Kurunthurmalai: A Classic Case of Land Grabbing and Lawlessness in Sri Lanka
For successive Sri Lankan governments disrespecting court orders, and going back on assurances to the people, international bodies including the UN has become a norm.
As the 51st session of the UN Human Rights Council discussed the situation in Sri Lanka, continued land grabbing and intimidation of Tamils under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) continues. And the construction of a Buddhist Vihara in utter disregard to a court order has brought to the fore that a set of different laws and rules exist for the Buddhist hardliners.
Even in her last update, The UN Human Rights High Commissioner pinpointed land grabbing under the guise of Archaeological sites and warned such acts were an impediment to reconciliation.
“There has also been a more recent trend of land disputes in relation to the construction of Buddhist heritage conservation or for forestry protection, mainly in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, which has further jeopardized reconciliation and created new conflicts. In June 2022, the Army facilitated the dedication of a new Buddhist shrine in Kurunthurmalai, Mullaitivu, in violation of a Court order that prohibited any new edification in an area that is claimed by Hindu and Buddhist worshippers. On 14 July, the Mullaitivu court ordered the removal of all new constructions, including a new Buddhist shrine”.
In the last few days, the statement of the High Commissioner has become true.
War-affected Tamils & civil society activists staged a protest to save their traditional homeland and their culture and right from worshiping and protecting their religious places.
Local leaders protesting against the building of a Buddhist Vihara in spite of a court order in the traditional Tamil homeland Kurunthurmalai in Mullaitivu district were arrested.
They were accused of ‘criminal coercion’. A local journalist says 11 lawyers from the Mullaitivu bar association were present in the court to argue the case on behalf
of those arrested.
While two prominent locals were released on bail immediately another was remanded in custody for over a couple of days and then released.on conditional bail. Protestors condemned the state for contempt of court and demanded to halt the ‘illegal’ constructions.
The archelogy department while denying to show any documents to prove it’s a ‘sacred land’ lodged a complaint with the Mullaitivu police based on which Tamils were summoned and arrested. The video of an archaeological department official denying to show any proof went viral on social media. If it’s an archaeological place it can only be or must be protected and no construction can be allowed. If so, it raises questions about the claim of being an archaeological site.
Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF) spokesperson and attorney Suhas was chased away by the police who questioned them about the continued construction when there was a stay order by the local court.
More than 600 acres of land belonging to the Tamils in the Thannimurippu Kurunthurmalai area were grabbed by the state through the Archelogy department and the construction of a massive Buddhist temple started with the support of the ‘oppressive’ Sri Lankan Army as said by TNPF leader Gajendra Kumar Ponnambalam in the Parliament during the discussion on the interim budget.
The Mullaitivu court had ordered Kurunthurmalai: A Classic Case of Land Grabbing and Lawlessness in Sri Lanka on 6th June this year to maintain the status quo as on – Siva Parameswaran that date i.e., ‘no further construction nor demolition.’ But in contempt of that order, the construction took place which forced the Tamils to protest.
While Tamils were barred from entering the area, Buddhist monks and the construction workers with the help of the army were able to freely access the place and continue with the
‘illegal’ construction of the Vihara.
“The Sri Lankan Army back the aggressive act of a Buddhist Monk who constructs a Vihara against court orders. Unless & until these monks are disciplined nothing is going to change is Sri Lanka” tweeted Tamil Progressive Alliance leader and MP Mano Ganesan. Civil society activists point out that while the illegal grabbing of the Tamil’s land continues unabated in the North and East, the South including the said-to-be mainstream English and Sinhala media maintain a stoic silence about the suffering of the Tamils and the construction of the Buddhist Vihara in Kurunthurmalai. They also point out that ‘there are two sets of laws in the country-One for the Tamils & Muslims and the other for the Sinhalese’.
Construction of a Buddhist Vihara in the traditional homeland of the Tamils and that too at a very holy place with a Hindu shrine dedicated to Lord Siva is described as detrimental to communal harmony.
War affected Tamils’ question “why the Buddhist monks and the archaeological authorities who went ahead with the construction in spite of the court’s order weren’t questioned
and arrested, while the Tamil protestors demanding the implementation of the court’s order and their right to their traditional homeland were arrested”.
The funding for the Kurunthurmalai Vihara constructed by Shantabodi Thero was allegedly funded by business tycoon and former president of the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress Jagat Sumathipala, whose controversial brother Tilanga Sumathipala is being investigated by the Anti-corruption unit of the International Cricket Council on corruption allegations.
Adding insult to injury, Colombo district MP from the Ruling coalition and former Navy chief Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekara vowed in parliament to carry on with state-sponsored construction of a Buddhist Temple on the archaeological site in Kurunthurmalai and settling people in the neighbourhood of Thirukoneswaram Kovil disregarding Tamil opposition.
The opposition to his comments was immediate and hard-hitting. TNA MP Siritharan while replying to him said, “Sarath Weerasekara is deliberately misleading people and speaks
what’s far from the truth”.
The land grabbing and illegal construction at Kurunthurmalai and the threat of repeating the same at Trincomalee by hardline Sinhala politicians have made the Tamils even more vulnerable. With thousands of acres of land more so fertile ones yet to be returned to the Tamils, the UNHRC commissioner’s report touched on the land issue as well.
“In his 8 August 2022 speech, the President acknowledged that there are many land issues that need to be resolved”. The Government reports that the total number of private lands released by the Armed Forces from 2009 to June 2022 is 92% which is far from the truth according to Tamil MPs who say, in Kurunthurmalai itself the occupation is more than 600 acres. Plans are already underway to acquire another 617 acres of land in the Vattuvakal area in Mullaitivu District for the Gotabaya Naval Camp. It was in the same Vattuvakal area that thousands of Tamils were handed over or surrendered to the Military at the end of the war and many others who were taken away for interrogation from camps were never to be seen again.
If Sri Lanka needs to tackle its economic crisis, it would very much need the support of the international community and any such support will always be tagged to securing Human Rights and the rule of the law and accountability which unfortunately doesn’t seem to matter for the government. (Canada Uthayan – 14/10/2022))