The Sri Lankan state’s forcible appropriation of Tamil-owned land and property has escalated in recent weeks. The state’s de-facto seizure of vast tracts of residential land, plantations and farms, occupied and enclosed in ‘high security zones’ during the war by the military, has been ‘legalised’ by new decrees. However, instead of dousing Tamil resistance to Sinhala hegemony, it will have precisely the opposite effect, galvanising anew Tamil hostility to the state and the Sinhalese. The forcible appropriation of land and property brings home to the majority of Tamil families the force of Sinhala oppression today, and fuels the thirst for Tamil Eelam, in ways abstract nationalist appeals cannot.
In the past two weeks, alongside the ‘legal’ transfer of military-occupied land to the state (under the Land Acquisition Act), the President personally granted 3000 North-East land deeds to Sinhala farmers. These latest moves are part of a long history of appropriation and disenfranchisement calculated to shatter the Tamil economy, society and polity. They constitute the systematic transfer of private land from Tamils to Sinhalese, with the associated intent to permanently dismantle the Tamil economy (farming and fishing), alter irrevocably the ethnic demography of the North-East and thus further weaken Tamil political mobilisation.
The mistaken presumption of many in the international community is that with the war’s end, normalcy will return to Sri Lanka and especially the war-torn Tamil homeland. In reality, the past four years have seen an intensification of precisely the conditions that led to the demand for territorial autonomy in the sixties and Tamil Eelam in the seventies. Foremost amongst these is state-backed Sinhala colonisation. The mass settlement of Sinhalese in Tamil areas before the war, gave way to military seizure and occupation of Tamil land during the war. With the war’s end, the military seizure has continued while Sinhala colonisation has resumed with a new intensity.
The state-sponsored transfer of fertile farming lands and plantations to Sinhala farmers, punitive fishing restrictions placed on Tamil fishermen and the military’s domination, both directly and indirectly, of commercial activity is intended to stifle and dismantle the core of the Tamil economy in North-East. So too are measures such as the recent prohibiting of land transfers to ‘foreigners’, the Defence Secretary’s appointment as the ultimate authority on granting dual citizenships, and the violence and coercion inflicted on Tamil diaspora business people. Together with the repeated vilification of the Tamil diaspora as ‘terrorist rump’, these measures are intended to deliberately deter the most eager and emotionally bound investors in the North-East.
Meanwhile, it is no coincidence that the current rapid acceleration of land appropriation takes place just as the government succumbed to international pressure and announced an election to the Northern Provincial Council. Indeed a government minister has openly opposed such an election on the basis that it would give Tamil political parties the ‘upper hand’. (It is worth remembering how the shamelessly rigged elections to the Eastern province installed a pro-government paramilitary that oversees new programs of state sponsored Sinhala colonisation and Tamil clearances.) As such, the state’s escalating land grab underlines the irrelevancy of the Northern provincial elections. The provincial councils have no powers. Those that could possibly matter – for example land and police powers (i.e. the powers that could impact in some way on the state’s forcible appropriation of land and on the military’s all pervasive presence) – have been long withheld by the Colombo government from Tamil areas, as Tamil parties have repeatedly pointed out. Thus, whilst the provincial councils and the elections to them may enthral some members of the international community – and provide fig leaves for the actions of Sri Lanka’s allies – they will make no difference to the escalating ethnic crisis.
The state’s land grab has been a central driver of Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict. It led directly to the forming of the Federal Party soon after independence, and the FP’s (later TULF’s) unbroken electoral successes before the war. It was a central Tamil grievance during the abortive Norwegian-led peace process and led explicitly to the ‘normalcy’ clauses of the Ceasefire Agreement. At the time, the international community endorsed the Sri Lankan military’s occupation of Tamil residential and agricultural territories, based on the logic that dismantling the ‘high security zones’ and returning the military to its barracks, would disadvantage it vis-à-vis the LTTE. Since the end of the armed conflict, however, the appropriation of Tamil land has – unsurprisingly – only escalated. In short, it is precisely the Sri Lankan state’s efforts to disrupt and dismantle the Tamil nation’s economic, social and political foundations, and to erase the Tamil identity as a territorial nation, that have driven the demand for autonomy and, later, independence. Four years after the war, this conflict dynamic is clearly at play. It is the recent actions of the Sri Lankan state that have led, for example, to Tamil calls for a Transitional Administration.
We have repeatedly argued that the intensification of Sinhala oppression will lead to the intensification of Tamil resistance. With the international community seemingly unable – and a growing chorus insists unwilling – to restrain the Sinhala state, the struggle for Tamil Eelam will prove one of the most enduring of the 21st century. This is no hyperbole; the basis for protracted struggle is being systematically laid across the North-East – by the Sri Lankan state. International ambitions for ethnic reconciliation as the basis for the peace, would be better served by attention to the drivers of everyday insecurity, disenfranchisement and oppression, exemplified by the state’s forcible appropriation of Tamil-owned land, rather than elections to impotent local assemblies.