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happy 1During the conflict period, relations with India had been handled not by the Foreign Ministry, but by three trusted confidantes of the President. These were his Secretary, Lalith Weeratunge, and two of his brothers, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and Basil Rajapaksa. These two, both younger than the President, were neither of them Ministers at the time (as opposed to the oldest brother, Chamal, who was a long standing member of Parliament and a senior Minister). It was the two younger brothers however who were considered the most powerful members of the government. Gotabhaya was virtually a Minister in fact, since he was Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, with the President being the Minister, and leaving most of its running to him.

Basil_Rajapaksa

Basil Rajapaksa … succeeded in bringing life in the East back to relative normality.

Basil at the time was a Member of Parliament, but his executive responsibilities were informal, arising from his chairing the Task Forces that were responsible for reconstruction of the East (which had been retaken from the Tigers fully by 2007) and later of the North. He was an extremely hard worker, and had managed, well before the Tigers were destroyed, to have succeeded in bringing life in the East back to relative normality. His technique had been massive infrastructural development, and the connectivity that was restored to the East had enabled its full involvement in the economic life of the country.

Late in 2008 he was appointed to chair what was termed a Presidential Task Force for the North. This was expected initially to make arrangements for the care of the internally displaced, most of whom were being held hostage by the Tigers at that time. Over the next six months they were driven into more and more restricted areas in terms of the Tiger strategy of using them as a human shields. This made the task of the military extremely difficult, but in the end, when the Tigers were destroyed, nearly 300,000 civilians were rescued, and taken to what were termed Welfare Centres.

Though there were complaints at the time about conditions in the camps, they were comparatively speaking much better than the lot of most displaced persons in such conflicts. Health services were excellent, and within a few days mortality figures had stabilized. Food supply and distribution was competently handled, and soon enough educational services too were made available.

Still, there had been much confusion initially, and this contributed to the feeling that government had been callous. More serious was the charge that government had wanted to keep the displaced in what were termed internment camps, and did not wish them to be resettled soon in their original places of residence.

Sarath_Fonseka_at_Ananda

Changing the demography of the North may have been the plan of a few people in government, and in particular the Army Commander

Changing the demography of the North may have been the plan of a few people in government, and in particular the Army Commander, who had wanted to increase the size of the army when the war ended, probably because of a belief that Israeli type settlements were the best way of preventing future agitation. But this was certainly not the view of the President, who from the start urged swift resettlement, and hoped that the fertile land of the North would soon provide excellent harvests. And Basil Rajapaksa certainly wished to expedite resettlement, as I found when I once wrote to him suggesting that this was proceeding too slowly.

This was in August 2009, three months after the conclusion of the war, and he called me up and sounded extremely indignant. He declared that he had said he would perform the bulk of resettlement in six months, and he intended to do this, give or take a month or two. He had done a similar task in the East, and I should remember that a commitment of six months did not mean half in three.  In fact he started the resettlement soon after, though there was a hiccup, in that many of those sent away from the main Welfare Centre at Manik Farm in Vavuniya were then held in Centres in the District Capitals through which they had to transit.

I was in Geneva at the time, at the September 2009 session of the Human Rights Council, and for a moment I wondered whether the allegations that were being flung around, that we had started the Resettlement to pull the wool over the eyes of the Council, were true. Basil it turned out was nowhere to be found, a practice he often engaged in when upset, going back to the United States where he had been settled when his brother was elected President.

However Jeevan Thiagarajah, head of the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies, that had worked very positively with the government, went up to Jaffna to check, and informed me that the Special Forces Commanders in the Districts had been asked to subject those being resettled to another security check. But they assured him that they proposed to do this very cursorily, and would send them to their places of habitation within a day or two. What was left unsaid was who had ordered the second check, but I assumed this was Sarath Fonseka, in pursuit of his own agenda – and this was confirmed by the irritation he was later to express in writing to the President, about the Resettlement programme going ahead more quickly than he had advised. Basil, I realized, had felt frustrated, and gone away, but his intentions were carried out by the generals in the field, who were on the whole much more enlightened than Fonseka. Read the rest of this entry »

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1. There was concern that we would hold the displaced indefinitely in what were termed internment camps, and not resettle them

I was told recently by a friend that he felt we were not actually addressing the concerns that had been raised with regard to Sri Lanka. I was surprised, because I thought we had been doing this throughout. However, I could see that, in assessing the methodologies adopted to attack us, we might have been distracting attention away from simple facts. It might be useful therefore to record specific concerns – but in doing so it will be clear that, the moment one concern is addressed, another is raised, sometimes with blatant inconsistency.

1. There was concern that we would hold the displaced indefinitely in what were termed internment camps, and not resettle them.

We pointed out three reasons for keeping them in welfare centres, which were by no means internment camps. The term internment refers to taking people from their homes into custody, whereas we were dealing with people who had been taken from their homes, which were in heavily mined areas. Some of those people were security risks given their involvement, whether willingly or not, in terrorism.

Apart from security checks, we noted the need to demine the areas to which people were being returned, as well as the need to restore at least basic infrastructure. Now that that has been done, all but 10,000 of the displaced have been resettled.

Mechanical demining

As a result, we got little assistance initially, except from the Indian government, for demining. We therefore spent a massive amount of money on equipment – after which UNHCR also donated five or so machines, far fewer than the 25 or so we had bought. Our army did most of the demining required, and we were able to begin resettlement within a few months.

3.  Subsequently concern was expressed that we were resettling too quickly, without proper attention to demining.

Since resettlement began there have been hardly any mine related incidents in the areas of resettlement. I believe, apart from the death of a foreign demining expert, there was only one casualty in the Wanni last year, a boy who had been sent to collect firewood in an uncleared and marked area, whose leg was blown off.

This should be contrasted with a far higher number of accidents in the Northern peninsula, which had been demined by international agencies after it was freed from LTTE control in 1996. It should also be contrasted with incidents elsewhere, such as Cambodia, which suffered from constant explosions for years after conflict ceased. Read the rest of this entry »

Rajiva Wijesinha

September 2019
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