Under Global Pressure, Sri Lanka Opens Camps

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Joe Klamar / AFP / Getty Images

Internally displaced Sri Lankans wait behind barbed wire during a visit by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to a refugee camp on May 23, 2009

"You will only know how wonderful walking on the road like this feels if you have gone through what we have." Dharmeshwaran, 30, was walking toward Vavuniya, a town in the north of Sri Lanka and a journey of about 18 miles (30km) from Menik Farm, the camp for displaced persons where he and his family have been detained for about seven months. They were among the 225,000 to 280,000 people who were held in several detention camps after fleeing the fighting in the last stages of the 26-year-long war between the Sri Lankan Army and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which ended in May.

The Sri Lankan government has severely restricted movement out of the camps and strictly controlled access to outsiders. The authorities said they feared that escaping Tigers could be hiding among the civilian population. Since the end of the fighting, about half of the civilians have been resettled, but the Sri Lankan government has been under intense international pressure to release the 130,000 civilians still living at Menik Farm. Local and international human rights groups have said the camps violate the human rights of civilians by indefinitely detaining civilians, including women and children.

The camps were opened on a limited basis on Dec. 1, and Dharmeshwaran was among the 6,700 who left on the first day. He and his wife had been on the run from late 2007 until this April when they came to Menik Farm. They had two children along the way, the younger one born two months ago inside the camp. "I feel like I have been reborn," Dharmeswaran says. He is visibly relieved, but his freedom is not total. Those who leave the camps will have to return within the time period they indicated before going, and they must give details of where they are staying to camp administrators. Dharmeshwaran went to Vavuniya to find a temporary job. "I can earn some money when I get back," he says. The camps provide basic supplies, but "if we want to buy anything extra it is very expensive." Others had come out to seek medical treatment, locate relatives or meet family members in government run rehabilitation centres for former Tigers.

Still, the relaxing of restrictions begins to address the human rights issues raised by human rights groups, aid agencies and other countries. United Nations Humanitarian head John Holmes, who visited Menik Farm and a resettlement area last month, called the lack of freedom of movement a "fundamental concern." Two days after Holmes left Sri Lanka, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa announced that restrictions in the camps would be eased. The European Union has indicated that the treatment of those in the camps could sway a decision on whether to extend a crucial trade concession later this month.

The fate of those in the camps will also be a key issue in next January's presidential election. Having ended what once seemed like an endless war, Rajapaksa would appear to be unbeatable. But Sri Lanka's numerous opposition parties have come up with a consensus candidate whose stature as a war hero is unquestioned: retired General Sarath Fonseka, the army commander who defeated the Tigers. Fonseka has softened his once die-hard Sinhala nationalism and criticised the government for holding civilians in camps, calling for rapid and complete resettlement. "We did not win the war to lose the hearts and minds of the people," Fonseka said recently.

The votes of the displaced, and their families in the Tamil-majority north, could play a decisive role in a tight contest. Rajapaksa and Fonseka could split the majority Sinhala Buddhist vote, leaving Sri Lanka's Tamil and Muslim populations with powerful leverage. (Those who have been displaced during Sri Lanka's long conflict are overwhelmingly Tamil and Muslim.) President Rajapaksa's supporters have already begun their election work in the north, and the opposition is likely to follow suit. The vote will be a referendum, not just on who gets credit for winning Sri Lanka's war, but who is more likely to bring a real and lasting peace.