Issues in sri lanka today: A primer for activists in india
Originally written for the forthcoming Human Rights Forum Bulletin
Very often issues related to sri lanka are spoken in a manner that is disjointed from one another. We often do not have a clear holistic picture. Many of the problems in stands vis-à-vis sri lanka come from this lack. We need a holistic picture not just of the present situation but of past histories. The holistic picture needs to be rigorous and honest; based on continuous work on the area and gathering of knowledge. In the case of sri lanka, as in many other things in the world, the significance of this cannot be stressed enough. We barely have any reports that have come out of sri lanka that are either biased or have had to struggle to expose many things and those concerned have often paid a heavy price; sometimes the price has been their life.
A friend from sri lanka, who lives in Colombo, recently commented that, right now, the situation is worse than during the war in some senses. The surveillance and the hidden violence is so intense and widespread that it is hard to escape it and there is never enough warning. The quest to turn sri lanka into a Sinhala Buddhist nation governed by a fascist is well underway. All of this being done under the garb of democracy; a garb that has not been hard to look right through.
My own association with sri lanka is something I should outline. The reason why I need to outline that is because, unlike most of my colleagues in tamilnadu, my association or concern vis-à-vis sri lanka is not bound by the fact that I am a Tamil person. That is one part of it and never was the only part. The history that we share as Tamil people and aspects of culture and so on made it imperative for me to not ignore the urge to travel and work there many years ago. Now it is another home, a home I care deeply for. It is also one where I, having been born an Indian, am very conscious of my vantage point and negotiate my politics accordingly. I cannot take simple ownership of the history, the pains and struggles of the Tamil people in sri lanka by virtue of our partially common language and history. I also refuse to indulge in simplistic notions of ‘a Tamil people’ as that is a fallacy and often leads to jingoistic unproductive politics that silences and erases the very people it claims, often brashly, to represent.
The reason for the above explanation is also because the largest numbers of indians who have always cared about sri lanka have been the people in tamilnadu. Just like nagaland seems far away for most in mainstream india, sri lanka seems too far away for many above the vindhyas to tune into, know more about, understand, relate and participate. This is not very different from Kashmir being a far away figurative struggle for many of us here in tamilnadu. In sum, we are left with a large number of voices vis-à-vis sri lank in India emerging from tamilnadu. We then have to address that political thread and the above mentioned vantage point is to place myself in that political conversation.
This article will attempt to outline the basic concerns that plague northern and eastern sri lanka today. It is not that southern sri lanka is free of all concerns. They are plagued by unemployment, poverty and al else, much like most developing countries. Most importantly however they are plagued by a dictator consciously developing in the hearts of common Sinhala people a hatred for the ‘other’ and making their religion, language and life his tool for harnessing power over them all. The Tamils and Muslims of the south have lived an invisible life for many a decades and continue to do so.
The people of the north and east have that particular problem of having lived through a gruesome war. An entire generation has grown up knowing nothing but war. It is in this context that we need to address the question of ‘the end’ of the war and the shards it has left behind.
I wrote to a number of sri lankan friends who work in the north and the east and asked them to send me a list of issues. Off the top of their head they rattled of the below list with that particular numbness and pain of having worked in the midst of war for a large amount of time. Here, I would like to declare warning. The list will leave us feeling helpless. In this article itself however, we will take it beyond the helplessness and try and raise some questions of what we can and need to do.
The list of woes
- The destruction that is already being brought about by ‘development projects’. There is a lot of money pouring in to revive the tourism industry by building hotels etc. The commonwealth games are also to be held there causing havoc to lives and livelihoods.
- The curb on freedom of press which continues till date in an unchallenged manner. News coming out of the island that is rigorous is still few and far between. Various media persons are under constant surveillance and threat.
- The rights of various persons who have been taken prisoner during and after the war have been denied to them in entirety. Many families do not know where their kin are and have no way of finding out. While torture and other ills continue in prison, there is no sign of prosecution or release of these prisoners.
- There is a monopoly on so-called ‘peace and reconciliation’ process with the government. Non-governmental organizations are being disallowed from pursuing any activity in this regard. To maintain this monopoly these organizations are kept under constant surveillance and are under threat. There have been many instances where organizations have faced the brunt of even the smallest expression of dissent against the government.
- Then there are the myriad issues related to resettlement. No proper practice has been put into place that is democratic, accessible or effective. Allocation of land is based on documents which people are required to produce. This is impossibility for most persons after repeated displacement and destruction due to war. The people are not clear who the authorities are that they are to approach. The interim period when they give up their place in a camp and hope t be allotted land back ‘home’ is not accounted for by the government and whole families are often left with no roof above their heads or food or any other basic facilities. Resettlement is being done without any attempt to provide people the means and the resources to reconstruct their lives in any way. They are not given any money or basic needs that they need to set up a life that has been destroyed sometimes 30 years ago. Needless to say, corruption is rampant and the weakest sections of society have very little access to any of these resources. Much of this work has been contracted out to private companies by all governments involved, indian and sri lankan, leaving people with very little opportunity to address their government.
- There is an increased militarization in most parts of the north and the east. Large sections of these provinces are run entirely by the army without any civil security force what so ever. Other military bodies such as the Presidential Task Force hold unmitigated power and govern places. Permission from the PTF is imperative to do any kind of work in most of these parts. The constant extension of the emergency and laws such as the Prevention f Terrorism Act help maintain this situation of militarization and enable it to continue unabated.
- All of these concerns get reflected within the home and there is increased violence upon women and children. In the event of extreme militarization, women do not seek refuge in the law as approaching this militarized government is equally daunting.
- There is a major outsourcing of all work including humanitarian work. japanese, chinese and indian companies are building not only power plants and other SEZs but also roads, flyovers and so on. This outsourcing is, needless to say, harmful to an equal economy and is being done arbitrarily. We have even received news of an indian women’s group being funded by the sri lankan government to do humanitarian work with war widows. While NGOs abound in the little island, the government chooses to bring in a ‘safer outsider’ than let organizations work with communities whom they have worked with for decades.
- And last but not the least is the complete shunning of all international pressure to look into the war crimes or to even admit to them. There has not been nearly enough attention but there have been a few welcome statements such as the UN report and the Channel 4 Documentary. All of this has been ignored and the evidence provided in them which are beyond doubt (even if we ignore the absurdity of having to ‘prove’ war crimes of such scale), have been denied and countered with another set of lies. International intervention has been repeatedly denied and those supporting it have been threatened. This is made in the language of nationalism and national sovereignty, the most potent weapon in a dictatorship. Needless to say, this attitude of the sri lankan Government vis-à-vis international intervention is supported strongly by the local super power- india’s apathy and active unconditional participation in the activities of the sri lankan Government.
In this article we will tease apart the details of the concerns regarding ‘resettlement’ and within that more specifically questions of land allocation. This is only to show how intricately complicated these concerns are and how there is a dire need for rigorous work on the smaller details and not just grand slogans.
The question of numbers
To give us a perspective on the number of people we are speaking of when we address resettlement, look at the table below.
These are merely the official figures and activists in sri lanka view and use these numbers cautiously. As Bhavani Fonseka explains:
“Although there are official IDP figures approved by the Government, there are many who are not registered within the official government system or falling through the cracks of what is recognised as displacement. These include some IDPs who live with host families, the night-time IDPs and those who are stranded after returning to their districts of origin. Therefore to understand the true nature of displacement, one needs to look beyond the official numbers provided by the Government and consider the living conditions of those returning to the districts of origin, and as to whether they are able to return to their homes and land or resettle. Numbers have been used by the Government to demonstrate a situation that is far from ground realities.”
The limitations of these numbers notwithstanding, it still gives us a sense of the scale of displacement and the task of resettlement at hand. All this is in a country of a population of 20,238,000 people of which about 18 percent are said to be Tamils (including the plantation Tamils) and 7 percent are Muslims. All this to say that a large section of Tamil and Muslim people have been displaced repeatedly. The task of resettlement is not an easy one and cannot be done without efficiency and more importantly a political will that is based on the welfare of the affected people. That political will as we know is absent in the sri lankan government and this attitude is being supported and encouraged rather than challenged by neighbouring countries’ governments with the indian government topping the list.
Why did people leave their land?
Before we embark on the journey of resettlement for a displaced Tamil or Muslim person, it is important to remember here the reasons for displacement. They are as follows:
- First of all there is the war itself, so to speak, which involves a range of different reasons for the displacement of people who live in the war zone. A significant reason often has been the takeover of material belongings of persons such as land, houses apart from more public premises such as schools, hospitals etc by both state and non-state armed forces. With the latter, the question of voluntary ‘donation’ of such property by persons is often quoted. The ‘voluntary’ nature of such an act has never been a simple story in northern and eastern sri lanka from the very beginning of this war. While we cannot club these two kinds of take over together, as they happen in different circumstances, any attempt to justify either would be fallacious and dishonest to the history of the ground reality for three decades.
- There is of course one of the most obvious reasons of persons fleeing their land due to the horrors of war. Many flee after having near death experiences and many others after having lost a large number of people in their immediate and extended family. At other times it is a loss of livelihood or the inability to live in repressive regimes. More often than not, it is a combination of one or more of these factors.
- Yet another cause of displacement has been when persons have been asked to leave. One of the most important examples of this is the expulsion of the Muslims from the north in October 1990 by the LTTE. They were asked to leave within 24 hours notice and many of them continue to live in Puttalam and other areas and are only now slowly beginning to return back to northern sri lanka. This is important as it was a targeted displacement of an entire community. Needless to say, in the course of war, the army regularly displaces large numbers of people by asking them to leave any given area.
- Natural disasters have been another very significant reason for displacement in sri lanka. This has included the tsunami. It was said that about a million were displaced due to the Tsunami. The island nation saw unprecedented disaster in terms of death and displacement due to the Tsunami. Its 1000 km coast was affected and 13 out of the country’s 25 districts were devastated. Rains remain a regular menace in sri lanka. For example, during the rains in February 2011, which was only after a short gap after the devastating rains in December 2010, 1 million people in 15 districts of the country were said to be affected, out of which 873,106 people are affected by flood in the Eastern provinces of Ampara, Trincomalee and Batticaloa and the Northern Provinces of Vavuniya, Mullaitivu and Killinochchi alone. Apart from this, 75,245 persons were reported to be displaced in 241 IDP camps and welfare centers in these districts.
- Declaration of High Security Zones (HSZ) has been a very major source of displacement. For example, in 2003 the numbers were as follows: 18 HSZs were established in the Jaffna peninsula alone, covering 160 sq.kms. or 18% of the total landmass. The LTTE said that nearly 30,000 houses, 300 schools, 25 roads, 40 industries and more than 42,000 acres of cultivable land are within HSZs. There is absolutely no legal basis as per sri lankan or international law for the setting up of HSZs and the takeover of civilian land for the same. One would imagine then that at least at the ‘end’ of the war, this land will be available for people to return to them. Instead the sri lankan government has converted HSZs into Special Economic Zones (SEZ). A classic example of this is Sampur in Trinconamalee District. In the beginning the declarations of land as HSZ in this area lead to the prevention of 4000 families returning to their land. Later in 2008 the gazette vis-à-vis this land was changed and allowed for some returnees. Yet there are 6000 people displaced by the takeover of this land. In this atmosphere the Mahinda Rajapakse government has declared this land to be turned into a Special Economic Zone. On this SEZ will be set up a 500 MW power plant based on am MOU signed between the sri lankan Government, the Ceylon Electricity Board and a Government of India Enterprise, NTPCL. The history of takeover of land in northern and eastern sri lanka by the government is not new. It often involves placing of Sinhala civilians in these areas. The maps of the Mahaveli Project are a stunning testimony to the organised takeover of the land of Tamil and Muslim people in northern and eastern sri lanka. It is a case of perfect harmony between unequal models of ‘development and fascism.
- All of the above addresses the issue of ‘internal displacement’. There are many who leave the shores of their land and go where they can afford to go. Tamilnadu alone 73,000 refugees live in the 112 camps and another 34,000 outside, according to government figures. The number who have returned since 2009 are nominal. About 1, 46,000 sri lankan refugees have registered with the UNHCR from across 64 countries around the world. As common sense would tell us, this number is only the tip of the iceberg.
Why can’t people go back to their land?
“Over 300,000 were displaced as a direct result of the conflict and according to UNHCR data as at 12 August 2010 around 196,909 had returned to their place of origin, although questions remain as to the nature of return and durable solutions. According to the same UNHCR figures it is estimated that 34,370 still remain in the Manik Farm camps in Vavuniya and 2,239 in Jaffna -a total of 36,609 IDPs now remain in camps. Another 70,949 persons live with host families in Jaffna, Mannar and Vavuniya districts. Although the Government and the UN state that 90% have been resettled in the North, due to the confusion in the use of the terms ‘return’ and ‘resettlement’ there are questions as to the real situation in the area, especially of those who have returned to their district of origin but are re-displaced, stranded or have to live in sub standard conditions.”
That quote in many ways lays down the ground for our understanding of the issues at hand.
1. First of all, the land that belonged to any family needs to be available for return. A number of scenarios are currently in place. The land might be taken over by SEZs which were earlier HSZs; the land might be taken over by the army or the navy for ‘security purposes’, which cannot be challenged under the present regime; existence of mines is a major impediment. Often residential lands maybe demined but that does not assure livelihoods as cultivation cannot be undertaken.
2. Then arises the question of where the people are to return to. In cases where the villages of persons have been recorded in the camp, they return there. In the absence of such a record they are sent to places in an ad hoc manner without any proper process or consultations with affected persons. Those who have been repeatedly displaced especially have been subject to this situation.
3. If land is available for any given family, in order to return, they need to possess valid documentation of ownership. This documentation is almost not in the possession of these families as they have been lost or destroyed due to the conflict. Many families often do not know which authority to approach in order to receive duplicate documents due to the loss of original. Even if the governing office is identified, people have to wait more than a year to receive such documentation.
4. In cases where documents are available there is still a lot of confusion. Boundaries marked earlier have changed over the years due to war. The reshuffling of districts by the government creates confusion over which administrative unit a piece of land belongs to. This is leading to a lot of dispute with government agencies as well as among the people. The government has no mechanism in place to address these concerns. Further there is also the problem of secondary occupation of land. Land has been occupied in these areas by people who are not the original owners for decades. This then leads to conflict over title. The government has not even begun to address such basic concerns.
5. Here let’s remember that an IDP has to forgo her place in the camp in order to embark on this journey of resettlement. Thus during the time that she does not have the documents or for the time that the inefficient system takes to deal with allocation of land to her, she is left in limbo, with no roof over her head or basic necessities. This interim period is proving to be a significant issue as they end up staying with host families for long periods of time without any support whatsoever from the government.
6. Hypothetically if the land is duly allotted, often residential land is given preference over other land. As mentioned earlier this makes cultivation, the primary occupation, very difficult to begin. Further, no assistance is providing for ‘resettlement’ of IDPs. As soon as they return, they are left with no resources to fend for themselves on land that they were forced to leave as long ago as 25 years ago in some cases. Basic amenities are not provided in the period that they need to get back on their feet. The intense control on humanitarian agencies makes it impossible for them to fill this void.
7. Further, if any given person did not own land earlier or cannot acquire the relevant documentation needed to claim land after much effort, such person will not be allotted land as per the sri lankan government’s new rule that bans the allocation of land.
8. Here it is important to remember that in some cases, such as the Muslims returning to Jaffna, it is the most destitute who wish to return. Many Muslims in Puttalam, for instance, who were displaced in 1990, have established themselves enough to take care of their basic needs and may no longer wish to return to their native land in Jaffna. Others who have not had the luxury to make ends meet and remain in camps are the ones who are returning. In such a situation, the effects of all the above mentioned factors are further exacerbated.
It is in this context that the indian Government is undertaking a large housing project in northern sri lanka. The indian Government in association with two ‘consultant companies’, Hindustan Prefab Limited and RPP Infra Projects Limited are to build 50,000 houses in northern sri lanka for IDPs. They are to begin with a 1000 house pilot project. There has been a delay in the project and all we seem to know, and not for certain, is that the tussle is about the amount of control that the Indian an sri lankan governments are to have over the project, with the former, in true ‘big brother’ style wanting complete control. As the project is evidently a money making enterprise for governments and companies alike, this tussle for control will not be solved easily.
The indian Government in its official statement has blamed the laxity of the sri lankan Government in giving them the list of beneficiaries of the pilot project even. We do know that only those with title deeds to land are to be allotted houses. The problem with documentation will then persist. The systems of governance are not clear, leave along transparent. The corruption and other concerns that we are all so accustomed to will of course occur in abundance. Beyond all of this the political question remains of how the indian government can agree to undertake such a project and negotiate with the sri lankan government only on commerce and not on even the most basic human rights standards, such as a compulsory compensation package being given to the affected persons.
The question of land, in history, has never been relegated to the sphere of negotiation between the state, companies and the people; it has always also been about negotiations within the family. There is a lot of talk about women-headed households and women being given title to land and homes etc. the practice however has remained a challenge. For one, providing documents in the name of women is only considered an option in the absence of a man. Even in the absence of a man, the burden of proving such a ‘fact’ falls upon the woman; irrespective of whether she is protected with equal rights by policy (local and otherwise) or not.
Each of the concerns listed above can be broken down into minutiae in the manner that we have begun to do in this article vis-à-vis land issues. There is need for a lot of rigour and attention to details while working on sri lanka in the present situation. This is for two reasons. First, is the one discussed above, of the invisibilising of people within grand slogans. Second, is the strategic importance of interventions in the smaller details which will take us a long way in the short run with regards to people’s welfare but also in the long run in addressing the dictatorship.
If we step back for a second from all of the information provided above and imagine a perspective on sri lanka today as those who are ‘indian’ by default who have a critique of that identity and care for the well being of a massacred people; a few directions of thought can be pointed out.
First, we need to shy away from grand slogans that are based on jargon. We have done this for many a years. It is often seen that in complete destruction and the resulting chaos, there is an opportunity for radical change and new imaginations. This is one such moment in sri lanka. This is the moment for us to reflect and rethink our language, actions and outlook vis-à-vis sri lanka. A significant aspect of the everyday reality of sri lanka, namely the rebel forces, are absent for now. This might give us the opportunity to study the history of this country with an open mind and look back at what the ideologies ad actions of all those actors in the conflict has meant in the long run. Most importantly, it gives us the opportunity to finally fathom the reality of complex identities in sri lanka with all its varied experiences be it that of the Muslim, the Jaffna Tamil, the Batticaloa Tamil, the Trinconamalee Tamil, the plantation Tamil, the Tamil Christian, the poor burghers of the fishing communities and the Sinhalese. We need to understand the differences in histories, cultures, experiences and contemporary needs to intervene in a meaningful way. Broad brushstrokes have cost us a lot and left us with a dictatorship and we can no longer indulge in them.
Second, as activists in india with the safety and security of a passport from another country, we have to make the effort to go and see for ourselves the situation in different parts of northern and eastern sri lanka. I am constantly flummoxed by the number of colleagues who have worked on the issue but have never set foot on this land that they have cried themselves hoarse for, for decades. Those of us who have had the privilege to not be in the midst of war of this particular nature (as war takes many forms) will never quite fathom the realities of loss, destruction and of survival till we see it for ourselves. I still remember driving down the A9 highway through northern sri lank for the first time. The sights I saw will haunt me for the rest of my life. For those of us who have worked on issues relating to sri lank in india over the past decade, traveling there has been a challenge. Earlier generations of indian activists working on sri lanka have been able to travel more freely with the state or with the LTTE and others. We have to make the effort to go there even if it is with institutions that we are not in agreement with, such as international NGOs for example, just to see and meet the people we claim to represent. Traveling with the state of course is neither an option nor useful. But there are other ways and we must do this at the earliest given the shrinking space for even the most basic humanitarian work which is usually seen as being non-threatening by governments. Especially for those of us in tamilnadu who speak a version of the language that we share with the Tamils of the island, this is absolutely necessary. In these times of non-rigorous, dishonest journalism we have to make the effort to believe what we see and hear for ourselves. The values and practice of that rationality are of enormous value in this situation. Besides, there is always a need for another pair of hands in situations such as that in sri lanka.
This brings us to the question of news. We all are fully aware of both the lack of ethics or commitment in some parts of the journalist world today as well as the massive crackdown on freedom of expression within the media that has cost us many lives. In this situation we have to read between the lines. We have to constantly compare and contrast news from various sources. We need to do extensive research on the background of each of these sources and remember them as we read them. A version of the truth somewhere seems to lay in the midst of this cacophony of information much of which is not reliable in and of itself either because it is from those who are bought by the powers that be or from those who stand their ground in a principled manner and are thus hounded with threats and impediments as they try to do their work.
What then needs to be the focus of our work? There are a range of concerns and many of us need to spread ourselves across each of these areas and come to it with our own time, energy, resources and expertise. As a political stand however, I have come to a place where it is important that we never release the pressure on the Indian government most importantly, above and beyond all else. Solidarity with the people of sri lanka and activists working in very difficult circumstances and regular contact with them is imperative. However we need to always remember our place vis-à-vis sri lank as being from the indian ‘big brother’ nation. Let us remember for a moment the work of activists from the USA vis-à-vis issues in Mexico for instance. They need to focus on the US government not just for strategic reasons but also to avoid taking on a similar attitude towards a country and a people who have been made to feel small repeatedly. In extreme cases well meaning indian organizations are partnering with the sri lankan government for humanitarian work. This is a good example as such an organization, one would imagine, would ask the sri lankan government, if there were no local humanitarian agencies who could do this work and why they were being brought in from the outside. Further, one would imagine that they would then reflect on the politics of bringing them in instead of giving such a responsibility to a local group. We need to be very careful of simple solidarities and owning up issues as our own. While shared histories are our strength, different histories, places, identities (government given as they maybe) are a reminder of the power relations that exists within us as activists.
Last but not the least, if there is one grand slogan we need to put our weight behind it is to declare the Mahinda Rajapakse regime to be a dictatorship. In a confusing and absurd state of events, this is not commonplace. Discourses of war crimes and genocide, apart from being simplistic and often strategically harmful to affected persons do not capture the whole gamut of the present reality of the sri lankan state. Let’s never forget that dictatorships capture not just land, property and people but also minds and hearts. Let’s never forget that dictatorship does not just kill people, tree and animals but also hopes, dreams, imaginations and thought. It is incumbent upon us to work towards keeping that which makes us what we are. In the context of sri lanka, that involves declaring loud and clear that sri lanka is now under a dictatorship and we will not stand witness while it digs its heels into this scarred island.
At the end of it all, we are left with a sense of hopelessness and/or exhaustion. This is an important question to address as it takes up a lot of time and energy and leaves us with very little work that seems meaningful. The feeling is, as we know, is justified. However, we need to remember many a things that are also truths to move us to a place where we can think beyond the haze of tiredness. Those truths are, among other things, the sadistic proof that war is to survival, the opportunity for innovation in chaos (crass as that may sound) and the freshness of a new generation that has seen the hardships, the survival and most importantly has had enough! We need to learn from history and move ahead if not for anything else but because we cannot stand still. We come from a long history of suffering, survival, loss, commitment, love, hate and everything in between. We do not need to honour this lineage but we do need to use it. We need to use it with respect as well as irreverence which will take us to places that where others have not been before and give us the opportunity to see worlds that few imagined they would see.
Note 1: The names of countries and states will not to capitalised in this article in symbolic protest of the default respect for the nation and nationalism.
Note 2: This Article is for Balagopal who will remain an eternal inspiration for his courage, vision, respect and irreverence.