by Kath Noble
The government has been trumpeting its success in resettling IDPs to all and sundry of late.
Hardly a week goes by without some reference to the official statistics, which indicate that at the end of July there were only 5,443 people remaining at Manik Farm, while another 7,329 were staying in welfare centres elsewhere in the Northern Province.
That’s nothing compared to the hundreds of thousands the government was accommodating at the end of the war. What’s more, according to a recent statement by the Minister of Resettlement, the whole process will be finished by the end of September, with the resettled having been provided with ‘all their requirements’.
In a sense, this is only fair, since its critics were just as vocal in their absolute certainty that the displaced would be kept in camps indefinitely, or possibly exterminated – I recall much talk of Hitler and his final solution.
Still, it may not be accurate.
Last week, the Diocese of Jaffna issued a report that raised serious doubts about the government’s claims, suggesting that it was deliberately misleading the public about the ground reality in the North – in particular, the authors said that resettlement was a long way from satisfactory.
It is an appalling failure of the media that most of us will not be sure who to believe. The recovery of the war-affected regions of the country is one of the most important stories of the day, yet instead of sending reporters to find out what is happening – where people are living, how they are surviving and indeed what they think about their future in a newly-reunited Sri Lanka – we are reduced to reading about what GL Peiris tells various dignitaries. A few days ago, for example, it was reported that he had informed the Archbishop of Colombo that many foreign visitors had been deeply impressed by its progress. What conclusions we are supposed to draw from such ‘news’ is not clear.
Meanwhile, the ‘commentariat’ is divided into people who blindly accept what they are told by the government and people who always believe the exact opposite as a matter of principle.
I suspect that there are two elements to the truth.
First, the government continues to believe that the only displaced people who count are those who left their homes in the final year of the war.
The official figures that are publicised so eagerly don’t include at least tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Sri Lankans who are still very much displaced. The war produced IDPs over several decades, not just a few months in 2008 and 2009. Many of them are living in pathetic conditions. They are spread across Sri Lanka in makeshift ‘temporary’ accommodation, sometimes with relatives and friends. They are also abroad, as the government finally acknowledged last week by announcing that in 2013 it will start negotiations with India on the return of refugees from camps in Tamil Nadu.
Resettlement of these people is a much harder task, which is why the government generally prefers to pretend that they don’t exist – there are bound to be numerous land and other resource conflicts, such as the one Rishad Bathiudeen inadvertently brought to our attention with his intervention in the dispute between Muslim and Tamil fishermen in Mannar.
If the government were really serious, it would admit that there is still a lot of work to do, and it would get going with it straight away.
Secondly, there was never any plan to provide the resettled with ‘all their requirements’, so the suggestion that they are perfectly fine is bound to be a lie.
The government only ever intended to give them basic materials. The rest is up to the IDPs themselves, plus India and its project to construct 50,000 houses and whatever contributions NGOs want to make. According to the government, whoever fails to make the beneficiary lists of these agencies will just have to get back to work and save up if they want to rebuild their lives.
It apparently doesn’t matter that the destruction was at least partly the fault of the state.
Some people may be inclined to argue that funds are limited and so priorities have to be set, and it is obviously right to prioritise among the IDPs according to the urgency of their situations. Indeed, considered in isolation, they would have a point.
However, let us think for a moment of the areas in which the government has not been concerned with prioritising.
Take the expansion of facilities for the Security Forces. Camps have been set up at great cost all over the Northern Province. They are within their rights and indeed wise to do so, since they must have a presence throughout the island – although they should obviously act in a much less careless manner, minimising the disruption caused – but this is not the point.
What is important is that it has been done extremely rapidly. This shows what can be done when the government is truly determined.
Money is not an issue – it was announced last week during the visit of the Chinese Defence Secretary that the government would be taking another $100 million loan to build accommodation for military personnel in the North.
Never mind that this could buy another 20,000 Indian houses, although they are certainly needed. Borrowing from China means that there won’t even be jobs.
Next come Buddha statues. While the government has been humming and hawing about which of the people who dodged bullets and bombs for a generation should receive help in rebuilding their homes – resulting in India making even slower progress than usual – and worrying about how to monitor the work of NGOs who come forward to contribute in case they mention inconvenient topics like human rights, elections or horror of horrors a political solution, people keen to erect Buddha statues have faced no such bureaucratic hurdles. There is apparently ‘better than single window clearance’ for such investments. Buddha statues have sprouted at a tremendous rate in places where there are virtually no Buddhists to appreciate them, most disturbingly actually on top of Hindu temples.
Such priorities don’t sound like Buddhism to me.
Given that neither the spread of Buddhism nor the entrenchment of the Security Forces is welcomed by the population of the Northern Province, it is only natural for them to make a comparison with the efforts the government is making towards resettlement.
We may not hear about their unhappiness due to another key point the Diocese of Jaffna made in its report – intimidation and violence are still rife in the North.
Reconciliation by force must be one of those ‘home-grown’ ideas we’ve heard so much about.
It is safe to suggest that no elected body representing the people of the Northern Province would have dared to take decisions in this way, which is why provincial council elections are needed. Under the current system of governance, the population has near zero ability to influence policy on matters of the utmost importance to them. Members of Parliament from the North have absolutely no power, and their moral authority as elected representatives doesn’t get them very far, since the government doesn’t care what people who aren’t going to vote for it think.
This is presumably precisely why it is so determined to maintain the status quo, undemocratic as it most certainly is.
Sadly, the lunatic fringe has brought us to a situation in which it is necessary to add that this doesn’t mean that Sri Lanka is a dictatorship.
The government may soon start to demand praise for that too. Mahinda Rajapaksa hasn’t yet appointed a Minister of Elections, but no doubt somebody could be persuaded to cross over and take up the position, after which it’s just a matter of counting up the number of times the country has been to the polls since he became President