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Project Tiger: Reintegration of the Surrendered LTTE Cadres

Dr N. Manoharan is Director, Center for East Asian Studies, at Christ University, Bangalore. He earlier served at the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS), Prime Minister’s Office.
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  • July 21, 2011

    It is now over two years since the military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). According to the Sri Lankan Attorney General’s Department, a total of 11,696 LTTE cadres have either been captured or have surrendered since the end of ‘Eelam War IV’. What is their status now? Are there any ‘reintegration’ programmes pursued to bring them back to the mainstream? If so, what is the progress, and how successful have they been?

    Appreciably, and thanks partly due to international pressure, within months of the formal end of the violent ethnic conflict, the ‘National Action Plan for the Reintegration of Ex-combatants’ was put in place by the Government of Sri Lanka. It was principally designed to “minimize the risk of socio-economic marginalization and increase employability of ex-cadres among other things.” Through this reintegration programme, in the words of Gotabaya Rajapakse, Defence Secretary and one of the masterminds of the military victory, the “Tigers should learn that there is a better world beyond waging war.” The Ministries of Defence, Justice, Health, Women’s Affairs, Foreign Employment, Vocational Training, Labour, National Integration and Social Services have been involved in the process. Although there are thus so many players involved in this process, but when it comes to transparency there is too little of it.

    As for “known knowns”, the Tigers in custody have been broadly divided into three categories: those who were forcefully recruited (mostly children), non-combatant members, and hardcore combatants. Separate “welfare centres” for each category were set up – 24 in all – in the districts of Jaffna, Batticaloa and Vavuniya to rehabilitate them. The first category – 556 child combatants – are said to have been provided with catch-up education classes and allowed family visits. Nevertheless, free access to specialised independent international agencies like Save the Child, UNICEF and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) could have made the rehabilitation more successful. Instead of just limiting their education to the secondary level, the programme should go beyond in turning the former child soldiers into useful citizens.

    Those identified as “hardcore” were separated out to extract the maximum information on the LTTE remnants, their ‘sleeper cells’, existing network, future plans of revival, and hidden weapons/mines. In the initial stages, there were human rights abuses in the rehabilitation process, but these have subsequently declined. No distinction was made between leaders and ordinary cadres in this regard. Some of the important LTTE leaders who are presently under custody include Kumaran Pathmanathan (former head of the international wing of the LTTE), Yogaratnam (former spokesman of the LTTE), Lawrence Tilagar (a former spokesman of the LTTE, a onetime head of the LTTE office in Paris and later in charge of the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation), Thangan (former Deputy political wing leader), Ilamparithi (former head of the political wing, Jaffna district), Elilan (former Trincomalee political wing leader), Papa (former head of the LTTE sports division), Puvannan (former head of the administrative division of the LTTE), Gnanam (deputy international head) and Tamilini (head of the Women’s political wing). Some of these former heavyweights are now working with the Sri Lankan Military Intelligence in neutralising the internal and external networks of the LTTE. They are expected to undergo legal proceedings after the rehabilitation process, which, in turn, may depend on the “level of cooperation” they render to the government.

    In the non-combatant category, the government has been a bit easy. As of end-April 2011, over 6000 former LTTE cadres have been released and reintegrated. On record, they have undergone psychological and creative assistance, education, vocational training (in areas such as information technology, sewing, plumbing, electric work, carpentry, mason work, welding, and metal work) spiritual, religious and cultural empowerment, sports and socialization. Support for the programme has come from Japan, the US, India, the EU, a section of the Sri Lankan diaspora and also from private companies based in Sri Lanka like Aitken Spence, Brandix, Ceylon Tobacco, Dilmah, Hayleys, John Keells, MAS Holdings, Unilever and Ajitha de Zoysa.

    However, despite rehabilitation and reintegration, the stigma as former Tigers remains. The Sri Lankan Government has not done much to ease this stain. On the other hand, the Government’s strategy of releasing the rehabilitated with much media hype has in fact increased the stigma factor due to wide publicity and dissemination of their identities. This could be avoided. Also, due to their past activities, the physical security of many of the former Tigers are in jeopardy. They should be provided security. There is also apprehension among the rehabilitated cadres about being under the watchful eyes of the security forces, and the chances of them being detained anytime appear high. It is the duty of the Government to tone down such trepidation. The Government should consider periodic orientation of those reintegrated ex-militants to make sure that they do not slip away from the right path in the long run. The Government has ruled out absorbing them into the armed forces, but they may be a good bet as police or Home Guards. Sadly, the Plan of Action also completely ignores empowering the disabled former Tigers. It is not too late to address this lacuna.

    Overall, proper reintegration of former militants into mainstream society is one of the vital components of rebuilding post-conflict societies. In the Sri Lankan case, it is all the more important given the character of the LTTE – secretive, ruthless and uncompromising – which had led it to make enemies all around. If adequate attention is not given to this aspect of the problem, there are chances that they may resort to criminal or militant activities for their livelihood. In this regard, if the reintegration programme of the Sri Lankan government is attractive, the dispersed Tigers may surface to join the mainstream. Providing alternative livelihood opportunities to those already surrendered will go a long way in convincing those still at large. If the post-conflict environment is conducive for decent living, the chances of ex-militants picking up arms once again would be remote.

    * The author is Senior Fellow, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi