By Jehan Perera –
The government has given notice of its plans to acquire lands belonging to private citizens in the North for public purposes that involve national security. The pasting of notices on trees in Valikamam North under section 2 of the Land Acquisition Act coincides with preparations for the Northern Provincial Council elections in September this year. There is concern in the Northern polity that the purpose of this land acquisition is to change the demographic composition with settlers from outside being registered on the Northern electoral lists. There are media reports of 3000 families being settled in different parts of the North with more to follow. One of the recommendations of the government-appointed Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission was that land settlement policy should not be used to artificially change the demographic composition of the war affected areas.
It is also important to note that the recommendations of the LLRC are in complete contradiction to the course of action that the government has embarked upon. The LLRC specifically stated that government policy was not a substitute to recourse to courts of law and highlighted the need for a strong and impartial civil administration in relation to the land issue. The LLRC also recommended that the government should de-militarize the administration of the North as soon as possible and release private lands taken over by the security forces to the people. From a larger Sri Lankan point of view the more important issue would be addressing the root cause of the war and issues of good governance, which is where the LLRC report is uniquely valuable.
It is also significant that the government’s decision to acquire this large extent of land has been taken prior to the establishment of a legitimate and popularly elected civilian administration for the formerly war-stricken Northern Province. Those decisions that severely affects the lives of large numbers of people would more appropriately be taken in consultation with the elected Provincial Council after it is constituted. The general practice in the country has been that when the government wishes to take over large tracts of land for a public purpose it discusses this matter with the affected population and with their political representatives, and gives the necessary time for legal objections to be made through the judiciary.
The LLRC continues to be very important in Sri Lanka’s relationship with the international community. In March of this year the majority of countries in the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution that repeated the call for the government to implement the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. But while the website of the Presidential Secretariat shows an impressive set of statistics and targets set and met by the government, a question mark hangs over the government’s claim that these statistics represent progress in the implementation of the LLRC and its recommendations. Over a year and a half has passed since the release of the LLRC report in the English language, but no printed copies of that report have been made available to the general public. It is only available on the government’s website. Nor is the report available in printed form in the Sinhala and Tamil languages.
Reconciliation is the healing of wounded hearts and minds and bringing people together as equal citizens. Where people are unaware of what the government is doing in terms of reconciliation and do not see themselves as participants in the process of reconciliation, there is unlikely to be reconciliation. The contrast with what took place in the United Kingdom with the signing of the Good Friday agreement that ended the long militant campaign of the IRA cannot be greater. There the British government ensured that the text of the agreement was made available to every household in Northern Ireland. There was also a massive educational campaign that preceded the referendum to ratify that agreement. Unfortunately in Sri Lanka, there is no such government-led educational campaign on the LLRC and its recommendations.
An intellectual exchange at a recent seminar organized by a religious institution between a representative of the government and of the TNA summarized the problems of human rights in Sri Lanka in relation to post-war reconciliation. This arose during a seminar on the contribution of the report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission to ethnic equality and reconciliation in the country. One particular issue that generated a strong reaction was the government’s decision to acquire land in the Jaffna peninsula for security purposes. There were also many other issues relating to the human rights of the people that came up for discussion. These included the fate of the missing persons and the reasons why some of those in government custody remained incommunicado. The government representative urged the TNA to dialogue with the government. He said that the government looked forward to such negotiations.
The notion that there should always be engagement between parties who have a problem is etched in practitioners of conflict resolution. The question is whether there can and should be negotiations on matters that are non-negotiable. The position of the government and most of the people of Sri Lanka would be that the unity of the country is non-negotiable. Even when the LTTE was at its strongest, there was a never a possibility of any government negotiating the division of the country. Similarly the human rights of people are non-negotiable. There are certain things that no government or majority can do even if they have the power to do so. The referendum of 1982, at which then government sought and obtained the postponement of general elections is an example. Not even a 2/3 majority in Parliament or a majority of people can take away the right of people to vote at general elections.
In recent years, human rights documents and peace agreements contain paragraphs on housing and property restitution and the right of displaced persons to return to their homes of origin. The UN has also recognized the right of those who are internally displaced to go to courts to establish their right to restitution of their property. The TNA representative’s position at the seminar was that the acquisition of a large extent of land amounting to over 6300 acres and covering 24 villages with a population of nearly 30,000 was not negotiable. This position is given further strength by the promises made by the government to the international community that land designated as high security zones during the war would be returned to their original inhabitants. In addition, there is a Supreme Court decision that such land should be returned to their rightful owners.
The most likely rationale for the government’s takeover of the land in the North and East is to ensure national security. But there is a lack of clarity with regard to the need for such a large extent of land at such great cost to the affected population. The government’s actions create the very problem it is meant to address. The high security zones were acquired during the time of war. They were meant to put a stop to the LTTE infiltrating into civilian areas with their artillery guns and then firing into military bases. Every time the LTTE acquired more powerful guns, the perimeter of the high security zones was expanded. But today without the LTTE and without war there is no need for large protective spaces to guard against attack. In the absence of government explanations as to the purpose of the land takeover the people are left to speculate as to its true purpose and whether it includes changing the demographic composition of the Northern areas to their further detriment.
It is a tragedy that a mere four years after the end of the war the vicious cycle of potential militancy born of injustice is being put into motion again.