Ilankai Tamil Sangam

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The Politics of Internment

Himal commentary, Katmandu, August 2009

The issue is foremost a question about the freedom of movement of these Tamil civilians...

This gruelling condition is as much a political crisis as it is a humanitarian one. The fundamental question facing the roughly 280,000 interned Tamil civilians today is one regarding their citizenship and their relationship to the Sri Lankan state...

One section of the Sri Lankan citizenry cannot be affected so drastically while life for the rest of the population simply continues. Internment of Tamils is bound to impact on the long-term relations between the communities, yet again undermining the efforts to build a just postcolonial society that have dogged the country since independence in 1948. It is thus that the hopes of those who have longed for reconciliation now seem shattered: this much is clear from the bitterness in the eyes of the confined Tamil civilians. The humiliation that sections of the Tamil community face – whether due to the insensitivity, arrogance, majoritarianism or Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism of the high officials in Colombo – is bound to have a tragic impact on the future.

Throughout the years of the island’s ethnic conflict, successive governments of Sri Lanka maintained that the war was against the LTTE and not the Tamil people. As such, with the end of the war in May, the world expected to see Colombo launch a process of reconciliation that would once and for all resolve the grievances and aspirations of all communities, and particularly the Tamil community. Then Sri Lanka could rebuild inter-community relations and settle into a path of democratic governance and economic prosperity. But such an opportunity and hopes are now being dashed by what is increasingly looking like the narrow interests and unprincipled politics of the administration of Mahinda Rajapakse. And what forces us to believe this is the continued internment of a quarter million Tamil civilians, who had suffered under the jackboot of the LTTE and narrowly escaped the war, while having lost many kith and kin.

This gruelling condition is as much a political crisis as it is a humanitarian one. The fundamental question facing the roughly 280,000 interned Tamil civilians today is one regarding their citizenship and their relationship to the Sri Lankan state. Rights of citizenship should ensure freedom of movement, expression and association – the absence of which in essence is, automatically, a suspension of democracy. If the LTTE disrupted the state’s functioning by holding a population hostage within a territory it controlled by force of arms, the Rajapakse government is undermining the legitimacy of the state through these internment camps, which have suspended the rights of its citizens.

The issue is foremost a question about the freedom of movement of these Tamil civilians. The Rajapakse government, along with many of the aid agencies and media, have largely missed this point. For different reasons, they view what is taking place as essentially a humanitarian crisis, that the problem is a set of logistical issues around humanitarian services, of providing food, shelter, sanitation, etc. The other approach of engagement, meanwhile, has been around the eventual resettlement of these citizens to their original homes. Since the end of the war, for instance, the Indian government’s engagement has been focused on getting assurances of resettling the bulk of the displaced civilians within 180 days. Yet these calls for resettlement are also being deflected by the Rajapakse government, due to a set of alleged logistical and security concerns: the presence of landmines, the caches of arms buried by the LTTE, the lack of local infrastructure, the destruction of homes, etc.

While both the humanitarian concerns and the issue of resettlement are of great importance – and there have been some improvements in the humanitarian situation, and still greater engagement on the issue of resettlement – the focus should not be on these issues to the detriment of freedom of movement. Citizenship should ensure freedom of movement, fair and simple. All citizens should be given the choice either to leave the camps and move in with friends or relatives, or to settle elsewhere, temporarily or permanently, as they wish.

Welling bitterness
While there are international human-rights norms that are being violated through such prolonged displacement, the question is also a political issue – and one not particularly new to the Southasian region in the context of armed conflicts, where marginalised populations have been repeatedly abused by our states. As such, the dire situation of the caged Tamil civilians is an issue that Southasians need to think about with a sense of solidarity.

How the internment of Sri Lankans is addressed will also become a test of legal institutions, in Southasia in general and in Sri Lanka in particular. There are today two fundamental-rights cases in front of the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka, regarding family reunification and the freedom of movement of those kept in the various camps. What, after all, is the exact legal basis of such an internment of citizens? During the warring years, all forms of abuses were justified by what the government called its ‘war against terrorism’, where the Emergency and the Prevention of Terrorism Act were used to detain individuals, inevitably engendering bitterness among youths who suffered under these draconian laws. Following the end of the war and the government claims of having defeated ‘terrorism’, it is a tragic irony to see an entire population now suffer internment behind barbed wire. An entire community is thus incubating a festering bitterness that could easily not exist today.

One section of the Sri Lankan citizenry cannot be affected so drastically while life for the rest of the population simply continues. Internment of Tamils is bound to impact on the long-term relations between the communities, yet again undermining the efforts to build a just postcolonial society that have dogged the country since independence in 1948. It is thus that the hopes of those who have longed for reconciliation now seem shattered: this much is clear from the bitterness in the eyes of the confined Tamil civilians. The humiliation that sections of the Tamil community face – whether due to the insensitivity, arrogance, majoritarianism or Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism of the high officials in Colombo – is bound to have a tragic impact on the future. What is at stake could not be dearer – reconciliation and democracy – and the Rajapakse government should not go any further with its politics of internment.

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