In May 2009, Sri Lanka ended its three decade long civil war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The cessation of fighting resulted in the urgent need to rehabilitate and reintegrate thousands of former militants of the LTTE. The Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Rehabilitation and Prisons took direct responsibility of the rehabilitation of these ex-combatants.
The mission statement of the Sri Lankan Ministry of Rehabilitation and Prison Reform states that its main motive is to “disengage, de-radicalize, rehabilitate and reintegrate the misguided men/women and children, who were radicalized by the protracted armed conflict” and make them into “useful citizens and productive members” through a “center and community based comprehensive rehabilitation process”. These detention centres or PRACs (Protective Accommodation and Rehabilitation Centre) as they are called carry out programmes for both children and adults alike. The programmes include educational classes, vocational training courses, spiritual development programmes and counselling. However, it is not clear whether all those detained had access to such facilities and training at all times.
International humanitarian agencies have highlighted that though many of the suspected ex-militants have been released; the actual numbers detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) in Sri Lanka is yet unknown. International Crisis Group reports have documented that factors such as constant transfers of detainees from centre to centre and lack of legal criteria as to who can be detained have made the process highly problematic. Routine instances of prison violence in the northern and southern detention centres in the country also show a lack of transparency and a failure to provide effective custody and care.
In addition to this, the arbitrary decision to include political dissenters in these detention centres (designed to rehabilitate former combatants and not peaceful protestors) is not only unsuitable but a convenient strategy used to prolong the life span of these detention centres. The refusal of the Sri Lankan state to adequately respond to accusations of large scale rape and sexual violence of prisoners detained and the impunity allowed to officers who continue to commit those crimes shows a continued lack of political will from the Rajapaksa regime to reform these institutions in the near future.
It must be noted here that applying the standard of recidivism alone to evaluate the GOSL’s rehabilitation efforts is not sufficient. This is because in the Sri Lankan context, the rehabilitation of former combatants is directly linked to reconciliation. The end of the war and the destruction of LTTE’s leadership and its global economic linkages have meant that, though conspiracy theories still survive, there is practically no room for a return to militancy. Therefore, using recidivism as a marker of its success is redundant. It is more useful to take into cognisance that since any inadequacies of the rehabilitation programme will directly affect the potential for trust building and co-existence in the long term, its effectiveness is dependent on its ability to pave the way for reconciliation in the country. However, the delegitimization of minority grievances altogether within such programmes has made it difficult to reconcile differences between communities.
In addition to this, in order for the rehabilitation and reintegration effort to be sustainable it requires the involvement of the private sector. Unfortunately the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) has so far failed to rope in the private sector to share in the mammoth task of training, equipping and employing all the rehabilitated members. The increasing domination of the army, in development schemes and commercial activities in the North, has made it impossible for the private sector to compete in this economy. Such instances are proof of glaring inconsistencies in the planning and managing of such programmes.
Though many countries had supported the GOSL’s military campaign against the LTTE, they have been increasingly critical of the human rights violations and lack of adherence to international humanitarian law during the last months of war and after. This mounting pressure is visible once again, as the countdown is set for the upcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOG) in Sri Lanka.
Member nations have raised the alarm regarding the lack of transparency and initiative for a sustainable plan towards reconciliation in Sri Lanka. The high allocation of funds for defence and development by the GOSL has so far not been accompanied by adequate and responsible planning. And if Sri Lanka really wishes that its rehabilitation and reintegration plan be a model other nations emulate, it should put forward a plan that includes not only a reformation of these institutions but also a timeline to show how it will be phased out. Such actions will not only ensure the confidence of foreign states, but also ensure that Sri Lanka’s democracy is preserved in its institutions being accountable to its own people.