflow and water does not flow. The other day we carried a letter on the opposite page that water contaminated with waste from the Maharagama Cancer Hospital flooded a nearby road exposing residents to health hazards.
What needs to be done at Menik Farm is to attend to the drainage and sewage problems urgently. Minister of Human Rights and Disaster Management Mahinda Samarasinghe has apprised Parliament of action taken by the government to solve drainage and sewage problems there. He has presented a comprehensive plan to be carried out in stages. Under the first phase the drainage system in zones 1, 3 and 4 will be developed while the second phase will focus on the development of zones 5, 6A and 6B. Zones with large populations and potentially severe drainage issues have been included in phase one, according to the Minister. The rain water disposal system is to be completed by September 15. The UNDP, UNOPS and UNHCR are associated with these projects.
This is a worthy cause that the US could generously contribute to without proposing a remedy which is sure to be worse than the malady.
The blame for the situation at the IDP centres must be apportioned to all those who opposed President Mahinda Rajapaksa`s proposal for putting up semi-permanent houses for the war displaced. They torpedoed his move by claiming he was planning to keep IDPs there for ever or to settle Sinhalese civilians there after resettling IDPs.
The cause of IDPs must be championed. But, regrettably, a surreptitious attempt is also being made to exploit their plight to discredit Sri Lanka, to take the gloss off its victory over terrorism and help the LTTE rump go into subversive mode. The Diasporic Tigers are desperate to have LTTE combatants posing as IDPS freed so that they could carry out terror attacks. They are using their immense lobbying power to influence foreign governments to achieve their objective.
That the western governments are not genuinely interested in helping IDPs is clear. For, they did not take up the issue of IDPs until the Vanni offensive reached its final stages and Prabhakaran was cornered. They did not give a tinker`s damn about nearly 100,000 Muslim IDPs in this country, most of whom have been languishing in welfare centres since 1990, when the LTTE forcibly evicted them from the North after robbing them of their land and valuables. Can the rights of IDPs be championed selectively? The West has turned a Nelsonian eye to the plight of Muslims as that issue does not fit into their anti-Sri Lanka agenda.
Looking after the Vanni IDPs is best left to Sri Lanka. They must be resettled as soon as possible. Other countries have a role to play in helping them rebuild their lives but it is not free advice that is needed but some tangible help. IDPs certainly have problems and the government must do much more for them, but the fact remains that they and their children are now safe. Nobody is dying in fighting. Forcible conscription, forced labour, extortion, violent suppression of political dissent, intimidation and lamppost killings are things of the past. And all precautions must be taken to prevent the LTTE raising its ugly head again.
Schwartz has said, `Everywhere around the world, displaced persons make their own judgments about when it is right to go back.` It is time the US practised what it preached to others. The predicament of the people of Diego Garcia comes to mind. The British systematically evicted all of them from that territory, in 1960s and 1970s for setting up a US military base. Those displaced people have not yet been allowed to `make their own judgments about when it is right to go back.` Why?