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Military occupation of land is part of a wider phenomenon of militarization

Control over territory was central, to the LTTE’s futile battle for a separate homeland. Now, nearly three years after the war ended, ownership of land in the north and east remains a complicated, controversial and tangled mess.  Two new reports shed light on serious disputes related to property throughout the north and east. Much of these issues are results of the protracted war and are so overwhelming that government agencies seem unable to deal with them.

The report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission contains a 42-page chapter titled ‘Land Issues: Return and Resettlement’. It also makes numerous other references to the land problems faced by people living in and returning to the north and east.

‘Land in the Northern Province’ is a study by Bhavani Fonseka and Mirak Raheem who are researchers at the Centre for Policy Alternatives. They too make some worrying revelations.

No documents, big problem

Both reports identify the loss or destruction of land documents as a key problem of displaced persons, returning to their villages. In the rush to leave homes ahead of fighting, some Tamil families in the Vanni could not retrieve documents, says the LLRC. Some had time to retrieve them but could not protect them. Separately, Muslims evicted many years ago from the north were forbidden to take their documents with them.

Now, real owners or users with lost documents are challenged by secondary occupiers.

Some buildings holding official land records were demolished in fighting while some land records were deliberately destroyed by the LTTE. For instance, land records in all five divisions of the Mullaitivu district are gone; records in three divisions of the Kilinochchi district are destroyed while in the fourth only about 30 percent is available; in the Mannar district, 90 percent of records in two divisions is destroyed.

Fonseka and Raheem say that secondary occupation-by a range of persons including the displaced or other civilians, the military, the police or other state representatives-requires attention. “This challenge is tied to the problem of competing claims where two or more actors claim ownership over the same property,” they point out. “In some cases this may even be a private individual and the state contesting ownership.”

The LLRC holds that, most secondary occupation in Jaffna and Vanni was due to LTTE activists being resettled in lands from which Muslims and Sinhalese were expelled. In the Vanni, the LTTE also forced out some Tamils and settled families of their choice.

Political influence, bureaucratic support and police inaction too, encouraged encroachment. Another reason for secondary occupation and why land was not released to original owners was “an increasing ethnic consciousness rooted on the perception that land in a particular location should belong only to a particular ethnic group.”

‘Militarization’ continues

In various districts, some lands-including those that formerly housed LTTE military camps-continue to be used by the security forces. This also constitutes ‘secondary occupation’ in instances where the lands were previously privately owned. “It also becomes evident that some unscrupulous persons have used secondary occupation as a ruse to acquire more state land,” the LLRC states.

Almost all, recently displaced persons, have been returned or resettled in Vanni and Jaffna. But, “many do not possess legally acceptable documents to prove ownership or user right…to the particular land they physically occupy,” the commission reveals.

The CPA researches say that the involvement of state parties, the LTTE, other armed groups and “powerful civilians” in seizing land, and in some instances distributing the land to other civilians, has “further complicated the determination of land ownership”.

“Additionally, in the post-war period, state actors have made clear their interest in acquiring land on national security or development grounds, which has served to exacerbate existing problems,” they note. “Outside of competing claims, there are a host of other problems including landlessness. The lack of awareness and understanding among civilians and other actors relating to valid documentation as well as the importance of land ownership has meant that addressing the problem of land has been made all the more contentious and complicated.”

Since the late 1980s, the LTTE usurped the authority of the state to alienate land in the north and east, says the commission. The LTTE settled people of their choice not only on state and some private lands. The lands gained through ethnic cleansing were settled with LTTE nominees and ‘maveerar’ families.

“It becomes apparent that the LTTE used selective land alienation practices as a deliberate ploy to stamp their authority on the land distribution mechanism, gain control over Tamil families by using land as a punishment and reward system, and alternately disrupt and de-legitimize the civil administration,” the commission observes further “As occasion permitted some other armed groups too had attempted to distribute land, with comparatively low success.”

Fonseka and Raheem say that the post-war north has seen a high level of militarization that has had significant repercussions on land access. Two-and-a-half years after the end of the war, a significant number of properties still remain under “military occupation”, they point out.

The researchers accept that, since 2009, there were several instances of lands from High Security Zones (HSZ) being released and returned to private land owners. “However, there still remains a very high presence of military personnel from the army, navy and air force in the north,” they stress. “While security concerns are paramount, questions arise as to the necessity of maintaining a large presence in the north.’

They outline possible reasons for heavy militarization or restrictions on land: the heavy presence of mines and exploded ordnances, hidden arms stocks, and fears of militancy among the civilian population, among others. Their report documents areas, where the military has consolidated its presence and is building camps.

“Military occupation of land is part of a wider phenomenon of militarization, including the military’s involvement in public administration and humanitarian activities,” warn Fonseka and Raheem.

The LLRC observes that HSZs in both Trincomalee-Sampoor in the east and Palaly in the north were reduced and land released to original owners or permit holders. The ‘unofficial HSZs’ in Mannar too were withdrawn.

“However, an estimated 26,755 persons still continue to be displaced due to the Trincomalee-Sampoor and Palaly HSZs, while a proposed naval establishment has displaced an estimated 1,320 persons in the Mannar district,” it says.

Same land, competing claims

The researchers also observe that the long history of settlement in the north coupled with a convoluted past of parallel administrative control by both the government and armed groups means that several different actors often have competing claims to the same piece of land.

“To complicate the issue further, many lost their documentation during displacement and face obstacles to proving land ownership,” they explain. “Others purchased or sold the land without following legal procedures during times of conflict. The legacy of powerful actors including state actors and Tamil militant groups in land distribution without following legal processes has further complicated issues on the ground.”

“Importantly,” they warn, “competing claims over plots of lands are not only occurring between individuals, but also between state, non-state, and religious entities. The act of deciding whose claim is more legitimate is one that has the potential to aggravate tensions between communities and shake the trust of the people in government intentions and commitment to peace.”

In the post-war context, certain government actions have sparked fears over potential state sponsored land grabs. “These allegations relate to both the acquisition of land for national security and development purposes, as well as for Sinhala civilians,” the researchers elaborate. “With regard to the latter, there have been allegations by local communities of government-sponsored ‘Sinhalization’. Some residents fear that the government is providing preferential treatment and economic incentives, such as land, to Sinhalese populations from the South-an allegation that needs to be investigated.”

Anybody can live anywhere

The commission holds firmly that, “Any citizen of Sri Lanka has the inalienable right to acquire land in any part of the country, in accordance with its laws and regulations, and reside in any area of his or her choice without any restrictions or limitations imposed in any manner whatsoever.”

But it adds that, “The land policy of the government should not be an instrument to effect unnatural changes in the demographic pattern of a given province.”

The CPA researchers sound a note of caution on government efforts to introduce a land policy in the north and east. An underlying principle in prevailing policy is that the government prioritizes the importance of land rights of individuals who fled during the war over subsequent owners and occupiers of land.

“This is a complex issue,” they warn. “The rights of individuals and families who fled during the war need to be recognised. However, there are questions as to how civilians who were given land documentation during the war period will be treated.”

This issue is especially pertinent in the Vanni where there were dual actors, including a de facto dual administration by the LTTE, which played a key role in land issues and a functioning government administration. “Those civilians who received land in schemes introduced by the LTTE are at risk of dispossession of their current land,” they note. “It is unclear whether land redistributed by armed actors and others associated with the state will face the same scrutiny.”

Given the level of study that has gone into each report, both are valuable resources to the government in untangling the property issues of the north and east. For the moment, however, the state has shown no inclination to making good use of either. courtesy: LakbimaNews

By Namini Wijedasa


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