Meeting Ex-Tigers and Addressing the Issue of Rehabilitation

Zarah Imtiaz, in Daily News,6 May 2016, where the title is Rehabilitated LTTE cadres: No longer stuck in NO-GO ZONE”

I fought for eight years of my life, eight years that I cannot take back, said Kulandavel Thayaparan while enjoying the cup of tea arranged by the Commissioner, Bureau of Rehabilitation at ‘Ape Gama’ in Battaramulla. Thayaparan along with 34 other LTTE ex-combatants are being taken on a five day trip around the country starting from Nuwara Eliya to a 3D film in Bambalapitiya.A visibly excited Thayaparan however, is just happy to be out of the Anuradhapura Prison where he had served the last six years in custody. He is part of a recent batch of LTTE suspects or political prisoners who have been named for release after rehabilitation by the courts after 200 of them launched a hunger strike in October 2015, urging the authorities to expedite their cases.

rehab TIGERs 2016--DN

He used this opportunity in Colombo to call for the release of his remaining brethren who were still behind bars. “Only we are aware of the sufferings we undergo. The others (who are still in prison), wish to be out and re-join their families and society. At least you can get them rehabilitated if not pardoned. It has been 6 years since the war was ended and still their families are suffering,” appealed Thayaparan.

Not everyone in his batch however were combatants. Some were arrested for being associated with the LTTE. “There are those who have been in prison for the last 18 to 20 years,” Thayaparan claimed. “Some of them who are still in prison no longer have any families outside and there is no one to bring them their basic essentials. There are many who still fight even for a cake of soap,” he said.

The Commissioner General of Rehabilitation, Major General Janaka Ratnayake who is in charge of the recent batch, said he has 43 males and one female currently undergoing rehabilitation at the Poonthotam (Garden) Rehabilitation Camp in Vavuniya.

The lone woman at camp, Indrani, was a Grama Niladhari officer in Mullaitivu prior to the end of the war. She was ordered to go through the rehabilitation programme upon applying for her former post. “When they checked her background, they found that she had some links with the LTTE, so she was sent to us for three months before she could be resettled in her job. We have had 3 to 4 cases previously too,” Major General Ratnayake said.

Ex combatants have turned the strongest symbols of the war and whether we reintegrate them or choose to keep their former identities alive, will be determined whether as a society we are finally ready to move on from the war.

Rehabilitation as a counter terrorism strategy: In post war societies, rehabilitation is often used as a counter terrorism strategy which seeks to prevent the revival of terrorist outfits. Prof Rohan Gunaratne and Mohamed Bin Ali’s book, ‘Terrorist Rehabilitation: A New Frontier in Counter-terrorism’ highlights that “Without winning over hearts and minds of the population, insurgent campaigns would continue,” highlighting that for rehabilitation to be successful, community engagement and rehabilitation should be integrated to their strategies.

Accordingly, the authors stress that “the modes of rehabilitation are: first religious and spiritual; second, educational; third vocational and entrepreneurial; fourth; psychological; fifth, familial, social and cultural; sixth recreational and seventh, creative arts.”

Thayaparan is trying his utmost best to complete a computer course during his time in rehabilitation. The detainees are taught courses in aluminium, craft making, juice making and masonry. He hopes that his computer skills would get him better job opportunities. His wife works as a labourer 2-3 times a week and supports their three children. Their 10-year old daughter suffers from shell shock and has not spoken since she was two years old. His wife too suffers from shrapnel injuries. Aware of his responsibilities to provide for his young family, Thayaparan is keen to complete his rehabilitation programme and return to community life.

Kamal was arrested and brought to rehabilitation in 2014. Two years later[sic?], he had begun his own business and returned home after the war. “The programme is fine, but I have had to abandon my hardware business for two years since,” he said.

The programme is uniform for all, whether you are a combatant or part of the administrative service of the LTTE. According to Major General Ratnayake, the programme developed by a panel of experts, makes it equal to all.

Does it work: During the last few weeks however, the Terrorism Investigation Division (TID) arrested four former LTTE cadres on suspicion of trying to revive the LTTE. They had all previously undergone rehabilitation. While many questioned the arrests, Major General Ratnayake denied allegations that the programme was not working. “You get cases where relapses take place in any programme but does not mean that it doesn’t work. The environment they go back to matters too.”

“We have had similar rehabilitation programmes earlier. The programme after the first JVP insurrection also dealt with the same problem, but at that time they came back in 1988,” he further explained.

When asked what assurance he had that the current programme would be more successful than the last, he said, “leaders survived after 1971 and then they regrouped in 1988, but this time around, the leader is no more and there is no leader to instigate the people.”

Are we ready for the rehabilitated: Prof Daya Somasundaram, a senior Professor of Psychiatry at the Faculty of Medicine, University of Jaffna, dealt with many ex combatants who were trying to put their lives together after the war.  “As in any military, combatants have well known psychiatric problems which include Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression and alcoholism. They have also missed a good part of their life and now needs a future. When they set out, they believed they were doing something for the greater good, it was altruistic. This could be used in a positive way in the post war context,” he explained.

Daya-Somasundaram-To fully reintegrate into mainstream society however, the ex-combatants need to deal with their past but not many are prepared to acknowledge it. “Many do not want to talk about the past even though that was an essential part of recovery. They fear that they would be at risk from the military or they feel that society would not understand their point of view, so they keep silent,” the Professor said.

Individual counselling programmes in dealing with their collective and individual trauma however are few and far between.

Whilst Prof Gunaratne and Ali perceived rehabilitation programmes in terms of counter terrorism measures, Prof Somasundaram perceived that ex combatants were an asset to society when nurtured well. “Most human beings are able to adapt, even though there are exceptions. Not many hold on to a rigid ideology. In many of these cases, they just followed what was present at that time. But we need 3 things for their rehabilitation: social support; they need to be given opportunities for progress, to be recognized and valued in a positive environment; economic opportunities and the chance to catch up on their missed education and be able to deal with day to day life situations.”

Former female combatants however have not had a smooth ride after the war. The rehabilitation programme encouraged these fiery women to take up sewing and beauty culture, while Prof Somasundaram pointed out that their biggest problems were to do with dealing with a patriarchal society. “They not only have to adjust the psychological trauma of warfare, but they presently feel the freedom they enjoyed before had been taken away,” he said.

He added, “This was a great opportunity missed by society, but the traditional Tamil society expects them to go back to the kitchen. But they are unable to do so, as it is difficult for them to become submissive once again, while many struggle psychologically. It is a big issue even though some have adapted to it.”

Economic opportunities: The Ministry of Prison Reforms, Rehabilitation and Resettlement, together with the Bureau of the Commissioner General of Rehabilitation, is working on creating employment opportunities for the rehabilitated. Employment and income has turned into one of the biggest obstacles for those who have undergone rehabilitation.

“Despite the programme, reintegrating back into society has been hard. Many people do not wish to employ an ex combatant or someone with a past record. The only way to solve it is through self- employment, let them be on their own,” admitted Ministry Secretary V. Sivagnanasothy. He explained that whilst the government would be providing them with livelihood schemes through divisional secretaries up to a maximum of Rs 100,000, they are also leading the way by hiring 35 rehabilitated graduates into government service. “Cabinet has approved a graduate employment scheme for them and the Ministry of Public Administration is working out a scheme. Some however are older than usual, between 35-40 years, so we need a special scheme,” he said.

Economic opportunities thus had become the key to the success of the rehabilitation programme. “Rehabilitation alone would not solve all problems. Development plays a crucial role. When the people’s aspirations are fulfilled, they would not seek for a different state, which is what we need to achieve,” Major General Ratnayake’ said.

With ‘every day aspirations’ in mind, the rehabilitation programme which started off with 12,142 ex combatants in 2009 is in its final stages. “The government has asked us to conclude things by 2017. Thereafter, we will move into after care activities. There are very few to be rehabilitated now,” said Major General Ratnayake. He added that it was up to the government to revive the programme of rehabilitation after that.

Names have been changed to protect their identity.

***   ***


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