COLOMBO (EconomyNext) – Sri Lanka’s new President Maithripala Sirisena on Monday released part of military-occupied land in Jaffna, but his predecessor had begun the process and even signed title deeds just two days before his defeat at elections.
Despite the high-profile ceremony involving President Sirisena, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and former president Chandrika Kumaratunga, the former strongman transferred land to Tamils even though they were not given possession.
A day after Sirisena released 425 acres from a former high security zone in Jaffna, the authorities there issued "Ran Bima," or golden land, deeds to Tamils who had lost their ownership records during decades of war.
Rajapakse had signed the deeds on January 6, 2015, just two days before the election but it was registered at the Jaffna Kachcheri (district secretariat) only on February 11, 2015.
The deed was placed in a folder with a trade-mark photo of Rajapakse and his lands minister Janaka Bandara Thennakoon.
Sirisena gave back lands to people who already had documents, but who could not claim the property because the military still occupied it.
"I am happy to be able to return your land in line with a promise in my 100-day program," Sirisena said in his brief message below his photograph.
Sirisena made no reference to Rajapakse’s initiative.
It is not clear why President Rajapakse signed the deeds transferring the lands just two days before the election and kept quiet about it.
Unconfirmed sources said he may have intended to return lands as part of an election sweetener, but had cold feet fearing it could be considered an election bribe that could form the basis of a court challenge in case he won.
Despite Rajapakse losing the election, he could still be subjected to court action on the basis that on the eve of a national election he was doling out land to a crucial electorate.
On Monday, the new government marked the first stage of releasing military-occupied land by freeing 425 acres at a ceremony in the Jaffna peninsula.
"The government has given high priority to resolve land issues of the people in the (Tamil-dominated) north and east," the defence ministry said in a statement quoting the president as saying, but made no reference to the previous effort of Rajapakse.
Officials said the military was due to release a total of 1,000 acres in the first stage and other plots would be given back in stages, although no time frame has been announced.
Government spokesman Rajitha Senaratne announced the return of private land soon after Sirisena came to power in January by defeating strongman Rajapakse.
Senaratne said the military had been using occupied private land to set up farms, hotels, restaurants and other businesses, adding there was no justification for their actions.