Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena. Photo: AFP

Sri Lanka president pledges land for 100,000 war victims

Up to 100,000 people still living in camps six years after the end of Sri Lanka’s brutal ethnic war will be given land to build homes within six months, President Maithripala Sirisena told AFP Sunday.

“It is an ambitious target, but I will see that all the internally displaced people are given land to build homes,” the president said in an interview. “I am setting up a mechanism to complete this process within six months.”

Sirisena, elected last January, has won praise for starting to hand back land after the end of one of South Asia’s longest and bloodiest ethnic wars, pitting the government against Tamil separatists.

But he is also under international pressure to do more to ensure reconciliation in the ethnically divided nation.

The president said he would give land to civilians displaced by war in the embattled northern and eastern provinces, and also the northwestern coastal region of Puttalam, by the middle of this year.

During a visit to Jaffna in the north last month, where much of the fighting took place, Sirisena said he visited a refugee camp which has been home to about 1,300 families for the past 25 years.

We can't rush the accountability process. Some people want it to be like instant noodles. We can't do that. We have to be responsible and respect rule of law
Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena

“This is an unacceptable situation. I want to end this problem once and for all,” he said. “For many people the main issue was lack of land and that is something we will resolve in the next six months.”

As part of a parallel scheme, he was also planning to release additional private land occupied by the military, mainly in the former war zones in the northern and eastern provinces starting in the next two weeks.

He said he would travel to Jaffna this month to formally hand over about 283 hectares of land as part of the plan and in line with an election promise he had made.

Sirisena, 64, came to power with the backing of Sri Lanka’s minority Tamils and Muslims in addition to the majority Sinhalese on the back of promises to ensure ethnic reconciliation and end the corruption and nepotism of his predecessor.

Soon after his election, Sirisena ordered security forces to return private land they occupied in the Jaffna peninsula, which had seen some of the bloodiest fighting during the war which claimed over 100,000 lives between 1972 and 2009.

He said the government was also working on a mechanism to investigate allegations of war crimes in the final stages of the conflict.

The president said he would also call for proposals for a new constitution to ensure the country did not slip back into war.

“We can't rush the accountability process,” Sirisena said. “Some people want it to be like instant noodles. We can't do that. We have to be responsible and respect rule of law.”