Land

The Struggle for Justice

First published at http://groundviews.org/2018/10/20/the-struggle-for-justice/ on 20th October 2018

Editor’s Note: The following are excerpts from a speech made at the Human Rights Education Award ceremony at the Law & Human Rights Centre in Jaffna, on 19th Oct. 2018

Dear friends,

I want to congratulate the Law and Human Rights Centre for organising this course. It is difficult but very important to do this in Jaffna, a place that sees continuing rights violations, impunity for serious violations in the past and courageous dissent and resistance, be it through protests, the arts, writing, or filing court cases.

Rights violations and struggles for justice

Today, after this event, I will be going to the Jaffna Press Club – for a commemorative event to remember life and work of Nimalarajan, a Tamil journalist killed on 19th October 2000. He is among many Tamil journalists killed, disappeared, assaulted, threatened, and intimidated during and after the war. No one has been held accountable. For many, justice for Tamil journalists appear to be less important than justice for Sinhalese journalists. Even now, Tamil journalists continue to face threats, intimidation, surveillance, interrogation. Not just them, but also families and friends.

This year and last year has been a year of protests in Sri Lanka – especially in the North and East. This includes continuous protests for more than one and half years by families of disappeared and by communities whose lands are occupied by the military. In addition to long drawn out roadside protests, families of the disappeared in Mannar and Vavuniya have published books documenting their stories. Some have met the President, others have made representations to international community representatives in Sri Lanka and Geneva. Some have filed court cases. Some of the leaders have been assaulted, threatened, intimidated and subjected to interrogation and surveillance. Even those inside prisons have been protesting – such as female detainees and political prisoners engaging in hunger strikes.

There have been a few significant victories emerging from these struggles. For example, last year, month long overnight roadside protests by communities in Pilakudiyiruppu and Puthukudiyiruppu led to the release of Army and Air Force-occupied lands. This year, the people of Iranaitheevu made a daring landing on their Navy-occupied island and reclaimed their traditional lands. Hunger strikes by political prisoners have led to reversal of unjust transfer of cases from Tamil areas to Sinhalese areas, and release on bail of some. Sandya Ekneligoda, whose husband disappeared, was threatened by a rough Buddhist Monk Gnanasara while inside court in 2016 – she refused mediation, insisted and courageously pursed justice in courts and finally, Gnanasara was convicted and put behind bars. These are exceptions to the rule, but it’s good to recall these struggles, and see what we can learn from those that were leading and involved in these.

We also need to be conscious of rights abuses, injustice and repression from non-state parties. Last month, a film looking at Tamil militancy, including the LTTE, in a critical way, was removed from the Jaffna film festival due to pressure from some people in Jaffna. Earlier this week, a photo exhibition, a substantial part of which included photos about rights violations in the North and East including disappearances and land, was not allowed to be held in the Peradeniya University by a student group. Last year, several months long protest was held against caste based oppression in Jaffna.

Protests have been held across the North and East against unjust schemes by microfinancecompanies that pushes people into debt and even suicide. The Catholic Archbishop of Colombo preached that human rights are not so important, that it’s a Western concept, that it’s only for people without religions, despite strong views supporting international human rights framework by successive Popes including Pope Francis. Most Muslim men and clergy resist reform of the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA) which legalises blatant discrimination of women and child marriage of girls. Some Buddhist clergy and their followers have been at forefront of violence against Christians and Muslims. Even as we try hold the state accountable, we must also expose and challenge armed groups, business enterprises, religious groups and in general oppressive social – cultural practices that facilitates, justifies and promotes rights abuses and undermines struggles for justice.

It is also a challenge to critically engage with new laws and institutions that we are faced with. These often fall short of legitimate expectations of survivors, victim families and affected communities. They are often compromised, or seek to whitewash old and existing violations and paint a rosy picture of the present situation. The Office on Missing Persons (OMP) established earlier this year and the Act on Reparations approved in Parliament last month are examples. But they also offer tiny rays of hope for a minimal degree of redress to at least a few survivors, victim families and affected communities and thus, we should be careful about rejecting them totally or boycotting them. The Right to Information Act and the Commission is an example of a recent development that have provided answers to some citizens who proactively sought answers about what’s hidden – such as military occupied land and military run businesses, entitlements in terms of flood relief etc.

I want to spend some time to talk about another draft law that’s before parliament now. The Counter Terrorism Bill. We must all stand for immediate and long overdue repeal of the PTA – the Prevention of Terrorism Act. But we must resist the temptation to compare the Counter Terrorism Act with the draconian PTA, and instead, focus on looking at extremely problematic clauses of the CTA which have the potential to restrict our rights and takes away essential lifesaving checks and balances in face of arrest and detention. It is not even compulsory to have a female officer question a female. It is not compulsory to serve acknowledgement of arrest and detention to family of the detainee. The draft restricts roles of the judiciary and confers extraordinary powers to the police, military, the Minister and the President. But we must also ask the more fundamental question of why we need a CTA, especially when we have a Public Security Ordinance, which gives enormous discretionary powers to the President to declare emergency regulations? Why do we need a CTA when our constitution allows restrictions on fundamental rights in special circumstances including for national security? When we have around 15 other laws, including those dealing with terrorism, hate speech that may cause communal disharmony, and money laundering? Laws such as the PTA, have served as license for enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrest and prolonged periods of detention, torture and sexual violence, and crackdowns on freedom of expression, assembly, association and movement. This is true for Sri Lanka and across the world. In Sri Lanka, it is Tamils who have been disproportionately affected by PTA and it is crucial that the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) which is the major political alliance representing Tamils in parliament, and also the opposition party, stands for the full repeal of the PTA, highlights the problematic clauses of the new counter terror law and oppose it’s enactment. And I believe all of us, especially Tamils in the North and East, must demand this from the TNA.

Human Rights Education and certificates

We cannot talk about human rights education, human rights courses and diplomas isolated from the above context. I would like to mention three elements I consider to be important in human rights education. One is the need to study philosophy, history, laws, institutions, gaining skills to research, theorise, analyse. Secondly, to learn about rights violations and abuses. Thirdly, to learn about struggles for justice. I have not followed any course or diploma in human rights, and learned the first in the process of the being involved in the second and the third. Unlike the first, the last two cannot be studied from the comfort of meeting rooms, or in hotels, classrooms, libraries or research online. We have to learn about violations and struggles against them from survivors of violations, families of victims and affected communities. By meeting them where they are – such as in their homes, in hospitals, prisons, IDP camps, or by joining them in their struggles – at a roadside protest, a hunger strike, an overnight vigil, in court battles, or negotiating with authorities.

I’m aware that some of you in the class, your friends, and your family members may also be survivors of violations. Some of you maybe already be involved in struggles for justice. I was impressed when most of you following the course agreed to visit the families of disappeared at the overnight roadside protest. And I’m happy to hear that some who participated are involved in LHRC work as volunteers.

Today, you will get a certificate. Receiving a certificate can be a nice feeling, give a sense of achievement, and practically, they can help you advance in your education and career. The certificate is a small indicator of you completing the course on human rights. But the real indicator of learning about human rights will be from what you do to prevent violations, fight against them, and support the struggles of survivors, victim families and affected communities. You may not get certificates when you do this, but instead, face persecution and reprisals from state, from your own community, colleagues, friends and families. I have faced and still face such challenges and often ask myself whether it was worth it. I hope you will rise to this challenge. I hope the course will support the emergence of a new generation of activists and strengthen ongoing struggles for justice.

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Sri Lanka’s Stalled Reforms

First published at https://intpolicydigest.org/2018/09/12/sri-lanka-s-stalled-reforms/ on 12th September 2018

Ruki Fernando is a human rights activist based in Colombo, Sri Lanka. This interview has been edited lightly.

Three years on, what’s your broad take on the coalition government’s performance? Where does the reform agenda currently stand?

Some reforms have happened since 2015 to varying degrees, but many of the promised reforms have come to a standstill and seem unlikely to happen by next year.

The release of some lands occupied by the military after months of protests, the release and indictments of some political prisoners, more space for free expression and assembly compared to years under the previous regime, arrests of some Navy and Army personnel in relation to a couple of disappearance cases, convictions of Police and Army personnel (for torture, killing of civilians and rape), are also some positive things seen since 2015. The passing of the 19th amendment to the constitution reducing the powers of the executive president and strengthening independent institutions and checks and balances, the ratification of the International Convention Against Enforced Disappearances and making this a crime in Sri Lanka, the passing of the Right to Information Act were some progressive legislative changes – while the proactiveness and independence displayed by the leadership of the Human Rights Commission and the Right to Information Commission were also positive features.

But the reluctance of the government and lack of leadership by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to carry forward the reform agenda overshadows these gains. Much of the land occupied by the military during and after the war still remains in their hands. Releases were often due to long drawn out overnight protests and direct action by affected communities. The possibilities of reconciliation through land releases was negatively affected by the arrogance and viciousness of the military – who after benefitting from decades of occupation, called the return of lands “gifts,” organized ceremonies for themselves where military leaders were glorified and had destroyed and damaged some properties just before handing them over.

Political prisoners acquitted by courts after up to 15 years in detention have received no apology or reparations and many still languish in prison, including based on confessions made during detention, which are likely to have been under duress. The Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) has not been withdrawn despite the commitment to do so three years ago. Alternatives to the PTA were drafted in utmost secrecy from the citizenry and leaked versions contained draconian provisions. Abduction, assaults, death threats, intimidation, discrediting and surveillance of activists continues. An attempt to bring in a draconian amendment to the Voluntary Social Services Organizations Act was only withdrawn in the face of stiff opposition from civil activists and organizations. Violence against Muslims and Christians continued, including on a mass scale, such as in March this year around Kandy. Debt has reached life-threatening proportions.

Three years after ambitious promises to set up institutions to deal with wartime abuses, only one, the Office on Missing Persons (OMP) has been set up, and that too is limping forward. A draft bill was rushed through the cabinet to establish an Office for Reparations. There is not even draft legislation for the two other institutions promised – a truth commission and judicial mechanism with a special counsel. The president, prime minister and other politicians have backtracked on the promise to include foreign judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers and investigators in the judicial mechanism. 

More specifically, what do you expect to happen in terms of constitution-building?

There has been some progress, with some public consultations, six subcommittee reports and a steering committee report from the Constitutional Assembly, consisting of all the parliamentarians. However, there is a lot of uncertainty about whether a new constitution will see the light of day. Even if it does, there are serious concerns about whether it will bring substantial changes – such as the inclusion of economic, social and cultural rights as justiciable rights, doing away with ancient laws that facilitate the applicability of discriminatory laws against women and children, providing the foremost place to the majority religion and a lesser place to other religions, abolition of the executive presidency and power-sharing arrangements, which is also crucial for resolving the ethnic conflict that led to war.

How effective will the Office on Missing Persons be?

The OMP has been functioning for just over six months, but it’s too early to tell how effective it will be. OMP members tried make up for a lack of consultations before it was set up, by having a series of consultations about how it should function. It has stronger enabling legislation than previous Commissions of Inquiry and the chairperson and members have shown sensitivities in acknowledging the frustration, disappointment and anger of many families of the disappeared and missing who have approached multiple commissions, police, courts, et cetera and not received the answers they are seeking. But other than passionate appeals to give the OMP a chance and stating that they will try to do better than previous government initiatives, and publishing an interim report, I have seen nothing to indicate the OMP will be more effective than the large number of previous Commissions of Inquiry. The inclusion of a senior retired Army officer as a member of the OMP, in a context where many families believe their relatives were taken away by the Army (and where Army personnel have been convicted by courts and both Army and Navy personnel have been arrested on suspicion in relation to disappearances), has also contributed to making many families of the disappeared lose confidence in the OMP and be skeptical. It is this anger, suspicion and frustration that have led to protests against the OMP by some families of disappeared, leading to even the unacceptable situation of them blocking other families of the disappeared from engaging with the OMP. 

The first major specific public promise made by the OMP was to release an interim report on the 30th of August – the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances. But instead of fulfilling this promise, the OMP postponed the release of the report – in order to hand over the report first to the president, though they have no legal obligation to do so. Though this may be a strategic decision by the OMP, it has led to concerns that the OMP is prioritizing presidential appeasement and not giving primacy to the families of the disappeared and missing. The report dated the 30th of August was presented to the president on the 5th of September and released to the public on the 6th.

Despite the history of reports and recommendations by previous Commissions of Inquiry, much of which have been ignored by successive governments, the OMP too has opted to prioritize another report with observations and recommendations. This is despite the OMP being legally empowered to provide welfare services, trace the disappeared and inform the families.

The recommendations in the report include amendments to existing laws to strengthen the legal framework in criminalizing and prosecuting enforced disappearances, that state officials including members of the armed forces and police who are named as suspects or accused in relation to abductions and enforced disappearances should be suspended and not transferred, promoted or offered any other office, publishing a list of detention centers and detainees, designating a national day for the disappeared, preserving sites of mass graves as memorial spaces and restoring a monument for Sinhalese youth that disappeared in late 1980s that was destroyed by the previous government.

Disappointingly, the OMP has not called on the government to release a list of those who surrendered to the Army at the end of the war, many of whom disappeared afterwards. The release of this list has been a central demand made to the president and also to the OMP by Tamil families who have been at continuous roadside protests for more than 550 days. The OMP has also opted to call for reform of some provisions of the draconian PTA instead of total repeal, without questioning the need for counterterrorism legislation, which has a history of abuse in Sri Lanka and across the world. 

The report also has some constructive and practical recommendations on “interim relief,” including a monthly cash payment and other facilities related to debt relief, housing, education, employment and livelihood development.

Observations and recommendations in the interim report are significant and important, but unlikely to impress families of the disappeared. What would have made a difference is if the OMP had done in the first six months or will do in the next few months what many families of disappeared have asked them to do and that they have a legal mandate to do: Establish the fate and whereabouts of a few of the disappeared and inform their families. Or at least start providing information relating to the status of investigations, on individual cases, to respective families. The interim report says the OMP started to carry out inquiries with relevant authorities on specific cases. However, even statistical and general information about progress made is not mentioned in the report.

Would you talk about some of the criticisms surrounding the creation of the Office for Reparations?

As is the usual custom of this government, the draft bill had been drafted in secret, without adequate consultations before it was approved by the cabinet. On the draft bill, there are concerns about unnecessary powers being granted to the cabinet and parliament, making the awarding of reparations a long drawn, politicized process and the office not being an independent one with decision-making powers.

What about President Sirisena’s plan to reinstate the death penalty?

This was a shock, as for more than 40 years, through civil war and insurrections, Sri Lanka was one of 29 countries that had maintained a moratorium on the death penalty. Another 106 countries had abolished it fully by 2017, and only 23 countries were known to have carried out executions in 2017. There is no evidence in Sri Lanka, or in other countries, that the death penalty has reduced crime by having a deterrent effect. In Sri Lanka, there are serious deficiencies in the criminal justice system, including a lack of easily accessible, quality legal aid. 

The death penalty is an irreversible form of punishment which grants no space to consider new evidence that may emerge after a conviction is made, for example through new technology, indicating a wrongful conviction. It has been pointed out that in countries such as America, Canada and the United Kingdom, people wrongly convicted have been released from death row decades after they were put there as new evidence has shown they were wrongfully imprisoned.

If some detainees are engaged in drug-related offences from within prison grounds, cited as a reason to reintroduce the death penalty, security in prisons must be strengthened, including by using new technology, without infringing on the rights of detainees. Prison officials responsible for such crimes from within prisons must be held accountable.

What Sri Lanka must do is ratify the 2nd Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that calls for the abolition of the death penalty and abolish the death penalty from our books, as about 85 countries had done by the end of 2017.

How concerned are you about reports of abduction and torture since Sirisena became president?

Abductions have continued since President Sirisena took office – in the war-affected North, and even in Colombo in 2017, such as the abduction of the trade union leader and attempted abduction of a student activist. However, many abducted appear to have been released, though I’m also aware of those who have disappeared under this government and not been found.

Attacks, threats, intimidation and surveillance of families of the disappeared campaigning for truth and justice have also continued under President Sirisena. Their supporters, including activists and journalists have also been attacked, threatened, obstructed and interrogated. Several such incidents were reported in July this year; I had mentioned two in an article I wrote last month.

The continuation of torture too has been a major concern under the Sirisena presidency.

Will provincial council elections be held this year?

There is no certainty when provincial elections will be held.

What’s your assessment of a possible Gotabaya Rajapaksa presidential campaign? Who do you see as viable candidates for the presidency?

Rajapaksa political forces have always been strong, even in 2015, and appear to be gaining ground in the face of failures by the present coalition government. Despite much hype beforehand, the “Jana Balaya” (People’s Power) rally in Colombo on the 5th didn’t indicate mass public support for Rajapaksa-led political forces and there didn’t even appear to be a clear and strong political message from the rally. Though Gotabaya was seen participating in the rally, he didn’t play a leading role and there is also uncertainty about whether he will be a presidential candidate for the Joint Opposition, representing Rajapaksa political forces. There is also no clear indication whether Sirisena – Wickremesinghe and their allies will contest together or separately, and if together, who might be a “common candidate.” But the rather unexpected emergence of Sirisena as a successful presidential candidate, with a broad alliance of political and civil forces’ support, makes me wonder whether there could be another person who could gain widespread support, across political and civil forces – but I only hope it would be one that will not let us down like Sirisena has done.

MULLIKULAM: A STEP CLOSER TO REGAIN NAVY OCCUPIED LANDS AND HOUSES

First published in the Sunday Observer of 5th August 2018 http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2018/08/05/news-features/mullikulam-step-closer-regain-navy-occupied-lands-and-houses

On 17th July 2018 about 80 families, including children and elderly left behind the brick houses they have been living in, with water, toilets, furniture, kitchen and other household goods, and moved to live in tents in a forest like area. The move was to resettle in their beloved, traditional village, Mullikulam, after nearly 11 years of displacement due to Navy occupation of the village.

Throughout this period, while struggling to survive without the resources Mullikulam provided, the villagers also battled to regain their lands, with many negotiations, meetings, petitions, letters and protests. The responses were mostly betrayals and broken promises, by the present and previous governments.

In 2012, their struggles led to limited access to the school, the church, and some agricultural lands. On April 29, 2017, after a sit-in overnight protest for more than a month outside the entrance to the Navy occupied village, the Navy Commander promised to release 100 acres of land “immediately” and release by end of the year, 27 houses, These were houses in good condition and had been occupied by the Navy. Promises of the Navy were still available on the official website when I was in Mullikulam last week. (http://news.navy.lk/eventnews/2017/04/29/201704291945/)

The 27 houses are yet to be released. This is why people had been compelled to live in tents, in forested and bushy areas of the 77 acres that has been released.

They face dangers from snakes and elephants, as well as dust, sun and rainfall that may come soon. There are electricity lines to the Navy buildings, near to where they live, but they have no electricity and this exacerbates night time dangers. They have to go a couple of kilometres to have a bath and are dependent on minimal toilet facilities at the nearby church and school.

Most painful for some villagers is to see their own houses occupied by the Navy, just a few metres away from their tents. An elderly villager showed me his brick house now occupied by the Navy, just across the gravel road from the tent he is now compelled to live in.

His two sons and a nine month old grandson are among those living in tents. Another grandson born last Sunday and his mother, are unable to come and live in the village in their house, due to Naval occupation of the house.

A rich land broken apart

Mullikulam has been a prosperous and picturesque village in the Mannar District, with a population that’s entirely Roman Catholic and of Tamil origin. It is a traditional fisher and farming village, with forests, tanks, irrigation schemes and open access to the sea enabling food security and steady income. The war resulted in the displacement of villagers in 1990, but many returned after the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement and started to rebuild their lives, livelihoods and restore their destroyed houses and property.

In September 2007, the people of Mullikulam were forcibly removed from their village and the entire village was taken over by the Army. The villagers were assured that they could return within three days. Nearly 11 years after, the people of Mullikulam have yet to be allowed to return home and the status of return remains indefinite and uncertain, due to the Navy having established their Northwestern Command Headquarters and Naval Institute (SLNS Barana) at Mullikulam.

During these 11 years, the approximately 300 families (besides about 100 in South India), have been living on rent, in temporary shelters/camps, or with host families/relatives, in and around Mannar. Some have accepted alternate land and housing. Most want to return to live in Mullikulam.

The future

Despite the nearly 11 year old wait, immense sufferings and broken promises, villagers have still not given up hope of having their village restored to them, which led to the latest move last month.

Civil authorities in the area must step into to provide the most urgent needs for those who moved to Mullikulam, such as electricity, toilets and bathing facilities.

The situation in Mullikulam has also been brought to the attention of the President, who is also the Commander in Chief. He must ensure that the Navy keeps its promise and immediately release the balance 23 acres of land and 27 houses, plus the 300 acres they had “earlier consented to release”.

Although what is needed is nothing less than the release of the Mullikulam village as soon as possible, it would be important to prioritise land that people judge to be most important for traditional livelihoods, public purposes and residencies.

It is also important to establish a regular consultative process about land releases with Mullikulam people, that’s led by civil authorities, respects people’s right to communicate and receive communications in Tamil, maintains transparency with written records of discussions and agreements, provides regular written updates on progress being made and responds to queries.

The Government must also try to provide the displaced people with material and financial assistance to rebuild their lives, including the return of boats, nets and other resources they had left behind when the Army occupied the village, rebuilding or improving village infrastructure including schools, medical centres and other amenities and ensuring equal access to common property and resources.

Note: the writer has been visiting and working with Mullikulam community since their displacement in 2007. Below are two of his previous writings that provides more background information.

Renewed struggle to regain Navy occupied village http://groundviews.org/2017/04/06/mullikulam-renewed-struggle-to-regain-…

The struggle to go home in post war Sri Lanka: The story of Mullikulam

http://groundviews.org/2012/08/01/the-struggle-to-go-home-in-post-war-sr…

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.

Iranaitheevu: a community reclaims their island home from the Navy

First published on 25th April 2018 at http://groundviews.org/2018/04/25/iranaitheevu-a-community-reclaims-their-island-home-from-the-navy/

On the morning of April 23, 2018, about 300 people from the Iranaitheevu twin islands decided to sail there in about 40 boats. They have been displaced since 1992, and the Navy has occupied the island, barring the local people from staying or even visiting their traditional land, on which had hinged their livelihood. The islands also had important institutions like a school, churches, cooperative, weaving centre, hospital and village council.

These people hoped that they could return to their island after the end of the war in 2009, and the election of a new government in 2015. Yet, they were still not allowed to return, despite a series of meetings and correspondence with Ministers, politicians and government officials from 2016 to 2017. In desperation, they resorted to a continuous protest for almost a year (359 days as of April 23). Even that didn’t bring them home.

On the morning of April 23, they planned something different. Something daring that most Sri Lankans wouldn’t try. I was scared of this too.

In the preceding days and weeks, I received many calls to join them on April 23 and bring supporters as well. They especially wanted journalists, lawyers and priests to join them on April 23. I asked many friends and colleagues, it was not easy to convince people to join, but a few did. I joined their protests several times, but had almost given up, frustrated by the lack of government response and my own inability to do anything meaningful to support the people’s struggle. But the phone calls and a chance meeting with a youth from Iranaitheevu the previous week re-energised me.

So I went to join them on April 23. After a religious service at the Iranaimathaanagar church, next to their 359 day protest site, they held banners and placards and marched to the beach. Then they got into boats and started to sail towards Iranaitheevu. They wanted me and others who had come to support them from Jaffna, Mannar, Colombo etc. including the journalists and priests to join them. Most of us got into the boats.

I was apprehensive. Not of rough seas but of the Navy. I knew the Navy had only allowed people to land and stay in the island for prayers in the church, and that too after prior permission was obtained. With me on the boat was a long time friend and Catholic Priest from Pesalei, and we recalled the fire power of the Navy, and how they had even attacked and killed and injured people inside the Pesalei church. People raised white flags on their boats, but both of us remembered how people who surrendered with white flags were reported as killed.

But yesterday, there was no obstruction from the Navy. People landed and proceeded to the church where they prayed. A few Navy officials came and had a brief discussion. The People were firm and polite.

“We have come to our lands, our church. We have had enough of displacement, and we plan to stay here. We have legal documents. You (Navy) can also stay in the islands, but not on our lands, and should not disturb or obstruct our lives.”

The offers of the Navy to rebuild the church was dismissed by the people and priests, saying their priority was to resettle in their land, and renew their livelihoods and their traditional way of life. The Navy officers retreated, saying they would convey the news to higher officers.

A community discussion reaffirmed their resolve to stay overnight. Within an hour or so, some people had started to change clothes to stay on. Others braved the scorching sun and walked a distance into the interior of the island to see their land, or what was left.

The richness of the island soon became clear to first time visitors like me. We saw people enjoy coconuts, one lady caught mussels and another man a sea cucumber. There was also a new fruit, I tasted which I had never had before.

A retired principal of the school took us to his old office, showed us the school building, the teacher’s residences and also a unique underground rainwater collection system for drinking water. The main church was still standing, though damaged, but a smaller church was in ruins. The priest’s residence and the convent of Holy Family Sisters was damaged but still standing. A weaving centre, local cooperative and the village council buildings had all been totally destroyed. A community well was standing and had water, but will need a cleanup.

From what we could see, the Navy had only occupied a small part of the island. Yet according to an elder, that area included five houses, the hospital including the doctors and nurses residences, a playground and the cemetery.

There were no roads and no motor vehicles on the islands – only bullock carts and cycles. We saw plenty of cows, but people complained that they had left behind many more, which the Navy may have slaughtered.

Most of us who had joined in solidarity left the island in the afternoon. But 105 islanders stayed the night. Even as we were leaving, they were cleaning up and getting ready to stay on.

Landing in the island and staying on, to reclaim their occupied lands, without waiting for permission or approval seemed a non-violent act of community defiance and resistence rarely seen in Sri Lanka in the recent past. To me it was an act of exceptional courage and determination. But for one community leader, it was much simpler – “Why do we need approval to go to our land, our church?”

They have only been on the island for just over 24 hours. Despite the richness of the land and the sea, and despite the resilience and creativity of the people, challenges remain and they will need support.

There is no formal recognition by the government of their resettlement on their own lands, and no assistance has been offered in terms of essential and immediate needs like water and food. Houses and community structures like the school, hospital, village council, cooperative etc. will have to be reconstructed. There will have to be regular transport between mainland and the island.

But for now, the joy of having reclaimed their own land, in their own way, by themselves, will prevail.

Iranaitheevu; a year of continuous protests to regain Navy-occupied land

First published at http://groundviews.org/2018/04/20/iranaitheevu-a-year-of-continuous-protests-to-regain-navy-occupied-land/ on 20th April 2018

After the election of the new government in 2015, the people of Iranaitheevu, forcibly displaced since 1992, finally thought they would be able to return home. Yet a flurry of letters and high-level meetings with government officials and politicians in 2016 and 2017 didn’t bring any results. In desperation, the community took the difficult decision to begin a continuous roadside protest on 1st May 2017. Almost a year later, they are still fighting.

History

Iranaitheevu is a pair of twin islands situated in the Palk Strait, belonging to the Poonekary Division of the Kilinochchi District in the Northern Province in Sri Lanka. A channel of sea water runs between the Big Island (Perum Theevu) and Small Island (Sirum Theevu).

According to an official survey map of 1982, 143 plots of land were demarcated in the larger island of Perum Theevu and 35 plots in the smaller island of Sirum Theevu. Villagers trace the island’s history to about 200 years, pointing out an old watch tower from 1886. At the time of first displacement, around 125 stone houses, 6 wells for drinking water, a health center, a school and 2 churches were reported to have been on the island.

Fishing was traditionally the main source of income, with men going to sea and women engaging in shore-based fishing practices, such as harvesting sea cucumbers and crabs, with both men and women contributing to the family income. Families also reared livestock, including cows and goats, engaged in cash crop cultivation of onions, chilies and manioc, and cultivated coconut trees. The island waters are rich in limestone, providing a rich breeding ground for a wide variety of fish species and base material to build houses on the islands as well as on the mainland. Islanders had trading and socio-cultural relationships with people in areas in Southern Sri Lanka like Negombo, from where a Catholic Priest had reportedly visited the island for church services.

War and Displacement

The first major displacement occurred in 1992, when there were about 200 families displaced to mainland due to the war. Since then, the Navy had occupied the island, providing sporadic and limited access to the villagers until 2007. Islanders were again displaced multiple times from 2007 throughout the last phase of the war. Those who survived were detained in Menik farm, in Vavuniya district. They were eventually released and allowed to return to where they had lived in displacement in Iranaimathaanagar, near Mulankavil, one of the closest mainland points to their island. But since this last round of displacement in 2007, the Navy has prohibited them from returning or even freely accessing their traditional islands.

Following negotiations with the Navy, the people are now allowed to travel to a restricted coastline of the island for fishing, but they are not allowed to stay overnight. Traveling daily between the island and the mainland has dramatically increased the cost of fishing. Furthermore women from Iranaitheevu who used to engage in coastal fishing are unable to do so now and are without work. Family incomes have suffered, particularly those of women-headed households. The rising cost of fuel and decreasing marine resources caused by illegal fishing from Indian trawlers in Northern waters has also drastically affected incomes of fishing families.

The only time of the year residents have been allowed visit the island since 2007 is for a pilgrimage to the Church during Lent season, usually a day in February or March. One woman narrated a story in which on one such occasion, there was a storm on the sea and the people asked the Navy to allow them to camp on the islands overnight to wait for the storm to pass. But the Navy had refused, and compelled the islanders and their children to take the treacherous journey back home across the rough seas. During this year’s pilgrimage, people’s freedom of movement was restricted and severe inconveniences caused to the people by the Navy, despite the Parish Priest having obtained prior permission for people to stay in the island for three days for the traditional Lenten church services.

The Fisheries Cooperative

The Iranaitheevu Fisher Cooperative had been a thriving institution, functioning on membership contributions when the fish harvest was plentiful. It played a huge role in the well-being of the community and most of the stone houses on the island were built with subsidies from the Cooperative, but today it finds itself struggling to meet its daily expenses.

The Cooperative structure, with its democratically elected leadership, also ensured the island’s resources were sustained and developed for the use of future generations. But recently, individual fishermen from outside the area have been given access by the Navy to fish and profit off of the island’s resources. This has led to a breakdown of community checks against profit driven exploitation of natural resources and has further fostered a strong sense of injustice among the islanders as they’re being deprived of their islands’ resources. The Navy has also been making allegations of drug possession against the original inhabitants of Iranaitheevu. But according to villagers, no one has been arrested nor has any boat been withheld by Courts for possessing illegal substances.

Struggles to return home: the paper trail

Since their return to Iranaimathaanagar in late 2009, the people have made several attempts to reclaim their lands. These intensified after the election of the new government in 2015. But despite continued communication and protests, leading to some vague assurances at different points from high levels of the government that they would be able to return home, they have still not had definitive answers.

Efforts included appeals to the Northern Province Chief Minister, who had appealed on their behalf to the Resettlement Minister; an appeal to a local MP Vijayakala Maheswaran, who had appealed on their behalf to the Prime Minister; and an appeal to the European Union Delegation in Sri Lanka that had also appealed to the Resettlement Minister on their behalf. Finally, they appealed twice in 2017 directly to the President.

Continuous protests from 1st May 2017 and promises broken

On 1st May 2017, in the absence of any clear information about when they could resettle, the people commenced a continuous protest in Iranaimathaanagar. They also took the protests to Poonakari, Kilinochchi and even Colombo. A community leader also attended 37th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, to highlight their ongoing struggle to resettle in Iranaitheevu and seek international support.

These efforts, especially the protests, led to series of meetings and discussions between the Iranaitheevu community leaders with staff at the Presidential Secretariat, the State Minister of Defense, local MP Vijakala Maheswaran, the District Secretary of Kilinochchi, the Divisional Secretary of Poonakari, Navy officials and also with a Parliamentarian and members of the small Marxist party, Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP).

An outcome of these efforts was officials of the Survey Department visiting the island in Sept. – Oct. 2017. But no information has been provided to the people about results or follow up actions. No information has also been provided to the people about response of the Kilinochchi District Secretary to a request by the Resettlement Ministry in March 2016 to “submit detailed report regarding the resettlement of Iranaitheevu Island, including the tentative cost estimate, as early as possible” or a letter from an Additional Secretary to the President to the Defense Ministry in August 2017, asking “to take appropriate action”. Nor has any update been provided about the promise made by the State Minister of Defense to discuss resettlement in Iranaitheevu ith the President and find answers.

Waiting to go home

Currently there are approximately 400 families living on the mainland nearest the islands in Iranaimathanagar. Around 95 are women-headed households.

Despite their displacement for almost 25 years, the people remain deeply attached to their island. The literal translation of ‘Iranaimathanagar’, to which most families were displaced in 2007, means ‘the mother city of Iranai’. The official Grama Niladari Division number is still retained and the Sub Post Office, the government school and the Fisheries Cooperative all carry the name of Iranaitheevu despite their physical structures currently standing in Iranaimathanagar.

The people’s demands are simple. They want unrestricted access to Iranaitheevu, to settle there permanently to engage in fishing, cultivation and maintaining livestock as they did before their forced displacement. They have not asked for the total removal of the Navy, but are seeking the release of people’s lands which have been occupied by the Navy and for action to be taken to prevent island resources from being misused and exploited by people accessing them illegally.

Sri Lankans must push the government to fulfill its undertakings

First published at https://international.la-croix.com/news/sri-lankans-must-push-the-government-to-fulfill-its-undertakings/6374 on 18th Nov. 2017

The people of Sri Lanka should be wary of depending too much on international involvement – like UN experts – in ensuring the upholding of rights, dignity, and well-being of its citizens.

Successive Sri Lankan governments have ratified various international human rights’ treaties, but they are still being found wanting on home turf.

These treaties include provisions against torture, discrimination, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and arbitrary detention. They protect freedom of expression, assembly, association and religion as well as rights to equality before the law, housing, education, and healthcare.

There are also specific measures set out in these treaties covering women, children, migrant workers and people with disabilities.

However, many Sri Lankans are still denied these rights and justice after violations during the war. The government has received more than 65,000 complaints of disappeared persons and there is no clarity about numbers killed – UN has said it could be about 70,000.

The Sri Lankan government has made a series of commitments to all its citizens, focusing on abuses of the 26-year civil war that ended in 2009 with the defeat of the LTTE which fought for a separate state.

This includes prosecution of human rights violations and establishing an effective “Office of Missing Persons” as well as a mechanism to deal with reparations. Lack of progress on these issues led to series of public protests.

There have been a series of visits by United Nations rights’ experts and officials. Superficially, this looks impressive.

However, an actual implementation of their recommendations — as well as fulfillment of commitments the government has made to Sri Lankans — is far from imposing.

And during a recent visit by UN Special Rapporteur Pablo de Greiff, the government took the unprecedented step of stating it is not bound to implement UN expert recommendations.

Anyway, a democratically elected government should not be waiting for UN findings and recommendations in order to ensure the upholding of rights, dignity, and well-being of its citizens.

As I write this, the Sri Lankan parliament is debating proposed constitutional changes following a public consultation process.

People from all walks of life presented their grievances, aspirations, and suggestions, about a wide range of issues, covering historical and structural injustices related to the war and beyond.

However, many recommendations on issues such as power sharing — as well as gender, economic and social rights — appear unlikely to be implemented.

Some leading Buddhist monks and the Bar Association of Sri Lanka, are now questioning even the need for a new constitution. If there is a new constitution, it’s likely to be a political compromise.

But at the minimum, I hope it will include a strong bill of rights and a further devolution of power. And measures to address injustices committed during or arising from the civil war and preventing such occurrences again.

On the ground, despite some positive changes, recurrence of old abuses is part of daily life, especially for Tamils in the war-ravaged north.

For example, restrictions continue on the formal mourning of war dead. The military is still occupying large amounts of public and private lands and intruding into civilian activities.

And although the level of abuses is less than under previous government, even in 2017, there are reports of abductions and torture. There are also fresh arrests under a draconian anti-terror law that the government promised to repeal two years ago, under which I’m still under investigation after nearly 4 years.

De Greiff rightly suggested it was wrong to equate reconciliation and transitional justice only to criminal accountability.

But it is surprising that he did not highlight the government’s backtracking on a commitment it made two years ago to establish a special judicial mechanism.

It envisaged the participation of foreign judges, prosecutors, lawyers, and investigators, in context of a large number of Sri Lankan survivors and victim’s families failed to obtain justice through domestic legal mechanisms.

And it is strange that De Greiff presented the cost of delaying land releases in terms of a disincentive for foreign investors more than as a major problem for ordinary local people. Overall, his comments don’t appear to reflect the desperation, frustration, and anger of victims and their families.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is preparing to present an update on Sri Lanka to the UN Human Rights Council in March next year.

I hope the update will present a realistic assessment and insist on a timetable with clear benchmarks for implementation of commitments the government has already made to its citizens.

I also hope member states of the UN will be wary of heaping premature and disproportionate praise on Sri Lankan government’s empty rhetoric and promises.

International involvement in transitional justice is essential.

However, Sri Lankans should be wary of depending too much on international involvement without pushing our government to fulfill its own undertakings.

World Refugees Day and refugees from and to Sri Lanka

First published on 21st June 2017, at http://groundviews.org/2017/06/21/world-refugees-day-and-refugees-from-and-to-sri-lanka/

20th June is World Refugee Day. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that 65.6 million people have been forcibly displaced globally. I have heard that close to one million Sri Lankans have fled the country to escape violence, war and persecution. I had met few of them in different countries and been struck by their differences in their experiences, challenges, fears and aspirations.

It was alarming to hear that some had fled the country since 2015, including this year. Acording to the International Truth and Justice Project – Sri Lanka (ITJP)[1], they have taken testimonies from 57 Sri Lankan Tamils who had sought asylum in European countries after having faced abduction, illegal detention, torture and/or sexual violence at the hands of intelligence and security officers under the Sirisena government in 2015-2017. There have been many more who had sought asylum during previous governments.

Early this year, in Thailand, I met a Sri Lankan family who had been recognized as refugees by UNHCR. They were barely surviving, with no possibility to be employed legally, struggling to pay for a room to stay in, find food to eat and unable to send children to school. But they were still scared to return home. In 2016, a Tamil journalist / human rights activist who had decided to return to Sri Lanka after going into exile, was detained at the airport and questioned about his activism for more than 24 hours, before being produced before a magistrate and released on bail. His family members were subjected to questioning afterwards.

I also know a few Sinhalese and Tamil journalists and activists who had sought refuge abroad under Rajapakse regime, but had returned to Sri Lanka since 2015. Some had come permanently and some have been visiting regularly. Some had given up benefits of refugee status and possibility to obtain citizenship in a European country which had offered them refugee status. They had not faced any harassments at the airport or afterwards.

Despite rhetoric of inviting those who went into exile to return, the new Sri Lankan government has done very little to guarantee security and assist those who had requested for assistance to return home after being recognized by UNHCR as refugees. In 2015, it literarily took an earthquake for the government to take action to ensure the return of two Sri Lankans from Nepal, who had been granted refugee status by UNHCR.[2]  For around a year, the Sri Lankan government had not assisted two other activists also in Nepal who have been recognized as refugees by UNHCR, and had made repeated requests for the government to intervene to bring them home.

Returning Refugees from India

A significant number of Sri Lankans, mostly Tamils from North and East, had fled to India during decades of war, living as refugees. More than 11,000 are estimated to have returned to Sri Lanka. Despite some limited support from the Sri Lankan government, those who want to return face multiple challenges and the majority of refugees remain in camps in India, uncertain of their future. Like some of those mentioned above, they also fear intrusive visits and questioning from Sri Lankan authorities.

A major challenge they face is lack of legal documents, such as birth, marriage, and death certificates and the National Identity Cards (NIC). The lack of supportive documents[3] of parents has been a major hurdle for children to obtain consular birth certificates and subsequently Sri Lankan citizenship. Many returnees face difficulties in obtaining their citizenship, including heavy penalties and complex documentation requirements. A waiver of penalties is available only to those who possess a return letter from UNHCR, but not to those who return spontaneously of their own accord. Difficulties in obtaining consular documents increase the risk of refugees falling into the category of stateless persons. The inability of refugees born in camps to obtain citizenship (through the Sri Lankan consular process) before return causes delays in their ability to obtain other documents in Sri Lanka after return, such as the NIC, passports, and driving licences. This results in further delays in returnees claiming rights and reintegration benefits, including social welfare schemes, opening bank accounts, finding employment, and enrolling in educational institutions.

Many returnees have ended up being homeless and landless. Some of the refugee’s lands and houses have been occupied by others and refugees have been compelled to live with friends and relatives, in welfare centres or spend their meagre resources on rent. Loss of land documents, land disputes over boundaries and the inability to locate and demarcate land have also been challenges. Some returnees who are able to recover their land are unable to use it for resettlement due to the land being overgrown by jungle growth and wild animals. There are no governmental programmes to provide temporary or transitional shelter.

Deprivation of agricultural land, inability to get fishing licences, and requirement of compulsory guarantors for loans makes it difficult to restart livelihoods. They also face difficulties in finding employment opportunities in both the private and public sector, with limited support schemes available. There are no special employment schemes.

Non-recognition of educational qualifications, including high school / secondary school, degrees and diplomas, obtained overseas while living as refugees, has posed challenges for pursuing higher education and career opportunities. Obtaining equivalent certificates (to recognise certificates from foreign institutions) places an additional financial and procedural burden on returning refugees who are already struggling with very limited resources.[4]

Refugees and Asylum seekers coming to Si Lanka

Sri Lanka is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. There are no national procedures for the granting of refugee status. Refugees who come to Sri Lanka are left to the care and protection of UNHCR, which, in agreement with the Government of Sri Lanka, registers asylum seekers and carries out refugee status determination.

About 75% of asylum seekers and refugees in Sri Lanka are from Pakistan and about 15% from Afghanistan. Visa restrictions for these nationals to enter Sri Lanka remain in place and some asylum seekers are turned away at the airport and sent back to the conditions they sought to flee, without an opportunity to present their case or right of appeal, violating the customary law principle of non-refoulement. As of end of 2016, there were 604 refugees who had been recognized as refugees by UNHCR and 576 whose applications were pending at UNHCR in Sri Lanka. In addition to Pakistanis and Afghans, others were from countries such as Bangladesh, Iran, Maldives, Myanmar, Palestine, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, Ukraine and Yemen. Asylum seekers and refugees live in fear of random and unannounced intrusion into their lives by the police and immigration authorities, and the threat of deportation.

UNHCR provides those recognized as refugees with an allowance of about Rs. 10,000 per person or Rs. 22,000 for family with two or more children, which is not enough to cover even accommodation and food and live in dignity in Sri Lanka. Asylum seekers don’t get any allowance and are left to fend for themselves. Few religious groups (Muslim and Christian) and NGOs have been supporting them with education, accommodation, food, healthcare etc. But these have been very minimal, often adhoc and only few have benefited.

The Sri Lankan government doesn’t ensure rights of housing, food, education, healthcare or legal employment to asylum seekers and refugees. No permanent or even transitional shelter is provided by the government. Due to hostility, mistrust, and negative stereotyping from the local community, and threats from police and immigration officers, landlords have been reluctant to rent houses and are known to take advantage of their vulnerable situation and charge unreasonable rental rates and advance payments.

They are not included in government programs for food and nutrition security or social security programs such as Samurdhi, even though this could be done fairly easily and at little extra cost. The treatment and services available to asylum seekers and refugees at public hospitals and clinics is often lacking in terms of care and compassion. In some cases, the provision of treatment is at the discretion of authorities and asylum seekers and refugees who seek medical care are made to feel like they are seeking a privilege, rather than exercising a basic right. Despite having had to flee after experiencing and witnessing atrocities, violence and discrimination, anxieties about family and friends they had left behind and finding themselves in unfamiliar and unwelcoming environment, there is no psychiatric and psychosocial care made available to asylum seekers and refugees.

Although Sri Lankan constitution guarantees “assurance to all persons of the right to universal and equal access to education at all levels”, this is not extended to refugee and asylum children. As of March 2017, there were 106 children of primary school age, of whom 46 were asylum-seekers and 60 are refugees. The refugee children between 6 – 10 years have access to schooling through UNHCR’s support, but a further 167 children of secondary school age, of whom 71 are asylum-seekers and 96 are refugees, do not have any access to formal schooling. Asylum seekers and refugees are also not absorbed into the many government technical education and vocational training systems, which has the potential to help them to learn and develop vocational skills that they could utilise in seeking employment and living independently in their countries of resettlement.

Long way to go

After the end of the war in 2009 and change of government in 2015, some Sri Lankan refugees try to return back, amidst security concerns and minimal assistance from the government. At the same time, other Sri Lankans continue to flee from persecution. And Sri Lanka is failing to provide humane care to asylum seekers coming from other countries, in line with international standards.  Our government and as people, we still have a long way to go towards being a compassionate society where it’s citizens don’t have to flee from persecution and fear and welcome those fleeing from persecution in their countries and coming to us for care and refuge.

[1] http://www.itjpsl.com/

[2] https://samsn.ifj.org/sri-lanka-the-long-road-home-for-the-exiled/

[3] Such as birth certificates of parents, marriage certificates, grandparents’ birth certificates, parents’ consular birth certificates

[4] The expenses include travelling to and from Colombo and the fees for conversions, such as Rs 35,000 for National Apprentice and Industrial Training certificates and Rs 2,500 for university degrees.

The struggle for land and reconciliation in Sri Lanka

First published on 19th May 2017 at https://www.ucanews.com/news/the-struggle-for-land-and-reconciliation-in-sri-lanka/79116

The struggle for land and reconciliation in Sri Lanka

Armed forces commandeered land during the civil war and people want all of it back

The struggle for land and reconciliation in Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan special forces take part in a ceremony commemorating the victory over Tamil Tiger rebels in Colombo in this file photo. (Photo by Ishara S. Kodikara/AFP)

Earlier this month, I was at the historical Catholic church in Mullikulam, in Mannar district, in northern Sri Lanka. Mullikulam is a beautiful village, bordering the sea, a river, forest and many small lakes. For more than nine years, the village had been occupied by the navy, displacing the local people.

After years of protests and negotiations, helped by some church leaders, the navy on April 29 agreed to release some parts of the village and villagers were allowed access to the church, school and some farmlands.

“When we left in 2007, there were about 100 houses in good condition and about 50 other mud and thatched houses. From what we can remember, there was also a church, several school buildings, two hospitals, a library, post-office, 10 wells and nine water tanks,” said 88-year-old Francis Vaz.

But now despite the navy agreeing to release some parts of the village they are still not allowed full access to their cultivation lands, small lakes, and the river or to get to the sea through the village. Neither are they allowed access to the traditional cemetery, community buildings and their own houses.

Vaz, who I had got to know during the period of displacement, is among the people unable to go home to his own house. Navy officers were quick to stop us from getting closer to his house or even taking photographs from a distance.

He and the whole village were evicted by the Sri Lankan armed forces in September 2007 who promised to allow them to return in three days. That never happened and the navy occupied their land.

 

Other protests

The civil war ended in 2009 and Sri Lanka elected a new government in January 2015 that committed to returning land taken by the armed forces. They have released some land but much more remains occupied. Of course, there are other land issues not limited to military occupation.

Northern Tamils intensified their protests this year. After months of determined action some land in Pilakudiyiruppu and Puthukudiyiruppu in Mullathivu district were released in March. Another small plot of land occupied by the army was released after renewed protests by the Paravipaanchan community in Killinochchi district around the same time.

These successes have led to others launching indefinite protests, such as in Kepapulavu and Vattuvahal in the Mullaithivu district and Iranaithivu in the Killinochchi district. Some protesters say they will not stop until their lands are returned, keeping overnight vigils and braving cold nights and intense heat.

The army and navy have also occupied land belonging to Muslims. A local Muslim friend pointed out occupied lands in Mannar district in the Northern Province where Mullikulam is also situated. Sinhalese lands have also been occupied by the military, such as in Panama in the Eastern Province.

Since March, Muslim communities in Marichikattu have been protesting against their imminent displacement after the president declared their traditional lands a forest reserve. A banner proclaiming “Evicted by the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, also known as Tamil Tigers) in 1990 and thrown out by the Sri Lankan Government in 2017” indicated their frustration.

In Pannankandi in the Kilinochchi district, Tamil villages have demanded permanent titles to land where they have been living and working since 1990. They were resettled there after they were displaced by war but now they face imminent eviction by the original Tamil owners many of whom live overseas.

The struggle for land is beyond ethnicity and militarization. Establishing new military camps, forest reserves and tourist attractions threatens to dispossess and displace more people. Communities who have been landless all their lives have also started agitating for land ownership.

 

Releasing lands

Even the limited release of lands has come with serious problems. When I visited villages that had just been released after about eight years of army and air force occupation, I saw how the military had looted even toilet fittings, doors and windows just before the hand-over. I also saw buildings that had been razed to the ground.

The government has provided no facilities and there have been no reparations. In Mullikulam, people left behind expensive and important assets like fishing boats and nets which were never returned. As protests and negotiations continue, these will also have to be taken into consideration.

 

The need for support

Land for many rural communities is much more than property with a financial value. It is linked to culture, religious practices and it is part of individual and collective identity. It is critical for their livelihood and important for food security. Several people I have met talked of how they have to buy coconuts, a common ingredient in daily cooking, instead of just plucking them from their own trees.

Alongside protests, negotiations with the military and the government also continue. In the case of Mullikulam, which is 100 percent Catholic and where a significant part of navy-occupied land belongs to the Catholic Church, church leaders have been part of the negotiations and protests. Mass and prayers have also been held at the protest site.

Few priests and nuns, Buddhist monks, activists, politicians, students and media personnel have all supported the people’s struggle but overall, in the Catholic Church and Sri Lankan society, support for has been minimal.

Every time I have been with the protesters, government rhetoric and the theories of some intellectuals seems at a disconnect. Until and unless occupied lands are returned to their historical inhabitants and the landless have access to resources and livelihoods, reconciliation and social justice will be elusive. It is impossible to restore dignity and healing without ensuring the right to land, housing and livelihood.

Spontaneous and scattered local protests have helped regain some lands and raised awareness of these long-standing problems. These could become the basis for a stronger and more coordinated movement, driven and led by affected communities, with support from the country and internationally.

Vaz said something that had a strong impression on me. “We had everything now we’re living in a jungle. How can we live like this? I have faith that we’ll get everything back, at least so our children and grandchildren can see and enjoy the home we grew up in.”

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.

Mullikulam – Renewed struggle to regain Navy occupied village

First published at on http://groundviews.org/2017/04/06/mullikulam-renewed-struggle-to-regain-navy-occupied-village/ 6th April 2017

My father, my father’s father and my father’s grand-father have lived here. Mullikulam has been our home for generations now. Our church was made during my great-grand-father’s time, way before I was even born. There were four streams running through our village. We even had one stream just for bathing. When we couldn’t fish in the sea, we would fish in our streams. We had plenty of everything – paddy, cows, chickens and buffaloes, so we always had enough to eat and drink. We would gather together in the evenings and host drama and dance programmes. Everyone had a good time… We lived peacefully alongside our Muslim neighbours. Whenever there were troubles here during the war, we would go stay with them until it was safe for us to return home. I strongly believe that something good will happen for us this time around. Every day I pray that we will all live together peacefully. At least when I leave this earth I pray that we should all be united,” reminisces 88-year-old village elder from Mullikulam, M. Francis Vaz, who hasn’t been home since 2007.

M. Francis Vaz

On the 8th of September, 2007 the entire village of Mullikulam was unceremoniously evacuated by the Military with the promise of enabling their return within 3 days. Ten years later, these villagers are yet to be allowed to return to their homes and engage in their traditional livelihoods. Since their eviction from Mullikulam in 2007, the Navy North-Western Command Headquarters has been established there, occupying the entirety of their village. A decade-long relentless struggle comprising of multiple protests, petitions[1], discussions and false promises[2], have brought the villagers back to the streets.

Appeal letter signed by 136 villagers from Mullikulam, to former President Rajapaksa in Sept. 2011

Mullikulam villagers forced to set up in jungle – Malankaadu – June 2012 – pictures via NAFSO

They are inspired by the stories of other victims fighting for their rights, and supported by many others, irrespective of religious or ethnic backgrounds.

Village Elder Francis Vaz’s memories of living in peace with Muslims in adjoining Marichikattu, and supporting each other through difficult times has been re-affirmed as the people of Mullikulam chose to start their recent protest on the premises of a very supportive and sympathetic Muslim house, situated at the turn off to their ancestral village, from the main Mannar – Puttalam road.

The spate of continued protests demanding the return of military-occupied land and truth and justice for the disappeared breaking out across the North and East, appears in turn to have breathed new life into the struggle of the people of Mullikulam. Their only wish is to return to their village, illegally occupied by the Military since 2007. Some of the women elders from the village had discussed the ongoing struggle for the return of their lands while in Keppapulavu, at the Matha Kootam (Association of Mother Mary) meeting last month. It was decided that they too must renew their own struggle to return home. They had then told the village men of their decision, and the men too agreed to support them.

Currently there are approximately 120 families temporarily resettled in Malankaadu[3], and 150 families in Kayakuli. About 100 families (including extended family) left for India due to war and displacement, but are waiting to return if their village is returned to them.

We (about 50 villagers from both Malankaadu and Kayakuli), re-commenced our protest for the return of our lands, on Thursday (23 March) morning around 8am. The Navy came outside and asked us ‘why are you protesting here? Why not in front of the District Secretariat (DS) office? We will provide you with buses to go and protest there. You’re protesting against us even though we’ve helped you so much,’” said villagers. “They (the Navy) wouldn’t need to provide us with “help” if they just give us back our lands,” added the villagers.

Pic 1 and 2: Mullikulam villagers living in temporary shelters – Malankaadu, 2013

Displacement from Mullikulam and Aftermath

“When we left in 2007, there were about 100 houses in good condition and about 50 other self-made mud and thatched houses. From what we can remember, there was also our Church, the Co-operative building, three school buildings, a pre-school, two hospital buildings, a library, post-office, Fisherman’s Co-operative Society building, a teachers quarters, an RDS building, six public, and four private wells, and nine tanks,” recall the villagers.

Now, they have no access to the tanks, public spaces and limited access to some of their cultivation land. Only 27 of the 150 houses remain to this day, and are occupied by Navy personnel.[4] Villagers claim that the rest have been destroyed. They access the church via a side road, and claim that the existing short-cut via the reservoir bund, has been blocked off by the Navy. Most elderly people find it difficult to reach the Church at the times they wish to pray, and are now dependent on a Navy bus to take them to and from Sunday Mass. What used to be a 50-100 meter walk, is now 3 and 10 kms each way from the church to Malankaadu and Kayakuli, respectively. The Navy also provides a daily school bus to take children to and from school which teaches only up to Grade 9. Thereafter, children have to go to other nearby schools[5] on their own, or stay at hostels if the schools are too far away.

The Mullikulam people were primarily a farming and fishing community, so their proximity to the sea was essential. They had access to nine Paadu[6] (karavalai in Tamil – a term referring to a type of easement or license) to fish for prawns and other shallow water fish. Now they only have access to 4[7], with the most fertile Paadu being currently under Navy control. When the villagers were evicted from Mullikulam in 2007, they had left behind 64 each of the following; fibre glass boats, out-boat motors, nets and ropes and other fishing gear, 90 Theppams (Catamarans) and 3 drag-nets.

“If you don’t stop your protest, we’ll show you our power in the sea,” the Navy had threatened the villagers on the first day of the protest.

There was a high degree of surveillance [9] and intimidation of protesters and outsiders visiting them by the Navy and Silavathurai Police (including Traffic Police) during the first few days. But during the 2nd week of protests, Navy officers had been less aggressive and the Area Commander and other officers had indicated to the people protesting and Church leaders that they are ready to abide by any decision that the Colombo based Defence establishment would take. However Colombo has been silent for nearly two weeks, despite efforts by Church leaders to reach out.

Legal status of land and response of the DS

The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka concluded that the Navy had occupied private land without due process and had recommended that if providing alterative lands, the people’s willingness should be considered and they should not be forced to settle elsewhere.[10]

The Divisional Secretary and his representative had visited the people on 23rd March, and told them that they won’t achieve much by protesting. They had asked the villagers to give them a letter with their demands, promising that they would hand it over to higher authorities for action. A majority of the lands in the village are owned privately by individuals and the Catholic Diocese of Mannar. The rest of the lands are held through permits and grants under the Land Development Ordinance (LDO), State lands and National Housing Development Authority (NHDA) lands.

Breakdown of Title Lands – Mullikulam – HRCSL Land Study Report June, 2011

The DS had also asked them why they were still fighting even after they had received alternate housing. The villagers categorically said that they had continuously fought for the return of their original lands, and had only reluctantly accepted alternate housing in the interim. “We have always maintained that we want to return home,” they said.

“We had everything… now we’re living in a jungle. How can we live like this? I have faith that we’ll get everything back, at least so our children and grand-children can see and enjoy the home we grew up in,” is village elder Francis Vaz’s only plea.


[1] Sky No Roof, Edited by Kusal Perera, Annexes – Letter by villagers of Mullikulam to the President dated 13th September, 2011https://drive.google.com/file/d/0BzO8SAlmDKanZmN0TXRRdjNyR1k/view

[2] WATCHDOG, Sri Lanka Navy vs. the people of Mullikulamhttp://groundviews.org/2013/01/24/sri-lanka-navy-vs-the-people-of-mullikulam/

[3] Ruki Fernando, The struggle to go home in post war Sri Lanka: The story of Mullikulamhttp://groundviews.org/2012/08/01/the-struggle-to-go-home-in-post-war-sri-lanka-the-story-of-mullikulam/

[4] WATCHDOG, Mullikulam: The continuing occupation of a school by the Sri Lankan Navyhttp://groundviews.org/2012/09/11/mullikulam-the-continuing-occupation-of-a-school-by-the-sri-lankan-navy/

[5] Schools in Nanattan, Mannar town, Kondachchi, Silavathurai, Murunkan and Kokkupadayan.

[6] 1 Paadu = 450 meters.

[7] WATCHDOG, Mullikulam: Restrictions on fishing, cultivation, access to the church and school continuehttp://groundviews.org/2013/03/15/mullikulam-restrictions-on-fishing-cultivation-access-to-the-church-and-school-continue/

[8] List of property left behind in 2007 as compiled by 61 villagers from Mullikulam (2012) – https://drive.google.com/open?id=0BzO8SAlmDKanaTZDNFlGSFo3VzA

[9] Heavy surveillance by #Navy Intel & #Police at #Mullikulam protest today. OIC asked us who we were & why we had come – https://twitter.com/Mari_deSilva/status/845184613085462529 & https://twitter.com/Mari_deSilva/status/845187308412272643

[10] Sky No Roof, Edited by Kusal Perera, Private Land Occupied by the Security Forces – Mullikulam, study report by the National Protection and Durable Solutions for Internally Displaced Persons Project of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, June 2011, Pg. 5 – https://drive.google.com/file/d/0BzO8SAlmDKanZmN0TXRRdjNyR1k/view

[11] Sky No Roof, Edited by Kusal Perera, Private Land Occupied by the Security Forces – Mullikulam, study report by the National Protection and Durable Solutions for Internally Displaced Persons Project of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, June 2011, Pgs. 2&3 – https://drive.google.com/file/d/0BzO8SAlmDKanZmN0TXRRdjNyR1k/view