‘Release our land, or we’ll occupy it’

Protesting villagers meet PM, seek release of military-held land in Mullaitivu

January 23, 2019 09:48 pm | Updated 09:48 pm IST - Colombo

A protest in Mullaitivu’s Keppapilavu village last year.

A protest in Mullaitivu’s Keppapilavu village last year.

As Sri Lanka’s longest road-side protest nears the 700-day mark, agitating residents of Keppapilavu village in the northern Mullaitivu district say they will soon reclaim and occupy their lands, currently held by the military, if the authorities fail to ensure their return by Friday.

“Why must we live in model villages like refugees, when we can live on land that belongs to us? Why must the Army hold our land for a decade after the war has ended?” asked resident-activist Selvi Sivapragasam Ariyakala, at a media conference in Colombo on Tuesday.

Facilitated by the NGO People’s Alliance for Right to Land (PARL), the press briefing was part of the Keppapilavu people’s efforts to “reach out to the people of the island’s south” on their ongoing struggle to take possession of ancestral lands from where they were displaced during the civil war years.

Families’ resistance

The families have been resisting incessantly from March 1, 2017, right beside their ancestral lands, under a road-side tent, resolving to return to the plots they grew up on and built their lives, until the war displaced them. Some of the resident-activists met Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe — also the Minister for Resettlement — on Tuesday, and leaders of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), and voiced their concern. “The PM told us he will speak to the Army and give us an answer in one week. We are hopeful, because we cannot just give up,” Kamalavalli, one of the activists, told The Hindu after meeting Mr. Wickremesinghe.

The residents’ have decided to “just go and occupy” their lands, should the authorities fail them this time. “It is not just about our homes, but also about our livelihoods. Our ancestral land was conducive for both agriculture and fisheries. Returning there gives us a chance to make a living. Moreover, our schools, community halls, multipurpose cooperative centre were all located there,” Ms. Ariyakala said, echoing the concerns of 104 families like hers. According to PARL, nearly 350 acres in Keppapilavu, including residential land, is yet to be released.

Military-held land, along with enforced disappearances, has remained a key issue in Sri Lanka’s war-affected north and east, sparking a battery of people’s protests since 2015.

Relentless struggle

Pressured by their relentless struggle, the government gradually began releasing military-held lands in the former war zone.

According to data from the government-run Secretariat for Coordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms (SCRM), 46,322.50 acres of military-occupied land was released to the people from January 2015 — when the Maithripala Sirisena-Ranil Wickremeisnghe combine rose to power on the promise of reconciliation — up to December 2018. This data, based on information provided by the Ministry of Defence to the Secretariat, includes both state and private land. Further, President Sirisena earlier promised to ensure the release of all people’s land by December 31, 2018, but going by the Keppapilavu residents’ experience, the promise is yet to be fulfilled.

Government data also shows that in the decade since the war ended, authorities returned some 88,000 acres, or 71% of the land earlier occupied by the military, by December 2018, while 29% was still being used by the Army, Navy and the Air Force. The release of land came at a considerable cost — the SCRM points to a total LKR 866.71 million budgetary allocation to the Army, and LKR 128 million to the Navy, prompting concern over why funds meant for rehabilitation were being used for compensating the Army to vacate people’s lands.

Even in cases of land being released, and its original occupants gradually returning, their resettlement has been anything but smooth, according to residents.

Many of their homes and wells are found bulldozed after years of Army occupation, and there are few toilets for the recently-resettled communities — a stark reminder of the many steps before the process is complete. They live in temporary sheds and huts, relieved “at least we are back”.

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