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(Pic by Chamila Karunaratne)

President Maithripala Sirisena last week agreed to give the lands back to the residents of Keppapilavu, Mullaitivu after a month-long protest.

Opposition Leader and Parliamentary Group Leader of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), R. Sampanthan last week at a press conference said that the President had made this assurance when he met with a group of TNA MPs including himself.

This assurance and the move to give back lands held by the military comes in parallel with the 34th sessions of the United Nations Human Rights Council which took place in Geneva last week.

Accordingly, permits have been issued to 54 families of Keppapilavu to get their lands back. On the other hand, the residents have also been given an alternate land and have been given the choice of making their own decision.

While the President’s move may come as a positive end to the month-long struggle of these residents, the events leading up to the assurance were somewhat of a mixed bag.

Sampanthan’s strong reaction
Sampanthan on February 22 made a strong speech in Parliament accusing the government of continuing to turn a blind eye on the rights of the Tamils. “Let me be frank. I am extremely unhappy with the way our people are treated by this government with respect to their land,” Sampanthan said in Parliament.

He did not mince his words or try to be diplomatic in the process of sending out his message. Sampanthan said the present government was in no way different from the previous regime and was treating the Tamils the same way previous governments did.
He pointed out to the government two key issues that the TNA had placed its demands on, land and missing persons.

Sampanthan pointed out that there was enough doubt created to make one believe that the government adopted double standards in addressing the issue of missing persons.
“So many soldiers are missing, their families are not protesting. The government must be talking to them, offering some solace, there must be some conciliation. The same is not available to our people,” he said.

Sampanthan and the TNA had been soft-pedalling on the government for the past two years claiming that it was accommodative of its demands and that they would be addressed in due course.

The TNA received flack from other Tamil political parties which alleged that the alliance was siding with the government and not taking the people’s issues seriously.

The stance of the TNA was also questioned by the likes of former deputy minister and ex-Tiger, Karuna Amman alias Vinayagamurthi Muralitharan.

This was probably the first time that the TNA and Sampanthan had made a strong statement against the government.

The speech also raised speculation whether the party’s relationship with the government would change. However, a few days later, Sampanthan himself announced the release of lands to the people.

SL at the UN
Meanwhile in Geneva, Sri Lanka has been explaining its progress in fulfilling the country’s undertaking to the United Nations. Speaking on the issue of returning lands and houses, Minister of External Affairs, Mangala Samaraweera said that 11,253 houses were handed back in 2016 to the internally displaced persons (IDP) and Rs. 4,785 million allocated for 5,732 houses in 2017.

“He said: “5,515 acres of state land and 2,090 acres of private land were released in 2016; and 1,383 acres of state land and 30.54 acres of private land were released last month in January 2017”.

The Minister also highlighted several instances where the country had already taken steps to keep its promises to the UN. He said the draft legislation on the Truth-Seeking Commission was expected to be presented to the Cabinet of Ministers within the next two months.

Samaraweera also said that Sri Lanka had approved legislation to give effect to the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance and had published in the Government Gazette which is expected to be tabled in Parliament shortly.

He also said that the Parliament had enacted legislation to establish a Permanent Office on Missing Persons. “The Act that has been certified by the Speaker of Parliament, is now the law of the land, and awaits the assignment of the subject, for its implementation. The budget for the year 2017 has, in the interim, allocated over a billion rupees for this,” Samaraweera said.