By Piyumi Fonseka/Daily Mirror
On March 15, Muslims, in dozens, protested in front of the Sri Lanka Navy Camp in Silavathurai, home to the highest number of Muslims in the Tamil-majority Northern Province demanding that the Navy move out of their residential area.
The aim of this long-standing protest has been to reclaim 36 acre land on which they had lived for many generations.
Many Tamils and Muslims in Mannar fled their homeland at the height of the war, but with the hope of returning if a conducive environment, free of violence and warfare, was created.
Around 220 Muslim families from Silavathurai, Musali division, Mannar District, were also forced to flee the area during the conflict.
When they returned to their lands after the war against the Tamil Tiger separatist in May 2009, the number of the families went up to 750. As they returned to Silavathurai, eagerly hoping to rebuild their lives, they saw a Sri Lankan Navy camp that took up the entire space, spanning 36 acres.
The relentless struggle that followed included protests, petitions and discussions. Yet, the lands are still occupied by Government forces, despite pledges to return them to the rightful owners.
Alternative Lands And Housing
Of the 750 families which returned in 2009, only 120 families have legitimate deeds for their lands. Others claim that they have lost their documents while fleeing from the intense fighting. Around 350 families have been provided with lands about a kilometer away from their original lands, while 275 families have received financial support from the state and also India-funded houses. Around 75 families are temporarily resettled in coconut thatch roofed houses.
Around 400 families have neither land nor temporary resettlement. However, all 750 families demand their original lands which are currently occupied by the Sri Lanka Navy.
“We will continue with our fight even though we have received alternate lands. We want them to return our original lands,” the Chairman of Land Rescue Front of Silavathurai M.S. Taj Mohomed told the Daily Mirror.
“We had all facilities before, but now we have nothing,” he complained.
Silavathurai is a little village by the coast, 40 km southwest of Mannar in the Musali division. Aquamarine waters off Silavathurai are so clear that fishes are visible to the naked eye. The beauty of Mannar beaches is indeed unmatched.
Pearl fishing had been an active occupation in these areas, connecting the region to the outside world. Later on, Muslims and Tamils in the area gradually turned to paddy cultivation and farming. After their return to the homeland, they found it impossible to engage in their previous livelihoods.
“Our people are facing many problems in terms of employment. Fishing is no longer possible because the Navy is everywhere and we feel restricted. At the time we had to leave, we had farms. Now we are left with no option other than engage in manual wage labor to provide three meals for our children,” Taj Mohomed said.
The Northern and Eastern provinces have reported the highest levels of unemployment in the country, with unemployment rates at 7.7 percent and 6 percent respectively. Unemployment figures among women in the North (15.5%) and East (13%) are over twice the national female unemployment rate (6.5 %).
Lacking Freedom Of Movement
Fathima Rizvana, a single mother of two children from Silavathurai, claimed that she doesn’t feel there is freedom of movement because of the presence of the Navy and the Navy camp in the center of their village.
“When our children go to school, when we go to the mosque for prayers, to the burial site for a funeral, or even when we just walk to the nearest grocery, we run into navy personnel,” Rizvana said.
She said residents of the area don’t feel there is freedom of movement when compared to the environment which existed before the war.
“When we are at home, we should feel it. If we feel we are being monitored by someone and when we see armed men in uniform every single day, we don’t feel there is liberty,” she said.
Threats And Intimidation
Residents of Silavathurai who have been demanding the release of their lands also complain of threats and intimidation from the armed forces. A group of protesters filed a complaint against the Sri Lanka Navy at the Human Rights Commission (HRCSL) recently, stating that they were being intimidated and photographed by Navy personnel. The protesters appealed for protection from HRCSL.
Navy Not Ready To Shit Camp
Foreign Minister Tilak Marapana told the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) at its recently held 40th session that lands, which are a necessity in the context of national security, would continue to be held by the security forces, with compensation being paid to the former private owners.
Navy Media Spokesman Lieutenant Commander Isuru Suriyabandara said that people in Silavathurai won’t achieve much by protesting. He cited both security concerns and strategic importance as reasons for the navy’s reluctance to move out of the area.
He said the Silavathurai area is an important strategic location for targeting drug smugglers and Indian fishermen who illegally enter Sri Lankan waters.
“We have apprehended scores of grams of Kerala Ganja off Silavathurai. We have a national responsibility to safeguard the area and the people. If we move out, who will take the responsibility?” Lt.Com. Suriyabandara asked.
“The Navy cannot decide on its own about shifting a camp. Currently, we have no plan to move out. Even if it happens some day, it would take a lot of time. Much research and studies have to be done before decisions like these are taken,” he added.
However, the distance between the Northwestern Command Headquarters and Naval Institute (SLNS Barana) and the Silavathurai Navy Camp is just 3.7 km.
National Interest Or Commercial Purpose?
The Human Rights Watch (HRW) report “Why Can’t We Go Home?” Military Occupation of Land in Sri Lanka’ released on October 9, 2018, stated that despite claims by the Sri Lankan military that they are holding on to land in the war-torn north and east for national security, the real interest is commercial gain.
The 80-page report said “the use of the land for tourism or agriculture points to the real interest rooted in commercial gain. In at least four sites included in this report, the land occupied by the military under the pretext of national security is being utilized for commercial purposes.”
HRW claimed that many acres of land previously owned by villagers had been converted by the military for commercial endeavours.
“In the north and east, the military runs farms, has established roadside eateries and operates hotels for tourists, some of the latter coming up on contested lands. The continuation of these practices raises concerns about military profit-making under the guise of national security at the expense of the rights of members belonging to affected communities,” the report further said.
The Daily Mirror carried an article in 2017 regarding the land issue in Panama, in Ampara district, following a visit by the author. She witnessed tourist cabanas and lagoons built by the military forces in residential and cultivable lands belonging to the people of Ulpassa, Egodayaya, and Horakanda; areas they used to live in before the war.
When the Daily Mirror asked the Navy about the amount of lands which are used for commercial purposes by the Navy, the Navy said it was not possible to give out the data.
As the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights noted in his report on the implementation of UN Human Rights Council Resolution 30/1 and 30/4 in January 2018, “The full extent of land under military occupation claimed by civilians remains in question.”
Even the Department of Provincial Land Commissioner of Northern Provincial Council failed to provide the information this newspaper required.
Bathiuddin Says Navy Is Unfair
Rishad Bathiudeen, Minister of Industry & Commerce, Resettlement of Protracted Displaced Persons, Co-operative Development and Vocational Training & Skills Development, said that refusing to return the lands in the only Muslim town in the Northern Province is unfair.
“Silavathurai is akin to the capital of the Muslim community in North. This land, where the Navy has built the camp, is in the centre of the town. Holding this land with hatred in their hearts is unacceptable.”
“The Navy Camp in Silavathurai was built after the conclusion of the war in 2009. Some of the residents have legitimate deeds for their lands and another set of people have permits for having lived in the lands for generations,” Bathiudeen said.
He stressed that justice has to be meted out to the people who had been patiently waiting for the return of their lands despite having the capacity to take this issue to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.
Responding to the Navy’s stance about security concerns and ongoing smuggling activities in Silavathurai, Minister Bathiudeen said that the Navy has the Mullikulam Navy Base which is just 3 km away from this problematic area. He wondered why they would not shift to Mullikulam.
Sri Lanka after the conflict is facing challenges in returning property to those forced out of their lands, caused by a loss of records, overlapping claims and a lack of necessary institutional frameworks.
The land issue is not limited to Silavathurai, but is a common complaint coming from all over Northern and Eastern provinces. Dozens of families in Mullikulam, a small village in the Musali division on the Marichukatty-Puttalam road at the northern edge of the Wilpattu jungles, are still fighting to get their original lands back from the military forces.
The authorities should open their eyes at the plight of scores of Catholic families who lived in Mullikulam St. Mary’s Church area. They are now not given permission to return to their houses. The status of the return of their lands in Mullikulam too remains uncertain, due to the Navy’s Northwestern Command Headquarters and Naval Institute (SLNS Barana) at Mullikulam.
Lands should be given back to their rightful owners, regardless of ethnicity or religion as the development of the lives of people ultimately strengthens the government and the country.
(Photos by Piyumi Fonseka)