Up to 100,000 people still living in camps six years after the end of Sri Lanka's brutal ethnic war will be given land to build homes within six months, said President Maithripala Sirisena.
Elected last January, he has won praise for starting to hand back land after the end of one of South Asia's longest and bloodiest ethnic wars, which pitted the government against Tamil separatists. But he is also under international pressure to do more to reconcile the ethnically divided nation.
"It is an ambitious target, but I will see that all the internally displaced people are given land to build homes," Sirisena said in an interview with Agence France-Presse. "I am setting up a mechanism to complete this process within six months."
He said he would give land to civilians displaced by war in the embattled northern and eastern provinces and in the northwestern coastal region of Puttalam by the middle of this year. The families set to receive the land are staying in camps in those areas.
During a visit to the northern city of Jaffna last month, where much of the fighting took place, Sirisena said he visited a refugee camp that has been home to about 1,300 families for the past 25 years.
"This is an unacceptable situation. I want to end this problem once and for all," he said. "For many people, the main issue was lack of land, and that is something we will resolve in the next six months."
As part of a parallel scheme, he is planning to free up additional private land occupied by the military, mainly in the former war zones in the northern and eastern provinces, starting in the next two weeks.
He said he would return to Jaffna this month to formally hand over about 700 acres of land as part of the plan, in line with his election promise.
Sirisena, 64, came to power with the backing of Sri Lanka's minority Tamils and Muslims in addition to the majority Sinhalese who supported him, on the back of pledges to ensure ethnic reconciliation and end corruption and nepotism that plagued his predecessor's rule.
Soon after his election, he ordered security forces to return thousand of acres of private land they occupied in the Jaffna peninsula, the de facto capital of Tamil Tiger rebels. The area saw some of the bloodiest fighting during the war, which claimed over 100,000 lives from 1972 to 2009.
Sirisena said that the government was working on a mechanism to investigate allegations of war crimes in the final stages of the conflict but that it could take time.
"We can't rush the accountability process," he said. "Some people want it to be like instant noodles. We can't do that. We have to be responsible and respect rule of law."
The regime of Mahinda Rajapakse, Sirisena's immediate predecessor, faced repeated U.N. censure over his failure to investigate allegations that at least 40,000 Tamil civilians were killed by troops under his command while crushing Tiger guerrillas in 2009.