RAMPAGE IN EAST
Many local and foreign investors’ attention has
turned to the scenic locations such as Arugam Bay,
Panama, Potuwil, Pasikudah and Nilaveli along the
coastline in the East, with the tourism industry
reviving fast, following the end of the war.
Construction work on several tourist hotel projects
in Nilaveli, Pasikudah, Arugam Bay and Panama is
already proceeding apace.
Of these promising tourist attractions along the
East coast, Arugam Bay and Ragamwela have already
won worldwide fame as ideal locations for
windsurfing. Several web sites, too, have cited this
shoreline as a paradise for wind-surfers. No wonder
that the investors have begun putting up tourist
hotels in these areas, soon after the launching of
the `Negenahira Udanaya’ mega development project.
The land value of these areas is also spiralling
sky-high giving the tourist potentialities.
Boon for investors, bane for farmers
Tourist potentialities along the East coast which
hold out a heyday for investors have posed a threat
to the livelihood of traditional chena cultivators
who have been raising food and cash crops on lands
bordering the East coast. Some of these cultivators
have already been threatened to vacate the lands
they cultivate now. Meanwhile, a gang of hooded
goons toting firearms who descended on the farms of
the chena cultivators at Ragamwela on July 17 night
had chased away the cultivators after destroying
their huts and assaulting them.
Cultivators who were displaced from their chena
plots say that the goons had threatened them saying:
“Leave these lands immediately. We have received
orders from the top to chase you all away. You will
be killed if you come back here.” The goons who had
burnt down the huts of the cultivators on July 17,
later attacked the Valukaramaya temple nearby and
driven out the resident monk Ven. Unawatune
About 80 farmer families
There are about 80 farmer families living in the
Ragamwela area eking out a living from crops they
raise peanuts, green peas and manioc. They would
till their plots cleared by scorching the jungle
cover during August, and cultivate them after the
October rains and gather their harvest in January
the following year. They have been cultivating their
lands on a regular basis, except during brief
periods when the terrorist threat was most menacing.
Some of these cultivators’ are the legal owners of
their chena plots and possess title deeds to prove
their ownership. However, most of them had taken to
chena cultivation after obtaining `Cultivation
Permits’ from the Regional Secretariat at Potuvil.
Some cultivators said that they could not get their
permits renewed due to the destroying of the
Regional Secretariat by terrorists sometime ago.
Potuvil Police had arrested these cultivators
sometime ago charging that they had encroached on
state-owned lands and produced them before courts.
They had been enlarged on bail later. The cases
filed against chena cultivators are still pending in
courts. Meanwhile, the Department for Conservation
of Forests says that they have excluded the
cultivation plots in Ragamwela and other areas in
the East from forest reservations. Cultivators who
were chased away on July 17, say they are unable to
go back to their farms due to the presence of armed
Ragamwela bordering the Panama-Potuvil main road
covers a two-kilometre long stretch of land
along-side the shoreline. The soil of this land is
very fertile. Value of this land is inestimable for
investors planning to build tourist hotels.
Sambodhi Viharaya flattened
Meanwhile, Sambodhi Viharaya, a Buddhist shrine
situated close to Arugam Bay lagoon was flattened to
the ground using bulldozers by a gang that descended
on the place under Police protection. When the
Security Task Force (STF) personnel in a camp
situated near the temple had protested the
destruction of the temple, Police had told them that
the temple buildings were being demolished on a
court order. However, further inquiries revealed
that no such court order had been obtained by those
responsible for demolishing the temple buildings.
The Sambodhi Viharaya was located on a scenic spot
between the Arugam Bay shoreline and the lagoon, an
ideal location for a tourist hotel. The person
behind the demolition of the Buddhist temple is a
Colombo businessman, a son of a high ranking Police
officer who is planning to put up a tourist hotel
who received the prompt assistance of the local
Police, informed local sources said.
Viharadhipati of the demolished Samobodhi Viharaya
Ven. Sivuralumulle Dhammasiri Thera said that the
temple was opened in 2003 by no lesser a person than
President Mahinda Rajapaksa who was the opposition
leader at the time. The businessman who came to
demolish the temple buildings had first called at
Potuvil Police station and asked for Police
assistance to demolish the temple saying that it was
sited on a land belonging to him. Police had then
advised him to seek court intervention to have the
Peddling political influence
Undeterred, the businessman had later brought
pressure on Potuvil Police through a high ranking
Police officer based in Ampara. Having got over the
initial refusal by the Potuvil Police to intervene,
the businessman had now asked Police protection to
visit the temple premises which he claimed as his
land. Police complying with his request had assigned
two Policemen to proceed to the temple premises
along with the businessman. However, he had gone
back to the temple this time with a bulldozer and
had got the temple buildings bulldozed to the ground
while the two Policemen were passively looking on.
Viharadhipati Ven. Dhammasiri Thera said that the
Sambodhi Viharaya was built on a permit normally
issued in respect of a state land duly gifted for a
religious purpose and it was Potuvil Regional
Secretary at the time S.L. Segu Ibrahim who issued
him the permit to build the temple. The monk said
that former Minister M.H.M. Ashraff extended his
personal patronage towards building the temple.
“There was no court case regarding the ownership of
the temple premises. It is a diabolical lie to say
that there is a court order to demolish the temple.
Even Tiger terrorists did not destroy this temple.
Tsunami too spared the temple. But now a businessman
from Colombo comes and destroys the temple. I am
asking the President to hold an inquiry into this
act of vandalism,” said Ven. Dhammasiri.
Meanwhile, a group of farmers from Panama-Ragamwela
area staged a demonstration on the Okanda- Potuvil
Road to protest against torching their huts. They
also set fire to tyres blocking the road. The
protesters peacefully dispersed when DIG (Eastern
province) Edison Gunatillake who visited the scene
of protest gave an assurance to them to get a
response from the authorities before August 31.
Protesting farmers also asked DIG Gunatillake to
conduct investigations to ascertain whether the
goons who rampaged through their chena plots were
personnel from a security force or belonging to a
gang of thugs. However, it still remains a mystery
as to who descended them on July 17, torched their
huts, assaulted them and chased them away at gun
Son of an influential official
Meanwhile, people in the area say that they have
received information that a 100-acre land had been
reserved as a site for a 5-star hotel and there is a
powerful government politician behind this move.
Reacting to fears being articulated by people in the
area, a high ranking security official said that
certain powerful businessmen in the area are engaged
in this land grab posing as proxies of powerful
government politicians to mislead Police.
People in the area who provided us with information
relating to this massive land grab, requested us not
to disclose their identity as they feared reprisals
by the land grabbers.
It is understood with peace returned after three
decades of terrorism, the Government is taking
measures to revive and promote the tourism industry.
The tourist potentialities along the East coast
could not be adequately tapped due to the menacing
LTTE presence there. The infrastructural
development, now under the `Negenahira Udanaya’ is
beckoning to the East local and foreign investors
interested in tourism-related projects.
Land should be alienated in a legal way
It goes without saying the Government has to take
measures to provide such investors with adequate
security as well as lands to site their projects.
However, government should not allow power-wielding
individuals to grab farmlands in Ragamwela and
Arugam Bay areas after chasing away the traditional
chena cultivators. What the Government should really
do is to identify lands ideal for locating tourist
industries and take them over after relocating the
cultivators to be displaced to other suitable areas.
The Government can later alienate the lands thus
taken over to prospective investors on a long-term
lease. We hope that the Economic Development
Ministry will work out a programme in this
connection in collaboration with the other