Sri Lanka: Real purpose of military occupying people’s land is profit-making

By Athula Vithanage

Contrary to claims that Sri Lanka’s military is holding to land in the war torn north and east for national security, a recent study reveals that the real interest is commercial gain.

In its latest report, US based rights group, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said, thousands of acres of land, taken over during the civil war, are still held by government forces, despite pledges to return it to their rightful owners.

“While the government typically defends the military occupation of land as important for national security, in most cases that rationale is suspect,” says the 80-page report titled “Why Can't We Go Home? Military Occupation of Land in Sri Lanka.”

Read the report: 'Why Can’t We Go Home?' : Military Occupation of Land in Sri Lanka

“The use of the land for tourism or agriculture points to the real interest rooted in commercial gain. In at least four sites included in this report, land occupied by the military under the pretext of national security is being utilized for commercial purposes.” 

HRW confirms the claim by hundreds of Tamils in the north on continuous protests that their the land had been converted by the military for commercial endeavours.

“In the north and east, the military runs farms, has established roadside eateries, and operates hotels for tourists, including on contested lands. The continuation of these practices raises concerns about military profit-making under the guise of national security at the expense of the rights of members of affected communities.”

Most affected are Tamils

The report, based on 110 interviews conducted between June 2017 and August 2018, detailing cases of land occupation by security forces both during and after the armed conflict, has found that the clear majority of affected to be Tamils.

“Although all three major ethnic communities in the country—Tamils, Muslims, and the Sinhalese—are affected by military occupation of land in the north and east, the vast majority of cases impact the Tamil community.”

A 70-year-old fisherman from Myliddy has told HRW that his family had moved 24 times in 27 years until the military released his property in July 2017. But without resettlement assistance, he is severely in debt. “We hope the government will at least help us restart our lives this one last time,” he said.

“All those displaced during Sri Lanka’s brutal civil war are entitled to return to their homes,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Despite repeated pledges by the authorities, the military has been frustratingly slow to restore land to its rightful owners.”

HRW highlights the military occupation as a move to further suppress the rights of the non-Sinhalese communities.

“The military occupation of land is a significant stumbling block to post-war normalization and reconciliation, heightening concerns that the Sinhalese-dominated state is seeking to diminish the rights of minorities through continued militarization and territorial aggrandizement.”

Presidential Task Force

In August 2018, Human Rights Watch had provided a summary of the findings to the government of Sri Lanka but had received no response at time of writing.

Few days before the release of the report President Maithripala Sirisena instructed the authorities to complete the process of releasing the lands in the North and East provinces to their original owners, before December 31st, “after resolving all the issues”.

“The President further instructed the officials to prepare a proper time frame and report the progress to the next meeting of the Presidential Task Force to monitor the development projects conducted in Northern and Eastern provinces, to be held in the next month,” said the president’s media unit.

Unconvinced of the commitments on land return being delivered to the satisfaction of the rightful owners, HRW urges the government to remove the authority of state security forces as the primary arbiter on land occupation and instead ensure a public and transparent process.☐


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Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

  • JDS is the Sri Lankan partner organization of international media rights group, Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The launching of this website was made possible by the EU’s European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), of which Reporters Without Borders is a beneficiary.