EDITORIAL: Only Reciprocation Can Solve the Land Problem in Jaffna

| by Thomas Johnpulle

( July 21, 2012, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Following the Black July riot we stayed at St Lucia’s Cathedral, Colombo-13 for a few days before moving into a family friend’s house near the St Anthony’s Church. After repairing the house and furnishing, we moved back to our home by year end. We were thankful our most valuable property – the land – was intact. We could go back and reclaim it and no one would restrict us. Thereafter thankfully life got more predictable without any similar occurrences. However, the same cannot be said about 20,402 Sinhalese and close to 75,000 Muslims permanently evicted from Jaffna in the 1970s and in 1990. Even their immovable property was stolen! This makes it much worse than the Black July. Needless to say for over four decades, they have not returned. It is high time to hand them back their immovable property in Jaffna so that one of the most despicable episodes of this nation’s history can be put to rest.

It must be done to build trust, win hearts and minds of the people, to reverse the total wipe out of Muslims and Sinhalese in Jaffna and in return find an amicable solution to the land problem in Jaffna. Without reciprocating, nothing good will come by.

Unfortunately there are some groups totally insensitive to these facts due to racism and selfishness. Little they realize unless this episode is put to rest, associated problems cannot be resolved.

Fate of properties of 95,000 people

According to the 1971 census there were 20,402 Sinhalese in Jaffna but by 1981 their numbers fell to 4,615 and then to zero after war started in 1983. What is interesting is most of them were forced to leave Jaffna before the war started. It was communal politics and threats of extreme violence that climaxed in 1975-77 that terrorised them to leave their homes and businesses in a hurry. Their attempts to sell their properties failed as the property prices were hit due to the escalation of violence. Buyers knowing the desperation of sellers demanded dirt cheap prices. But most properties were simply annexed. After 1983 none of them could even visit their places. By 1989 when there was a respite in fighting, more than 10 years had lapsed giving those who annexed these properties complete rights by way of proscription. 25,000 people on average would have owned 7,000 to 8,000 properties. They lost everything including land. Most unfortunate part is that these properties were grabbed not by the LTTE but by civilians who were neighbours of Jaffna Sinhalese. After war’s end, all LTTE held land has been claimed by security forces but private property belonging to Jaffna Sinhalese were annexed by private individuals and could not be recovered back. Some have since sold them to unassuming buyers.

This process repeated in 1990 when close to 75,000 Muslims were similarly chased out of Jaffna. They were given only 48 hours and allowed only 100 rupees (about 2 US dollars at that time) to be taken with them. They too lost everything. Once again it was private civilians who annexed most of these properties. Remaining High Security Zones cover only a negligible extent of evicted Muslims’ properties. 75,000 people would have had 20,000 to 25,000 properties. When a cessation of hostilities was declared in 1994, some of them travelled back to Jaffna which was under LTTE control then. New owners refused to hand back the properties. By 2002 when another ceasefire came into operation and the army was in control of Jaffna, proscription worked to denounce them their right to property. As Tamils we must spare a thought for them, else they won't spare a thought for us.

Today Jaffna is Tamil only. There is no diversity among the civilian population. It is of utmost importance to correct this historical wrong that is in par with the July 1983 riot, if not worse.

Adverse impacts of broken trust

These two events boomeranged back in most unexpected ways. As part of the proposed political solution, Tamil negotiators demand land and police powers! It is futile even to expect they will get any unless they show by conduct they respect the land rights of evicted Sinhalese and Muslims. For this all their properties must be handed back to them. Otherwise no one in right mind will trust them for 35% of the landmass of the island. Sinhalese and Muslims are vehemently against any land and/or police powers to provincial units for this very reason.

There was a time when the Sinhalese promoted Tamils to the top post in the nation. Sir Ramanathan was promoted to the highest post of the colony by the Sinhalese. His brother was made the president of the largest political group of the Sinhalese – Ceylon National Congress. Since then this trust was broken. Apart from Lakshman Kadirgamar and Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, no Tamil was able to win the support of the majority to command a nationally significant governing position.

Northern Province and the Eastern Province are two separate provinces. A national referendum can merge them. But only a small percentage of people will support it without correcting past wrongs of evicting people from Jaffna. Owing to demographic distribution, the Eastern Province has a Tamil political minority. It is a matter of time since the Eastern Province had a Muslim Chief Minister. When that happens, it totally buries Tamil homeland claims relating to the East. The only way out of this predicament is to win back the trust of Muslims and Sinhalese. Unless that happens soon, the Eastern province will veer away from the North politically and culturally. Without handing back the land of Muslims and Sinhalese in Jaffna this is unlikely to happen. Its long term consequences will be very dangerous. Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (the single most powerful Muslim party in the East) was created by the neglect of Muslim interests by Tamil parties. Since then SLMC has aligned with national political parties further strengthening its political power. Tamil leaders losing the Eastern Province will have a significant geopolitical impact.

Winning hearts and minds is a two way process
Winning hearts and minds is a two way process. While non Tamils must win the hearts and minds of Tamils, it is the duty of Tamils to win the hearts and minds of non Tamils. Otherwise there is little need for non Tamils to keep winning the hearts and retaining them. LTTE extortion tactics and threats are dead currency today. As with any contract, valuable consideration must pass both ways for there to be any continuity.

Finding a long lasting and amicable remedy to the ethnic problem needs the participation of all. Threats and pressure cannot bring a lasting solution. They fizzle out as geopolitics changes if not earlier. Eventually only people to people trust will remain. This is why their problem is our problem and we must resolve it first for our problems to be resolved. Without reciprocation, the land problem in the north will never be resolved.