Materially support IDPs cause, then talk

Sri Lanka’s battle to crush the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) may be over, but the diplomatic war it had to wage concurrently, to appease the international community, rages on. In fact, this conflict appears to have gathered momentum in the last few months, with no signs of a ceasefire yet.

The latest furore is over comments made by United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the United Nations Security Council. Clinton said that “rape had been used as a weapon of war in the Balkans, Burma, Sri Lanka and elsewhere, and that, in too many countries and in too many cases, the perpetrators of this violence were not punished, and so this impunity encouraged further attacks.”

Colombo was understandably furious over these remarks, and the US Ambassador was summoned to the Foreign Ministry to convey Sri Lanka’s concerns. And in fact, US envoy Patricia Butenis went into damage control mode saying that Clinton did not ‘implicate specific perpetrators’.

This is of course a laughable and frivolous defence. When Clinton says that perpetrators of rape have not been punished in this country, surely, she doesn’t mean that the lawless LTTE has not punished its offending cadres! Therefore, the obvious inference is for the Sri Lankan Army, and if Butenis does not realise this, we can only say that she is not fit for her job in Colombo.

Clinton’s latest remarks followed the news that the irrepressible duo of French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and British Foreign Secretary David Miliband want to visit Sri Lanka again, obviously to ratchet up the pressure on Colombo.

Judging by these events, it seems that certain sections of the international community has turned Sri Lanka bashing into an art form. And the most potent weapons it uses for this purpose is the ‘plight’ of the internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the North.

From time to time, we hear some governments, and even the United Nations, express ‘concern’ about the conditions in which the IDPs are being ‘held’, followed by demands for their ‘speedy resettlement’. The impression conveyed is that Sri Lanka is ‘not doing enough’ to help their own citizens.

There are some issues here that merit scrutiny. Firstly, it is no easy task to rehabilitate nearly 300,000 citizens who have become the government’s responsibility overnight. As those countries that had to deal with the tsunami disaster will readily agree, it is a gigantic task, and an effort that requires enormous amounts of planning, infrastructure and resources. Certainly, it is not a crisis that can be solved in a hurry.

The Sri Lankan government, no doubt realised this, and set itself a deadline of six months from the date resettlement began. It does now appear that even this timeframe is a bit optimistic- and there are several factors that contribute to the delays that affect the rehabilitation programme.

Firstly, it is well known that the IDPs include thousands of hardcore LTTE cadres. To provide ‘freedom of movement’ - as some are demanding - for the IDPs, would essentially mean allowing these cadres to roam free. That would not only pose a severe threat to national security; it would also provide these terrorists an opportunity to regroup. That is not something any country would allow, after winning a bitter and brutal terrorist war that raged for nearly three decades.

Then, the infrastructure necessary for rehabilitation includes vast areas of lands that need to be de-mined. The government has spared no pains to do this as quickly as possible, and has imported state-of-the-art equipment for this purpose. Nevertheless, it is a tedious process that takes time. Those clamouring for instant resettlement strangely, do not seem to comprehend this.

The other crucial factor affecting rehabilitation efforts is the financial input that is required. Sri Lanka is a small country in global economic terms, and has, like every other nation, been hit by the credit crunch. These are economically hard times, and to fund a massive rehabilitation effort at this juncture is hard on its purse strings.

Ironically, those countries and agencies which clamour for instant resettlement of the IDPs, have been rather thrifty in doling out the dollars for this purpose. Other countries such as India, for instance, which understand the ground realities of resettlement and the constraints Colombo is faced with, have been generous in their assistance.

Those nations and agencies which clamour for ‘freedom’ for the IDPs, must realise that the noise they make is only a nuisance, which is, in fact, hampering Sri Lanka’s efforts to rehabilitate its less fortunate citizens as quickly as is practically possible within the constraints of the task. To keep on criticising this country serves no purpose, and in fact, diverts Colombo’s attentions, because it then has to deal with these controversies as well.

It would serve the IDPs better if the collective efforts of the international community are channelled towards providing men, material and money for the rehabilitation effort- but then, is that what the international community really wants to do? Perhaps not, if one were to go by the words and deeds of the Clintons and Milibands of the diplomatic world.