The Continuous Struggle for Land Rights in Sri Lanka

By Herman Kumara | Chairperson of Praja Abhilasha, Joining Hands Sri Lanka


Praja Abhilasha (PA), the Joining Hands network in Sri Lanka, in partnership with its member organization the National Fisheries Solidarity Movement (NAFSO), organized a 3-day land rights workshop in April 2017 to bring together land rights campaigners from across the country to understand each other’s issues, analyze the situation, appreciate the importance of collective action, and find ways to move forward as a strong land rights movement in the country.

Representatives from 14 communities engaged in various land struggles attended the workshop.

Sadeesh Kaushalya, the brave woman leader who led the successful Pulakudirippu land struggle in the Mullaitivu district in the north of Sri Lanka where the Government of Sri Lanka finally released 16 acres of land back to the community in March, 2017, participated in the workshop and encouraged others with her words.

“It is our struggle and the only way to win the rights of poor and oppressed minority communities like ours. Without working day and night on our land rights campaign for 35 days straight, we would not have gotten our land back,” said Kaushalya.

She continued, “We, the women in our community, were in the forefront of our struggle. Men, Youth and children all were engaged with commitment after we, the women, began the campaign for land rights.”

N. Rathnarasa, an internally displaced fisherman since 1990 and victim of war from Myletty fishing community in Jaffna peninsula, shared how 3500 families are still suffering in 35 camps in the peninsula and have not yet determined to launch a vigorous campaign to win their land back.

“We were informed that some alternative lands will be given far from the coast. What is the importance to fishermen of land in an interior place? We all are fishermen and when we lose access to the sea, our livelihoods will be gone. We need our land and most importantly our harbor. We will continue the struggle with the learning from the women,” said Rathnarasa.

Inspired by the victory at Pulakudirippu-Mulaitivu, the Mullikulam fishing community in Mannar district in the northwest of Sri Lanka also launched a continuous campaign by the end of March, 2017. There was a positive response from the Government to the Mullikulan people’s demands initially. The Government agreed to release 600 out of 1500 acres occupied by the Navy. However, this turned out to be a fake promise there was no release of land.

“We were shocked to hear this disturbing news. Both military and government, together with the religious leaders, cheated us,” shared Mary Cross, the woman leader in the Mullikulam campaign at Mullikulam.

Tamil, Muslim and Sinhalese people were represented at the gathering and shared their experiences.

In Ashroff Nagar, in the Ampara district on the east coast of Sri Lanka, amidst the court order to release the land and allow people to get back to their own lands, the military has continued the forceful occupation and eviction of communities since 1990.

“We are seriously concerned about the situation, as the new government promised to release our land from the military once they came to power. Now it is already two and a half years after the change in government and no results yet. We urge our Government to think of our displacement, forced eviction and devastation of our livelihoods and take serious action to send the military away,” said Habeeb Umma, community leader of Ashroff Nagar.

After 3 days of sharing stories and strategizing together, the leaders drafted together the Nallur Declaration in which the people demanded that:

  • Lands be given back, and basic needs be met and infrastructure be developed;
  • Coastal fishing areas and farm lands be released;
  • Legal ownership of lands be granted and people be able to return to their homes;
  • Destroyed houses be rebuilt in their original forms;
  • Compensation be given to affected families for the duration of the occupation of their lands;
  • Support to restart traditional livelihoods;
  • Hope and trust be renewed through fulfilled promises by the Government;
  • People be able to struggle to win rights for land, livelihoods and life without fear of surveillance by intelligence personnel;
  • All people from all communities join hands with the struggle.

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