For the past twenty-eight days, Tamil people of Keppapilavu and Puthukkudiyiruppu in Mullaitivu district including women and children have been protesting against the authoritarian occupation of their homelands by the Sri Lankan military and Air Force. These people who were displaced during the civil war wish to go back to their homes and lands. To return to and resettle in places where they had been living for decades is not just these people’s wish but it is their right too. The state and the military cannot encroach on this right and deny the people their homes, lands and the environment that had been an integral part of their lives prior to their displacement. Eighty-four families, of which thirty are women-headed, have been denied entry into their lands in Keppapilavu by the military.
At the protest, a woman, one of the dwellers says (through a video film): “the leader fought for a separate state but gave our country to the Sinhalese. Now the Sinhalese are ruling our country and we are wandering the streets.” The landlessness that the people are facing today is also an outcome of the LTTE’s ill-conceived insurgency against the state that put the lives and livelihood of these people under great risk. The LTTE dragged the people down the road to doom and destruction during the last stages of the war in 2008/2009. Lacking strategy and concern for the thousands of lives trapped in the war zone, the LTTE continued its assault on a rapidly advancing military. In the absence of any alternative routes to save their lives from the military onslaught, the people including those in Keppapilavu and Puthukkudiyiruppu left their homes and lands and moved out further east towards the coast. Later the military to brought these lands under their control and prevented the displaced people from resettling in them. The LTTE leadership’s suicidal politics and mindless militarism also contributed to the plight of these people today.
The displaced people were transferred to various IDP camps and later given alternative lands where the military built houses for them. But the people find these houses unsuitable and unhygienic. Above all, the people like to go back to their village where the community, as one of the protestors describes, “had lived happily like one extended family till 2008” (people’s narratives about their displacement, resettlement and the struggle to reclaim their lands appear in a recent Tamil publication by the Vithai Group).
Freed from the totalitarian and militarized culture that had dominated Tamil politics till May 2009, the Tamil community today is able to choose modes of resistance that are constructive and creative. The relatively freer civic space opened up post-2015 also facilitated the people to launch their protests fearlessly. The classes conducted at the protest venue for the school children mark a resistance that is cognizant of the needs and aspirations of the future generations, forming a sharp contrast to the land reclamation struggle waged by the LTTE where many child recruits from the rural North and East were given guns and cyanide capsules against their wish and despite their parents’ opposition. At the forefront of the struggle are women from the community. The songs of solidarity sung by women of different ethnic communities outside the tents where the women and children are living and the paintings by the children depicting their present predicament have breathed fresh air into the culture of people’s resistance in post-war North.
The Sri Lankan state has confiscated lands belonging to its polity in the name of national security, development, urban planning and environmentalism in various parts of the country. In the North and East, many areas including parts of Valikamam North, Sampur and Musali and Morakotanchenai, Keppapilavu and Puthukkudiyiruppu continue to be occupied by the military. The moves to build a coal power plant in the land expropriated in this manner in Sampur in the East and the attempts by the state to alienate land for development initiatives including tourism and urban development in places like Panama in Ampara district and Slave Island in Colombo in the past confirm that land alienation in the country is also linked to the class-based interests of powerful national and international forces.
The continuing presence of the military in the North and East indicates that the different regimes that have ruled Sri Lanka for the past three decades have treated this Tamil-majority region as their internal colony. Militarization keeps the people of this region under constant surveillance and fear curtailing their movement and activism. The confiscation of the lands in the North and East that belong to the people should therefore be seen as a part of the ongoing militarization. Giving protection to a majoritarian state that conquers the lands belonging to and used by the predominantly minority communities and constructing Buddhist structures and symbols in some of those lands, the military is actively involved in a certain form of Buddhisization in the North and East.
The state’s attempt to declare lands belonging to Musali in Mannar district as an environmental protection zone when the people evicted by the LTTE in 1990 were trying to resettle in those lands after the war demonstrates that land alienation in the North and East is a problem that affects the Muslim community too. In Panama, the lands acquired by the military and later used for tourism purposes had belonged to a community of mixed ethnic origins in the region. The lack of interest on the part of the Tamil bureaucrats and politicians in the North in supporting the resettlement of the Muslims suggests that the Tamil elite are hardly any different from the Sinhala-Buddhist state in their treatment of the minorities and their problems related to resettlement and landlessness.
While land grab in the North and East by the military and the state is inflected by ethnicity and religion, over-emphasizing the ethno-religious dimension of the problem may not allow us to understand the multi-vocality of the resistance coming from the people who have lost their lands and homes. The protestors in Keppapilavu view the military that occupies their homeland not just as the guardians of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism but also as forces that embody class power and male authority. In a video film circulated online, a crying man whose land was taken away appeals to the Air Force to release the lands to the poor people (Elaikal) like him who are its rightful owners. The word “Elaikal” could be heard at least twice in his verbal protest that blurred the boundaries of speech and lament. He also says that the people and the military should live with one another peacefully. Activists and outsiders may find this remark strange but one has to understand it as an articulation of his agency under present conditions and the needs that he wants to prioritize at present.
A female protestor spoke of the fear that she as a woman goes through at night when she has to sleep under the temporary shelter placed outside the Air Force camp. Another protestor spoke about the difficulty that women and children face when using the bathing wells in the land allocated by the government that are eight times deeper than the wells in the lands where they used to live. While it is important to understand the economic and gendered dimensions of this issue and the protests, one should also raise the question of whether the protestors have the space and freedom to channel their anger and opposition to the military or the state in ethnic terms too. One has to acknowledge that the militarized environment created by the state in the North and East, and the memories of the terror wreaked upon the people in the North and East and the rest of the country in the name of ethnicity during the civil war force us to mute ethnicity in our conversations and resistance. On the other hand, it is not altogether wrong to say that some within the Tamil community are hesitant to frame their resistance in ethnic terms in the public space as Tamil resistance waged in the name of ethnicity and nation have only left the economically marginalized sections of the Tamil community dispirited and disillusioned at the end of the thirty-year war. Instead of making reductive proclamations about what this struggle is about in the larger scheme of things (of course, it goes without saying that the women and their families want their lands back) and where the women of Keppapilavu stand politically, those of us, Tamils and others, who are extending our solidarity to the protestors should acknowledge that we can only partially grasp the subaltern’s lament and her silence which stem from the physical and psychological wounds that she has suffered under militarization, Tamil nationalist violence, economic oppression and patriarchy for several decades.
Different ethno-religious communities have historically cohabited the North and East of the island. This cohabitation was not always peaceful. Pre-colonial notions of community based on culture and religion and the colonial and post-colonial processes of transforming these people into ethnicities often created antagonisms among these groups. History is replete with stories about wars and counter-wars waged over land and water. A sharp increase in the population of the rural peasantry in the wet zone around the time of Ceylon’s Independence led to scarcity of land in the region. The post-Independence regimes that initiated colonization schemes in the dry zone as a remedy to the problem of landlessness in the west zone failed to take into consideration the ramifications of these schemes to ethnic cohabitation in the Tamil-majority regions in the dry zone. A section of the Sinhala leadership cunningly promoted these colonization schemes as a way of asserting the dominance of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism over the entire island. In the Manal-Aru region, the paddy lands of the Tamils evicted from the region by the military in the 1980s was later distributed to the Sinhalese settlers. In the larger context of the increasing Sinhalaization and Buddhisization of the Sri Lankan state, these settlements deepened the ethnic antagonisms in the North and East
The Tamils’ demand for self-rule in the North and East, on the other hand, framed these settler populations as the ‘Other’ or illegitimate and excluded them from the political narratives of self-determination. Paradigmatically similar to the majoritarian and Sinhala nationalist Sri Lankan state, the self-determination movement in the North and East remains Tamil-centric and has failed to come up with an inclusive vision for the future of the regions that would accommodate the settler populations instead of alienating them. Today when the military and the state refuse to release Tamils and Muslims’ homes and the lands that these communities had used for cultivation and other purposes from generation to generation in the North and East, many in the communities justifiably fear whether this is another attempt on the part of the majoritarian state to alter the demography of the region and undermine their communities’ political, economic and cultural existence.
The lands that belong to the people of Keppapilavu and Puthukkudiyiruppu should immediately be returned to their rightful owners. The government’s indifference to these protests and its failure to deliver justice to these economically underprivileged Tamils crystalize the Sri Lankan state’s ethnic and class-based biases. Yet, hearteningly, the will of the protestors to continue their struggle until their demands are met and the growing support to these protests from various sections of the Sri Lankan polity, not just the Tamils, show that democratic resistance in the North is becoming multi-ethnic and gaining new momentum.
The author would like to note with gratitude that ideas and questions shared by Sivamohan Sumathy during various online discussions on the Keppapilavu protests helped the author in revising this piece which was originally written as a statement for a solidarity protest held in Jaffna. The author is responsible for any flaws or errors in the article.
*The writer is a member of the Collective for Economic Democratization in Sri Lanka