Monday, February 01, 2010

Sri Lanka: "I see no reason to celebrate the victory of a president whose military drive drove us into these camps"

As the results of Sri Lanka's first post-war presidential election poured in, the mood at Menik Farm, in the main government-run camp for the ethnic Tamil internally displaced (IDPs), in the northern town of Vavuniya, was sober.

Only 6,000 residents of the camp, home to some 118,000 IDPs, sought to register for the 27 January polls.

"We want an opportunity to rebuild our shattered lives," said a resident, Sellamma Vallimuttu. She recalled a time when the north was flourishing, with lush paddy fields, hectares of onion fields and unrestricted fishing.

Vallimuttu just wanted to gather her family around one hearth and lead a normal life. "Is that too much to ask for?"

"I see no reason to celebrate the victory of a president whose military drive drove us into these camps and made us war-displaced," said Selvathurai Arasaratnam, from the northern town of Settikulam, not far from Menik Farm.

But others saw a glimmer of hope that their concerns were being "politically prioritized" by the government.

Even Arasaratnam saw an opportunity to restore normality and economic development to the once prosperous region.

But with concerns far beyond electing a new president, the displaced want nothing more than to return home. The camps remain unhygienic and supplies irregular, they claim.

Kanagaratnam Kanagasabai, 22, told IRIN there were still sparks of militancy, which could resurface unless and until the political needs of the Tamil people were addressed.

Others hoped for a massive reconstruction effort and an economic drive that would raise the economic status of the north.

"Our children have been denied education for over six months. They have some ad hoc lessons within camps but is that education?" demanded an IDP, who refused to be named.

Hoping for change

"We had homes, employment, flourishing fields, and education for children, roads, electricity, transport, health and a political voice. We lost all that over the past years," said Arasaratnam.

Though clamouring to leave the camps, most of them do not have homes to return to - or the means to support family members, many of whom are now scattered.

Some displaced felt further deprived by the government's refusal to engage them in the development work taking place under the government's main northern rehabilitation programme, "Vadakkin Wasantham" or the Flourishing North.

Rishard Bathiudeen, Minister of Resettlement and Disaster Relief Services, agreed that the restrictions placed on IDPs' movement denied them an opportunity to be gainfully employed.

"But things will change soon," he told IRIN.

"We want to witness economic development. That's our primary need," said Tamil National Alliance (TNA) parliamentarian, Mavai Senathiraja, noting that the richly endowed northeast should now experience rapid economic progress.

Low turnout

In Jaffna District - one of four districts in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province and politically the most important in the Tamil-majority north - only 18 percent of the displaced voted, a source from the Election Commissioner's Department told IRIN, despite special facilities being provided, including transport to voting centres.

What IDPs hope for is not just priority attention but a participatory process in rebuilding their homes and their lives, shattered by protracted military engagements and political neglect.

"For too long, we were bargaining chips, guinea pigs and marginalized. We would like to recommence living," IDP Subramaniyam said.

According to the Sri Lankan Election Commission Rajapaksa won 57 percent of the vote, while Sarath Fonseka, his main rival and former army commander, won 40 percent.

Some 70 percent of the country's 14 million eligible voters turned out to vote; however, turnout in Tamil areas in the north was less than 30 percent, the Independent Centre for Monitoring Election Violence, reported.

Disclaimer:This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
Photo: Copyright IRIN

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