Sri Lanka’s Eastern Province: Land, Development, Conflict
Sri Lanka’s Eastern Province: Land, Development, Conflict
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
For Lanka, A Long Road to Democratic Reform Awaits
For Lanka, A Long Road to Democratic Reform Awaits
Report / Asia 4 minutes

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

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.

Executive Summary

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.

Colombo/Brussels, 15 October 2008

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