Kilinochchi

Access to land is a must for reconciliation in Sri Lanka

First published on 22nd May 2018 at https://www.ucanews.com/news/access-to-land-is-a-must-for-reconciliation-in-sri-lanka/82349

For rural communities, land is much more than a piece of property with a financial value

On April 23, I was with about 300 people from the Iranaitheevu twin islands off the north-western coast of Sri Lanka in the Kilinochchi district as they courageously reclaimed their Navy-occupied lands.

The islanders are all minority ethnic Tamils and Catholics.

In 1992, the islanders were compelled to leave due to the nation’s long-running civil war and the Navy subsequently occupied the islands. Some access was provided to the villagers until about 2007, but after the end of the war in 2009 they were totally barred.

Surrounding waters had provided fish and they had coconut trees, cattle and other sources of livelihood there. An historic church played a central role in village life, along with a school, cooperative, weaving center, hospital and village council.

Their hopes of returning rose after the election of a new national government in 2015. But, despite a series of meetings with officials in 2016 and 2017, and 359 days of continuous protest, they were not allowed to resettle.

Hence, on April 23 they sailed to their islands in about 40 boats accompanied by priests, nuns, activists and journalists. They stated firmly that they had come to stay, despite most of the infrastructure having been destroyed, and that the Navy could remain so long as their daily life was not obstructed.

Land releases and trail of destruction

Ten days earlier, the Army released 683 acres of land in northern Jaffna district to 964 legal owners after 28 years of occupation. But local activists, politicians and journalists reported that some access roads and a school were still held by the army. Buildings that were in good when they left were destroyed when they were allowed to resettle.

The people who were displaced were further insulted by the garlanding at a hand-back ceremony of those who took away their land. Ironically, the return of the land was referred to as “gift” by the military. There were no apologies and no compensation for displacement, losses and suffering the occupation caused.

While the government announced more than a billion rupees (approximately $US 6.4 million) to the army for them to release land, there has been minimal assistance offered to the people who were resettling. This arrogant approach inhibits scope for reconciliation through land releases.

Land issues faced by Muslims and Sinhalese

While Tamils in the north have suffered most due to military land occupation, Muslims and Sinhalese in this region have also suffered, with official complaints, negotiations, protests and court cases failing to resolve most land  grievances.  Also in the north, Muslims who were evicted by the Tamil Tigers in 1990 complain of insufficient government resettlement assistance and feel that most Tamils are not supportive of them returning.

Land issues beyond military occupation

In addition to the military, other government agencies such as those responsible for forests and wildlife have been accused of restricting people’s access to land. Tourism and other development projects are also affecting people’s access to land. And across the country, land entitlements are denied on the basis of caste and gender. Tamils who worked on British-initiated tea plantations in slave like conditions have remained landless for more than 150 years.

Land and reconciliation

In the North, new land grabbing continues. In Mullaitheevu district last year the government claimed 671 acres of land to build a Navy camp, citing this as a “public purpose.”

For rural communities, land is much more than a piece of property with a financial value. On it hinges livelihoods; especially through fishing and farming. Their ancestor’s remains are in these lands and there are historic places of worship such as Hindu temples and Christian churches. Community life has been tied to the land and merely relocating people or providing financial compensation will not help.

Court cases, petitions, discussions with authorities and protests will continue. In the absence of favorable responses from the government, it’s possible that more displaced people will attempt to re-occupy their lands as happened in Iranaitheevu. There cannot be reconciliation without access to land.

Ruki Fernando is a Sri Lankan human rights activist who was detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and is still under investigation with restrictions on free expression. He is a member of the Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Commission of the Conference of Major Religious Superiors and a member of the Watchdog Collective and an Advisor to INFORM Human Rights Documentation Center.

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The May 18 Disconnect

First published on 20th May 2018 at http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2018/05/20/opinion/may-18-disconnect

Travelling back to the final theatre of battle nine years later, where tens of thousands of civilians were trapped in the fighting, an activist reflects on the horrors of the final days of the war in 2009 and the inability of Sri Lankans in the north and south to connect to each other’s suffering on the anniversary of the guns falling silent.

May 18, 2009 is the day Sri Lanka’s three decades long war came to an end.

Mullivaikkal, a narrow strip of beach in the Mullaitivu District is where the war ended, when the Sri Lanka Army militarily defeated the LTTE and its 26 year struggle for a separate Tamil state. Before 2009, Mullivaikkal was a beautiful, but practically unheard of village, between the now infamous Nandikadal Lagoon and the ocean on the island’s North Eastern coast.

The days, weeks and months preceding May 18, 2009, Mullivaikkal and nearby areas had been the epicenter of the final battles of the civil war, with a UN estimate of tens of thousands killed – combatants and civilians and hundreds disappeared – many of them after surrendering themselves to the authorities.

Yesterday’s emotional and moving journey to Mullivaikkal felt like a pilgrimage. It started when a good friend unexpectedly invited me to join him.

It became a journey that retraced his footsteps in 2008-2009, for twelve months, under very different circumstances. He had journeyed from Vellankulam on the North Western coast to Mullivaikkal with thousands of others, and was held for 100 days in the Vavuniya Menik Farm, the Government internment camp for civilians who had been trapped in the final battle zones.

As we travelled, he showed me the places he had camped out for several months and others in which he had only tarried a few days, in and out of bunkers, amid heavy shelling. He pointed to a playground on the roadside which he said had been inside the first No Fire Zone declared by the military. Here, he recalled people being killed and injured when shells rained down while a UN convoy was distributing food. At a nearby church, a mutual friend had lost his leg.

Retracing

In that year long journey to Mullivaikkal in 2009, he had seen people fall dead all around him and many injured. We heard stories about how he had picked up an injured and dying man on the roadside, and carried him to a makeshift hospital in Puthumathalan on his motorbike while shells fell all around him. When he reached the hospital, his clothes were soaked with blood, leading medical staff there to think my friend had been fatally injured.

He pointed out a place and an incident where he had narrowly escaped being hit by shelling, but 13 other people had been killed.

My friend is a Catholic Priest. In 2009, his Bishop, the Vatican, even the Sri Lankan President had requested him and other Priests to leave the war zone, even agreeing to facilitate their exit. My friend was among the small stubborn and exceptionally courageous group of clergymen and women who refused to leave the war-zone until the last person had left.

Between April-May 2009, around the Mullivaikkal region, one of these priests died, another disappeared, one lost his leg and yet another suffered injuries. But my friend and others survived. He showed me the last place where he sought shelter until May 18 and the place the military interrogated him before his 100 days at Menik Farm.

As we walked around Mullivaikkal, he introduced me to other survivors.

One was an elderly gentleman whose wife and other relations including young children died on May 14, 2009. Keen to keep using Tamil civilians as human shields, the LTTE was preventing people from leaving the war zone, so this family had tried to secretly cross over through bushes and water. They had all drowned in the Nandikadal lagoon.

Another friend who had also stayed till the end, showed me a school in Mullivaikkal where bodies of the dead had been piled up. Another told a story of parents who survived, whose children had been killed. The children’s remains had been found when they returned to resettle after the war.

There were too many such stories to narrate, and there aren’t enough words to describe the pain.

Commemorations in the North

My friend also showed me where another Priest who had stayed with the people right till the end had died on the last day of the war, on May 18, 2009. That was Fr. Sarathjeevan, or “Fr. Sara”.

I had not known Fr. Sara, but out of respect for him, I had been attending a commemorative event for Fr. Sara and others killed, for several years, in a small village near Kilinochchi. Some friends of Fr. Sara had decided to erect a small and simple monument for him at the last church he served. From this church, right up to Mullivaikkal, Fr. Sara accompanied civilians who were being pushed back as the military advanced against the LTTE frontlines, pushing the Tigers’ frontlines, fell further and further to the edge of Mullaitivu. A second monument was also erected to commemorate all those who had died in the war.

The two monuments, standing side by side, are the first ever monuments built by civilians for civilians in the Wanni. During this year’s commemoration there, prayers had been offered for all those killed, including civilians, LTTE cadres and members of the armed forces.

Yesterday, I saw elaborate arrangements being made in the Mullivaikkal chapel for a commemorative service. Symbolic sand tombs had been made for those without graves, and they were sprinkled with flowers. There was also a bigger event with thousands of affected families participating, along with clergy, university students, the Northern Chief Minister and Tamil politicians.

North and South; Sinhalese and Tamils

Since 2009, May 18 is the day I feel the strongest disconnect between the North and East and rest of the country, along ethnic lines. Since 2009, the mood of May 18 in the North has been one of mourning. These events have been misunderstood by sections of the South, to be similar to the November LTTE Martyrs’ Day commemorations. But the May 18 memorials have not been about the LTTE.

Most Tamils in the North, which bore the brunt of the war, mourn and grieve for the family members killed. It is similar in the East, which also was badly affected by the war. For years since 2009, the rest of the country was a contrast. From 2009-2015, the Rajapaksa Government celebrated May 19 as Victory Day. The current Government decided that it will be renamed as Remembrance Day, a quieter memorial day for fallen members of the armed forces. There has been little attempt to transform May 19 into a day of remembrance of all those who fell in Sri Lanka’s long drawn war – civilians and combatants alike.

Over the years, in the North, those organizing and participating in remembering the war dead have faced restrictions, harassments, intimidations from police and military. At the end of the war, the Government at the time decided to raze cemeteries where LTTE combatants were buried. Some have had camps built over them, and military personnel play cricket on the same ground. For families of those buried on these grounds – because LTTE cadres were also someone’s family – this is agonizing.

Clearly, remembering those who were killed during the war – whether civilians, journalist, priest, politicians, soldier or LTTE – is something that divides us ethnically and geographically, even as we close upon a decade since the end of the war. There have also been voices and acts of extraordinary courage.

Returning after an emotional day in Mullivaikkal, nine years after the end of the war, I struggle to keep faith that the few exceptional voices and initiatives will prevail and Sri Lanka will overcome the May 18 disconnect. Reconciliation will remain elusive till then.

366 days – Roadside Protests in Kilinochchi

First published at http://groundviews.org/2018/02/22/366-days-roadside-protests-in-kilinochchi/ on 22nd Feb. 2018

366 days (as of 20th Feb) is a long time to be at a 24 hour roadside protest. That’s how long Tamil families of disappeared in Kilinochchi have been there. In the coming days and weeks, protests by families of disappeared in Vavuniya, Mullaithivu, Maruthankerny (Jaffna district) and Trincomalee will also reach one year.

Most of the protesters were elderly mothers and fathers and those physically and mentally injured by the war. They have been braving the sun, rain, cold, dust, insects, mosquitos etc. Some had been hospitalised. I was told 7 women had died during the past 366 days. One woman leading the protest in Mullaitivu was assaulted, and received threats to stop. The protestors have been subjected to constant surveillance. While protesting, they had also struggled to take care of their other children at home, engage in livelihoods, find the bus fare to come to the protest site and a range of other practical problems. From the day I first met them one year ago, and through subsequent visits, I have seen them getting sick, hungry, cold, sweating, their spirit and physical strength deteriorating. But they have not given up.

They have told me that their protest is not leveled against the government, military or anyone else. They just want to know whether their disappeared children, grandchildren, husbands, are alive or dead. Many believe their loved ones are alive and want to know where they are being held. They want to see them. If dead, they want to know what happened and to receive their remains. Many protesting families had seen their loved ones surrendering to the Army in front of their own eyes, after which they were never seen again.

The beginning and evolution of the protests  

The protests started with some families of the disappeared in Vavuniya staging a fast unto death in January 2017. One of the leaders, Jeyavanitha, a Tamil mother, has a 2015 election campaign leaflet of President Sirisena and asserts that one of the school girls in uniform next to the President is her daughter.

As health conditions of the elderly women fasting in Vavuniya deteriorated, the State Minister of Defense met the families at the protest site. He promised a meeting with several senior Ministers in Colombo, and families agreed to temporarily suspend the protest. That meeting happened, but was marred by controversy, as the government had invited some Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MPs, who the families didn’t want to attend. The TNA MPs had eventually left, but based on what the State Minister for Defense had told him, the TNA Spokesperson reported to media that the families wanted priority for their own family member’s cases. Several of those actually present at the meeting till the end told me that they never asked for this, and insisted on answers to all families of disappeared. The meeting never yielded anything, and after waiting for two more weeks, the families in Vavuniya recommenced their protests, which will reach one year on 24th February 2018. Around the same time, protests started in four other places in the North and East.

Other forms of struggles and the ethnic factor

Not all Tamil families of disappeared in the North and East are involved in these protests. Several have filed Habeas Corpus cases, which are pending in courts in Jaffna, Mullaithivu, Vavuniya, Mannar and Colombo. Last year, some families of Tamil men who were taken away by the Army in 1996 in Jaffna, filed fresh Habeas Corpus applications. Based on this, an Army officer alleged to have been responsible and now serving as a Major General in Mannar, has been summoned to appear before courts. In different cases filed in Mannar and Colombo in relation to different incidents, Police investigations have revealed the complicity of the Navy in disappearances. Last year, families of the disappeared in Mannar published a book with the stories of their loved ones. There have also been been protests on significant days, such as on International Human Rights day and the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances.

To me, in a way, the yearlong protests in five places symbolises the hard and long struggles waged by vast majority of families of disappeared.

There is also an ethnic factor in the protests and campaigns. A large number of Sinhalese have also disappeared, mostly in the late 1980s. Their families, through movements such as the Mothers Front and supported by domestic and international rights activists and politicians that included former President Mahinda Rajapakse and present Minister Mangala Samaraweera, campaigned heavily for truth and justice in the 1990s, which was a factor in toppling the repressive UNP government of that time. But in recent years, Sinhalese families have not been campaigning so visibly, with a few exceptions like Sandya Ekneligoda and Mauri Jayasena, whose husbands had disappeared in 2010 and 2013 respectively.

Support for the protests

The last few years, especially in 2017, have also seen many protests in Sri Lanka. The most visible had been a series of sustained protests by students against the privatisation of health & education. There was also a several month-long overnight protest in Colombo against the exploitative manpower system by workers. Communities negatively affected by development projects, such as in Jaffna, Bandarawela and Colombo have also been protesting, while there were also protests against caste-based oppression by communities in Jaffna and campaigns demanding justice and freedom for political prisoners, which included a fast by 3 prisoners.  Month-long day and night protests were also held in the North, demanding back lands occupied by the military. Some of these protests had achieved their aims, while some ended without clear results.

But along with protests to regain military occupied lands in the North, the protests by families of disappeared are the longest running. The protests by families of disappeared has also been internationalised and seem to be protests that had become most controversial and immensely political, despite the deeply personal nature of the problem. This is probably why there have been very few sympathisers and even less number of people who want to actively support the protests.

Although some Northern Tamil politicians and political commentators appear to be ignoring the protests and not recognising their significance, the protests had received significant support and sympathy in the North. Hindu and Christian clergy and institutions, journalists, university students, three wheel taxi drivers and shop owners etc. have extended support, in addition to politicians and activists. However, solidarity and support from rest of the country, especially from Colombo, has been minimal. Despite all the protests being led by women, with the majority of participants also being women, Colombo-based women’s movements both new and old, don’t appear to be actively supporting their sisters at the protests.

A prominent exception has been Sandya Eknaligoda, wife of disappeared journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda, who had been travelling to the North and East to join the protesters regularly. She was also able to mobilise a few other Muslim, Sinhalese and Tamil families of disappeared from around Colombo to join in solidarity.

Considering the unprecedented longevity, widespread nature and intensity of the protests and the desperation of the protesters, there has been minimal media coverage of the protests on mainstream Sinhalese and English media. Other Colombo-centric protests and struggles, such as one against the privatisation of health and education by university students and against the sexual abuse of children in an orphanage in Colombo, received much more mainstream media coverage. I can’t help wondering whether the political controversy about the protests, the ethnic factor and the fact that these were happening in the North and East may have deterred Sinhalese and English media from giving adequate coverage.

Domestic and International dimensions

On the 100th day of the protest in Kilinochchi, the protesters blocked the A9 road for about 5 hours and demanded to meet the President. Since then, the President had met the protesters at least thrice, but he had let them down badly – breaking the promises and also the trust and hope they placed on him. The protesters had also met Ministers and other Government officials. They had also tried to engage with Sinhalese public, with appeals and banners in Sinhalese. But in contrast to this approach of the families, a statement issued in solidarity with the protests by organizations working primarily in the North and East focused their demands on the international community. However, a lack of response, support and sympathy from within Sri Lanka, coupled with a push from some Tamil activists and politicians, appear to have made the families also lean more and more towards foreign diplomats and UN officials to find the answers they are seeking.

The future of the protests

The protests are far from over. And the answers sought by the protesters still seem distant. Their courage and determination has been exceptional, but the cost on protesters has been very heavy. The future of the protests has to be and will be decided by the families. But as the five protests complete one year, I hope they can have the space to assess what has been achieved and plan ahead, perhaps to a transit to a different form of struggle, which may be more sustainable, less costly on themselves and have the potential to bring them closer to the answers they are seeking.  It is also a time for those of us who have been associated or sympathetic towards the protests and the cause, to have self-reflections about roles we have played and could have played, and see how better we can support continuing struggles in the longer term, and mobilise more support.