Residents in Sampur, Trincomalee have been ejected from their land to make way for a coal power plant. This article published by The Samosa provides context to the situation and is also replicated below.

Monday, 20 September 2010
By Nina de la Preugne

The people of Sampur are beginning to despair that they will ever go back to their land. More than a year after the defeat of the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Tamils and Muslims cannot return to their homes because the area remains what the government calls a High Security Zone (HSZ). Displaced by the war in 2006, the inhabitants of Sampur, near Trincomalee in northeast Sri Lanka, came back last year to find themselves locked out of their own land. Barbed wire and checkpoints now stand between them and their birthplace.

“I lived in Sampur all my life, my village was inside what is now the High Security Zone. Our ancestors were living here for 300 years, since British rule. We feel a huge loss for our community. We lost our land,” says Kanakasingam, a 68-year-old farmer.

“It is like we are put behind bars, because what we really want is to go across these barriers that prevent us from reaching home. And it is so close.”

High Security Zones are militarised areas created by the authorities during the long civil war between the national government and the LTTE, in strategic areas where the separatists were likely to attack or develop military advantage. Prior to 2006, the LTTE’s Trincomalee district headquarters were situated in Sampur. It was also an important base for its navy, the Sea Tigers, as Sampur offered a strategic vantage point to launch operations in the Trincomalee bay. In April 2006, as fighting resumed between the army and the LTTE following a bomb attack in Colombo, Sampur became a key battleground and the population fled. The army won the battle and the LTTE moved to Vanni, but Sampur was classified as an HSZ and was used by the Sri Lankan navy as a fortified base, preventing the population from moving back.

Despite the end of the war in May 2009, the area remains an HSZ and the government is planning to build a coal power plant within the zone. According to Mr Nageswaran, the president of a welfare association for the displaced Tamils, the government is reluctant to declassify the area for fear of the LTTE regrouping, as Trincomalee was always an important location for the movement and independent elements of the terrorist organisation are still present in the region. He also believes authorities want to resettle Sinhalese people in Sampur as part of a wider plan to shift the ethnic balance of the region.

The government’s motives behind the HSZ do not concern Tamils alone – the Muslim population of Sampur is worried as well. Although Muslims were persecuted by the LTTE during the 1990s, Tamil and Muslim civilians were all displaced when fighting resumed in 2006.

“When we came back, we saw the houses destroyed. No one got anything in the end. Both Tamils’ and Muslims’ houses were robbed by the government forces. We worked together to rebuild. We have to face the government together on the land issue,” says Rajazaly, a 43-year-old teacher.

“We all want our land back. It was seized by force,” he adds.

Rajazaly too is convinced the authorities are planning on resettling Sinhalese people on his family land, and he explains that although the war is over, most people are still living in fear because of Sinhalese dominance.

“We have no protection, army or police forces of our own. The government forces are all Sinhalese. We don’t expect help from them. The government considers Muslims and Tamils to be unimportant; it tries to destroy our identities. One of the Hindu temples was destroyed by Sinhalese people recently, probably with the support of the army. Next it will be the mosques”, he says.

Officially however, Sampur remains an HSZ because of the planned power plant development. Dr K Vigneswaran, an adviser to the Eastern Provincial Council Minister, says the plans to build the coal power plant were initiated long before 2006 and the displacement of the population, but believes the eviction procedure is not settled yet.

“People have to be displaced for the construction of the coal plant, but they should be resettled properly and given compensation,” he says.

According to Mr Nageswaran, 500 families have still not been resettled and live in four camps near the HSZ. Although they were given private land by the government, it is infertile and far from the sea.

“Our traditional area, we were living many years there. The paddy cultivation [for rice] was done there. We don’t have land for cultivation anymore, and with no easy access to the sea to fish, it is difficult to survive,” says Mr Nageswaran.

To earn a small income, men are forced to travel long distances to work as helpers for other fishermen or paddy cultivators. Women, many of them widows, cannot afford the travel costs or leave behind their children to find jobs. Schools are far away and often overcrowded. To them, it is the feeling of having to settle for a half-solution and the lack of interest by the government and the international community that is hardest to swallow. The government’s Divisional Secretariat estimates that because they have been given private land, they no longer qualify as Internally Displaced People (IDPs), taking them off the radar of international bodies.

“The UNHCR [UN High Commissioner for Refugees] is more concerned with IDPs in the North,” adds Mr Nageswaran.

In the meantime, haphazardly built shelters are all the displaced people can afford to live in, and ‘village’ resembles a refugee camp rather than a viable long-term solution.

“How are we supposed to build anything? We have no real source of income. We wanted to create our own school for our children so they don’t have to travel, but the government did not support our initiative,” Mr Nageswaran explains.

The cemetery situated near his village of origin in Sampur is also inaccessible to the villagers, preventing them from visiting the tombs of their ancestors. The government gave them a new location to bury their relatives, but it will not replace the traditional site’s ancestral heritage.

The fate of Sampur’s inhabitants is symbolic of the government’s development policy in the region. Although the authorities invest to rebuild infrastructure and boost the business capacity of the East coast of Sri Lanka, these redevelopment plans seem to exclude the local population. Chinese workers can be seen leading and working on construction sites around Trincomalee, mending the road and building bridges that will one day allow faster travel between Sampur and Trincomalee harbour. Although the authorities promise the land will be given to whoever is interested, there is a fear among the local population that it will end up mainly in the hands of Sinhalese businessmen from Colombo and the South, who will then employ Sinhalese staff in the hotels and other tourist businesses that will soon dot the coastline. Dr Vigneswaran agrees it is a risk, but does not want to put the blame on the Sinhalese authorities alone.

“Not one cent has come from the [Tamil] diaspora. They are not investing. Why doesn’t the diaspora invest here, buy the land, give jobs to their fellow Tamils?”