Tension over army 'seizure' of Sri Lanka Jaffna land

Sri Lankan soldiers (May 2013) The army has been accused of 'wholesale militarised seizure' in Jaffna

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There are growing tensions in northern Sri Lanka as Tamil people try to prevent the Sinhalese-dominated army from taking over their land.

In a new development, villagers have driven out a group of surveyors sent by the authorities.

Thousands more are engaged in court action to try to win back land they were displaced from years ago.

Sri Lanka's army defeated separatist Tamil Tiger rebels after a brutal 26-year war in 2009.

The military says it needs land for security purposes and insists it is reducing its overall presence there.

Opposition parliamentarian and lawyer MA Sumanthiran confirmed reports from Point Pedro, at the island's northernmost tip, that dozens of landowners turned away surveyors sent by the government to inspect land earmarked for a new army barracks.

Land in post-war northern Sri Lanka is a highly contentious issue, pitting local Tamil people against the almost entirely Sinhalese army.

'Colonised' north

Two thousand people are petitioning the Appeal Court in Colombo to get back land which they fled during the bloody 26-year war. Northerners have staged street demonstrations on the issue.

Sri Lankan police clash with university students in Jaffna (28 November 2012) Several clashes between the security forces and protesters in Jaffna have occurred in recent months

The powerful military has occupied it for decades and now seeks to gain possession of it. Much of it - about 6,400 acres (26 sq km) - surrounds Jaffna's airport and a harbour which is being developed for the navy.

In a recent article Jaffna-based lawyer and activist Kumaravadivel Guruparan, and a UK-based Tamil doctor, Sivakami Rajamanoharan, described the process as "wholesale militarised seizure" conducted through "dubious" legal means.

They said that as a result "the ethnic demography of the north-east is effectively being re-engineered".

Further south where the final bloody battles of the war were fought, the army says that it needs more land for what they call a "public purpose" - army camps and even army-run holiday resorts.

Human rights campaigners say such moves are keeping vulnerable people, displaced by the war, out of their rightful homes. They accuse the government of trying to "colonise" the Tamil north with Sinhalese.

But the military spokesman, Ruwan Wanigasooriya, described such talk as "absolute rubbish".

He said the land acquisition was "for the security of the people who live there".

"We have gone through 30 years of mayhem. We can't afford a recurrence of conflict," he added.

During the war the Tamil Tigers expelled 100,000 Muslims from the north, while several thousand Sinhalese fled Jaffna in the early years of the war.

Only relatively low numbers have so far returned.

Recently the radical foreign-based website Tamilnet has also reported army seizures of hundreds of acres of Tamil or Muslim-owned land in the ethnically mixed Eastern Province. The reports have not been verified.

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