Sri Lanka IDP displeasure at 'release of land' on eve of president's India tour

Tamils chased away from their traditional homelands in northern Sri Lanka by military High Security Zones (HSZ) have expressed their displeasure at plans announced by the government to release an insignificant amount of occupied land as a 'pilot village' on the eve of the president's Indian visit.

President Maithripala Sirisena who arrived in Delhi on Sunday with an entourage of seventeen on his first official tour abroad, will be meeting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj on Monday.

Two days before his departure government announced the creation of what it called a pilot village in 220 acres held by the military in Valikamam East to resettle 1,022 war displaced families. The president's media unit said that it was part of 1000 acres in the Jaffna peninsula to be released in 'several stages'. The announcement was made while the External affairs minister Mangala Samaraweera was in the United States meeting state officials and the UN Secretary General in a bid to delay the release of a UN investigation report on war crimes in Sri Lanka.

'Only a fraction'

The Organisation of the Valikamam North War Displaced (VNWD) say that the president they elected has let them down by announcing to release only a fraction of the land encroached by the military. The Tamil dominated north and east voted for Sirisena in January overwhelmingly to topple Mahinda Rajapaksa from his decade long rule.

"We don't want other pieces of land. we want to go back to our traditional villages," said VNWD President Shanmugalingam Sajeewan. He said that the military has recently  put up signboards at the entrance to the Valikamam North HSZ calling it 'Palali military settlement'. "We voted for President Maithripala Sirisena with great expectations to go back to our traditional villages. Our hopes are shatterd". 

65,000 acres

He said that the Rajapaksa government demarcated land to hand them over officially to the military 'by stealth'. However, protests by rightful owners prevented it, said the VNWD president. According to him, over 10,000  families are forced to live in displacement camps for the past twenty five years due to the HSZ established by the military. A further 16,000 families live with relatives or friends.  Mass protests managed to stop the previous government from resettling them in other places 'including an abandoned quarry' he said.

The military is occupying nearly 65,000 acres of land in the north, according to  a Northern Provincial Council (NPC) memorandum handed over to the former president Rajapaksa in late 2014. This is almost one fifth of the land mass in the Jaffna peninsula. The NPC says that 30,000 houses, thirty schools, thirty factories and 40,000 acres of arable land is held within the military HSZ.

President Sirisena will also travel to the Buddhist pilgrimage site of Bodh Gaya and a Hindu temple in Tirupati further south on Tuesday before returning on Wednesday.☐

©  JDS