As returns proceed apace in the North, it may be interesting to look again at a description written last year of efforts with regard to the displaced.


Initial suspicions with regard to the displaced

Sitting in recently on several meetings about returns and rehabilitation, I have been struck by the continuing misunderstanding between government and those who should be its partners. My feeling, though I may be wrong, is that most people involved genuinely want to help each other, and the vast numbers of currently displaced – but a combination of historical circumstances and excessive sensitivity has contributed to growing suspicions on either side.

The suspicions on the side of the potential partners began I think with the initial plan with regard to Manik Farm which they thought unnecessarily elaborate. They assumed that the relatively comfortable facilities that were proposed were designed to keep the displaced in captivity for a very long period. This suspicion was fuelled by the original government determination, with regard to those who had been displaced during the operations in Mannar, and who were kept at Sirukkandal and Kallimodai, not to release them without careful security checks.

This latter determination was understandable in the context of continuing terrorist operations. It is now forgotten how close run a thing it was that the Secretary of Defence and Minister Devananda escaped with their lives, while the circumstances under which Minister Fernandopulle met his death makes clear the enormous reach of Tiger suicide cadres. At the same time, with concentration on other matters, in particular the carefully planned military operations to liberate the North, there was no haste to expedite checks, and the impression thus grew that those in the Mannar Camps were to be permanently imprisoned.

Having read the intense criticism leveled at those camps, I was pleasantly surprised when I actually saw them in December 2008. They were infinitely better than camps in which the displaced had been housed previously, over up to eighteen long years in the case of the Muslims who had been chased out of Jaffna by the LTTE. The contrast with even for instance Poorthottam in Vavuniya, where a largely Indian Tamil population had been kept for a dozen years or so, made it clear that the usual standards for the displaced were abysmal, and it was possible, under efficient military management, to run a much more comfortable operation.

The outcry against the new camps then, led by already suspicious (in both senses) agencies such as Human Rights Watch, created the impression that all this concern was hypocritical. Those who had accepted squalor for Muslims and Indian Tamils were so hysterical about the situation of those who had been displaced from LTTE controlled territory that it seemed there must be something underhand about their approach. So the impression grew that the campaign for immediate release must be motivated by other considerations.

I suspect this may have contributed to the idea that further refugees from LTTE areas would also have to be kept under surveillance for a relatively long time. If that was the case, they required decent conditions, and hence the idea of Welfare Villages, with reasonable facilities. But the principal argument put forward for this was that demining could take up to a couple of years, and planning therefore had to take that into account.

That was certainly a valid argument, and the worries now about the progress of demining indicate that that was a possibility that had to be considered. However there were also obviously security considerations, and certainly the state had to be careful while the Tiger leadership was still active, given how elaborate were the networks that had been set in place. When to that was added the knowledge that enormous caches of arms were being buried throughout the Vanni, to be taken up when cadres could go back surreptitiously or otherwise to those areas, it is clear that maximum caution had to be exercised.

 Unfortunately this led to suspicion that government planned to keep the displaced for ever, perhaps indeed to replace them in the Vanni with settlers from the South. It is of course possible that, carried away by what had happened in the West Bank, there were some without proper appreciation of the pluralistic commitments of this government who dreamed of such a programme, but such conceptions were inconceivable to decision makers.

But, with concerns for long tem security not being shared with those responsible for assistance, even those without any predilection for the Tigers grew suspicious, and objected vociferously to government plans. Sadly the running in this regard was made by those who were known to have such predilections, or at least not to have worries about resurgent Tiger strength, and therefore government began to feel that none of this need be taken seriously. Thus, while eminent and relatively objective experts such as Walter Kalin proposed plans that took both security concerns and Human Rights principles into account, these were overlain by increasingly shrill voices which government understandably thought were politically motivated.

The strategy to provide inferior facilities to the displaced

Unfortunately this mindset also led to stratagems that did not take the long term welfare of the displaced into account. I was jolted into facing this fact when I found massive opposition from what termed itself the international humanitarian community to the excellent work done by the Confidence Building and Stabilization Measures programme of the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights.

This programme had not got very far at all in the year or more since it had first been set up, back in 2006. It was essentially run by foreigners, who sat around discussing the principles of Civil Military Liaison, and built up what they termed Village Profiles, which seemed to serve no purpose. Fortunately, soon after I took over as Secretary of the Ministry, we found an excellent Coordinator, who believed in practical solutions. An initial visit to the Camps in Mannar, and also Manik Farm which was just being set up, led to active cooperation with both the military and the displaced, so as to provide services that they identified.

Thus they built up facilities for sports and provided sports equipment, they developed eco-friendly toilets, and also began discussions with the Department of Agriculture to set up a model farm. The Power Point presentation on what had been achieved was a highlight of a meeting of the Coordinating Committee for Humanitarian Assistance at which plans for the displaced were discussed.

It was then that UNHCR, which had previously funded the Project, pulled the plug. The Head of UNHCR told me that he was under immense pressure from his peers, who had declared that toilets and suchlike were not his business. Under the compartmentalizing system that the UN had adopted (though this could be ignored, I found, when it was convenient), Water and Sanitation belonged to UNICEF and what was termed the WASH Cluster.

In vain did I try to point out that CBSM was not building toilets as an end in itself, it was simply responding to a need, and involving the displaced in activities that benefited them as a model that could be taken up by other agencies. The dominant ethos won out conclusively, and CBSM did not receive funds for much of this year, with UNHCR insisting that it should not work in the North. Finally the Project was given a new lease of life a couple of months back, but the major project agreed was a Business English Training Programme for the East.

What all this meant became clear when UNHCR insisted that they could only provide at Manik Farm facilities that would last three months. Later I found that this so-called principle was simply a matter of administrative convenience, and should have been subordinated to the actual needs of the displaced. But as the trickle of refugees from the LTTE turned into a flood, the guidelines the UN laid down were accepted willy-nilly. When it was pointed out that, with the best will in the world, it was likely that some at least of the displaced would still be in the centres after three months, the UNHCR Head promised that facilities could then be upgraded. This seemed an appalling waste of resources, but that was the best that could be obtained at the time.

So we had tents that seemed likely to self-destruct in a few months, thousands of them flown in at great cost. They were so low that the displaced could not stand up in them, but the recreation centres promised for people to relax in never came up. They seemed to have been forgotten, except in one Zone, though later we were promised that they would be constructed soon, and they finally began to come up just before Manik Farm began to be emptied. So too the Child Friendly Spaces that we were told UNICEF would put up were agonizingly slow to appear, and far fewer than were initially agreed.

And worst of all, there was chaos about the toilets. These were even more obviously built to self-destruct, as some of the displaced in fact pointed out to us. The pits were of plywood, and the standards laid down by the National Water Sanitation and Drainage Board were totally ignored. When finally this was pointed out, and it was agreed at a meeting at the Ministry of Resettlement that in future at least the standards should be followed, special pleas were made up in Vavuniya to allow a few more toilets to be built with plywood, since this had been already purchased.

Equally preposterously, when it was pointed out that gully suckers drew out the plywood too, one of the enormously expensive UN experts in the field blamed the operators of the gully suckers. They had been advised, it seems, to suck cautiously, and leave a residue of gunge to protect the plywood. This course necessitates more frequent incursions of the gully suckers, which may explain continuing fears about a paucity of these essential features of UN led Emergency Operations.

Understandably enough, toilets collapsed like ninepins all over the place. The Head of UNICEF pledged that, in terms of the agreements they had signed, the agencies that had built anything that did not last would have to replace them at their own cost, but little of this happened. A visit in July to Manik Farm revealed toilets without doors, collapsing pits, and gaping holes, through which horrors could be glimpsed. To my immense sorrow I found that the perpetrators of these included agencies such as CARE and IOM, which I had fondly thought were experienced and able, exempt from the money grabbing activities of more recent entrants into the field of contract-based humanitarian activity. But the gaping plywood was clearly visible, and nothing was being done to repair or replace pits that seemed straight out of Dante’s Inferno.

What is so horrifying about this is that getting things right would have been so easy. A Sri Lankan NGO has built a number of toilets in Zone 7 that adhered to national standards, with proper water sealing, and these lasted. But there was no concern to ensure durability, which explains perhaps why the UNHCR Head said he was under such pressure about the more durable toilets the CBSM Project had put up in the first Zones at Manik Farm which were constructed by government.

Moving positively in pursuit of common goals

And yet, despite what I think was sleight of hand earlier on, I believe that now at least those genuinely concerned about the displaced are in the ascendant, and should readily be able to set things to right. After all, there seems no reason now to disagree about what priorities should be. Though security concerns must still remain paramount, obviously, with the elimination of the LTTE high command in May, the threat of terrorist activity has diminished. Sadly some of the less reprehensible members of the international community tried to keep it alive by privileging the rump of the LTTE, and talking about negotiations with Mr Pathmanathan, but his arrest has put paid to that little kite flying too.

In such a context there is no reason not to move rapidly on resettlement. Of course there are still dangers, with some cadres still skulking around, in the camps and outside, and arms caches still in store for future use. But at the same time it is clear that increasing disaffection could also be a cause of future unrest, and any capable cadres left in the camps must be having a field day drumming up support amongst the idle. The fact that inclement weather will create further disaffection means that, the longer the displaced are kept in the centres, the more difficult will be the task of winning hearts and minds, which is the only way in which further insurrections can be avoided.

It is true that there may be some risk but, given too that those with resources are able to get away, through corruption or connivance, the danger of keeping people unnecessarily must surely outweigh the danger of sending them away. Of course the problem of demining remains, and it is obvious that, with the best will in the world, it will not be possible to resettle the displaced immediately in much of the Vanni. But it is clearly in the interests of government to empty the camps of those who can go elsewhere, and hence the efforts to return people to the Jaffna and Mannar Districts, and areas elsewhere that have been cleared of mines.

Whilst the less politically partisan members of the international community would obviously welcome such steps, and should support them in every way possible, they should conversely recognize that the welfare of those who will remain during the monsoon season should also be a priority. A concerted effort to ensure proper drainage in the Zones is in train, but this should be accompanied by much more concerted efforts with regard to toilets and the construction of shelters where people can shelter in inclement weather. In this regard the thatched community centres that CBSM built last December would provide a model.

It would also be desirable to help the displaced raise the floors of their living quarters, while digging trenches around them as has already happened in one of the smaller Zones where administration is more cohesive. Proposals have been made for providing cement to the displaced to work on this themselves. The solution may not be ideal, and the technical reasons advanced by some UN agencies against this practice should certainly be considered. But the agencies should also consider that this, combined with better drainage, will prevent much suffering in the rainy season, and should not allow the old fears, that such upgrading implies permanence, to deter them for doing what is possible to help.

Given existing suspicions, and the use made of these by those who are still intent on playing a spoiling role, it is necessary to engage in more discussion. This may have been difficult earlier as government was formulating its plans, with some uncertainty about the resources available and the priorities to be pursued. But all indications now are that substantial progress has been made, and that the resettlement programme can reach, if not the ideal target, something very close to it. In such a context it should be possible to share plans with those who are committed to assist, and indeed to take seriously any suggestions they might make.

Adhering to the principle of working in accordance with government plans

If this happens, the agencies who wish to be positive should also register that they need to work in accordance with government plans and priorities. The dogmas of the past, which saw the so-called international community as the arbiters of all plans, must give way to the standard practice of the United Nations, which is based on the in country leadership of member states. Unfortunately the practice has developed in recent years, given difficult situations in many countries, of the UN taking the lead in what it describes as emergency situations.

What might be appropriate in situations where government had broken down was clearly wrong in Sri Lanka. However we have no one to blame but ourselves for the abdication of responsibility that took place, first because of the bizarre nature of the Ceasefire Agreement and the manner in which it was interpreted, second because of the flood of almost unmanageable assistance that came in after the tsunami. Thus we allowed a situation to develop wherein purveyors of aid and assistance also thought they were decision makers. Given the natural propensity of everyone to make themselves seem important, a characteristic that the manner in which aid funds are now disbursed makes a focus for competition, it was perfectly understandable that well meaning and other busybodies fell over themselves to drive government from its position of authority.

It is a moot point whether Sri Lanka was ever in a situation of emergency that justified such an approach, but certainly now there is nothing of the kind. The UN has indeed recognized this, in trying to move to what is termed an Early Recovery stage, in which the main agency is UNDP, which has a history of working with governments and in accordance with their plans. OCHA, the Office of the High Commissioner for Humanitarian Affairs, which deals in emergency situations, and which came into Sri Lanka after the tsunami, but stayed on to take on a central role in conflict related assistance, now really has no role to play, and should wind up its activities soon.

It should however be noted that, while until last year OCHA saw itself as almost autonomous of government, it has tried over the last 12 months to accept that it is government that must lead even emergency assistance. However old habits die hard, and underlings in OCHA, including those who write for its interline news agency, still see themselves as sitting in public judgment on government. Efforts to control this have failed, and in such a context it seems best to move on wholeheartedly to structures that can more readily conform to national expectations.

That may help to restore the trust with which Sri Lanka many years ago confidently accepted support and advice from the United Nations. It is true that many things have changed since then, and UN mechanisms, far from reflecting the world as it is, now privilege the Western orientalizing approaches that characterize what the West describes as the international community. That should not be a problem if we seek to identify and work towards common ideals. We should then seek to assuage fears and eradicate the suspicions that have in the recent past dogged what should be common efforts. But, equally, it is necessary for those who lead aid efforts to reject efforts either to spoil things for the displaced in pursuing a personal agenda, or to sully cooperation by seeking to restore the patronizing approach of the last few years.