“Refugees In Their Own Village”

In August, President Sirisena participated at a religious service at the Madu Shrine in the north of the country. The President ordered that all occupied lands be returned to the owners by end December this year. It remains to be seen whether it’s a move to silence the international community or a genuine attempt to help the displaced.

Trawling through Twitter over my breakfast hour, I noticed several users, from different parts of the world asking the same variant of a question, “Why is it that governments always fail us?” From Canada, to Turkey, to Brazil, to the United Kingdom and the United States, there is a growing sense that governments are locked in a strange hostility towards citizens, especially those who are in the minority.

It is this same question of governmental failure that is brought to light in the report “‘Why Can’t We Go Home?’: Military Occupation of Land in Sri Lanka,” by Human Rights Watch(HRW) which looks into the lack of restoration of land and property rights  in 20 areas in six districts, primarily in Sri Lanka’s North and East.

By the end of the war in Sri Lanka, (2009), the military owned significant portions of land throughout the North and the East. The Rajapaksa regime that was in power at the time did little to decrease military occupation.  Indeed, during this time, the military consolidated its ownership over such lands; often obtaining legal rights to the properties they were de facto occupying (HRW 2018).  The military maintained control over these lands for security purposes, as well as for commercial purposes such as agriculture and tourism. When the Sirisena-Wickremasinghe alliance took power in January of 2015, there was hope that such rampant militarization and securitization would be stalled, and that lands and properties would be released to their rightful owners. However, this process has been, at best, glacial, and the struggle for land and property rights in post-war Sri Lanka remains one of the most significant challenges to transitional justice and reconciliation in the country.

The eighty page Human Rights Watch report, released earlier this month highlights this critical problem of resettlement, one that, while it primarily affects the Tamil population, has also affected Sinhalese and Muslim communities in the north and east.  This detailed report is based on 110 interviews conducted over thirteen months, from June 2017 to August 2018, detailing the land occupation by the military both during and after the conflict, and provides a stunning picture of the extent of the land resettlement problem in the north and the east. The scale of the problem is best described by a respondent who notes that they have been made “refugees in their own village”.

The HRW report notes that in both the Rajapaksa and Sirisena governments, there has been a lack of transparency and due process in detailing how the military occupation of lands has taken place.   One such example of the lack of transparency is described in the story of 23 families in Pallimunai in Mannar who were told that their land and homes would be released to them by the local police. At that time, the local police was occupying these lands. However, before the release could occur, the navy had seized control of the land from the police and remain in situ. There has, as yet, been no explanation as to why the navy took over these lands.  There is little to none in terms of support for those affected and there are many delays in providing compensation and reparations. Even within support structures, the report found that, in order to receive assistance for livelihood and sustenance, claimants must meet certain criteria set out not only by the state but also humanitarian actors and donors. There is also no uniform application of policies that provide support to claimants.

The military continues, in 2017 and 2018, to use lands for commercial profit. As the report notes “Security forces also continue to occupy or control access to religious buildings, schools, communal wells, beaches, and arable lands that have long been used by communities, sometimes over generations, but where ownership lies with the state” (HRW 2018). In Ragamwela, in the south-eastern area of Ampara, the navy and the army established camps and built a resort and an international conference center. The community most affected by this particular case are ethnically Sinhalese who had been forcibly displaced after the war had ended.

President Sirisena joins members of the Armed forces to commemorate the dead. The Military continues to occupy land and have started various enterprises on properties that belong to civilians in the North and the East.
President Sirisena joins members of the Armed forces to commemorate the dead. The Military continues to occupy land and have started various enterprises on properties that belong to civilians in the North and the East.

Lands that have been returned to their owners are often significantly damaged. The report also documents the fact that religious places of worship that were on these lands – Buddhist temples, mosques, churches and Hindu temples- have also been destroyed by occupying forces.

In some cases, the land is only partially released, with the family or community sharing space with the military. In others, although the owner has been officially notified that the land has been released, they often find that security forces still maintain a presence on the ostensibly released land.

While the situation has improved under the Sirisena government, the process of land and property release remains slow, and is often undermined by the arbitrary and non-transparent nature of the process.  While the Sirisena government promised significant changes and established various agencies and policies for transitional justice mechanisms, it’s need to appeal to populist pressure has seen it backtrack on several key commitments.  Many land releases have remained, as noted in the HRW report and in mainstream media, largely symbolic. Even more worrying, as noted by the HRW report, is the explicit claim by the military that it is the only agency that has the capacity to properly rebuild the North.  As the HRW report underlines, it is clear that the Sirisena government is in support of the military, as the national budget has only seen an increase in defense spending.

On his return from addressing the UN General Assembly in New York earlier this month, President Sirisena ordered that all occupied lands in the North and East be returned to the owners by December 31, this year.  Such promises have been made and orders given on prior occasions too, by successive governments that have not always been true to their word. Almost ten years after the end of the war between the LTTE and the government forces, the military and other state agencies continue to occupy  most such land.

The government has been gifting land deeds to many people such as this group around the country lately. But several Sinhalese, Tamils, and Muslims displaced by the ethnic conflict have not had their land returned to them yet.
The government has been gifting land deeds to many people such as this group around the country lately. But several Sinhalese, Tamils, and Muslims displaced by the ethnic conflict have not had their land returned to them yet.

As the HRW report states, “One indicator of lack of transparency is the lack of aggregated data on military occupation of land. As the UN high commissioner for human rights noted in his report on the implementation of UN Human Rights Council Resolution 30/1 and 30/4 in January 2018, “The full extent of land under military occupation claimed by civilians remains in question.” Although the government has provided statistics for occupation, its figures remain contested, a situation compounded by the fact that some land is claimed by other state agencies, such as the forest department and the Sri Lanka Ports Authority.

President Sirisena told the international community in New York just a few weeks ago that Sri Lanka would implement a local apparatus to resolve the issues stemming from the thirty year conflict.  Since 2015, the government has been party to two United Nations Human Rights Council Resolutions, 30(1) of September 2015, and 34(1) of March 2017, which agreed to a Judicial Mechanism with special counsel to look into the allegations of violations and abuses against human rights, and violations of international humanitarian law. The Presidents pronouncement in New York which departs from these agreements, causes one to wonder if the order to return occupied land is a sop to the aggrieved parties.   Whether all the lands will actually be released by December 31 this year remains to be seen.

The report also documents, in important detail, the wave of protests that are sweeping the North and the East, with some demonstrations lasting several days, and involving entire communities. It is, clearly, a situation that sits on a knife edge, and makes the HRW report important reading, not only for policymakers, but also for members of the general public.

 

The full report can be accessed here: https://www.hrw.org/report/2018/10/09/why-cant-we-go-home/military-occupation-land-sri-lanka

 

 

 

 

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