Presidential elections: the land issue and refugees
by Melani Manel Perera
About a thousand delegates from minority groups meet to discuss what urgent priorities to submit to candidates running for office in the upcoming presidential election. Resettling tens of thousands of war refugees and tsunami survivors still homeless and jobless after so many years is one of the most urgent issues that need to be addressed.

Colombo (AsiaNews) – About a thousand Tamil, Sinhalese and Muslims from around the country took part in a meeting at the Jayawardana Centre in Colombo organised by the Praja Abhilasha Network under the aegis of the National Fisheries Solidarity Movement (NAFSO). As delegates of their respective communities, participants discussed the demands to submit to the candidates currently running in the presidential campaign. The most urgent problems that need a solution include resettling refugees and tsunami survivors, access to land and even coexistence between human and elephants who presence has a devastating impact on plantations.

Inbanayagam, a Tamil refugee from Jaffna, spoke at the conference. He described the dramatic situation that is still affecting internally displaced people months after the end of the war. He said, “There are 30,388 refugee families who lost the land they used to farm. Some 4,426 fishermen have been forced to live 81 kilometres from the sea and have no means to earn a living. [. . .] We had great hopes that we could get our homes back after the statements made by Basil Rajapaksa, the president’s brother and adviser, but when President Rajapaska visited Jaffna on 10 January he did not mention our resettlement.”

Johnpillai Padmanadan, a Tamil man from Puttlam district, is also critical of the authorities. “Some 10,000 fishermen lost their livelihood because of the land problem. So we ask the government to address the problem and find a solution.” Instead, “so far, every government that came to power forgot the promises it made during the elections. We call on current candidates not to follow this method of cheating voters.”

Many tsunami survivors were also present. After so many years, they are still living a precarious existence and want definitive solutions.

Kumuduni Perera, from the district of Colombo, said “We spent five years in refugee camps after which the government offered 150,000 rupees but only if we left right away. They told us that if we wanted that money we would have to leave by 10 January. Thus, we took the money and left the camps, but it was not enough to buy land or a house in Colombo or the capital region. Now we are refugees again but without any public help; except that we have our land and houses in the district of Colombo and asked the government why we cannot go back.”

During the meeting, a memorandum listing demands to submit to the presidential candidates was drafted. Sarath Manamendra, the candidate for the Nawa Sihala Urumaya (New Sinhalese Heritage) party took part in the meeting. He agrees with much of what was said. “Everyone,” he said, “has a right to a house and land”. He too believes that refugees should be quickly resettled outside the camps. He promised that once elected he would solve the issue within six months.