Mannar District

The struggle for land and reconciliation in Sri Lanka

First published on 19th May 2017 at

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.


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

Article first published at 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?

Jassim-City Jassim-House Mullikulam-Cadjan-shed2 Mullikulam-Cadjan-shed3