By Subash Somachandran and Kamal Rasenthiran
Tens of thousands of Tamil civilians, who fled the fighting in the final days of the military’s offensive against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), remain in squalid detention camps in northern Sri Lanka. The official total is 106,000, with around 80,000 people still in the Manik Farm camps near the town of Vavuniya.
After the LTTE’s defeat last May, the army rounded up 280,000 men, women and children and put them in detention centres surrounded by barbed wire and armed soldiers. No one was permitted to leave. Visitors were heavily vetted. Thousands of young men and women were interrogated by police and military intelligence officers, and incarcerated in other, undisclosed centres as “LTTE suspects”.
Last October, in the lead-up to the presidential election, President Mahinda Rajapakse’s government eased the regime at the camps and promised that all detainees would be resettled by January 31. On December 1, inmates who had homes to return to, or relatives to stay with, were finally permitted to leave after being vetted by the security forces.
However, many refugees have no places to go. In the final months of fighting, the military laid waste to towns and villages throughout the LTTE-held territory in a ruthless war of attrition. Thousands of civilians were killed. Many who managed to escape arrived at Manik Farm and other detention centres, emaciated, injured or ill.
According to the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 160,000 people have returned to their district of origin. However, these are government figures, which must be treated with caution. Most people have not been returned to their own villages and towns. Those who have are struggling to survive with little or no government assistance. Even according to official figures, 29,060 people are staying with “host families” or relatives. They have no income and are subjected to stringent travel restrictions and police reporting requirements.
Resettlement minister Rishard Bathiudeen has repeated the lame excuse that delays in de-mining the former war zones have “impeded the resettlement process”. His secretary, U.L.M. Halaldeen, has issued what amounts to another phony promise—for the April 8 general election. “Come April, they all will be resettled by the time of the parliamentary election,” he said.
Such is the anger among the refugees that very few wanted to vote—either for Rajapakse or opposition candidate Sarath Fonseka, the general who ruthlessly prosecuted the war against the LTTE. As is clear from the above, the situation inside the camps makes it very difficult for people to speak openly to visitors. But we got a glimpse of the sentiment from one person who told us:
“Those people who wanted to exercise their voting rights were not given a chance. Some people were able to go and vote in the morning. But in the afternoon, the army and police told the people they would not be allowed to leave because they could vote for Fonseka.
“Many people want to oust this government somehow because of its crime against us. But why should one vote for any of them? Rajapakse and Fonseka were together when they ordered the military to shower us with bombs.” (WSWS).