Government to return private land


The Sri Lankan government pledged Thursday to free hundreds of minority Tamil detainees and return much of the Tamil land in the north and east that the military seized and continues to hold years after the end of the country’s bitter civil war.

The promises represent the most significant efforts yet announced by the new government of President Maithripala Sirisena to heal the still-festering wounds of a decades-long civil war that ended in 2009.

This month, Mr. Sirisena defeated the incumbent, Mahinda Rajapaksa, in what many analysts said was a surprising upset.

Thousands of civilians were killed in the final weeks of the war, waged by separatist Tamil rebels who had long felt marginalized by the dominant ethnic Sinhalese group.
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Hundreds of civilians surrendered to government forces, only to disappear while in government custody. The question of whether those who disappeared were killed by government forces or are still alive in a camp somewhere has long tortured families in the formerly restive provinces.

Rajitha Senaratne, the minister of health and a spokesman for the new government, said this week that 275 people detained on suspicion of rebel involvement were still held in camps and jails, but he added that no one seemed to know how many face charges or have languished without formal proceedings against them.

The promise to return seized lands will also give hope to thousands who have been living in refugee camps for decades.

In many cases, the government seized the lands not for security purposes but simply because the holdings were attractive for development, often providing no compensation in return. Thousands filed suit in cases that have long languished in the courts.

Much of the land was used by the military to develop tourist hotels, golf resorts, and poultry and vegetable farms in former conflict zones in the northern and eastern parts of the country, making the military a significant force in the country’s civilian economy.

Former landowners were mostly barred from visiting the seized areas, and their homes were often bulldozed or left to rot.

“Whatever was acquired for business purposes, other than security purposes, we want to give back to the owners,” said Dr. Senaratne.

Dr. Senaratne said the new policy was a profound change in the government’s philosophy about how to prevent a resurgence of separatist sentiment among the Tamils.

“We don’t believe that by using the army and spending so much on security that we can prevent an L.T.T.E. resurgence,” Dr. Senaratne said at a news conference, referring to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a separatist group. “Such a resurgence can only be prevented by politicians, not the army.”

Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera said that the government was waiting for a list of legal titleholders to begin releasing the land to its rightful owners.

“The process should start very soon,” he said in an interview.

The government has also announced that it will issue a “special statement of peace” on National Day, Feb. 4, expressing solidarity and empathy with all victims of Sri Lanka’s conflict, a marked change from the triumphalism of the previous government.

The new government has taken several steps toward reconciliation with the Tamil minority since assuming office three weeks ago.

Soon after Mr. Sirisena’s election, his administration lifted a ban on travel by foreigners to the Northern Province.

Last week, the government appointed a civilian governor to the Northern Province, replacing a former major general who had held the position since the war ended.

The new governor, H.M.G.S. Palihakkara, a retired diplomat, will assume his new duties on Monday in Jaffna, the northern provincial capital. (New York Times)

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