An indecent proposal

Is it too much to demand coherence and consistency from the Rajapakse government? Speaking from Phuket in Thailand recently, the Foreign Minister acknowledged that the government would not be able to resettle over 280,000 IDPs in 180 days, stating that only 60% of those interned would be able to return home. He admitted that this was short of the 80% the government had earlier promised would be resettled in this time frame. Competing for vapidity, the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Palitha Kohona, in an interview with Himal Southasian published last week, proposed something even more incredible and worth quoting in full.

Himal: In June, Basil Rajapakse, senior adviser to the President; Defence Secretary of Sri Lanka Gothbaya Rajapakse; and Secretary to the President Lalith Weertunga, shared with India’s External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee, that the IDP camps would be disbanded in 180 days. Is this the time frame you still propose?

PK: I think, judging from our own experience, this is attainable. In 1987, when 187,000 people were displaced from the Eastern Province as a result of the fighting, we sent them back to their homes within 12 months. Then after the tsunami, a million people were displaced. They were all back in their homes within 18 months. With that experience, we should be able to achieve a substantial proportion of this commitment.

Not only does Kohona contradict his boss, he remarkably contradicts himself in the space of four sentences. It is nevertheless an interview worth reading especially for those who believe this administration will foster peace in Sri Lanka. I don’t believe it can or will. What does, for example “a substantial portion” of a commitment to fully resettle over 280,000 IDPs within 180 days mean? Is this the 60% the Foreign Minister refers to? Is it less? Is it more? How much less? How much more? Why is there still no coherent, sincere set of policies in this regard? Why is the braggadocio of the President and his government to “take care” of peoples in these camps now conveniently forgotten in demands for assistance from the UN and NGOs like Caritas to meet urgent humanitarian needs? Kohona goes on to parrot the most pedantic reason for the internment of IDPs. After noting that the government’s care of the 300,000 IDPs escaping war was to give them huts for shelter and encircle them with barbed wire for their own protection, he states that it is the government’s care and concern for the Tamils in these camps that keeps them imprisoned. To allow them to move out is, he says, to risk their lives and limbs to mines laid by the LTTE and tellingly, the possibility of them discovering buried weapons caches. He disingenuously notes that “Having gone through the agony of this insurrection for 27 years, we were not going to run the risk of it being reignited due to lack of care on our part.” Given that Kohona wasn’t in Sri Lanka for 27 years, it’s a bit rich on his part to speak of the agony of war. As I suggested last week, all those, especially in government so sensitive to the indignity of war and espouse care and concern for those in IDP camps must be immediately dispatched to live with those interned, to suffer as they do, for the duration of their imprisonment. The larger argument, of keeping Tamils interned for own safety, is also specious. For sure, although we have never been told where or in what numbers, landmines pose a threat to returnees. This is also not to suggest that cadre of the LTTE are not present in these camps and amongst these people. Kohona himself, despite a marked ignorance of IT, suggests that a 74-year-old man who operated “the LTTE computer” and “the database” of the LTTE promptly fled to Singapore after being released in deference to his age.

Weapons however, buried underground or present above surface, need limbs to dig up and operate. Limbs need minds to control. Minds driven to violence are those who have lost hope in alternatives, and eventually, deluded by the righteousness of their cause. This is quite simply the genesis of the LTTE we have just military squashed. Tellingly however, the underlying grievances that begot the LTTE endure, and with each day of internment, grow in post-war Sri Lanka. What we have defeated thus through war we are now fomenting through misguided policies.

Why for instance cannot we countenance a process through which sincere, inclusive, progressive political dialogue to address these underlying grievances occurs in parallel to the expedited released of these IDPs? Or is it the case that in private, the government acutely realises that the violence resulting from the supine proposals of the APRC, or the vacuity of the President’s ideas for power-sharing, can only be contained through continued internment of these peoples, under the canard that it is for their own security and safety? Why cannot we think of an alternative? Is it really too fantastic to design a peace process, championed by a government in a position of unprecedented political power and a deified President, that embraces extremist ideologies, including violent secessionism, in the one way that they cannot endure – inclusive dialogue. The outcomes of such participatory dialogue, where through consensus vital concerns of regarding reconciliation, dignity, development, rights, gender, governance and peacebuilding can be met, is the best guarantee against violence arising from marginalisation and discrimination. Sadly though, it is not a process we will see under the Rajapakse administration. Instead, what we have are, at best, patronising policies that are an affront to dignity and intelligence alike.

What we lack more than the means to take care of those interned is the emphasis that that these are lives worth treating with dignity and humaneness. In continuing to see these people through the lens of war, we not only deracinate their hope, we undermine all our futures. Hotel, voluntary organisations, blue-chip companies and NGOs are all struggling to help those interned but must realise that they are not supporting a peace process. Keeping those interned alive to survive another day in these camps misses the point of peacebuilding, though it serves to satiate our conscience. It is our deep, private fear of what may become of these people when they respond to and remember (and they will) the violence meted out to them today that compels charity and action. This is not really helping peacebuilding, for it is a cowardly escapism adorned as humanitarian aid.

The knee-jerk reaction of government would be to brand such concerns as the unpatriotic whimpers of the new and only minority in Sri Lanka. But who are they to define peace for us, and at such great cost to our peoples? This is not some Western agenda to propose, a Christian conspiracy to shun or an NGO canard to violently counter. This is essential to our future, our identity and peace. It is the firmament of our identity, the key to all our dignity and national pride. The internment of these peoples is simply wrong. It defies all logic of peacebuilding. It is the result of an insecure, insincere government that treats its peoples as terrorists or patriots and within that limited frame sees them, for all its rhetoric, as Sinhala Buddhist or suspect minorities and outsiders. This egregious internment, coupled with the worsening censorship of dissent, the unbridled violence of brutish government ministers openly claiming the murder and violence against journalists, a prudish, enforced, inauthentic morality and an overwhelming hypocrisy reminds us of the worst duplicity of the erstwhile LTTE in saying one thing, and doing quite another.

To then believe Kohona’s and this government’s convoluted logic then would be as tragic as the belief that they are even remotely interested in, much less capable of, peacebuilding. This would not, sadly, be the first time a government hugely competent in war and ultimately victorious would fail terribly at rebuilding polity and society after protracted violence.

It is tragically a lesson we may have to learn the hard way.

Published in the Sunday Leader, 2nd August 2009

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