BBC Radio 4: Interview with Rajiva Wijesinha - 11 September 2009

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Presenter : The United Nations say that they can't go on funding the main refugee camps in Sri Lanka if the government there continues refusing to give its inhabitants freedom of movement. It says the Tamil civilians living in Manik Farm, should be allowed to leave as soon as possible, the Sri Lanka's President says they may be in there for more many months. Charles Havilland reports.

Charles Havilland: Manik Farm is like a new city rapidly built by the Sri Lankan Army to house a vast influx of war refugees. When I passed the camp in a bus last month on the perimeter fence I saw huge posters of Sri Lanka's President and his powerful brothers. Cricketing children waved through the barbed wire. There were big pools of new flood water. Geoff Donoghue of the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development or CAFOD, he's just back from a tour inside the camp but he had to stay in his car.

CAFOD: The conditions are clearly tough, they are cramped, there is overcrowding, people are not happy to be there. I suspect having said that, speaking to staff working in the camp they were able to say that from the initial stages of the camp the mortality rate they have experienced has dropped.

Charles Havilland: People do describe a gradual improvement in some areas. Reports say malnutrition had dropped. But the camps are ill prepared for the approaching monsoon if they remain this congested. Dr. Vinya Ariyaratne of the Sri Lankan charity Sarvodaya:

Dr. Vinya Ariyaratne: This number cannot be managed because all our water services, sanitation systems and even communal cooking and all these will be affected by floods and heavy rains.

Charles Havilland: There remain fundamental limits to information and access. The refugees are simply not allowed to leave unless they are over sixty or under ten. A few catholic and hindu priests have been allowed out but not all. The Government says it is still screening these tamil people from rebel links. In May it said most would move with liabilities within six months. Nearly four months have passed and only a trickle have left. United Nations helps fund and run the camps but it's getting impatient as Neil Bhune who is the head of UN in Sri Lanka made clear co the BBC.

Mr. Neil Bhune : With the screening continuing I think we cannot continue providing indefinitely funding if the site remains closed as it does. It is hard to say as we have to work on the government agreement, but the best solution is obviously that as many people as possible leave as soon as possible and the cite can be used for the people those who do not have place to go, that it becomes an open site.

Charles Havilland: With no lists of camp inmates some people find it difficult to trace close relatives. Some 10,000 people have been separately detained as tamil tiger suspects. I asked UN's Neil Bhune what access international agencies have to them.

Mr. Neil Bhune: At one point ICRC had access to them and at the moment I understand that they do not and we don't.

Charles Havilland: Is that worrying to you ?

Mr. Neil Bhune : I think in any case, when you have people who are separated and suspected as being ex-combatants, it is important that organisations such as ICRC has access to them.

In a new interview with Le Figero President Mahinda Rajapaksa said the government was still sorting out how many of the displaced have to be prosecuted. This could take six months or a year more, he said. Terrorists become civilians as soon as they lay down their arms. But we can't let them free.

Presenter: Prof Rajiva Wijesinha is a senior Sri Lankan civil servant, he works for the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights and he is in the studio. When are you going to start letting people out Professor?

Rajiva Wijesinha : Well people are being released, though slowly, and you and I might think this is very slow, but our Defence Ministry says there are security considerations and I am afraid you and I are not in a position to second guess them. But we do want as many people released as quickly as possible. I think today the programme begins to send people back to Jaffna, there are about 48,000 from there, and to Mannar which is the another district to the west, and we would like this to happen quickly. But all this must be subject to security considerations, as we have discussed with the UN Special Representative on the Human Rights of the Displaced.

Presenter : Well clearly they are not happy about it, the UN. Let's talk a little more about what you mean by security considerations. Back in June your Government said that some of those in the camps were still with the Tigers at least mentally. What does that mean?

Rajiva Wijesinha : Well, I'm not quite sure because I didn't see or hear what exactly was said, but I think there are two arguments here. One is the number of people conscripted. We have actually had now about 9,000 who have admitted that they fought with the Tigers, but as you can see from these photos – I’m sorry this is an audio interview – in most of the camps in which there are people who have confessed, they are very clearly youngsters forced to fight and I think just a short period of rehabilitation would help them. But within the camps are people who didn't confess and in the last three months some of the people there gave us information so we could take them in and about a thousand more are now in the rehabilitation centres. They may be more hard core. But we have appointed a full-time Commissioner General of Rehabilitation and we are engaged in a framework of action. But then, secondly, there are all the others and the simple fact is that, if you've been actually oppressed and in a sense kept in a very tight situation by the Tigers for years, you would have developed a dependency syndrome, we've seen that happen in a lot of places, we need to get them over that.

Presenter: So it is a sort of mental cleansing that is going on, so you are trying to ...

Rajiva Wijesinha: Don't be silly.

Presenter: No I'm not being silly. You just said some people are Tamil Tigers at least mentally, which implies ....

Rajiva Wijesinha: I didn't say that.

Presenter: Your Govt said that.

Rajiva Wijesinha: We you know perfectly well from this country as well that different people from different positions in Govt say different things. I think you need to look at the consolidated position which has been expressed by the Attorney General. Very simpy, we have realised that these people have had a tough time but they are our citizens and we have to do our best to give them a good future in the north.

Presenter: Let me ask you this, very precisely. What constitutes grounds for judging somebody to be a danger and therefore somebody who should be locked up rather than released?

Rajiva Wijesinha: If they've been actually fighting with the Tigers for a fairly long period, and committed certain crimes, they may need sentencing. But we've taken a decision that people who have fought with the Tigers after having been conscripted should not be treated as criminals but they would need a little bit of rehabilitation. We've been working on a framework for rehabilitation with the ILO and we are involving not only the Commissioner General but Ministries such as Health & Education because they also need training so that they can go back to a good future.

Presenter: What about people who simply believe in the ideals that originally inspired the Tigers but never took up arms and have no intention of doing so?

Rajiva Wijesinha: I think they are not a problem at all. We know perfectly well that certain people, even in politics in the TNA, had a lot of pressure from the Tigers. We are now trying to talk to them and restore them to a democratic, pluralistic framework. We have had elections and the elections no one has challenged as unfair. We have had very good results both in Vavuniya and Jaffna and I think we are on our way to a democratic, pluralistic dispensation for the Tamils.

Presenter: Well if you are on a way to a democratic, pluralistic dispensation, why won't you let journalists into the camps to see what's going on?

Rajiva Wijesinha: We did let journalists in, we still do let them in very often, but unfortunately – I am not talking of the BBC - we have had people like Channel 4 and the Guardian who were simply fraudulent. Unfortunately you and I may know the difference between the BBC and Channel 4, but I'm afraid most Sri Lankans lump you all together which I know is very unfair - and we have had lies. For instance two weeks ago we had a video shown on Channel 4 which showed what was meant to be an execution, it turned out that they had not even bothered to check it. It showed purportedly a dead person with a leg that gradually went down. I'm afraid when people tell lies, all of you get tarred with the same brush.

Presenter: If Charles Havilland asks now as a result of the conversation we are having, if he can go in, he'll be told no would he?

Rajiva Wijesinha: I have no idea. I think positively of Charles Havilland, in fact I'm one of those who argued very hard in March for everyone to go in and I must say most journalists behaved very well. The Indians actually managed to show (and this I think affected the elections in Tamil Nadu), that things weren’t as bad as some British newspapers were saying. Al-Jazeera was excellent but unfortunately I was let down badly when a lunatic in the Guardian said that 13 women had been found with their throat slit. I am responsible for protection together with the UN. I asked all our protection agencies whether anyone had any trace of what might have gone wrong and they said there was no evidence at all of such an incident.

Presenter: So it's our fault you won't let us in as it were?

Rajiva Wijesinha: It's not your fault, BBC is lovely, it’s Channel 4's fault perhaps and the Guardian.

Presenter: Collectively ...Both those organs will no doubt have something to say.

Rajiva Wijesinha : Maybe. But while thanking you for talking to me, I should say that I have asked Channel 4 to talk to me and they have refused.

Presenter: Prof Rajiva Wijesinha, thank you very much indeed for talking to us.

Rajiva Wijesinha: Thank you. [Ends]

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