By Dharisha Bastians
Hitting out against the ‘camp controversy’ yesterday, the main opposition Tamil National Alliance rejected claims that its leader Rajavarothiam Sampanthan had forced his way into a military camp in Kilinochchi and said the Opposition Leader had complained to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe that the army was illegally occupying land owned by private citizens in the area.
Addressing a media conference in Colombo yesterday, TNA Spokesman and Jaffna District Legislator M.A. Sumanthiran said TNA Leader Sampanthan had met with the Prime Minister at Temple Trees that morning to take up the issue.
The Prime Minister had promised to call for a report from the military regarding the property in question, he added.
Sumanthiran said the army was in “illegal, forcible occupation” of the area.
“88 families have been displaced in the area, which is just off the main A9 highway. At some point the army reduced the extent of its occupation and 34 families have been able to return. 54 families however cannot go back because the military continues to hold the land,” Sumanthiran told reporters.
He explained that contrary to media reports, Sampanthan had only visited the area at the insistence of displaced residents, who wanted him to see their houses in the area to which they had no access. Some of the houses were being occupied by the military and others had been locked up, the TNA Spokesman explained.
“The sentry saw the Opposition Leader’s vehicles and opened the barricade. How can it be called forcible entry when gates are opened for you to enter,” Sumanthiran clarified. The TNA MP said this was usual practice for sentries when they see MP vehicles at Palaly or even at Temple Trees. “When they see our vehicles they open the barricades. So are we ‘storming into’ Temple Trees and Palaly as well?”
The charge was preposterous, the TNA spokesman said.
“It should be obvious to the media by now that Mr. Sampanthan is not the type of MP to force his way into places,” he said. The Prime Minister was well aware that storming into places is not Sampanthan’s style, Sumanthiran added.
Sumanthiran charged that if there was to be any kind of inquiry into the incident, it should deal with the illegal occupation of privately held lands by the military.
Newspaper reports over the weekend charged that Sampanthan had “stormed” into an army camp in Kilinochchi, with several MPs in tow. The alleged incident has resulted in a storm of controversy and hysterical speculation after reports emerged that the military had made a police complaint against the Opposition Leader, a charge military Spokesman Brigadier Jayanath Jayaweera has since denied as being inaccurate. The Military Spokesman also said that the army would be issuing guidelines soon about how to obtain permission to enter military premises.
The 23 acre area of contention is Paravipanchchan, located in the Karachchi Division of the Kilinochchi District and currently occupied by sections of the 57 brigade. According to local officials, the area comprises privately held and state-owned property. The area is located directly off the A9 highway between Kandy and Jaffna, and comprises several structures used as administrative buildings by the LTTE when it held Kilinochchi and fashioned it into a de facto capital. Among the buildings is the former LTTE Peace Secretariat and offices commandeered by the Tigers’ Political Commissar S.P. Tamilselvan. During the Norwegian brokered peace process and while the 2001 Ceasefire Agreement remained in effect, these buildings were utilized for meetings between the LTTE’s top leadership and government representatives, visiting foreign dignitaries, Tamil politicians and journalists.
Sections of the land embroiled in this week’s controversy were first forcibly acquired by the LTTE when it was setting up its administrative structure, activists and lawyers told Daily FT. When the battle raged for control of Kilinochchi in 2008 and early 2009, remaining residents of this area were further displaced by the violence. Since the fall of Kilinochchi in January 2009, the military has been controlling the entire 23 acre property, including the LTTE held structures, Sumanthiran explained.
It was a case of the people being attacked by both sides, first the LTTE and now the Government, Sumanthiran explained. “Just because the LTTE forcibly acquired this land doesn’t mean the Government can also continue the practice,” he charged.
The TNA spokesman, who is also a senior lawyer, said if the military wanted to establish a camp in the region, the Government had to acquire the property through legal acquisition procedures. He said that so far, the Government had only commenced a process of acquisition for 5 acres of the 23 acre property.
In August 2014, the Government issued an acquisition notice under Section 38 of the Land Acquisition Act, commencing the process to acquire five acres in Paravipanchchan. Under Section 38, a minister is permitted to acquire land on the basis that it is an “urgent requirement”.
Sumanthiran argues that the military cannot take possession of the property before the process of acquisition is complete. “But they have been there since 2009,” he said.
The TNA lawmaker also admitted that the military was cooperating with the gradual release of lands owned by private citizens in the north. “They have released these lands voluntarily, both in the north and the east where the army and the navy are both cooperating. We have no doubt that within a certain timeframe, these private lands in Paravipanchchan will also be released,” he said.
The continuing controversy brought several politicians from minor parties to the Opposition Leader’s Office at Marcus Fernando Mawatha in Colombo yesterday, demanding Sampanthan’s arrest. The small group of demonstrators pledged to “surround” Sampanthan’s offices unless the issue was investigated. The Rajapaksa affiliated Joint Opposition has also called for action against the TNA Leader, for his alleged forced entry into an army camp. Earlier this week, UPFA MP and ‘shadow’ SLFP foreign minister Mahinda Samarasinghe claimed the issue will be taken up at the National Security Council.
The TNA has dismissed these claims.