BUREAU OF THE COMMISSIONER GENERAL OF REHABILITATION
"MINISTRY OF PRISON REFORMS,REHABILITATION, RESETTLEMENT AND HINDU RELIGIOUS AFFAIRS"

Rehabilitation, resettlement of ex-LTTEers, a success



The completion of the almost three-year long humanitarian operation to defeat LTTE terrorism has left many post-conflict challenges in Sri Lanka. The resettlement of displaced persons and the rehabilitation and reintegration of ex-combatants into society were among the priority areas which had to be addressed.

The Government took up those challenges effectively as the international community was trying to find fault with Sri Lanka. Amidst this challenging situation, Sri Lanka set an example to the entire international community by completing the resettlement of almost all displaced civilians in their villages, closing all welfare centres.

In the same breath, it also effectively handled the rehabilitation and re-integration of ex-combatants to society by re-integrating 1,800 who had undergone a maximum of two years rehabilitation at various rehabilitation centres coming under the Bureau of the Commissioner General of Rehabilitation.


Former combatants undergoing rehabilitation

Enjoying a meal during rehabilitation

Receiving vocational training

 

In an interview with the Sunday Observer, the recently appointed Commissioner General of Rehabilitation Major General Chandana Rajaguru, who took over the task from Major General Sudantha Ranasinghe, states that the overall rehabilitation of ex-combatants has been a success as they have not so far received any complaints about them being engaged in crimes and being arrested by the Police after they were reintegrated in to society.

"The Government has, upto now, spent Rs.1.3 billion for the rehabilitation of these ex-Tigers. In the beginning, we spent Rs. 150 million a month when the numbers to be rehabilitated were large. Now it has been reduced to Rs. 50 million a month. This money was pumped by the Government and vocational training was provided to them by the government," he said.

Excerpts of the interview the Sunday Observer had with Commissioner General of Rehabilitation, Major General Chandana Rajaguru:

Q: After the completion of the humanitarian operation in May 2009, one of the biggest challenges the Sri Lankan Government had to take on was the rehabilitation of more than 10,000 ex- combatants who had surrendered and were found by the Security Forces at the final stages of the war. How was this challenge taken up by the Bureau of the Commissioner General of Rehabilitation and what mechanisms were in place to facilitate this process?

A: The office of the Bureau of the Commissioner General of Rehabilitation was not something new. It had been established way back in the 1990s for the rehabilitation of JVP rebels. So, we already had an organisation, but it was collapsing after the JVP members were cleared and there was no necessity to maintain it. Once again such a necessity arose in 1995 and 1996 when the defence services captured the Jaffna peninsula and received a lot of surrendees and arrested personnel who were not heavily involved terrorist activities to be put in jail.

For them, rehabilitation was a better solution. For that purpose a rehabilitation centre was established in Thelippalai, Jaffna. I was also involved in as a staff officer to General Lionel Balagalle who was then Commander of the 51 Division.

So, the mechanism existed and the judiciary also directed certain people for rehabilitation, instead of handing a jail term.

Humanitarian operation

In 2006, with the launch of the humanitarian operation this Bureau was established under the Justice Ministry and an extra-ordinary Gazette notification was published in September 2006, stipulating the handling of these surrendees. The Gazette notification very clearly says any surrendered or arrested person has to volunteer to be rehabilitated.

So on that basis, most of these people preferred to be rehabilitated as they themselves are affected by being unable to get rid of the war mentality. This made them different and they wished to undergo rehabilitation.

So, we had this skeleton arrangement at the time, in May 2009, soon after the death of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, hundreds of thousands of people moved in. So there was an option for those involved in LTTE activities to surrender. Even people who had the slightest involvement with the LTTE were asked to surrender. So 12,000 of them volunteered to surrender. They were separately housed.

This is how they came to us and we already had the concept. So it was a case of doing that and deciding where to house them and things like that and we managed to do all this during these years.

Q: The ex-combatants you brought for rehabilitation were from the most ruthless terror outfit in the world. Among them, there were cadre trained for suicide missions and all sorts of terror activities. So, how did you manage to get them rehabilitated at these centres?

A: When they came, we initially housed them in 24 centres. In the meantime we started profiling and taking notes of them. We did not want to get involved in other things such as checking their involvement with the LTTE. That was done by the Terrorist Investigation Division (TID). They sent their officers and interviewed the people who even had the slightest involvement.

Those who had been heavily involved in LTTE activities volunteered to surrender, fearing that others would divulge their information as they were among the public. On that basis we categorised them. Those who were fully involved with the LTTE were removed to Boossa and there was a fair amount of such people.

They were held on a different basis under the Prevention of Terrorism Act; there was the possibility of keeping them on detention order.

The TID categorised the people and took away those in the categories A,B,C; LTTE leaders,strict followers, and those who were assigned to recover things and arrest others. Categories D, E and F were political cadre, supporters and those who had provided labour for the LTTE.

It was based on ongoing investigations and even later on, people who had more commitment to the LTTE were arrested. Under the 2006 regulation, the minimum period of rehabilitation was one year which could be extended in three-month durations upto four times, to be extended upto another year. This could be done with the authority of the Secretary of Defence.

Whenever we felt that certain people had to be kept for longer, if they were not properly de-radicalised, they were kept for a further period with the consent of the Ministry of Defence (MOD). That's why one year was compulsory and then three-month extensions four times, running into another year. So the maximum period we could keep them was two years.

Gun culture

Q: You had to rehabilitate people who had grown up in a gun culture and who had held guns in their hands for years. How did you rehabilitate them and change their minds during their rehabilitation process?

A: It is basically the skill of the staff, mostly comprising personnel from the National Cadet Corps (NCC). There were a few Army personnel and officers too. The NCC people had the skills to handle the students and they were polite to these ex-combatants. We never handled them in a hard manner. We were basically good to them.

We got them to adopt a routine in their day-to-day activities. They were rehabilitated in many ways. One area is vocational training to keep them occupied. We also had educational rehabilitation where they, especially the child soldiers, were allowed to go to school. The child soldiers were sent to Hindu College, Ratmalana where they received education.

Although they were child soldiers in the LTTE, when they came to us, they were older, 16 or so. There were a few who could get into schools. Of the 12,000 only 594 were children. Of them about 273 were sent for schools and 321 were sent for vocational training.

Sometime ago, they all completed their education and were released to their guardians or parents. The elder people who missed their O/L and A/L examinations were given a special opportunity to catch up on their education. They were facilitated to sit for their O/L and A/Ls. They did quite well. That was the educational rehabilitation. In the meantime, we used spiritual Hindu religious leaders to visit them, lecture to them and carry out various meditation programs. That was the spiritual rehabilitation.

At the same time, we found that some of them are skilful in drawing, craftwork, drama and performing arts. They were allowed to engage in arts and creative activities to keep them occupied. While they were in rehabilitation centres they were allowed to visit their parents, spouses and children. That exposure was there as they were not kept under detention. They were allowed to take part in sports activities such as football and cricket. At the Vavuniya centre, they produced several good sportsmen who were able to beat a team such as Holcim, seven goals to nil in a football match during a tour to the South. Such were the methods we used to rehabilitate them.

Q: Rehabilitating them in special centres might have been an easy task. But reintegrating them to society is somewhat difficult and you need to have a lot of confidence in them before they are reintegrated in to society. What kind of mechanism have you followed in this process?

A: As you correctly said, rehabilitating them in centres is OK. The problem arises when they are reintegrated into society. We have to see how society will accept them. In this case, the Bureau, with the help of the Ministry and the International Organization of Migration, conducted awareness programs in all districts. With the patronage of the GA, we gathered religious dignitaries, government officials and a cross-section of society, and lectured them on how they can look after these people and the need to accept these rehabilitated people without any hate. We were able to make them understand that these people had been misguided.

In the meantime, these people were provided with vocational training. So wherever they go, they could get involved in those activities. They don't have time to loiter. They already know a profession so they can quickly turn around and earn for themselves and their families. It was because of them that their families were victimised. The families were struggling to live without them. Therefore, the responsibility to begin a new life lies with them.

Reintegration has been successful. So far, no reintegrated person has been arrested by Police for any crime. People resort to crime when they do not have jobs. We have found that they are getting about with their families and their professions. They may not be all that prospective in life. We are unable to offer them jobs but we have provided them with vocational training so that they can pick up their lives.

Q: Do you have any mechanism to monitor their activities after reintegrating them to society?

A: All this time we focused on centre-based rehabilitation and depend on the Army Civil Affairs officers to do the monitoring. Now we are left with 1,000 to be rehabilitated. Now we can focus on economic reintegration and social reintegration. We are going to have a better network. We are going to post some officers from other organisations into the military establishment so that they can assist the Army Civil Affairs officers to locate these people, hear their problems, help them within the means of the Government. That way, we are going to focus more attention on them after they are reintegrated to society.

Displaced

Q: What are the facilities available to them once they are reintegrated into society?

A: All these people are members of the displaced families who have already returned to their villages. These displaced were given rations and tool kits. Although the breadwinner was here, their stuff was issued. Before these people were reintegrated, their families were informed about their release. The Rehabilitation Authority functions under the Minister of Prison Reforms Chandrasiri Gajadeera and his Secretary Dissanayake. The Rehabilitation Authority is meant to provide micro-financing for those affected by terrorism. They have been doing that and we are trying to get some benefits for these people as well. We are in the process of filling up forms.

Apart from that, finances have also come from various banks. These are low interest loans with grace periods and with a repayment period of 10 years.

The people who have been reintegrated are already in contact with the banks. These documents we had issued them had facilitated them to draw bigger loans from banks. Most of them have already found finances.

All of us agree that there is a big diaspora, they have somebody abroad to finance them. They collect funds from banks as they are supported by them.

Q: Are there any success stories in the rehabilitation and reintegration process?

A: Yes, there are. As I mentioned one type of rehabilitation is through arts and creativity. In one program, actress Anoja Weerasinghe conducted training for those who are interested in drama and dancing and performing arts. There is already a dancing troupe working under Anoja Weerasinghe and there is a big demand for them for public shows. We also have singers who had participated in singing competitions. One has been selected to act in a film. Most of them have found some kind of occupation to help their families.

Q: There may be ex-combatants who do not have families or relatives to reunite with. What kind of arrangements do you have for such members?

A: Most of them have families. May be they are not married, but they have parents and brothers or sisters. We reintegrate people only when have an address of known relatives. We locate them and then only we reintegrate them to society. This is being done by the military intelligence when we provide them with the information given by the rehabilitatee. So, they are going back to the people they know. There is no case of any individual being released without background being checked.

Int'l organisations

Q: We know that the LTTE no longer exists in Sri Lanka. But remnants of the LTTE and other organisations supporting their cause exist internationally. Don't you think that there may be attempts by these organisations to drag these rehabilitated people back to their organisation or for terror activities?

A: The Diaspora and those who are still with the LTTE ideology may attempt such things.

One thing we stopped for these people was to possess telephones. We had a central arrangement for them to receive calls, but not free access for anybody to call them and talk of their past involvements and have them blackmailed. That way, we prevented such attempts.

And the way they have been rehabilitated, I feel that they may reject such organisations now. We checked their radicalisation levels and found that they really hate the LTTE and understand that they were misguided by the LTTE. Now, especially when they associated with the Sinhalese, and when they were taken on tours they had opportunities to associate with Sinhalese youth. They are happy and they understand that other communities are not really against them, that they were compelled to protect the integrity of Sri Lanka. They were really astonished to see the destruction they had caused to the Sinhalese community. So I don't think there are opportunities to drag them back to terrorism.

Q: The international community is closely monitoring the rehabilitation of these ex-combatants. What is their response towards this program and how do they assist this process?

A: Actually, rehabilitation was done at the expense of the Government. The Government has, upto now, spent Rs. 1.3 billion on this. In the beginning, Rs. 150 million a month was spent when the crowd was large. Now it has been reduced to Rs. 50 million a month. The money was pumped by the Government and vocational training was provided to them by the Government.

Many volunteers also offered their time and expertise and had short courses. That way there was no necessity for foreign funding, except for the IOM which facilitated things like awareness program.

The IOM also handled the transportation of displaced people and the resettling of these rehabilitated people. We allowed them to do profiling where they got to know these people and issued them with ID cards. When these people are reintegrated to society, they are authorised to contact them and fulfil their various requests.

The IOM is assisting them by providing various equipment and tool kits. It has donor countries such as the USA, UK, Australia, the Netherlands and Norway. Those countries have been funding the IOM. These donor countries, through the IOM, would assist these people when they are reintegrated into society.

Here, although we did not receive any assistance for centre-based rehabilitation, they also assisted by providing us furniture and other things. The IOM has a very good network monitoring the progress of the people reintegrated to society.

In fact, there is a part of rehabilitation called re-insertion. After these people are released to society, they initially go through a period of re-insertion. The IOM and donor countries are more interested in helping them in that duration.

What happens is that when this person goes back to society, he/she will not get rations and things like that because he already has a home and a family which has been issued with rations.

For that they have the IOM support. This is the kind of foreign assistance we receive for this program.

Criticism

Q: There is criticism of this rehabilitation program that the rehabilitation of those who had been engaged in a military outfit is being carried out by military personnel. Is there any impact on the rehabilitation program when it is conducted by military personnel?

A: As I said earlier, although the staffers are from the military, they are not entirely military personnel. National Cadet Corps officers who handle the rehabilitation are basically teachers in schools although they wear uniforms. They do not handle these people like military recruits. They are handling them in a cordial way.

When they are engaged in vocational training, they are only with instructors. Although we are there, there is no interference in their activities; we only ensure that their routine is adopted. These beneficiaries were the people who really fought against the military, yet, they were so polite. At the same time, this set-up cannot entirely be handled by civilians. That may not have much of an effect because this is an accelerated program. If they were kept here for a long period, a civilian organisation may have been able to handle them. Of course the military was assisting in an accelerated rehabilitation program.

Q: Last week 1,800 ex-combatants were reintegrated into society. How many more ex-combatants are left for rehabilitation?

A: Last week we reintegrated 1,800 ex-combatants. The people who had come from Puthumatalan started their rehabilitation in October 2009. If we go by the regulations, their rehabilitation program should end by September 30, 2011. With that, we have cleared all those people whose maximum rehabilitation period is two years.

There is another category of people who had been produced before Courts and had received rehabilitation as the verdict. They are with us, and are around 1,000 in number. We intend to keep them only for one year.

Q: So there won't be any necessity for these rehabilitation centre in the future?

A: In Boossa, there are about 1,000 people under detention and they come to these centres from time to time.

Definitely there will be a decline. But we may be tasked with the rehabilitation of the combatants from the East. Although the Northerners came to us, there were combatants in the East that had taken part in operations who have remained with their families.

They have not been rehabilitated. Of course, there is community-based rehabilitation taking place. May be they will be directed to us. This organisation is not only meant for ex-combatants. We are open for other rehabilitation activities also.

Q: Finally, what is your overall assessment of the rehabilitation process of ex-combatants?

A: It was a very good effort which worked very well and we contributed a lot from our side. Finally, we see this conversion has taken place in the people. They seemed to have changed. They do not seem to talk of fighting. They want to live with their families. That is their intention.

All in all that was a very successful process. And up to now, there have been no complaints that they are upto any mischief. There is no complaint that they have been arrested by the Police. What we did on behalf of the Government has been successful.

(Courtesy - Sunday Observer)