Action not words will count over detained Tamils

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FIVE months after the defeat of the Tamil Tigers, Sri Lanka is trying to come to terms with its post-war problems.

Despite ongoing international concern over the plight of Tamil civilians in government-run camps, there are new signs of reconciliation. These are apparent in the way the authorities are dealing with former rank and file of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

Measures have been taken to rehabilitate some 10,000 LTTE fighters – many of whom were forcibly conscripted by the separatist rebels. In September, the justice and law reforms ministry announced a 14 million programme called Reintegrating ex-LTTE Cadres into Civilian Life, in association with the International Organisation for Migration.

Britain, the United States, Japan and India have promised financial assistance to the programme; Unicef and international non-governmental organisations will be helping; and many big Sri Lankan companies have offered their support.

Even before the September announcement, rehabilitation work had already begun.

Major General Ratnayake, Sri Lanka's commissioner for rehabilitation, said more than 80 per cent of these ex-cadres – now sheltered in government schools – would be moved within a month into five new centres, once construction is completed.

Children between 12 and 18 and women have been segregated from the rest of the group. Men over 45 are to be given vocational training suited to their professions, skills and preferences. Young ex-LTTE cadres who had surrendered to the security forces have been undergoing rehabilitation in Jaffna.

The garment firm Tri Star has, with government help, invested in a factory in Trincomalee, which is expected to provide work for 1,000 local people. The firm has asked the government to let them train 500 young women who are currently in the camps for internally displaced people (IDPs).

After training, Tri Star will guarantee jobs in their own factories and will also award them certificates enabling them to get jobs elsewhere. They hope to have the opportunity to train former LTTE cadres.

Despite these initiatives, many within Sri Lanka and abroad doubt the sincerity of the government's promises to release IDPs and are concerned at continuing emergency legislation.

Conditions in the camps were highlighted by an incident at the Menik Farm camp on 26 September when, according to the UNHCR, "several people are said to have been injured, including a child who was hit by a stray bullet and is now paralysed".

Col R Hariharan, head of intelligence at the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka from 1987-1990, believes the EU cannot ignore strong public opinion about Sri Lanka's conduct. He says the government "has to come out with a list of LTTE cadres and camp followers in custody so there is a record of who is where, lest further accusations of executions in custody pile up.

"These are basic norms of good governance and Sri Lanka is expected to adhere to them. These issues are gathering adverse international momentum and nothing convinces the international community as much as visible results."

There are many dissident voices within Sri Lanka who will not be silenced and persist in challenging the government over the situation of the IDPs and its failure to release them, echoing the concerns expressed in the West.

Many of them think the stories about re-integration of former Tigers into society are simply window-dressing. They believe the government is not sincere in its promises to re-house IDPs, and that it simply does not have the capability to make good its promises.

Time will tell. As I write, the heavy rains have brought my guttering crashing to the ground. What will it be like in the IDP camps?

&#149 Padraig Colman is a journalist based in Sri Lanka.