17 February 2009
Sri Lankan government last week unveiled plans to detain a large proportion of the Tamil civilian population of Vanni for at least three years in concentration camps which it calls ‘welfare villages’.
Tamil political activists both in Sri Lanka and India reacted with outrage at the proposal that remind of concentration camps in World War 2 Germany and, in recent times, Bosnia. Alarmed human rights organisations also expressed their concern but in somewhat muted fashion considering nature of the proposal.
However, more interestingly there no response at all from international powers that has been espousing liberal values and preaching human rights to Sri Lanka.
The government proposal calls for creating four villages, totalling nearly 1,000 acres, in the Vavuniya district and a fifth 100-acre camp in the neighbouring Mannar area, to house approximately 250,000 displaced Tamils.
The villages would have 39,000 semi-permanent homes, 7,800 toilets and 780 septic tanks, as well as parks, post offices, banks, stores and about 390 community centers with televisions and radios, according to the plan.
All Tamils fleeing the fighting will be locked up in the centres and will have no choice on whether they stay in the camps. They will be screened for terrorist connections and then held under armed guard, with only those with relatives inside the camp allowed to come and go. Single youngsters will be confined to the camps.
“Of course, it will not be voluntary — we need to check everyone,” Rajiva Wijesinha, the Secretary of the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, said.
“This is a situation where we’re dealing with terrorists who infiltrate civilian populations. Security has to be paramount.” He said that it was the only way to prevent LTTE attacks.
Wijesinha, added that the camps would be run by the government but the military would have "great involvement."
"There is a very clear security threat and we are not going to play games with the lives of our people," he said.
Wijesinha also accused Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and international aid agencies of bias towards the LTTE and said, for that reason, the Government would limit aid groups’ access to camps and allow journalists to visit only on government tours.
It remains unclear how long displaced Tamils will be forced to remain in the camps. The Sri Lankan government had originally planned to detain civilians there for three years but, following concern from humanitarian groups, said they hoped to resettle 80 per cent within a year.
A Tamil political analyst opined that Sri Lanka’s was revised timeframes are to soothe the humanitarian groups and it will keep the Tamils locked up for at least three years as it originally planned or for longer period.
Tamil politicians outraged
Indian and Sri Lankan Tamil MPs expressed outrage and urged the international community not to fund the camps without direct oversight and independent media access.
“These are nothing but concentration camps,” said Raman Senthil, an Indian Tamil MP.
“Why should they be in camps? If they are citizens they should be rehabilitated straight away.” Senthil told the Times newspaper.
Mano Ganeshan, a Sri Lankan Tamil MP, told the Times: “I don’t want to say concentration camp yet, but they’re already detention camps and military grilling stations. They should be run and monitored by the international community.”
Suren Surendiran, of the British Tamils Forum, told the Times that the camps were “like the detention centres where the Jews were held in World War Two”.
Rights organisations concerned
Human Rights Watch called the camps “detention centres” and said that they violated UN guidelines on internally displaced people, which say they can only be detained or interned under exceptional circumstances.
“The Sri Lankan Government has not demonstrated that such circumstances exist,” said Charu Hogg, a Human Rights Watch spokeswoman.
Amnesty International said that the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights obliged Sri Lanka to refrain from arbitrarily depriving any person’s right to liberty.
“The Government wants international assistance but not international standards,” said Yolanda Foster, Amnesty’s Sri Lanka expert.
There was no reaction from foreign government or political parties in Sri Lanka, except for few lone voices.
Robert Evans, a Labour MEP who has visited Sri Lanka as chairman of the European Parliament Delegation on Relations with South Asia, said:
“These are not welfare camps, they are prisoner-of-war cum concentration camps.”
Former Foreign minister Mangala Samaraweera, a former close aide to President Mahinda Rajapakse, said it was part of a police to paint all Tamils, even moderate opponents of the Tamil Tigers, as potential terrorists and to silence all Tamil voices.
"It is amazing and terrible. A few months ago the government started registering all Tamils in Colombo on the grounds that they could be a security threat, but this could be exploited for other purposes like the Nazis in the 1930s. They're basically going to label the whole civilian Tamil population as potential terrorists, and as a result we are becoming a recruitment machine for the LTTE. Instead of winning hearts and minds of the Tamil people, we're pushing even the moderates into the arms of the LTTE by taking these horrendous steps," he told The Daily Telegraph.
Professor Wijesinha told the Times that President Rajapaksa’s office drafted the original proposal two weeks ago and circulated it to foreign embassies and aid agencies to raise funding.
One agency chief familiar with the plan said it would be very expensive.
Not only would the government and aid groups have to feed, clothe and house the residents, but since most of the civilians are farmers, the economy would suffer as their fields lay fallow, reported Associated Press.
A second proposal called for the construction of 40 schools to hold an expected 86,171 students. That plan asked international donors to fund everything from a photocopying machine for each school to instruments for the school band, at a total cost of about $14 million, Associated Press added.
De facto detention centres
The Government says that 32,000 civilians have fled the conflict zone in the past week and are being processed at 13 temporary camps. If the current internment camps are any indication of what the ‘welfare villages’ will be like they would be nothing less than concentration camps where Tamils will be locked up for a very long time and harassed day in day out.
Amnesty describes the existing camps as “de facto detention centres” and accuses the army of taking hostages by allowing people to leave only if a relative stays behind.