Demining and the Resettlement of Tamil Refugees

This obscure news item from the Daily News, 20 August 2010, is included because there is colossal ignorance on this subject in high quarters and because I am agreeably surprised that the government is using the school network to educate people in the areas affected by mines. One other news item claimed that “The Government allocated Rs 2,180 million for the demining last year and conducted 17,654 workshops to educate the people in the areas dotted with land mines and booby traps with the assistance of UNESCO” (Daily News, 14 July 2010). Congratulations I say. A fuller clarification of why I have reacted in this manner is added at the end. Michael Roberts.    

The Photos of mine-clearing  operations by Dushiyanthini Kanagasabapathipillai are from her web site: –well worth a visit on numerous counts.   

Towards A Mine Free Country

Vidya Abhayagunawardena in Daily News, 20 August 2010 

A Technical Working Group (TWG) on Mine Risk Education (MRE), Victim Assistance and Advocacy, was held on August 10 and 11 in Ampara with the participation of the Economic Development, Education and Social Services Ministries, Sri Lanka Army Humanitarian De-Mining Unit (HDU), Social Departments of North and East Provincial Councils, partner NGOs and with the facilitation of the UNICEF. Participants came up with ways and means of new strategies to educate people in mine safe behaviour, how best to ensure support for victims of land mines and other indiscriminate explosive devices, and how to strengthen advocacy for mine action.

As Sri Lanka National Mine Action Centre National Director Montey Ranathunge said at the workshop that their vision is a “Sri Lanka free from the threat of landmines and Explosive Remnants of War (ERW) where individuals and communities live in a safe environment and the needs of landmine and ERW victims are met”. To achieve this mission there is a need “To develop and implement a sustainable national mine action program able to plan, coordinate, implement and monitor all aspects of mine action of Sri Lanka and mobilize the resources to make Sri Lanka free from the threat of landmines through education, threat prevention and elimination in accordance with centre.”

Currently there are nine organizations working in de-mining in the North and East of Sri Lanka. According to the centre, area cleared up to June 2010 is 1,541, 880,972 square meters and the remaining areas to be surveyed cleared is 2,468, 119,028 square meters. Taking the annual clearance average since 2002 of 171square km the required time to clear the remaining area is nearly 15 years.

However, by 2020 it is the centre’s aim to have cleared all areas most effected and in need for livelihood and development. The scheduled period with current capacity is 10 years and this can be shortened if human resources, physical and financial support can be obtained. The Education Ministry has taken a broader approach in MRE with the support from the UNICEF.

All the North and East school principals, and teachers have been trained in mine risk education. Numerous schools in the most affected areas have wall paintings with pictures and messages and are carrying out various activities such as dramas, art competitions, distributing messages printed in stationery and school carry bags and water bottles. The MRE Ministry decided to include mine risk education in the school curriculum from next year a way to achieve sustainability of mine risk education in Sri Lanka. Community based mine risk education undertaken by national NGOs in 2009 reach more than 250,000 people in 61 DS divisions and IDP camps. As of June 30, 2010 the mine risk education program has already reached 215,000 people in 68 DS divisions. Adults and children showed mine-safe behaviour by reporting 264 suspected dangerous objects and hazardous areas in the first half of 2010.

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Resettling the Tamil IDPS in 2009: Issues

Michael Roberts

The government’s decision to place and the seemingly civilian Tamil refugees (including some who were Tiger fighters and functionaries) in IDP camps ringed by barbed wire was a contentious decision. The ethical horror expressed by human rights advocates did not allow for the duty to protect the rest of the population in Sri Lanka that directed government policy.

I believe the government went over the top both in its paranoid emphasis on security, the time-span of the corral within camps and in the way it handled the media. Its PR operations on this issue were abysmal. As it is, the IDP camps were leaking like the proverbial colander if grapevine stories can be believed: perhaps anything between 2000 to 20,000 staunch Tiger believers seem to have slipped out in the first few months.

This short note cannot do justice to the topic raised in the two paragraphs above, but must serve as an inadequate preamble to an associated issue: namely, the danger posed by mines in the Northern Vanni districts from which most of those in the IDP camps came.

Land mines are mostly a defensive mechanism seeking to protect borders and military encampments so that they are a feature around the government’s “high security zones” and were central to the LTTE’s frontier line. As the LTTE was confronted by numerically superior forces during Eelam War IV and the state military apparatus gathered its forces to assault the LTTE territories in the north, the use of mines by the LTTE expanded exponentially.

My knowledge of the land-mine problem in its turn expanded exponentially when, suddenly out of left-field, I received an invitation and airfare to participate in a one-day Workshop at Zurich in April 2006 from Geneva Call, an INGO devoted with missionary zeal to the eradication of this blight embedded within the world’s environment. As I discovered upon arrival this Workshop was an adjunct to a three-day gathering of representatives from what one can describe as “Tiger International.” This conference was organised by the Berghof Foundation for Conflict Studies in association with LTTE representatives led by S. Nadesan and also embraced Sinhalese and other peaceniks who were ready to discuss the Sri Lankan situation in a civil manner.

As such the assemblies included such fellow-travellers of Tiger International as Peter Schalk and Brian Seneviratne, besides stray personnel like David Rampton, Willie Senanayake, Roshan de Silva Wijeyeratne and Michael Roberts. I caught one session of the preceding conference because I arrived a day earlier, but it was the Monday sessions chaired by a lady from Geneva Call and Revd Chandrakanthan that fell within my duties. Central to this occasion were video clips and clarifications of the anti-mine work in Sri Lanka orchestrated by a British naval officer based in Colombo who was overseeing the clearing of land mines by a number of agencies, foreign and local. These sessions were a learning experience for me.

In brackets, let me note that I had participated in another conference directed by the Tamil diaspora in Bangi, Malaysia on another occasion, so it was no surprise when the Workshop participants passed a resolution asking the Government of Sri Lanka to get rid of land mines around its HSZ; but rejected Geneva Call’s desire to clear land mines along the LTTE borders.

Thus primed, in 2009 I knew that the clearing of mines was a major issue in general and that mines would pose a huge problem in the re-settling of those IDPs who were deemed civilian[1] in the region which can be described as the “Northern Vanni.” Mine-clearing is a dangerous, laborious and prolonged process. Aided by generous foreign funding (this must be recognised, the funding), the Sri Lankan government (GOSL) showed commendable enterprise in flying in 28 flail-machines during the third quarter of 2009. Such machines handle the process more quickly. But these machines cannot traverse some terrain, so my common-sense understanding was that the whole clearing process would take years.

So it amazed me that at some point in May-June 2009 one of the government ministers in charge of the camps, Risad Badhiudtheen, proclaimed in that the people held in camps would be resettled in 180 days. This, to me, was madness and indicative of ineptitude. Readers would also have to accept in good faith the fact that I was also critical of GOSL for not permitting those held in the camps to move out on a pass-system, albeit with adequate restrictions, from an early date, say by August 2009 (rather than instituting this process only on 1st November 2009).

“Adequate restrictions” in my thinking meant prevention of access to localities still replete with land-mines and ordnance that had not detonated. As a further addendum, in mid-2009 I was firmly of the view that the Tamil people of the Northern Vanni should not be encouraged to return to their villages till adequate infrastructural facilities and government services were in rudimentary working order. To me this meant rudimentary and skeleton services in bus transport, markets/shops, electricity as well as educational and medical facilities. As far as I could gather THEN from reports provided by honest visitors to the camps (e. g. Lilani Jayatilleka, Noel Nadesan, Kath Noble and Dr. Veronica Chelliah), the facilities in the IDP camps were relatively superior to those available in the Vanni at that point of time. A detailed statistical review of the health conditions in the camps over time, dated early November 2009, and my recent brief tour in June 2010 of the medical facilities at Menik Farm with the guidance of Dr. Sarfras, support this generalisation.

Indeed, there were no facilities at all in most pasts of the Northern Vanni, especially the old Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu Districts, at that point of time. The Northern Vanni had been literally stripped of all these basic amenities as the LTTE retreated eastwards and the Army juggernaut rolled forward. Standing in June 2009 one could say, moreover, that some regions had been deserted for anything between 7-14 months. In brief, areas of hamlet and hut would have become overgrown as the jungle tide began its inexorable spread (and here let me note that as an urban ignoramus I had not even taken note of the increased danger of snake-bites).

Risad Badhiudtheen’s ‘shotgun statement’ was undoubtedly a response to severe criticism directed against the government by UN agencies, INGOs and some local NGOs concerned about human rights. Because of the widespread intimidation and assaults on media personnel over the  recent past, [ii] the relationship between these forces and the GOSL was confrontational. GOSL was distrusted – even by UN personnel within those outfits, such as OCHA, UNOPS and IOM, who were heavily involved in setting up the IDP camps.

The UN operations in this field and their choice of shelter (namely tents) and toilets were geared towards “temporary camps.” Suspicious of the Rajapakse government’s credentials and governed by the rigidity of bureaucratic rule, several UN officials at the heart of the IDP camp enterprise seem to have pressured the government to re-settle the refugees quickly. In this insistence they were also influenced by the desires of the IDPs with whom they were interacting on a daily basis in the camps.

Such a natural desire to return home among the Tamil refugees raises a fundamental question. Did the Tamil refugees know what was best for themselves at that point of time? Did they in 2009 realise what difficulties awaited them in the home areas in the Vanni?

My answer, then in June-July-August 2009 would have been: “take it slow, mate; make sure the mines are cleared and a skeleton body of services are available.” From this perspective, the fact that so many well-intentioned personnel, whether INGO, NGO, foreign and local, Tamil and Sinhalese, should have pushed for rapid re-settlement is a phenomenon that calls for critical review.

The phenomenon suggests an absence of pragmatism and administrative capacity. It suggests that political ‘combat’ and/or crusading ethics had subsumed realistic evaluation at that point of time. When some local commentators went further and argued that mines were not a problem or said that the Tamil villagers knew where the mines and could avoid them, then, of course, one sees spokesmen dwelling in realms of utopian fancy. Such do-gooders are a positive danger to public welfare.

Apart from the schoolteachers encompassed by the government’s programme in mine-education, it would therefore seem advisable for this campaign to embrace a selection of local journalists and NGO personnel who have been vociferous about resettlement from a cloistered position as pothay gurus in Colombo offices.

There are queries remaining in my mind however. The news item above indicates that all mines cannot be cleared till 2020, while Minister Keheliya Rambukwela has indicated recently that “only 20 percent of land mines have been defused yet” (Daily News, 17 July 2010). But the resettlement of IDPs has occurred to a large extent: so that only 35,333 of the original total of 267,393 remained in camps at the end of July 2010 (DN, 28 July 2010). Indeed, now, some four weeks since, Chandra Fernando (a presidential advisor) stated that there were only 28,000 people left and that they hoped to resettle this lot in the Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi regions by the end of September (20 Aug. 2010,

Where, then, are the uncleared mine-patches of land? Does it mean that the rural people of the north and the former border villages (in the east as well) have to learn to live with landmines for a while, just as some of them have to share space with wild elephants? One presumes so – hence the educational drive.


 Amantha Perera for IRIN in


[1] It is well-known that there many LTTE personnel in civilian clothes. Again the photographs in my possession depicting the LTTE’s training of a militia di during the 2000s make it clear that some civilians had rudimentary military skills. See articles entitled “Dilemmas at War’s End,” in www groundviews. org.

[i] See; and; as well as Roberts, “The Rajapakse Regime and the Fourth Estate,”, 17 December 2009.

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