Colombo Telegraph

Conducting A Census; Another Cosmetic Exercise Before Geneva 2014

By Paul Newman

Dr. Paul Newman

After reading the Groundviews article dated 07/12/2013 and the article by Mr.Raj Jayadevan dated 20/01/2014 in CT, I felt something more could be added to this discussion on the census of human and property damages taken up by the Government of Sri Lanka. I fully acknowledge that it is nothing but a ploy of the present regime to thwart the International community once again just before the 25thUNHRC in March.

The entire date was collected by the Gram Sevaka Niladharis and government staff, the respondents did not have a chance to fill the questionnaires which were in Tamil and Sinhalese, and there was no English translation available. There are serious allegations by very responsible people of the north that many villages were left out. The same type of population census carried out the last time would result in the reduction of the MP seats for Jaffna electoral district from 9 to 6 in the next elections.  Only direct relatives of the victims, (husband or wife and parents if the victim was unmarried) were eligible to register.

Though the forms had all the details, the contents were orally dictated for filling them up, which means the people who work for the government who collected the data, collected only what was instructed to them or only what they wanted, whereas the guidelines had all the details and this to tell the outer world that the census was of International standard.

During the census one of the important issues locally was the question of witness protection especially if the families had links with the militants or if the families were to be present till the end of the war in Mullivaikal, the question raised is, when a high profile human rights activist like Fr.Yogeswaran SJ was questioned immediately after he met Ms.Navi Pillay, the UN Human Rights Commissioner, how will they be spared? Is it wise to give all the details?

In Jaffna the army has moved out physically to a large extent but the psychological scars remain and the presence of the para military too has made people think twice before they indulge in giving out details of the losses they have incurred especially if they have lost their near and dear ones, the reasons for their death/disappearance and the alleged perpetrators.

Many of those who have surrendered do not even speak about that if they have young girls at home fearing the security forces. Hence, the question of many disappeared people remains a mystery.

In this entire system of conducting the census, one big fallacy is that nobody other than a family member can register the disappearance of a family or if an entire family was killed in the war. The numbers are not small; apart from those killed Sri Lanka needs to account for 146,679 unaccounted people.

It would be good if an environmental census is taken on how many Palmyra trees were broken by the armed forces and in terms of economic value how much each family lost as a result of the destruction of these trees. It would be noteworthy if a census is taken on how many trees have been felled by the armed forces during the course of the war and how much timber have been stolen by the timber smugglers of the south for export. It would be good to take a count of how many Sinhala families have been resettled by the state sponsored resettlement schemes in the North and East.

In this whole exercise one wonders the fate of the more than 70,000 refugees in the 112 camps of Tamilnadu and 40,000 living outside apart from those Tamil asylum seekers, refugees and Tamil Diaspora in the western countries who left everything after the state sponsored pogrom of 1983, who will compensate them?

In the questionnaire there is no mention of how much land the Tamils have lost to the armed forces and how the Tamils have been deprived of their livelihood as a result of the agricultural activities taken up by the armed forces and the occupation of the coastal areas used by the Tamil fishermen.

The whole approach needs a very professional approach, people undertaking the census should be trained, there should be independent monitoring mechanisms, there should be no coercion or any pressure on the respondents and the whole process should involve the civil society, the religious groups, NGOS and INGOs, only then it can be impartial and accepted by the victims.

The immediate need for the people is not an audit or census but the land that was grabbed from them; they need to return to their ancestral properties. They need to live in an environment which is natural, devoid of the presence of the armed forces both in uniform and civvies, an administration where the Governors of the North and East are not men accused of aiding genocide.  For this kind of a project to succeed, there needs to be a transitional administration under international supervision for aiding the civilians speak out their minds without fear.

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