By Kath Noble –
Having emphasised in last week’s column the importance of land in the Northern Province, I headed for the area in which it is most under dispute – Jaffna.
Unlike Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu, Jaffna is densely populated. Jaffna has 553 inhabitants per square kilometre, compared to 81 and 25 for Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu respectively.
Another difference is that most land is privately owned in Jaffna, while there is still a lot of land that is vested in the state in Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu.
That land disputes are most serious in Jaffna was made clear earlier this year when hundreds of people protested against the acquisition of their land to regularise the High Security Zone around the Kankesanturai port and Palaly airport. The Security Forces have occupied the area for decades, but it was never gazetted and their continued presence became a legal problem for the Government when the Emergency Regulations were allowed to lapse in 2011.
Cases have been filed in the Supreme Court by high profile individuals such as the Bishop of Jaffna and the son of the late Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, as well as by many of the remaining 30,000 IDPs.
The rationale for taking over people’s land in Jaffna was to facilitate the activities of the Security Forces in fighting the LTTE. They wanted a buffer around their key bases, forward defence lines and main supply routes at least as big as the reach of Prabhakaran‘s most powerful weapons.
The Government claims to agree that the requirements must be different now that there are no longer any MBRLs trained on the Security Forces.
It quite correctly points out that the extent of the Kankesanturai and Palaly High Security Zone has been reduced already.
The state and other media regularly report on ceremonies to hand back land, usually accompanied by statistics that seem to demonstrate that things are moving in the right direction. For example, on September 7th, the Daily News quoted Major General Mahinda Hathurusinghe of the Jaffna Security Forces Headquarters as saying that they had returned 136 houses and 175 acres of land to their owners the previous month, making a total of more than 4,200 plots since 2009.
They say that they are doing their best to reduce their presence to the minimum possible.
However, as the TNA points out, the 6,300 acres of land that is now being acquired as the final area of the Kankesanturai and Palaly High Security Zone is equivalent to more than two thirds of Colombo city. It says that the maximum that it can agree to is zero.
It is not clear how progress is going to be made if the two sides continue in the same pattern.
Debates that centre around the needs of the Security Forces are generally very difficult in Sri Lanka, as a result of the generation long conflict and the losses incurred in it.
I would not attempt to contribute here.
Anyway, I believe that it is not only or even really primarily a matter of the extent of land being occupied by the Security Forces.
It is at least equally important to see what is being done in the occupied land and what has been done for the people who have been displaced from it. After all, if they were perfectly happily settled elsewhere, there would be no dispute or at least whatever dispute there was could not be very emotive.
And since the country is supposed to be working towards reconciliation, this would seem to be the most crucial issue.
To that end, I visited both the High Security Zone and a camp of IDPs last week.
Of course it is not possible to roam freely around the High Security Zone. But the Army has built and is operating a hotel in the middle of it, and anybody who is willing and able to spend between Rs. 2,000 and Rs. 8,000 for a night can get a sense of what is going on in the brief journey from the gate at Maviddapuram to the beach.
Dinouk Colombage has said in an article published in Groundviews that only Sinhalese can stay in the resorts run by the Security Forces – there are now at least 15, of which about half are in the North and East. However, I found more Tamils than Sinhalese at Kankesanturai.
Among them was a young couple from Jaffna and a family of expatriates who had come to inspect their property near Tellipallai, which has been released from the High Security Zone.
(Incidentally, since he has also stated that there were multiple checks on the A9 in the run-up to the election, given what I said last week about not having been asked what I was doing or where I was going at any stage of my journey to Kilinochchi, I should point out that there were none at all for people who travelled as I did by train. Whether this was an oversight on the part of the Security Forces, since the train had only just started to run beyond Omanthai, I cannot yet say. I hope not.)
The hotel at Kankesanturai is of course very nice. As I was told within a few minutes of my arrival, Mahinda Rajapaksa has stayed there five times already.
Ridiculously, it even has a jogging track!
I must say that I didn’t feel much like going for a jog or even a bath in the undeniably beautiful ocean with an audience of dozens of soldiers.
The hotel is in fact staffed entirely by soldiers, from the ladies at reception to the waiters and the cleaning staff. Soldiers are also in the process of building an extension to the existing building, to add a billiard room, gym, spa and a number of luxury suites.
They live in the homes of the IDPs.
It is difficult to decide which must be most disturbing for them – living in the midst of abandoned buildings, which must serve as a constant reminder of the war and what people have lost, or renovating the ones that they have taken over for themselves. Travelling through the High Security Zone, there seem to be as many houses newly plastered and painted with new roofs, windows, doors and other fittings including regimental placards as there are houses in ruins with trees growing where their owners used to live.
For the IDPs, that soldiers are getting so comfortable there is clearly worse.
It doesn’t cost anything to stay in an IDP camp.
I had wondered with all the talk of surveillance whether the IDPs would be ready to accommodate a foreigner, but they did not hesitate except to worry about my comfort. Indeed, my sharing their experience was a source of considerable entertainment, as they made jokes about their ‘attached bathrooms’ – the piece of bare earth outside their huts to which they carried a bucket of water for me to wash my face before going to ‘bed’.
Of course I was given one of the very few actual beds in the camp, in the smartest of its huts.
It was better made than the temporary shelter I stayed in last week near Kilinochchi, since many of the men although originally also farmers as IDPs have been working as masons, carpenters and labourers in the construction industry, but it was about two thirds of the size, while it had to accommodate three times the number of people.
The camp is seriously overcrowded.
For nearly 100 families, there are ten toilets and one somewhat private bathing area.
There is virtually no open space at all, and I don’t believe that anybody could visit and not become utterly depressed at their plight.
As the women told me, in such circumstances, they cannot do the kind of work that would be possible in their own places to bring in extra income, such as stitching, growing a few vegetables or raising chicken. Women-headed households, which are quite common in Jaffna, face major problems in making a living.
Men can earn about Rs. 1,000 per day for 20 days per month, they said.
They have lived here since 1990.
Ironically, they are now under pressure from the owners of the land on which they established the camp to leave, so that it can be sold for development. They too desperately want to go.
The Government has offered them plots near Keerimalai, but they say that it is no good.
As I played ‘football’ with a boy of about six in the narrow alley between his family’s hut and the next – what we were kicking actually looked more like a very old, deformed plastic box – I wondered what these people would make of the Army’s hotel at Kankesanturai. In a way, I hope that they never see it. That so much effort has been put into it while they have been left to languish in such a miserable camp would surely be too devastating for them.
I was completely disgusted.
I believe that the Security Forces should not get involved in economic activities, because amongst other things they have a major unfair advantage – their salaries do not have to be recovered from the income earned.
In the North, it is even more reprehensible, when people are struggling so hard to rebuild their lives.
Despite various statements in the media to the contrary, the Security Forces are still running even tea shops outside key tourist attractions in Jaffna.
They must give it up. Such opportunities should be left for IDPs.
If the Government insists on maintaining the current numbers in the Security Forces, which is what makes it important to find new ways to occupy them with no LTTE to fight, it should understand that when the Security Forces do business on land that belongs to other people, they are going to create even more resentment than ever.
The only way to avoid the very reasonable anger of the IDPs is to resettle them in much better conditions than they could expect in their original villages.
Unfortunately, the Government is both heartless and mindless.