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Post War Resettlement in Sri Lanka

Posted by Manela Karunadasa

22 Apr 2016

On the 19th of May 2009, then Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, addressing the Parliament stated that “the country has been liberated from terrorism” (The Guardian, 2009). Three decades of bloodshed in Sri Lanka had come to an end with the final military offensive by the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) against Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) (Saparamadu et al., 2014). The conflict that spanned for more than 25 years between GoSL and the LTTE resulted in several waves of displacement, yet displacement that took place during 2006-2009 reached unprecedented levels (ibid). In Northern Province alone, more than 300,000 people have been displaced during the last stage of the war. Most of the IDPs were housed in Manik Farm,[1] which housed 225,000 people in 700 acres of land. The freedom of movement of the IDPs were severely constrained (ibid). In September 2012, with the closure of Manik Farm, Sri Lankan Security Forces Commander claimed that ‘there will be no more IDPs in the country’ (Daily Mirror, 2015). While many international agencies applauded this move by the GoSL, humanitarian agencies raised concerns about the resettlement and rehabilitation process. This article will elaborate on post war development in Sri Lanka and difficulties faced by resettled IDPs when accessing basic services.

Post War development projects initiated by the GoSL displayed a disturbing trend of mainstreaming hardware infrastructure over social capital. Mahinda Chinthana (Mahinda Vision); development policy framework of the GoSL from 2010-2016 and Uthuru Wasanthaya (Northern Spring); large scale state led development project for the North pay inadequate attention to IDPs and matters related to resettlement and rehabilitation such as improving livelihood facilities, restoration of civil, political and other rights and finding durable solutions for the IDPs, as their IDP status is assumed to have ceased upon leaving the camp (Saparamadu et al., 2014).

GoSL development plans under the Rajapaksa regime focused more on rebuilding over rehabilitation and reconciliation, and argues that infrastructure development in the North is driven by maintaining and strengthening national security. This is likely to have a negative impact on the well-being of the resettled people and the security of the region. However, following the regime change in January 2015, the current administration places more emphasis on building soft infrastructure over hard infrastructure (The Island 2015). Addressing the Thai Pongal National Ceremony held in the Weerasingham Hall in Jaffna, the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe stated that the current administration focused on demilitarising the North, the possibility of making Tamil youth stakeholders on national security and measures to assist Women Headed Households (Colombo Page, 2015). Accordingly, Mega Development projects in the North focus more on resettling displaced people on their own lands and development of safe and clean drinking water (international Affairs, 2015).

A panel survey of resettled communities in the North and East conducted by the Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA)[2]  reveals positive changes in people’s access to basic services. In 2012, people living in resettled communities in Jaffna, Mannar and Trincomalee districts spent an average of 15 minutes commuting to the nearest water source. By 2015, this estimate has reduced to 9 minutes. 55% of respondents stated that the time saving is the result of both the government and local and international NGOs building new water sources closer to their residences. While these are positive changes at the aggregate level, district-specific issues of access to water remain. For instance, in the district of Mannar, 13% of the resettled population (surveyed) still receive water from a bowser, and do not have access to the main water line. While the water is currently provided by the government, respondents stated that a permanent solution has to be adopted to mitigate the shortage of water. Similarly, the rural-urban disaggregation of the data tells us that resettled communities in rural areas are worse in accessing water, and in personal communications with the field team, residents shared stories of severe health problems (i.e. kidney disease) that they attributed to the shortage of water.

A qualitative study under the same research programme reveals how certain groups in resettled communities experience discrimination despite the state’s efforts to increase access to water in the North. The study asserts that communities in Thirunagar, Jaffna, a neighbourhood of lower caste members experience lack of access to clean water and toilets, due to caste based discrimination. Discriminative practices of caste politics which were supressed by the LTTE’s ban on caste system have re-entered social life in Jaffna in the aftermath of the conflict (Lall, 2015). Patterns of caste based discrimination were visible throughout the process of displacement and resettlement, and continue to shape lifestyles of returnees. For instance, caste based discrimination is experienced when having to share wells located in areas inhabited by higher caste communities and access to water is drawn along caste lines. Historic and systematic marginalisation and discrimination prevents owning land, accessing basic education, getting political representation or being treated with basic dignity and respect.

By placing inadequate focus on software infrastructure; community building, psychological support and human rights, GoSL fails to ensure the right to dignity, which forms the basis of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Human Dignity Trust). However, the present regime under the presidency of Maithripala Sirisena focuses more on institutional governance and enhancing social capital. By placing much importance on political reformations and institutional governance, the present regime seeks to distance itself from the pro ‘mega development project’ agenda of the Rajapaksa regime. While this trend would result in less visible development in the short-run, it is likely to benefit the average Sri Lankan more, and result in a more stable country in the long-term.

This article is part of a series of blog posts synthesizing research conducted by the Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium in Sri Lanka. The Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium (SLRC) is a six year global research programme exploring livelihoods, basic services and social protection in conflict-affected situations. www.securelivelihoods.org

Manela Karunadasa, graduated from University of London with a Second Class Upper in International Development. Currently based in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Manela is passionately interested in the discussions of gender studies, climate change and post-war development in the country.


[1] Manik Farm is located in the far south-west of Vavuniya District near the district’s border with Anuradhapura and Mannar districts. With a population in excess of 200,000. Manik Farm was believed to be the largest IDP camp in the world. (UN OCHA 2009)

[2] This panel survey was conducted as part of the Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium (SLRC), a global research programme exploring livelihoods, basic services and social protection in war-affect contexts


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