The guns have fallen silent in Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war, but the deep wounds of ethnic animosity have not even begun to heal. An estimated 300,000 Tamil civilians remain essentially prisoners in internment camps run by a Sinhalese-dominated government.
To begin easing the deep mistrust between the communities, donor countries will have to pressure the government to be as serious about securing a just peace as it was earlier this year about winning the war.
The final months of combat in the decades-long war between the Sri Lankan Army and the rebel Tamil Tigers were brutal. As government forces tightened a noose around insurgent positions, hundreds of thousands of civilians were caught in the middle.
The army was indiscriminately launching artillery shells and air strikes into mixed areas of insurgents and innocents, and the Tigers shot at people who tried to escape. The U.N. estimated some 7,000 civilians, including at least 1,000 children, died and more than 10,000 were injured in the last few months of the war.
The legacy of atrocities on both sides clearly needs to be investigated if the Tamils and Sinhalese are to share the same island peacefully in the future. The immediate concern is for the 300,000 Tamils still interned behind barbed wire in camps with no government plan for returning them to their homes. Up to two thirds of them are in the giant camp at Manik Farm, where lives are lost every day to overcrowding, poor sanitation, lack of clean drinking water and inadequate medical services.
The government has blamed the United Nations and international aid agencies for the poor conditions, because those organizations are reluctant to build permanent or semi-permanent shelters to house the displaced. The real origin of the problem, however, is the government’s refusal to expedite its “screening” process and allow tens of thousands of the displaced to live with relatives or host families.
Furthermore, access for international agencies is restricted in ways that limit the effectiveness of aid delivery. Many of the restrictions appear designed to prevent the disclosure of conditions in the camps or the situation that civilians faced during the final months of the war. No private consultations with the displaced are allowed in the camps, and no cameras or recording equipment can be brought in.
Many of the displaced remain uncertain about the whereabouts or fate of family members from whom they have been separated. Many suspected of involvement with the Tigers have been separated from their families and detained for further questioning, some in undisclosed locations. Some end up in detention and rehabilitation centers that the Red Cross and Unicef have access to.
One case deserves special mention. Three Tamil government doctors and one senior health official are known to be in government custody and are now threatened with prosecution for cooperating with the Tamil Tigers. As just about the only remaining officials inside the war zone in the final weeks, they worked heroically to save lives and alert the world to the humanitarian disaster endured by civilians trapped in the fighting. On July 8, their captors forced them to recant their stories. This farce should end: They should be freed.
After winning the war, the Sri Lankan government now risks losing the peace with its approach toward ethnic Tamils displaced by the conflict. Colombo needs to alter course if the country is to begin overcoming years of animosity and avoid having old hatreds and current antipathy turn into the next Tamil rebellion.
Specifically, the government needs to provide a clear timetable for rapid and full resettlement of those currently interned in all the camps. It also has to make significant improvements in access to and conditions in those camps. Colombo should make public its lists of the interned and allow the Red Cross access to all places of detention and all aspects of the “screening” process conducted by the military and intelligence agencies.
The international community has a clear role to play in convincing the Sri Lankan government to take these steps. The cochairs of the Tokyo Conference on Reconstruction and Development of Sri Lanka — the United States, the European Union, Japan and Norway — have particular responsibility as they prepare to meet in August. They must send an unequivocal message.
All donor countries, both acting alone and using their influence in key institutions such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, should condition all new non-emergency economic assistance to the country on their implementation. Creating the basic conditions necessary for a sustainable and equitable peace demands no less.