Groundviews

Revisiting Sampur: How Long Will it Take to Return Home?

By Bhavani Fonseka and Mirak Raheem

The election of a new President has unleashed high expectations of change for the better. Although for some the expectations relate to macro issues of constitutional reform and good governance, for others their hopes are more basic: that of survival, of returning to their own homes and rebuilding their lives. A key stumbling block to these expectations being met was the claim by the previous government that Sri Lanka no longer had any internally displaced persons (IDPs). Ground realities though are starkly different with thousands in the North and East of Sri Lanka unable to return home due to land occupation, ad hoc high security areas, special economic zones among other reasons. The people from Sampur are a special caseload in that all of the above quoted reasons have been cited as obstacles to their return.

For the people of Sampur the benefits of peace are yet to be fully realized. Community members speak about living in a no man’s land between war and peace, where their lives are governed by ‘military rule.’ While other parts of the country are able to enjoy peace dividends, including security and opportunities for economic growth, in Sampur there has been little progress over the last few years. This article follow a visit we made to Sampur last weekend and highlights what we term the ‘Sampur Model’, its implications for communities, post-war reconstruction and reconciliation, and identifies areas requiring urgent attention and action.

The Sampur Model

In essence, the ‘Sampur Model’ demonstrates how the rights, needs and concerns of local communities have been completely ignored and how laws have been disregarded in the name of national security and development. Situated on the southern tip of the Trincomalee Bay, Sampur is an area hard hit by the civil war. It was also the first area that was captured by the military from the LTTE following the resumption of hostilities in 2006, leaving in its wake displacement and devastation. Nearly nine years later, an estimated 950 families are still unable to return to their lands. During this period, countless promises have been made by political actors to return people to their lands. The last such promise was in the lead up to presidential election, when a person claiming to be a coordinator of Namal Rajapaksa, son of former President Rajapaksa, promised to return them to their lands if they voted for the then incumbent. A similar promise was made in the 2010 presidential election. As to whether there will be a shift in policy in how the State treats the people of Sampur will be a key test for how this current government approaches multiple inter-linked issues relating to peace and governance.

Both security and development have previously been cited as reasons as to why people cannot return and reclaim their land in Sampur. In May 2007 the Government declared the area a High Security Zone (HSZ) under emergency regulations, thereby preventing the return of roughly 12,000 residents to their lands. There were efforts to challenge, including through the filing of fundamental rights petitions in the Supreme Court by four affected persons and the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA). The argument of national security however thwarted any space for discussion and was used as a reason to sidestep the issue of rights and responsibilities. In October 2008 the Government announced a shrinking in the Sampur HSZ from 11 grama niladhari divisions to 4, allowing around 8,000 persons to resettle.

With the lifting of emergency in 2011, officially at least, there is now no HSZ in Sampur or elsewhere in Sri Lanka but the lived experience is contrary. The military continues to reside in, and restrict and control access to the area. Allegations have been made that some of the land in Sampur may end up being utilised by the military for recreational and business purposes such as a golf course and a hotel, in addition to cantonments, raising doubts as to the real motives behind the officially cited reasons for restrictions.

In May 2012 an area within Sampur was demarcated as a ‘Special Zone for Heavy Industries’ by the Board of Investment of Sri Lanka (BOI). A portion of this area was for a 500 MW coal power station, a project undertaken by the National Thermal Power Cooperation which is affiliated to the Indian Government. Seven land owners from this area are presently challenging this new zone in the Supreme Court.

The Rajapaksa Government opted for a specific model of post-war development with a heavy emphasis on macro projects, infrastructure development and tourism, sometimes at a heavy cost to people’s homes, lands and rights. The strategic location of Sampur and the powerlessness of its residents, coupled with the overall lack of public debate on policy, made it easy for the Government to go forward with its plans. This, despite there being no legal process for the creation of a ‘Special Zone for Heavy Industries’, raising questions of the legality of such a zone. Furthermore, questions remain as to whether due process has been followed, including with regard to acquisition and compensation provided under the Land Acquisition Act. It needs to be noted that a majority of Sampur residents claim to have legal ownership of their properties, including deeds.

With return not being provided as an option, the only choices offered by the Government to the Sampur residents was relocation. The suitability of some of these relocation sites was questioned by the Sampur people and some engaged humanitarian organisations. From 2007 the authorities have put pressure on the Sampur people to agree to relocation. While a few families did agree and have been provided housing mainly by the UNDP and the military, the majority of persons have stood resolute demanding a return of their lands.

Conditions in Displacement

During the last few years there has been only limited progress made in terms of return and in achieving durable solutions, so the majority of Sampur resident remain displaced. The military has allowed some access and released a fraction of the land, including in March 2013 when sections of Navarathanpuram was resettled in the lead up to the session at the United Nations Human Rights Council where the Government’s record on human rights was discussed and the Government attempted to demonstrate efforts at assisting affected communities. The access in some instances was conditional. While farmers were provided access to 300 acres within the restricted area to harvest, this was denied soon after a case was filed in the Supreme Court in 2012. Most recently around the time of the presidential election, access improved with 22 families moving into the area in Sampur. We were, however informed that these families had been instructed by the authorities that they need to move out. The people though are resolute in wanting to remain on their land.

While these piecemeal changes make a difference to a few families, much more is needed including a transition in terms of a shift in terms of policy and practice that addresses the fundamental issues of rights and displacement. Displacement, which has lasted at least nine years, has been a bitter experience for the majority of the displaced from Sampur, many of whom have for the last few years lived in make shift shelters, which in humanitarian agency language are called transitional shelters, in areas around Sampur such as Kattaparichandan. Some 500 families live in three welfare camps, while other families live in rented properties or with relatives in Trincomalee and other areas. Officially there is no recognition of their status as displaced persons, as rations which are provided for IDPs were terminated by the end of 2011 cutting off a vital source of support.

For a community that was more or less self sufficient in their original places of residence through livelihoods based on agriculture and fishing, the displacement has had a dramatic impact on living conditions. The conditions within the welfare centres steadily deteriorated with no NGOs being allowed to work in the camps and limited opportunities of livelihood. The pressure on female-headed households, some who have missing male family members, is particularly acute and a reminder of the multiple forms of suffering and vulnerabilities this community faces. It also highlights the need for a variety of approaches to address and redress these problems. Since 2007 we have regularly visited these communities and witnessed the intimidation of the community and the fear it has instilled. During our most recent visit, which was two weeks after the election, however, we witnessed a new sense of freedom, including the fact that they could openly speak to us and voice their concerns, especially their desire to return.

Restrictions Imposed Post-War

In Trincomalee there are other contested and restricted sites, including Karamalaiootru, a Muslim coastal village on Dead Man’s Cove which over the last few years has been under military occupation. The village has an old mosque, which adjoins a spring from which the location takes its name – black mountain spring, is set on a small hill by the beach and beyond it is a ziyaram or shrine for a saint called Karamalaiootru Apa. Due to the tsunami in 2004, residents were relocated further inland but were able to access the beach to carry out fishing and also the mosque. From November 2009, access to the coast was cut off by the military claiming security. Given that access to the mosque continued through the war years and was restricted only after the end of the war, the community is, unsurprisingly suspicious that national security is the real reason and are suspiciousthat there were other plans at play for the use of the land. Despite repeated high profile interventions including by cabinet ministers from various political parties in the previous government, access was denied.

In August 2014, fishermen out at sea noticed the ancient mosque being torn down by the security forces. This demolition took place in a national context where anti-Muslim hate had reached a crescendo and accusations of apathy and even complicity were leveled against government and state actors. Ten days before the presidential election community members were invited to visit the site where they discovered a temporary structure built where once the mosque stood. The ziyaram continues to be off limits. We saw the temporary mosque when we visited the site and heard from the locals of the unfairness of the situation of the inability to access and live on lands they consider their own. This is despite the community having official documents to prove its history and the ownership of the land.

Although restrictions on access to certain areas are lifted, we were informed and witnessed ourselves of the Air Force occupying a section of the beach. Similar restrictions on access and occupation of land are to be found in other areas including in Marble Bay where an Air Force run hotel operates on a land reportedly belonging to the Church. We were informed no legal acquisition has occurred and some landowners around the area are presently challenging the illegal occupation in court. As in the case of Sampur, local residents and land owners expect a shift in policy including how they have been treated over the last few years.

Transitioning from War to Peace

This current moment offers a critical opportunity to address a multiplicity of issues and could prove crucial in longer-term processes of state reform, equitable and sustainable developmentand peace in Sri Lanka. Both the Sampur and Karamalaiootru cases are locked into debates of national security and development but it is important to unpick these issues and not sideline other aspects to these cases including those relating to rights, justice, public consultation and participation. Affected communities in the area raise the valid question as to why security restrictions crop up after the end of the war preventing them from accessing lands that happen to be stunningly beautiful.

It is timely to address issues of national security, development, tourism and its benefits for the people. As a part of the re-orienting from war-time security to peace-time, shifting away from large scale military occupation is important. This would require reviewing the existing situation and approaches to ensure the maintenance of law and order and strategic interests but balancing this with community rights, needs and sensitivities. Principally not viewing the local population merely as a threat to national security or development is imperative. Acknowledging the views and concerns of various actors within the security forces will be an integral part of this process. In terms of macro economic projects, be it power projects or tourism, the challenge is somewhat similar of trying to reconcile the rights and needs of seemingly competing interests.

For a start it is imperative that the Government conduct a survey of areas and individual sites occupied by the military. Similar efforts should be on lands required for macro economic projects. Discussions encompassing civil and military officials in terms of lands required for public purposes should be done immediately with legal processes followed in terms of any acquisitions. Reparations also must be considered including restitution and compensation for damaged property. In specific cases where land needs to be acquired due process needs to be followed but there must be an effort to ensuring adequate compensation is provided to those affected and viable alternatives are provided.

Nine years into their displacement, residents of Sampur continue to search for a solution to their most fundamental problem of returning home. Some others such as IDPs from Jaffna have searched for a solution for several decades, while for communities such as Karamalaiootru the end of war has set new challenges. Post-war reconstruction and assistance to displaced should not be exclusive to specific communities but address the needs and grievances of all those affected. Now is the time to take corrective action and fulfill promises of change.

Studying in the camp
Kali Kovil, Sampur
Kali Kovil, Sampur
Staking a claim