by Anuradha Mittal, Oakland Institute, California, March 2021
The Destroyed Land, Life, and Identity of the Tamil People in Sri Lanka
—FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE—
March 7, 2021; 10:00PM PT
Anuradha Mittal, " data-extlink="">(link sends e-mail); +1 510-530-5126
- As the 46th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) prepares to address the situation in Sri Lanka, a new report details how 12 years after the brutal end of the civil war, the island nation is increasingly an ethnocratic state — intensifying the colonization and Sinhalisation of Tamil lands.
- The military occupation of the traditional Tamil land is extreme — with a ratio of one soldier for every six civilians in the Northern Province and one soldier for every two civilians in the Mullaithivu District.
- A government-led effort to geographically fragment the North and East is accompanied by a strategy to systematically erase Tamil culture and history through the establishment of Sinhalese settlements, Buddhist viharas, victory monuments, archaeological reservations, wildlife sanctuaries, forest reserves, and special economic zones.
- The Zero Draft Resolution presented by the Core-Group on Sri Lanka to the UNHRC ignores the assessment made by the Human Rights Commissioner Bachelet who has accused Sri Lanka of reneging on promises to ensure justice and stressed the need for the international community’s proactive role to stop and prevent future conflict.
- The UNHRC must incorporate High Commissioner Bachelet’s recommendations and the call made by four former High Commissioners, nine former Special Rapporteurs, and all members of the UNSG’s Panel of Experts on Sri Lanka to refer the matter to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Oakland, CA — As the 46th session of the UNHRC assesses the new resolution on Sri Lanka, a new report from the Oakland Institute, Endless War: The Destroyed Land, Life, and Identity of the Tamil People in Sri Lanka, brings forth shocking new evidence on the extent of the continued persecution of the minority Tamil population in the North and East of the country.
Under the guise of “development projects,” government driven Sinhalese colonization is growing within Tamil areas with the intent to change demographics and deny Tamil communities access to their land. “Through irrigation schemes, military settlements, archaeological reservations, wildlife sanctuaries, forest reserves and special economic zones — land-grabbing in the North and East has worsened since the regime change two years ago,” said Anuradha Mittal, who coordinated the research for the report. “Denying Tamils access to their ancestral land, changing the name of villages, replacing churches and Hindu temples by Buddhist viharas, and victory monuments dedicated to the Sinhalese domination, is a concerted effort to erase the Tamil history and culture. The government’s strategy is also to geographically fragment the traditional Tamil homeland — the North and the East of the country,” Mittal added. The report uncovers the use of several government departments — including the Mahaweli Authority, Archaeological Department, Forest Department, and Wildlife Department, in this strategy.
Endless War, the fourth Oakland Institute report on post war Sri Lanka, also provides a timely update on the extent of land grabbing and the impact of widespread militarization on the Tamil population. The military occupation is extreme — with roughly one military member for every six civilians.
“The military continues to occupy vast amounts of land. Running 5-star resorts, cafes, construction companies, but also cultivating the land it occupies, the heavy presence of the army severely impacts the livelihoods of the local population,” added Mittal. Meanwhile, thousands of Tamils, including over 23,000 people in Jaffna alone, remain displaced 12 years after the end of the war, awaiting resettlement with no end in sight.
Gotābaya Rajapaksa’s government’s use of the military and various departments to expropriate the lands of Tamil and Muslim populations is geared at expanding the supremacy of the Sinhalese and Buddhist religion across Sri Lanka and should garner the immediate attention of the UNHRC.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet’s January 2021 report on Sri Lanka, stressed the need to not only ensure accountability for past human rights violations, but also called on the international community to stop and prevent possible future violence and conflict. “The Commissioner’s call for sanctions against top generals and others accused of war crimes and for an International Criminal Court investigation into Sri Lanka’s Tamil separatist conflict are essential to upholding justice and human rights,” added Mittal.
The Zero Draft Resolution, presented by members of the Core-Group on Sri Lanka, however, fails to outline a clear approach for ensuring justice, accountability and lasting peace. “It completely deviates from the recommendations made by the UN High Commissioner Bachelet and those made by four former High Commissioners, nine former Special Rapporteurs, and all members of the UNSG’s Panel of Experts on Sri Lanka — to refer the matter to the International Criminal Court. Endless War, exposes the reality of the destruction of land, life, and identity of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka and presents a prima facie evidence for collective international action to arrest the worsening human rights situation,” concluded Mittal.
The UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka must include these recommendations and emphasize on the immediate cessation of land grabbing and planned settlements, while ensuring immediate demilitarization of the North and East. Failure to do so will be once again a mockery of an international human rights regime.
Endless War: Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
These Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) summarize some of the key findings and analysis of the Oakland Institute’s new report, Endless War: The Destroyed Land, Life, and Identity of the Tamil People in Sri Lanka.
Why is the conflict in Sri Lanka characterized as an “Endless War?”
The ethnic conflict that erupted after Sri Lanka’s independence from Britain in 1948 escalated into an armed conflict in the 1980s. The war ended in May 2009 — with the Sri Lankan military crushing the decades’ long armed struggle — led by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) against the government dominated by the majority Sinhalese Buddhist. The conflict killed around 200,000 people, displaced more than a million, destroyed infrastructure across the country, and left behind wanton destruction of lives and property of the population of the Northern and Eastern Provinces.
Nearly 12 years later, a silent war against the minority populations continues under a different guise. Displacement of people from their lands and homes as a result of continued military occupation of the Northern and Eastern Provinces remains a persistent issue. The level of militarization of Northern Province is at one soldier per every six civilians. Thousands of Tamil people remain internally displaced and without land or livelihoods.
Under the guise of “development projects,” Sinhalese settlements continue to expand within Tamil-dominated areas with the objective to change demographics of the North and East obliterate the homeland doctrine of the Tamil people.
Why does the report characterize Sri Lanka as an “ethnocratic state?”
Ethnocracy has been defined(link is external) as “a regime facilitating the expansion, ethnicization and control of contested territory and state by a dominant ethnic nation.” Ethnicity, not citizenship, is the criterion for allocating power and resources. Minority populations are only given partial rights, leading to consistent ethnocratic-civil tension while a dominant ethnic nation handles the state structures to control and determine the country’s political system, institutions, economy, and geography. Ethnocratic countries often experience ethnic tension, which causes instability.
In Sri Lanka, several decades marked by deep ethnic divisions culminated in a decades long civil war. The information and evidence compiled by this report aligns with recent studies showing that the land grabbing measures, alongside efforts to erase the Tamil culture and history, by the government of Sri Lanka in the North and East — traditional Tamil land — reflect the characteristics and intentions of an ethnocratic state.
What justification has the government given for land grabbing in the North and East?
Since the day Sri Lanka gained independence, land colonization and Sinhalese settlements have taken place under the guise of “development.” However, this report highlights an increase in land grabbing in recent years.
The Wildlife and Forest Departments are using their mandates to acquire land for the government under the guise of “conservation.” In the Mullaitivu District, the Forest Department has expropriated 34,040 acres of land and the Wildlife Department claimed 21,515 acres. The Forest and Wildlife departments do not follow procedures or approval processes when seizing lands nor do they consult local authorities and Provincial Councils. Their arbitrary land acquisition supports Sinhalese colonization and undermines the livelihoods of the Tamil population.
Likewise, the military and other government departments including the Housing Authority and Archaeological Department are also facilitating land grabbing. The Archaeological Department has seized 202 acres and the Mahawali Authority has taken 4,368 acres.
While the justification for these land grabs takes multiple forms, the main objective is to artificially increase the number of Sinhalese population in the North and East to change the demographics, to divide the geographically and ethnically connected Northern and Eastern provinces, and erase the homeland doctrine of the Tamil people. Steps are being taken to settle 3,000 more Sinhalese in these areas and 2.5 acres of deforested land is being provided to each person. Incentives of up to 800 rupees [~US$4] per family per day are provided to prevent the settled people from returning to their native places. Similarly, more than 4,000 Sinhalese were settled in the Weli Oya Divisional Secretariat between 2012 and 2017, and 11,639 acres came under the control of the Divisional Secretariat. In the 30 years prior to 2009, these areas were under LTTE control and there was no opportunity for land grabbing.
How is the history and culture of the Tamil population being erased?
Government departments are expropriating lands and are engaging in activities that eradicate the history and culture of the Tamil people. The state machinery is in full swing to convert historic lands, monuments, and places of worship for the Tamil people to Buddhist viharas, Buddhist culture, and practice — at a greater pace in recent years.
Since the end of the war, numerous land seizures have been recorded, particularly for the construction of Buddhist viharas and monuments and the general replacement of Tamil culture. The government is explicitly expropriating private and state land for distribution to Buddhist temples through gazette notifications. For instance, seven notices were given in the gazette of October 2, 2020 under State Land Regulation No. 21(2), which refers to a total of 340.33 acres of land in 11 different locations in the Kuchchaveli DS Division of Trincomalee District, to be leased out to seven Buddhist organizations for 30 years.
Tamil politicians and activists accuse the government of setting up Buddhist viharas and plundering the ancient historical sites of the Tamil people. Since the end of the war in 2009, 67 Buddhist viharas have been set up in the Mullaitivu District alone under the Archaeological Department. On January 18, 2021, Vidura Wickramanayaka, Sri Lanka’s State Minister for “National Heritage,” accompanied by Army soldiers and Archaeology Department officers — placed a Buddha statue on the site of Athi Aiyanar, an ancient Hindu temple, located at Kurunthoormalai in Mullaithivu District, despite strong opposition from local communities.
To what extent does the military continue to occupy the North and East?
12 years after the end of the war, large numbers of troops remain in the North and East. In the Mullaithivu District alone, the military has acquired more than 16,910 acres of public and private land. There are at least seven Army camps and five naval bases located just 15 kilometers from the village of Alampil to the village of Kokkilai in Mullaithivu. Military camps, buildings, and restricted areas are found in various places where no one visiting the North East can travel freely, despite the absence of war.
There has been no reduction in militarization since the end of the war. Five of the seven Sri Lankan Army’s Regional Headquarters are located in the North and Eastern Provinces. According to the Oakland Institute’s estimates, there remains one soldier for every six civilians. While the Sri Lankan government has repeatedly stated that the LTTE poses no threat to national security, the intention of more troops in the North and East is to keep the population in the North and East under constant repression and intimidation while seizing land and providing security for Sinhalese settlements and facilitating the Buddhization process.
What is the impact of military occupation on livelihoods?
The continued presence of military threatens human rights, livelihoods, and the everyday lives of the people.
For years, the Army has engaged in numerous non-military activities — large-scale property development, construction projects, and business ventures including travel agencies, farming, holiday resorts, golf courses, restaurants, and innumerable cafes.
The Thalsevana Resort is run by the military, with no efforts made to hide the reality behind this seven star resort. A new luxury military mansion was constructed recently about one kilometer away from the Thalsevana Hotel. Public access to the area is prohibited. At least five additional hotels and resorts are run by the military in Mullaithivu alone, including the Green Jackets Resort, which has seized vital beach areas from fisherfolk who depended on it for their livelihoods.
The port of Myliddy, which in the 1980s produced one-third of Sri Lanka’s total fisheries, has seen the output fall by 90 percent. The local officials blame this on heavy militarization and the complete loss of fishing equipment and resources of Myliddy fishermen. Local fishermen expressed concern that the Myliddy harbor is currently being used extensively by southern Sinhalese fishermen with the help of the military. In one generation, the community has lost its traditional fishing livelihood, due to 28 years of continued displacement.
At the same time, certain areas are so heavily militarized that people can no longer be resettled. In particular, Valikamam North of Jaffna District, which has been allowed for resettlement, continues to have large Army camps and military bungalows on private land and people have been denied access to many places. Ancient temples and churches have been demolished. Students have to pass through military fences to go to schools.
What does the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet’s report on Sri Lanka(link is external) call for?
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet’s report on Sri Lanka(link is external) released in January 2021 has stressed the need not only to ensure accountability for past human rights violations in Sri Lanka, but also warned of possible future violence and conflict in the country and stressed the international community’s proactive role to stop and prevent them. In addition, the Commissioner has urged member states, to take action, including asset freezes and travel bans on Sri Lankan officials accused of human rights abuses and steps towards the referral of the situation in Sri Lanka to the International Criminal Court to uphold justice and human rights.
Can any major decisions be expected at the 46th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC)?
Endless War is being released as the 46th session of the UNHRC is in progress, with all eyes on an expected resolution regarding Sri Lanka’s progress on addressing past recommendations related to reconciliation, accountability, and human rights.
However, the Zero Draft Resolution, presented by members of the Core-Group on Sri Lanka, fails to outline a clear approach for ensuring justice, accountability and lasting peace. It completely deviates from the recommendations made by the UN High Commissioner Bachelet and the recommendation made by four former High Commissioners, nine former Special Rapporteurs, and all members of the UNSG’s Panel of Experts on Sri Lanka, who have jointly stated that the matter should be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
How can the resolution on Sri Lanka be improved?
The Oakland Institute urges the Core-Group on Sri Lanka for the UNHRC, which includes the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, Montenegro, and North Macedonia to include High Commissioner Bachelet’s recommendations in the final resolution. In addition, the Core-Group countries must emphasize on the immediate cessation of land grabbing, planned settlements, and demilitarization of the North and East in the Resolution. Reconciliation, human rights, and peace is not possible in Sri Lanka unless the situation is handled in accordance with international law, international justice mechanisms, and morality.
Endless War is the Oakland Institute’s fourth report examining land issues and human rights abuses in post-war Sri Lanka. To read the Institute’s previous reports on Sri Lanka, please visit: https://www.oaklandinstitute.org/country/sri-lanka