Resettlement of the displaced from Welfare Centres

The recent rapid progress with regard to resettlement of the displaced from Welfare Centres is immensely welcome. It is also indicative of a coherent planning process that was carried out without concern for disruptive pressures that took no account of national needs.

Thus until May 2009 it was obvious that government had to be extremely careful about the possibility of an LTTE resurgence in the Vanni. With the destruction of the main LTTE leadership that danger seemed less intense, but there was continuing need for vigilance, particularly in the context of some countries trying to privilege the rump of the LTTE that remained abroad. Though that danger too seemed less with the arrest of Mr Pathmanathan, the determination of that rump to resurrect separatism, and therefore the further risk of terrorism, meant that care was still necessary. We had to keep checking as to whether there were enough hardcore experienced activists amongst the displaced to promote an LTTE resurgence.

Though the checking seemed slow, it was obviously absurd for anyone not involved in security matters to second guess those in authority in this regard. But whilst the checks were being conducted, planning for resettlement was proceeding apace, with even the Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi District Secretariats working on selecting and readying sites from as early as June 2009. In any case the deadline the government had set itself remained steady, except only that the initial assumption that the bulk would be done by December shifted to January.

The demining process

Indications that speed was considered of the essence came with the decision of the government to buy demining equipment at what seemed tremendous expense. Earlier it had seemed that agencies, provided with funds for this purpose under what was termed the Common Humanitarian Action Plan, would expedite the process but this did not happen. The Indian government then intervened, with substantial assistance, but even this was not enough and so government, despite economic constraints, committed its own funds.

This precipitated more donor support, which had been grudging earlier. That had contributed to the suspicion that some at least of what is called the international community were not as anxious about the resettlement process as had been made out. I was vastly amused for instance when the head of an international NGO, who I thought would be as delighted as I was about the swift pace of resettlement, expressed worry about the conditions that awaited those going back. When I pointed out that this was not what had been proclaimed by the internationals (and nationals) who professed humanitarian concerns six months ago, he seemed to me to blush. Still, I have no doubt there are others brazen enough to pretend to forget that previously we were accused of making excuses when we stressed the need for basic infrastructural development before resettlement could proceed.

Similarly there were then concerns expressed about the efficacy of the demining process, whereas earlier it was claimed that we were using the danger of mined areas as an excuse. Some months earlier I had indeed heard some foreigners citing confidently the claims of opposition politicians that particular areas were free of mines and could be rapidly resettled. The evidence presented to us however, and granted by the demining agencies, was that those areas were amongst the most dangerous, given LTTE tactics during  the last desperate days.

It was thus vastly entertaining to see the contortions to which some resorted, in order to avoid giving credit where credit is due. Indeed the achievement of the Northern Task Force is the more remarkable, in that it was accomplished through national planning and implementation. Even though more enlightened donors, in particular multilateral lending agencies and countries committed to the welfare of a united pluralistic Sri Lanka, have contributed generously, the concepts were emphatically Sri Lankan.  

This is a welcome change from the days in which donors and their agents believed they were the decision makers as far as Sri Lanka went. Over the last couple of years we had to resist this, to get rid of an irregularly established entity called the Inter Agency Standing Committee that had arrogated to itself responsibility for the CHAP, to change the idea that aid agencies held the balance between a democratically elected government and a bunch of terrorists. In that regard the work in the East showed the way, with rapid resettlement and redevelopment, but then it was argued that that was easy to deal with but the North would be more difficult.

That the East was easy is not so obvious, and the achievements there should not be forgotten. But the work now of the Northern Task Force, in ensuring basic infrastructure and expediting the demining process, must also be seen in terms of a restoration of the sovereignty that a few elements in the international humanitarian community thought they had erased.

Perhaps there is a parallel here with the extraordinary achievement of the armed forces in eliminating the LTTE from the North. The liberation of the East was also remarkable, but it could be argued there that the terrorists had somewhere else to go and did not fight so hard. We were also immeasurably helped there by the support of those in the LTTE who understood the dead end represented by terrorism, and who decided to move towards pluralistic democracy.

But we had after that to deal in the North with an appalling hard core, not only fighting our troops with every trick at their disposal but also capable of inflicting enormous suffering on civilians, if only to persuade the world that we were responsible for this. Unfortunately there are signs now of assaults of a very different sort from the international humanitarian community, and one can only hope that they will not be quite so desperate in guarding their privileges.

But hearteningly there are signs that most agencies that held absolute sway till recently have adapted to reality and understand the importance of working with government. It is more entertaining then than dangerous to hear allegations that we were too precipitate, and not concerning ourselves about the welfare of our citizens in expediting resettlement.

I believe we have now made it clear that we will not succumb any longer to the claim that only agencies without accountability to our people are really concerned about the difficulties our own citizens might face. The East was liberated more quickly than was thought possible, it was also resettled, leading the most evil of the international agencies to talk of forced resettlement. Now that the North has been thus liberated, at tremendous sacrifice, now that it is being rapidly resettled too, we can only hope there will no more insidious attempts to disrupt the process.