Mullikulam

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.

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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

Human Rights and 50 days of Sri Lanka’s new Presidency

Article first published at http://groundviews.org/2015/03/02/human-rights-and-50-days-of-sri-lankas-new-presidency/ on 2nd March 2015

It’s now 50 days since Sri Lanka’s new President took oaths on 9th January 2015. This is an attempt to reflect on the first 50 days of the new Presidency. It’s not meant to be comprehensive assessment of the 50 days, but a reflection based on my personal experiences, what I’ve seen and heard in my travels around the country interacting with various people and also what I’ve read.

There were three striking things for me in terms of the oath taking ceremony itself. First, unlike previous regime’s ceremonies, it was a simple ceremony. Second, the new President had opted to be sworn in by the senior most serving Supreme Court Judge, and ignored the unconstitutionally appointed de-facto Chief Justice of the time. Third, it was a Sinhalese ceremony, with the President’s speech and the National Anthem also being Sinhalese – despite the overwhelming Tamil votes that President had received to ensure his victory.

A few weeks after the elections, the de-facto Chief Justice was removed from office, on a day there was massive protests by civil groups, led by lawyers. Civilian Governors were quickly appointed to the North and East, replacing those who were former senior military officers. A new law on Protection and Assistance to Victims and Witness was passed. Drafts of the proposed Right to Information (RTI) Act were circulated in English, Sinhalese and Tamil and series of consultations were held with several groups. In the one I attended, led by Minister Karu Jayasooriya, the Minister stayed from beginning to end, spoke very little and mostly listened. He emphasized that the government’s priority was not to have the best RTI in the world, but to pass it within 100 days. A few days later, a citizens group known as Friday Forum, called for more time for consultation on other impending bills, even if it means to go beyond 100 days.

While it’s understandable that not too much can be achieved in 50 days, there were also some alarming and negative developments in the 50 days, many of which appeared to be uncalled. Instead of moving to remove the death penalty from our books as part of “Maithree (compassionate) rule”, the Minister of Justice threatened to break the moratorium on the death penalty and execute those given the death penalty. He also signed a gazette notification to continue the extension of detention without warrants to 48 hours, instead of the long held time of 24 hours. The new President signed a gazette notification calling out the military to maintain public order all over the country. Given the proliferation of Rajapakse family members to important positions in the past, eyebrows were raised when a brother of the new President was reported to have been appointed as the Chairman of Sri Lanka Telecom, despite not showing any strong experience or academic qualifications related to telecommunication sector.

There was a marked difference in the media sphere. Websites that had been blocked were unblocked. A film that had been banned was released. State TV stations have started to invite those who they branded as “traitors” to talk shows. State newspapers even asked some of us who have been named as traitors for comments. Public announcements were made by Ministers for exiled journalists to come back. But several in exile have expressed concern than mere calls for return are not enough, and that conditions favorable for return have to be created, including assurances of safety from political persecution. Some have cited potential arrests warrants and court cases against them that may still be pending. Couple of journalists who have to pay “overstay fines” to the country they are presently in, before they are allowed to return back to Sri Lanka (despite them being recognized as refugees by UNHCR), have made appeals to the Sri Lankan government to intervene diplomatically to waive these off. But there has been no clear response. The government has announced that investigations will commence into killing of Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickramatunga and other journalists, media personnel and media institutions who have been killed, disappeared, assaulted and subjected to arson attacks. Several foreign journalists who I met during these 50 days have told me it was easier to get visa and they felt freer to come, visit and report independently. Restrictions on travel of foreign nationals to the North were lifted.

Unlike before, I didn’t hear many stories of human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers, priests, student activists being attacked, threatened, and intimidated, particularly from Sinhalese areas. However, there have been some incidents. The Frontline Socialist Party complained that it’s leader who was an Australian national, was being harassed and intimidated to stop his political involvement. There were several reports by election monitoring bodies and media, on attacks on supporters of the losing President, in the days after the elections. A UNP MP was accused of attacking opposition activists, and Police didn’t arrest the offender immediately, despite availability of audio-visual evidence. He was later remanded, after lot of pressure. Those trying to distribute leaflets on the morning of 18th February in Nugegoda, before a massive rally in favor of previous President, were reported to have been attacked by supporters of the organizers.

However, intimidation and surveillance of Tamil human rights defenders in the North and East appear to be much more intense, though again, less intense than during the Rajapakse’s. In February, when I was in Batticaloa with a group of religious clergy, the local person who organized a visit to an interior village to meet a community there was questioned by intelligence officials. Another activist in Batticaloa was questioned about a visit he made to check into the wellbeing of ex-detainees. Families and friends of two Tamil activists who are now hiding due to death threats last year were questioned and intimidated. A Tamil youth who had been detained and released as innocent after years and months of detention and torture, continued to be harassed by the Police.

Torture and deaths in suspicious circumstances when in Police custody continued to be reported in these 50 days. At least two persons were reported to have died in Police custody, in Suriyawewa in the South and Thalawakele in the Central Province.

Most of the land occupied in Eastern village of Panama was returned to the villages. Announcements were made about returning 1000 acres of land held by the military in Jaffna to Tamils. But the announcement of “model village”, has created tensions and doubts, whether communities will be able to go back to their original lands or whether they will be compelled to live in other areas which may not be suitable for their historic way of life, in terms of culture, livelihood etc. “Model village” has been a term used in the past for cleared jungle areas where persons whose villages are occupied by the military and have been compelled to live, such as in Kepapulau in Mullaitivu district. Broad pronouncements have been made, but there are very little concrete commitments with time lines about retuning Tamil lands with whole villages now occupied by the military in rest of the Jaffna peninsula, and also outside Jaffna such as in Mullikulam in the Mannar district, Kepapulau in the Mullaitivu district and Sampoor in the Trincomalee district. There are also no clear commitments in returning lands of Muslims held by the military, such as in Ashraf Nagar in the Ampara district, Karumalaiootru in the Trincomalee district, Silavathurai and Marichikattu in the Mannar district

Pilgrims who received permission to enter the High Security Zone at Myliddy in Jaffna district to perform pooja at a temple were reported to have been shocked to find the Kovil gone and a hotel coming up in its place. Two weeks ago, when I tried to visit the historical Catholic Church in Mullikulam with some Catholic Priests and Sisters, we were not allowed entry. Another Catholic priest had been prevented from entering in January too. The church and the village had been occupied by the Navy, but previously, access had been given to the Church.

We have not seen widespread attacks on places of worship, homes and businesses of Muslims and Christians, on an intensity and regularity we had seen under the Rajapakse’s. But according to the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka, even after elections, Christian pastors received death threats, houses were stoned, a fence burnt. In another incident after the elections, a group of Christian pastors were summoned for an inquiry about unauthorized constructions, even when there is no legal prohibition on constructing places of worship. A Buddhist Monk had threatened and assaulted a lawyer representing the Pastors, in front of Police Officers and the Divisional Secretary, who had summoned the meeting and had also falsely accused the Pastors of unethical conversions.

One of the Buddhist groups that had been primarily responsible for such attacks and threats under Rajapakse’s, the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) also seemed very much alive and kicking. According to a Muslim activist, they had been threatening the Muslim community almost on a daily basis through their press conferences and other media tamasha’s. In particular, Muslims have been alarmed at the BBS threat to march and destroy Dafar Jailani, a place of religious significance sacred to Muslims, a location where a greatly revered Islamic saint, Sheikh Muhiyadeen Abdul Qadir had meditated and lived in the rock caves, over a thousand years ago, in Kuragala in the Rathnapura district. The BBS is reported to have threatened to destroy its artifacts, monuments and wipe out all historical evidence, claiming that the site has archeological value to them and the rock cave is an ancient Buddhist monastic site, and thus, demanding the removal of all Islamic inscriptions that dates back to over a thousand years. This has led to the escalation of tensions between the Muslims and Buddhists in the region.

There have been mixed messages on reducing the extent of militarization in the country, especially in the North. The State Minister for Defense went to the Jaffna and insisted that there would be no removal of any Army formations there and that there would be no scaling down of security arrangements. After the elections, the Army Commander went to Jaffna and opened a swimming pool in a resort run by the Army. Shops, restaurants, resorts and hotels, boat and airline services and farms that were run by the military continue to operate and there have been no specific commitments with timelines to shut them down.

The Northern Provincial Council passed a “genocide resolution” and government criticized this without addressing the core contents and trying to engage with the Council or the Tamil National Alliance (TNA). The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights asked the investigative report on Sri Lanka to be deferred to September, from the scheduled March. This was agreed to by the UN Human Rights Council member states. The original request came from the Sri Lankan government and this has been widely criticized by the Tamil community, ranging from the TNA, Tamil Civil Society Forum, Tamil families of disappeared persons and Diaspora. There was a massive protest in Jaffna. Announcements by the government to initiate new domestic processes for prosecutions for allegations of war crimes and a truth and reconciliation commission has also led to condemnation from some Tamil groups, who claim to have no confidence in domestic processes. The government had pledged to cooperate with the UN, but had not indicated that it will cooperate with the ongoing investigation, had not extended an invitation to the investigation team to visit Sri Lanka and neither had it assured that any Sri Lankan is free to cooperate with the investigation body without facing the type of reprisals there were before.

There is a mass protest planned by environmentalists, fisherfolk and civil society groups against the Port City project, which is expected to cause widespread environmental damage and harm to the fishing industry, not just in Colombo where it’s located, but all over the country. Protesters have cited promises made by the new Prime Minister to scrap the project during the election campaign and that no proper Environment Impact Assessment has been done. In the hill country, there have been mass public protests against the Uma Oya project, again citing environmental destruction and negative impact on communities living near and afar. Water pollution in Chunnakam in Jaffna also lead to widespread protests.

Families of disappeared persons staged a series of protests in North and East, including Jaffna, Mannar, Vavuniya, Batticaloa, Ampara, and Colombo, calling for truth and justice for their loved ones. Frustrated over the number of Commissions of Inquiry without any results, there was a call to boycott the latest hearings of the Commission looking into missing persons in Trincomalee this weekend. There have been no concrete commitments made in relation to truth, justice and reparation for those disappeared. There was also a protest calling for investigations and justice on the killing of prisoners inside prisons.

An issue that is very urgent in my view is the issue of large numbers of political prisoners, languishing in detention for long years, some as long as 19 years. To my knowledge, not even one political prisoner has been released in these 50 days. Minister Rajitha Senaratne, who is also the Cabinet Spokesperson, had said that “There are 275 names of political prisoners, all are [ethnic minority] Tamils and have been detained since the war,” The Prime Minister has said he doesn’t know the number of political prisoners and that a list has been compiled, which he still needs to check. But a list of 182 persons detained in remand custody has been compiled, which does not include those in Boosa, TID headquarters in Colombo and other Police stations. This list does not include anyone convicted for terrorism related charges. It’s a list those held without charges since at least 2006 and those who are detained since at least 1996 while cases against them still go on. The dates of detention indicated is not the date of arrest, just the date they were handed over to remand custody. The Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs told all political prisoners without charges will be released in March. Earlier, the President was reported to have told the Catholic Bishop of Mannar that the question of political prisoners will be addressed within a year. At the Colombo Magistrate courts, I saw many cases related to terrorism charges being called up, and postponed. It may be worthwhile also to mention that a Policeman told me to stop taking notes inside the court room, saying “sensitive TID cases are being heard and no one is allowed to write” – this despite hearings being in open courts.

Ms. Balendran Jeyakumari, who is probably the best known political prisoner now, has now been in detention for more than 11 months without any charges. Jeyakumari’s teenage daughter had written a passionate appeal to the President, asking the President to consider her as his own daughter and release her mother soon or that she will commit suicide. Her father is not alive, two of her brothers have been killed during the war and the other brother had disappeared after surrendering to the Army. It is widely believed that her mother’s arrest is due to her aggressive campaigning to find this boy and other disappeared persons. To my knowledge, there has not been a response to her from the President, although colleagues have been assured by a Minister that he himself, as well as the President and Prime Minister had both read the letter.

Finally, on a personal note, I have felt less fear, some hope, which has been tempered, when I realize that there maybe much more of what I’ve said above. At the sametime, the investigation against me by the TID on allegations of supporting terrorism continues and the Attorney General’s department appears unwilling to close the case, despite appeals made by my lawyer months ago. Restrictions on my freedom of expression and overseas travel remain, electronic equipment confiscated more than 11 months ago still has not been returned. While this can be called a relatively minor irritant in view of those in detention for long, families of disappeared and many other things I have mentioned above, in an era of “Maithree (compassion)” and Rule of Law, I also look forward to the day I can be freed from accusations of supporting terrorism, to get back my confiscated equipment and to enjoy my rights to travel and speak freely. Hopefully within 100 days or not too long afterwards.

Will there be “Maithree” and “Yahapalanaya” for Navy occupied Mullikulam?

Article first published at http://groundviews.org/2015/01/22/will-there-be-maithree-and-yahapalanaya-for-navy-occupied-mullikulam/ on 22nd January 2015

Last week, I went to Mullikulam, a beautiful and resourceful village in the Mannar district, which has been illegally occupied by the Navy for more than 7 years. It was my first visit for more than a year. The people didn’t seem to have any fresh hopes of reuniting as one community, regaining their lost lands, houses, fishing and agricultural activities and being close to the school and historical church they are devoted to.

Access to the Catholic Church in Mullikulam is still restricted and appears to be getting worse. When two of my friends (one a Catholic Priest) tried to go to the Church on 21st January, they were refused entry by the Navy. The Navy had initially used the excuse to say that the national identity card of one of my friend was issued recently, to which my friends had replied that date of issue of the identity card is irrelevant. Later, they had tried to say that the Priest in charge of the church was not in the church, thus, other Priests and lay Catholics will not be allowed to go. This was after the visiting Priest had made it clear that they were going to visit the historical Church and pray, and not to meet the Priest in charge. The Navy had then insisted that the Church was in their compound, but my Priest friend had retorted that the Navy was trespassing on Church and people’s land, which indeed is the correct legal position. After waiting for around 45 minutes, they still were not allowed to go to the Church.

Last week, I went to Mullikulam with a Catholic priest. Our motorbike was stopped at the sentry point to the village, which is now a Navy camp. We told the Navy we were going to the Catholic Church inside the village. The young Navy officers struggled to contact their superiors. They made us wait for almost half an hour. We were told repeatedly that it would have been better and easier if we had informed that we were coming beforehand. My priest friend ignored and waited. “Why should we get permission or inform early to go to a Church, in church owned land?” was his thinking. Finally we got clearance and went to the Church. We saw Navy families, including children, in houses that have been built by humanitarian agencies for the people of Mullikulam. We also saw a volleyball / basketball court. The Navy appears to be consolidating their hold and presence.

Then we went to the jungle area adjoining Mullikulam village, where some of the original inhabitants of Mullikulam have been compelled to stay due to the Navy occupation. They were living in makeshift houses made of cadjan and tin sheet, which seemed falling apart. We also visited the 27 brick houses which had been built by the Navy and handed over to 27 families. One woman showed us where the roof was leaking. No improvement to their lives and no prospects for an improvement.

Amongst the worst tragedies of the illegal occupation was the division of the once close-knit community, which is now scattered, divided and lives in at least 3 separate areas.

Some significant things had happened in 2014. In January 2015, villagers and the Catholic Bishop of Mannar had reminded the then Governor of the Northern Province about commitments made by the then Defense Secretary, during former President Rajapakse’s visit to Mannar for the election campaign. Land permits for a half acre of land in the cleared jungle area had been given to the displaced. Some had received them in mid 2014 from the President and others had received them in November 2014. At least in one case, authorities had tried to exchange this new document for old permit a family had held for land in Mullikulam, but the family had resisted. In mid 2014, those living in cadjan and tin sheet houses were given 12 tin sheets and 8 cement bags by the Divisional Secretariat. A Tamil National Alliance (TNA) Provincial Councilor had also given approximately Rs. 50,000 to some families, in installments, but parts of it has not been received yet. These were to build new temporary shelters. People we met told us that this was not enough even for a basic 16 feet x 12 feet temporary house.

These people still can’t go fishing in most fertile part of the sea due to Navy occupation. They still don’t appear to have access to all the lands and tanks for cultivation.

The newly repaired, smooth “carpet” road from Mannar was an absolute contrast to the state of housing of the people whose lands and houses have been taken over by the Navy.

There was also another contradiction we experienced. On our way to Mullikulam, we saw lots of newly built houses. It appeared to be part of a special housing project. The roof of these houses had the sign “Jassim” implying that donor was “Jassim”. The area was named “Sh. Jassim City”, and according to the billboard, it is a 279 house project with two small Mosques and one Grand Mosque. Except few houses, vast majority of these houses appeared to be empty. The reasons for new permanent houses without people and people without even temporary houses in the same area is perhaps a question that needs to be addressed by the Divisional Secretariat or other relevant authorities.

I knew the Mullikulam community as a courageous and high spirited community, which had struggled hard to go home to their village. But now, they appeared to be have given up any prospect of going home to their beloved village. But one elderly person from Mullikulam did tell us that they still had some hope. I hope it will remain. I hope it will inspire them to renew their struggle to go home under the new government. I hope it will inspire others who care to support them.

Will the new era of “yahapalanaya (good governance) and rule of law, review the legality of the occupation and deal with those responsible? And what has “Maithree Palanaya” (compassionate rule) have in store for people of Mullikulam, who had lost their houses, agricultural lands, access to best fishing areas, constant and direct access to their historical church, and most importantly, their sense of community?

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