Saturday, October 17, 2009

Sri Lankan Refugees: Victims or Pawns?

by J.Sri Raman - They form the single biggest mass of refugees today, and they face an uncertain fate as a factor in a geopolitical game involving two Asian giants and allied players. For the about 400,000 fugitives from tiny Sri Lanka's Tamil-speaking areas of less than 18,000 square kilometers together, the outlook has only become more unsettling over the past few weeks.

The tide of Tamil refugees from the island-state's northern and eastern provinces represents a twin issue. About 100,000 of them are inmates of rather inhospitable refugee camps in India's southern State of Tamilnadu. They have been languishing there for varying lengths of time, with the influx starting way back in 1984. The population in the camps includes a generation of Sri Lankan Tamils who have known no home but India but are not made to feel quite at home in the country.

The rest - as many as 300,000 - have been held in camps behind barbed wires as internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the war-ravaged parts of Sri Lanka for five months since Colombo declared total victory over Tamil rebels seeking a separate state. The inmates have been told to be prepared to stay put for a period of one to three years. The population of these camps consists of divided families, with mothers looking for separated children and women for lost husbands.

The plight of these uprooted people of both categories poses a humanitarian problem of huge proportions. That, however, would not appear to be how it is viewed in quarters which matter in India and could make a difference in the increasing distress of the displaced. New Delhi is under pressure to look upon the tragedy, if not as a trump card, at least as a useful lever in the Indian Ocean region where its influence is seen to be under threat from China with Pakistan in tow.

The debate rages in the media over the role India should play in this perspective, even as the refugees await an aggravation of their conditions in the camps. The north-eastern monsoon, which brings most of the rains for this region for about three months until December, is round the corner. The wet season threatens to prove a time of terrible woes, particularly for the IDPs in their tarpaulin tents in overcrowded camps.

The United Nations spokesperson in Sri Lanka, Gordon Weiss, makes no effort to put it elegantly. Says he: "Unless people are moved from these areas, ... an inundation of water ... will make it impossible to live.... The latrines will overflow, water supplies will be unusable and access by wheeled vehicles impossible. It will be pretty unbearable." More intolerable to some security analysts will be India's failure to use this fresh opportunity to counter the influence of China and allies allowed to grow in its own backyard over the past two decades.

India has had its share of refugee problems, but the spillover from Sri Lanka's civil war falls into a special category. The most politicized of the problems has been Bangladeshi immigrants, estimated at 10 million (against the country's population of about 1.15 billion). India's far right has always called them "infiltrators" and sought to fuel pseudo-religious hatred against them as Islamist fifth columnists. But this has remained an internal political issue, with rather poor returns for its inventors.

China figured once in the issue of Tibetan refugees, too, but it bears no comparison to the problem of their Sri Lankan counterparts. The island's refugees enjoy a measure of ethnic solidarity in Tamilnadu, and their cause has a certain constituency there. The State's ruling party, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (Party for Dravidian Progress) or the DMK, cannot ignore the issue. And the DMK is an important part of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's coalition in New Delhi, headed by his Congress Party.

Pressures of local politics have prompted the DMK-led State government recently to press for citizenship for the refugees in the camps under its less-than-adequate care. The demand has elicited opposition charges that it is designed to help the Sri Lankan government by keeping the refugees from returning to their homeland. New Delhi has not yet revealed its response to the demand. Nor is it known whether it is listening to lectures from experts about the role it should play in postwar Sri Lanka.

B. Raman, a security analyst formerly associated with India's external intelligence agency, for example, writes: "The time has come for India to once again play an activist role ... India should assume the leadership role in helping Sri Lanka in its relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction tasks." Spelling out India's "strategic interest" in the island, he says: "... the Sri Lankan Government has been cultivating China and Pakistan to keep India in check. It has good political and economic relations with China. It has invited China to construct a modern port in Hambantota in southern Sri Lanka. It has invited the Chinese to help it in gas exploration in areas which are closet to India. Similarly, there is a growing military-military relationship between Sri Lanka and Pakistan, which worries India."

Raman and others see the strategic conflict in Sri Lanka as part of a wider power struggle in South Asia. China, they say, has developed strategic assets like the Gwadar port in Pakistan, besides the Hambantota port. Sri Lanka, they note, sits next to shipping lanes that feed 80 percent of China's and 65 percent of India's oil needs.

Another strategic expert, Brahma Chellaney, says that "Beijing provided Colombo not only the weapon systems that decisively tilted the military balance in its favor, but also the diplomatic cover to prosecute the war in defiance of international calls to cease offensive operations to help stanch rising civilian casualties." He adds: "Through such support, China has succeeded in extending its strategic reach to a critically located country in India's backyard that sits astride vital sea-lanes of communication in the Indian Ocean region."

Chellaney also wants India to intervene in the issue of refugee rehabilitation. But he, too, links this to the larger strategic objective of replacing China in Colombo's affections. If the end influences the means, the refugees must realistically curtail their expectations of India's intervention on their behalf.

A delegation of Indian members of Parliament from the Congress Party and the DMK has returned on October 14 after a five-day visit to Sri Lanka and the IDP camps. The delegation is claimed to have asked for an early release of the refugees from the camp so that they can return home. Earlier, Colombo had argued that it needed to screen the IDPs to "weed out" former Tamil militants. President Mahinda Rajapaksa, however, reportedly told the delegation that the inmates could not be released before the entire region was de-mined.

According to official figures, 10,593 people had returned to their homes and another 22,668 had been released from the camps. The vast majority, thus, continues to live in conditions of internment.

Hope for the refugees has not been heightened, meanwhile, with the announcement on October 14 that Sri Lanka will hold both its presidential and parliamentary elections before April 2010, two years ahead of schedule. The president is taking the plunge to cash in politically on the military victory over the Tamil rebels.

Rajapaksa, say observers, hopes to reap a two-thirds parliamentary majority that would enable him to change the country's constitution. The speculation is that the statute will be amended to give him more than two successive presidential terms. Few expect him to undertake the exercise in order to make Sri Lanka more federal and find a political solution to the ethnic problem. Fewer still expect his electoral victory to spell early relief for the refugees.

© Truth Out

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