Sri Lanka

“Why Can’t We Go Home?”: Military Occupation of Land in Sri Lanka

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On April 29, 2017, the Sri Lankan navy high command announced it would release 100 acres of land that security forces had been occupying in the Mullikulam area since 2007 to the original owners. For the displaced residents of this coastal village in Mannar on Sri Lanka’s northwest coast, the news came as a huge relief. More than one year later, however, as of August 2018, no land has been released and the people remain displaced, undergoing severe hardship living in semi-permanent shelters with limited livelihood options. Lamented Francis Croos, a village elder, “Now there is no war. It’s now peacetime. So why can’t we go back home?”

Military occupation of public and private property is a cruel legacy of the nearly three-decade civil war in Sri Lanka that ended in May 2009. Over the years, many Sri Lankans, particularly in the embattled north and the east, were displaced because of the conflict, often several times over.

Government forces occupied territory to set up military camps, or bases, for operations, and demarcated certain areas as High Security Zones (HSZs), thwarting their return. Over the course of the war, the separatist forces of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had de-facto administrative control over large areas covering several districts and were also involved in forcibly displacing people, including a mass eviction of the Muslim community. Those displaced due to the conflict faced loss of their homes and livelihood, poor living conditions, including in squalid conditions at displacement camps.

By the end of the war, the military was in control of vast swaths of land, including the areas previously held by the defeated LTTE. While the administration of President Mahinda Rajapaksa took some steps to release land back to original owners, the military retained control over large areas and made use of it for both military and non-military purposes. The military consolidated its position and control, including shifting from de facto occupation to legal acquisition. It not only established barracks, but has used the land for agriculture, tourism, and other commercial ventures.

The current president, Maithripala Sirisena, came to power in 2015 on a platform of reform. His victory, followed by parliamentary elections in which pro-reform forces were further strengthened, raised the hopes of communities, mostly Tamil and to a lesser extent Muslim, whose land was occupied by the security forces.

In October 2015, at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), Sri Lanka cosponsored a resolution in which it pledged to address longstanding issues relating to the conflict, including prompt return of occupied land. The government has since stated that it has returned nearly 80 to 85 percent of the land held since the war ended and will only retain control in areas needed for national security reasons. But there has been no transparency in the process and many affected communities dispute these claims.

While the government has released land in a number of sites across the north and east, in other sites the process has been delayed. In at least one location, the Sirisena government has actually moved backward, allowing the military to acquire land in a conflict-affected area, a practice under the Rajapaksa government that many observers hoped had ended.

In Mullikulam, discussed above, residents with the support of clergy and local activists had been campaigning for the return of their land since the war ended in 2009. Instead, the navy consolidated its presence, declaring the village the headquarters for their north-west command. The election of a new government in 2015 gave them hope. But when their land was not returned, in March 2017, they began holding demonstrations outside the navy camp located on their properties. In July 2018, the navy made yet another promise to release their lands “soon,” but it is yet to happen, and protests continue.

It is now nearly four years since the Sirisena administration took office, and discontent has risen among affected communities over continuing military occupation of land and additional acquisitions—often without adequate consultation, due process of law, or compensation for those displaced. In many parts of the country, those contesting these land seizures have been holding protests as they see little substantive progress. To a large degree, the earlier landowners remain vulnerable to the whims of the military and their decisions on whether to release land.

This report, based on 110 interviews conducted between June 2017 and August 2018, details cases of land occupation by security forces both during and after the armed conflict. It identifies failures of transparency and due process, lack of proper mapping of these occupations, inadequate support to affected individuals and communities, and ongoing delays in providing appropriate reparations to address the harms. It also examines evidence that the military is using some lands for commercial profit rather than national security, and in some cases has damaged or destroyed property prior to returning the land to owners. We conclude that, despite early progress in returning land and some positive commitments, the Sirisena government has since adopted an arbitrary and piecemeal approach. The failure to initiate a transparent process means that it has done far too little to address the rights violations and provide remedies to those who have suffered or continue to suffer from military land occupation and its consequences.

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