Alleged ‘Land Grabbing’ by the Security Forces in Sri Lanka

Gerald Peiris, … an essay that is part of  Chapter 11 in a forthcoming monograph titled Sri Lanka: Land Policy for Sustainable Development, by G. H. Peiris, currently in the press (as a Visidunu Publication, 471 Lake Road, Boralesgamuwa, Sri Lanka) [1]

In view of the significance accorded in recent public debate and discussion on the subject of ‘land grabbing’ in several conflict-ridden countries of the Third World it is necessary to devote attention to a series of facts that are of crucial relevance to a balanced understanding of the related  situation in Sri Lanka.

Gerald Peiris Bhavani Fonseka  Mirak Raheem

Land Grabbing: Concept and Empirical Application  

The phenomenon referred to as ‘land grabbing’ lacks definitional clarity. In many writings of recent times (Keely, 2009; Borras,, 2011; Deininger & Byerlee 2011; Rulli, et. al., 2013; Brimayer & Moon, 2014; to name only a few), especially those sponsored by civil society organisations, this phrase has been used exclusively in the specific connotation of large-scale acquisition of land in the poorer countries by foreign governments and private firms that are based in the politically and economically powerful countries. Estimates of the extent of grabbed land worldwide vary. The prestigious journal, The Economist (21 May 2009) placed it at 15-20 million ha. According to the World Bank, it is as high as 45 million ha, with an overwhelmingly large proportion of it in the less densely populated areas of Sub-Saharan Africa, South and Central America and Southeast Asia. In a major World Bank sponsored study (Deininger & Byerlee, op. cit.) ‘land grabbing’ has been portrayed as a phenomenon of both positive as well as negative impacts which nevertheless requires effective regulation. But more generally, this process is perceived as an exemplification of neo-colonial economic exploitation that has adverse consequences on the local people in the form of violation of fundamental rights, incitement of inter-group conflict, mass impoverishment and environmental degradation. What should be noted here is that in none of the research writings on the subject of ‘land grabbing’ as a global phenomenon do we come across a specific reference to Sri Lanka as a country that has been seriously affected by this phenomenon.[2]

There has, in addition to the specific meaning of ‘land grabbing’ referred to above, been a tendency among certain researchers to use the phrase as a designation for all forms of acquisition of land through diverse processes ―establishment of ownership rights over land through: the force of arms and/or punitive action against land holders/users; legislative enactments; purchase, lease or foreclosure of mortgages; encroachment; criminal coercion; or any other form of political or economic compulsion. The related Sri Lankan experiences in this interpretation of the phrase could, indeed, be delineated as follows:

  • Dispossession of the indigenous peasantry associated with several waves of foreign invasion and conquest in pre-modern times. Under colonial dominance since the early 19th century, the establishment of government ownership over vast tracts of territory both on the basis of various ordinances promulgated by the British as well as through other agrarian transformations that accompanied processes of ‘modernisation’ (referred to in Chapter 1, Section 1.4.1).
  • Since the termination of colonial rule, the government of Sri Lanka acquired large extents of privately owned land through legislative enactments ―Land Acquisition Act of 1950Land Reform Law of 1972, and Land Reform (Amendment) Law of 1975― in order to implement its declared policy for which it had an electoral mandate (see, Chapters 3 and 4 of this report). Since these legislative enactments represented the legitimate will of the people as expressed through prevailing policy of democratically elected governments, there is no justification whatever for associating such acquisitions with processes of ‘grabbing’.
  • In the course of Sri Lanka’s protracted civil war (mid-1980s to 2009) which necessitated the mobilisation of state resources for purposes of safeguarding national sovereignty and territorial integrity against the secessionist challenge posed by the ‘Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam’ (LTTE/‘Tigers’) ―an outfit globally recognised as one of the most powerful and ruthless terrorist groups― it became essential for the government to acquire tracts of privately owned land for the exclusive use of the security forces. While those associated with, or sympathetic towards, the secessionist cause might perceive such acquisitions as ‘grabbing’ of land from the civilian population, that perception is not in harmony with the axiom that safeguarding the constitution and protecting the people are the prime responsibilities of the elected government.
  • The LTTE, in turn, imposed its control over large tracts of territory in the northern and eastern parts of the island with scant regard for civilian uses and users, and depriving the inhabitants their livelihood and basic survival needs. Moreover many thousands of civilians (Muslims and Sinhalese) in these areas were forcibly evicted by the LTTE in pursuance of its policy of ‘ethnic cleansing’. This represented an unprecedented form of ‘land grabbing’ based on its military and political objectives.
  • Land needed for development projects ―irrigation and settlement development, highways, other social and economic infrastructure, manufacturing ventures, tourism― often involves the acquisition of private land by the government. In Sri Lanka, the related procedures have always entailed government-sponsored re-location and/or payment of compensation to the dispossessed, often at rates that are considerably higher than those in the land market. Whether land acquisitions of this type represent a form of ‘grabbing’ depends on the net benefits of such projects from an objective viewpoint of national interests.
  • Since the introduction of the policy package of ‘economic liberalisation’ by the government elected to office in 1977 there has been participation of foreign firms in some of the development projects referred to above. This has certainly created a grey area between ‘land grabbing’ (of the type referred to at the beginning of this chapter), on the one hand, and foreign collaboration in development projects in a ‘mixed economy’ which Sri Lanka’s economy has professed to be throughout the last thirty-nine years, on the other.
  • ‘Encroachment’ (occupation and use of land without legally valid rights of ownership/use) has all along been an important form of ‘land grabbing’ in both urban as well as rural settings in Sri Lanka. Although certain politically powerful persons and affluent racketeers are known to engage in this malpractice, in terms of the extent of land involved it is the rural poor who should bear the brunt of its responsibility, albeit with obvious extenuating circumstances.
  • Changes in ownership and control of agricultural land resulting from the operation of the well-known “vicious circle of poverty” could also be referred to as an exemplification of ‘land grabbing’ at the level of the rural community.[3] Although it is not possible to quantify the magnitude of this process because credit transactions at community-level are oral and informal, this form of changes in land ownership has been widely reported, especially in the peasant settlement schemes in the drier parts of the island.

The foregoing sketches are intended to highlight the fact that it would be inappropriate to brand certain major changes in the ownership and control of land witnessed in Sri Lanka since about the early 1930s with the pejorative epithet of ‘grabbing’. For instance, government acquisitions of privately owned land in order to cater to national needs in security, development (including poverty alleviation and disaster relief), conservation of physical resources, and environmental protection, cannot be considered as ‘grabbing’ of private property, as long as democratic procedural norms were followed in the acquisitions. The campaigns of opposition and protests which some of these acquisitions evoked[4] were undoubtedly impelled by disputes of commitments in political ideology, partisan stances in electoral politics or subjective self-interests of adversely affected groups and individuals. It should also be noted that the more general campaigns against alleged ‘land grabbing’ that have emerged in importance in the recent years at an international plane are invariably led by powerful ‘civil society’ organisations that promote the geopolitical interests of some of the major global powers.

‘Eelam Wars’ and Strengthening of National Security

The security forces of Sri Lanka are charged with the responsibility of protecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the nation and of assisting the police, when called upon to do so, in the maintenance of law and order. It is for the purpose of discharging this responsibility that bases and encampments in many parts of the country were established and continue to be maintained by the army, navy and the air force as appropriate to their tasks.

With the intensification of the threat posed by the LTTE to the survival of the Sri Lankan nation since the onset of the ‘Eelam War’ in the mid-1980s, the presence of the military had to be strengthened, especially in areas that were extraordinarily vulnerable from the viewpoint of both terrorist offensives against the security forces and the civilian population as well as gateways of infiltration of external assistance to the secessionist effort. Among such localities in the North-East of the island, those that remained under the tenuous control of the government almost throughout the protracted war ranked foremost. Moreover in view of the fact that by the early 1990s the LTTE had acquired the capacity for long-range artillery attacks, such strengthening invariably necessitated the enlargement of the main ‘High Security Zone’ (HSZs) of Palāli located along the northern coast of Jaffna peninsula consisting of military bases and their buffer zones. By the end of that decade the HSZs (including about 93 small military encampments) in Jaffna District covered, in aggregate, about 9% of the total land area of the district. Approximately 70% of this extent was accounted for by areas that had a sparse population prior to the Eelam Wars, especially the Thenmarachchi Division and the districts of the Vanni.[5] The establishment of military bases and encampments in other parts of the North-East also entailed the acquisition of land, invariably at a much smaller scale, except in the Wáli Oya (Manal Āru) area straddling the border of the Northern and Eastern provincial boundary, a locality of vital importance from the viewpoint of several strategic considerations.

There is no surprise in the fact that strengthening the presence of the Sri Lanka military in and around the territory claimed as Thamil Eelam was fiercely opposed by the LTTE and other supporters and well-wishers of the secessionist cause. The leadership of the LTTE in its heyday of the 1990s gave expression to this opposition through deadly attacks on military bases of the government such as those of Elephant Pass, Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu at which thousands of security forces personnel perished. The opposition by external sponsors of the ‘Eelam War’ such as those within the Tamil ‘Diaspora’ and its other supporters and sympathizers (which included a large segment of Tamil political leaders whom the LTTE had installed in Sri Lanka’s mainstream politics) has continued to be expressed in intense campaigns of international propaganda aimed at spreading the fallacious notion that the government’s military presence in the North-East represents an “army of occupation of the Traditional Tamil Homeland” causing untold deprivation and misery to its civilian population. Needless to stress, the brutal enslavement of the civilian population of the North-East by the LTTE has been totally side-tracked in this propaganda campaign. Likewise the extensive mobilisation of military manpower in many aspects of the amazingly rapid post-war rehabilitation and reconstruction of the war-ravaged areas of the North-East – especially the repair and upgrading of roads, rehabilitation of defunct irrigation works – has also continued to be effectively concealed by the propagandists.

The crucial significance of evicting the security forces from the North-East to the secessionist agenda was vividly portrayed in the priority placed on “demilitarisation” of the ‘North-East’ during the five rounds of Government-LTTE peace negotiations that took place from 16 November 2002 to 21 March 2003. Anton Balasingham, the leader of the LTTE delegation insisted almost incessantly that no de-escalation (of their offensives) is possible until the land occupied by the armed forces of the government in that area is vacated. In view of this vehemence the task of preparing a plan for a phased withdrawal of the military from the HSZs was entrusted by a ‘Sub-committee on De-escalation and Normalisation’ established at the second round of negotiation to the then commander of the army in the Northern Zone, General Sarath Fonseka.  The main proposal of his report was that certain HSZs could be evacuated fully or partially and made available for civilian use if the LTTE agrees to remove under independent verification its heavy artillery from the vicinity of the HSZs. This proposal, though endorsed by the Norway-led ‘Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission’, was firmly rejected by the LTTE. Since the dispute over the HSZs was escalating in intensity to a level that could derail the talks, the government of Sri Lanka (evidently with the tacit consent of the LTTE) sought the advice of General Satish Nambiar (an Indian military expert) on the extent to which the LTTE demand could be met without placing security considerations in jeopardy. Following an intensive study of the related parameters Nambiar reported that any change in the existing HSZs would be feasible only if the LTTE withdraws from its frontline positions lying adjacent to the HSZs. Nambiar also emphasised that de-escalation must, in any event, be a reciprocal process. This report and the report prepared earlier by Gen. Fonseka were angrily rejected by Balasingham who announced the withdrawal of the LTTE from the ‘Sub-committee on De-escalation and Normalisation’.

Following the end of the ‘Eelam War’ in May 2009, there has been a planned reduction of the presence of Sri Lanka’s security forces in the former venues of the war, and a return of a part of the territory that was being used by Sri Lanka’s armed forces in the north. While the smaller military based and encampments have been disbanded, the main High Security Zone on Palali has been reduced in size (Figure 1), large partsw of it also being made open to civilian activities. This is expected to constitute a continuing process.

The secessionist campaign has not ended with the demise of the ‘Tiger’ leadership in May 2009. It is still being vigorously pursued by certain forces that nurtured its secessionist effort during the Eelam War. There is, indeed, a scatter of evidence pointing to the likelihood that external support for the objective of creating an independent Tamil nation-state over the northern and eastern parts of the island is more portent at present than it was during the war, now that the atrocities committed by the LTTE have been forgotten or are considered inconsequential by most of the major global powers including India. It is in this context that Sri Lanka’s policy pertaining to its security forces cannot be confined to the purview of those aspects of land policy on which this monograph (refer Endnote 1, above), as stated in its opening paragraph, is focused. The determination of the size (land area, manpower, and logistical strength) and the geographical distribution of the military bases of the country is essentially a function of experts in matters of national security and defence. It should also be noted that outside the north-east there are several military bases such as those at Panāgoda, Katunāyake, Diyatalāwa and Ambēpussa which, though somewhat smaller than the Palali HSZ, extend over several hundreds of acres owned and used by civilians in earlier times. These, indeed, are minute compared to the military bases that “defend the realms” in Sri Lanka’s neighbourhood, especially India, some of whose leaders have been adding to the misguided outcry against the alleged “demilitarisation” of our north-east.

Post-War Occupation of Land by the Military

The charge that state sector institutions of Sri Lanka, especially its armed forces, have acquired through illegal means large tracts privately owned land in the ‘North-East’ in the guise of security requirements, thus resulting in large-scale internal displacement of people has been made in many civil society publications the large majority of which display such unrestrained political prejudice and are similar in tone and content to pronouncement made on behalf of the LTTE during the Eelam War. While several such publications have a facade of humanitarian concern for the ‘IDP’ category of war victims, it is only in a few that one could find verifiable information of relevance. The government has, from time to time, published sets of information on post-war changes in the areas acquired by the armed forces for security needs. But these are trivialised refuted or ignored by its critics.[6]

A report published by the Centre for Policy Alternatives/CPA (Fonseka, 2016) containing the results of a survey conducted with the objective of unearthing ground realities of “Land Occupation in the Northern Province” is probably the most formidable indictment hitherto made on alleged land grabbing by the security forces.[7] The survey was financed by the British High Commission in Colombo. The thematic thrust of the report is encapsulated in the statements: “Land is a key issue for reconciliation in Sri Lanka”, and “Instead of using land policies to further reconciliation, the GOSL has abused provisions within the Land Acquisition Act among other pieces of legislation to take over thousands of acres of land in a manner that predominantly affects minority communities and facilitates entrenched militarisation of the North and East”.

The essence of the statistical results of field investigations on which the report is based[8] is as follows:

  • “A total of 12,751.240783478 acres of land which includes 51.6024465818675807 km2 including both state and private land continues to be occupied in the Northern Province. Land occupation includes both state and private land occupied by the army, air force, police and navy among others”.
  • The “occupied land” in the Northern Province consist of 6,474 ac in Jaffna District, 1,551 ac in Mullaitivu District, 654 ac in Kilinochchi District, 2,159 ac in Vavuniya District, and 1,747 ac in Mannar District. These add up to 12,585 ac.
  • Private Land in the Administrative Divisions of Jaffna District (more densely populated than the other districts of the province): Delft, 32 ac; Velani, 99 ac; Vadamarachchi East, 721 ac; Vadamarachchi North, 11 ac; Vadamarachchi, 8; Vadamarachchi Southwest, 81.8 ac; Chavakachcheri, 9 ac; Nallur, 43 ac; Karainagar, 18 ac; Kayts, 1 ac; Jaffna Town, 0.3 ac; Valikamam North, 13 ac; Valikamam East 83 ac; and Valikamam Southwest, 5 ac. (Valikamam West and Uduvil, nil). These estimates indicate that 80% of the District total (1,125 ac) is accounted for by the “occupied private land” in 3 out of the 16 Divisions constituting Jaffna District.

Working out the overall extent of “occupied land” in the Northern Province to one-billionth of an acre probably represents a naive attempt to convey the impression of pinpoint precision which the investigators strived to achieve. Yet in a serious attempt to gain an understanding of the scale of the alleged land grabbing the careful reader is more likely to observe that the “occupied land” accounts for only 0.6% of the total land area of the Northern Province (corresponding proportions at district-level are: 2.6% in Jaffna, 0.2% in Mullaitivu, 0.2% Kilinochchi, 0.4% in Vavuniya, and 0.4% in Mannar). The unbiased reader will also understand that, in the context of the ferocity of the 25-year secessionist war of which the principal venue was the Northern Province, the staggered release of land from the High Security Zones in the aftermath of the war (depicted in Figure 11.1, and the more recent releases), and the persistence of the secessionist threat and the insidious irredentist hostilities from across the Palk Strait even after the suppression of armed, these proportions do not represent an extraordinary military occupation of civilian land or a continuing militarisation of the North.

Moreover, while there could be no dispute on the need to accord the highest possible priority in post war reconstruction to humanitarian concerns on the plight of the IDPs regardless of the related number of persons or the magnitude of land dispossession, in the light of the larger and blatantly transparent objective of this CPA report —viz. campaigning for reducing the presence of Sri Lanka’s security forces in the ‘North-East’ on the basis of a tenuous claim that it would be an essential component of post-war reconciliation— it would be absurd to overlook the fact that, given the large-scale emigration of civilians from the Northern Province since the onset of the Eelam War (probably about 350,000-400,000), the number of civilians displaced from the HSZs of Jaffna District could not be as alarming as what the compiler of the report would have its readership to believe.

Conveying a magnified impression of the alleged military “land grab” and its impact on the dispossessed war victims becomes evident is several passionate pleas made in this report. Note, for example, the implications conveyed in the following extract.

“Although this (i.e. the number of IDPs in mid-2015 which an earlier passage of the report had placed at over 70,000) can be interpreted by some as a low figure, the impact of displacement and the inability to return home is significant. Consideration must be given to IDPs displaced for decades and the impact on identity, community support systems, education, livelihoods and voting rights, among others. There must also be attention on the arbitrariness of the occupation and lack of process, with many cases not adhering to the legal and policy framework in Sri Lanka”.

What does this passage intended to convey —especially when the contents of the report are disseminated among the “international community” by the British High Commission? In the absence of any reference to the fact that the most gigantic and brutal displacements of civilians occurred under the jackboot of the LTTE, does not the report direct the charge of a heinous war crime on the security forces and, in addition, attribute the prevention of return of the displaced people to their pre-war homes to the callousness of the government?

There are several other features of this report which, when stripped of the usual sanctimonious pronouncements on commitments to good government, human rights, ethnic reconciliation and peace, reveal its insidious propaganda purpose. Although this causes no surprise to readers familiar with the past performances of the CPA, it is necessary to refer to the related specificities.

The report claims, for example, that the problem (of displacement of people from the occupied land) “was further exacerbated by attempts to acquire large tracts of arable land in the name of national security with lack of due process and in contravention to the established legal process”. This reference to a further acquisition is supposedly extracted from another CPA report (Raheem, 2013). The reader who would bother to check this source would find that Raheem’s paper begins with the statement: “Significant changes have taken place in post-war Sri Lanka that have assisted the improvement in the lives of those affected by displacement and over 480,000 IDPs have been able to return to their homes and communities”.[9] It also makes it evident that the overwhelming majority yet to be resettled in the Northern Province are Muslims who were chased out by the LTTE in the early 1990s; and, that Raheem’s speculative reference to an impending land-grab by the security forces never took place.

Yet another serious violation of the basic ethics of research —misleading citation of authoritative sources in order to reinforce tenuous assertions— is found in the supposedly erudite discourse on the subject of Reparation (p. 10 of the report). This interpretation of the concept of Reparation is intended to be understood as being based on several United Nations resolutions, some of which — Article 18 of the ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights’; Article 2 and the Optional Protocols of the ‘International Convention of Civil and Political Rights’ (1966), and those pertaining exclusively to ‘racial discrimination’, ‘torture’ and ‘rights of the child’— contain no reference whatever to post-war reparation in circumstances similar to that of Sri Lanka. Those familiar with the burden of reparation imposed on the defeated aggressor in the aftermath of the two World Wars know that it was, more than all else, punitive in intent. It is also common knowledge that there has been no reparation for victims of war crimes committed by the NATO super-powers in the course of their interventions in many ‘regional wars’ and ‘internal conflicts’ of Asia, Africa and Latin America. Even the guidelines released by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (cited in the report) only stipulate that: “States shall endeavour to establish national programmes for reparation and other assistance to victims in the event that the parties liable for the harm suffered are unable or unwilling to meet their obligations” (paragraph 16, emphasis added). It is indeed of interest to speculate on how this guideline should be pursued in post-war Sri Lanka where Prabhakaran and most of his battlefield collaborators are no longer alive. Shouldn’t those who aided and abetted the LTTE leadership with financial and material supplies and pro-secessionist propaganda (such as advocacy of the concept of “unwinnable War”) while being fully aware that the LTTE is responsible for en masse displacement of people by tens of thousands be made responsible for reparations? There is no mystery about the CPA objective which is that of holding the government of Sri Lanka responsible for ‘Reparation’ (as distinct from rehabilitation and humanitarian assistance) and thus, the government made to appear as admitting guilt of causing the massive displacement of civilians from their homes.

Figure 1 – post-conflict releases of land from the Palali HSZ

Source: Government of Sri Lanka

Yet another deliberate omission in the CPA report is the concealment of the fact that the arduous task of deactivating unexploded ordnance and clearing anti-personal landmines scattered over thousands of acres by the LTTE in the course of its retreat to the Mullaitivu littoral was the foremost obstacle in the way of rapid resettlement of the IDPs in that area has also not been ignored.

Had there been any substance to the pretence that the report is a work of serious research conducted by an organisation claiming to be independent and impartial it should have indicated awareness of other recent investigations conducted on this subject by institutions that have impeccable scholarly credentials. There is, for instance, a detailed study based on satellite imagery conducted by the ‘Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project of the American Association for the Advancement of Science’ (AAAS) at the request of the ‘Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice’ (SLC), published under the title of Monitoring Change in Sri Lanka’s Valikamam (sic.) High Security Zone: 2009-2004’ the conclusions of which are reproduced below verbatim.

This HSZ, located on the northernmost point of the country, on the Jaffna Peninsula, has been under military control for several decades. AAAS investigated changes within the zone since the end of the 2009 military conflict. Specifically, AAAS aimed to assess claims by the SLC that the area was being developed outside the scope of military usage, particularly in light of assertions from former residents that they are unable to return to their former lands. AAAS observed a number of changes in the Zone during the study period relating to land use. The most obvious change was a dramatic increase in housing-style structures, particularly between 2011 and 2014. This led to a lack of clarity regarding the delineation of the border between the HSZ and civilian areas.

To further analyze if the land was being put to public use, 18 potential institutional areas were delineated from the 2014 image. Structures in these areas were counted to assess the extent to which new structures were clustered in these areas. Though additional structures were observed in these areas, the number was minimal compared to the total number of structures added to the study area in the time period, indicating that the majority of development consisted of the construction of new residential structures.

In addition, many infrastructure changes were observed, including the creation of a large number of roads and improvements to existing roads, particularly in the form of road paving and widening. Alongside these infrastructure changes were several developments of the coastline, particularly the Thalsevana Holiday Resort and other large complexes of structures. Finally, an increased use of the land for farming was observed, but was not quantified because the images used for this analysis were from different times of the year.

In evaluating these conclusions it should be borne in mind that the data on which they are based indicate:

(a) that a large part of this war-time venue from which former residents were evicted (largely by the LTTE in the course of its retreat from Jaffna peninsula in 1995, as mentioned quite categorically in the AAAA report) has undergone impressive transformations of infra-structure development for civilian use, comparable in magnitude to those witnessed in similar coastal locations elsewhere in the island;

(b)  that such trans-formations epitomise significant advances in the quality of civilian life and;

And, more significant than all else,

(c) that the re-creation of pre-war socioeconomic conditions —those that perpetuated festering political unrest especially among the rural youth— should, as far as possible, not be the objective of post-war reconstruction.

The foregoing observations on the CPA report are not meant to constitute a blanket denial of the vital relevance of land policy to the prevention of peace-time abuses of military powers in the acquisition of land for purposes other than national security and defence. Accusations have, of course, been made of the security forces engaging in episodes of land grabbing that have entailed the forced eviction of civilian users of such land. These need to be thoroughly investigated and corrective and preventive measures adopted.

The allegations that have been made in the recent past against the Air Force and the Navy recorded in the course of an investigation conducted in a coastal locality of the Eastern Province in 2015/16 by a Sri Lankan research institute named ‘Sustainable Agricultural and Research Development’ is one such episode that demands serious official attention. Yet, in evaluating the authenticity of the charges even at a superficial plane, it is not possible to ignore the fact that an extent of 835 acres out of the supposedly grabbed area was, according to official records, owned and managed by the Department of Forest Conservation. This suggests the possibility that the alleged ‘land grabbing’ was an exercise of re-possession of a forest reserve which the evicted villagers had encroached. The use of the security forces in the re-establishment of government control over forested areas illegally occupied by civilians is certainly unprecedented. Nevertheless, the government is reported to have decided to release a part of the land under dispute to its former users, undoubtedly for electoral pacification of those at the forefront of a campaign on behalf of the victimized villagers and their religious institutions.

Illegal occupation of state-owned land by civilians in anticipation of such land being used as venues of development projects,  with the intention of claiming compensation as owners (based on rights of usufruct) when project implementation begins, has also been witnessed in several waves of collective agitation that were associated with projects such as the ‘Victoria’ component and ‘System B’ downstream development of the Mahaveli Programme, ‘Upper Kotmalē’ hydropower reservoir, ‘Jayawardhanapura Capital City’, and the ‘Southern Express Highway’. These experiences underscore the necessity for avoiding kneejerk “liberal” responses in relation to the use of the security forces in related law enforcement, especially where the agitations are sponsored by politically motivated disruptive forces.

ADDENDUM 1: A Note on the Vanni before it became the main battlefield of the Eelam War

Prior to the withdrawal of the LTTE from Jaffna peninsula to the Vanni in December 1995, the latter area, with its thin of human settlements (according the estimates based on the census of 1981 the district averages of persons per sq km were, 69 in Mannar, 61 in Vavuniya, 43 in Mullaitivu and 76 in Kilinochi, persons per sq. km; compared to 929 in Jaffna) had extensive tracts of degraded forest land. The human settlements of the Vanni, except in a few localities along its coastal fringe, were based largely on small and seasonally functional reservoirs much smaller than those of Nuvarakalaviyaand Thamankaduwa further south in Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa districts. In 1966-69 the government. headed by Dudley Senanayake leased some of the forested land in large allotments to firms that were expected to develop farms. That never happened, and the land so distributed was abandoned after the lessees had extracted the timber. The extents alienated were recorded in the Administration Reports of the Land Development Department of that time. Several of these forest sites came to be occupied later by various groups including the LTTE and the security forces of the government of Sri Lanka.

Figure 2; Google Earth Image of the Palali HSZ Area


BORRAS, S M, et. al. (2011) ‘Towards a better understanding of global land grabbing: An editorial introduction’, Journal of Peasant studies, 38(2): 209.

BRILMAYER, Lea & MOON, William, J (2014), Regulating Land Grabs: Third Party States, Social Activism and International Law’, chapter in Rethinking Food Systems, accessed via internet.

FONSEKA, Bhavani e. al. (2016) Land Occupation in the Northern Province: A Commentary on Ground Realities and Recommendations for Reform, Centre for Policy Alternatives, Colombo.

KEELEY, Leonard James (2009) ‘Land Grab or Development Opportunity?’ in Agricultural Investment and Land Deals in Africa, FAO, London.

RAHEEM, Mirak (2013) Protracted Displacement, Urgent Solutions: Prospects doe Durable Solutions for Protracted IDPs in Sri Lanka,

RULLI,tina, SAVIORIA, A & D’Odorico, Pabl Marina Chriso (2013) ‘Global Land and Water Grabbing’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 110 (3): 892-897.


[1]. This paper is an extract from Chapter 11 of a forthcoming monograph titled Sri Lanka: Land Policy for Sustainable Development, by G. H. Peiris, currently in the press (as a Visidunu Publication, 471 Lake Road, Boralesgamuwa, Sri Lanka).

[2].  Several African countries (such as Congo, Ethiopia, Mali, Sudan, Cameroon, Angola, Zambia, South Africa), Brazil, and the larger nation-states of Southeast Asia have received specific mention where extensive victimization of the rural poor has resulted from this form of ‘land grabbing’. The only documented instance of Sri Lanka being mentioned as a venue of ‘land grabbing’ of comparable scale is represented by the aborted project reported in sub-section 8.4.2 (a) of the monograph referred to in endnote 1, above.

[3]. The archetypal components of the ‘vicious circle of poverty’ in the peasant economy could be schematised as follows: low hoLusehold income  (aggravated by random misfortune in the form of crop failures and natural hazards)  indebtedness (borrowing involving mortgage of land and high interest rates) → foreclosure of mortgaged land  landlessness  further indebtedness.

[4]. The initial responses of the nationalisation of foreign-owned plantations in 1975, local-level protests against land acquisition by the government at the construction sites of reservoirs such as Victoria of the Mahaveli Programme and Upper Kotmale, and more formidable campaigns conducted at international and national levels against the acquisition of land for the bases of security forces and military encampments in the North-East of Sri Lanka are the better-known examples.

[5]. The forced evacuation of the civilian inhabitants in certain parts of the peninsula by the LTTE in the course of its retreat to the Vanni in December 1995 had caused a reduction of the peninsula population by at least 150,000 mainly from both Válikamam as well as Vadamarachchi areas where the main ‘Palāli HSZ’ is located. This should not be overlooked in an objective assessment of the gravity of the hardships caused by the acquisition of tracts land previously used by the civilian population of Jaffna.

[6]. The most formidable constraint on the acceleration of the release of Palali HSZ land for civilian use is that of identifying the legal owners of such land in the context of the massive out-migration from Jaffna peninsula during the Eelam Wars.

[7]. This report is the latest of a series published by the CPA in its website on this subject. These are cited in Fonseka, et. al. (2016) Land Occupation in the Northern Province: …, CPA, Colombo

[8]. The survey is said to have been conducted over 4 months (in 2015-16?), and involved personal interviews from all “stakeholders”, collection of data from official sources, and the cross-checking of such data with “individual residents” (of the province?).

[9]. This is an extract from a brief synopsis of Mirak Raheem’s study downloaded from the CPA website (see, Endnote 3, above).

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