There is something rotten going on in Sri Lanka. More than two years after comprehensively dispensing with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elaam (LTTE), the government is at risk of losing the peace. Rather than reducing the presence of the armed forces in occupied areas and promoting a peaceful transition, the government is instead militarizing the country. Far from realizing the promised peace dividend, the north and east now consists of a patchwork of military installations and high security zones.
An index of just how bad the situation is can be traced to the plight of so-called internally displaced people, or IDPs. Internal displacement is hardly new to the island nation. Sri Lankans, and in particular Muslim and Tamil minorities, suffered successive waves of internal displacement throughout the twentieth century. Internationally and domestically-financed development schemes in the interior of the country resulted in mass displacement during the 1950s and 1970s. Since the onset of war in the 1980s the numbers swelled again, with hundreds of thousands more relocating abroad as refugees.
Surprisingly few people actually know how many displaced people there are in the country today. The answer seems to depend on who is asked.
According to the United Nations, there are almost 300,000 Sri Lankans still internally displaced after decades of war and more recent natural disasters, including the 2004 tsunami. Many of them purportedly languish in temporary "welfare camps" or with friends and relatives. The United Nations refugee agency claims that an additional 195,000 displaced people were voluntarily “relocated” either back to their place of origin or to a permanent settlement since the end of hostilities in 2009.
Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan government contends that there are probably closer to 30,000 displaced people in the country today, though its data is exceedingly difficult to interpret. To the Sri Lankan authorities, a civilian is only genuinely displaced if he or she is officially registered in a welfare camp. The hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans on the move and in limbo are simply not counted. If the IDP is not living in a designated camp, the IDP does not exist. As a measure of the government´s determination to “end” the displacement crisis, it is closing down its own Ministry of Resettlement by the end of 2011.
Notwithstanding fundamental disagreements over the scale of internal displacement, both international humanitarian agencies and the Sri Lankan government authorities put a premium on swift relocation. And while there appears to be agreement that the total number of IDPs must be diminished, there are fundamental disagreements about minimum standards to guarantee their protection. In a worrying sign, the government abruptly called off efforts to craft a national policy on return, resettlement, relocation, integration and reintegration in 2009 and lacks a clear vision moving forward.
The long road to relocation
There are formidable challenges to achieving protection and durable solutions. Many of them are acutely “political” and connected to persistent angst on the part of the Sri Lankan government with “terrorist” remnants of the LTTE and threats posed by resurgent minority groups. Others are connected to the legacy of armed conflict, natural disaster, and more subtle demographic and socio-economic transformations in Sri Lankan society. Yet one of the most intractable obstacles is the government´s decidedly cynical approach to the “IDP problem”.
Many Sri Lankan citizens have been repeatedly displaced – first by war, then by natural disasters, and also by "development" schemes. A disturbing example of this is presently underway in the recently recaptured eastern city of Tincomalee. There, the government has been permanently evicting people under the guise of counter-terrorism and development. A succession of extraordinary gazettes issued since 2006 declared swathes of one district, Sampur, a "special economic zone" and more recently a "high security zone". This is designed to ensure the rapid construction of a coal power plant – a deal recently signed between the Sri Lankan authorities and India. The only problem is that their intention is to build the facility on lands previously owned by displaced families.
There is in fact a bewildering array of obstacles compounding Sri Lanka’s relocation dilemma.
For one, some areas are still simply physically too dangerous to inhabit. Many northern and eastern municipalities remain heavily mined and littered with unexploded ordnance. Settlements and common property resources such as water reservoirs were deliberately mined by both the armed forces and the LTTE. Progress in removing them has dramatically slowed owing to the government’s refusal to allow experienced demining agencies into areas where the latest round of fighting occurred.
Making matters worse is inadequacy of social services and livelihood opportunities in the very places to which the government wishes to relocate the displaced. A major pull factor for any resettling household is access to education, health, and social services. Yet in most areas slated for relocation, such services are non-existent and employment opportunities in limited supply. Indeed, a recent World Food Programme assessment determined that more than half of all northerners were living under the poverty line. Many IDPs are understandingly reluctant to move from a state of misery to destitution.
What is more, there are enormous legal obstacles to the reacquisition of property vacated by displaced families over the past generation. Owing to the country´s Prescription Ordinance, ownership of fixed property is allowed to any resident after ten years of occupancy. Unsurprisingly, thousands of homes evacuated during the conflict were subsequently re-occupied by new tenants. One of the most intractable challenges confronting the government is how to reconcile competing claims and ensure fair restitution and compensation schemes.
A dark future
The international community was spectacularly ineffective in influencing the Sri Lankan government´s self-styled "humanitarian operation" to liberate the north and east from 2006 to 2009. And notwithstanding years of supporting Sri Lanka, multilateral and bilateral relief and development organizations have had little impact on the government´s policies to protect and promote durable solutions for the displaced. Instead, foreigners are increasingly viewed with suspicion and publicly vilified. And having skillfully played his hand, President Rajapaksa´s administration enjoys astonishing popularity amongst Southerners.
There appears to be little respite in store for the country´s displaced. The passing of the 18th Amendment – which removes the limit on the number of terms the President can serve - has shored up the Executive´s authority. Notwithstanding pressure from the United Nations Secretary General´s Panel to investigate and prosecute war crimes, the government´s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission issued only tepid interim conclusions and recommendations have yet to be implemented. The government´s commitment to redressing real and perceived grievances is dubious: in 2010, it committed just over $15 million to IDPs as compared to $1.9 billion to defense.
The internally displaced will in all likelihood be excluded from the political and economic mainstream for the foreseeable future. Despite the introduction of an Election Committee for displaced voters, few know of its existence much less how to participate. Documents essential for voter registration and access to social services have yet to be produced and disseminated with long-term implications for voting patterns. All of these challenges are as relevant for so-called "old" IDPs from before 2009 as much as "new" IDPs from the recent round of fighting. Yet in the absence of national land and return policies and a more concerted attempt to redress past wrongs, the tragic legacy of displacement will most likely be renewed instability.