David and Goliath: Battle against Iranaitheevu Naval land robbery

Iranaitheevu, a combination of two small islands located 22 kilometers from the Nachchikuda beach, had been populated for about four decades. The Northern Island – Iranaitheevu and its Southern Island – Hoom were known as Enkhuizen by the Dutch rulers, who invaded the island in 1658. The Northern part is over about 4.22 sq. kilo meters and the Southern part is about 1.71 sq. kilo meters.

Besides the Iranaitheevu Mother Sembal Catholic Church, Roman Catholic Tamil School, where classes were held up to O/L; Rural Hospital; Maternity Clinic; Sub Pradeseeya Sabha Office; Fisheries Committee Office; pre-schools, and community halls are now in ruins.

What could be seen in 80 per cent of the houses in Iranaitheevu are only foundations. The islands function as a separate Grama Seva division, but no government so far had attempted to provide public transport service and even the ferry service to the island is operated by the Iranaitheevu people themselves.

As the war in 1992 intensified, the Iranaitheevu people left everything and came to Mulangavil. Consequently, Iranaitheevu became uninhabited. At one time, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam Sea Force Regiment occupied the surrounding areas, but their presence did not hinder the livelihood of Iranaitheevu fisher folk. Only after the Sri Lankan Navy occupied the Iranaitheevu, the issues cropped up.

About 2,400 members of 500 displaced families cleared the coastal land stretch of Mulangavil and temporarily settled there. Some people settled in the Oliyaththudavai and Thevanpindi (Mannar) areas, while some others took dangerous sea routes and reached Thamil Nadu refugee camps.

With the commencement of the genocidal annihilation initiated by the Rajapaksa regime during the war, temporary settlers in Iranaitheevu were displaced and they journeyed towards Mullivaikkal languishing long durations in detainee open camps which were functioned as welfare centres and were resettled along the Mulangavil coastal areas. The region was known as Iranamatha Nagar. About 35 Iranathivu people were killed by the government forces and over 10 women became widows. Women headed about 60 families.

Once the war ended, Iranaitheevu people believed that they could resettle on their native lands. However, fishing in seas of Mulangavil, Nachchikuda and Iranaitheevu proved very expensive and gravely tiresome. They had to get the approval of the Navy and work under their inspection. Since 2013, Tamil National Alliance leaders and the regional representatives of the Illankai Tamil Arasu Kachchi (ITAK) had been requesting the government to release their island from the Navy for them to carry on their livelihood. However, the Navy as well as the Rajapaksa regime flatly disregarded their request.

JVP brings national security first

After the Yahapalana Government came into power, the Iranaitheevu people expected to go back to their native lands. Meanwhile, JVP MP Nihal Galappathi along with his party stalwarts, regional administrators and Navy officials engaged in an inspection tour in the Iranaitheevu area on October 21, 2016. A few days later, on November 30, 2016, the MP proposed in the House at its postponement revealing his analyses and suggestions on the Iranaitheevu people’s issue. While ignoring the forcible occupation of the Iranaitheevu Island by the Navy, Galappatthi made a peculiar proposal.

“Once the Iranaitheevu people resettled further, the Navy would get obstacles even to inspect the region. So, if they were resettled temporarily nearer to the Navy camp, their activities would be scrutinized. Then, there would be no issue. We sent a letter on November 11, 2016 to the Navy Commander making him aware of the situation while keeping the national security at the top.”

The Navy also built permanent structures in the Iranaitheevu Island fortifying their presence in the island. Administering the island was carried out by the Buwenakaba Centre of the Sri Lanka Navy located about six miles away from the camp. The Navy never thought of leaving the Island considering its strategic importance. Instead, they further fortified their forces there. They even established a radar center in the island under the initiative of then North Central Navy Commander Rear Admiral Rohan Amarasinghe. Later the government itself accepted that the Navy presence in the island affected its people.

The Iranaitheevu people also did not give up the struggle for winning their rights. They made appeals to the Human Rights Commissioner, European Commission, and the UN Colombo Office demanding their assistance to urge the government to resolve their issues. As a result, the European Commission enquired from the Rehabilitation and Resettlement Minister in this regard, but the ministry did not take any concrete step to resolve the issues of the Iranativu people.

Illankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK) MP Sivagnanam Shritharan queried Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on February 8, 2017 in Parliament raising the Iranaitheevu issue.

'Navy needs the island'

Responding, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe said, “The Iranaitheevu Island was abandoned because of the war at that time. We have resettled everyone on alternative lands in the Iranamatha Nagar, Nachchikuda, and Ambajapuram villages. The region was occupied by the forces to prevent the LTTE from smuggling arms into the island.

“Now the Navy has two strategic reasons to keep the region under its control – to control Indian fishermen encroaching on the island and to prevent smuggling drugs. The Navy maintains a radar centre in the Island, so they have reported that they need the island. However, the Navy allows the fisher folk and civilians to engage in fishing without any naval hindrance.

“The fishermen have been provided with essential facilities to carry out their livelihood and temporary structures have been given to them to dry up their nets. They can engage in fishing along the coastal seas and there is no issue. The island has 10 acres of coconut and their owners can temporarily stay there and carry out what they need. A famous church in Sri Lanka, Mother Sembal Catholic Church, is in the Island. No restriction was enforced to hold sermons at the church. The Navy provides every facility under the guidance of the clergy.”

The Prime Minister’s story in Parliament could make average people certain in his words but reality in Iranaitheevu is totally different. The fishermen were allowed to engage in fishing in seas adjacent to the southern part of the Island only under the strict surveillance of Navy personnel. Even that was restricted by the Navy thereafter. According to the Iranaitheevu residents, only on first Friday of March, the sermons are held and they are also under the intervention and surveillance of the Navy. Even on these days, none can stay in the Island after 4 p.m. Those who stay back, the Navy would arrest.

Radar risk

Finally, the Iranaitheevu people decided to carry out an indefinite protest to rid their island from the Navy occupation. Started on the World Labours’ Day, May 1, 2017, their protest still continues unabated. They said that they carry out the protest until they get the Island released. Forcing the government to release the island from the Navy, a protest was carried out on June 24, 2017 along the Mannar-Punarin A32 road, completely obstructing the vehicular movements on the road. Thereafter, on August 10, 2017, they reached Colombo and carried out a massive protest at Fort led by the National Fisheries Federation. Thereafter, they reached on foot to the Presidential Secretariat Office and handed over a letter of nine demands. The protest of the Iranaitheevu people has gone past 101 days by that time. The National Fisheries Federation too urged the President and the Prime Minister to take measures to release the Iranaitheevu Island to its natives numbering about 600 families.

“If the regional people were brought to the location, they would be affected with the radar system. That is why the Navy Commander refuses to release the island.” Deputy Defence Minister Ruwan Wijewardene made this farcical statement when he was asked in parliament to clarify the situation. He made the statement after five days from the protest campaign in Colombo.

However, yet another discussion was held in this regard on August 31, 2017 and Deputy Defence Minister Ruwan Wijewardene, Tamil National Aliance MPs, regional State officials, Prison Reforms, Rehabilitation, Resettlement and Hindu Religious Affairs D. M. Swaminathan, the Navy Commander and other rankers participated in the discussion.

At the discussion, the Navy was firm that they cannot leave the Island. Reasoning their stand, the Navy told if they released the island, it definitely would become a hub of drug smuggling and therefore, the region should be declared a high security zone furthermore. In addition, they did not agree to release Iranativu Jetty for even fishing. At the end of the negotiation, as the ministers and others were inspecting Iranaitheevu on helicopters, the Iranaitheevu people were carrying out their protest being in Mulangavil amidst untold difficulties.

Naval robbery

The Navy meanwhile robbed the Iranativu people of their assets day by day. They occupied every house which remained intact by the war. The Navy personnel drink up coconuts and consume other crops in the island. According to the Iranaitheevu residents, the remaining cattle, about 1,500, inhabit the island for providing meat for the Navy or sometimes outsiders bought them.

Even though the Iranaitheevu people are not allowed fishing in the surrounding seas, the Navy allows outsiders to fish in them on the condition that a part of what they caught should be given to the Navy. The Iranaitheevu people, who languish on Nachchikuda and Mulangavil beaches losing their revenue sources, said that other aquatic resources are also in the same pathetic situation.

Authorities of the Iranaitheevu St. Mary Fisheries Cooperative Society have been informed that a radar network should not be installed on a fertile island such as Iranaitheevu and by achieving the same, the State and the Navy affect the Iranaitheevu people and destruct their inheritance.

“As radar network is functioning, it affects not only human beings but also aquatic lives, plants and oceanic resources. Installing a radar network on the Iranaitheevu Island, being inhabited by humans since the days unheard of, shows that the government as well as the Navy is not sensitive enough towards the environment, the nature and humanity,” they said.

The St. Mary Fisheries Cooperative Society urges the government and the Navy to shift the radar network to adjacent uninhabited islands. They named that the uninhabited Pungudutivu, Katkadativu, Irumaitivu, Kachatheevu and Kakkaithivu islands are ideal for the purpose.

“We can never leave Ammathivu, Kurudeepam or Mother Iranaitheevu that inherited us our cultural heritage.

Release Mother Iranaitheevu!”That is their sole demand.

(This article originally appeared on JDS Sinhala edition on April 10, 2018 . The English translation is by  'The Sunday Leader.')

Athula Vithanage



Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

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