Move spurs fears that settlers would be brought in to change the demographic profile of region in run up to provincial elections
People in the former war-torn Northern Province of Sri Lanka are out on the streets, protesting the government move to forcibly acquire 6,381 acres (one acre equals 0.4 ha) of private land in Valikaman area in the Jaffna penisula. Government claimed that the land is being acquired for public purpose, but activists and citizens see the move as a ploy to change the demographic composition of the region by bringing in settlers from outside in the run up to the elections scheduled later this year.
The Sri Lankan government is acquiring the land to set up the headquarters of its Jaffna military command and for the creation of high security zones in the Palaly and Kankasanthurai areas.
The National Peace Council (NPC), an independent, non-partisan organisation that works towards negotiated political solution to ethnic conflict between the Tamil and the Sinhala people in Sri Lanka, said the government has spread panic among displaced people in over 24 villages. They all are on the verge of losing their land rights. NPC said that shortly after the end of the civil war in May 2009, the government had promised to resettle displaced persons in their original places of residence. This was one of the recommendations of the government-appointed Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). But that promise seems to have been forgotten.
Provincial autonomy will be undermined
“It is no coincidence that the North Provincial Council elections will be held in September and land acquisition and settlement of outsiders in the region is going hand in hand. It is a government-sponsored ploy,” said the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) in a press release. “AHRC apprehends that acquisition of large-scale tracts of land prior to election gives sense that the purpose of land acquisition is to change the demographic composition with settlers from outside being registered in the Northern Province electoral list.” AHRC is a Hongkong-based human rights group.
There were two public protests in recent weeks. One was organised on April 24 and another on April 29. According to media reports, thousands of people participated in the public rallies. A Tamil website claimed that more such protests are being planned in coming days.
In its statement, released on April 27, the Sri Lankan government said that the a little over 6,381 acres is being taken over in Valikaman following instructions from the ministry of land development under the country's land acquisition Act.
The government said owners of the land have not been identified. The media secretary of the ministry of land and land reclamation said the ministry would provide compensation to any one who furnishes ownership documents.
No public consultations
As per law of the country, when the government want to take over large swathes of land for public purposes, it has to hold consultations with the affected population and with their political representatives and give enough time for objections to be made through the judiciary. This mandate has been bypassed by the government.
Media reports say that an affected party has filed a case in the Court of Appeal in Colombo, challenging the acquisition of the land spread over 25.8 sq km.
India has expressed displeasure with the Sri Lankan government over the displacement of Tamil people. Indian external affairs minister Salman Khurshid recently urged its neighbour not to retract from its promise of granting autonomy to the Northern Province, which would be a violation of 13th amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution, devolving more power to the provinces.
Khurshid’s statement was widely criticised in Sri Lankan media.