An Epidemic of Land Grabs in Sri Lanka
Department: Siri Lankan Team
Author: Sarah Thanawala
Despite twelve years passing since the civil war ended, Tamil-owned lands in the Northern and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka continue to be acquired by the Sri Lankan government. Among the recent protests against land grab attempts of Tamil homelands in Sri Lanka, in November 2021, locals in Mandaitivu and Pungudutivu stopped the Sri Lankan government officials from the survey department from acquiring land for the Sri Lankan navy (Tamil Guardian, 2021a). In August 2021, the protestors halted officials from surveying a private land for its acquisition by the Sri Lankan military, and particularly for the Karkovalam Army camp (Tamil Guardian, 2021b). In July 2021, the Vadduvakal area of Mullaitivu saw heavy protests from locals that stalled the initiation of a gazette that would have allowed the officials to seize 617 acres of Tamil homelands for the “Gotabaya Navy Base” (Tamil Guardian, 2021c).
Besides the Army and Navy occupation of Tamil-owned lands, the acquisition of hundreds of Tamil homelands by the Wildlife Department, the Forest Department, and the Archaeological Department is on the rise (The Oakland Institute, 2021). With roughly one military member for six civilians, land grabbing has impacted the extreme militarization of the Tamil population (The Oakland Institute, 2021). Notably, through the process of “Sinhalization”, Tamil-dominated Provinces (Northern and Eastern) are being converted as Sinhalese Buddhist majority areas with the illegal settlement of the Sinhalese-Buddhist population (The Oakland Institute, 2021).
SINHALIZATION AND MILITARISATION
Sinhalization refers to the process of encroaching upon areas dominated by the minority communities in Sri Lanka, thereby changing the demographic by populating the regions with the Sinhalese-Buddhist community (Balachandran, 2019). The Northern and Eastern regions of Sri Lanka with Tamil homelands have seen “state-sponsored Sinhala settlements for decades”, whereby under the disguise of promoting agriculture and irrigation schemes, Sinhalese agricultural labourers are migrated to such Tamil dominated areas (People for Equality and Relief in Lanka, 2019; The Oakland Institute, 2021).
To quote one of such instances – in order to implement an irrigation project, the Mahaweli Authority of Sri Lanka seized 1,100 acres of land, thereby threatening the Tamil families to be displaced (The Oakland Institute, 2021). On 16 January 2022, among other such projects, the Sri Lankan ministry announced the commencement of restoration of Sinhala Buddhist stupa in the Eastern province (Ministry of Defence, 2022). Sri Lanka’s Defence Secretary and Head of the Archaeological Heritage Management Presidential Task Force inaugurated the project (Ministry of Defence, 2022). Such restoration is allegedly a recent practice geared towards the Sinhalization of Eastern provinces (Tamil Guardian, 2022). In October 2021, Tamil parliamentarians wrote against the “artificial alteration of the demographic pattern” where the Sri Lankan government attempted to redraw the borders of a district in the Northern Province (Tamil Guardian, 2021d).
Sri Lanka is the most militarised region in the world, with one soldier for every two civilians in the Mullaitivu District (Fernando, 2020). The military in the Northern and Eastern regions are employed for land grabs. Besides this, the military is also involved in non-military purposes like setting up camps, venturing into agriculture, tourism, and military-owned businesses (Fernando, 2020).
LEGITIMIZATION OF THE ACQUISITIONS
Thousands of Tamil families were displaced by the end of the armed conflict due to the Tamil homelands being declared as High Security Zones by the military, or gazetted as Special Economic Zones for the construction of industries, in areas including Jaffna, Trincomalee, Killlinochchi, and Mannar (Colombo Telegraph, 2013). The Sri Lankan government has taken the means of issuing gazette notifications in the name of establishing Army and Navy base camps for “conservation” by the Wildlife and Forest Departments, and for “national heritage” by the Archaeological Department, among other such mandates (Oakland Institute, 2021). President Rajapaksa is accused for establishing the Presidential Task Force for Archaeological Management with the motive to encroach upon Tamil native lands (Oakland Institute, 2021).
Apart from granting mandates for official purposes, lands are also handed out for religious purposes (Oakland Institute, 2021). Particularly, under the gazette of 2 October 2020, hundreds of acres of land of the Trincomalee district were leased to a Buddhist organisation (Oakland Institute, 2021). However, the gazette notification lacks legitimacy on account of the absence of the necessary approval by the Provincial Council (Oakland Institute, 2021).
CONSEQUENCES OF LAND GRABS
The Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) observed the “displacement of persons as well as loss of land and homes” to be the major consequences of the Civil War (Colombo Telegraph, 2013). As previously mentioned, Tamil families have been displaced from their homelands since the end of the Civil War (Colombo Telegraph, 2013). Consequently, Tamil landowners lost their major source of livelihood because of the acquisitions by the Sri Lankan Army (Colombo Telegraph, 2013). Where the High Security Zones were declared along the coastline, Tamil families whose livelihoods depended on occupations, like fishing and farming, faced severe consequences (Colombo Telegraph, 2013). Furthermore, access to certain places of worship, such as Catholic churches, were halted due to the occupation (Colombo Telegraph, 2013).
NATIONAL AND INTERNATIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS
Due to discrimination based solely on the ethnicity of the Tamil group, the right to equality guaranteed under Article 12(1) of the Sri Lankan Constitution has been violated (The Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, 1978, Art.12(1)). Tamil farmers are being forced to move their livestock into the forest due to the occupation of pasture lands by the State, and so their right to livelihood or their right to engage in “any lawful occupation, profession, trade, business or enterprise”, as protected under Article 14(1)(g) of the Sri Lankan Constitution, is sorely compromised (The Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, 1978, Art.14(1)(g)). Furthermore, the potential displacement of Tamil families from their native places is feared, depriving the Tamils of their right to choose one’s residence, further guaranteed under Article 14(1)(h) of the Constitution (The Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, 1978, Art. 14(1)(h)).
Article 17 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) protects the right of all individuals to own property, and that no human shall be arbitrarily deprived of property (UDHR, 1948, Article 17). Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) mandates the right to an adequate standard of living, including housing (ICESCR, 1966, Article 11). According to General Comments 4 and 7 of the Committee on Economic Social and Cultural Rights, forced evictions are in violation of the protections guaranteed under ICESCR and can be permitted in only exceptional circumstances and in line with principles of international law (Wickramaratane, 2020; UN OHCHR, 1991). The ICESCR further provides for the State Parties to take measures in consultation with the affected population and facilitate the necessary legal remedies and compensation (Wickramaratane, 2020; UN OHCHR, 1997).
Marginalisation of the minority Tamil community is exacerbated with the epidemic of land grabs in the Tamil-populated Northern and Eastern provinces in Sri Lanka. The eviction and the resulting displacement in the name of development are yet to be acknowledged by the international community as a pretence to further marginalise the Tamils. Therefore, what remains is an immediate need to spread awareness of the project and processes initiated by the government that not only deprives Tamils of their land, but also leaves them without livelihood, identity, culture and community.
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) (1966, December 16). https://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/ccpr.aspx, accessed 20 January 2022.
International Covenant on the Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) (1966, date). https://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/cescr.aspx, accessed 20 January 2021.
Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) (1948, December 10). https://www.un.org/en/about-us/universal-declaration-of-human-rights. accessed 20 January 2021.
The Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, 1978. (as amended on 29th October 2020, Revised Edn 2021) https://www.parliament.lk/files/pdf/constitution.pdf, accessed 20 January 2022.
United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (1991, December 13). CESCR General Comment No.4: The Right to Adequate Housing (Art.11 (1) of the Covenant). UN OHCHR. https://www.refworld.org/pdfid/47a7079a1.pdf, accessed 17 January 2022.
United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (1997, May 20). The right to adequate housing (Art.11.1):forced eviction:.20/05/97. CESCR General comment 7. (General Comments). UN OHCHR. https://www.refworld.org/docid/47a70799d.html, accessed 18 January 2022.
Sri Lankan official publications
Ministry of Defence (2022, January 16). Lahugala ‘Neelagiri Stupa’ to stand tall again. Ministry of Defence. https://www.defence.lk/Article/view_article/4308, accessed 20 January, 2022.
Colombo Telegraph (2013, May 1). Land Grabs in North and East Contradict LLRC Recommendations. Colombo Telegraph. https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/land-grabs-in-north-and-east-contradict-llrc-recommendations/ , accessed 18 January 2022.
Tamil Guardian (2021a, November 9). Tamil protests halt Sri Lankan land grab attempts in Jaffna. Tamil Guardian. https://www.tamilguardian.com/content/tamil-protests-halt-sri-lankan-land-grab-attempts-jaffna, accessed 17 January 2022.
Tamil Guardian (2021b, August 23). Protests held in Jaffna against attempted land grab by Sri Lankan military. Tamil Guardian. https://www.tamilguardian.com/content/protests-held-jaffna-against-attempted-land-grab-sri-lankan-military, accessed 20 January 2022.
Tamil Guardian (2021c, July 29) Tensions as Sri Lankan navy deploys troops to intimidate land-grab protestors in Mullaitivu. Tamil Guardian. https://www.tamilguardian.com/content/tensions-sri-lankan-navy-deploys-troops-intimidate-land-grab-protesters-mullaitivu, accessed 18 January 2022.
Tamil Guardian (2021d, October 25). Tamil MPs call for an end to ‘artificial alteration of Northern Province democracy’. Tamil Guardian. https://www.tamilguardian.com/content/tamil-mps-call-end-artificial-alteration-northern-province-demography , accessed 19 January 2022.
Tamil Guardian (2022, January 17). Sri Lankan army ‘restores’ another stupa as Sinhalisation in East intensifies. Tamil Guardian. https://www.tamilguardian.com/content/sri-lankan-army-restores-another-stupa-sinhalisation-east-intensifies, accessed 20 January 2022.
Balachandran, P.K. (2019, July 20). Sinhalization of Tamil Areas by Building Buddhist Shrines over Hindu Temples. The Citizen. https://www.thecitizen.in/index.php/en/newsdetail/index/6/17293/sinhalization-of-tamil-areas-by-building-buddhist-shrines-over-hindu-temples , accessed 18 January 2022.
Fernando, N (2020, December 9). Strategic Demilitarization in Sri Lanka: Paradoxes and Trajectories. Journal of International Affairs. https://jia.sipa.columbia.edu/online-articles/strategic-demilitarization-sri-lanka-paradoxes-and-trajectories , accessed 16 January 2022.
Gnaguleswaran (2019, September 21). Sinhalization of the North-East: Kokkilai. People for Equality and Relief in Lanka. https://pearlaction.org/2019/09/21/sinhalization-of-kokkilai/ , accessed 18 January 2022.
The Oakland Institute (2021). Endless War: The Destroyed Land, Life, and Identity of the Tamil People in Sri Lanka. The Oakland Institute. https://www.oaklandinstitute.org/tamils-sri-lanka-endless-war , accessed 16 January 2022.
Wickramaratne, P (2020, November). Securing land rights of displaced and evicted communities in Northern and Eastern Sri Lanka. Oxfam International. https://oxfamilibrary.openrepository.com/bitstream/handle/10546/621111/rr-securing-land-rights-displaced-communities-srilanka-261120-en.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y, 20 January 2022.