In Sri Lanka, land has been highly ethnicized and politicized in terms of nationalism and ethnicity and, in some terroritorial areas; it has been very connected to caste and religious identity. Aspecific land is not only a source of economy, therefore, but also of politics and socio-religion. Religion, ethnicity, caste and political power play key roles in geopolitics in Sri Lanka and, as such, ethnic and religiousbased geopolitics have created conflicts between the different communities in the past. One of the unsettling consequences of the 26 years of civil war is that of land occupation in terms of militarization, new settlements, economic development, government policies and archeological preservations.
These particular issues have been recognized in the Report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) which affirms that “problems concerning land were a key issue that were brought to the Commission’s attention by a large number of persons of all communities who appeared before it; particularly during the Commission’s visit to the affected areas in the North and East. The Commission believes that measures and policies ensuring legitimate land rights, especially among the returning IDPs, would contribute significantly to restoring normalcy and promoting reconciliation”.
Tamil and Muslim communities are being discriminated against in the acquisition of land ownership, access to traditional livelihood activities and protection against a system of Sinhala Buddhist colonization. The government’s current agenda of creating High Security Zones, Special Economic Zones and Archeological Heritage Zones are targeting the takeover of minority lands and those of vulnerable poor communities.
In this paper, I articulate how the geopolitics of Sinhala Buddhist Nationalism has been systematically promoting Sinhala colonization in the Eastern Province; the recent occupation of the cattle pasture lands at Mailaththanamadu and Mathavanaiare just one such example of this.
Sinhala colonization began in the 1950s in the Northern, Central and Eastern Provinces and escalated during the construction of the Mahaweli project, promoted to be a major irrigation and hydro power plant to stimulate farming and fishing in the region. This development initiative was cited as one of the sparks which fueled the Tamil militant movement against the government.
During the war and in its aftermath, Sinhala settlements have expanded in the name of militarization and high security zones. In more recent years, Sinhala colonization has been fervently promoted by Buddhist monks and extremist movements such as the Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force) and Sinha Le (Lion’s Blood). The situation has now escalated even more drastically following the return of the Rajapaksa brothers to power and other pro-nationalist leaders in the government.
State land ownership or allocation in the East is both an ethnic and political matter which conflict and violence can be attributed to and, therefore, people who live in border villages often face such threats and violence. Farmers and cattle breeders in these border areas are often in vulnerable positions having experienced massacres, disappearances and displacement during the war years. Occupants of those lands anticipated that there would be assurances in the post war period of appropriate resettlement, reparation, a peaceful environment for social harmony and livelihood support. Instead, Tamil and Muslim minorities are being intimidated and threatened by Sinhala Buddhist extremists and government officers. It is clear that the current Sri Lankan Government is systematically supporting an agenda by Sinhala nationalists of land encroachment. In order to strengthen this initiative, our pro-nationalist President, Hon. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, has appointed an Archeological Heritage Management Task Force and published it in the government gazette. This move has energized the Sinhala nationalists in the country and they are capitalizing on this moment to hurriedly fence land boundaries in terms of Buddhist temples, archeological sites and livelihood zones.
This year, there have been increasing instances where Buddhist monks have entered either state or religious lands and intimidated the occupants, expelling them from their properties and erecting new boundaries. On September 21, 2020, Ven. Ampitiya Sumanarathna Thero entered Pangudaveli village and claimed ownership of a specific land in the name of the Buddhist temple. To add to this injustice, The Ven. Thero assaulted and violently reproached the government officers who had gone to enquiry the truth of the matter and to alleviate tensions.
On a similar occasion, another Buddhist monk of Ampara district, accompanied by a large group of people, entered pasture lands of Mailaththanamadu and Mathavanaisituated in Batticaloa district, and set up a temporary settlement. This action caused the immediate transfer of the District Secretary who promptly denounced this illegal settlement.
Thus, it appears that land occupation is linked to the identity of a particular ethnicity and cultural group of people in Sri Lanka. Such land has been bordered as a district, division and with specific villages. Therefore, encroaching such legal boundary lines would result in probable communal violence, political unrest and conflict between the communities.
The majority of land administration in the Eastern Province is based on ethnicity; i.e. they are bordered by Muslim unit, Tamil unit and Sinhala unit. Therefore, if an individual wishes to purchase or reside on either private or state land, that decision would be shaped by ethnic identity. While the Divisional Secretary does have the power to issue land permits for residence or livelihood activities, the officer most probably would allocate a specific plot of land based on ethnic identity.
It is important to note that, on one hand, the government is promoting Sinhala Buddhist settlements over traditional Tamil and Muslim territories but, on the other hand, Tamils and Muslims have also violated land boundary issues during the war period. Post war, however, there has been an escalation in Sinhala Buddhist colonization in the North-East.
The appointment of an all Sinhala Task Force for Sri Lanka’s ‘archeology’ in the East was made at the outset of the global pandemic restrictions and created panic among the Tamils and Muslim communities. The Eastern Province is heterogeneous in culture, ethnicity and religion, though predominantly comprised of Tamils and Muslims.
We welcome any genuine process for the preservation of our historical heritage which is our wealth and should be preserved for future generations. However, we are acutely aware and concerned about the intent of the Task Force as it does not reflect the heterogeneous representation of the pluralistic nature of the Province. Rather, the picture being painted is one of the heritages in the East being in danger. The timing of such an appointment is also dubious as it came into effect soon after the President met the Buddhist Advisory Council and reiterated his election platform promises. The appointed members are: Governor of the Eastern Province, Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, Chief of Defence Staff and Commander to the Army, Commander to the Navy, Acting Inspector General of Police, Chief of National Intelligence, Commander of Security Forces-East, together with Buddhist monks – nowhere is there an allocation for any Tamils, Muslims or those from the Veddha community. It would appear Sri Lanka’s majoritarian and oppressive political forces have come to power to demolish any semblance of liberal democratic values, pluralism, social harmony and inclusiveness in the country.
Process of the Reinforcement of Sinhala Buddhist Colonization
January 20, 2020: A team of Buddhist monks of ‘RavanaSena’ visited a Hindu temple in Mullaithivu, intimidated the surrounding Hindu Tamil communities, and claimed land as the property of the Buddhist temple.
January 22, 2020: Amassive ‘vihara’ of the Buddhist temple was constructed, with facilities for monks to reside, in the compound of the Jaffna University complex in Kilinochchi.
March 22, 2020:President Gotabaya Rajapaksa met with the Buddhist Maha Sangha to discuss the Archeological Task Force, led by Defense Secretary Kamal Gunaratne, and which claims to preserve archeological sites in the East.
March 23, 2020:Anew Sinhala settlement has emerged in SeruvilaVerugal,Trincomalee district, where Tamils and Muslims were the dominant population.
June 2, 2020: President Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced the setting up of an Archeological Task Force and published it in the government gazette (2178/17), which includes military officers and Buddhist monks to preserve the historical heritage of Sri Lanka in the Eastern Province.
June 23, 2020: Sinhala settlers have encroached into the pasturelands of cattle breeders in in KoralaiPattu South and EravurPattu in the interior of Batticaloa and put up huts.
July 16, 2020:The Ven. EllawalaMedhanandaThero, a member of the Archeological Heritage Management Task Force, stated that the team examined and identified 2,000 sites as Buddhist heritage.
September 2, 2020:The Ven. PanamureThilakawanshaThero, a member of the Task Force, threatened and expelled farmers from land in Arisimalaisituated in Pulmoddai, Trincomalee district, by intimidating them and stating that they would be arrested if they returned. Mailaththanamadu and Mathavanai Mailaththanamadu and Mathavanai are traditional pasture lands of cattle breeders. These lands are situated in Eravur Pattuand Koralai Pattu Divisional Secretariats in Batticaloa district with the boundary of Ampara and Polonnaruwa districts.
Tamil cattle breeders have, predominantly,been using these lands for many decades and more recently some Muslim and Sinhala cattle breeders also peacefully joined them.There has suddenly been a new challenge for these cattle breeders! Since September 2020, nearly 125 Sinhala farmers entered under the leadership of a Buddhist monk, intimidated the cattle breeders and claimed the land for corn cultivation.
The LLRC report recommends that addressing issues of land would greatly contribute to reconciliation between the communities; however, due to Sinhala encroachment of lands and the failure of this government to ensure good governance, conflicts between the Tamils and Sinhalese are escalating.
The officers of the Mahaweli Authority of Sri Lanka are supporting the farmers by claiming the land for the Mahaweli Agro Development. In this way, the Special Economic Zone such as the Mahaweli projects, High Security Zones and Archeological Heritage Zones are all part of a major implementing mechanism of the Sinhala Buddhist Dynasty in the North-East.
Once again, Sri Lankan Buddhism is deviating from its own Buddha Dhamma and has chosen a path to bolster the government as an oppressive mechanism in the context of a democratic pluralistic society.
Sinhala Buddhist colonization of the North-East has been a long term vision since the time of Independence. Rather than creating an environment of peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka, the approach has been to fuel political turmoil and religious unrest in the country.
Under the Rajapaksa regime, Sinhala Buddhist colonization of the North-East will be rapidly and systematically promoted. With the passing of the 20th Amendment of the Sri Lanka Constitution this week, enhancing most of the constitutional powers to the President, it is evident that the Tamil, Muslim and other minority communities will be weakened not only politically but also socio-culturally and economically.
Batticaloa, the Land of Singing Fish, is currently the Land Mourning Humanity.
Rev. Rajan Rohaan,
Church Commission for Peace and Justice
Church of the American Ceylon Mission