Sri Lanka Tamil camps: Why were they closed?

The Sri Lanka government will release 130,000 Tamil refugees from internment camps starting Dec. 1. Was the decision prompted by international pressure or domestic politics?

By , Correspondent

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    Soldiers stand guard near internally displaced Sri Lankan ethnic Tamils at a camp for the displaced in Vavuniya, Saturday.
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Nearly six months after Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war came to an end, the government has announced plans to finally close the controversial civilian internment camps. The detainees will be allowed freedom of movement starting on Dec. 1 and the camps will be permanently closed by Jan. 31.

After the fighting ended in May, the government held some 130,000 Tamils in camps, insisting that it must find any rebels still hiding among them. The camps, however, drew much international criticism for detaining noncombatants in abhorrent conditions. Within Sri Lanka, the creation of the camps has been seen as a dark spot on the nation’s victory over the Tamil Tigers.

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The first phase of the agreement will grant the internees the right to leave the camp next month to visit friends and family outside the internment area. By the end of January, the government plans to have everyone resettled, reports The Scotsman. Aside from weeding out rebels the government said it also had to clear mines and repair infrastructure before the displaced people could be allowed to return to their homes.

Pressure had been mounting around the globe, as the international community rallied for an end to the camps. In Canada, Saturday’s announcement to close the camps, came as hundreds of people took to the streets of Toronto to protest squalid conditions in the camps, reports the Toronto Star.

The United Nations, one of the most vocal critics of the camps, praised the decision. In a statement delivered through a UN spokesperson, Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon lauded the Lankan government’s decision, reports the Colombo Page, a Sri Lankan newspaper.

Though international pressure was a driving force for closing down the camps, The Guardian reports that a number of domestic political considerations may have factored in as well. Namely, Sarath Fonseka, the Lankan general credited with defeating the Tamil Tigers, has announced that he now plans to “fight for democracy” and will challenge President Mahinda Rajapaksa in upcoming elections this April. His war hero status and popularity among the masses is likely to create a serious challenge for the incumbent president.

Fonseka went so far as to list the plight of those displaced by the war as one of the 16 reasons he decided to retire early and seek public office, reports The Hindu. Outside the camps, there are also tens of thousands of displaced people waiting to return home.

The Hindu also says that the Sri Lankan government will double the monetary relief to be deposited in the savings bank account of those internally displaced people to 50,000 rupees ($437). In addition, 5000 rupees ($43) in cash, six months’ ration and an emergency kit with roofing and bed sheets are being given.

But according to The Sunday Times of Colombo, Vavuniya’s government agent P.S.M. Charles says that the resettlement package will only be given to those moving back to their original villages.

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Also:

Sri Lanka to probe alleged wartime human rights abuses - The Christian Science Monitor

Iran war games to defend nuclear sites - the BBC

Bomb blasts kill six, wound 40 in India's northeast - Reuters

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