ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday September 16, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 16
Columns - Telescope  

Ramifications of land alienation in the East

By J.S. Tissainayagam

On September 5, Tamil National Alliance (TNA) leader, Rajavarodayam Sampanthan, addressed parliament in an adjournment debate on the current situation in the North and East. His address consisted of a series of accusations on the implications of government policy in areas of the East that had come under army control recently.

His charges could be classified into three: (1) the consequences of the de-merger of the Northeast, (2) the acts of violence perpetrated by the Sri Lankan state against the people of the East resulting in mass displacement followed by resettling them without their consent, and (3) government's policy of reconfiguring the demography of the East by settling Sinhalese on lands from which the Tamils and Muslims were displaced, thereby making an area that was majority Tamil-speaking into majority Sinhala.

The Army consolidating Silavatturai last week

Though all three issues merit careful analysis because, as the speaker reiterated, they would remain obstacles to sustainable peace, this writer will focus only on the ramifications of land alienation in the East. There are two aspects to this problem, which are dealt with in turn (1) establishing a high security zone in Eastern Mutur and (2) attempts at creating a Sinhala-majority district bestriding south Mullaitivu and north Trincomalee.

In his address the TNA leader says, "The Government has declared a high security zone in a part of the Mutur DS Division, and the Government is engaged in certain diabolical steps with the sole purpose, if I might say so, of converting the majority Tamil-speaking Eastern Province into a majority Sinhalese territory."

The gist of his argument is that after sustained aerial bombardment and shelling, which led to the displacement of people native to that region, the government has now declared it cleared of LTTE presence. If the area is secure, the speaker says, there is nothing to stop resettling Tamils and Muslims who were ousted; instead it has been depopulated and declared an HSZ under the control of a competent authority who is a military officer.

The leader of the TNA buttresses his argument by quoting extensively from a recent report of the University Teachers for Human Rights (UTHR). According to the UTHR, "In the minds of the advocates of the Sinhalese hegemonic project, depopulation of Tamil villages in the Trincomalee District has been a long-term objective. One by one Tamils have lost areas where they were secure."

After alluding to other acts of land alienation unfair to the Tamils and Muslims going on in the environs of Trincomalee, the TNA leader moves to the more important part of his speech: government laying the foundations for a Sinhala district bifurcating the Tamil speaking belt between Trincomalee and Mullaitivu. The new entity is to include Tamil and Muslim villages of Pulmoddai, Thennaimarawadi, Thiriyai and Padavi Siripura in the Trincomalee District, and the villages of Kokkilai, Kokkuthoduwai and Manal Aru (Weli Oya) in southeastern Mullaitivu.

Driving home the point he told the House "You want to create a Sinhalese District between Trincomalee and Mullaitivu breaking the Tamil linguistic contiguity in such a way that you think that you are going to find peace. This is what happened when you created Manal Aru (Welioya) which you are still fighting over."

Mr. Sampanthan's reference to Weli Oya bridges the political and military aspects of the new district. While the political aspects of the programme consisted of government planting Sinhala colonists as part of the Mahaweli development programme (after the Tamils were evicted from the Kent and Dollar farms) to challenge the concept of a linguistically contiguous Northeast, Weli Oya is also important in the government's military project to pacify the Tamils.

While Sinhala presence was a threat to peace, law and order and political cohesion among the Tamil villages of the area, the garrison stationed there had an important part to play in military natters. Despite being under continuous attack by the LTTE, Weli Oya's importance was evident during Operation Jayasikurui, which was to establish a supply line from the South to Jaffna. For instance one of the army's early successes in the operation was when it advanced from Weli Oya and captured Nedunkerni hoping to link up later with troops advancing from Kilinochchi, which was then under government control. Though Jayasikurui turned out to be a disaster for the army eventually, the importance of Weli Oya as a staging post for operations in the Wanni cannot be gainsaid.

Therefore we have to also assess moves to create the new district in the light of Weli-Oya's military importance. Since its comparative isolation led to attacks both on its garrison as well as on civilian settlements, the creation of a Sinhala district would provide the physical infrastructure to securely move troops, armour and munitions to Weli Oya by land.

The move to create a Sinhala district has to be seen in the context of the government capturing Silavatturai. Reliable sources claim that it is a prelude to opening the Pooneryan-Sangupiddy Road along the northwestern coast. If that move is successful the LTTE would find itself blocked not only from the South at Omanthai, but along the Northwest as well. Meanwhile, in the East, Sinhalisation of northern Trincomalee would be in place with government and physical infrastructure. When that is complete, Colombo believes it would be in a position to begin the 'final battle' of smashing its way into the Wanni - hopefully keeping to the timeframe enunciated by Defence Secretary Gothabaya Rajapaksa of three years.

What is important to note is that in July-August 2006 when the military advanced to capture areas in the Trincomalee District that were in the control of the LTTE, sparking off a huge humanitarian crisis that is so graphically described by the TNA leader in his speech in parliament, other countries while expressing their sympathy for the plight of Tamil civilians made it a point to say that the army had to do this because of the LTTE's refusal to open the water sluices at Mavil Aru and shelling government-controlled areas from its battery in Sampur.

The truth of the matter is that whatever might have sparked off the confrontation, the government definitely had an agenda to both politically cripple the Tamils in the East, while also setting up a launching pad for the project it hopes would bring final peace to this land - the military annihilation of the LTTE by capturing the Wanni.

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