SINHALIZATION OF THE NORTH-EAST
Kankesanthurai (KKS) is a historic port suburb located in the Northern Province of the island of Sri Lanka. Formerly known as Gayathurai, the region is encompassed by a natural harbour, famous for ancient sites, such as the Keerimalai Springs, the Kankesanthurai Fort, and two prominent Tamil Hindu places of worship: the Keerimalai Naguleswaram Temple dedicated to Lord Shiva; and Maviddapuram Kandaswamy Temple dedicated to Lord Murugan.1,2 Geographically situated on the coast near the northernmost point of Jaffna, KKS presently falls under the Valikamam North (Tellippalai) Divisional Secretariat. Valikamam is one of three historical regions in Jaffna. The town’s proximity to the advantageous shoreline served as entry and exit points for early pilgrims, and by the 1900s, the KKS region turned into a thriving fishing and manufacturing site, even being considered the “lifeline of the Jaffna peninsula”.3 Though generally inactive during the armed conflict (1983 onwards), due to the Sri Lankan military’s declaration of KKS as a ‘High Security Zone’, the KKS harbour has seen controversial, yet rapid development post-2009,4 since the conflict’s end.
In the early 70s, the KKS harbour was rejected as a suitable port by the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) following pressure from Buddhist monks and Sinhala extremists.5 This crucial port was capable of promoting free trade globally to and from the Tamil homeland, but was left undeveloped by the state.6 During its time as an electoral district, KKS witnessed a major turning point among Tamils. This was a collective response to unaccommodated demands to resolve “pressing problems relating to colonization of Tamil districts, educational and employment opportunities, funds for the development of irrigation, agriculture, industries”, as well as the neglected KKS Harbour.7 On February 6th, 1975, the people of KKS rejected the constitution imposed on them by the Sinhalese government and backed S.J.V. Chelvanayakam of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) for the establishment of a “free sovereign, secular, socialist State of Tamil Eelam”.8 In a by-election, the people voted in favour of S.J.V. Chelvanayakam, securing a historic victory with a 87.09 polling percentage – the highest ever recorded within the electoral division9 . To this day, S.J.V Chelvanayakam’s victory speech and promised mandate are remembered by many.
By employing a multi-pronged approach, the GoSL has deliberately been carrying out the state-sponsored Sinhalization of Kankesanthurai through various streams: Forced Displacement, Buddhisization, Militarization, and Economic Development. In the case of Kankesanthurai, the GoSL tactically used militarization as a strategy to advance their goals of forced displacement of Tamils from the area, conducting unwarranted land acquisitions, turning military-occupied land into a resource for the state’s economic development, and engaging in Buddhisization of the region – successfully fulfilling Sinhalization of KKS.
Valikamam High Security Zone
Between 1983 and 1993, Kankesanthurai fell under the Sri Lankan Navy’s designated Valikamam High Security Zone (HSZ) and consequently, was closed off to the majority Tamil-speaking public. The HSZs, enacted through the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and/or Public Security Ordinance (PSO), aimed to secure and erect military camps, as well as reinforce the region from supposed rebel attacks; ultimately, the result is the overall strengthening of the Sri Lankan military’s presence within the Tamil homeland.10 Within the Jaffna peninsula, there are 18 HSZs, with Valikamam HSZ being the largest.11 In 2014, the American Association for the Advancement of Science reported that an area of 6381 acres within this HSZ was still in the government’s possession. 12 This region is strategically located around Palaly airbase and the KKS harbour, and includes 43 Grama Niladhari divisions in Tellippalai and Valikamam.13 Though the GoSL revoked the emergency regulations governing the island’s HSZs back in 2011,14 many areas within the Valikamam region, including KKS, are still inaccessible to former residents due to varying reasons. Some reported barriers include: “army camps remained and were even reinforced with barbed wire fencing”; “village roads remained unreleased”; “old homes and infrastructure were completely destroyed”.16 Additionally, former Commander of the Sri Lanka army, and Colonel of the Regiment of the Sri Lanka army Special Forces Regiment, Mahesh Senanayake threatened residents during another land release event, saying “Tamils’ lands could be just as easily taken back by the armed forces that returned them”.17
Role of the Military Post-2009
The role of the military post-2009 within Kankesanthurai has evolved into maintaining the normalisation of surveillance and intrusion into Tamil civilians’ lives, while simultaneously serving as a gateway to engage in Sinhalization of the region. The presence of armed personnel throughout KKS undermines the legitimacy of accountability and reconciliation, and ignores the Tamil residents’ past and ongoing negative experiences with the military on their land. For instance, the 515 Brigade in KKS under the 51 Division of the Security Force Headquarters-Jaffna celebrated its 29th anniversary in 2020. The Sri Lankan army, who are alleged to be responsible for heinous human rights violations, are now claiming to be involved in the “process of reconciliation, ethnic harmony and infrastructure development in Jaffna”.18 Some examples of the GoSL’s attempt to showcase the Sri Lankan army as extending “a hand of friendship from the troops” include: a) opening of the harmony centre in KKS, b) opening of the KKS-Point Pedro Road for public transport, prefaced with a ceremony issued by the security forces, c) facilitating the visit of Tamil schoolchildren and nursery kids for a tour of military-occupied Palaly Airport and KKS Naval Base, and d) conducting a dry ration distribution program in KKS.19,20,21 The official GoSL website cites these events as the Sri Lankan army’s gestures of generosity and goodwill. However, this does not take away from the reality that the military’s presence and control over privately-owned Tamil land impedes Tamil people’s participation in civic, cultural, and economic activities, and directly infringes on their fundamental rights.22 Post-2009, in the absence of armed conflict, the concept of military necessity is not applicable; thus, imposing militarization in heavily populated Tamil-speaking areas is discriminatory and systematically targets Tamils.23 Aligned with this, People’s Alliance for Right to Land (PARL) reports that a land acquisition notice was posted on Kankesanthurai Road in April 2013, stating that land in the area was necessary for public purpose and named this purpose as “Defence Battalion Headquarters [Jaffna].24 Landowners have since filed action against the land acquisition, but the cases are still pending. Much of the divisional council-owned properties in Valikamam North, such as numerous schools, a children’s park, the KKS library, and three sports grounds in Kurumbusitty, Vasavilan and KKS, are still being occupied by the army.25
A Sri Lankan navy sailor from the KKS base was recently arrested by the Criminal Investigation Department for his involvement in the abduction and disappearance of 11 Tamil youths between 2008 and 2009. 26 Contrary to the GoSL’s narrative of promoting peace and reconciliation in the North-East, the reality of militarization in KKS and its surrounding areas is evident through inaccessibility to fishermen’s traditionally used fishing ports,27 increase in surveillance via their doubled patrols in the Northern seas,28 harassment of Tamils in residential areas,29 as well as the latest attempts to suppress the annual Thileepan Remembrance events within KKS and the overall North.30 Militarization in KKS has made it convenient for the GoSL to achieve forced resettlement, unethical economic development of the state, and Buddhisization – all of which are highlighted below.
Encroachment in Kankesanthurai was undertaken by the GoSL through the establishment of the Valikamam High Security Zone. This is the longest standing HSZ in the Northern Province, occupying approximately 6000 acres of land and growing.31 Initial land was secured during 1983; later, with the use of armed government personnel to ban fishing in the village and ongoing shelling during the night, the village was subsequently rendered unsafe for inhabitation by the public.32 The Sri Lankan army was responsible for the forced displacement of 20,917 families during the establishment of the Valikamam HSZ.33 Prior to 1983, reports to the UN cited a total of 25,351 families living in the Valikamam North Division, with 60% of the population consisting of farmers and 30% being fishermen.34 The livelihoods of both groups were devastatingly affected by the forced eviction from their land.
Following the withdrawal of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in 1987, who collectively targeted Tamils under the guise of ‘peace-keeping’, Kankesanthurai and the neighbouring Palaly town remained under the Sri Lankan army’s control.35 For many Tamil residents, the year of 1990 marked the beginning of their loss – the loss of their homes, lands, and livelihoods. One Internally Displaced Person (IDP) remembers the displacement vividly:
Arisimalai has seen a special focus by Buddhists, due to the presence of ancient ruins. Located in a majority-Muslim and entirely Tamil speaking area, it has seen the construction of a Buddhist temple and adjoining retreat, called Asiri Kanda Purana Rajamaha Viharaya on top of a hillock overlooking the beach. Access to the site is controlled by a Navy camp. The temple was constructed after claims that Buddhist artefacts were found, resulting in the government giving 500 acres for the temple in the early 80s. The aforementioned monk Thilakawanse Nayaka is the chief incumbent of the temple. In 2018 the monk complained about local people encroaching on temple land, and demanded more protection for the area. An official from the Archaeological Department, responsible for the region, also complained about Hindu temples being built and visited by locals. District Secretary Pushpakumara Nissanka said that the Arisimalai Temple has been requesting 500 more acres to be given to the temple premises, and that they decided to grant 25 acres under the religious lands act, while declaring 500 acres as an Archaeological Forest Reserve.
Several Buddhist shrines are dotted around the area. On a cliff, overlooking Pulmoaddai town and the Indian ocean, foundations have been laid for a large stupa.
“The villages were evacuated as the Army announced via loudspeaker and pamphlets dropped by helicopters, that an operation against the LTTE will soon take place. We (residents) were told to avoid the area for three days. In 1990, over 28,000 households were displaced from near Thellipallai in Valikamam North”. – (February, 2016)
Later, on March 10th, 1998, a temporary halt in the transportation of 1036 IDPs took place, blocking the return of residents back to their homes in Kankesanthurai from Trincomalee.37 Many were from the Pesalai Transit Camp in Mannar island. Following the delay, the IDPs engaged in fasting as a resistance practice against the failure of GoSL to return them back to Jaffna.38 GoSL authorities claimed security reasons for the delay, according to Jaffna Kachcheri source.39
In 1999, Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP) leader Douglas Devananda questioned the motives of the Sri Lankan army and the mass occupation of land, arguing that the Sri Lankan army was refusing to permit the return of Tamil civilians back to their homeland.40 In his statement to the parliament on March 11th, 1999, MP Devananda shared speculations around state-sponsored Sinhalese settlements in the Valikamam North Region.41
Currently, through encroachment and forced displacement, KKS has a persistent military presence, in contrast to its former existence as a primary residential area. Though a proposal to resettle 400 internally displaced families within a 65 hectare plot of land in KKS was approved by the Cabinet in 2016, it is unclear whether these families were originally displaced from KKS or whether this proposal was fully carried out.42 Analyzing the number, distribution, and classification of settlements within Kankesanthurai, over many decades, demonstrates the magnitude of displacement and disrupture of Tamil lives, all caused by the forced eviction of the residents of this town (Fig. 2-15).43 Encroachment of KKS signified the start of state-sponsored Sinhalization of the region.
The traditional Tamil homeland has always been an attractive landmass to GoSL, long before the armed conflict. KKS is rich with agricultural and fishing potential due to its geographical location near the coast; it is therefore beneficial for trade, transportation, and commercial purposes. Beginning in 1983, the armed conflict was utilized as a catalyst for the state’s military occupation of KKS. Notably, the land’s proximity to India makes KKS strategically important to the state, however, in the 80s when Tamils requested for the development of this town, they were denied by the GoSL.
Sri Lanka’s governmental regulations prevented the establishment of Free Trade Zones (FTZs) outside of Colombo, rendering economic benefits to remain within the Sinhalese-dominated regions, even if operated by Tamils.44 This was seen through maintaining the FTZs in Sinhala dominated areas and ensuring exports were transported to Sri Lanka’s capital. Particularly, the vast variation of agricultural production from the Tamil homeland has allowed for smooth transport in and out of Colombo. However, attempts to establish a Free Trade Zone in the North-East, were quickly shut down by the GoSL.45 Despite the World Bank’s recommended course of action, the Kankesanthurai Harbour remains underdeveloped by the government; thus, products from the Northern Peninsula are unable to be exported from the Northern region’s only viable harbour.46 These developments would offer potential employment opportunities for Tamils in the North and a robust influx of community-rooted sustainability for Tamils in the fishing industry.
Nevertheless, following the end of the armed conflict, the GoSL has made efforts to develop the militarized area of KKS through building of militarized infrastructure. The KKS harbour, a key area which was initially left undeveloped in the early 80s is now awaiting development. In May of 2017, the Import and Export Bank of India agreed to invest 45.27 million USD into the port development efforts in KKS, Jaffna.47 The proposal put forward by then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was successfully approved by the cabinet and noted that the construction of the port would be carried out by the Ports Authority of Sri Lanka. Following this approval, in January of 2018, a memorandum was signed in New Delhi, India, where India offered to provide assistance in upgrading the port to a full-fledged commercial port and linking the port of KKS with its regional maritime ports.48 More recently, in February 2020, Newsfirst reported that the Minister of Ports and Shipping, Priyantha Mahathunne, announced the official building of the KKS Port in KKS, Jaffna. 49
Kankesanthurai Cement Factory
Following the second World War, there were no large-scale state-run industries developed in the Tamil areas prior to the 1950s.52 The strategic placement of the Kankesanthurai Cement Factory in the Jaffna District was based on the knowledge that the region possessed an abundance of readily accessible raw material.53 The KKS factory began its operation in 1955 as one of four Sri Lankan state-run industries in the Tamil homeland.54
On June 15th, 1990, the military took over KKS Cement, the biggest factory in the Jaffna peninsula at the time, and closed it down, resulting in the loss of approximately 2500 jobs.55 This decision by the GoSL led to detrimental outcomes for many Tamils employed by the industry. As a result of Lanka Cement Companies’ failure to pay the agreed upon retainers compatible with the workers’ salaries, many Tamil employees fell into debt and tragically, some even took their own lives.56 Additionally, due to their land’s occupation by the Sri Lankan military, employees were left wholly displaced. Following the closure of KKS Cement, a part of the facility was used to store explosives for the Sri Lankan army, including 5000 kgs of gelignite and 15,000 electronic detonators.57 An individual describes life before and after this military takeover:
“Before I was displaced, my family had a large concrete house and a half-acre of good fertile land. Each month we were able to bring in at least Rs. 10,000 from our farming operation alone. I left my community in Valikamam North in June 1990. Since then, I’ve had to move nearly 20 times. Today, I live in a completely different reality. I now live in a rented house. Each month I earn around Rs. 8,000; of that, nearly 80% if spent on rent, medical needs, electricity, and communication expenses. This leaves just Rs. 1,750 for all other monthly expenses, including food, transportation, clothing, etc.” 58 – (February, 2016)
However, following the end of the armed conflict, strides by GoSL have been undertaken to once again relaunch the industry. With the availability of raw materials in KKS, the effective functioning of the factory would be relatively straight-forward. In April of 2010, then President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced the revival of the factory, according to Jaffna Commander Major General Mahinda Hathurusinghe59. The state-governed Sri Lanka Cement Corporation owns Kankesanthurai Cement Works and has since decided to establish the industry and provide cement to the public at reasonable prices. However, this cement will be imported directly from Pakistan, according to the State Resources and Enterprise Development Minister Dayasritha Tissera in 2013. 60
In spite of the questionable environmental and community-related ramifications due to the import of cement from abroad, there has been immense investment into the project by global individuals. Following the amalgamation of the Sri Lanka Cement Corporation with Lanka Cement Ltd. in 2011-2012 on this endeavour, UAE-based Ras Al Khaimah Cement Co also invested in the revival of the industry, offering USD $100 million.64 In fact, 62 acres of this factory land was used to build the KKS Presidential Palace by former President Mahinda Rajapaksam, while the rest is to be acquired by the army.62 Furthermore, in 2017, the Presidential Commission Investigating Alleged Acts of Fraud or Corruption (PRECIFAC) started investigations into an alleged fraud involving the dismantling and sale of machinery as scrap iron for over Rs.100 million by the army.63 The Office of the Cabinet Ministers of Sri Lanka announced during a press conference in September of 2018 that there are plans underway to establish an Industrial Zone area of 330 acres within the area of the KKS factory for small entrepreneurs. The development of 100 acres was to take place over the first phase in 2019.64 The occupation of these additional acres of land and the steps taken to retain it remain unclear. The GoSL’s intentional actions to not demilitarize, nor rebuild Tamil residential areas, provided economic benefit to the state, granting them autocratic power to appropriate and ‘Sinhalize’ the land.
Thalsevana Army Resort and Restaurant
Under GoSL military occupation of the Valikamam High Security Zone, KKS has been revamped as a hub for economic development. Former residential areas were altered initially for security purposes and later, to generate revenue for the state. In recent years, notable military-run infrastructures have been developed across KKS, one being Thalsevana Army Resort and Restaurant.
Following the end of the conflict, the Thalsevana Army Resort and Restaurant has been operating within the Valikamam High Security Zone. In a climate where armed forces are no longer relevant, occupying Sri Lankan military personnel have chosen hospitality as their required purpose to remain in the Tamil homeland. 7063.8 acres of land were seized at an estimated over $2 billion, post-2009, for the purposes of building this resort.65 The acquisition of this land was said to have utilized the Land Acquisition Act to their advantage, going outside of its intended parameters.66 This act permits land to be seized citing “servitudes public purposes and to provide for matters connected with or incidental to such provision”.67 Plainly, the Land Acquisition Act is yet another tool employed by the GoSL to seize land from Tamils and strip them from their identities, homes, and livelihoods. The land holds economic, political, and social power; the land offers life. Under the disguise of national security, reconciliation, and rebuilding the nation post-genocide, Seoighe argues “there is still being a war waged against Tamils, a war in which the weapons are socio-economic disempowerment, spatial oppression and militarisation, surveillance, intimidation and cultural intrusion in the service of Sinhala-Buddhist homogenisation”.68
A crucial element to the Sinhalization of the North-East is the increase of Sinhala Buddhist religious symbols in predominately Muslim & Tamil areas. These Buddhist shrines and statues are said to emerge in places where they did not previously exist. Within the North and East, it is becoming increasingly common that whenever a Bo tree is found, a Buddhist shine is erected.69 Reports have also detailed that “sometimes these trees are planted by state agents and shrines are built subsequently” 70. One particular act of Buddhistization is the recent construction of a Buddhist vihara on the occupied land of the Maviddapuram Pillayar Kovil, a Hindu temple with Pillayar and Murugan shrines, in KKS, Jaffna. With the land’s control under the KKS police, it is anticipated that the Sri Lankan army may be appropriating the land for this Buddhist temple. Supporting this notion, an interviewee told Human Rights Watch that along with three Buddha statues and a bo-tree in this new Gamunu Vihara, “a toilet had been built on the site, making it impure for Hindus”.71 In response, community members filed a complaint at the KKS police station and wrote to the president in 2017, demanding for both the return of the land and the rebuilding of their temple, yet no progress has been made.72 By constructing Buddhist temples on a pre-existing Hindu site in KKS, especially in an area where the Buddhists are mainly composed of the armed forces, the GoSL is engaging in a nuanced form of Sinhala-Buddhist homogenisation.
In 2018, within another region of KKS, the Sri Lankan military began rebuilding a Buddhist vihara at an event headed by Buddhist monks. The Thayiddy Thissa Vihara was destroyed during the armed conflict and a Buddhist monk, named Pathakada Wimalagnana, identified the land as belonging to Buddhist monks through the 1946-issued title deeds.73 Sources note that the Sri Lankan military is attempting to expand this vihara’s land beyond its original 1.25 acres.74 Officials at the Divisional Secretariat (Pradesiya Sabai) also claim that this rebuilding is currently taking place without proper authorization.75 Additionally, Shageevan Shanmugalingam from the Valikamam North Divisional Council, was turned back by the Sri Lankan military when he visited to see the construction.76 Contrasting to the aforementioned Maviddapuram Pillayar Kovil that remains encroached by the GoSL and is in need of rebuilding, priorities of the Sri Lankan government are explicit. As Seoighe explains “Military renovations of neglected Buddhist monasteries have sometimes been followed by Sinhala settlements, showcasing the link between the military, Buddhism and colonisation” 77. Another example, of the joint forces of militarization and Buddhisization at work, is the large-scale Sinhala Buddhist ceremony held by the occupying Sri Lankan navy in KKS to announce the opening of a berthing facility at the military base.78 Costing Rs. 94 million and situated along the Jaffna coast, this facility required digging through layers of limestone. The outpouring of resources in this state project, but not for the people in KKS, sends a clear message: the GoSL’s access to Tamil areas through militarization has enabled the state to conveniently push the Sinhala-Buddhist nation-building project.