Grounds of conflict

Published : Apr 07, 2006 00:00 IST

The "Tamil Eelam Lands Act" once again highlights a key issue of the conflict - control of land

V.S. SAMBANDAN in Colombo

ON March 10, Sri Lanka saw its latest piece of "rebel legislation - the "Tamil Eelam Lands Act". Promulgated by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), it is more than just another diktat; it strikes at the very core of one of the most sensitive and contentious issues of the island's decades-long ethnic conflict - control over land. Earlier it was the development of irrigation projects, settlements and colonisation that triggered bloody fighting between Tamil rebels - including the many militant groups in the 1970s and 1980s - and the Sri Lankan government.

Like the "Acts" passed earlier by the LTTE, such as the "Tamil Eelam Penal Code" and the "Tamil Eelam Civil Code" of 1994, the latest one is part of the trappings of a de facto state in rebel-controlled northern and eastern Sri Lanka. Recently, the LTTE also prescribed a "flag code" for the "Tamil Eelam National Flag".

The "Lands Act", it appears, is the most significant rebel fiat since the LTTE submitted its proposals for an Interim Self-Governing Authority (ISGA) for the North-East in October 31, 2003. According to that proposal, the ISGA "shall have the power to alienate land and determine the use of all land in the North-East that is not privately owned". The ISGA also proposed the appointment of a "Special Commissioner on Administration of Land".

The issue of land is an integral part of the conflict. It has been a component of successive attempts at conflict resolution, from the India-mediated Thimphu talks in the mid-1980s to Chandrika Kumaratunga's draft Constitution proposals of the mid-1990s. In fact, control over land is an intricate part of the Sri Lankan state structure. In unitary Sri Lanka, the central government's control over land is aptly captured by the Indian scholar Partha S. Ghosh, who said: "The state is the biggest landlord in Sri Lanka." (Ethnicity versus Nationalism: The Devolution Discourse in Sri Lanka, 2003).

Under the Crown Lands Act, a continuation of the British governance system, the right to alienate land rests with the Executive President. This, the Tamils say, resulted in lands in Tamil-majority northern and eastern Sri Lanka being set apart for colonisation. This was also among the key factors that resulted in the separatist conflict.

One of the most common stereotypes of the Sinhala-Tamil conflict is also directly related to territory and control over land. For instance, the common Sinhalese argument is that Sri Lankan Tamils, who constitute about 12 per cent of the island's population, would have control over one-third of the territorial land encompassing the currently merged northern and eastern districts.

According to a study by a Sri Lankan think tank, the Marga Institute, the area covered by the merged North-East province is 28.4 per cent of the total land area (quoted in Partha S. Ghosh [2003]). Working on an assumption that the Muslim-majority Amparai district is "taken out of the Eastern Province and a few other small readjustments are made to make one contiguous Tamil-majority province, that province would comprise not more than 21 per cent of the total land area of the island. This province would contain a Tamil population of 8.6 per cent of the national population" (Fact Sheet on Devolution: Land and Population; Marga Institute, Colombo; August 1995). Sunil Bastian, another Sri Lankan scholar who worked on the issue of land, estimated in 1995 that "82 per cent of all land in the country belongs to the Sri Lankan state now".

The academic studies made in Sri Lanka during the 1990s - when the mood was buoyant with hopes of devolution - continue to have relevance in the current context. Land being a key issue in any power-sharing arrangement, the estimated extent of land a merged North-Eastern province would hold after devolution is very relevant.

These estimates and hypothetical projections are also to be seen against the current ground situation in the North-East. The LTTE's control over land is varied across the northern and eastern districts. For instance, in northern Sri Lanka, its actual hold on land - with the Forward Defence Lines as the markers - is complete in Mullaittivu and Kilinochchi districts, and is spread over parts of Mannar and Vavuniya districts. In the east, it does not have a complete hold over any district. In addition, the continued rebellion by its former special commander V. Muralitharan or `Col.' Karuna, implies that the rebel hold over land in the three eastern districts of Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Amparai is continuously challenged.

Therefore, the actual extent of land under LTTE control is far less than the 28 per cent of the total Sri Lankan land territory that is the area of the merged North-East province. (According to some guesstimates, rebel-controlled land could actually be just over 7 per cent of the total land.)

The "Act" covers a range of subjects in `Tamil Eelam' such as "distribution of land for the landless, alienating land for public purposes, settlement of land owned by the displaced either among them or their relatives and fixing land rates". It also contains provisions for distributing agricultural land for landless farmers, allocating land to "private individuals, NGOs and government offices".

The LTTE's "judicial system" traces its origins to the early days of Sri Lankan Tamil militancy when the rebel group had village-level "mediation boards". With the formation of the "Tamil Eelam Judiciary" and "College of Law", in 1993, the system, with at least six "district courts", two "high courts" and an "appeal court" has grown as a structure of the administration in rebel-held Sri Lanka.

With no solution in sight for the conflict - owing to both the LTTE's violent intransigence and the hardening of positions among the southern hardliners - the message the LTTE is attempting to send out both to the Sri Lankan state and the international community is that it remains fixed on its goal of a separate Tamil Eelam. The fiats are also a pointer to the nature of "law-making" in LTTE-administered Sri Lanka where democracy does not appear anywhere on the political radar.

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