The Sunday Leader

Panama Community Continue To Suffer Even Under Good Governance

By Ifham Nizam reporting from Panama

Pictures by Lalith Perera

Scenes from Panama

Families from five marginalised villages in the Eastern Part of Sri Lanka expressed their grave concern over the conduct of the `Good Governance’, claiming that the government made them a range of promises just to clinch the power.

Representing fisher community in the area, K. Ratnamali said that the fisher community was disgusted over the conduct of some politicians of the Mahinda Rajapakse regime. “We worked for President Maithripala Sirisena led UNP-SLFP, thinking that there would be an end to our grievances but matters are now becoming much worse despite Court orders,” she stressed.

She claims her community was given an assurance by President and Prime Minister that ad hoc developments in the area would be put to an end. but a Minister representing the Ampara District is adamant to carry out business ventures against their wishes.

Six years ago, some 350 families of farmers and fisher folk living in Panama, a coastal village in Sri Lanka, were forcibly evicted from lands they had cultivated and lived on for over 40 years.

These lands were taken over by the military to establish camps, and they are now being used to promote tourism. Oxfam, an international confederation of 20 organisations is pressing the government to implement their decisions on immediate release these lands back to the community who depend on them for their livelihoods and food.

The main village of Panama was said to be established in the 1800s and expanded over the years from the main village towards the coast. By 1970s, there were five smaller villages, still commonly referred to as Panama.

For nearly 30 years, the Northern and Eastern Provinces of Sri Lanka were at the centre of a war between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). With the end of the war in 2009, the Eastern Province became a tourist hotspot with its lush beaches, world-renowned surfing areas such as Arugam Bay, and with rich natural resources.

The 350 families of the Panama community living in the five smaller villages have been forcefully evicted from their lands by the State on July 17, 2010; the villages of Ragamwela and Shastrawela were burned down to evict the inhabitants, while in the other three villages, the military pressurised the community to hand over their lands to the State by erecting fences and signs claiming that the land belongs to the military.

P. Somasiri, a villager in the area, said, “Our homes were torched, and crops were destroyed; we are now living with relatives or in makeshift temporary shelters, praying for the moment till we are allowed to return to our lands.

He said that Sri Lankan Navy and Air Force have taken control of these lands and established air force and naval camps and constructed a hotel on the Panama lagoon called ‘Lagoon Cabanas’. The hotel is operated by Malima Hospitality Services, a hotel chain managed by the Sri Lanka Navy leisure sector. Peanut Farm and Panama Point are popular surf spots along the Panama coastline.

The complaints of the community have been ignored. The Regional Office of the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission and the local Magistrate’s Court have both determined that the land should be returned to the community, claim organisations that fight for welfare of the community.

We were told that after the change of government in 2015, a Cabinet decision was taken on February 11, 2015 to return the lands in Panama taken over by the government to the community.

However, to date no action has been taken and the community continues to be displaced.

Women in the community have taken a leading role in demanding justice. They have helped lead and organize the community in local and national demonstrations highlighting the injustice of their dispossession. Amidst the hardship, the women continue to demand that they be allowed to return to the lands they have cultivated for nearly 40 years.

The Land Rights Now Campaign is calling to immediately implement the decision taken by the Sri Lankan government in 2015 to return 340 acres of land in Panama to its community.

During Sri Lanka’s civil war, a large tract of land in the Northern and Eastern Provinces were controlled by the military. The end of the war in 2009 offered hope for many to invest in their land, livelihoods and communities in long-term basis.

Communities displaced by the war longed for the day they could return to their land. However, they were not returned to people who had previously occupied them, and they continued to be displaced, living in camps or temporary shelters.

Instead, the lands were used to establish special economic zones or for other economic development purposes – at the time, the Rajapaksa government promoted economic and infrastructure development to achieve reconciliation. Communities were told that they would not be able to return to their lands as they are now needed for a ‘public purpose’; a sacrifice for the greater good. Rather than supporting and improving people’s lives and livelihoods, these ‘development projects’ were increasingly harming communities with impunity.7

In 2005, land in Ragamwela, one of the five villages in Panama, were taken over by a local politician and in 2006–2007, this land was handed over to the Sooriya Match Company, a producer of matchsticks. This was only the beginning. In 2009, the navy forcibly took over three villages: Horekanda, Egodayaya, and Ulpassa by erecting fences and signs stating that the lands belonged to the navy; they established camps and constructed a hotel, ‘Panama Lagoon Cabana’ on the land. Legal procedures were not followed to take over these lands.

On July 17, 2010, houses and cultivation of families living in Shasthrawela and Ragamwela villages were torched and the community was assaulted by a group of unidentifiable armed men and forcibly evicted from their lands. The local police initially prevented the community from entering this land and the Sri Lanka Air Force and Navy soon took over most of the land and established camps. The five smaller villages in Panama were cordoned off by an electric fence to keep wild elephants away.

With the eviction of the communities, the Navy and the Air Force also took over nearby land belonging to the Forest Conservation Department. In total, the military control nearly 1,220 acres of land which include beaches, forests, cultivation and even temple land.

Part of the land was handed over to the Presidential Secretariat which partly constructed an international conference centre, but this project was later abandoned.

Due to these events, 350 families of the Panama community living in the five smaller villages have been evicted. The community made a complaint to the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission (HRC) on July 26, 2010. Following an investigation,  the HRC recommended that the land be returned to the community.

After the change of government, a Cabinet decision was taken in February 2015 to release the land from government control and return it to the community. However, to date the relevant state authorities –the Divisional Secretariat of Lahugala, District Secretary of Ampara, and the Land Commissioner General’s Department – have failed to take any action to return the land.

The villagers said that whenever they tried to occupy their land, they were met with threats from the police, and in some instances the police instituted legal action against them for trespassing on State land.

However, the Magistrate’s Court in Pottuvil, Ampara found that they were not guilty and ordered the police to allow the community to return to the land. On the strength of this order, the communities in Ragamwela and Shastravela have returned to their lands and are awaiting formal distribution of the land by the government. The communities in the other three villages remain displaced.

Despite all this, in May 2016 the Divisional Secretary of Lahugala issued eviction notices under the State Lands (Recovery of Possesion) Act to evict the community in Ragamwela and Shashtrawela, who re-occupied their lands.

Director, Environment Conservation Trust Sajeewa Chamikara said neither the Navy nor the Air Force has carried out an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), although they have destroyed the forests that come under the Forest Department.

“In addition they have violated the Coast Conservation and Coastal Resources Management Act No. 57 of 1981 (Amended), Section 20 of the Forest Conservation Ordinance as amended by Act No. 65 of 2009, the Archaeological Ordinance No. 49 of 1940 and the National Environment Act No. 47 of 1980,” said Chamikara.

Navy Media Spokesperson Captain Akram Alavi recently told The Sunday Leader that he completely denies the allegations levelled against the Sri Lankan Navy of grabbing the land from people as the land in question was under the Sri Lankan Navy for a long time and was acquired legally with the approval of the Defence Ministry and the Urban Development Authority (UDA). He also added that there is no environmental issue with the cabanas or in the tourism activities in the Panama Lagoon area as the environmentalists claim.

However, owners of hotels and cabanas in the Panama lagoon claim that the uniquely styled cabanas on concrete pillars are made with eco-friendly materials facing the picturesque lagoon. The cabanas offer views of the dense forest where wild elephants, deer, wild boar, and peacocks frequent.

 

1 Comment for “Panama Community Continue To Suffer Even Under Good Governance”

  1. aggydaaggy

    oF COURSE.
    GOOD gOVERNANCE IS ONLY A NAME. UNP”’ERS ARE MAKING HAY AS THEY HAVE BEEN ROTTING SINCE 1994.

    THIS IS A FLUKE OPPORTUNITY./ SO MAKING QUICK MONEY, FOREIGN TRAVEL.
    WHO CARES FOR THE PEOPLE OF PANAMA.

    COULD SIRA EVER IMAGINE BECOMING THE PRESIDENT OF THE COUNTRY?
    JUST ENJOY. LET THE COUNTRY AND PEOPLE GO TO THE DOGS AND CONTINUE TO PLAY THE SAME OLD TUNE…. RAJAPAKSHES.

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