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Land and development in the North-East

This week, Northern Provincial Council Chief Minister Wigneswaran lamented the lack of economic development in the North, berating the Sri Lankan state for its “conqueror” mindset and festering militarisation that has come to engulf the Tamil North-East. In particular Wigneswaran highlighted the forcible acquisition of land by the government, a pertinent issue that has gained international attention, as the world ponders on how to bring about a long lasting stability to the island. The issue of land itself is central to the Sri Lankan state’s ongoing efforts to disrupt development in the North-East. Resolving the land question is therefore vital to containing and addressing the island’s escalating ethnic crisis.

Sri Lanka’s long history of acquisition of land in the North-East has been taking place for decades and yet it has been, in economical terms, relatively fruitless for the state. Land forcibly seized by the Sri Lankan military is rarely put to efficient economic use and generally ends up serving as yet another link in the state’s expanding military network. It is taken out of the economy of the North-East and is closed off from productive investment and use.

Much of the land that has been seized, especially in the key corridor linking the Northern and Eastern provinces, if not militarily occupied under the pretext of “security”, has been colonized by Sinhalese settlers from the south. This state sponsored relocation, which has been occurring for decades, is not the same as the migration of Tamils to the south of the island, who have been compelled to flee the militarisation and repression. Instead the flow of Sinhalese settlers has to be incentivised by the state, through the provision of cash hand-outs and ready – made infrastructure, in order to ethnically cleanse the North-East of its Tamil character. The resulting demographic changes though, have been profound.

The propagation of military bases and unremitting colonisation schemes are simply not viable for the Sri Lankan state. With its growing fiscal deficit, driven largely by an ever rising military budget, these schemes have never been assets, but are instead economic liabilities; needing constant state support. Continuing down this path is economically unsustainable for the Sinhala state, quite apart from the devastating consequences for the Tamils.

At the same time Sri Lanka is also actively blocking the sustainable re-development of the Tamil areas. As Wigneswaran noted, a huge asset has not been utilised – the diaspora. With a range of technical skills, know-how and capital, the rapidly growing diaspora holds huge potential for development in the war torn North-East. In the recent past the diaspora has been central to the rehabilitation of its homeland; first in 2001 after the devastation of Chandrika’s ‘War for Peace’ and again after the 2004 Tsunami. Yet the Sri Lankan state has not just failed to engage- it has been actively and aggressively deterring any meaningful diaspora participation. Hostile and malevolent tactics are employed; from blocking foreign nationals from acquiring land, to demanding that diaspora applicants for dual citizenship attend interviews with the Defence Secretary and the murder of Tamil diaspora businessmen who return. An eager and willing diaspora ready to foster meaningful development, is being rigorously repelled by the Sri Lankan state.

Land has always been one of the central drivers of the ethnic conflict. By engaging in a policy of forcible and militarised acquisition of land, Sri Lanka is not only setting itself up in an economically unsustainable position, but it is actively galvanising the Tamil struggle. A stifled Tamil economy accompanied by militarisation and colonisation of the North-East is politicising a new generation of Tamil activists. The end of the armed conflict, mistakenly anticipated as an opportunity to end this cycle of oppression and resistance, has only seen the opposite; a reinvigorated state systematically laying down its hegemony. Unless this militarised grip of Colombo over the Tamil homeland is broken, enduring stability and economic prosperity will remain elusive.