Skip to content Skip to footer

“Squatters in Our Own Cities”: The Displacement of Sri Lanka’s Populations

The return of expropriated land and full political enfranchisement remain elusive in Sri Lanka.

Also see: Western PR Firms Benefited From Sri Lanka’s Overseas Propaganda Campaign

Despite the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war in 2008 and the surprise of the January 8, 2015, election where the incumbent autocratic government of Rajapaksa was voted out of power, many issues remain. For example, return of expropriated land and full political enfranchisement remain elusive.

The January 8 election in Sri Lanka that US media such as New York Times and Washington Post called for the incumbent authoritarian regime of Mahinda Rajapaksa even before the voting even began, was a surprising turn in that country’s recent history. Coming only five years after long and brutal civil war against the ethnic Tamil insurgency that lasted 25 years and cost over 100,000 lost lives, the country decided to open a new chapter by voting in regime-insider-turned-opposition activist Maithripala Sirisena as new president.

Arriving in the country just few weeks after that election, I found the atmosphere in its capital, Colombo, calm but nervous. While electoral promises touched on the island’s high cost of living and employment prospects for its 20 million strong population, the overwhelming number of personnel in police and military uniforms present virtually everywhere gave the city the feel of a permanent military camp. One of the new government’s first moves was to remove the ban on foreigners’ travel north to traditional Tamil areas that were heavily damaged during the 1982-2008 civil war.

“Yes they rebuilt Jaffna, our famous library and other stuff, but what does it matter if our ancestral lands are now off limits?”

As the night train approached the newly built Chinese train station in the Tamil heartland of Jaffna, one could not help but notice the city being reinforced by a military presence that encircled the city with strategically-placed military camps. Understandably, local Tamils were very apprehensive to talk to newly appeared foreigners, especially when the ban had been lifted just two weeks prior. The reason given for its imposition by the Rajapaksa administration was as a national security measure directed to prevent foreigners (Tamils with foreign passports) from meddling in local affairs. However the real reason had more to do with not allowing extensive reporting on issues still plaguing the north – such as a defacto military occupation of Tamil land that resulted in 180,000 (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees figures) internally and externally displaced people (IDPs and EDPs) respectively.

In an uneasy deal that has been forced on Tamils following their defeat on the battlefield, the central government decided to maintain the peace by both maintaining the military presence and giving Tamils chance for economic development through governmental investment in infrastructure.

The land that has been seized as result of military activity has been kept off limits for the local population’s use while the cities were constructed anew to showcase the central government’s goodwill in rebuilding the country. “Yes, they rebuilt Jaffna, our famous library and other stuff, but what does it matter if our ancestral lands are now off limits?” Kumar, the soda drinks vendor told Truthout. “We are basically squatters in our cities when we should have been allowed to work the land just as our families did before for generations,” Kumar continued as several bystanders also started to chime in on the conversation.

“We want to be at home, but we cannot with these guys around,” he said pointing at the military patrol standing nearby.

The change in the Colombo government has also brought out a lot of hope as Tamils voted overwhelmingly against Rajapaksa’s third term. One of the most compelling promises given to Tamils during Sirisena’s run for office and its absolute vote winner was a promise of return of land occupied by the military. This issue got complicated right away when in the week following his electoral victory, the newly minted President Sirisena emphasized in his speech that the level of troops in the north was lowest ever since the conflict’s end in 2008 at 12,000 – a blatant lie. This figure was contradicted only two days later by his secretary, Lalith Weerathunga, who in speech given in Geneva to the international donor community put the military number at 80,000.

“We are basically squatters in our cities when we should have been allowed to work the land just as our families did before for generations.”

Furthermore, it was later announced that the military presence will not decrease after all, making the presidential promise ring hollow. This leaves the 180,000 strong community of displaced Tamils both in Sri Lanka and outside of it (India) without any possibility of return to their land in the near future. The objective of the military presence since end of the civil war has been to control and monitor the population which in itself is not a secret as military installations are located near centers of social importance throughout the region. These include radio/TV installations, train and bus stations, major highways and roads.

Even taking into account the Sri Lankan government’s heavily deflated numbers as true: at 80,000 military personnel to 1,060,000 civilians, it is still the world’s highest ratio of military to civilians, which stands a little above 1 to 13. And these numbers do not include navy and auxiliary police forces that are also tasked with “keeping the peace.” “People have a lot of suspicions on promises made by politicians and government officials leaving a lot of unanswered questions in regards of situation in the north,” J. Thatparam, executive director of the Shanthiham NGO based in Jaffna told Truthout. “We have seen some positive steps in my view – such as appointment of Tamil chief justice in the country – but he will have to work within a legal framework that has already been established – making his position very difficult, to say the least.”

Since the Sirisena government came to power, its ministry of defense announced that it will release over 1000 acres of land to the Tamil population; however, it still leaves the majority of Tamil land under direct military administration. Officially, any area under military control has to be pacified – i.e. demined – and have any debris of war removed. However, some activists allege that protracted delays in transfer of the land outright after the end of hostilities had two major reasons:

  1. To erase any evidence of war crimes committed by the Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese ethnic army.
  2. To hold onto the land long enough so no living owners could come forward to claim it. The reason for lack of transfer then can be construed as purely commercial given that the Sri Lankan Army is the biggest business in the country present in a variety of industries such as tourism, food processing, transport and construction.

The issue of the return of both land and IDPs leading to contradictions between statistics given and the de facto reality on the ground.

“The situation got so bad in overall military occupation that in some villages we have a ratio of 3:1 (local people to uniformed personnel).”

“Only less than 20% of the lands released are residential lands and there are army camps on 46 acres of land released,” S. Sukirthan, Vali North regional Council chairman, Jaffna was quoted in Tamil media. The result is that not asmany families of the IDPs can be resettled as originally planned, but the ones who can get a new neighbor to deal with: the military. “The situation got so bad in overall military occupation that in some villages we have a ratio of 3:1 (local people to uniformed personnel),” a Tamil activist identified only as Tamil veteran told Truthout. It is utterly absurd as I don’t think there is a situation like this anywhere in the world,” he concluded.

The issue of land along with personal safety and occupation are most important in the Tamil north. During the February 15 Jaffna peaceful protest that ended in a petition to release political prisoners and the disappeared, many people whose family members were affected spoke out right at the front of city’s most busy point: the bus terminal. “We need to know what happened to our loved ones,” said a protester identifying herself only as JP. “Until we know that and get our land back, there will never be peace here. I guarantee you that even after I die, my children will not give this up. The government must come clean on what happened and free our brothers and sisters.” JP concluded.

The policy of displacing the population in Sri Lanka has not been limited to ethnic or war conditions. In Colombo, the Rajapaksa government major investments by Indian companies such as TATA Housing and Krrish Group that have caused another controversy. A 2014 report titled: “Forced Eviction in Colombo – The Ugly Price of Beautification” by the country’s premiere think-tank, the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), highlights the mass eviction of the poor from the center of the city. According to various statements by previous and current governments, NGOs and activists, the estimates widely vary from 65,000 to half a million of people were already relocated.

“The World Bank claimed that forced relocation was in interest of strengthening peoples’ democratic participation, local democracy and accountability.”

This unprecedented – even by Chinese standards – forced gentrification has its roots in the end of the civil war, as military methods were used to make the city shine as “example to the world.” According to the previous regime’s minister of defense, Gotabaya Rajapaksa (the then-president’s brother), the idea was to transform the city into a “slum-free, world class, garden city and preferred destination for international business and tourism.” The single-minded approach in achieving this goal led to armed troops evicting people from their dwellings and homes regardless of legal title or even basic rule of law.

People were resettled without proper compensation, and in many cases no compensation at all, and in one case, not unlike in the Tamil north, a school for military officers’ children was built right in the center of the Colombo’s Slave Island district on “liberated” land. At the same time, the Sri Lankan government provided a very generous set of incentives to investors including TATA Housing, one of Asia’s biggest builders. For example, according to the report by CPA, the Indian Krrish Group and its $650 million land development project were given a 99-year lease for just 5 billion rupees ($38 million) while getting a 10-year tax holiday, and reduced 6 percent tax rate for the following 15 years, not to mention other benefits that exempted it from duties, levies and taxes normally associated with land development.

The project’s shady dealings came to light when the issue of bribes paid to Sri Lankan government officials, along with allegations of massive fraud within Krrish Group, became public, making it one of the country’s worst financial scandals. The World Bank’s shameful role in support of theproject that resulted in Colombo evictions was revealed by the CPA. The World Bank claimed that forced relocation was in interest of “strengthening peoples’ democratic participation, local democracy and accountability,” while it doled out a $213 million loan to the Colombo Urban Development Project and an additional $147 million for implementation of the program in other cities.

“They [the government] treat us like stray dogs and not like people.”

According to Iromi Perera of CPA, both the Rajapaksa administration and the World Bank were working on the projects together regardless of challenges Sri Lanka’s legal framework or future administrations posed. According to the law at that time, no foreign entity was allowed to own land in the country: consequently, 99-year leases were offered. “We have raised issues of corruption around the project in both Washington DC and Colombo with the World Bank as the investment broadly supported militarization of the country,” Perera told Truthout. “They were building up capacity of military through UDA (Urban Development Agency: a military owned venture) and the bank was fully aware of the issues such as displacements as we brought this up with them on numerous occasions. They could take those issues up with Gotabaya Rajapaksa but they simply refused to do so.” To add to irony, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was also a US citizen when Sri Lanka did not recognize dual citizenship for its citizens, making the illegality in high places a norm.

The result is similar to the effect of gentrification in other developing countries where the poor are simply relocated to suburbs where they are not provided, even with whatever basic accommodations they had before. In many instances, they were also made to pay for substandard apartments while not receiving any compensation whatsoever. This completely destroyed their community-based networks that provided the poor with livelihoods.

“I had a good life living 20 minutes away from my work,” said leather tanner Mohammad. “Now I am unemployed, as I just couldn’t make the 100-minute one way commute work for me and my family. This is not only about a roof over our heads, about survival, as Colombo is very expensive and we did not receive any money from government.”

They [the government] treat us like stray dogs and not like people,” Mohammad concluded.

Last month, the new Sri Lankan government announced that the TATA Housing project in Colombo is going to be put on hold and circumstances around its award investigated. There are allegations that the Indian investor did not come up with originally-agreed amount of investment, thus invalidating the agreement.

The depth of corruption during Rajapaksa’s reign is still coming to light, although it is a very selective and slow process, as the key government posts responsible for accountability such as the judiciary are still dominated by people of the previous regime. As the parliamentary election that the whole nation so anxiously awaited was again postponed due to a controversial ruling by the Supreme Court that requires a popular referendum on changing the character of the country’s executive power, discontent grows with every passing day.

The reform in the country as outlined in Sirisena’s 100-day program has so far produced very mixed results, with most issues still not addressed. Furthermore, there is indication that the old set-up under ex-President Rajapaksa is attempting to return to him to power by galvanizing popular support among the Sinhalese, the majority of population.

Staged rallies by his supporters are often punctuated with racist anti-Tamil and anti-Muslim overtones, calling the January electoral defeat a conspiracy between minorities and foreign intelligence agencies. Their intensity and pressure could grow to the point of tipping the public opinion against the reform-minded Sirisena, and a military coup d’état could ensue. Ultimately, the real kingmaker in the country is not the parliament, but the army, and it will decide who will serve its interests best while giving lip service to democracy and keeping the status-quo beneficial to its political and economic interests.