Ilankai Tamil Sangam

24th Year on the Web

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Displace or Die

Choices in a 'democractic' state

by Peter Ratnadurai, August 30, 2008

Under the UN Charter, there are only two exceptions to the prohibition of displacement, for reasons related to conflict, of a civilian population: their security or imperative military reasons. Sri Lanka's warning to the Tamils in Vanni does not fall under either of the exceptions: the Sri Lankan military is the only threat to civilians' security and the only actor intending on military action.

Sri Lanka's government wants Tamils to abandon their homes

VANNI is a region blessed with fertile land and sea. Little surprise then that competition for control of this territory has played a major part in both igniting and maintaining Sri Lanka's Sinhala-Tamil ethnic conflict. Seasoned peacemakers are adamant that restitution and reparations are essential for realising peaceful ends to violent conflicts. Yet, Sri Lanka's government has spent the past week warning the nearly half a million Tamil inhabitants of the Vanni to displace or get killed.

Since independence from Britain, successive governments of Sri Lanka have been attempting, sometimes successfully, to colonise the Vanni at the expense of her native Tamil population. The now-sprawling Sinhala colony of Weli Oya at the south-eastern fringes of Vanni was, only a generation ago, known as Manal Aaru and home to around 75, 000 Tamil-speaking people. Since 16 April 1988, when they were forcefully displaced from their homes, on the back of a government gazette, many of the original inhabitants of Manal Aaru, and their children, have been without any fixed address.

Events witnessed in the east of the island, under the rule of the current regime, only add to fears of a repeat of the era when the state exercised monopoly over violence. According to the UN, some 315,000 people, almost all Tamils, were displaced from their homes in the east of the island between August 2006 and July 2007. There is no comprehensive record of how many have been allowed to return to their homes since military operations came to an end, more than a year ago. One certain fact is that 56, 000 people who were recorded as displaced from Muttur and Sampoor have been denied access to their properties because the state has since declared the areas high security zones.

Events in the north, put in perspective, also make grim reading: an army consisting of 99% ethnic Sinhalese is on a violent march into the Vanni; the region's half a million Tamils are being warned to leave their homes or face death. Abandoning one's land and livelihood, which are - after all - fundamental human rights, for the safety of tents and handouts is no easy option. Given past experiences of grinding colonisation, many Tamils are rightly sceptical of the state's intentions.

International rights groups also have plenty of reasons to be sceptical over the actions of Sri Lanka. Under the UN Charter, there are only two exceptions to the prohibition of displacement, for reasons related to conflict, of a civilian population: their security or imperative military reasons. Sri Lanka's warning to the Tamils in Vanni does not fall under either of the exceptions: the Sri Lankan military is the only threat to civilians' security and the only actor intending on military action.

A recent commentary by the ICRC read: "Clearly, imperative military reasons cannot be justified by political motives. For example, it would be prohibited to move a population in order to exercise more effective control over a dissident ethnic group." Even when forced displacements are allowed, International Law requires "the prompt return of the evacuees to their homes as soon as hostilities in the area have ceased"; a measure not taken by Sri Lanka in the case Muttur and Sampoor. Should rights groups bother to take Sri Lanka's current rulers to the ICC, current President Mahinda Rajapaksa will have a lot of explaining to do.

Above all, the effects of forced displacements have been widely studied, and none of the findings bode well for hopes of a lasting solution to the Sri Lankan civil war. Forced mass displacement only adds to the economic, social and cultural woes of the population concerned; these grievances give way to, or maintain the cycle of violent conflict. Given that decades of warfare have cost thousands of lives and impeded a generation from development on par with neighbours, exaberating the causes of conflict may only serve a very few.

Forced displacement of groups of people, be it in their hundreds or millions, is not the resolution to any conflict. The Sinhala-Tamil conflict has been shaped by displacements; a reminder to which will only foster even more resentment. The current Sri Lankan regime is playing with war crimes by its excessive use of force to achieve political ends, to satisfy a tyrannical majority. This strategy may yet backfire by militarising even more Tamils and failing to strike chord with accepted international norms of fundamental human rights.