Imbalance of Power Examining the struggle for land in Mullikulam and Keppapulavu

By Raisa Wickrematunge

Last July, Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera said Sri Lanka was planning to demilitarise by 2018. The cautious optimism that followed this news died away when the military contradicted Samaraweera’s speech, with Jaffna Security Forces Commander Major General Mahesh Senanayake saying they would not return “even an inch of land” to civilians. In September, State Minister of Defence Ruwan Wijewardene in response to the Eluga Tamil movement said they would not move Army camps in the Northern province.

The human cost of these decisions have not often been discussed, or written about in mainstream media. However, land issues have recently come into focus, when groups of families began to protest across the North and East, demanding for the right to return to their land.

Groundviews visited several of these areas in April, where these protests are still ongoing, in order to more fully understand their struggles.

Mullikulam

The guard at the Navy post was apologetic, but firm. There was to be no entrance to the media without accreditation. Groundviews was attempting to visit a church and school that was on Navy occupied territory. Even after promising to leave cameras behind, the Navy guard said his hands were tied. Several calls were made, including to the guard’s commanding officer, who also arrived to quiz Groundviews on the reason for the visit to Mullikulam. The area commander was also informed. In the end, the answer remained a firm no.

Photo by Amalini de Sayrah

Civil society activists had gained access to the church and school just a few days before the visit. Groundviews had also just visited the hut opposite the road where Mullikulam residents were protesting, demanding the right to return to their land. There was no attempt to bar Groundviews from speaking to the protesters themselves, but when it came to entering Navy territory, the forces were much more reluctant. This shows the continued surveillance and control that the arms of State continues to exercise in the North and East.

Happily, despite this, the protest in Mullikulam has already been partially successful, with the Navy announcing they were willing to release part of the land they were occupying.

According to reports, access has been given for 100 acres, with the Navy promising to release much of the private land, apart from 27 houses.

Despite their happiness, residents of Mullikulam said they were determined to continue with the protest until all the land was returned – an estimated 150 more acres.

Although the protest in Mullikulam was 32 days in when Groundviews visited, the struggle is in fact 11 years old.

“In 2007, the military asked us to leave. We have still not been allowed to return to our land,” Gloria Pieris, one of the protesters said. The Navy is occupying approximately 31 of the houses in Mullikulam, apart from the school and church also being in Navy-controlled areas. The majority of the land is privately owned. Despite this tension, Gloria says the protesters hold no ill-will towards the Navy. “Our problem is not with the Navy, but with the Government. If the Government asks them to leave, they will leave,” she said.

Appeal letter from Mullikulam residents to then President Mahinda Rajapakse in 2011. Courtesy Marisa de Silva, Ruki Fernando and Nilshan Fonseka

Perhaps this is part of the reason why the Mullikulam protest has been successful. Although the families could not return to their land, the Navy did transport the children to the school within their territory by bus. “The school is 3 kilometres away – the children cannot go to school if not by bus. If the bus breaks down, however, then there’s no school for them,” Gloria said.

Mullikulam is almost entirely Catholic, and recognising this, the Navy also transported protesters to church on Sunday. In fact, while Groundviews was visiting, the protesters returned from their weekly visit.

However, the Navy was not always this understanding. In fact, on the first day, they had reportedly asked the protesters, “Why are you protesting here? Why not in front of the District Secretariat’s office?” There had initially been intimidation from the Navy and traffic police, although they had eventually said they were willing to consider any decision taken by the state. The District Secretariat too had offered alternate land for the residents to settle in, which they refused.

Apart from the housing, the school and church, the Navy camp has also cut off the resident’s access to the sea. This is important because Mullikulam was a farming and fishing community. Most of the most fertile paadu (a type of easement or license) allowing for prawn and shallow water fishing, is owned by the Navy - 5 out of 9 paadu overall.

As they talk about the history of their struggle, Gloria and other protesters are busy cooking lunch over the fire. “We can find food. We only want our land back. In the evenings, though, the wind is strong and it is difficult to wait out here.”

Water shortages added to the protester’s difficulties. Apart from that, the residents say they have heard news that 150 more families might return from India if their village is returned, while the Muslim IDPs from Marichchukkaddi protesting just a few hundred metres away are also to be allocated land. “If all these people move here, there won’t be enough room for everyone,” they worry.

This doesn't mean the Mullikulam protesters have animosity towards the Marichchukkaddi protesters - far from it. In fact, they began their protest on the premises of a supportive Muslim's house.

Yet despite this, Gloria and the other protesters had a quiet determination. “We have no problem staying out here, if we can just get our land back.”

Last week, some of them got their wish. However the battle is far from over. Returnees have to rebuild their homes, with no help from the state. Earlier this month, Groundviews met with Sellamma, in Puthukudiyiruppu, who had to spend Rs. 200,000 to repair her house, damaged by the military in anger when they heard they would have to vacate. Her story is echoed by those resettled in Pilakudiyirippu. They, too, found their homes destroyed, and are forced to sleep in tents under the trees until they can find the funds to rebuild their houses themselves.

In some cases, the partial return of land, as in Mullikulam, means that many other families face a long and agonising wait for their land to be released. This was the case in Keppapuvalu when Groundviews visited.

Keppapulavu

It is impossible not to notice the juxtaposition as you arrive in Keppapulavu; on the right, a small hut, with a 'carpet' of faded blue tarpaulin, on the left, the imposing Air Force camp. The tanks stationed outside point towards banners, fluttering in the breeze.

It was day 56 for these families on April 25. On February 28, some of the residents celebrated when they learned that the air force had agreed to release some of the land.

Joy was followed by crushing disappointment when families found their lands were not to be released – an estimated 482 acres in Keppapulavu is still held by the air force.

Although a release from the Ministry of Prison Reforms, Resettlement and Hindu Religious Affairs said 468 acres of land would be released by May 15, the military subsequently informed the Government that they could only release 279 acres, and urged the Government to convince the residents to accept alternate lands and compensation.

This is something the protesters are not willing to accept. “Our only expectation is the land. Everything is there– our schools, playgrounds, and places of worship.”

At present, the protesters allege that guesthouses are being run inside the occupied areas. In addition, they said had been offered a total of Rs. 5 million in compensation. “They told us they will give us money, and asked us to go from here. We will not accept it.” The protesters had been told that 250 acres would be released, with 60 acres released in Vattappalai. They are determined to keep protesting until all of it is released.

According to them, an estimated 138 families still need to be resettled. “Four generations have lived in this area. We lived off the land, or reared animals. Our livelihoods are all blocked, now.”

The suffering of these protesters is compounded by the many struggles they have already encountered. One of them lost all her children during the war in a shelling attack. She had jak, coconut and mango trees in her yard, which she sold in order to make a living. Now, she is protesting in order to be able to return.

Groundviews has covered the recent struggle of the Keppapulavu residents extensively, but in fact they, like the residents of Mullikulam, have been campaigning for the release of their land for years.

The residents say they had to leave their homes in December 2008, returning in February of 2012. At that time, they were given alternate lands to settle in. The families demanded to resettle on their own land. At that time, the Army released a school to the residents, and dropped off their belongings there. After continued protest, a new town was showed to them, complete with a sign.

The protesters would have none of it, even though TELO MP Selvam Adaikalanathan advised them to settle in the new town or risk being left with nothing.

Upon being asked what they will do if the state does not resolve the situation, the answer is immediate – “We are prepared to stay here until we die.”

They say this even though they are fully aware of what they will be returning to. The returnees whose land was released have said that their former homes have been destroyed beyond recognition.

A faction of the Keppapulavu residents said they would join the planned hartal across the North and East on April 27, although some would have to remain behind. “If we all leave the site, they will come and remove it.”

Like the families of the disappeared in Vavuniya, they too had performed a puja dashing over 100 coconuts hoping for the release of the land. “If the Government doesn’t watch out for us, maybe the Gods will.”

Although there has been no trouble from the Army, the police had intimidated the protesters, even going to court in an effort to shift them.

The protesters are expecting a response from the President and the Ministry of Defence. “The President needs to make the final call – he’s also being pressured from all sides.”

To date, there has been no final decision from the state.

Fueling the protester’s determination are the children, who play under the watchful eyes of their mothers. “These lands won’t even be there for our children if we don’t continue,” they say.

These are just two of the areas where protesters have called for their land. In Marichchukkaddi, as mentioned before, Muslim IDPs are protesting for the reversal of a gazette declaring their land part of a new forest reserve. Groundviews has also covered land occupation in areas such as Panama and Kankesanthurai.

Examining the history of each of these struggles highlights the uneasy relationship that continues to exist between civilians and the State and the different arms of State. The balance of power most decidedly favours the latter.

Written for Groundviews.

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