Colombo Telegraph

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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