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Sampoor: Destroying a Community for Development in the name of Security

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by Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

On the 1st of August , Colombo based pro-government English daily “The Island” quoted a top UN official praising the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) for ‘achieving excellent results in its Northern and Eastern rehabilitation and resettlement programme and post-conflict economic development drive’.

In Kilivetti-June 2008-pic: Drs.Sarajevo

Wrapping up his three-day visit to Sri Lanka, John Ging, Director of Operations of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has reportedy said that “I have travelled to many countries with similar problems. But I can say Sri Lanka’s progress after the end of the conflict is tremendous.”

On the 3rd August, the JDS wrote to Mr Ging’s office requesting a clarification.

The JDS wrote: “The content of the quoted statements above, gravely contradicts the factual information gathered by rights groups regarding the state of the IDPs. Therefore we are interested to know whether the above news reports have fairly and accurately reflected your position on the matter or whether you have been misquoted.” His office kept mum

But later on the same day an official statement was released, confirming that it was in fact the opinion of the senior UN officer. The statement said: “The scale of what Sri Lanka has accomplished over the past three years – the pace of resettlement and the development of infrastructure – is remarkable and very clearly visible.” The shocking level of willful ignorance of the grim realities displayed by the UN affiliated agencies was lauded by the Sri Lankan government while more enthusiastic cheerleaders from India and US echoed the same sentiments.

On the 08th of August, speaking at a defence seminar in Colombo organized by the Sri Lanka Army, a senior Indian military officer praised the GoSL on it’s success in ‘bringing normalcy to affected areas’. Addressing the gathering titled ‘Defence Seminar 2012: Towards Lasting Peace and Stability’ , Major General G.S Shergill, the General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of Romeo Force – an elite counterinsurgency force operating under the Indian Rashtriya Rifles – stressed that ‘any post-conflict development should be independently mapped out by respective governments in power and no other nation could impose any conditions on that right’. Presenting the Indian perspective on the matters under a sub-theme titled ‘Indian Assistance in Reconstruction and Resettlement in Sri Lanka’ , he said: “Sri Lanka has done tremendously well in addressing many of those issues and bringing normalcy to affected areas. We see a much improvement in the sphere of reconstruction and recovery, of course with the able support of the Army.”

But he wasn’t alone in his opinion. Speaking on ‘Civil-Military Cooperation’ , a retired US Brigadier General congratulated ‘Sri Lanka Army’s gains in the post-war recovery.’ The former Commander of the 1st Special Forces Group (Airborne) at Fort Lewis, Washington and the former Director of the Jebsen Center for Counterterrorism Studies at the Fletcher School, Dr.Russell D. Howard went even further in praising the government stating that “Sri Lanka has performed remarkably well in the fields of recovery and de-mining. A nation’s military can have a profound source of unification spirit for a country battered by a civil war and Sri Lanka’s military assistance has gone a long way, particularly in the field of de-mining and reconstruction.”

But the irrefutable evidence contradicts much of the hype surrounding Sri Lanka’s ‘Post-War Recovery’. The following report compiled by a team of grass root social activists and rights defenders exposes the harsh ground realities prevailing in the north -east of the island. The four member team of the National Fisheries Solidarity (NAFSO) / Praja Abhilasha Network (PA) / PCHR / Rights Now Sri Lanka’ met the displaced communities of Sampoor, Thirumurugandi, Sinnavalai, Uduppitti, Jaffna Moor Street and Mullikkulam in July 2012.

The subsequent report compiled by them titled ‘Resettlement of the war affected IDPs in Sri Lanka: Going behind the Camouflages’ provides detailed information on the plight of the surviving Tamil communities in the north and east. The blatant disregard for facts displayed by many, including the senior UN officials, deserved to be re-examined in the light of these ground realities. – Editors

Sampoor is a traditional Tamil village that abounds in diverse natural resources in the Mutur Divisional Secretariat of Trincomalee District in the Eastern Province. Those who live there consider their village to be blessed by nature. In fact, the colloquial meaning of Sampoor is ‘perfect living habitat, with all of the basic things for a good life’. The traditional livelihoods of the people of Sampoor have been fishing and agriculture. They provided grain, pulses, fish, milk and firewood to neighbouring communities and to the national markets.

According to the Government Census of 2008, 1940 families lived in Sampoor, comprising 7,494 individuals. All the residents are Tamil; some of them are Hindus while others belong to the Catholic faith. The villagers of Sampoor have faced displacement several times because of the ethnic conflict and their final displacement was in 2006. Since then, 5000 acres of land was declared to be a High Security Zone (HSZ) and their return to their homes was prevented.

Some families from Sampoor whose homes and property fell within the area designated as an HSZ have continued to live in temporary and transit shelters, primarily in Kiliveddy and Kattaiparichchan, in close proximity to their original homes, for over 5 years. There are plans to build a coal power plant with collaboration from the government of India, while some factories are also being built in the Sampoor area which falls within the Special Economic Zone designated by the local government authorities in Trincomalee.

Sampoor: Tracking footprints of war

Being a Tamil village located within the conflict zones of the protracted war between the government’s security forces and the armed fighters of the LTTE, Sampoor has been caught uip in the conflict and its people have suffered the inevitable consequences for almost 20 years. The area has experienced mass arrests, invasion and capture of entire village communities, and also the burning of homes and property.

From August 27 to September 4, 2006, there was intense military activity around Sampoor. Yet, in spite of prevalent ethnic animosity, civil riots and military offensives, Sampoor remained intact as a village community and the inhabitants there occupied themselves in the production of food resources and providing skilled labour to neighbouring areas, while the conflict continued.

In 1987, for the first time the government expressed an interest in the area, with a proposal to establish a military base in Sampoor. However, the idea was shelved due to the Indo-Sri Lankan Peace accord which led to a brief period of peace during which the military forces had to vacate the area.

Following the outbreak of fresh hostilities in 1990, the ‘Eelam War II’, it became evident that the power balance in the area tilted towards the LTTE from the hands of GOSL. The last military camp in the area was closed in 1996, after the conclusion of the northern military offensive code named ‘Jaya Sikurui’ (Victory assured). It is therefore fair to state that when the government’s military forces phased out of the Sampoor area, the LTTE re-established its power in the area until their ultimate defeat by the vigorous war of 2006 when the LTTE was was forced to vacate the area with little damage to the Government forces.

CFA, Mavilaru attacks and the people in Sampoor

In 2002, when the GOSL and LTTE signed the Cease Fire Agreement (CFA), the situation throughout the north and east changed drastically. In the previous years, the LTTE had established their Police Headquarters and the Political Secretariat of the Trincomalee District in the Sampoor area. During this period Sampoor became widely known among local and international circles who were involved in peace mediation and humanitarian work. Government politicians and members of foreign diplomatic missions had been visiting the area with regular frequency.

The first air offensive of the government Air Force in the area was triggered by a attempted suicide bombing on the army Commander General Sarath Fonseka in Colombo. In response, the LTTE attacked the Navy at Veththilakerney and Sinhala civilians at Kebithigollawa; further air raids by GOSL forces targeted Sampoor again. In 2006, the government troops captured the area, and the displacement of the Sampoor people began to occur more steadily and forcefully.

Repeated air attacks by government forces compelled the villagers to flee the area, leaving their homes and possessions behind. They believed that, as the CFA was still in effect, military operations would soon cease and they would be able to return to their original habitat without hindrance or obstacles. But soon these hopes were shattered. All the belongings they had accumulated from their ancestral families or acquired from their hard-earned income – homes, livestock farms and farming and fishing implements – had to be permanently abandoned; even the public facilities such as hospitals and schools fell within the military controlled territory. As a result, the people of Sampoor became utterly helpless, lacking the basic necessities including shelter, clothing, food and any means for survival, irrespective of what they had earned or gained before.

In September 2006, a group of media personnel were brought by the army to visit the area. One of the journalist in delegation wrote on 10 September 2006: “The only damage was caused by search operations after capturing the area. The houses, schools, hospital and civil properties are least damaged.” But our visit made it clear to us that how baseless and irresponsible such claims were.

The fact remains that not only the homes, livestock and farmland of the village community, but even the government buildings including the public hospital of Sampoor was demolished during this time. The skeletal structures of these buildings stand to this day, still and hollow, as silent witness to the wipe-out offensive!

Coal Power Plant, HSZ and the SEZ

After the government forces captured the Sampoor area, plans were announced though a Presidential Gazette Notification for a Coal Power Plant to be built there with support of the Indian government. Within a few weeks of the Gazette Notification, the Government declared the Sampoor area a High Security Zone (HSZ), thereby prohibiting even former residents from entering the restricted territory.

Soon thereafter the government secured the cabinet approval to allocate and nominate the surrounding region as a Special Economic Zone (SEZ). These hasty enactments led the inhabitants of Sampoor to rightly conclude that the community would be stripped of hereditary claims to their land in spite of their ancestral ownership.

In August 2009 (just 3 months after conclusion of the final offensive) certain local newspapers reported that 5000 acres of land have been allocated for a coal power plant. What the media failed to disclose was that more than 500 houses had to be destroyed for this purpose without any prior notification or consent from their rightful owners who at the time were major food producers in the area. This is a clear violation of property rights.

The gravity and illegality of such unethical conduct is one more example of the undemocratic manner in which land, which rightfully belongs to a poor community of farmers and fishers, is illegally transferred and allocated to a third-party as a government-sponsored enterprise.

Current details of Sampoor IDPs who are living in the welfare camps:

The government allocated the area for building the coal power plant to Indian authorities under the false pretext that there is no public claim to the land. No formalities had been followed when the government acquired the land of the Sampoor people.

There was no cost benefit analysis of the project, no assessment of its impact on the well being of the villagers in Sampoor and surrounding areas and no assessment was made of the environmental impact. Furthermore, there was no effort made to invite and conduct public discussion with communities that would be most affected by these changes or share and disseminate information regarding the land acquisition and proposed ‘development’ of the area.

The general understanding shared by the people is that there is no credible or valid reason to violate existing land laws and regulations. They believe that even if there is a proposal to implement a national development program for the greater benefit and welfare of the country, this should not be done without attempts being first made to inform the public of such plans.

Background to the displacement

People had lived in Sampoor with freedom and prosperity. Due to one bomb blast at Colombo, people were displaced, and left to Veera Mahanagar – a village that was subjected to shelling after one month.

The villagers then moved to Lankapattinam, marking their third displacement.

While they were in Lankapattinam, the bridge to that village was destroyed by an aerial bomb, and 60-70 people were killed. The people then moved on to Vakarai, traveling on foot and on bicycles. There was no other transport available. The LTTE did not allow them to travel along the road so at some stages they had to abandon their bicycles and walk through the jungle. Once they got to Vakarai, they were subjected to more aerial bombing making life more difficult. The people then tried to leave, again, and move to Batticoloa.

At the Welikanda army camp, some of them were arrested while others were allowed to go. By December 2006, the people from Sampoor were living as internally displaced persons (IPDs) in various camps in Batticoloa district such as Palameenmadu, Sahera, Sinhala Maha Vidyalaya, Sathurukondan, Kokkuvil, Palacholai, Navetkerni, Manjalthoduwa, Soukady, Eiyenkerney, Alankulam, and Vinayakpuram.

The resettlement process

In the middle of 2007 the government began to organize the resettlement process without consultation with the villagers. There was some resistance to the move because the villagers were not confident that it was safe for them to return. The people from Sampoor were told that they had to return to Trincomalee District if they wanted any resettlement support. The government began to pressure them, including by suspending the issue of food rations to people who refused to return.

As one villager from Sampoor said: “We had some freedom at Batticaloa as we lived close to Batticaloa town. Then the authorities asked us to return to Trincomalee. There was no consensus among the people about that. We told them that ‘if you send us to our own village we will go, otherwise we do not want to go.’ But they sent the army and forced us to go back.

At the first time they beat us and pushed us in to the buses. Then the others followed with fear. The y checked us at Verugal and took photos of us. Then they took us to Chinnakulam and this was the place where we could stay. This is the same place that the government had earlier wanted to resettle people displaced by the HSZ. The people refused this at that time and refused it now.”

The people settled at Kattaiparichchan, close to Sampoor. But the Divisional Secretary was not pleased and strcitly said that he could not extend any support. As a consequence no support has been given from 2007 onwards.

The people told the visiting group of activists: ‘ In this kind of a hut, we can survive for only 6 months. But, now it is 2 1/2 years and this is how we have been existing. This is too bad. This is the kind of life we have been offered’.

The Government does not provide any support to any of these people. The officials, do not consider the importance of re-settling people with their consent. They don’t seemed to have any concern about the grave day to day problems faced by the people. There is no humanitarian assistance at all . In Kilivetty camp, which is a transit camp where some people from Sampoor were temporarily re-settled drinking water or toilets weren’t available. The miseries keep doubling day by day.

The current state of the IDPs of Sampoor

Today, the people of Sampoor live in permanant displacement. Most of them have lived in 4 transit camps including Kilivetty, Pattiththidal, Manatchenai and Kattaparichchan for over 5 years under immense hardship, humiliation and in mental agony. Only a few have moved to live with families elsewhere. Some government officials have forced people from Sampoor to re-settle in Iralkulam and Iththikulam areas.

Iralkulam is considered as a marshy land, that faces floods and remains submerged for prolonged periods during the rainy season while in Iththikulam there is no water even when one digs 40-50 feet deep into the ground. In both areas there is a serious issue with the lack of drinking water.

While Sampoor abounds in natural resources and there is easy access to water for agriculture, animal husbandry and fishing, the areas that have been proposed for resettlement are entirely different. According the people, there is not even 100 acres that is suitable for paddy cultivation. A displaced person asked: “How would rice farmers who cultivated 1000 of acres of land resettle in an area where there is no land for rice farming?”

The people of Sampoor who once owned thousands of acres of land have now become landless, and form part of the displaced communities of Sri Lanka. There is hardly any other place in the Muttur area where they could find suitable alternative land for resettlement. In short, the government authorities have forcibly grabbed the rich fishing and agricultural lands, forests and living habitat in Sampoor, without providing alternative arrangements for its displaced people.

On 1 November 2007, the present Minister for Economic Development, Mr. Basil Rajapakse released a statement claiming that not a single family has been removed from Sampoor. The statement said that the remaining few families were those who had been located there for security purposes by the LTTE and that such families could not prove their ownership nor identify a single house which once belonged to them. But according to the people, this is a totally baseless claim because the community of people displaced from Sampoor have lived in those lands for generations.

The stand taken by Tamil politicians has also not been helpful to address the issues of the displaced people resident in the camps. The Parliamentarian of the area, who is also the leader of the Tamil National Alliance, MP Sambandan, is apparently not taking the issue seriously either, according the displaced people.

India has already acquired the land for the coal power plant and the Special Economic Zone. A foundation stone for the Coal power plant was laid on 6 September 2011 while Tamil politicians it is alleged are afraid to take any action in the parliament or to talk to India on behalf of the displaced.

Are there alternatives?

One of the important questions posed by affected village communities of Sampoor is that ‘if there is not a single paddy field of even 250 acres left in the entire Muttur area, how would the GOSL be able to provide 2,500 acres of cultivable paddy land to replace the land captured from the displaced community?’

Meanwhile, more than 2,500 acres of their productive paddy land lies abandoned and isolated since the time of initial military offensives. As a result, more than 8,000 households composed of over 2,000 families have become unproductive, unoccupied and undeniably useless, suffering the detrimental consequences of displacement, desperation and abandonment while living herded together with those of their families and community who have been spared death, within five of the military camp enclosures in the area.

Thoduwankulam, Ilakkandai, Naiyandei, Velankulam, are areas where the displaced peoples were told they could go for farming last November. This was considered too late as for paddy cultivation, they should have begun work on the fields by October.

Important major educational institutes that have been affected in the area include the: Sampoor Maha Vidyalaya, Sampoor Sri Murugan School, Kuniththivu Navalar College, and the Soodekkudah Parathi College. It is further reported that an army camp has been established in the premises belonging to the Sampoor Maha Vidyalaya.

A few other prominent study centers and Hindu temples (kovils) which have been badly damaged or alomst demolished in the area include, Sri Badrakali Ambal Kovil, Sampoor Vinayagar Kovil, Sampoor Arasady Vinayagar Kovil, Kuniththivu Vinayagar Kovil, Kuniththivu Vada Badrakali Ambal Kovil. The Soodaikkudah Mari Amman Kovil has been abandoned and lies in ruin. The well known Sampoor Sri Badrakali Amman Kovil has been bombed and destroyed; the Sampoor Naga Kovil has been demolished fully.

The million dollar question then is, what sort of a country that would aim to implement a “National Development Project” while forcibly displacing 8000 people from their homes, destroying their livelihoods, depriving their children of access to 5 schools in the nearby vicinity, and barring people from accessing 7 places of religious worship (Kovils)? Who would be held responsible for this wanton destruction of a community of citizens?

These questions still remain to be answered by the rulers of the country courtesy: JDSLanka.org

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