Peasants vow to move courts again

Panama land dispute

by Maheesha Mudugamuwa

The displaced people of Panama in the Eastern Province, yesterday warned of legal action against Lahugala Divisional Secretary L.A Somaratne for not implementing a Cabinet decision last year to release the lands in the area to their owners, except 25 acres.

A resident of Panama, P. Somasiri told The Island that there were hundreds of people eagerly waiting to go back to their villages. About 30 families who had already returned to their lands without permission were asked to vacate them by tomorrow (30) by the Lahugala Divisional Secretary.

Somasiri said, "People will not leave. These people are the land owners and some of them have deeds and others have licences."

Somasiri is also the leader of the ‘Panama-Paththuwa Surekime Sanwidhanaya’ (Organization to protect Panama-Paththuwa).

"The Cabinet has decided to return our lands. There is a court order and the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) has also made a recommendation to that effect that the lands be returned to us."

"We will discuss with Panama Chandraratana Thera, the incumbent of the village temple and go to courts against Lahugala Divisional Secretary," he added.

Asked why the Divisional Secretary had not implemented court orders and cabinet decisions, Somasiri alleged that the official was under political pressure.

In 2009 and 2010 around 1,220 acres of lands in Shasthrawela, Ragamwela, Egodayaya, Horekanda and Ulpasyaya in Panama were taken over by the Navy and the Air Force by evicting over 359 families who became homeless, according to the statistics of the Environmental Conservation Trust (ECT).

Meanwhile, Jagath Liyanarachchi of Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL) said that he had sent 40 letters on behalf of the land owners to the Divisional Secretary requesting details of the Cabinet decisions but there had been no response. Later, the District Secretary had obtained instructions from the Presidential Secretary and agreed to distribute lands except 25 acres as per the Cabinet decision, he said.

It was the responsibility of the Commissioner of Lands to look into the matter as the Cabinet decision had to be carried out by the Ministry of Lands, Liyanarachchi noted.

Divisional Secretary of Lahugala L. A Somaratne, contacted for comment, said the Commissioner of Lands was making inquiries to find out whether all the people who claimed land rights in Panama were eligible as there were several illegal occupants.

"We are taking steps to give back their lands but the proper procedure will have to be followed. Occupants numbering about 30 were asked to vacate their lands so as to complete the land measuring activities," Somaratne said.

Asked whether any politicians were influencing his decisions, Somaratne answered in the negative. However, he said, it had been proposed in Parliament to explore the possibility of developing the area and tap its full potential as a tourist resort. Such development activities would be conducted without causing any harm to the people and the environment in Panama, Somaratne assured.

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