Sri Lanka Tamils: freed from camps, their votes may give them new clout

Sri Lanka Tamils may have been freed from camps because of the politics surrounding upcoming elections as much as international pressure.

Sanath Priyantha/AP
Internally displaced Sri Lankan ethnic Tamil refugees leave a camp in Manik Farm, Sri Lanka, on Tuesday.

Sri Lanka's government freed hundreds of thousands of Tamils from vast internment camps in the north of the island Tuesday – prompted as much by upcoming elections as concerns over human rights, say analysts.

In May, when the Army finally routed the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) from their northern stronghold, much of the population of that area – close to 300,000 people - was imprisoned in overcrowded camps. Tuesday morning, fewer than half that number were thought to remain.

As conditions deteriorated, international pressure mounted, along with warnings that continued detainment would make reconciliation between the island's Tamil minority and Sinhalese majority increasingly elusive. That ethnic conflict was the root of the LTTE's long war against the government.

But internal politics are likely to have done more to secure the freedom of the northern Tamils than foreign pressure.

"[For] the first time in a long time, the government has been forced to focus on the minorities," says Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, a nonpartisan advocacy group.

That change was ushered in last month, when Sri Lanka's Army chief, Gen. Sarath Fonseka, stepped down as head of the military and announced he would run as the opposition candidate against President Mahindra Rajapakse in general elections in January.

President Rajapakse had called an early election to take advantage of the popularity garnered by his historic defeat of the LTTE. But analysts say General Fonseka's bid threatens to split the president's Sinhalese voter base – forcing Rajapakse to court the vote of the Tamil minority.

Fonseka, an ardent Sinhalese nationalist, has also sought to play to Tamil and moderate sentiments, voicing concern over the current situation of the refugees. In his letter of resignation as head of the Army, he criticized both the "appalling conditions" in the camps and the president's failure to reconcile Sri Lanka's Tamils and Sinhalese.

Mr. Perera says it is questionable whether minorities will back Fonseka, who led a brutal military crackdown on the LTTE in which thousands of civilian Tamils were killed, although "my own belief is that they will be prepared to back someone new," he says.

"His standing for the polls is good for the country, because he has strengthened the opposition," he adds.

Freed Tamils: tough journey home

Many of the newly freed Tamils face a difficult task returning to their villages hundreds of miles away from the camps in which they have lived for months.

Mr. Perera said their journeys home would not be as easy as the government had suggested, as roads were blocked and there was little public transport. He added that the government's handout of 5,000 rupees ($43) per household was entirely inadequate for people returning to homelands decimated by war, with ruined buildings and patchy sanitation.

Experts also say that with much of the north still dangerously mined, many Tamils will choose to remain in the camps for now.

Meanwhile, Sri Lanka's government still has to prove that it is serious about bringing lasting peace by giving Tamils some form of political autonomy.

Over the weekend, Sri Lanka was blocked from hosting the next meeting of Commonwealth leaders in protest of Colombo's military repression of Tamils during the last phase of fighting.

Australia and Britain united to block Sri Lanka's bid for the 2011 summit, which it had formally submitted in 2007. That meeting will now be hosted by Australia.


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