by Christina Williams
Christina Williams is an attorney and founder of Reinventing the Rules, a website dedicated to covering the latest trends and lessons learned in the rule of law sector. She has worked on human rights campaigns related to Sri Lanka for several years and is currently focusing on women and land rights in the region.
The end of the 25-year armed conflict in Sri Lanka in May 2009 signaled what many in the international community hoped would be the beginning of a new era marked by peace and reconciliation. Over the past five years, however, one of the key instigators of the civil war has resurfaced. Land grabs, which were systematically taking place prior to the armed conflict, are once again accelerating at a frightening pace. Shielded by the rhetoric of security and development, the rise of land grabs has left few positive prospects for long-term peace and stability.
Who is behind the land grabs?
The Sri Lankan military, sanctioned by the Government, has played a primary role in confiscating public and private land from the Tamil population, which predominantly inhabits the North and East of the island. Despite the end of the war, militarization of Tamil areas has been the main reason land grabs continue unabated.
In 2008, during the latter stages of the armed conflict, Sri Lanka reportedly had a force of 60 soldiers for every 1,000 civilians or 1 soldier for every 16.6 civilians in the North. In July 2012, the Economic and Political Weekly of India estimated that there is a “ratio of 1 security personnel for every 5.04 civilians in the Northern Province.” The military, which is almost entirely composed of ethnic Sinhalese from the South, includes at least 15 army divisions and personnel from the navy, air force, civil defense force, intelligence, police, and special task force. This conservative estimate roughly translates into 198,000 soldiers or 70% of the security personnel in 14% of the country. View a map of militarization in Sri Lanka here.
The trend towards militarization has only increased with Sri Lanka’s defense budget for 2014 reported to be the highest allocation of funds thus far, at $1.95 billion or 12% of the country’s total spending. The rate at which militarization grows in Tamil areas five years after the war ended is a concerning trend given the significance land played as one of the root causes of the war. Land will likely continue to play an important role in determining whether peace and a return to normalcy can be achieved.
Tactics used to seize land
The seizure of land marked as high security zones (HSZ) during the conflict and the unwillingness to return much of this property to the thousands who were displaced has contributed to the slow return to normalcy in the former war zones. While some of the HSZ have been disbanded, existing HSZs still occupy significant amounts of valuable agricultural land and no one other than the army is allowed to enter, including elected officials. During the war the legality of the HSZs rested on emergency regulations, which have now been repealed. Five years after the end of conflict, there is no clear legal basis for the remaining HSZ.
Since the armed conflict ended, the military has continued to confiscate public and private land largely under the pretext of security. While many military camps have been created for the army and navy, the government has also resettled thousands of Sinhalese soldiers and civilians from the South in Tamil areas by incentivizing them with free land and permanent housing. This is occurring while 57% out of 138,651 households already residing in the North remain in transitional or emergency shelters while only 32% have permanent homes. Consequently, land grabs are reigniting fears of a concerted effort by the government to change the demographics of Tamil areas in the North and East. Continue reading