Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka: Political instability hampers IDP return


The tsunami of December 2004 forced a million Sri Lankans from their homes, adding a new displacement crisis to that caused by the island's long-running civil war. As of mid-2005, some 800,000 people remained displaced, 450,000 from the natural disaster and 350,000 from the human conflict.
A fragile ceasefire concluded in 2002 enabled hundreds of thousands of people uprooted by over 20 years of conflict between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Ti-gers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) to return to their homes, but 350,000 remain internally dis-placed. The breakdown of peace talks in 2003, intermittent violations of the ceasefire, unresolved property issues and slow reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts in areas of origin have brought this return process to a near standstill. The tsunami devastated large parts of the coastal areas of northern and eastern Sri Lanka, to a large extent re-versing the limited progress that had been made in reconstruction and rehabilitation of these areas. However, after years of neglect by the Sri Lankan government and the in-ternational community, IDPs displaced by the conflict - the main focus of this profile

  • may increasingly be benefiting from post-tsunami relief efforts. This is based on the ap-parently growing recognition among the humanitarian community of the need for equi-table treatment of conflict-IDPs and tsunami victims. Still, projects targeting conflict-IDPs continue to be under-funded. Progress towards settling the conflict and creating conditions for the sustainable return of the remaining IDPs is hampered by increasing political instability, exacerbated by the killing of the Sri Lankan foreign minister in Au-gust 2005, as well as the still unresolved issue of how the tsunami aid is to be shared between the government and the LTTE. Respect for the ceasefire and the resumption of peace talks are vital for the adequate protection of the internally displaced and for their lasting return and reintegration.

Background and causes of displacement

More than two decades of civil war between government forces and the Libera-tion Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), seeking independence for Tamil-majority areas, devastated large parts of Sri Lanka's north and east. The war claimed the lives of an estimated 64,000 people and uprooted more than one million oth-ers. Some 200,000 people fled overseas, while the large majority remained internally displaced on the island. Many had to flee several times and ended up per-manently displaced in so-called welfare centres, or moving to friends, relatives or abandoned buildings. Some IDP popula-tions, such as Muslims in Puttalam, have been displaced for 15 years (CPA, February 2003). Currently, some 347,500 per-sons remain displaced as a result of the conflict (MRRR, UNHCR, May 2005).

A February 2002 ceasefire and subsequent peace talks raised hopes for durable peace and the return of the internally displaced. However, in April 2003, the LTTE suspended the peace talks and all existing joint reconstruction initiatives for the north and east. Ever since, there has been a tendency to resort to violence, in particular in the ethnically diverse eastern province. The break-away of the LTTE's former eastern commander Colonel Karuna Amman, in April 2004, further destabilised the situation. This split has been a continuous cause of internal fighting and has raised tensions between the main antagonists, with the LTTE accusing the government of supporting Karuna (Reuters, 11 August 2005).

Early parliamentary elections in April 2004 brought to power a new coalition called the United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA), with President Chandrika Kumaratunga's Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the Janata Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) as its principal partners. After the elections, the Norwegian government resumed mediation efforts which had been halted since November 2003. Nevertheless, tensions kept rising throughout 2004 between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE, as well as between rebel factions.

On 26 December 2004, the Indian Ocean tsunami displaced some one million people in Sri Lanka and devastated vast parts of the coast, particularly in the conflict-affected east and north. The parties to the conflict at first seemed to overcome their differences in view of the enormous imminent relief tasks (AP, 20 January 2005; UNHCR, 9 and 24 February 2005). But soon old tensions reemerged, this time in a very complex situation of disaster reconstruction, and with the LTTE accusing the government of not sharing relief aid resources. On 24 June 2005, after months of negotiations facilitated by Norway, and in a climate of intense pressure, the government and the Tigers agreed on a tsunami-aid-sharing arrangement for LTTE-held areas much in need of relief and reconstruction aid.

Donors and analysts welcomed the agreement, hoping it might build confidence between the LTTE and government, and eventually bring the Tigers into the political mainstream. But the JVP protested strongly at this move which it felt would legitimise the LTTE, and quit the government coalition on 16 June 2005, leaving the government weakened. On 15 July 2005, the Constitutional Court suspended the implementation of the aid-sharing arrangement; a ruling was expected later in the year (AFP, 15 July 2005).

Meanwhile, throughout 2005, armed violence involving both LTTE and government forces kept intensifying in the east. Disagreement between the government and the Tigers about whether the ceasefire agreement covered the protection of rebel cadres travelling through government-held areas further increased political tensions. The main international donors warned the government and LTTE that breaking the agreement would have severe implications for international aid (Reuters, 19 July 2005). The assassination of the Sri Lankan foreign minister, an ethnic Tamil and close ally of Kumaratunga, on 12 August 2005 added to tensions and the president ordered a one-month state of emergency. The LTTE rejected government accusations that it was responsible. Despite these developments, the warring parties appeared to remain committed to the ceasefire and were due to hold talks in September 2005 (AFP, 19 August 2005). Presidential elections were announced to be held in October or November 2005, after a Supreme Court ruling that the president's term would end in December of the same year (BBC News, 26 August 2005).

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