Militarized North-East Sri Lanka: Muslim and Tamil Women Systematically Crushed by Lawlessness and Expropriation
The Women’s Action Network, a network consisting of 11 women’s organizations based in the North and East of Sri Lanka, submitted a report for the Universal Periodic Review in 2012. The report covered the socio economic and cultural rights of the displaced, returning and resettled communities of the North and East.
Women’s rights and security continues to deteriorate in Sri Lanka, especially in the North and East and a culture of impunity has been entrenched within the State structure. Since the submission of the UPR there has been a breakdown of the rule of law through not only the impeachment of the Chief Justice but also with the appointment of new chief justice who has denied all human rights violation taking place in Sri Lanka at several UN and international forums. In this context we wish to put forward certain issues concerning women in the North and East.
The report will cover issues of access to justice, cultural rights and militarization.
Militarization of civilian and public spheres continues in the North and the East. Even though the Sri Lankan government has removed several check points, women in these areas state that several military camps have been built in the interiors of villages. The Military continues to engage purportedly in civil administration, agricultural activities and developmental activities. In several cases regarding community disputes the Military has played an active role encouraging communities to seek military patronage rather than settle local disputes by negotiation. This hinders the development of healthy relations in the long term. The military has threatened and harassed several people, including women when there has been an attempt to raise issues, file cases or negotiate disputes.
Universities have been militarized with the security to the university provided by the Defence Ministry. Debate or dissent within the university structure is curtailed and we see this reflected in the arrests of the Jaffna university students in December 2012. Public places such as community halls schools also have been occupied by the military.
In Ashraff Nagar (Amparai) where the military has occupied civilian land women filed a Fundamental Rights action in the Supreme Court for the restoration of the land or to provide adequate alternative land. While the case is pending the Army has begun harassing the petitioners living in that area. “They blocked access to water , denied access to family members’ visits to the petitioners, electrified the fence around the areas in their effort to block any outside interaction with families living in the military camp. Recently they fixed two loud speakers just few yards away from the 1st petitioner’s hut and played loud music and Bana (Buddhist prayers) day and night. Military men have crushed empty glass bottles and spread splintered glass pieces around the huts and their pathways. Women who have filed cases against military take over at the District court have been given verdicts in their favour, but they are unable to negotiate or even enter their land and the village which is now a high security zone. They feel their legal fight to get their land through the justice system has been fruitless.
There is Buddhist cultural promotion through military men. In major towns and public places in Pottuvil (Ampara district) where Muslims are a majority, military men in uniform are put in charge of erecting Buddhist statues, fixing loudspeakers and playing Buddhists prayers morning and evening. In Pottuvil 03 (Mathuranchenai village) the military has been supporting a Buddhist monk who has claimed that about 35 acres (05 acres are private owned land of the women living in this village) of land surrounding a Buddhist temple. With the help of the military, the followers of the monk have been attacking the natives who have lived there for generations to force their evacuation from the (Buddhist) ‘holy land’. It is disturbing to note that people from outside are not allowed to enter the area without the permission of the military. There is strong surveillance to prevent people from raising this issue outside. In fact our team was also stopped and investigated by military men. This curtailing of access to communities specially affected women is of great concern. Four women who possess title deeds to these private land that has so been encroached have come forward to institute legal action against this monk but there is acute fear.
In Periya Ullai (in Ampara) women complained that even to enter their own fields they are required to sign in and out with the military and certain areas that belong to the community have been barred under the claim of finding archaeological “treasures”. Women used to guard their fields at night however now due to military presence this is no longer viable. Many women’s livelihoods in this area have been agriculture and collecting and selling firewood. All these activities have been banned by military men.
In Vattakachchi land has been taken by the military for farming and people have been employed in the same. In several areas the military has been engaging in farming and selling of vegetables and fruits which has curbed women’s access to economic ventures such as running small shops, growing vegetables and farming.
In Navalady 35 acres of agricultural land of the farmers’ have been occupied by the military and the villagers have been informed that the land cannot be returned. The military has also in this case forged documents in an attempt to discredit the 39 title deeds people hold in that area.
Due to mounting pressure by the community and the human rights organizations on the military occupation of land, the military has begun forcing people to accept alternate land or to accept rent for the land. Many people have expressed their lack of real negotiating power in these cases. Alternate land provided in most cases remains inadequate and do not take care of livelihood needs of affected.
In most areas women use the forest to gather wood for their household needs however the military has denied this access and the state has collaborated in this effort using the forest Act and wild life ordinance. In many areas land belonging either through permit or title deeds to women continue to be taken away by the forest and the archeological departments. Military has influenced the civil administration and in some cases gone against the district court verdicts in their effort to continue their occupation of people’s land. In the East women mostly own land including agricultural land. The curtailing of their access to land and resources has led to impoverishment and there is a growing sense among the Tamil and Muslim communities in the region that this is done with intention to create structural poverty of the minorities and deny them access to any economic growth.
The much talked about recruitment of Tamil women to the military has raised grave concerns. While we hold that women have the choice to decide in this instance women were not informed that they were entering the military and the military rules of conduct and procedure will apply. When the 12 women fell ill their parents were denied access to them in the hospitals while two women who opted to leave after initial training were called back and threatened that they will be treated as army deserters if they do not return to their job. Recent recruitment for some of the government jobs like Montessori teaching and working in the government run farms and facilities in the Vanni have been conducted by the military men and the appointment letters for these jobs are given by the civil defence unit of the military. These new recruits are reporting to military men thus there is much fear among these women and their family members to talk about the working conditions and women’s security.
A land circular has been issued in January in the North that takes away the land power from the Divisional Secretaries (DSs) and apparently concentrates these powers with the governor who is a former military commander. This is against the 13th Amendment and the principles of devolution. Even though this circular does not specifically say that the governor will be in charge of land distribution in the north, it has reference to an ‘appropriate person’ from whom the DSs have to seek approval. The DSs have confirmed that they were all called for a meeting after the issue of this circular by the governor and he has claimed to be that appropriate authority.
Accesses to justice mechanisms such as the Court or various commissions set up by the government have been continually denied to communities that challenge the majoritarian paradigm. The LLRC while it made several recommendations in regard to disappearances was limiting and did not inquire into accountability issues. The government has only begun implementing the LLRC recommendations that deal with infrastructural development and training of state actors. A women whose husband disappeared in 2009 talking about the LLRC states “We went to the LLRC hoping that they will give us an answer, all we got was a report, what do I do with a report? Show it to my child and say here is you father?” There has been no communication with those who appeared before the LLRC and no steps have been taken to account for the disappeared.
Recently the Military held an inquiry and declared that it did not bomb civilians in the last stages of the war. The inquiry lacked transparency and the decision of the military casts doubts about the implementation of the LLRC itself if the same is going to be used by the State to clear itself of all accountability.
There are several cases against the military who have promised marriage to women and post sexual intercourse and pregnancy have abandoned the women. In some cases when women have complained the soldier in question has been immediately transferred out of the area denying the women any ability to follow up the case. In several cases women have been threatened against advancing cases and in a few cases where the Military head has taken a case against the soldier the process has been through a military court procedure. Women have not been able to access these procedures and evidence gathering is conducted by the military where several women have complained of intimidation.
There have also been cases of sexual abuse by the military which continues unabated. Several women’s organizations complained that the women are afraid to take any action and do not even get access to support. Cases constantly are transferred to Anuradhapura where the language of the court is Sinhala. Women find it difficult to travel to Anuradhapura, do not understand the court proceedings and complain of feeling unsafe in taking their case forward in such a hostile setting. Women’s groups took up one case of rape of an internally displaced woman by four military men. The rape happened on 6th June 2010 in Killinochchi. After a long drawn out hearing the men were sent on bail. On July 16th 2011 the case was committed to Jaffna High Court by the Killinochchi district court judge and the full file on this case was given to the Attorney General’s Department. The AG’s Dept is dragging its feet and refusing to expedite the indictment. This has also been the case with many women who have filled Habeas Corpus applications in relation to their missing and detained family members.
Cultural rights of minority communities have come under serious threat in the last few months. The brunt of this has been borne by women. The recent demand that permanent contraceptive methods be denied to women by the fascist monk outfit the Bodu Bala Sena is a huge drawback for women from all communities. Areas surrounding the large military camps have seen the building of stupas and areas around it are being claimed as land belonging to the Sinhalese. While we hold that people of any ethnicity have the right to live anywhere in the country the use of the military and militant Buddhist monks to occupy and colonize lands creates great concern.
There have been 27 Buddhist places of worship built in the Vanni alone (former LTTE controlled areas) and Buddhist monks and Sinhalese have been moved in slowly with such construction. Military has been organizing Buddhist religious events in these temples and Tamils living in the areas have been forced to take part in it (Example last Vesak festival). At the same time Tamils were prevented from celebrating Karthigai Theepam, a Hindu festival that coincided this time with LTTE martyrs day. People in the north continue to be denied their right to mourn their loved ones who died during the last stages of the war. A group of women from families of surrendees gathered for prayer at Killinochchi Murugan Kovil and CID and military surrounded them and the organizer and a few other women were interrogated later. To date these women have been carefully watched by the CID and a month ago the military walked into their meeting and tried to obstruct it.
In the aftermath of minister Mahinda Samarasinghe’s speech on the 27.02.2013 at the UNHRC session in Geneva, the family members of surrendees and disappeared, mostly women, organized themselves to come to Colombo on 06th March 2013 to hand over an appeal to UN Country Representative on their continuous search for their missing family members. However all of them who travelled from North were stopped in Vavunia and barred from proceeding to Colombo. About 700 members mostly women had been surrounded by the military, police and CID men just before they tried to board into buses in Vavunia to travel to Colombo on 05th March late evening. Thus they were compelled to have their protest in Vavunia on 06th March morning. Later a group of these women travelled to Colombo and submitted an appeal to UN head office in Colombo demanding that the OHCHR should get directly involved in finding their missing family members.
We wish to recommend immediate steps in the following areas:
- An international mechanism must be put in place immediately since the women are unable to have recourse to local mechanisms because of military intervention particularly in relation to women’s access to justice and realization of their economic, social and cultural rights.
- Immediate removal of the military from all civilian administrative structures and development activities, Sinhala colonization and cultural (Buddhists) undertakings.
- Prohibition of the military from mediating, intervening in land and resource disputes and conducting civil affairs.
- Cases of sexual abuse and cases relating to maintenance, cheating of women by the military be brought under civilian court structures and immediate investigation of the same.
- Action to be taken against military personnel who threaten, coerce and harass civilians who wish to exercise their rights as citizens of this country.
- Proper procedure and the return of all military occupied land that belonged to people.
- Ensure returning communities are able to practice their religion and enjoy their cultural rights by protecting their cultural identity and language.
 In Sannar, Mannar the military intervened and threated the Tamil community to leave the area.
 Women’s organizations narrated cases of sexual abuse in the following areas- Kathiraweli, vepangkulam and Pallamottai and Mannar
 Interviews with several women’s organizations inJaffna and Batticaloa
 Periya Ullai