Sri Lanka's military strategy to curb Tamil nationalist sentiments among IDPs under pressure

(Lanka Polity - July 20, 2009) International media reports and unofficial local reports say that Sri Lanka government's military strategy to suppress the nationalist sentiments among the Tamils displaced from the formerly rebel-held Vanni in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka is under pressure due to international human rights concerns, lack of resources to hold people for long period of time and also due to the unrest among the inmates of the military-run refugee camps.

The government tirelessly counters media and other reports regarding the situation in the refugee camps. Government officials presented facts last week to prove that the skeptical media reports on the mortality rate in the camps were inaccurate and the rates were within the accepted parameters. However, the government has pressed the aid workers to sign agreements to prevent leaking out information regarding the camp life to media. The government has to permit the aid workers to enter into the well guarded camps since they are a vital part for running them. The inmates of the camps are restricted to move out and the outsiders sans the permitted individuals are allowed into them.

The camps cost nearly $400,000 (over Rs. 45 million) a day to operate. The U.N. called for $270 million in aid to Sri Lanka this year, but only $96 million has been promised. "The lack of funds forced aid groups have cut back on fruit and vegetables for the camps, leaving many with little more than rice and lentils," AP reported.

In January, the government asked international donors to help build five camps — with 39,000 semi-permanent homes, 7,800 toilets and 390 community centers — to hold civilians for up to three years. This proposal came under heavy criticism from the Western nations. The government says to India and other international players that the majority of the refugees will be resettled within this year.

In June, chicken pox was rampant and cases of typhoid, tuberculosis, skin and respiratory infections, hepatitis A, scabies and diarrhea have begun cropping up, according to U.N. reports. The camps currently have only about 9,215 toilets while 15,000 are needed, UN officials said. There is not enough suitable land to build more toilet, they point out. 

More than 35 percent of children under 5 are suffering from wasting, or acute malnutrition, according to a July 3 government presentation leaked to the AP.

The Sunday Times reported on July 19 that 14 new encephalitis cases were detected in the Vavuniya General Hospital over the past week. With that, Vavuniya-based United Nations staff providing relief services to the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) have been advised to keep away from the hospital due to the outbreak of meningitis and encephalitis, the paper said. Sunday Times further said while the fatality rate of meningitis cases treated in all government hospitals in Sri Lanka from 2000 to 2005 had dropped to less than five percent, the fatality rate in the Vavuniya General Hospital is about 50 percent.

"Tents meant for five are packed with up to 15 people, water is scarce and the seasonal rains expected in the coming weeks could create a health nightmare, several foreign aid workers said. Relatives are not allowed to visit, although many gather at the barbed wire fence hoping to get messages to their loved ones. Opposition lawmakers are barred as well, and independent journalists are only allowed in on rare, military-guided tours.
Signs of unrest are growing. Several weeks ago, inmates held a protest demanding they be reunited with family members in other fenced-off sections of the camp, aid workers said. Military troops shot in the air to disperse the angry residents," AP reported.

Several hand-written posters were put up in a part of the camps supporting the militarily defeated Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE) several weeks ago alerting military intelligence regarding the developments among the camp inmates.

Meanwhile, President Mahinda Rajapakse said in an election rally in Uva Province last week that the authorities released 3000 over 60 years of age people from the camps and a number of aged LTTE supporters got freedom with them.

Sinhala majority of the country widely support the government's policy on the displaced Tamils and the ruling party is slated a landslide victory in the upcoming elections.


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