Fishing Villages Demand Release of Lands from Military Occupation

Eight years after the end of civil war in Sri Lanka, internally displaced persons continue to struggle to return home

By Raajan Francis | Coordinator of Praja Abhilasha, Joining Hands Sri Lanka

Kepapilavu villagers stay and engage in the continuous protest from this temporary hut for more than 250 days near the security forces headquarters in Mullaithivu District in Sri Lanka. Photo by Raajan Francis.

In 2009, in the final stages of the nearly three-decades civil war between the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) and the militant group Liberation of Tamil Tigers of Eilam (LTTE), the Sri Lankan military took over and occupied 438 acres of the Kepapilavu area of north-eastern Sri Lanka’s Mullaitivu district, which led to the displacement of people from five villages.

The people of Kepapilavu ran for their lives, leaving behind their belongings, their homes, and their land titles. They were relocated to a 1730 acres welfare camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) called Manik Farm. They lived at Manik Farm for three years without proper shelter and facilities. At its height, the camp was the world’s largest for IDPs, lodging 225,000 Tamil people.

While called a welfare camp, Manik Farm was more of a detention camp for the IDPs. The camp was managed and controlled by the Sri Lankan military. IDPs were not permitted to have contact with those outside of the camp, nor were they permitted to leave the camp. Media was not allowed inside . Only a few Humanitarian Agencies with strong ties to the GOSL were authorized entry.

Praja Abhilasha (PA), the Joining Hands network in Sri Lanka, has been working with IDPs in Sri Lanka since 2008. As a part of that work, PA has been actively supporting the Kepapilavu Land Struggle. PA has worked to garner international support for the land struggles.

PA in partnership with other civil society organizations ensured that land issues were taken into account in the Universal Periodic Review, a review of human rights records for UN Member States, of Sri Lanka.  PA facilitated meetings between the British High Commissionaire for Sri Lanka and IDPs. Also, PA published a report on IDPs.

In 2012, under international pressure, the GOSL closed Menik Farm. The people of Kepapilavu were the last to leave Menik Farm and be resettled. The GOSL constructed a “Model Resettlement Village” and resettled the population there. However, the villagers continued to have limited potential for returning to their traditional livelihood practices of farming and fishing. Their access to the sea was blocked by military fencing.

After witnessing the successful land struggle by the Pulaukudirippu people in January 2017, the Kepapilavu people decided to reinvigorate their struggle to win back their original land.

On March 1, 2017, the villagers demanded the release of their original land. For over 250 days, villagers from Keppapilavu have been engaged in a sit-in on the side of the road near the entrance of the Mullaithivu Military headquarters. The protest has caught the attention of the government and caused it to pay attention to the Kepapilavu land struggle.

The GOSL has so far released only 190 acres of land within the Kepapilavu area, but the military continues to occupy 292 acres land. The GOSL committed to removing the fencing from 138 acres which belong to 90 farming families by the end of November 2017 so that they may return. However, the GOSL seems reluctant to commit to returning the land it holds on the coast as it is planning a tourism development project there and has already constructed a hotel within the military camp.

So far, the campaign has achieved the release of 1 kilometer of coast for fishing activities, road access to the sea was permitted with partial removal of the fencing, and 190 acres of land have been released.

PA continues to support the Kepapilavu people by arranging for food for them from various organizations. PA is working to educate school children about the issue as well. The school children have written letters to the President and collected food for the people. And PA continues to mobilize land struggle leaders to work collectively on these land struggles.

The GOSL should work to avoid creating divisions between the farmers and fishermen and release the rest of the fishermen’s lands.  PA will continue to stand with the fishing families until they find a solution for their land.


Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.