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Rajapaksa under pressure on Tamil's resettlement

The issue of clearing anti-personnel mines planted by the LTTE, the Sri Lankan army (SLA) and even the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) is fast becoming a diplomatic minefield for President Mahinda Rajapaksa. Sutirtho Patranobis reports.

world Updated: Oct 15, 2009 17:31 IST
Sutirtho Patranobis

The issue of clearing anti-personnel mines planted by the LTTE, the Sri Lankan army (SLA) and even the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) is fast becoming a diplomatic minefield for President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Rajapaksa is under intense international pressure to hasten the resettlement of the displaced Tamils; the UN and US are breathing down its neck to send the refugees home and the UK has called for a cut in international aid till resettlement picked up pace. The Indian MPs from Tamil Nadu – unusually quiet during the four-day visit to Sri Lanka that ended on Wednesday – are now talking about severe shortages of milk, food and drinking water in the camps that still house about 2.4 to 2.5 lakh displaced Tamils.

As of Thursday morning, Rajapaksa, reiterated that the pace at which the internally displaced persons (IDPs) would be resettled would depend on when the demining process was completed.

"Large areas where people lived or used for economic activity, such as agriculture, have been extensively mined by the terrorists. Those mines have to be removed, but de-mining takes time as it has to be done with great care and attention, leaving no margin for error," Rajapaksa said at the 8th Ministerial Meeting of the Asian Cooperation Dialogue in Colombo on Thursday.

But not everyone believes the government’s claims and apparently caring intention. Suresh Premachandran, MP from the Tamil National Alliance, told the visiting Indian Tamil MPs that government, he said, was using demining as an excuse for delaying resettlement. Demining had taken place only in 32 villages in Mannar and Vavuniya districts. The process of demining had not even started in the two former strongholds of the LTTE, the districts of Killinochchi and Mullaitivu.

The TNA, once considered LTTE’s political wing, pointed out that in Vietnam and Cambodia, mines were no bar to resettlement, and that demining was going on years after the war had ended.

Since May, when the 27-year-long war with the LTTE came to an end, only 84 square km of land in the Mannar district – also known as the rice bowl – has been cleared of mines.

The total area still mined is a massive 6500 sq km. And anything between half-a-million to one million mines and `unexploded ordinance’ (UXOs) are spread in this area.

As is evident, estimates vary wildly. Diplomatic sources, on condition of anonymity, said the situation gets more complex because the authorities have some idea where LTTE, and even IPKF, mines are, but there is no mapping of the mines that Sri Lankan Army (SLA) had planted.

Moreover, the 2-lakh strong SLA had deployed only 383 soldiers in de-mining; another 200 were being trained. There are six international groups – including two Indian groups Sarvatra and Horizons – who have about 1500-2000 trained former armed forces personnel doing demining. The two Indian organisations have three groups each with 200 personnel. But it’s the Sri Lankan government, which decides the areas that are to be demined.

"The INGOs are really slow and have not increased capacity. We are using everything including dogs and machines to demine. It is also being manually. We do not want to keep these people (the Tamil refugees). Resettlement in Mannar will start on October 22,’’ WKK Kumarasiri, secretary, Ministry of Nation Building involved in the demining process, said.

Sources said that of the 84 sq km cleared, the SLA has only ``claimed’’ to have done more than 70 per cent. ``The demining done by the international groups including the Indian ones has to be ratified by the UN; their work is open to assessment and confirmation. But the claims made by the SLA cannot be checked by the UN,’’ sources said.

The international groups are also better equipped than the SLA, sources said, adding that manually only 10-12 sq metres of land can be cleared every day. ``That too at full capacity. In jungle terrain, it comes down 5 sq m to 7 sq m per day.’’

Sources said that the government has to significantly increase the pace of demining to hurry the pace of resettlement. ``At the current pace, it could take two decades. Also, the government has to be stop blocking other agencies (from beginning demining in new districts),’’ sources said.

Senior TNA leader R Sampanthan has even mentioned ``mass graves’’ while attempting to explain why international agencies are not being allowed to demine in other parts of Sri Lanka.

Quite clearly, Rajapaksa would have to deftly negotiate this field of mines to convince the international community as well as his own countrymen that his government was serious about resettling the displaced Tamils.