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Exodus of tamil civilians held captive by the LTTE - May 2009

One area in which there is an element of truth in the report of the Panel is its accusation that Government underestimated the figures of IDPs in the Vanni towards the end of the conflict. This is correct, and I myself was under the impression that the figure was less than it finally turned out to be.

What is wrong is the claim that the Government used these figures to ‘deny humanitarian assistance’. The fact is that, from the very beginning, there was uncertainty about the figures. At my very first meeting with UNHCR, when I was actually impressed with the commitment of Elizabeth Tan and her immediate boss, I asked why the UN still maintained a distinction between what were termed Old IDPs and new ones. I could understand this in the case of those in static situations, for instance the Muslims chased out of the North by the LTTE in 1990, who had mainly stayed put in Puttalam since then. But in the Vanni it was clear that the IDP population had to be treated as a whole, and we needed to make sure that everyone there was adequately fed.

What was also crystal clear was that it was in the interests of the LTTE to deprive them of food, not out of wickedness, but for propaganda purposes. This had become clear to me way back in 2007, when I took over as Head of the Peace Secretariat, and found in my consultations with people living in those areas, in particular the Chambers of Commerce in the North, that this ‘was perhaps the single most important topic, rivalled only by the issue of restrictions on fishing’.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

June 2011
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