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Homepage > Regions / Countries > Asia > South Asia > Sri Lanka > Sri Lanka’s Eastern Province: Land, Development, Conflict

Sri Lanka’s Eastern Province: Land, Development, Conflict

Asia Report N°159 15 Oct 2008


Sri Lanka’s government must address the security needs and land-related grievances of all ethnic communities in its Eastern Province or risk losing a unique opportunity for development and peace. Muslims, Tamils and Sinhalese all feel weak and under threat, and recent ethnic violence could easily worsen. The government must devolve real power to the newly elected provincial council, end impunity for ongoing human rights violations and work to develop a consensus on issues of land, security and power sharing with independent representatives of all communities, including those from opposition parties.

The province is Sri Lanka’s most ethnically complex region and has been at the heart of post-independence conflicts. It features a Tamil-speaking majority split equally between ethnic Tamils and Muslims, as well as a sizeable Sinhala minority who mostly moved there from the south under state irrigation and resettlement schemes. Lying at the intersection of competing Tamil and Sinhala nationalisms, the east has seen some of the worst of Sri Lanka’s inter-ethnic violence and remains at risk for more.

For Tamil nationalists, the province is an integral part of the Tamil homeland, but has been subject to deliberate state attempts to change the ethnic balance and undermine its Tamil character. The October 2006 Supreme Court decision to separate the Eastern from the Northern Province, temporarily merged under the terms of the 1987 Indo-Lanka accord, and subsequent provincial council elections in May 2008 were a major blow to Tamil nationalists. For Sinhala nationalists, the province should be equally open to all Sri Lankans, and its hundreds of ancient Buddhist sites and rich Sinhala cultural heritage should be defended and preserved. The east is also home to an emergent Muslim nationalism, largely a product of Muslims’ insecurity relative to Tamil armed groups and the Sinhala-dominated government.

The east remained tense throughout the 2002-2006 peace process, with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) killing many dissenting Tamils, forcibly recruiting children and continuing their harassment of Muslims. The east grew even more tense in March 2004 when the LTTE’s eastern military commander, “Colonel Karuna”, split from the Tigers and formed the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Puligal (TMVP). The next few years of guerrilla warfare between the northern Tigers and Karuna’s forces, with government support for the latter, contributed to the collapse of the ceasefire. The massive death and destruction caused by the December 2004 tsunami led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands and increased conflict over scarce land.

The government relaunched military action against the LTTE in July 2006. After a year-long campaign that saw large-scale destruction and the displacement of almost 200,000, mostly Tamil, civilians, the military forced the LTTE from their last stronghold in the east in July 2007. The government immediately promised restoration of democracy, devolution of powers to local and provincial politicians and development for the province.

The removal of the LTTE has brought benefits to all three communities. Development projects have begun and the economic benefits of relative peace have been felt by all communities. Recent violent clashes between Tamils and Muslims, however, are a sign of underlying insecurity aggravated by the flawed and ethnically divisive provincial council elections of 10 May 2008. Violence, intimidation and rigging significantly damaged the credibility of the results, which saw government parties win a narrow majority of seats. Their victory was due in large part to their alliance with the TMVP, which remains armed. Far from a champion of Tamil rights, the TMVP is a crucial part of the government’s counter-insurgency campaign in the east and is credibly accused of abductions, extortion and political killings of Tamils. The province’s new chief minister and TMVP deputy leader, S. Chandrakanthan, has so far worked well with pro-government Muslim ministers, but many Muslims continue to distrust the TMVP’s intentions and see it as maintaining the LTTE’s aggressive approach to Muslims. The July 2008 return to Sri Lanka of TMVP founder Karuna has further added to tensions.

Both Tamils and Muslims suspect the government plans to “Sinhalise” the east – through development projects that will bring in new Sinhala settlers, environmental regulations that will remove public lands from use by Muslims and Tamils and the recovery of ancient Buddhist sites. Development plans for Trincomalee district, in conjunction with a high security zone that has forced some 8,000 Tamils off their lands, are objects of particular suspicion. In Ampara district, there are serious tensions between local Muslims and Sinhalese, with the government ally and Sinhala nationalist Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) accused of working against Muslims interests.

The unilateral nature of the government’s initiatives in the east encourages these fears. The acceptance of the de-merger of the north and east, the appointment of a new Sinhalese-dominated provincial administration, the major role of the military in civilian affairs, development plans that promise large-scale changes to the east, local government and provincial council elections – all have been imposed from Colombo. There has been little input from independent representatives of Tamils and Muslims, who constitute the clear majority of the province.

To build confidence, the government must quickly fulfil its promise to devolve real power to the Eastern Provincial Council. This should begin with – but go beyond – maximising devolved powers allowed under the Thirteenth Amendment, which established provincial councils but has yet to be effectively implemented anywhere in Sri Lanka. In addition, the government needs to work out common and transparent policies on a range of issues currently dividing the communities: physical security, the fair allocation of state land, the legitimate protection of religious sites and the equitable distribution of benefits from economic development. While the government needs to make the first move, opposition parties should express their willingness to engage in good faith negotiations. The Eastern Province needs development. It also urgently needs political reforms. Development without accompanying political and administrative reforms risks aggravating existing conflicts.


To the Government of Sri Lanka:

1.  Devolve maximum power and provide adequate financial support to the Eastern Provincial Council by immediately making the necessary administrative and legal changes, as outlined in draft interim proposals submitted by the All Party Representative Committee (APRC) in January 2008, to enable the consistent and workable implementation of the Thirteenth Amendment.

2.  Grant police powers to the Eastern Provincial Council only after the Constitutional Council is functioning and has appointed a new National Police Commission.

3.  Ensure the security and nurture the confidence of the three communities of the Eastern Province by:

a) demilitarising the TMVP and integrating those cadres not credibly accused of human rights violations into the police and the security forces, while affording TMVP officials and office holders effective police protection; and

b) enforcing the law fully and without political interference, preventing further political killings and abductions and bringing to justice the perpetrators of major cases of human rights violations in the east, including the January 2006 killing of five students in Trincomalee, the August 2006 murder of the Action contre la faim workers in Mutur, the September 2006 murder of ten Muslim workers in Potuvil, and the February-March 2008 organised sexual assaults of women in Akkaraipattu.

4.  Invite opposition parties, including the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and civil society representatives, with guaranteed protection, to join a regional peace process to discuss the grievances of the three communities and seek consensus on the future of the east and viable forms of power sharing at all levels of governance.

5.  Address continuing land disputes and their underlying causes by:

a) establishing a land task force with independent representatives from all three communities and from development agencies to survey existing land disputes and allegations of Sinhalisation, clarify the rights of various parties involved and, to the extent possible, resolve ongoing disputes;

b) creating divisional-level land committees, composed of representatives from the government, opposition parties, civil society and donors, who would monitor and mediate land disputes on an ongoing basis;

c) ensuring that any process of registering and distributing abandoned, forcibly seized or newly opened state land (a land kachcheri) is administered in transparent and equitable ways with consultation from all three communities;

d) establishing the National Land Commission called for under the Thirteenth Amendment to formulate national policy on land use and development in the north and east and propose comprehensive legal reforms designed to ensure greater transparency and equity in the use and allocation of land;

e) devising transparent and equitable rules for the acquisition and distribution of land near archaeological and sacred sites; and

f) reducing further the size of the Mutur East-Sampur high security zone (HSZ) to make possible the resettlement of as many displaced residents as possible, and guarantee fair compensation and/or replacement land, with adequate infrastructure and livelihood opportunities, for those unable to return.

6.  Ensure economic development in the east is equitable and inclusive and perceived as such by all communities by:

a) making a public commitment not to allow development to alter significantly the existing ethnic balance of the province;

b) assuring that the economic benefits of development are shared evenly by all three communities;

c) consulting widely with local communities and with representatives of opposition parties to ensure that development work responds to local priorities and to address widespread fears among Tamils and Muslims that development will lead to the “Sinhalisation” of the east; and

d) adopting preferential hiring for local workers in all development projects and ensuring that local businesses receive maximum possible benefits of development.

7.  Adopt administrative structures and governance practices that assure all three communities their concerns are being fairly considered by:

a) ensuring that the provincial administration reflects the ethnic composition of the province at all levels of the civil service;

b) ending all executive appointments of retired military or police personnel to positions of civil administration in the Eastern Province;

c) de-ethnicising the divisional administrative system, beginning by rotating divisional secretaries (DS) between locations and ending the practice of having the DS be of the same ethnicity as the majority of the division; and

d) considering the adoption of an executive committee system for the Eastern Provincial Council and a system for rotating the position of chief minister between representatives of the three communities.

To the President of Sri Lanka:

8.  Establish immediately the Constitutional Council, as required by the Seventeenth Amendment, and request it to nominate new members for all independent commissions.

9.  Request the APRC to conclude its deliberations quickly and free from political interference and promptly finalise constitutional reform proposals.

To the Constituent Parties of the All Party Representative Committee (APRC):

10.  Conclude deliberations quickly and publish final proposals for legal and constitutional changes necessary for effective devolution and power sharing.

To the United National Party (UNP):

11.  Rejoin the APRC, insist on maximum devolution through the full and coherent implementation of the Thirteenth Amendment and state publicly willingness to support in parliament reasonable devolution and power-sharing proposals that go beyond the Thirteenth Amendment, once these are submitted by the APRC.

To the Chief Minister of the Eastern Province:

12.  Prevent the extortion, abduction and intimidation of Muslims in the Eastern Province, take punitive action against offenders and publicly disclose such actions.

To All Opposition Political Parties:

13.  Express willingness to join a government-sponsored, provincial-level peace process and land task force.

To the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Puligal (TMVP):

14.  End once and for all recruitment of underage cadres, demobilise those remaining members who are below eighteen and end all illegal activities.

To the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE):

15.  Cease all political killings and attacks on security forces in the Eastern Province.

To the International Community, in particular India, Japan, the U.S., EU Member States, Norway, Canada, Australia and Switzerland:

16.  Request the government to announce its timetable for making the legal and administrative changes necessary to achieve maximum devolution under the Thirteenth Amendment and continue to stress the importance of constitutional changes and power sharing that go beyond the Thirteenth Amendment.

17.  Assist the government in the demobilisation and reintegration of TMVP fighters, including a process to ensure that no TMVP members credibly accused of human rights violations join the security forces.

18.  Actively support and defend the work of independent civil society organisations in the east, especially women’s groups, human rights advocates and those working for inter-ethnic accommodation.

Colombo/Brussels, 15 October 2008

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