Promises to release land yet to be fulfilled:Silavathurai residents to fight tooth and nail to regain ancestaral land | Sunday Observer

Promises to release land yet to be fulfilled:Silavathurai residents to fight tooth and nail to regain ancestaral land

A sit-in protest in front of the Silavathurai Navy camp
A sit-in protest in front of the Silavathurai Navy camp

As temperatures soared in Mannar this week prompting officials to release a severe heat advisory, the residents of Muttu Silvathurai, Mannar however, refused to give up their sit-in-protest in front of SLNS Theraputtayabaya in Silavathurai. As the protest reached the 44th day the resident took to street this weekend as well despite the scorching heat to demand the release of their 36-acre ancestaral land occupied by the Navy immediately.

In 1990 when the LTTE issued a decree banishing all Muslims from their ancestral lands in the North, scores of Muslims including Fathima Rizwana (36) from the coastal village of Silvathurai fled their homes overnight in fear of their lives. Rizwana aged just nine at the time along with her siblings and father had taken a perilous journey by sea to the neighbouring India. But when Sri Lanka’s long drawn conflict ended in 2009, Rizwana and many others returned to Silavathurai in the hopes of rebuilding their lives only to find that the Sri Lanka Navy had set up camp on their ancestral lands.

But following the wait of nearly a decade, in March this year the residents in the area commenced a sit in protest demanding that the Navy releases the 36 acres currently occupied by SLNS Theraputtabaya in Silvathurai back to its rightful owners. Despite being provided 20 perches each by the government for resettlement, the protestors refused the offer as it could not replace the land that was once their own. Sitting by the wayside Rizwana says her return to Sri Lanka has become a bitter experience. “Sometimes I feel I should have never returned” she said. According to her despite being displaced her family were given better facilities in India. “But in my own country I feel no sense of belonging since my return” she claimed. While her father passed away in India, Rizwana the eldest in the family has been fighting a tough battle to reclaim his land now located within the Navy camp. Since her return, her house on the government provided 20-perch land remains half built forcing her to live in a house provided by the Mosque. While many families have grown since fleeing the area from 220 to 750, Rizwana says a 20- perch land is not sufficient. The government had also provided 47 families with farmland but others have been left without.

“I have so many memories of the land where my home was” she said recalling how her siblings would visit the village bakery and play among the fields. “No other land or compensations would do” she insists. Rizwana says her only dream is to live on her ancestral land once again surrounded by her kith and kin who continues to live as displaced persons in India. According to the protestors nearly 252 families have claim to the 36-acre plot of land while only 118 have deeds or permits to back their claims. According to Silvathurai resident Azeez Raheem (56) many had lost their documents when fleeing the LTTE.

Raheem’s family owned 54 perches on the land now occupied by the Navy. He believes the return of the land would uplift not only his life but the struggling community of Silavathurai. “We do not have a means to survive as we have lost our livelihoods with the land” he said. According to Raheem the presence of the Navy hampers them from going out to fish while they have also blocked off 500m on either side of the camp along the coast. “We are stopped, searched and we have to report our movements to the Navy” he pointed out. As a result he said many have been forced to give up fishing and look for other means of earning. The lack of land for farming has left the community without a sustainable livelihood, he noted. But the community continues to have a good relationship with the Navy, Raheem insisted adding that their request is that the Navy camp is relocated than be removed from the area. “There are other lands they can move to, we are merely asking for our land back” he said. While the residents have continuously requested to meet the Commanding Officer of the camp to discuss the issue, there has been no response, Raheem revealed.

The protestors point out that there are not one but several Navy camps in close vicinity and therefore questions the need for a camp in Silvathurai. According to the villagers, the placement of the camp has resulted in the village being divided into three areas. “We used to live in one village in close vicinity but now we are spread out all over” Raheem said. Meanwhile some villagers are not agreeable that the only school in the area is surrounded by the Police, an Army camp and the Navy camp in question. Rizwana, sends her child to a Puttalam school as a result. “My son feels intimidated and scared so I send him to a school in Puttalam” she said.Having been promised by politicians that they would receive their lands on numerous occasions residents say it is time that the government keeps to its word. “We hear of other lands being released so why are we being excluded” Raheem questioned.

Valid claim

Speaking to the Sunday Observer, a spokesman from the Musali Divisional Secretariat to which Silvathurai belongs to assured that many of those protesting have a valid claim on the land. “If the Navy requests we can provide other state land for the camp” he said. However, speaking to the Sunday Observer Navy Spokesman Lt. Commander Isuru Suriyabandara confirmed that the Navy currently has no plans to relocate SLNS Theraputtabaya from its current position. “The camp is located on a strategic position” he said adding that the Navy cannot decide by itself the location for the camp. According to Suriyabandara the Navy cannot answer to public queries on the strategic importance but it has many reasons for the stationing.

While unable to reveal sensitive information, the Spokesman said the Navy has had to combat a large number of illegal activities taking place in the area making it important to have a camp in that location. “The Navy often nabs fisherman engaged in illegal fishing in the area” he said adding that gold and drug smuggling also has become a serious issue. In 2018 alone the Navy nabbed 38 kilograms of gold smuggled by sea from the area heading to India while finding Kerala cannabis, heroin and beedi leaves being smuggled regularly. While on patrol the Navy in the past has also stumbled on items such as live turtles, turtle flesh, tramadol and even glyphosate being brought in to the country through sea routes.

As a result Suriyabandara alleges that the Navy has information from authoritative sources that the recent agitation over land is being fueled by those with vested interests. Pointing out that naval sailors engaged in operations have been attacked on several occasions, Suriyabandara says those who triggered the latest issue over land has links to the illegal activities in the area. According to him as a result the Navy is now cautious of possible attempts to cause a conflict between the Navy and the community in the area.

And as for the claims of feeling restricted Suriyabandara says the public need not fear men in uniform unless they are engaged in illegal activities. “There are many Navy camps close to communities in other areas and the Navy maintains a good relationship with the public” he pointed out. According to him illegal smuggling affects not only Silvathurai but also the whole country. “The Navy is responsible to safeguard not only Silvathurai but the entire country” he said. While the Navy is set to release 168 acres this year, however no land in Silvathurai is scheduled to be released, dashing hopes of all residents.

But according to land rights activist representing the People’s Alliance for Right to Land (PARL) Sandun Thudugala, locations that can be strategically important for the Navy are important to its original owners as well. “The government and the President promised that all land would be released” he pointed out adding that certain plots cannot be released is not acceptable.“People expected promises to be fulfilled,” he said. According to him despite the the much hype about reconciliation and transnational justice the government has failed to walk the talk. “The frustration of people is growing daily as a result. What the government has achieved in the past three years will be in danger if they do not deliver these promises” he warned. According to the activist merely relocating people elsewhere is not a feasible solution. “The land is connected with their identities, emotions and livelihoods” he pointed out.

Discussions

Thudugala says an honest discussion on the issue with the community is the need of the hours. “That is what is lacking at the moment” he noted. But all hope appears to have not faded yet. Taking up the issue Governor of the Northern Province, Dr. Suren Raghavan is set to visit Silvathurai this week. Speaking to the Sunday Observer, Raghavan said he would visit the area and engage in discussions with both parties involved. “When it comes to Silavathurai while the people have expressed their need for land so has the Navy” he noted adding that as a result through discussions he would seek to identify a BATNA (Best Alternative through a Negotiated Agreement) to resolve the issue.

According to the Governor meeting the Committee Presidential Task Force in the North and East on Thursday, the President again emphasised that wherever possible the forces must hand over private and state-owned land back to them. However, Raghavan says where there is strategic importance the government will provide full compensation based on the market value to the owners. “The military has a new rationale of owning and wanting to be positioned there. Therefore, the State must provide alternative land and compensation” he said.

According to Raghavan it was only in the last three years that room was made for civil administration to take place in the war affected areas while the Army has taken steps to gradually withdraw. “While it will take time I have assured that I will monitor the process closely” he said. With 10 percent of land in the North to be released to the public Raghavan assured the government state is continuously working towards it. As the residents have however, sworn to continue the agitation in the meantime the emotional family reunion Rizwana had dreamt too must wait.

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