Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Competition for Land: A Root Cause of Unrest

On Monday 16th of July 2007 a lone LTTE gunman forced himself into the Office of the Chief Secretary of the Eastern Province. Chief Secretary Herath Abeyweera, alerted to the commotion rose from his seat but was cut down by a hail of bullets that flowed from the gunman's automatic firearm and fell backwards onto the tile-floor of the office situated on Inner Harbour road, Trincomalee. Seconds later, Mr. Abeyweera was dead. This is how one of the most knowledgeable men with regard to land issues in the Eastern Province, ended his life after an illustrious career of over three decades. A man cautious of ethnic divisions in the ownership of land in the East, Mr Abeyweera was a double-score for the LTTE. He was not only the Chief Secretary of the East but an authority on Land whose knowledge on the same subject dreaded the rebels to no end.

The Eastern Province is a multi-ethnic region, traditionally difficult for governance due to the histories of fear, mustrust and communal violence. It consists of the three administrative districts: Ampara, Batticaloa, and Trincomalee with each district comprising of 20, 14 and 11 Divisional Secretary divisions respectively. The Eastern Province is made out of 15% of the island’s land area and is populated by 7% of the total population. According to the 1981 Census conducted by the Department of Census and Statistics the Eastern Province has a population of 993, 335 of which 800,000 or 40% were Tamil; 320, 120 or 32% were Muslim and 255, 843 or 25% were Sinhala. The coastline along the Province stretches for 368kms. The main livelihood of the people living in the Eastern Province is agriculture; mainly paddy cultivation, fishing and animal husbandry.

The population in the Eastern Province has shown a considerable increase from 1981 to 2001 despite the presence of an armed conflict from 1983. Roughly 1,459,604 persons occupy 15% of the island’s total land area in the Eastern Province, which speaks volumes as far as population density is concerned. It is ironical that so many land disputes have emerged from a Province as sparsely populated as the Eastern Province. The Muslim population in the Eastern Province is denser than in other areas of Sri Lanka. It constitutes 35% in the Eastern province and in the North and the East it is 18%. However the Muslim population is around 8% when compared with the island’s total population. The Sinhalese who amount to 16% of the population in the Eastern Province are the minority but are the majority population in the rest of the island. The Tamils on the other hand are the majority in the North though they are a minority in the South.

The Eastern Province has been the base for ethnic competition for land in Sri Lanka for many decades. The Gal Oya, Unichchai and Allai-Kantalai land Colonization Schemes are viewed with great resentment by Elites representing the minorities in the East due to the colonization of large tracts of land by Sinhalese peasants brought from the central and southern provinces. However it was the competition for land between the Tamils and the Muslims that took center-stage over the last two decades. During the LTTE’s partial occupation of the East, large numbers of Muslims in Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Ampara were forcibly removed from their land. Entire villages were vacated. The famous LTTE camp at Manirasakulam, erected in violation of the Cease-fire Agreement was established at a former Muslim village in Kurankupanchan. The Muslims were accused by Tamil elites of buying Tamil lands vacated during the war and using cheap Tamil labour to develop them for profit.

In April 2002, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress leader Rauf Hakeem met the LTTE Leader and signed a memorandum of understanding which included an agreement to resolve outstanding land and security issues between the Tamils and Muslims. Subsequent discussions during peace talks in Thailand and Oslo resulted in an agreement by the LTTE to hand over the agricultural land belonging to the Muslims after the harvest in the year 2003. On 10th April 2002 LTTE Theoretician and Chief Negotiator Anton Balasingham made a public apology to the Muslims regarding the forcible expulsion of thousands of Muslims from their areas of habitation in the North and the East in 1990. He called it a ‘political blunder’ on the part of the LTTE that could not be justified. Balasingham called on the parties to forgive and forget the mistakes made in the past and went on to say that Tamil Ealam is also the homeland of the Muslims. However, these promises were hollow.

Whether the Muslims have legal documents to prove absolute ownership of agricultural land in former LTTE held areas is a question unanswered. However, a majority of Muslim families’ livelihood was affected by the LTTE occupation. In some cases, the LTTE handed-over the forcibly occupied lands to its Martyrs’ families. In many cases, it was the poor Tamil, Muslim or Sinhala farmer that was affected. Some do not have proper titles to their lands, others are illegal cultivators or live and cultivate on lands provided on an annually extendable land permit. The Sinhalese people feel that they will lose their lands if an interim administrative structure is given to the LTTE in a political solution to the conflict. The Sinhalese living in the Eastern province also fear that they will lose their ancient religious cites. The Sinhalese Buddhist people are concerned about what they call ‘organized destruction’ of archaeological sites. Such sites are scattered in parts of Ampara and Trincomalee. A few of these sites are Mangul Maha Viharaya in Lahugala, Kudumbigala Rajamama Viharaya in Panama, Deegawapiya, Udayagiri Rajamaha Viharaya in Uhana, the Temple in Thiriyaya and the Buddhangala Rajamaha Viharaya. However, the Late Venerable Gangodavila Soma Thera, who campaigned for the protection of these sites, was unable to provide solid facts relating to this threat during a television debate with the late Minister A.H.M. Ashroff.

It is in this backdrop that the Eastern Province was liberated by the Security Forces. Many issues relating to natural resources like land and water remain unresolved. Unless skillfully negotiated these issues could take-away the comparative military and political advantage achieved by the government. If resolved skillfully, the government can easily approach the national question in a position of relative moral strength. Moral strength of this sort is currency when dealing with insurgencies.

The ethnicization of Land ownership is a serious concern in the Eastern Province. It is older than the current Conflict and may have lasting repercussions if inappropriately handled in the government’s counter-insurgency campaign against the rebels. Building trust and confidence in the Security Forces and government interests is paramount in any counter-insurgency operation. Balancing the rights of the Sinhalese must go hand-in-hand with the balancing of the rights of the other two ethnic communities, given the multi-ethnic nature of the province. The Provincial Government must , with immediate effect, conduct Divisional land Kachcheris to put to rest the diverse land issues in the East and bring about a lasting solution to the conflict.

The recent declaration in Trincomalee of a High Security Zone in the Sampur-Mutur area has given fresh voice to age-old fears and concerns in the minority communities with regard to land colonization schemes. In the context of defeating the LTTE, the establishment of a military garrison in the Sampur and Mutur area is quite appropriate for ground and sea protection to vessels plying to Kankasanthurai via Trincomalee harbour. But a lack of transparency and public support in the construction of the High Security Zone in an area rich with traditional antagonisms against the state, could assist the insurgency, more so than the counter-insurgency initiated. If this initiative is lost at this juncture, no number of security checkpoints or cordon and search operations will suffice in purging the East of LTTE insurgents who will infest the dense jungles of the East again.

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