The Sunday Leader

Panama Land Issue Politically Instigated?

By Camelia Nathaniel

The Sri Lanka Navy and the Special Task Force (STF) were accused of grabbing 1,220 acres of forestlands in Shasthrawela, Ragamwela, Ulpassawela, Horowkanda and Ella in Panama, supposedly for the construction of a hotel and setting up of a camp, in a complaint lodged by the residents with the Human Rights Commission. However, they claim that, in spite of the complaint, no action has been taken so far regarding their grievances. The residents complained that the Navy had chased away the villagers who had been occupying these lands for generations even during the Uva-Wellassa rebellion.

In spite of the allegations made that villagers had lost their lands due to the takeover, the villagers claim that there are no displaced persons as a result of the takeover. They claim that, since the Navy camp has been established in Panama, the local traders and people, as a whole, have been benefitted greatly, due to the availability of jobs and trading opportunities in the area.

According to Navy sources and some of the villagers in the vicinity of the Navy camp, during the conflict period it was the STF that was occupying the area. It is believed that the STF personnel had been greatly confined to barracks and were not actively engaged in any operations at the time. Although there had been several hotels in existence in the Panama area several years back, these were reportedly destroyed during the Tsunami. These damaged constructions had been covered in shrubs and left in a state of ruin.

At the time, the LTTE had also used this area as a hideout and it is also believed that they used this stretch of sea to bring in illegal supplies, arms and ammunition for their cadres. It is also believed that some villagers were engaged in Chena cultivation, having cleared some forest lands, and, subsequent to the Navy taking over these lands, they had to seek alternative locations for their cultivation purposes. None of these lands were those that belonged to the villagers, but were state lands.

It is also believed that there were certain politically motivated persons who, at the time, also worked in favour of the LTTE, and it is they who are, today, instigating the villagers and creating these issues in the area.

According to reliable sources, these individuals, who have their supporters as well, were engaged in illegal sand mining in the Kumbukkan Oya, disregarding the environmental authorities, illegally felling trees and engaging in illicit brewing activities.
When he LTTE attacked the Galle harbor, they used this area to launch this attack as their small boats had no endurance power to attack the harbor directly from the East. It was after the attack on the Galle harbor that the security establishments realized that there was no security base or naval presence between the Trincomalee harbor and Tangalle in order to prevent any infiltration. It was then that the security establishments decided to set up Navy and Air Force cantonments in this area in order to safeguard the country.

When the Navy began occupying the land and putting up its boundary fences, some of the lands that were used for Chena cultivation were inaccessible to the farmers as they were within these boundaries.

According to Navy sources, it was then that these groups of people who were engaged in these illegal activities gathered these farmers who were farming on these government lands and began a protest claiming that the Navy had occupied their lands.

It appears that most of the lands that were taken over by the Navy were the lands used for illegal activities prior to the Navy occupation. There were a few lands that were cultivated by farmers engaged in Chena cultivations and they had to move to other areas to continue their cultivations as there were other bare lands in the area.

The Navy has also been accused of destroying the lagoon by using their boats. Refuting these allegations, the Navy stated that they had not done anything to damage the lagoon and that only two Navy boats were stationed there to ensure the security of the area.
Responding to further allegations that the Navy was constructing hotels in Panama, Navy authorities stated that only two cabanas were constructed for the benefit of Navy personnel, but that these cabanas were also available for reservations to outsiders.

Military Spokesman Brigadier Ruwan Wanigasooriya

Considering Sri Lanka’s location, decisions are made at the Security Council as to where the different forces are positioned so that they are able to make sure that the country is safe from all possible threats. Whenever we position troops in strategically important places, all possible avenues are explored to prevent or minimise disturbance to normal public life. In the case of Panama, all possible action has been taken to prevent or minimise any disturbance or interference into day to day public life.

The Peoples’ Alliance for Right to Land

We made a complaint with the Human Rights Commission that our grievances were not addressed and the Human Rights Commissioner asked us to come again on April 4, but, since we had organized another protest for that day, we asked for another alternative date to meet with him.

Near Panama on the southeastern coast of the Ampara district, more than 350 Sinhala farmer families in Ragamwela and Shastrawela villages have been forcibly evicted from their lands by the military. The appropriated land has been used for the construction of a tourist hotel.

The affected communities have been denied access to their lands even for agriculture and are now living in precarious circumstances. There are attempts to convert the lagoon near Panama, in which local residents fish for their livelihood, into a landing area for sea-planes transporting tourists to the new hotels.

According to information released by the International Fact Finding Mission (IFFM), most of the villagers had claimed that these lands were ancestral lands. Its report stated that eight families had legal documentation to prove their ownership of these lands obtained from the Divisional Secretary’s office and that most of these families had been occupying these lands since the 1960’s.

According to this report, 53 year old Premalatha, a widow, had lived here with her seven children cultivating four acres of land in the Kudumbigala, Sastravela and Helawa area. It is said that they had been cultivating on these lands for the past 23 years prior to the war.
Another resident J Jayawardena claimed that he had been farming on about half acre of land since 1976. “Even my children had their own lands but now all of us have been evicted. We are now living in one house with no employment,” Jayawardena said.

According to the report by the IFFM, one night, in 2006, an armed group thought to be military had come and chased away around 118 families that lived in the villages. They had then burnt the houses down and, from that day, the Army prevents the people from entering the villages and now they live with their relatives.

They had then filed a case in the district court claiming that the military was constructing illegally without the approval of the relevant authorities. When the villagers protest from time to time the government agent promises them that action would be taken but so far nothing has been done.

Fishermen in the area claim that the jetty constructed by the Navy has destroyed mangroves in the area. By June 2012, the fishermen claim that the navy had constructed three jetties in the lagoon.

Apart from building jetties, the fishermen have also expressed concern over what they claim to be a construction of a hotel by the Navy in the lagoon area. In a report by the Asian Peasant Coalition, President of the Panama Lagoon Fisheries Management Authority P. Somasiri stated that the Navy was setting up cabanas on the lagoon beach. He charged that the Navy had only been permitted to use two boats in the lagoon but are now operating many more boats in the area. He said that the excessive use of boats in the lagoon would result in the decline of fish, prawns and lobsters in the lagoon, which boasted of the best harvest of these resources prior to the 2004 tsunami.

The report also claims that, during the war, the people of Panama had no problem with the LTTE and that it was, in fact, the LTTE that had warned them of the camp being built by the military.

Dinesh Chandrapala, a resident businessman of Panama

I have been living here from the day I was born and we have no issue with the military. In fact, it was after they came here that we have more employment opportunities in the area. These protests are organized by a handful of people and these are politically motivated, but it is not the sentiment of the majority of us villagers. The villagers of Panama are poor, innocent people who have absolutely no problem with the setting up of the Navy camp in the area. Certain political sections were not pleased with the Navy setting up camp here and it is they who are trying to instigate the people and create a situation. But the people in the area have no issue with the Navy.
This stretch of sea area was earlier used by the LTTE to transport goods by boat to other areas. We were also well aware of them taking a lot of meat of the wild animals killed to places like Kalmunai. Although these parties are claiming that there is a hotel coming up, we don’t see any hotel but a few cabanas and even we can go there.

During the war, the LTTE used the thick jungle area to attack busses and vehicles. People were also abducted. By 5pm, we could not travel on the roads due to the wild elephants that attacked us. There are no such problems now and we live peacefully.

We have no issue with the Navy camp and due to the camp our businesses fare better. Earlier, we were a completely isolated village and we had no opportunity of engaging in any business. After the setting up of the camp, people come to Panama from outside and this has also created more job opportunities for the people in the area.

The people were in the practice of clearing plots of forest land and cultivating on these lands. These were not lands owned by the people but were state lands. Although there are allegations that these lands were taken away by the Navy and that people are displaced, so far, we have not seen any family that has been displaced due to the construction of this Navy camp.

Siriwardena Sithara, a 3-wheel driver

We have more hires now and our income has grown. We have nothing to complain about as we were earlier cut off from the rest of the country. Now, we have the opportunity of making a better living due to the Navy camp being set up in the area.
During the war, we had heard many stories of this sea area being used by the LTTE for the transportation of their goods and other materials.

So far, there are no displaced people to our knowledge, as a result of the Navy camp being constructed here. Even inside the camp, there are many villagers who are employed, making a steady income. The people had no means of income other than being engaged in Chena cultivation, and, even then, since we were cut off from the rest of the country, we had no opportunities to sell produce at competitive rates.

Wild Life Department Director General H. P. Ratnayake

The Kudumbigala Panama sanctuary and the Kumana part further down are demarcated sanctuaries. According to the rules of the country and the Wild Life Department, only those with legal documentation to prove their ownership to any land will be permitted. Otherwise, all other state lands come under the national wild life sanctuaries and do not belong to the farmers. The Navy camp is located outside the sanctuary and even the small camp near the Okanda area has been set up with the approval of the relevant authorities. We have no issues with the Navy being in these areas.

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