(Pics by Chandana Wijesinghe)

In 2010, while the country still basked in the glory of a war won, one night an area hard hit by the long-drawn conflict faced yet another unknown terror. It was one that residents of Panama in Ampara who had suffered much worse perhaps never expected.

A few days after being asked by government officials including local politicians, Lahugala Divisional Secretary and the Pottuvil Police to leave the land that had belonged to them for generations; a group of unknown men shot at the village men with T56 weapons and torched their homes. The residents were forced to flee, leaving their homes and all belongings behind.

“I was shot at, but it somehow missed me,” says Bandara, a resident of the area. According to him he was dragged away, stripped naked and assaulted by unidentified men. “It is a miracle I survived,” he says, adding that he will not stop fighting for what rightfully belongs to him. As stated by residents no persons have been arrested for the assault by the Police despite having five years to conduct investigations into the matter.
The struggle of the people belonging to the Shasthrawela, Ragamwela, Ulpassawela, Horowkanda and Ella in Panama has been long drawn. Residents claim that in 2010, after being driven away from their homes, an Air Force detachment came and the entire area was cordoned off. As discovered by the Human Rights Commission’s Report regarding the land grab Pottuvil Police under the direction of SSP Premalal Ranagala had ensured no individual was allowed to enter the area other than security personnel despite no such order was issued by the District Secretariat at the time.

Today, currently 1,220 acres in Shasthrawela, Panama have been appropriated by the Sri Lanka Navy and the Sri Lanka Air Force after the land was transferred to the presidential secretariat by the Lahugala Divisional Secretary  L.A Somarathna  during the time.
According to him while residents were notified to claim ownership of the land at the time he transferred the said land due to no such claims by the people. “We identified the land as not in use and therefore transferred it to the presidential secretariat,” he said when questioned by the media on Thursday. But according to the findings of the HRC despite his claims the divisional secretariat had even extended the land license of a resident in the area during the said time period casting doubts over his statements. Somarathna had also attempted to mislead the commission by stating that the Department of Forest Conservation has filed a case against the residents for occupying land belonging to the department when in fact no such case had been filed by any government department.
It must also be noted as done according to common procedure people of Panama did not receive any compensation/notice to leave their land, and was instead evicted without notice.

The area in question includes forestland, wetlands and agricultural lands, 265 acres of this total belongs to Ragamwela, Panama 115 acres of land and 840 acres of forestland under the control of Department of Forest Conservation are from Shasthrawela. The forestland appropriated is situated in the Ragamwela Government Forest, Ulpassawela, Shasthrawela while the rest of the land were croplands belonging to local residents. However, today they are barred from entering what was once their own. Notices have been put along the electric fences, claiming that the land now belongs to either the Sri Lanka Navy or the Sri Lanka Air Force while various constructions and buildings can be seen in the distance leaving no trace of the village or farm lands that once was.

On February 11, a Cabinet decision was made to re-distribute the land among the people. sadly no action has been taken yet in this regard. The decision taken by the Cabinet declared that the lands under the control of the Air Force in the Panama area in the Eastern Province should be released to the landless residents of the area except 25 acres in which buildings have now being constructed by the forces. However, unlike a similar decision made regarding land occupied by armed forces in Valikamam, the Cabinet declaration on Panama has not come to fruition despite a lapse of five months.

Today many have lost their livelihoods along with the loss of their cropland. “We lived and farmed in these lands,” says S. Nanadawathi showing photographs of times long gone. According to her now her family lives in the houses of relations as they do not have a home of their own. Nanadawathi has lost her land despite having an ownership number (No. 4907) for her six-acre plot of land. “My husband provided for us well,” she says adding that since his death last year, her only wish is to fight for the land they lived off so that she can pass the land on to her children according to his wish.

The story of Nanadawathi sums up the stories of many residents in the area. Many of them who claim ownership through freehold deeds (Sinnakkara Oppu) and licences have now found shelter in the homes of relatives, but as S. Siriyawathi asks of us, “How long can we live with relations? We too have large families and want to settle down”.

Their suffering has been one of five long years with many false promises and hopes given to them by government authorities. It was with such a background that residents of the area decided on Thursday (July 15) to visit the lands that once belonged to them only to be blocked by the Police claiming that it was to protect the residents.

With police officers being called from the whole of Ampara division the peaceful protestors were threatened with arrest under election laws that are in place currently during the pre-election period for unlawful assembly. However, speaking to The Nation, Police spokesperson ASP Ruwan Gunasekara said this was in fact was to avoid any illegal trespass by the people while making no mention of election law violations.

It must be mentioned that even today the claim made by the forces regarding the ownership of land and its uses has its many legal contentions. While the land was supposedly obtained to construct an International Relations Center however while today no such center exists the forces instead has utilized the land to construct chalets for tourism by the name of “Lagoon Cabanas – Panama” contrary to the use mentioned when initial occupation of land. A ongoing obscure construction is instead shown as the supposed International Relation Center to visitors.

Meanwhile, Director, Environment Conservation Trust Sajeewa Chamikara says neither the Navy nor the Air Force had carried out an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), although they have destroyed the forest that comes under the purview of 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 he says adding that the National Environment Act No. 47 of 1980 has also been violated by the defense forces in occupation among many other laws as well.

Therefore the alleged forceful occupation of land by the forces has led to many social and environmental issues in the area. While the fisher-folk allege the activities of the tourism business by the Navy has hindered their ability to continue their trade, the barren land stands as proof of farmers being unable to cultivate their land for many seasons due to this issue.

Balumkararama temple which was built by residents of Ragamwela is also located in the above-mentioned area. However, entrance to the temple has now been prohibited to those who toiled to build it.

The area also holds many archaeological artifacts including two stone inscriptions, rock caves with drip ledges, a dilapidated pagoda, a walking path and a monastery complex while Maninaga Pabbatha Vihara, which is located in close proximity to the STF Camp in Shastrawela has murals, stone pillars and many other archaeological artifacts. Sadly today these sites are in danger of being destroyed due to various project activities, a claim that is denied by the armed forces.

These activities have also affected the environment of the area as erecting of two electric fences has sectioned off the forest land thereby adversely affecting the elephant population. “This will intensify the human-elephant conflict,” says Sajeewa Chamikara adding that this is creating an issue that never was with crop raids by elephants disrupting the livelihood activities of the villagers leading to many socio-economic issues.

On Thursday, Pottuvil ASP Jayarathna was instrumental in bringing both the Ampara district secretary  Thusitha P. Wanigasinghe and L.A Somarathna, the Lahugala divisional secretary to meet the protesters. While many words were said there were none that offered any reassurance to the aggrieved villagers.  With many statements regarding government red tape, the secretaries, however, said they are ready to take action once instructions are received from the presidential secretariat. But neither could give people a time frame or if in fact such instructions will reach the government officials in the area.
The people of Panama have suffered for five years, and are now awaiting a letter that has been on the offing for five months. Despite their hopes of cultivating their land in time for the monsoon season, the possibility seems unlikely.  Despite repeated attempts to dishearten them the people remain confident that one day they will be returned what is rightfully theirs.

The question is as one brave villager asked the divisional secretary directly, “My land was handed over by you to the presidential secretariat in an instant, then why is not my land returned to me in a fraction of a second as well? Where was all the red tape then?” she asks and rightly so.

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Divisional Secretary of Lahugala, L.A Somarathna
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Panama resident S.Nandawathi
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Debris of homes that were destroyed by an unidentified group in 2010
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The International Relations Center being built
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Letter trasferring the land to the Presidential Secretariat
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Peaceful sit-in protest by Panama residents on Wednesday

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