23 October, 2020

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Land, Ethnicity And The Military Defining A Power Balance

By Kusal Perera

Kusal Perara

“Approximately 6,400 acres of private lands belonging to several thousand Tamil people would be acquired for military cantonments.” – M.A. Sumanthiran – MP / TNA (Colombo Telegraph)

On former military commander and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf’s arrest, a Karachchi based defence and political analyst, Ali K. Chishti was quoted in Pakistani media as saying, “The military is not happy and watching the developments very cautiously.” Adding that some of the serving Generals found the situation, “very embarrassing”. It is said and quite openly too in political circles, no civilian government could function on its own free will, when the Pakistani military can and does call shots as it wants. Musharraf would not have come back from his exile, if he had no trust on the Pakistani military, said another media comment, after he was whisked off from the Courts by his security men, who are military personnel provided to him, when the Court ordered him to be arrested. In Pakistan, the military is all powerful and runs its own “mil-bus” (businesses under military).

How different is it here, in Sri Lanka ? Fonseka was certainly not “Musharraf of Sri Lanka” and this Rajapaksa regime is not Mir Hazar Khan Khoso’s government. The Sri Lankan military may not be as economically powerful as that of Pakistan. But, this military is certainly not the old, traditional, ceremonial military it was in 1962, when the “Colonels’ Coup” was being hatched against the elected government of Madam Bandaranaike, led by a cousin of late S.W.R.D Bandaranaike, Colonel F.C. De Saram. The  military today is very much larger in numbers, different in its formations and most importantly in its training to handle and defeat an “internal enemy” with an extremely penetrating intelligence and surveillance capability. It is now a battle trained and battle hardened military, having gone through a ruthless and a bloody war for almost 30 years. The military “mindset” has thus evolved differently today in understanding the environment it is deployed in.

Post war, this military in common parlance also meaning the Navy and the Air force too, has been brought in to be entrenched in civil administration. The two Governors appointed by the President to Northern and Eastern Provinces, District Secretary in Trincomalee, ministry secretaries, chairmen and directors in State corporations and importantly too, in many diplomatic postings in the Sri Lanka Foreign Service have all been accepted as normal and as faultless by the Sinhala society. With these security forces getting into economic ventures of numerous scales, no eye brows are raised in the South. They now provide boat rides and helitours as business, have beauty salons, own and manage tourist hotels and resorts and even own a complete golf link in the East coast. They have also at local level got into agriculture, acquiring large patches of land in North and East, using their idling labour.

Such a military does not and cannot remain “blind to politics”. They gain good access to decision making at high levels and enjoy political authority as the most important State agency, with a new self acquired responsibility of running the State. The urban Sinhala middle class in particular, concedes the military and the defence establishment as an efficient agency in delivery of services and therefore an advantage. The political leadership elected to head the civil government that has no vision, no development programme and no will to have a political solution for a tattered post war Sri Lanka, lives on the “war gained” Sinhala importance and authority of this “new military”. For now, they have mutually beneficial roles between them for survival.

The accelerated grabbing of land belonging to civilians in the North – East in recent times, has to be discussed and understood in this heavily militarised, Sinhala political context and not simply as legal or administrative issues in a democratic society. Any democratic society can have violations of its laws at times, but not complete suppression and suspension of laws, at all times.

Therefore, taking over of land in North – East that is more than mere “land grab” is nothing close to  relocating families in the South for “development” projects. For construction of “express ways” or removing of “illegal constructions” in cities. They have always to date, gone through legal processes and people in the South have had recourse to law before implementation. The construction of the “Southern Express way” was stalled during the periods of President Kumaratunge and PM Wickramasinghe due to legal interventions by people, especially in Bandaragama and Akmeemana, who delayed the whole project and allowed President Rajapaksa to open it as one from his own “Chinthanaya”.

Land in the North and East had not been acquired for such clearly identified and planned projects. Had not been acquired under the provisions of Land Acquisition Act No. 9 of 1950, nor under that of Land Development Ordinance. Nor is there Emergency Regulations in force, under the Public Security Ordinance for any acquisition of land by the State (Refer to “Sky No Roof” – pages 29 to 31 for legal details). Land in North – East was not acquired by any civil authority unless by accident or as an exception, and not without the security forces making their intimidating presence. Whole villages can not be taken over by a civil administrator in one single move through legal provisions. A civil administration, how ever irresponsible, is controlled to an extent by its own roots and links to civil life that fashions its thinking. The village of Mullikulum that had 400 families in the Southern edge of Mannar that now has the North-Western Naval Head quarters declared open by the Secretary to the MoD, stand as proof of such uprooting of civilians in bulk by non civil, rigidly regimented agencies that does not decide and act with a civilian approach.

“Last week saw a hugely dangerous move by the government. Section 2 notices under the Land Acquisition Act were pasted on trees in Valikamam North in the Jaffna Peninsula indicating that an extent of approximately 6,400 acres of private lands belonging to several thousand Tamil people would be acquired for Military cantonments.” wrote TNA parliamentarian and legal luminary, M. A. Sumanthiran.

It certainly is very dangerous because his assumption that it was a “move by the government” is also one that needs to be further investigated. The approximate acreage that Sumanthiran tells, is exactly 6,381 acres and the “several thousand” Tamil people would count to over 12,000 families and not persons, from the Grama Seva Niladhari divisions of Valikaamam North and East. While it is extremely dangerous to allow a government to go about demolishing the lives of its own people, never mind the numbers, it is also and far more dangerous when it is not certain, the decisions made are that of the  political leadership in the government or that of the military high command. In post war North – East, there were many incidents that were not the making of the civil administration and not that of the defence establishment high command in Colombo, either.

Perhaps they do fall within the ideological thinking in the high command. But day to day decisions, the likes of changing street and village names to Sinhala, providing business opportunities to Sinhala vendors, may not be always micro managed from Colombo. What is serious and dangerous nevertheless is that they have an accumulated and a synergistic impact on the Tamil society in a very negative way. On the flip side, all of it provides ingredients for a bigger foothold and more military might in the North and East.

These land grabs from Tamil people, not only in the Jaffna peninsula but elsewhere in the Vanni and the East as well, therefore has more than their share of “illegality”. Very importantly too, they come after the second UNHRC Resolution adopted in March this year on post war reconciliation, resettlement and a political solution to Tamil grievances and while the CHOGM to be held in November in Sri Lanka, is highly debated and contested on the same issues in different international forums and in neighbouring India too. For an elected political leadership in government, this would not be the ideal context for trespassing on minority rights. Not when the whole world is looking at it, from a perspective of “minority rights”. Yet, this Rajapaksa regime continues with its policy of subtle but serious changes in the political demography through land grabs and patchy Sinhala settlements. It continues with the military playing an important political role in such change.

The political leadership of this regime has often kept a distance from these issues in the North – East, allowing “land acquisition” by the military to be seen as mere administrative issues, while ignoring the issue of Sinhala settlements raised even in parliament by the TNA. Outside parliament in the Sinhala South, it brings out proxies like Weerawansa and the JHU to provide political backing to such moves. Weerawansa’s May Day demand on a very romantic statement for withdrawal of land and police powers from PCs before elections for the Northern PC is held, claiming land and police powers would open the gate for a separate “Thamil Eelam” is the political explanation for military presence in North and East. That Sinhala platform provides the political leadership of this regime the justification to keep the defence establishment as its main plank of power too.

Thus the fight against this land grab is one that can not be taken as an isolated, single issue. It brings forth the political necessity to force this government to present a reasonable and an adequate political solution based on power sharing, the TNA and the Tamil people living in Sri Lanka could accept. The necessity to drive a clear and a definite political wedge between the defence establishment taking to political decision making and the elected political leadership of the government, is now politically unavoidable. This does not remain the sole responsibility of the brutally suppressed and dislodged Tamil society in the North, but that of the more influential, middle class Colombo Tamil society as well. So is it for the Sinhala society too. For militarisation and land grab would not stop at the still remaining, feeble Omanthai checkpoint.

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Latest comments

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    If land is being acquired for development there needs to be clear plan approved by the cabinet and parliment. This type of land grab by the military without any warning or reason is clearly illegal and in contravention of the human rights of the victims. Simply declaring areas as security zones or sacred areas cannot be justified.

    The Ministry of Defence is clearly overstepping its authority. Although the UDA has been brought under the MOD, the laws governing the UDA and its mandate cannot be over ruled by the military.

  • 0
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    Declaring Anuradhapura and Kataragama as sacred areas, were prelude to changing the historical character of these areas, in favour of one community and religious group and providing the quasi-legal facade to trampling the rights of other communities. Anuradhapura and its environs had a sizeable population of Tamils and Tamil settlements they are no more. The Hindu ambience of Kathirkamam/Kataragama was engineered to become overwhelmingly Buddhist within a few years. We paid heavily as a nation for such follies dearly. However, we are bent on repeating the same follies over and over again. Political expediency yet rules the roost!

    Dr.RN

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    Having secured CHOGM has embolden Rajapassa to move a 19th Amendment to the Constitution to strip Provincial Councils of land and police power which is essentially to legalize land grabbing and to gutter the minimalist existing DEVOLUTION and local government and strengthen the military dictatorship.

    Civil Society must launch Continuous Protests against holding CHOGM in November in front of the British and Indian High Commissions for colluding to entrench a military dictatorship in Lanka further.. and boycott their embassy functions!

    • 0
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      A campaign to abort the CHOGM must start NOW. Rajapassa bribed Britain and India for CHOGM to boost his military dictatorship and show off. Democracy and the economy is Lanka is the victim of this corruption.. The Sri Lankan economy will crash after the CHOGM because of all the national debt and waste of public funds to host the Commonwealth Circus. Democracy will be finished off before CHOGM as Colombo will be in a military lock down for

      1. Britain got the million dollar Roll Royce engine deal from Sri Lankan Airlines for Camaron’s support for CHOGM. Sri Lanka cannot afford the cost of Rolls ROyce plane engines or the Commonwealth Circus. The country is in massive debt ant those funds would be better spend on up grading the public bus and train transport system.

      2. India was promised the Northern PC election and the Sampur power plant to control the Trinco Harbour which is desperately wanted to balance China in Hambantota.

  • 0
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    It is plainly a Policy of taking over everything TAMIL in the eyes of
    the MOD with a vengence and nothing more – come what may. The Military
    and Governance are not separate in this small Island.

  • 0
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    That Land was owned by the LTTE. Now “spoils of war”. It is difficult for you to understand if you have never been on the other side and seen what was going on.

    • 0
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      “That Land was owned by the LTTE”
      You are just a low caste kallathoni chatti mutti to think every Nothern Tamil who is superior to you is a terrorist.
      Screw the pappa.

  • 0
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    Ripples created by the Diaspora rhetoric from afar effects are felt in Sri Lanka.
    Its time the Diaspora halted their nonsense and remained where they are and minded their own business and forget sri Lanka.

    Leave the Tamils in Sri Lanka live in Peace.

    Yes.
    CHOGM boughtover with RR engines from UK.
    India boughtover with NCP and Sampur.

    WHY BLAME SRI LANKA

  • 0
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    “but that of the more influential, middle class Colombo Tamil society as well. So is it for the Sinhala society too.”
    Not surprisingly you are trying to carve a pitch for self.
    In the west there is nothing called democracy but there is something called hypocrisy and security for some.
    While presently Sri Lanka is the land of the warlord.

    CHOGM will be held not because the sinhalese need it but UKIP needs the commonwealth so it may rule freely and not the EU where UK is just a thorn stopping progress – what goes round must come round.

  • 0
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    You can’t take the lands of the people and get their votes too.Whatever votes got through development is going to dissipate through militarization of the north.Ultimately it is going to be a cakewalk for the TNA to come to power and become the champion of the peoples rights.

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