Land Grabs Jeopardize Peace in Sri Lanka

by Christina Williams, TerraNullius Webblog, April 7, 2014

Christina Williams is an attorney and founder of Reinventing the Rules, a website dedicated to covering the latest trends and lessons learned in the rule of law sector. She has worked on human rights campaigns related to Sri Lanka for several years and is currently focusing on women and land rights in the region.

The end of the 25-year armed conflict in Sri Lanka in May 2009 signaled what many in the international community hoped would be the beginning of a new era marked by peace and reconciliation. Over the past five years, however, one of the key instigators of the civil war has resurfaced. Land grabs, which were systematically taking place prior to the armed conflict, are once again accelerating at a frightening pace. Shielded by the rhetoric of security and development, the rise of land grabs has left few positive prospects for long-term peace and stability.

Who is behind the land grabs?

The Sri Lankan military, sanctioned by the Government, has played a primary role in confiscating public and private land from the Tamil population, which predominantly inhabits the North and East of the island. Despite the end of the war, militarization of Tamil areas has been the main reason land grabs continue unabated.

In 2008, during the latter stages of the armed conflict, Sri Lanka reportedly had a force of 60 soldiers for every 1,000 civilians or 1 soldier for every 16.6 civilians in the North. In July 2012, the Economic and Political Weekly of India estimated that there is a “ratio of 1 security personnel for every 5.04 civilians in the Northern Province.” The military, which is almost entirely composed of ethnic Sinhalese from the South, includes at least 15 army divisions and personnel from the navy, air force, civil defense force, intelligence, police, and special task force. This conservative estimate roughly translates into 198,000 soldiers or 70% of the security personnel in 14% of the country. View a map of militarization in Sri Lanka here.

The trend towards militarization has only increased with Sri Lanka’s defense budget for 2014 reported to be the highest allocation of funds thus far, at $1.95 billion or 12% of the country’s total spending.  The rate at which militarization grows in Tamil areas five years after the war ended is a concerning trend given the significance land played as one of the root causes of the war. Land will likely continue to play an important role in determining whether peace and a return to normalcy can be achieved.

Tactics used to seize land

The seizure of land marked as high security zones (HSZ) during the conflict and the unwillingness to return much of this property to the thousands who were displaced has contributed to the slow return to normalcy in the former war zones. While some of the HSZ have been disbanded, existing HSZs still occupy significant amounts of valuable agricultural land and no one other than the army is allowed to enter, including elected officials. During the war the legality of the HSZs rested on emergency regulations, which have now been repealed. Five years after the end of conflict, there is no clear legal basis for the remaining HSZ.

Since the armed conflict ended, the military has continued to confiscate public and private land largely under the pretext of security. While many military camps have been created for the army and navy, the government has also resettled thousands of Sinhalese soldiers and civilians from the South in Tamil areas by incentivizing them with free land and permanent housing. This is occurring while 57% out of 138,651 households already residing in the North remain in transitional or emergency shelters while only 32% have permanent homes. Consequently, land grabs are reigniting fears of a concerted effort by the government to change the demographics of Tamil areas in the North and East.

Impact of land grabs

Economic: In Tamil areas, the Sri Lankan military has exerted its influence in almost every aspect of the economy and often in competition with and at the expense of IDPs. Agriculture and fishing are primary sources of income for Tamils and land grabs have prevented these communities from pursuing their livelihoods. The army has acquired large swathes of land to set up farms for cultivation, which has left Tamil farmers without land to re-engage in their only livelihood.

The acquisition of these lands has also allowed the army to engage in business ventures such as hotels, shops, restaurants, power plants, tourism, selling produce, and airline services. The military has put many Tamils out of business because they are unable to compete with government subsidies to the military. A survey by the UN indicated that only 9% of 138,651 resettled families in the North have found permanent employment.

Fishing communities have reported that in their areas “land seizures have also occurred by scrupulously removing the names of the residents from government documents such as the voters’ registry, abusing legal ownership regulations… ignoring provisions in the customary law [and] using coercive means upon the residents who are unable to produce titles to the land they have been occupying.”

As one Tamil political party noted, “[b]y appropriating the limited economic opportunities that might otherwise be used by local residents to bring income and revenue to the fragile local communities, the military is sustaining and reinforcing the cycle of poverty. With the access and advertising support of corporate entities in the South and the unfair benefits of highly subsidized cost structure through the use of state infrastructure the military is distorting and suppressing any attempt at economic recovery in the North.” Subsequently, the military’s control over development policy and land has sidelined the Tamil civil administration and suppressed efforts to address the immediate needs of internally displaced persons and returnees.

Women: Women’s economic situation has been particularly precarious with an estimated 89,000 war widows in the North and East. With the increase of female-headed households, lack of access to resources, and the inability to compete with businesses run by the military, land grabs in Tamil areas have made livelihood opportunities nearly impossible with many women resorting to prostitution and sexual favors as a result. Due to the lack of economic opportunities and money, large numbers of children in the North and East are also dropping out of school to help their families survive.

Despite the high level of security and militarization in Sri Lanka, the extent of sexual violence in the North and East remains high. Attacks on women by night prowlers, or ‘grease devils’ as they are called, have occurred simultaneously with sudden disruptions in the electricity supply at the time and area of attack. While almost all of these attacks have been against Tamil or Muslim women, many of these intruders are later seen running towards the “military or police compound for refuge.”

The vulnerability that women face both within and outside the home is also further exacerbated by the military, portions of which were accused of sexual violence during the latter stages of the war and are now living amongst the general population: “The heavily militarized and centralized systems of control in the north and east exclude most residents, but especially women from decisions that affect their security.”

Additionally, land grabs have put women at a disadvantage because many lack documentation to prove property rights and land titles are often in the name of male relatives. There have also been reports of harassment against women who brought court cases over land disputes.

Promoting a Sinhala-Buddhist Identity: Land grabs are also being justified under the pretext of building Buddhist temples and statutes in Tamil areas, a population which has traditionally been Hindu or Christian. In addition to changing place names from Tamil to Sinhalese, the creation of monuments and war museums that celebrate the Sinhalese victory are creating additional grievances. Many of these museums and monuments built in Tamil areas are only open to the Sinhalese and have been built over destroyed Hindu temples or on private land without permission. The continued promotion of Sinhala nationalism and triumphalism through land grabs, five years after the war, has done little to kindle reconciliation.

Destroying Evidence of War Crimes: Last month, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution calling for an international inquiry into allegations of war crimes during the last stages of the war in Sri Lanka. Reports indicate that the military, with the knowledge of senior officials, have made concerted efforts to identify and destroy mass burial sites. There is growing concern that given the increased militarization and land grabs, future discoveries indicating evidence of mass graves or war crimes will be destroyed.

What is being done about land grabs in Sri Lanka

Court Cases: Several petitions have been filed domestically with both the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka. Two of the major ones to follow were filed on May 14, 2013, with the Court of Appeals on behalf of 1,474 people who owned land in the North of Sri Lanka. On May 22, 2013, a fundamental rights petition was also filed for 192 people with the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka; however there has been little movement on these cases.

Diaspora: From January 31-February 2, 2014, the first international conference of its kind was held by the Tamil Diaspora and the UK All Party Parliamentary Group for Tamils (APPG-T). The conference highlighted the extent of land grabs and the tactics that have been used to seize land.

Also discussed was Sri Lanka’s status quo as an ethnocratic state and its unchecked ability to create discriminatory laws and influence the judiciary by having a guaranteed Sinhalese super majority. By implementing these laws under the banner of democracy, ethnocratic states such as Sri Lanka, have been able to use land policy as an innocuous tool for oppression and escape the international community’s radar. Ethnocratic societies, it was argued, are never stable because minorities never accept their suppression.

Since the end of the war, the international community has urged Sri Lanka to address widespread concerns over its human rights record, and in turn, Sri Lanka has asked for time and space to implement policies aimed at reconciliation. What the last five years has shown, however, is that Sri Lanka has used the rhetoric of development and reconciliation to cloak the magnitude of land grabs and oppression.

At present, the military’s proliferation and dominion over the population has expedited a process to dismantle the very political, economic, social, and cultural attributes of the Tamil population – all of which are tied to land. Without pressure from the international community to cease these land grabs, it is likely that this region will continue to be a source of instability and conflict for years to come.

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