Rajitha hails Basil’s Jaffna speech: Roadblock to returning occupied land removed

Co-Cabinet Spokesman Rajitha Senaratne yesterday announced that a major obstacle to reconciliation had been removed with a nationalist party making a U-turn to support the government’s return of occupied land in Jaffna.

Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne said he welcomed former strongman Minister Basil Rajapaksa who leads the new nationalist Sri Lanka Podujana Party (SLPP) declaring his full support to end military occupation of privately-owned land.

“His statement means that there is no one else who is objecting to the return of land,” Minister Senaratne told reporters at the weekly Cabinet press briefing. “We should complete the return of land because the last obstacle has now been removed.”

While announcing the major policy shift for the fledgling SLPP, Basil Rajapaksa claimed in Jaffna on Sunday that the regime of his elder brother Mahinda had returned 80 percent of lands to rightful private owners in the former war zone. Strong supporters of the SLPP such as Dinesh Gunawardene, Wimal Weerawansa, Udaya Gammanpila and the Gotabhaya Rajapaksa faction within the SLPP are opposed to returning private lands occupied by the military in the north.

However, Basil Rajapaksa claimed that the Rajapaksa regime had also had a policy to return land but they could not fully implement it because they were defeated in January 2015 and again in August 2015 elections.

“We had returned about 80 percent of the lands (In the north). We believe that all private land should be returned to their owners,” Rajapaksa said.

“Not only that, we should give state land to those who do not own land. Land and homes is a problem everywhere in the country, but especially in the north we must and should address this problem at the earliest.”

Basil Rajapaksa’s comments to the Press Club of Jaffna are in sharp contrast to the repeated objections of those supporting the SLPP and former president Rajapaksa who have accused the current government of compromising security by freeing up land occupied during the decades-long Tamil separatist war.

His statement regarding the provision of state land to the landless in the north, goes well beyond the return of private lands currently underway. President Maithripala Sirisena has pledged that he will press ahead with restoring private land ownership while pursuing his reconciliation efforts.

In another policy shift, Basil Rajapaksa supported attempts to end the problem of tens of thousands of people still missing eight years after the end of the separatist war. He said the issue of people who had disappeared during and after the war should be addressed “humanely” and a solution found at the earliest.

“It is a question that must be addressed. We were trying to solve it (during our time), it is an emotional issue. It must be solved in a very humane way,” he said without going into details.

He lamented that moderate Tamil parties did not cooperate with the Rajapaksa regime, but was accommodating the government of President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe.

Basil Rajapaksa was in the Northern peninsula to establish a grassroots network for his SLPP. The party has been set up as a fallback for dissidents within the Sri Lanka Freedom Party to contest future elections should they fail to secure nominations from their party leader President Sirisena.

The former strongman of the Rajapaksa regime and the ex-president’s political strategist also dropped a bombshell on security forces in Jaffna accusing them of committing crimes even now.

He said security forces commanded by his brother Mahinda committed “crimes” during and after the war. It is the first time that a Rajapaksa regime member admitted, in the former war zone, that armed forces had committed crimes.

His remarks strengthened charges made by Field Marshall Sarath Fonseka that there may have been individuals who stepped out of line and who should be investigated and punished to clear the good name of the Sri Lankan forces.

Asked for his views on Field Marshal Fonseka’s remarks, including his willingness to testify before any war crimes tribunal, Rajapaksa said he was reluctant to comment, but ended up admitting to “crimes” by security forces.

“I think our forces didn’t do war crimes, but individuals might have done. It is not war crimes. We can call (it) crimes,” Rajapaksa said dispensing with a Sinhala-Tamil translator and switching to English.

However, he made it clear that he was unhappy with Field Marshal Fonseka’s comments. “I don’t think the person who led the forces at that time should talk like this.”

Basil Rajapaksa and his brothers had described Fonseka as the “world’s best military commander” after he crushed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and declared an end to a war that had inflicted immense suffering on all Sri Lankans.

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