by MA Sumanthiran M.P
Your home is your castle. By this abiding legal tradition, many ‘castles’ in Sri Lanka are under siege. During the War many non-combatants in the North and East were driven from their homes. Even after the War was officially pronounced over, most Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) were prevented from returning to their homes.
In May of 2009 the Centre for Policy Alternatives filed a fundamental rights petition on behalf of 282,000 such IDPs who were being held against their will at Menik Farm in Vavyuina.
Despite the Constitutional mandate that fundamental rights cases be decided within 6 months of the filing date, the Court convened in October only to put off the case indefinitely. During this time, the Government of Sri Lanka was busy courting a different body –the international community.
On 26 May 2009, even as Menik Farm was detaining close to 282,000 IDPs, Hon. Mahinda Samarsinghe Minister of Disaster Management and Human Rights told the UN human rights council that, “the Government is firmly resolved to ensure that all those who have been dispossessed of their lands, are afforded the opportunity to return to the lands they once owned.
The Government will closely monitor and expedite making lands, previously used for security purposes, for resettlement/return.” This disconnect between the reality at home and Government’s rhetoric abroad persisted past the Minister’s statements.
On 23 September 2011, H.E. President Mahinda Rajapaksa told the United Nations General Assembly that 95% of the IDPs were resettled and “contrary to malicious propaganda, the numbers of the Armed forces personnel present in the Northern Province is at a minimal level.”
The assertion that 95% of IDPs have been resettled is certainly misguided. Over 100,000 IDPs have not been resettled in any sense. If this number represents a mere 5% of the original number of IDPs then by the President’s math over 2 million people were displaced. That figure represents almost the entire combined populace of the North and East. Beyond questioning this dubious calculation, the assertion that 95% of IDPs have been resettled forces us to question the Government’s notion of resettlement.
Yesterday I went to Mullaitivu to visit the last batch of Menik Farm IDPs to be ‘resettled’. One week ago, these people were told to gather whatever belongings they had because they would be going home. Once gathered, the Army transported them from Menik Farm to a remote jungle area near Keppapulavu and left them to fend for themselves.
The people were forced to clear the previously uninhabited land and set up rudimentary shelters to protect themselves from the elements. The location the Army chose is situated inland; those who were fishermen by trade have no way of securing their traditional means of livelihood. Because the local is remote, there are no schools the children can attend. Water is sparse as wells are only now being built. Likewise the food supply is inadequate.
The Government claims that these people have been resettled, but this is not resettlement by any standard. It is certainly not a demonstration of the government’s resolve “to ensure that all those who have been dispossessed of their lands, are afforded the opportunity to return to the lands they once owned.” What the Government has not said is the reason these people will not be returned to their homes is because their homes are occupied.
In addition to claiming that 95% of IDPs were resettled, the President claims that “the numbers of the Armed forces personnel present in the Northern Province is at a minimal level.” There is cause for serious alarm if 75% army deployment totaling 200,000 troops and comprising 14 out of 19 army divisions is the “minimal level.” Assuming even the most generous statistic, the ratio of solider to citizen in the North is 1 to 10. These soldiers are not just occupying space. They are occupying homes.
The government’s promise to resettle IDPs remains empty so long as the North and East remains full of soldiers. The very nature of displacement requires that the displacing element be removed before the object can be refilled. If the ‘clearing’ of the area was to free these people from the clutches of the LTTE, such rhetoric certainly souds hollow now.