Access to land in the North and the East has been one of the most controversial and politically sensitive post-conflict issues in Sri Lanka. In November 2011, the Government of Sri Lanka (more precisely the Ministry of Land and Land Development) published a “land circular” (titled “Regulating the Activities Regarding Management of Lands in the Northern and Eastern Provinces’ Circular No: 2011/04). A land circular is a legal order enacted to resolve the many land disputes, which have arisen in the Northern and Eastern Provinces.

The North and East of Sri Lanka is facing a significant refugee problem three decades of civil war ending with the bloody defeat of the LTTE by the Government of Sri Lanka in May 2009.

According to UNR statistics, at the end of 2010 there are some 141,063 Sri Lanka refugees living in 65 countries, while the current situation in Sri Lanka is that there are 17,000 people living in military run camps, while over 200,000 more remain “informally displaced”: living in temporary accommodation, living with friends or homeless .

Both the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE share responsibility for this crisis. During the time when the LTTE controlled the North and East, they forcibly removed the Muslim community, and many ethnically Sinhalese residents fled in terror. Then during the terrible last days of the war many civilians tried to escape fearing for their lives. Virtually the entire population of the north were forced out of their homes by the conflict and forced marched by the advancing army and retreating LTTE onto Mullativu beach in the far north-east. Many of the survivors are still trying to make it back home.

It is only right that displaced people of all ethnicities be allowed to return.

Given the upheaval, and the number of legal documents that had been lost in the conflict, the situation was chaotic and there was a dire need for the government to restore legal order to the land ownership issue. The “land circular” was an attempt to do just that. However, the Government appears to be using this process as a cover to move significant numbers of new settlers with no prior claim to the land into the north – not to mention seizing swathes of land for the military. Ragarding the circular some provisions are problematic and unclear and seem to be favouring particular communities. Land management is a very important political issue and should not be taken by the Government of Sri Lanka as an opportunity to control Tamils areas, trying to effect unnatural changes in the demographic pattern for electoral advantage and implementing a “Sinhalisation” process.

The first element of the process to cause resentment was that prior to the land circular’s introduction all land ownership was suspended except for the land acquired for national security and special development project of the State (to learn more about it, click here). This effectively gave the military carte blanche to seize land that wasn’t theirs – something it appears they did with abandon

Then, under the circular, all landowners of the North and East, including private land owners are required to furnish details to the relevant Divisional Secretary or Assistant Government Agent, within two months with the purpose of “resolving land disputes in the Northern and Eastern Provinces consequent to the conflict.”

After 30 years of war many people are enable to prove their ownership because they have lost the documents, because the documents were damaged or destroyed by the war events or as they have fled the area and new people have encroached. Those who do not have documents to support their claims are required to complete ownership application forms that also must be submitted to the central government officials. Private landowners may lose title to their lands if they fail to furnish details within two months.

In case of competing claims, two Committees of Inquires and special mediation boards will be in charge of decided who has best claim over the land.

While Sri Lanka has well-established laws on the management of State lands and clear principles on ownership and entitlement to private lands, this process introduces a new system of land distribution with strong military involvement. The involvement of the army in an aspect of civil governance is a serious matter of concern, but sadly not of surprise. Nor is the fact these mediation boards tended to side with the army on the many issues of land ownership in which the military were directly involved. The requirement of an independent and effective administration, as required through the 17 Amendment to the Constitution, is absolutely necessary to ensure a a proper process.

Now a judicial proceedings has been initiated against the Circular. The petitioner argued “that the actions of the respondents are unreasonable, capricious, irrational, unfair, arbitrary and ultra vires” and also that “the Land Circular is merely an administrative circular issued by the Land Commissioner General, who has no apparent authority in law to issue such a circular”. A few weeks ago, facing defeat in court (the actions under the circular being so egregious not even the heavily compromised Sri Lankan judiciary could let them slide the government gave up and withdrew the Land Circular.

But with the Government of Sri Lanka seemingly set on the militarisation and Sinhalisation of the north and east it remains to be seen what the next attempt at land ownership rationalisation will look like. This victory is a credit to those brave civil society organisations willing to stand up to the government and shows that, despite the government’s attitude, they can sometimes win. But while we should be pleased for this victory, sadly the story is far from over.